looking back from Liberal Street Fighter
Last Saturday morning, as I rode the Hiawatha Limited (named for the legendary peace maker of the Haudenosaunee, a people who lived nowhere near where the Amtrak train runs) from Milwaukee (reportedly derived from Potawatomi meaning “fine land”, “good land” or “meeting place”) to Chicogo (reportedly from a word meaning “great” or even “skunk” or “wild onion” — it IS in what was a swamp) I listened to a story on Weekend America about Winter Counts, a plains American Indian tradition:
Winter counts are histories or calendars in which events are recorded by pictures, with one picture for each year. The Lakota call them waniyetu wowapi. Waniyetu is the word for year, which is measured from first snowfall to first snowfall. It is often translated as ‘a winter. ‘Wowapi means anything that is marked on a flat surface and can be read or counted, such as a book, a letter, or a drawing.
Winter counts are physical records that were used in conjunction with a more extensive oral history. Each year was named for an event and the pictures referring to the year names served as a reference source that could be consulted regarding the order of the years. People knew the name of the year in which other important events occurred, and could place these in time by referring to the winter count.
What a wonderful, yet daunting idea. How to sum up a year in one image? An especially interesting idea given what an a-historical people Americans have become, so cut off from the origins of our country, our traditions or even the names of our cities, towns, streets and trains.
This being the twenty-first century, my paltry ability to draw is overcome by the wonders of Google image search. For me, 2005 is the flag to the right.
We love our images of flags tattered by the fire of battle, like the Star Spangled Banner. How do most flags become tattered? By neglect. How many Americans even know there is a Flag Code within the US Code? We DRAPE ourselves, our cars, our products in flags, all in contravention of the Flag Code.
Yet none of that is why I choose that picture. Flags are symbols of the country they represent. Most countries represent a people united by a common geography, or shared ethnic background or history. Yet … America is not really quite any of those things, though successive movements throughout our history have tried to make our flag all of those things. Somehow it’s come to be more, “the Nation for which it stands” is a series of ideals, a Constitution and a body of laws and traditions, a pendulum that has swung between overly-powerful executives and vote-trading legislators. A balanced nation not of place, not of one people, but of many. A nation as PROCESS.
So why the flag? Flags symbolize things, this flag is supposed to symbolize our nation, and our nation itself symbolizes a set of ideals we’ve never lived up to, but aspired to. Flags become tattered through neglect. Threads that hold it together fade in the sun and ran, pull loose in high winds, drawn apart by gravity when left to hang without proper maintenance. This year, as more and more evidence spread of the lies, crimes and inhumanity of the Bush Administration, the American People have neglected those ideals. The threads that hold us together fray, and a sizable minority of us are GLAD for it. The mixture of colors that make us up bleach in the sun and flood waters, yet our voices remain sadly quiescent as it happens.
As I listened to a story about the traditions of my mother’s fathers and mothers, on a train named for a leader misremembered by a poem written by a white poet about events that never happened, a racist evocation of the “noble savage” from a trading city named with the words of a vanguished people to another city named in much the same way, I tried to think about a single image for this past year. How to sum up Katrina, government spying on American citizens, the suspension of civil liberties in the name of an eternal war on a tactic … what single image could sum all of that up? How to tie together scandals, government and corporate, growing inequality racially and socially and educationally?
No one in this country cares enough to burn the flag, either out of respectful retirement as provided for in the Code, or in protest of the policies pursued in its name. We neglect our flags as we neglect the highest ideals of our nation, as we passively hand it over to greedy corporations and the politicians who would sell us ALL out for a seat at the lucrative table.
So, that’s my pick up there at the top for an image to remember the year 2005 by. Neglected, fluttering in the wind, fading in the sun, colors running in the hurricane-driven rain.
This is my waniyetu wowapi for this year past, this winter which will hopefully lead to a spring where Americans once again take care of, pay attention to their country again. It’s time for the neglect, the criminality to end. I can’t look back at the year symbolized for me by that tattered flag for hope, I can only look at the sunrises of the gradually lengthening days of this new year.
It’s time for us to remember another important tradition of the people of this country. Mitakuye Oyasin … we are all related. My mother’s people lived by this idea, and it’s perhaps by returning to the words and beliefs of the people who first inhabited this country that we can stop the neglect.
I want my winter count next year to commemorate a better time for my people, my fellow Americans. Here’s hoping that we can be proud of who we are again, here’s hoping we can leave this terrible year behind us.