A Dispatch from New Zealand


The Tukorehe Marae is an unprepossessing structure. Nestled behind a grove of lush palm trees, its paint is gradually fading, unveiling layer upon layer of cosmetic efforts past. The predominance of white paint is strong in the front. But in the back, it yields to flecks of salmon, and some of the wood has worn itself bare.

Our host at the marae is a man named Shawn, or “Papa Shawn,” as the kids call him. And while he’s hardly the garrulous sort, he clearly loves this place – a place that he simply calls home. 
Māori in New Zealand often call a particular “mare,” such as this, home. For the descendants of Tukorehe, a Māori ancestor from the distant past, this marae is theirs, carrying with it all the trappings of ownership as if they had helped Tukorehe himself hew the logs that support its roof. 
By way of explanation, the focal point of the marae grounds is the meeting house, or wharenui, which resembles a small wooden chapel that congregations in the Southern United States might have used over a century ago. However, far from practicing Christianity, Māori consider their meeting houses to be the living iteration of their ancestors. Photos of deceased relatives line the wooden walls of the wharenui, each ancestor looking after the occupants in a very literal and symbolic way. The walls themselves are ornately decorated with wood carvings and flax tapestries that tell both the exploits of the ancestor, as well as the philosophy/theology that undergirds the Māori worldview. 

The marae, then, is not so much a chapel as it is a cenotaph dedicated to the presence of the absence of ancestors who never truly left to begin with. 
If there’s a nugget of wisdom I’ve gleaned from the complexities of the Māori cosmology (one I will, admittedly, never fully understand), it’s that they do community rather differently than we do in mainstream America. 
I won’t say it’s better, because I’m not sure it is. But it is different, and special. 

The first difference is the Māori emphasis on all things communal. Sleeping in the marae, for example, is a wholly collective affair. The end result is that our group of ten from the University of Wyoming have spent the past three days sleeping in the wharenui, sharing snores, showers, and sleeping patterns alike. This is, of course, a stark contrast to America where privacy is the order of the day, no matter how much the NSA might say otherwise. 
The second difference is in the Māori emphasis on social extroversion. Back home, my normal routine involves quiet, reflection, dedicated time for writing, and the occasional game of Call of Duty
For Māori, nearly every interaction is focused on the shared, lived experience of family or whanauFamilies and extended families all come in equal turn on the marae, sharing meals, entertainment, and social activities in common. Needless to say, this American’s time for reflection has been almost non-existent, and in all honesty this has taken its toll on my frazzled nerves. It seems I crave quiet in the same way Māori crave togetherness. I suppose both the individual and the collective have their place and needs. 
Of course, I knew all of this coming in. The marae was never a mystery to me given the year/plus that Gwyn, Clark and I lived in New Zealand. But perhaps the difference on this trip is the presence of the absence of my own whanau. While the Māori ancestors look after us from behind their frames in the wharenui, my own family is ensconced miles across the mighty Pacific, visiting family back in Indiana. 
It seems this is the real lesson from Māoridom. There’s precious little that’s more important than family.  Of course, we all take this to different extremes. 

Children at Play

We took Clark to the park today. The playground equipment had all the usual trappings of a large park in the center of town, including scores of parents, kids, and pooches out for their afternoon walk. 
 
Amid the chaos, we discovered the slides fairly quickly. Clark and Gwyn spent most of the time going up, and down the slide head first. No worry given to broken necks, or petrified father watching from the side. Only the occasional mischievous glance, and the squeal of joy at landing in the wood chips beneath the slide. 

 
It’s a remarkable thing to see a child at play. Engrossed in the moment. Utterly fascinated by whatever it is that captures the attention, and imagination of a young mind. 
 
But what I envy most is Clark’s ability just to be. To enjoy. To play. Some nights when my mind races with things to do, with the things that I didn’t get done, with the typical cares of life that keep one awake late into the night, I wish I had his young heart, and innocence – things forever etched on the face of a child at play. 
 
I suppose that’s something I can’t get back. And yet, I can’t help but pray it’s something he never loses. 

