The Learner, with Practice and Ability
Becomes the teacher
On my way into Lewistown I passed the sign for coffee and “Fresh Donuts Daily” and made note that that would be the first spot to visit the next morning. And it was. Five minutes after entering the place I was at a little table with my book and my notebook and a cup of steaming coffee and two delicious donuts. I didn’t get much reading done because I was too busy eavesdropping as other customers came and left; there was a lot of familiarity between them and the women working in the shop. Talk of “did you hear that so-and-so did—” and other gossip. References to seeing people at church. That kind of thing. It felt like community and I was the most gigantic-ever oojii on the wall.
It reminded me of a stretch of feeling part of this kind of community during what will ultimately represent a brief time in my life when, pre-Covid, I would begin most work days in a coffee shop for thirty minutes or so. There too I would have a cup of coffee, sometimes a donut, and be surrounded by people I came to know: the folks behind the counter; the regulars, both the quiet types and the court-holders; and others who would come and go with varying degrees of frequency but often enough to be noted.
Then there was the indignation I’d feel on mornings when all the tables were taken because of an infestation of irregular, off brand patrons. And the weird ways being around other people and their interests pulled me out of my comfort zone a little bit. Like just being social somewhere – a regular, even! – in the first place. Or how the music influenced me. It led to a brief flirtation with appreciation for the Beatles, for example, an anomaly since returned to the dark caverns of wherever it crawled out of my psyche from in the first place. It also solidified my opinion that Joni Mitchell, decent songwriter or not, is as unlistenable to me as Bob Dylan. Finally it evoked memories, as music often does; like how every time a song by the band Bread came on I was secretly reminded of my friend Lauren, who once sent me a CD with the same damnable song of theirs on repeat for the entire disc just to irritate me.
I was struck by the radio station being played while I sat in Lewistown too. Immediately following Jimmy Buffett’s terrible “Cheeseburger in Paradise” was a song called “Midnite Dynamite” by the band Kix, one of those tier two or three bands from the hair metal days of the 80s that I was stunned to hear played over the radio. In 2022, no less! Then I about fell off my chair when that was followed up by “Snowblind” from Ace Frehley’s impeccable 1978 solo album. In all my years I have never heard that song, magnificent as it is, played on any radio station ever. The song ended and I sat in dumbfounded silence that this wasn’t some streaming playlist, or satellite radio, because the deejays, actual deejays, were launching into some jibber jabber (obviously a paid local ad spot) about the menu options at some local restaurant. Then they went into the daily “time and temperature” segment of the show. This was actual local radio, not pre-recorded garbage barfed out by some corporate behemoth however-many states away for every one of the myriad stations they own across the country. Jimmy Buffett notwithstanding, I loved it. I miss local radio as much as anything. It was formative to my youth. As Ace was.
A certain ilk of politician from both sides of the gruesome, mucky aisle they lob mud balls at each other across likes to talk about the wholesomeness of small towns, the ideas of “real America” they represent and all that garbage. For all my appreciation of that morning in Lewistown, of a wonderful couple days there, I know a place like that can be stifling. Everyone all up in your business, no anonymity at all … it is particularly loathesome for young people. I chafed growing up in Frenchtown under such scrutiny. I wonder what it’s like for the kids I teach in Dixon on Fridays, a tiny reservation town where the 8th graders share class time with 6th and 7th graders. Everyone knows everyone and what they are up to. I chafe about that aspect of Missoula now, as an adult, and Missoula has become nothing akin to a small town. The internet and social media presumably helps people who get tired of the interminable grind of the same faces, the same-shit-different-day nature of these kinds of communities, but can also swing the pendulum too far in the other direction until they—we!—are utterly checked-out from the physical world.
And what a world we yet have around us! This passage from Richard Wagamese’s soon-to-be-released What Comes from Spirit speaks to that; he is reflecting on wolf tracks he discovers outside his house one morning, the wolf’s presence nearby as he follows the tracks into the woods being “palpable and exciting”:
Returning to my workspace, switching on the computer, and checking emails it occurred to me how easily we create distance between ourselves and that world. Steps away from the head of the driveway, a wolf lurked. But instantaneously I'm in cyberspace and galaxies away from that connection. It was a jarring realization. As a Native person whose ceremonial and spiritual sense comes from a relationship with the land, I don't feel comfortable knowing I can shut it off like a light switch. As a human being with stewardship obligations to the planet that's my home, I'm embarrassed. As a writer often expressing themes of kinship I'm stunned by it. Maybe there's something bigger in a wolf track than anomaly. Maybe there are teachings in things, like my people say, meant to draw us back into relationship, to our kinship with the planet. Or, perhaps, jolts of wild are necessary conduits to a reordering of how we spend our time here, reminders that we are animals too and we need to form a pack and help each other.
