A few years ago, I sat in my car outside the tribal clinic on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, being tied to my steering wheel by a two-year-old Northern Arapaho boy named Quame. We were waiting for his mother to finish her appointment. Then she and Quame would go home and I would go into the desert with a relative of theirs to look for runaway horses — an adventure I’d been looking forward to for days. But the minutes ticked by without her coming out, and I felt my opportunity for outdoor fun evaporate in the nonlinear pooling of resources that happens when you have a car and the people around you don’t.
Just then, a van pulled up next to me. A trio of elderly Native Americans with empty plastic milk jugs had come to get water at a pump that stood nearby. They looked happy and relaxed as they labored out of the van and lumbered up to the pump. One of the men worked the handle. Quame and I watched. Nothing came out.
“Shit!” I thought. “NOTHING works around here.”
The two men and one woman turned. Their facial expressions hadn’t changed a bit. Seeing Quame and me watching them, the woman smiled and waved. We waved back.
A couple of centuries ago, the Arapahos were living hunt to hunt on the plains. Then their home was invaded, occupied and subdued by people who looked a lot like me. And now, this damn water pump. The Arapaho have never lived outside the cycles of cause and effect. Nothing that lives on this planet ever has, except perhaps for my own culture, whose technological savvy has allowed us to absent ourselves from cause and effect for a few centuries while we mine the place dry.
Once I asked a family up here what they wanted for dinner. “Whatever you cook,” someone said, adding, as if I’d neglected to notice, “We’re Arapahos.”
A cowboy I knew told me about a chat he had with an elderly Arapaho man about history. The old man wasn’t angry about how things had ended up for the Native Americans. He said the Creator makes things happen, and if he were to feel angry he’d be putting himself above the Creator.
The cowboy was surprised.
“All my life I’d been taught to be a white guy and be very pissed off when things didn’t go my way,” he told me. “What I heard that day I’ve been using for years, to deal with my own anger.”
So, I thought, as the vanload of elderly Arapahos pulled out and Quame wound another length of webbing around my arm, when exactly did my own people decide not to accept things, but to change them? The advent of the railroad? The invention of the plow? Was that the first time we looked at the deer herds and wild strawberries and said, “Er, thanks for the glistening, sweet-smelling planet and all. But not enough is happening here. We’re gonna make stuff happen.” And off we went to plow and plant and drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
Me, I don’t surrender to much and I certainly don’t surrender to water pumps. I’m from a culture of worriers, improvers, ferreters, miners, irrigators, builders of plows, railroads, automobiles, armies, nuclear bombs, diet sodas, solar panels — the most Can-Do nation in the history of the world. I love the excellent laptop computer, compact car and lime-mint lip balm that my culture has brought me. But when I let up even a little, the well-being just floods in. I can once again perceive the world that exists outside my plans. The color drains back into the landscape; the wind becomes audible in the trees.
Life on the Wind River Indian Reservation is marked by poverty, violence, addiction, danger and wrongdoing in levels that can only be described as post-apocalyptic. The membrane between life and death is gossamer thin. But, still. There is softness and sweetness here, belly laughter I rarely hear elsewhere, and a vibrant spiritual life that thrives in part because it has to.
I’m not saying Native Americans are perfect and that white people are bad. It’s not personal. I’m saying that Native Americans — and every other indigenous culture on the planet — live in a rock tumbler of circumstance; the constant pounding has smoothed out their edges. As a middle class white person living in the heart of the richest culture in history, my edges are sharp and my expectations high. When I get stuck in traffic, I smack my steering wheel. I slug refrigerators on their innocent white sides.
But I love — LOVE — being around the smooth-edged people. If I or my culture could surrender our dominion just a little bit, we’d live in a different world. I’m not talking about surrendering to drug cartels or terrorists. I’m talking about surrendering our dominion over every little thing; surrendering to inconvenience, lack of control, to taking the bus, to stopping in the middle of a spousal spat and deciding now is as good a time as any to start a ceasefire. This column is dedicated to those moments when, against the momentum of history, and even by accident, surrender happens.