Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Manic Monday?

Wake up came at 6am. More pow wow music, drumming and chanting.  It was quite delightful by now. And 6am at Re-Member was 7am at home, so not terribly early all in all.  We had twelve teams of four, and today teams 1 through 4 were heading to the trailer home of a man named Bart. So after breakfast and some Wisdom of the Elders, we headed down to the shop and loaded supplies into the trailers. Then it was into the vans and on the way.

We had been told that sometimes the people in the houses that were worked on would come out and interact, and sometimes we'd see nobody.  Sometimes the projects went as scheduled, but sometimes not so much, so the staff called it Manic Monday.  Today however, everything would go quite well.

I was a bit nervous about heading into the work phase. Not because I couldn't do whatever they had planned. I'm pretty handy with a hammer and all.  But I was heading into a situation where I might have to interact with not just the Lakota, but all the other people in teams 1 through 4. 

The Lakota interaction was intimidating because I was very aware of history, and what "whites" have done historically to "indians", and vice versa. To be completely honest, I was a little nervous about finding some of the stereotypes to be true.

That indians hate whites.

That was the biggie.  Having studied Lakota culture and history, I have great respect for the Lakota people.  But having no previous contact with any native peoples left me hypersensitive to being culturally cautious.  That is, I didn't want to say or do anything to offend, or not say or not do anything to offend.

Once upon a time, back in college at the U of Iowa, I went to a pow wow that was being held in the rec center.  I stayed on the periphery, a very curious admirer of the dress and dancing, of the drumming. I watched as people greeted one another and saw that there was a circle there that I did not feel I could step into without offending.  I was the minority, the outsider. But there was something in the songs they sang. Something in the eyes of the people I passed. Something I wanted to learn more of and be a part of.  But I had never been able to put a name to it.  So for the next twenty years I read books on the Lakota and learned what I could about this lands native peoples. 

Now here I was on Oglala land, and I was humbled again by not wanting to do something stupid and be lumped in as just another white guy. 

Adding to the anxiety was the other group of people I would be working with.  From all over the country, mostly college kids, and a few high schoolers.  Even the program managers and construction supervisors on the Re-Member staff were well over a decade younger than me.  I felt old. Well past any semblance of being "cool". I don't even know what the word for "cool" is anymore, which makes me feel even more out of touch.  So I smiled and answered questions as best I could.  But the whole group was infused with the energy and laughter that is so indicative of that age.  Not to belittle that feeling.  I remember those days fondly, and loved being around it again. Though it did make me feel a bit old and outdated.

So. It was off to Bart's house, full of trepidation and just a touch of nausea. The leaders told us that when we got there it would be a little bit of a cluster getting organized and getting going, since we had people of all skill levels, and the learning curve for the construction would be a little slow.

As in any volunteer operation, the volunteers who came all had different motivational levels for the work to be done. A few were apparently there more for the immersion experience and only moderately willing to pitch in when the hard work started, which was just fine.  One organization that I used to volunteer for taught me that even a little help takes some of the workload off of everyone else.  Besides, the better part of the group was made up of workhorses.  Even those who had never worked with power tools before dove in and were soon cutting with chop saws and circular saws.  They were doing a great job, too.

As we all learned how to do the job and kind of learned who could and would do what, the pace picked up a bit. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When we arrived we found a FEMA trailer parked in a pasture in the middle of a prairie dog town. And I do mean a TOWN.  There were holes everywhere, and enough chittering rodents to keep a flock of hawks in prairie dog meat heaven.  I've seen a lot of prairie dog villages. At zoos and out in fields, and this one was really impressive.

There was a man standing out by the house, who introduced himself as Bart. He had salt and pepper hair and a beard. I asked him if I could take pictures of the progress while we worked, and he said "No problem." He seemed pretty easygoing.

As it worked out, I spent a lot of time talking with Bart. The others on the work team had friends from their schools and such, and I was sort of the odd man out. Bart worked side by side with us for the entire day, and put in more work than some of those kids.  He was amazing. 

Before I get to Bart, though, here's a quick photo summary of How to Skirt a Trailer, in 8 easy steps.

1. Dig a shallow trench around the trailer, directly under the edge. (see below picture)

2. Lay some long 2 x 4's in the trench and measure the distance from the wood to the trailer. (see above picture)

3. Use those measurements to cut other long 2 x 4's into shorter 2 x 4's, and make a little section of wall.

4. Insulate that little section of wall.

5. Install the wall, toe nailing the vertical 2 x 4's into the bottom of the trailer. It helps to know that toe nailing involves screwing screws in at an angle to hold the 2 x 4 to the trailer, and does not mean simply kicking it with your toenail.

6. Cover the little wall with panelling.
Picture is not mine, but actual proof that I did do some stuff!
7. Shovel dirt under and against the wall to make it feel a part of the trailer.
(Also not my picture of Bart's newly skirted and bedecked house.)
8. Smile at the hard work you've done. Look at the beautiful skirting on that trailer up there!

There is of course, much sawing and measuring and cutting and hammering and drilling that goes into some of those steps. And for the most part once we newbies figured out how to follow the directions given to us, we worked along at a pretty good clip.

As I worked with Bart, he talked about his life on and off the rez.  He grew up in the very area he was now living in, and told stories of riding his horse all over the hills on all sorts of adventures. Of finding old cavalry buckles and other artifacts from long ago. He spoke of moving to Duluth and living there for a few decades, but moving back because this was where most of his family is, where his true home is.

He told me about getting an Appaloosa horse and an Arabian horse with the intent of breeding them and selling the foals for income.  But every time his horses had a baby, a grandchild or one of his kids would come up to him and say "Ooh Grandpa, that's a pretty horse! Can I have it?" And he would give it to them. I asked him how many he actually got around to selling. None, was his answer. He gave them all to family and friends. When I asked him about that he simply said that that's what you do when you're family.  He was very generous and giving. I liked his company very much. 

When lunchtime rolled around, I asked the staff if we could invite Bart to eat with us. They agreed, and I went to ask Bart. He accepted and said that he had been eating leftovers for the past few days and had run out. He said he wasn't sure where his next meal was coming from. It was a little disheartening.

He made quite an impression on me. He was kind and quick to laugh. We shared a good many jokes and by early afternoon he was calling me Wasicu Waste, pronounced Wash-EE-choo Wash-day. I was pretty sure I knew what it meant, but asked him anyway. It means Good White Man. I got a kick out of that, as did he.

We talked about how dusty and dry it was out there, and he told me that the Lakota messengers used to run all day with no water. In the middle of this conversation the delightful Erika, one of the program managers, brought me some much needed water, and I joked to Bart that I was too much wasicu and needed the drink!

We got almost the whole trailer skirted that day, which was apparently much more than was usually done.  I still say when the staff tells us that "we're going to skirt a trailer today" we took it to mean that we'd get the whole trailer skirted that day! The team working the next day added a deck and stairs to the project. All in all, a lot of work was done for a really neat guy.

As we finished up for the day it was time to say our goodbyes to Bart. I thanked him for working with us that day, and asked him how to say goodbye in Lakota.

He told me that the Lakota have no word for goodbye. Goodbye to them means I'll never see you again and that's ok.  Instead the Lakota say Doksa ake wacinyankinktelo... that's hard to type. Hard to say, too until I practice it more. But the short version is Doksa (DOAK-sha) which means "Later". It's a great sentiment, and one I'm happy to adopt.  So we said our Doksa's, shook hands and we headed back to the Re-Member camp.

This post is a little long, and I'm not only tired, but a bit misty eyed at what Bart had to teach me that day. So I'll sign off for now and get to the great Monday night in the next post.

More Later

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