My father was born on this day in 1933 at Yellow Thunder Camp. He was brought into a world where he spoke only Lakota, slept under the stars, traveled by horse or wagon and the connection to the origins of our people were ever present. When he was six months-old, he was adopted in the hunka ceremony and raised by George Big Owl and Lorene Sleeping Bear in Corn Creek. When he was still a child, Grandpa George gave him the name Hoyekiyapi (Calls for Him) in honor of a fallen comrade from World War I.
As the story goes, Grandpa George’s kola was pinned down during a battle in a foxhole and was wounded but George was not able to attend to his friend. Throughout the night, his friend called to Grandpa George, calling his name. Early the next morning, when the shooting had subsided, Grandpa George was able to get to his friend’s foxhole, only to find him dead from his wounds. To honor his friend’s memory, he gave my father the name.
(It’s a name my father gave to me when I was 11 months-old. The old traditions tell us that we’re not to use our Lakota names in public, but in this age when our names carry such history and weight, the only honor I can give to my father and his memory is to pass on the story of his name.)
As his life continued on, my father had more challenges than one should. He always regarded his life as one of hard work that, if he had had the proper education, might have been slightly more prosperous. But in the long run, it formed him into a complex person riddled with contradictions and confusions, who always strove to do the next, right thing.
My friends and I recently saw “The Revenant” and everything about it is well done. The rhythm of the film, the cinematography, the score, the acting, the directing is all compelling. The story, however, was simple. It’s about a father who does everything he can to ensure his son is cared for, can stand in the world and, ultimately, attempt to dispense justice.
In the film, at one of the turning points, the father is unable to help his son when danger comes. He is literally paralyzed by a broken body. As the danger comes to its full and ugly fruition, the father can only sit by helpless, unable to move. It reminded me of my father’s third lesson to me: “I’m not always going to be here.” In his later life, my father was crippled by multiple heart attacks, arthritis and congestive heart failure. Whenever I would do something young and stupid, he would ultimately come to bail me out but not before lecturing me and reminding me that he was an old man.
In the film, the white father tells his son (who is half white and half Pawnee) after a tense moment, “They don’t hear your voice! They just see the color of your face. You understand?” That was a striking moment, perhaps for most Native people in America. My father’s second lesson to me was that others only ever saw me as a dirty Indian. And their hatred could not and would not change that fact.
Those two lessons stick with me even to today. While my days of holding resentments are mostly finished, I’m reminded by the virtue of the life my father lived that others do not see me as a human being, they see me as a thing, a savage or any other combination that demeans my whole personhood. And there’s nothing I can or need to do about changing other peoples’ minds about that fact, other than stay true to myself.
This past Sunday, the Gospel reading was the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s the one wherein Jesus gives the example of a young son who wants to be cut free from his family to live his life unabated and free from his father’s influence. In the story that Jesus tells, a son can reject a father, put entire worlds between them, but the bond of parenthood is such that a father will always be joyful when he sees his son again. “But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
In my life, I rejected my father on a few occasions. It was never enough to drive us apart completely, but it put distance between us. In my petulance, I judged my father harshly, I thought he was too ignorant or too cold to understand my life. In reality, he grieved for me, that I could ever be away from him because in his life, all he ever sought was the love of his parents, it was the only thing he wanted to be affirmed in: love.
In my father’s first lesson is where I find my greatest joy: remembering that he loved me. All the other lessons would be useless without this first lesson. My earliest memories are of playing with my father, him chasing me around the house, catching me, tickling and kissing me on the cheek while saying, “My sweet, sweet, beautiful, baby.”
The last time I saw my father was after he went on his first plane trip from South Dakota to Reno. My nephew and I ran to greet him and he hugged and kissed both of us. The last night he was on earth, I said goodnight and he hugged and kissed me again and said, “Goodnight my baby, I love you.”
Even in these days when I don’t ever know what is certain, what is right or what is true, I can look back on everything my father did to strengthen me. Complex as he was and hurtful as he could be, I know he wanted to strengthen me for the world that will change around me, just as it changed around him. He began from the starting place of love.
And for that, I am grateful.