I think about community all the time. It tends to be a romanticized idea of it, I have to confess, a kind of fernweh, or longing for a place I’ve never been. It is largely a Native community, with Indian faces and language and ceremony as part of everyday life. Besides being a community I’ve never been part of, I wonder how many such communities even exist for anyone. I wonder if this is how it feels for those bigoted assholes who attend places like right-wing fascist churches. Are they content to be surrounded by white faces, English speakers, and likeminded folks who share the narrowest of world views that has no room for anyone different from them? Who knows.
Some weeks ago I purchased a book called Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year by Linda Legarde Grover. Onigamiising is the Ojibwe word for Duluth, Minnesota, and means “the place of the small portage.” Her book is broken into seasons (a concept I obviously love, since both of my books are divided thusly) and I decided I would read each section in its season, spreading the experience over the entire year. I’ve just finished Ziigwan (Spring) and enjoyed it very much … so much that setting it aside now for a couple months is very difficult. I love Grover’s stories of her community of Indigenous people, their events and sharing of traditions. This is a passage from a chapter about a bridal shower attended by multiple generations of women, including the youngest, a “little four-year-old girl, who in the company of women at a social occasion was allowed to participate and stay up past bedtime….”
Children learn a great deal by watching the people around them. As a child I, like my grandniece and other girls, was given the gift of learning by studying the people around me. At home, at relatives’, at the grocery store, the library, at church, I observed and listened, thought things over, and then tried things out for myself. These are the first three steps of the Ojibwe tradition, which is the foundation of teaching and learning in cultures all over the world: intake of information, reflection, experience. The fourth step is when the learner, with practice and ability, becomes the teacher, who in turn is observed by those who will walk in those same footsteps.
How many of us operate in any kind of consistent, multi-generational, traditions-based, set-a-good-example community anymore? I don’t just mean the holidays. That is a point I make when working with elementary kids, that we need to do a better job of paying attention to every day, as much as we can, the way we do holidays. Given the exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of every moment of our lives, how can we not? But it happens. We get locked into a routine of just trying to get by. Our world has become so fast, access to the things we need to survive so problematic, that living in any kind of deep community is almost impossible. The “rugged individual” dream this dumpster fire country has sold us on is just a poorly disguised “every crumb for themself” reality.
So what are our communities? What is yours? What does your model community look like? People argue about social media providing a community but for me that’s a stretch. I’ve met people online that I’ve never met in person who I consider friends but I’m not sure that’s the community I’m talking about. Or maybe it is, it’s just that the things I loathe about social media and keep me away from it are the same things I loathe about the in-person environment (and explains my lack of in-person community as well). It’s just all so complicated!
Less and less I feel part of any community of Indians doing anything on behalf of Indian people and more like just a singular loudmouth who gets irritated at pretty much everything and has a kind of megaphone to bleat about it from. Am I the only one here who is so utterly sick of references to people like Teddy Roosevelt and Ed Abbey, the worst kinds of white racists yet are constantly trotted out as “saviors” in the conservation world? That’s just one example of being wrapped around the axle about something that I don’t know how much anyone else really even cares about. I don’t know.
I also know this: I get to be around kids a few times a week. And I spend time with elders relatively frequently too. For both I am grateful, and blessed. It is easy to forget my good fortune when I am wallowing in my own melodrama. We should all be so fortunate because there is so much to be learned from those beyond our same-generation bubbles. Last week I was griping to a younger friend (in person, no less!) about being called a “historian” when what I want to be known as is a “storyteller.” He smirked and said, “Well you do know the etymology of history, right? ‘His story’?” Damn it! I thought about throwing him out of the room but I just nodded through my shame instead.
In closing, here’s an example of something in the realm of community that I love, and it involves my relatives on the Blackfeet Reservation. Reservations are a place I always idealized in a way that they aren’t; they have their share of problems. I imagined them as places comprised of “Indian faces and language and ceremony as part of everyday life” and they simply aren’t that. Not really, or not always. But people try. Like THIS ARTICLE recently published by my friend Nora Mabie:
In partnership with the tribe, the Blackfeet Buffalo Program and Siyeh Corporation, Glacier Family Foods now offers ground bison and stew meat at $7.99 per pound. The meat is sourced from the Blackfeet herd, which consists of more than 500 animals that graze on 15,000 acres on ranches across the reservation. The bison are entirely grass-fed, and the meat is processed in Superior, MT.
Indians feeding Indians with their own buffalo? This is thrilling to me. This is community. It represents progress the likes of which I think we will be seeing more of in Montana as tribes begin rebuilding their own herds. If nothing else it brings me joy.
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Okay, often a donut.
This isn’t a shot at all churches, just the awful ones.