On Leaving

The hardest part of the holidays is always the ride back to OKC Airport. I’ve made the trip a fair few times now, and while it becomes more familiar, I can’t say that it’s ever any easier.

In my discipline, we often talk about the unique connection that American Indians have to their lands. And I think that’s right.

But on days like today, as we prepare to depart and return to the regular business of busy and hectic lives, I wonder if we’re only discussing half of the issue in the relationship between native peoples and their lands.

For my view, any attachment to place has to be coupled with the family/friends/loved ones who are there. Without relationship, a place is just a place. Land is just land.

But when one adds in family, and friends, and loved ones, and multiplies this across the generations, an attachment to lands makes a lot more sense.

In a way, we call this attachment, “home.” And leaving home is always a hard thing to do.

Christmas Follies


Clark pitched a fit this evening. Being somewhat of an expert in fits, I can say with some certainty that this was, in fact, a royal fit – complete with waterworks, wailing, kicking, and clawing down the aisle.

All of the above wouldn’t have been so bad, had it not been right during the middle of the Christmas Eve service at church.

My wife Gwyn was set to play the piano for the annual Christmas Eve Service at Brown American Indian Baptist Church. Or as we call it in our family, simply “The Church” – as if any there were any other.

Assuming the best, we didn’t account for Clark’s…malcontent when separated from his Mother. Much to our chagrin, screaming could well be an understatement to describe what he did in that small, wooden chapel.

Being the lone parent without obligations in the annual Christmas program (spare the duet I had lately agreed to sing with my sister), defeated, I loaded him into the car and drove home. After he calmed down a bit, I was fortunate to have distracted him with Veggie Tales for the remainder of the evening.

I was inclined to be upset, but I snapped a shot of the scene above and the frustration I felt melted away.

It occurred to me, even Jesus was a toddler at one point. And as parenting goes, I’m sure Mary and Joseph had their share of embarrassing evenings with young Jesus too. It’s just sort of what toddlers do. Even Divine ones.

And so, I fired up Clark’s favorite Veggie Tales and proceeded to get some of the food ready for our family’s gift exchange tonight. Better to productive than mope at what I missed.

All told, I think things worked out for the best.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Kids and Accidents


There’s no more frustrating place for a parent than the emergency room of a hospital.

While participating in the ‘hanging of the greens’ this morning (a fanciful phrase for decorating the church for Christmas), Clark hit his head on one of the speakers.

Not being the festive sort, I wasn’t there. But my wife called in a panic and mentioned that Clark had fallen down some steps, and clipped his forehead on the corner of a speaker, leaving him a bloody, wailing mess. She also mentioned the need for stitches, and I was out the door within the moment.

I arrived at the ‘urgent care’ not long after she did to the sight above. His wound didn’t bleed much. But he had a deep gash and seemed, understandably, crankier than usual.

The waiting room was filled with people. Some with coughs. Others with aches. None seemed to have the obvious urgency that Clark’s cut had. And yet we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

A full hour.

In retrospect, I realize this wasn’t very long. But I couldn’t help feeling my blood boil for every able-bodied person that walked past my son’s bleeding forehead.

In the end, he only needed a couple of stitches. As of this afternoon he’s back to his old, mischievous self.


But still. There’s no more frustrating place for a parent than the emergency room. And it’s not that other patients were there. Or the wait. Or the skill of the doctors and nurses, who were all top-notch, and wonderful to a person.

It’s the feeling of helplessness that you have when there’s nothing you can do to make it all better.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Change and Childhood Treasures

The window of my office here in Ross Hall overlooks the main quad of the University of Wyoming Campus. Outside, I can see students and faculty alike, bundled up in winter coats, gingerly making their way along the paths slick with snow. The campus is quiet and calm.

I don’t know when the seasons changed here in Wyoming. But somewhere between July and now, we passed from summer to fall, and from fall to winter – all with a graceful, imperceptible ease. Even as the seasons have passed with a steady resilience, it seems somewhere in the past eight weeks or so, my own life has transitioned from that of a part-time consultant, to a full-time professor with roster of nearly 100 students.

