By: Ellen Nimmo
Whatever your knowledge of American History is, I wonder if it is, and suspect it is not – complete.
There’s not a single person on the planet that has a full picture of any people or person’s history whatsoever. We simply don’t have the viewpoint, the perspective, the total picture. Our memories are flawed and our angle, narrow. Maybe we know this already. Deep down at least? After-all, what human can recount even in modest accuracy the telling of his/her own story from beginning to end? It’s simply too complex to capture all the facets, all the micro-decisions of individuals and families, all the cultural, social and group-think behaviors which lead to actions which have lasting effects beyond what our minds can comprehend. It’s true.
Consider the discovery of coal, the women’s rights movement (from a handful of decades back), the invention of the wheel or air-travel or eyeshadow, consider then the bullet or the internet for crying out loud. Contemplate, for a split-second, ancient Egyptian caste systems or the Great Depression or the history of Rome, alone. Think of a war, any war and then try and picture every individual touched by that war. Remember that hurricane from a year ago or from 5 years ago? You might. Now, try and think about all the ways that one hurricane had significant effects on not just one thing, but billions.
Now take a deep breath. These thoughts can be overwhelming.
I know because I’ve been thinking about these sorts of things for the past week or so. Prompted by this sentence – “A people without their history are like wind over the buffalo grass”. Upon hearing this I’ve been thrown into the dubious space of considering.
Proverbs are cool like that -they ask you to think, to consider more deeply. This proverb came to me by way of Native American Indian wisdom via a trip out to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota with a group of fellow employees for a week of learning, reflection and service.
For now, I’ll skip over telling you in detail about this trip, but I’d welcome that opportunity if ever you find your interest piqued.
What I really want to ask after all this considering is – can we bravely look at our histories, our own as well as ones of our nation or even some that stretch far back as human communication has been around and speak honestly about them? Can we look at the mistakes, the misdeeds and the victories too and hold it all loosely, but with the conviction of doing something about the things we can do something about. That is to say, can we take action in accordance with our knowledge? Not ignoring it, sweeping it under the rug and without sinking into a pride or a punishment that leaves room for only bitterness or smug contempt. It’s a hard balance for humans somehow. A challenge.
One of the many things I feel like I learned from the Lakota wisdom and people during our time on the Res is that sometimes taking an important action in accordance with your knowledge looks a whole lot like simply listening. It’s this act of humility that I find so compelling and admirable about the Lakota. It turns out a good listener is hard to find.
Wind over the buffalo grass, it comes (but we know not how) and it goes (yet we know not where) and perhaps that is how we are without our history, our stories and someone to share them with.
Stimulated by this thought, my desire to become a person who can take an authentic look at my own history, share it with courage and listen to the histories of others with compassion and with the hope of creating something better has been inflamed. And I hope yours is too.