In August 1990, I met a visionary woman named Muriel Antoine, whose home I visited in Mission, South Dakota, on the Rosebud Reservation. I was questioning everything—the pain swirling around me was reflected in the pain swirling within me. The poet and artist graciously fielded questions I had about how history could have unfolded the way it did on the reservations, rather than unfolding as I had been taught in school. I open my memoir, Stranded on the Road to Promise, published by Sharktooth Press, with a poignant conversation I had with her that day.
I’m illustrating this post with an image of her in ceremonial dress and snapshots of her masks I speak about below. I bought Hepan and have him hanging in my New York City apartment. He makes me smile each time I see the colorful lizard curling all the way around his face!
Stranded on the Road to Promise
Opening of Chapter One — The Enemy
“Do you think I’m the enemy?”
The abrupt question had been dogging me for nearly a year. Muriel studied my face, her dark eyes unwavering even when she could tell I felt burningly uncomfortable. I braved the scrutiny because I knew I had asked for it.
“I think greed is the enemy,” she answered after a long pause. “It becomes god for some, and they sacrifice any and all for it. It has brought me to my knees, hit me in the head and taken me to my lowest points.”
She pulled a piece of paper from a stack near her chair and said, “This poem I wrote describes how low those points have been at times.”
The opening lines of “The Legacy,” read in her nasally deep-toned voice, slipped like an icepick into my gut:
“Ashamed because we’re Indians
born with the weight of our
culture on our backs
put there by others.”
I was glad she didn’t lift her eyes from the creased page right away because tears had welled in mine as a certainty thrummed through my nerve endings: “I must be one of these others.” The clock on the wall ticked loudly through far too many minutes while I searched for something to say.
“May I have a copy of your poem?” is all I could manage. As lame as the question sounded to my own ears, I was happy to have gotten it out.
She studied the hand she had placed on the arm of the chair, her index finger pulsing to some internal rhythm she seemed to be using to mark time. When she finally looked up, she asked me, forcefully but without malice, “Who would you say is the enemy?”
In that moment, it seemed there was no “right” answer. I mumbled, “I don’t know.”
She handed me the poem.
There were other questions dammed up inside me but Muriel was visibly tired so I stood to leave. I thanked her for her generosity in sharing herself, her art and her day with me; she gave me a long, firm hug and said goodbye. I drove back to Mission with tears streaming down my face as I tried to make sense of all that had come to pass that day. The moment she softly challenged me had unleashed decades of pain, and I was proud of one thing at least: I had answered her question honestly rather than pretending I was more together than I was. I had let arrogance go, and this felt momentous all the way down to the bedrock of my being.
Muriel was a Sicangu Lakota, an artist and poet who had spent decades documenting the faces of her relatives by making masks of them. A peaceful activist, she is considered one of the keepers of Sioux culture. She wasn’t kidding when she said she had been brought to some of her lowest points by greed. That afternoon, she told me the story of her grandfather, who had owned the land on which the town of Gregory, South Dakota, stands. When the state decided to put a county seat there, they simply took his property. Before long, the state and federal governments were arguing over whom was responsible for paying the man, forcing the family to begin their own litigation, which took over five years to settle. During this time, her grandfather died, and after the attorney’s fees were paid, each heir received a $20 check. Muriel had framed hers to remind herself how avarice can devastate a life.
I was surprised to learn she felt the government had done the Sioux tribe a favor by relegating them to reservations. She said the isolation had helped them to save the pieces of their culture that remain intact, unlike the Native Americans in California, who had scattered early in the state’s formation and were just beginning to regroup and revive their mores. “It is usually the women in the culture who save the knowledge and bring it forward,” she said, her efforts to do so for her tribe proof of that. She did so by teaching young Sioux about their history during the camp-circle days and by documenting the faces of her relatives. She had hit upon the idea of making the masks of them when one of her grandchildren was born with blonde hair and blue eyes, even though both of the girl’s parents had swarthy skin, black hair and dark eyes. Muriel showed me the tiny mask she’d made of the girl, her surprise that her family’s Norwegian DNA had skipped two generations before showing up so beautifully in the child still evident on the artist’s face as she turned the girl’s white bisque likeness so it would catch the light.
When she made a mask, she decorated each one with a meaningful symbol of the person it represented. One nephew was fond of lizards so his mask, called Hepan, meaning second-born, was decorated with a bright orange, blue and green reptile, its playfully pointy profile wrapping around the face from the right side of the chin to above the left eye. During my drive back to the motel in Mission, these colors and symbols she had used to celebrate her tiyospaye, the Lakota word for extended family, swirled through my mind. Spiraling as kaleidoscopically was my own emotional skirmish. There was something about the way Muriel had honored the drama going on inside me that made me want to take a step toward healing, though I didn’t actually know what that meant.
To read more of Stranded on the Road to Promise, you can order it in print from Amazon or from the Kindle Store. This book resulted from a blog-to-book process that Sharktooth Press makes available to clients. Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to read about this piece of my journey on the Great Plains.
Text of Stranded on the Road to Promise © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is an author, poet and journalist based in New York City. Books include Anywhere But Here and Stranded on the Road to Promise. Saxon is also the co-founder of Sharktooth Press.