It’s a strange thing to see how much life can change in so small a span of time.

On the home front, our son Clark turned two on October 15th. In his two years on the Earth, he’s lived in three states and two countries. And while he won’t remember it, he has traveled more in his two years of life, than I have in the first thirty of mine. All of which reinforces the fact that we live in a very different age than the one I grew up in.

I marvel at this far more than I should. Growing up, I can remember digging holes in the yard at my Grandparents’ house, and pretending that my G.I. Joes were engaged in an intense guerrilla conflict. Clark is more interested in his iPad and Netflix options than in actually playing with the toys he has. And yet, when we take him to the park, as in the photo above, his eyes come alive with the magic of falling leaves, and small branches that are ripe for the picking. Every child has his treasures.

I wonder too about the kind of world he will inherit. Election Day is tomorrow and our Nation is on the cusp of making a significant change in direction. The Washington Post puts the Republicans chances of taking the Senate at 96%, while Rachel Maddow warns voters to ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid’ of this possibility. All of this, of course, ignores the simple reality of our system of checks and balances, and the fact that our government will remain divided regardless of which party controls Congress.

Even so, I wonder what policy changes are on the horizon and the practical implications they have for my son’s life as he continues to grow in knowledge, strength and maturity. I can live with the Government making mistakes that can effect me. That’s the cost of living and doing business in the world’s leading democracy. But when it comes to governmental mistakes that can effect my son, I find myself much less forgiving.

Still, like the seasons here, change is coming, and I hope this new generation of leaders is equal to the task. I don’t know that America can weather another election cycle of malaise. Hope seems like such a quaint notion these days. Perhaps change will be the better course.

In sum, I suppose our lives here are very much like those of Americans all over. We are in the midst of change and transition with a guarded optimism for things to come. ‘Trust but verify,’ as Reagan used to say.

I have a lot more to add about my work, book reviews, and parenting, but these will have to wait for another day. For now, I hope it’s sufficient to know that the “Pax” is back – at least once per week.

Silence, God, and Fish

Flowers Beside the Lake
The other day, I read about King Saul and his efforts to consolidate power once he was named the King of Israel. He was a man who ruled with ruthless abandon, harassing his enemies at every turn, driving them out of the lands and territories that the King had claimed for his own. And yet, for all of his struggles, warmongering, and folly, King Saul sought God often. As it happens, however, God did not often answer him back (I Samuel 14.37).

Saturday, I took a break from preparing for classes and ventured into the Snowy Mountains in Medicine Bow National Forest. The past week had found me feverishly reading Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations. It’s one of the assigned texts for my classes, because it vividly outlines the plight of American Indian tribal nations during the systematic destruction of their governing institutions. Much like King Saul, the young American Nation consolidated power over American Indian tribes with ruthless abandon, harassing them at every turn, and driving them out of the lands and territories that the budding Nation would claim for its own. As the story goes, the tribes were driven further and further westward, until they were summarily rounded up, and placed on increasingly smaller reserves of land. Or as we call them today, reservations.

I suspect for anyone, the book might make for a bit of a dour read – particularly the early chapters prior to the Government’s major shift in Federal Indian policy. Tale after tale of lost lands, disease, and poverty had left me quite nearly moribund myself, so when the invite from a friend came to head for the hills (literally), I was more than happy to leave my work behind.

Now, when I fish, it’s normally my habit to focus intently on the fishing. I tend to analyze each cast, and ponder over bait options, all in hopes of snagging a big fish. But on this trip my approach was different. When we first arrived, no one was at the lake. The sounds of the waves lapping against the rocks, and the rustle of the wind were all I heard. Every so often, I could glance and see a bald eagle soaring high overhead, looking for an opportunity to demonstrate who the true fisherman was. It was serene, and I allowed the quiet of the mountains to consume my morning.

I asked no questions of God in that quiet sanctuary of nature. Even if I had let my mind wander and permitted myself to conjure up all of the academic questions posed by my textbook, or considered the dilemmas that consume my own existence, I suspect my answers from God would have been the same as those given to Saul: complete, utter silence. I say this not on account of my own warmongerings, but because sanctuaries are fundamentally places for worship and contemplation. The sanctuary of nature I visited, set against the craggy face of the Snowy Mountains was no different. Words would have been an injustice in so beautiful a place.

