(Cherokee Dancer Kasey Reynolds; photo by Kara Jex)
Yesterday (3/18/17) I attended the 13th Annual Santa Fe Days in the Park held at Sandy Lake Amusement Park in Carrollton, Texas. The event highlights indigenous culture from around the United States, Mexico and Canada. Traditional dancers perform, artists sell their crafts, and crowds gather around storytellers who regale them with tribal legends of trickster gods and how various aspects of the world came about.
I met Samuel Holiday, a 93 year old World War Two Veteran and Code Talker of the Dineh Tribe and purchased a copy of his memoir. After I bought the book, Holiday took time to show me the pictures in the text, speaking softly about the story behind each photograph. He even cracked a few jokes about his own appearance, referring to himself as a “goofy man”.
(World War Two Veteran Code Talker Samuel Holiday of the Dineh Tribe; photo by Kara Jex)
I felt deeply moved to meet so many people with such a deep connection to their heritage. It brought to mind a Bible verse:
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” – Exodus 20:12
Whether or not they thought of it in these terms, each performer and artist at the Santa Fe Days Festival was actively fulfilling this command.
The modern world, specifically in the western hemisphere, has become a disposable culture. We like new things, having little time or patience for the old. We quickly come to think of our belongings as obsolete, discarding them for the latest and greatest attraction.
I fear this mentality infects our relationships with people. A brief perusal of popular film or television reveals that we, at best, have an ambivalent relationship to old age. Once an actor or actress reaches a certain age Hollywood ceases to have a use for them, unless it comes in the form of camp. Advertisements and commercials are rife with the suggestion that we must hide away any trace of old age. We hide away the elderly in rest homes and hospitals, out of sight and mind, as though by ignoring them we will somehow delay the inevitable fate that awaits us all. We have created a cult that worships the young, new, and beautiful.
It is hard to overstate how much we lose through this mentality. Bruce Feiler (author of Walking the Bible, The Council of Dads, and The Secrets of Happy Families) relates studies that show the importance of being rooted to our past. In an essay titled “The Family Stories that Bind Us” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html) Feiler relates research showing that families (and by extension societies) are strengthened through a strong family narrative.
The research, conducted by Dr. Marshall Duke, found that families with a strong core narrative tended to be more resilient in the face of crisis.
“Once again,” Dr. Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”
Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack?
“The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said.
“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is…called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”
– from The Family Stories that Bind Us by Bruce Feiler
This core narrative grows organically from stories told repeatedly around the kitchen table, in the living room, or by bedsides.
While attending the Santa Fe Days Festival, I began to think of my grandmother Paulina Phillips. A member of the Tlingit tribe of Southeast Alaska, she grew up during a time when being native meant being less than. Tlingit children were discouraged from speaking their language. Alaskan history even reveals that signs hung in business windows declaring “No Indians or Dogs Allowed”. Like many Tlingit, she came from humble means. In a letter she wrote to my mother she related this story:
“My mom did her best to take care of us. I remember how tenderly and lovingly she made us comfortable when we were on our way to fish camp in an open boat and it was raining and the wind was blowing. Mom laid a canvas down in the bottom of the boat and put blankets on the bottom of the boat and she had me and my sister lie down and she covered us with the canvas and the blankets and tucked us in. We were so loved. It kept us warm.”
As an adult, my grandmother battled multiple bouts of cancer and a Parkinson’s diagnosis, all the while serving faithfully in the Salvation Army Church, along with teaching Tlingit youth their traditional songs and dances, never allowing circumstances from a challenging youth or later health struggles to keep her down. Her story has become an anchor in my life, giving me strength in the face of adversity, but only because I took the time to listen to the stories that she and my mother (Kathy Jex) told me.
(Paulina Phillips – SAAWDU-OO; photo taken by David Phillips – Yeieeskitch)
Jewish culture seemed to understand this implicitly with commands throughout the Torah and later books of the Old Testament reiterating the need to repeat the stories of their people until they were written on the heart.
To learn these stories we first have to learn to slow down and listen, we must learn to pay attention to those who have gone before us who can give tell us our history. We must reject the idolatry that says we discard the old and worship the new. We must follow the Biblical command to honor our father and mother, not simply through obedience, but through careful attention to their history and stories.