Grandmother's Road

I just finished reading, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown.  It’s interesting to recognize the ways that her experience of blackness in white America parallels the experience of being Native in white America.  

In chapter 12, “We’re Still Here,”  Brown talked about the collapse of history and the present, as racial injustice repeats itself.  She went from absorbing the violent history detailed in the lynching museum to absorbing the shockwaves of Ferguson and Mother Emanuel in the present. In Ferguson, the TV showed Black residents “demanding that an officer be held accountable for the shooting of an unarmed teen.” Police in full riot gear, and tanks in front of McDonalds,  “as if ready for war,” faced off against Black folks dressed in shorts and t-shirts. Images flashed in my mind of tanks and tipis on Standing Rock Reservation in the bitterness of winter. Fully militarized forces faced off against unarmed water protectors who demanded that the U.S. government honor the terms of the Fort Laramie treaty by rejecting the Dakota Access Pipeline from their homelands.  The violent history that resulted in Natives being forcibly relegated to reservations in the first place collapsed against the contemporary violence against Natives over the same reservation lands.

Brown’s book unfolded many ways that the story of her people is also the story of my people. As Brown processed fears that her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents faced exponentially through slavery, Jim Crow, and Living while Black, I thought of the trauma that our Native generations have endured, many as bewildered children deported to boarding schools and today's Missing and Murdered Women.  “White Christian Americans don’t know this kind of terror,” she said, writing what POC think. The stream of evidence flowed through her words, describing the brutality of white supremacy, past and present, and I wondered if she knows how our stories track side by side.  This chapter definitely had the potential to leave me feeling hopeless.

Then Brown recalled the safety and comfort of her Black community and church culture.  In the midst of their communal pain, the Spirit had moved among them, and “delighted in their praise and person. “ She wrote, “We would go on. God would be with us.”  Even though “history is still on repeat,” she survives on “the intimacy of the Black community – online, in real life, in the Church and outside of it.” As I read this, I whispered to myself, “Grandmother’s Road.”

Lakota author, Joseph M. Marshall III, uses the metaphor of Grandmother’s Road to describe the Lakota cultural virtue of fortitude, cantewasaka, the strength of heart and mind.  When the violent colonization of Natives made it clear that a new way of life was unavoidable, survival depended on walking the Grandmother’s Road, making the best of a bad situation.  Since mobilized resistance was no longer an option, Natives found quiet ways to resist and survive. The role of the Lakota woman was always foundational, the heart and strength of the home.  In the new societal order, her traditional role became crucial in saving Lakota culture. When children were punished for speaking Lakota in schools, these women didn’t tell them to stop speaking Lakota - they told them to whisper.  Fortitude was resistance on Grandmother’s Road. When Lakota ceremonies were outlawed, the people danced and sang and prayed where authorities could not see or hear. When genocidal policies were mercilessly executed against Natives, fortitude was the quiet strength that helped them live from one minute to the next.  I honor the fortitude of my own great grandmother who survived Wounded Knee and resisted by raising a new generation of Lakota. As Marshall wrote, the Grandmother’s Road is why the essence of Lakota culture still exists. Fortitude gave me opportunity to love Creator for making me Lakota.

Brown examines those times when hope is battered to death. “I am forced to find my center.” She wrote, “Each death of hope has been painful and costly.  But in the mourning there always rises a new clarity about the world, about the church, about myself, about God. And there is new life.  Realignment. Rediscovery. I have learned to rest in the shadow of hope.” To me, this sounds like we are walking the Grandmother’s Road together toward who we were always meant to be.