Photo by Suzanne Webber

I my last post I wrote about last Saturday, which I spent bearing witness to the repatriation of artifacts belonging to those who were massacred at Wounded Knee, housed for so many years in a small private museum in Barre, MA, to their Lakota descendants. I also wanted to support Violet Catches, a Cheyenne River elder who has been an important part of the Zen Peacemakers’ retreats at the Black Hills and is also a descendant of survivors of Wounded Knee.

The day’s event in the local school was beautiful, but what happened that evening was unforgettable. A few of us returned to the museum after dinner to bear witness to the taking out of the artifacts and packing up the first van, driven from South Dakota by Cedric, a descendant of Chief Big Foot, who was starting home that very night.

We stood by the door and waited, speaking in low tones or staying quiet. Someone burned sage and smudged the van inside and out, and we were asked not to take photos. The first long, white, rectangular box was carefully brought out by two people. Violet alternated between weeping and singing; another Oglala elder prayed aloud. Tenderly, they pushed the box in as deep as it would go.

I knew as clear as daylight that the boxes did not contain things. They were not just articles of clothing or footwear or ceremony. We weren’t bearing witness to ancient artifacts but to presence, one big presence, deeply alive.

I think of the many times I’ve visited and revisited areas or situations of catastrophe. People back home don’t get it. Why go back there again and again? What is there for you? Those events happened long ago, people were murdered, they’re dead, it’s over.

It’s not over. If we’re all interdependent, then somewhere we carry the hurt that others feel whether we know it or not, regardless of whether that hurt happened to Lakota Indians or Jews or Gypsies or Tutsis. They are more directly hurt, but the pain is in all of us.

Only we have to be there in person. When they were taking the white boxes out that Saturday evening, I felt the same quandary I’ve felt after being in our retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Rwanda, the Black Hills, on the streets. How do I explain to people back home about what I experienced there? How do I explain that there’s something vital and alive even in the middle of tragedy that you can’t locate in history books or newspaper articles? You lock eyes with those who hurt, listen to prayers and songs in a language you don’t understand, and share people’s deep sadness with respect—and also with humility, because you’re not them, it wasn’t your family, it wasn’t your nation, you’re just bearing witness, nothing more. And I don’t think you can do that reading something about it or watching a screen.

Some call this healing, but as I wrote earlier, one of my reservations about healing is that it sounds like some final, permanent state: I was broken, now I’m healed: I once was lost, but now I am found, was blind, but now I see. It’s a great song but I don’t believe it. My experience is that we break apart and come together, break again and come together again, opening ourselves to more and more of life. In the process we’re challenged to change and grow and let life use us at will.

Earlier today I was in Hadley, some 25 minutes away, and as I turned right to go east on Route 9, I saw an elderly woman carrying bags right at the corner. She had paused to put them down and I had but half a second to see her before I turned. Instantly I regretted not stopping, asking her if she needed a lift somewhere. I know, it was too fast and there was nowhere to stop, and this is not about being right or wrong, compassionate or not. This is about an opportunity that I missed to be face-to-face. She may have needed help or a lift or not, it doesn’t matter. In evading the encounter, I missed a piece of my life.

On Saturday people came together, Native Indians and non, elders and young, and acknowledged publicly that a great wrong had been committed many years ago. We can’t right that wrong, but the energy of public acknowledgment and confession, accompanied by grace and love, started changing things.

I drove home and thought of my 2 aunts, 1 uncle and a cousin—a baby—who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau so many years ago. They were more alive to me during that night drive home than they’d been in a very long time. Their bodies, too, were looted, their possessions put in warehouses the inmates called Canada because Canada represented ease and wealth. The Canada warehouses were bombed by the Nazis before the camps’ liberation to hide the evidence of their crimes, so those possessions won’t be coming home in any white, rectangular boxes.

Where are you now, I asked them while driving down the dark country roads. Tears came to my eyes as I thought about things I hadn’t thought of in a long time.

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