“What is it you wish to know, grandson?”
“Why is the land so important to grandmother? She touches the plants and land like she touches my baby sister,” the child said, shaking his head.
“And this confuses you?”
“Yes, grandfather. How can dirt be that important?”
“I’m going to tell you a story and when I am finished, will you tell me if you’re still confused?”
“Of course, grandfather!”
“Once there was a young boy a lot like you. He had many questions, also. His grandmother had many dreams in the night of the white men coming to this land now called America. In her visions, she saw the light-skinned ones arrive and many of our people die. She often cried at night and her grandson heard her tears. The men in her dreams came across the land in swarms and killed everything they saw: the people like us, the trees, the beaver, the wolf, the elk, the buffalo. All this they did for money. She called all the families together and told them of her dreams. Her middle son, Black Elk, stood and said he had met some of the white men and that they would not do these things. He said that they prayed also to the Great Spirit and that killing was unacceptable to them. His mother only shook her head. “It is not these men, my son, but those who come after them.”
“What happened, Grandfather?”
“Black Elk left the tribe and became a scout for the white men. He took the boy, his son, with him. A kind woman, wife to one of the men Black Elk served, took the boy in and taught him English ways, how to read and write their language and how to use math. The boy, Little Bear, was quick like you and enterprising. He saw the ships the colonists built leave heavy with tobacco and rice and fish, animal pelts, and lumber—and how much money the white people made from the land. He saw their big houses and fine clothing and he knew he would never again live in a teepee.”
“So, Grandmother loves the land because of the money we can make?”
Grandfather had a hearty laugh. “Let me finish my story, grandson. Black Elk traveled a great deal and worried about the changes he saw in his son, who was now a young man and no longer using his Indian name, Little Bear. The woman gave him the name William and their surname, Smythe. He wore their fine clothes and helped the woman and her husband in their general store by keeping records of their purchases of sugar, and molasses which they made into rum, and their sales of foodstuffs, cloth and iron utensils. Little Bear excelled at business and gave them advice that helped his second parents to build their business. They were very proud of William.”
“But, what about–?”
Grandfather held up a hand and his grandson nodded.
“One day Black Elk, now with graying hair, came into the store. In halting English, he told his son that he had been wrong about the white men and the things he had seen happen to their people. The forests and wolves and buffalo were gone—all for the sake of money. He said he was going home and he wanted Little Bear to come with him. The woman stepped in front of Little Bear and said, “His name is William and he is my son now. Please take leave of our store.” Black Elk stepped toward the woman and William came to her defense. “Father,” he said with great difficulty in their native tongue, “she is my mother now. My second father is in the back of the store. This is my place now. I will not come with you.”
“I don’t understand. How could he do that, Grandfather?” the old man’s grandson asked.
“Little Bear was an Indian on the outside—but not on the inside. He was a white man on the inside. Do you understand, grandson?”
“I think so. He wanted the same things his white parents wanted.”
“That’s right, grandson. Black Elk returned to his people who had been moved by the white men to a small area of rocky land that held little value for the white men. Black Elk’s mother and father had passed on but an aunt was still alive and she took him into her home. He cried in her arms for days, telling her all the things he had done to help the white man and how Little Bear had betrayed him. Some of his people hated him, but he worked hard preparing the soil for planting and over time most of the tribe grew to accept him.”
“Did Black Elk ever see William again?” the boy asked.
“Black Elk took ill ten years later and when a cousin realized he was dying, he made the three-day ride to the town to tell Little Bear. He found him at his family’s large home and begged him to come at once, saying that Black Elk needed him. William sent his cousin away, but just when the cousin was almost off their property, William caught up to him. He apologized and said that he would like to see Black Elk one last time.”
“That was good, wasn’t it Grandfather?”
“Yes, grandson, that was very good.”
“Little Bear, or William, had always been so busy at the store and later in their ship building business that he had not traveled much. He was shocked to see the forests were completely gone—only stumps remained. Much of this wood he knew was used to build the ships his parents had sold to the Europeans and, of course, the wood was also used to build the white men’s towns. The native peoples were gone–dead or forced to move to unwanted land. But William could still remember the spirit of life that had lived in the forest before the white men came. He could remember how the growing things and the creatures all lived together in a circle of life, feeding each other and then the land when they died. The spirit of life was gone; the land was decimated. William’s heart grew heavy with sadness on the journey home.
You see, grandson, the land is the mother of all life. Everything comes from the land which has its own Spirit—remember when I showed it to you?—to feed, to shelter and to protect us. But we cannot take from the land and not give in return. Your grandmother knows how much has been taken from the land and how little has been returned, so she makes feeding the land her life’s work. That is why you see her tending the soil, planting soy beans and turning the plants back into the soil. She communicates with the spirits of the plants and the land, in addition to mothering her children and loving her grandchildren, of course,” he said with a smile. “So, tell me grandson, are you still confused about your grandmother and the land?”
The boy shook his head. “I understand. The land is like our mother.”
“The land is our mother, grandson, and your grandmother loves her mother.”
“I see now, Grandfather. What happened when William got home to Black Elk?”
“Black Elk was near death, but had held on to see his son one last time. People of the tribe stood and watched as William and his cousin rode onto the reservation. Some of the men tried to stop them and called William dark names, but the cousin insisted they let them pass. William went into the teepee, fell to his knees and took his father’s hand. Black Elk opened his eyes and said to Little Bear, “You did not betray me, son. I betrayed you when I took you at such a young age away from our people. I was young and my pride and ignorance were strong. Can you forgive me?” William sobbed and said, “Father, I did betray you and the ways of our people. I am the one who is sorry.” They embraced and Black Elk died happy, having made peace with his son.”
“Did William stay, Grandfather?”
“No, grandson. The ways of the white man were too strong in him, but when he returned, he began to write stories about the land and the native peoples, our way of life and what happened to our ancestors. Some of these were published in newspapers, which were sent to Europe and later in William’s life, a book was published with his stories. In this way, his heart was healed of the pain of what he believed was a betrayal of his people.”
“But he did betray his people, Grandfather!”
“Life unfolds in a circle, grandson, and everything on the great wheel happens for a reason. He was very young when his father took him away. It is hard for us to accept what happened to our ancestors and our way of life, but if Little Bear had not left his people and become William, the stories of what happened to our people may never have been told.”
“I think I understand, Grandfather.” The boy smiled. “That was a very good story,” he said as he stood. “Is there anything I can do for you, Grandfather?”
“Yes, grandson, there is. Check beyond those rocks. Is your grandmother in the garden?”
“I see her; yes, she is there.”
“I’d like you to go to her and ask her if she will teach you about the spirits of the plants and the land. Will you do that?”
“All right, Grandfather. I will go.” He ran a few steps and turned around. “Maybe I will like talking to the spirit of the land.”
“Learning to talk with the spirits is a very good thing for you, grandson. You have made an old man happy this day.”
“I love you, Grandfather,” the boy said as he ran off to join his Grandmother. “Thank you!”
“I love you, too, grandson,” the old man said, but the boy was already too far away to hear him. “You are a very good grandson.”