This is the eighth post in a series that shares one Native woman’s take on the COVID-19 pandemic from within Indigenous worldview. My goal is to offer COVID hope in a time of anxiety, and to provide at least some opportunity for people to feel there can be positive change in response to the terrible events unfolding everywhere. The ideas in this blog apply not just to COVID-19 but to life, and to the ways our lives have to change if we want to walk out the other side of this crisis into a world of rebirth and renewal. The alternative is to look back on this time later as “the beginning of the end.” It’s in our hands, how it goes.
Indigenous understandings of the world and of life are woven deeply into the American experience in ways you simply don’t notice. Here’s an example, one that should give you a lift of powerful joy. It’s from the very end of the main number for which the movie “Oklahoma!”(1) is named. The scene takes place at the end of the story. Watch it once, just to enjoy it and feel the lift it gives you. Then read my explanation below, and watch it a second time with new eyes and ears. (See footnote for full citation.)
The Land itself speaks to you through this little film clip. Here is why I say that. First, the word “Oklahoma” is in the Choctaw language. I have always loved it that this production has all these non-Native people crouched down and rising up, chanting in Choctaw. What they are saying is “Indian Nations” in Choctaw, the language of one of the Five Tribes sent in the 1830s to what has since become the state of Oklahoma (2). The non-Native people in the movie represent settlers who moved into Indian Territory, despite promises it would always be land set aside for Indians. In the film clip, they are chanting “Indian Nations” in the Choctaw language! And here is the salient point about that: we Native people see our languages as having been given to us by the Land itself. So there’s actual, real power in this chanting.
Second, these non-Native people are doing what sure looks to me like part of a Round Dance. At the beginning there, when the people in the middle are crouched down, there are two lines of people moving in opposite circles around the outside of the crouching group. You see that in a very big Round Dance that winds far enough to turn back on itself. The people who choreographed that scene might say they hadn’t ever seen one of our Round Dances or weren’t thinking of it if they had. But we Native people believe our dances were given to us by the Land, too. So I would ask, “Where do you suppose the idea to have people circle this way during this chanting came from?” I think there are things moving here a lot of people just don’t see at first.
By the way, if you want to say there are, in your own homeland’s culture, dances that circle this way . . . well, that Land of your culture’s home provides people with dances too. That’s how we see it, anyway. It’s not just our Land here that does this. A Circle is a very important shape and often shows up in dances, designs of many kinds, and in natural structures such as nests, dens, and lodges. The point is: a circle is an important natural shape that manifests important attributes of the Land, and that therefore shows up in dances the Land inspires. And there it is, right in that movie scene. The Land is literally moving through those dancers and the choreographer.
Finally, listen to the words the people sing when they stand up at the end of the clip. “We know we belong to the Land” is not at all typical of the way people in the dominant culture see Land ownership. They say “I own this piece of land. This land belongs to ME” — not “I belong to the Land.” No, that phrase “We belong to the Land” expresses a particularly Indigenous view of reality. And to say “We know we belong to the Land” . . . well if that’s not the Land itself speaking through the song lyricist’s pen, I don’t know where those words came from. You might be able to explain away the two previous things I’ve pointed to, but this phrase “we belong to the Land” defies any logic of Western worldview. Added to that, the phrase is preceded by a strong statement that “We know this” to be so.
The words of the song are telling you that you know the thing it’s telling you — the thing that runs counter to one of the most fundamental principles of Western culture, that people own the land. It’s telling you that’s not how it is, and that you already know this. The song’s words say, literally, that we all know, deep inside, that we belong to the Land. Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote these words, was of Jewish and Scotch-Irish descent (from what I was able to learn). He certainly didn’t seem to be of Indian descent.
Now watch the clip again, hearing the Choctaw chant and seeing the Round Dance and the strong assertion “We know we belong to the Land.”
Taking all these things together, maybe you can start to see why, if you look at this clip with Native eyes and ears, you start to hear and see the strong presence of the Land moving through all the people involved. Why does this matter? After the people sing “We know we belong to the Land,” they sing, “And the Land we belong to is grand.” That’s also a true statement, and a very important one. It’s true the Land is grand because it is literally the ground of our existence. It is written into your body — your bones, your teeth, your blood, your muscles. Where do you think the atoms come from that form your physical body? The Land is written into the bodies of all the people who somehow staged this incredibly Native piece of song and dance, too — a production number that brought audiences to their feet in live theaters and probably brought your heart to its feet just now. Because you could FEEL it, couldn’t you? A little like the way you felt something powerful moving in you when you played the videos of quarantined people calling and singing and clapping together from their apartments? You felt the power of knowing that we ALL belong to the Land, and the Land we belong to is grand, and that this connects us in a fundamental and essential way. The Land is grand, not for its military might or its economic muscle or its scientific prowess, but for its genuine life-giving POWER. This is why yesterday I said that we Native people are drawing on the Power of the Land to help us through this time, and suggested you might join us in doing the same.
You may not have been consciously aware that the Land is part of who you are, and you are quite literally a part of everything around you, but your heart knows this truth. It leaps with emotion when you perceive the deep connectedness between us. This is what Indigenous people mean when we say “we are all relations.” I’ll be addressing this more in future posts. It’s an essential concept for these times. It’s what can help us, as a nation of people — not a nation of political ideologies or a nation of economic agendas, but a nation of people — to triumph over the challenge facing us now. There is great wisdom in the Land, and in real reciprocal relationship that can guide us through this time of terrible danger — if you can learn how to perceive and respond to it. More importantly, this wisdom can lead us into a powerful time of renewal on the far side of the events unfolding today.
Remember the power of paradox.
1. “Oklahoma!” 1955. Fred Zinnemann, Director. Sonya Levien, William Ludwig, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Lynn Riggs, Writers. Magna Theatre Corporation and Rodgers & Hammerstein Productions. Oscar Hammerstein is the lyricist who wrote the words sung in this film clip. However, “Oklahoma” itself — Okla Humma — is Choctaw. This video clip is used under the Fair Use as stated in the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. § 107.
2. That forced migration is known as the Trail of Tears, and it was a hard time for many people. It’s estimated that about 2,500 of the 15,000 Choctaw alone (not counting the other nations) died of exposure, disease, and hunger on the Trail of Tears. That’s a fatality rate of over 16%. By comparison, the fatality rate of COVID-19 is roughly 2% of those infected. But not everyone is infected with coronavirus, which is why our actions now can make a difference. If we can reduce the numbers of people infected, it will make a huge difference in the number of people who die. Everyone who went on the Trail of Tears, however, was at risk for fatality. No one escaped the “infection” of forced relocation.