And so I was silent. And God was silent. And the fish never stirred.

It has taken a while, but gradually I’m learning that the silence of God can be just as tremendous as the voice of God. Silence leaves the questions and matters that beset us wholly open to interpretation. This space provides opportunities for us to create our own solutions to existential quandaries – as opposed to having a determinist God prescribe our every waking moment and then some.

Given this, I think what our collective lot needs is more of what philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich famously described as The Courage to Be – mustering within ourselves a courage to confront life’s ordeals, as much as a courage that allows us simply to be at peace with ourselves. In other words, only when we embrace the silence of our existence, can we find peace amid the chaos of life – a peace that allows us to simply “be.”

An Ode to the Rising Sun

 
It’s a drop past 4pm here at Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City. As the canard goes, it’s not lost on me how ironic it is to name a state citadel of aviation after a man who died in a plane crash. 
 
Airborne
 
A few hours ago, I said goodbye to Gwyn, Clark and Fan after a bittersweet farewell in Walters with Dad, Mom, Papa, Andrea, Jacob, Garrett, Seth, Chelsey, and our sister Randi Lynn and her son Drey. I made this latest trip home to see exactly this set of people. If there’s anything one can count on at all in matters of Comanche culture, it’s the opportunity to see family when one comes home. 
 
And so it is at the Comanche Homecoming Celebration, going strong some 63 years after its first incarnation welcoming home veterans following their service in the Korean War. 
 
Last night, sitting at our camp, with a canopy of stars under the dark Oklahoma sky, I was able to sporadically reconnect with friends and family alike – some of whom I had not seen since the last time I attended the Comanche Homecoming Celebration in 2005. Soaking up the moment, I was pleased to chat with long-time family friend, Tom Kavanaugh, a former Anthropologist and Curator of Collections at the University of Indiana’s Mather Museum. Tom is nothing if not friendly and blessed with a keen sense of storytelling, wrought from forty-odd years of accumulating insights into the history and culture of the Comanche People. His knowledge and enthusiasm is infectious. 
 
After listening a good while, I asked what someone with his experience would miss the most about the old days of the celebration and the old ways of doing things. True to form, Tom answered without hesitation, “I miss the people. They Keewainais (keh-why-nighs) who are no longer here but should be.”
 
I didn’t have much of a reply. It’s sometimes hardest to respond when a person is so strikingly correct. 
 
Later that night over cigars with my brother Lucas Davis of Houston, TX (a distinctly Comanche brother who shares neither my tribal identity nor even my ethnicity), I thought about the event and its ability to pull together so many people, from so many places, and allow them to be a family. 
 
While I watched the crowds of people milling about the dusty creek bottom, I found that I couldn’t escape my conversation with Tom. A small place in my heart pinched at the thought of families and friends forever seared into my heart and mind – the ghosts of celebrations past who are forever sitting around the arena in Sultan Park. 
 
My son Clark received a Comanche name earlier in the day, one of the principal reasons hastening my return home. Such events are rare in life, watching one’s firstborn and his ascent into the ranks of warriors past. Fortunately, Clark was well-served in his naming by family friend/relative and my personal mentor Bernard Kahrahrah – a former Chairman of the Comanche Tribe. After much prayer, Bernard gave Clark the name Thaiori (Thy-oh-rē), which translates to the sun is rising.
 
Denver
 
I didn’t realize this at the time, but Clark’s name gives me a great deal of solace as I struggle to make sense of life, and all of the changes and opportunities that lie ahead. I think that even when one becomes melancholic for the ghosts of the arena, perhaps it’s wise to follow their example and pray for the generations that are to come, rising like the sun in the east, calling us to embrace the future of a new day.  
 
It’s always a good thing to come home – no matter how difficult it is to leave. 

Change and Home

Changes

Today finds me in the sterile confines of Denver International Airport en route to Oklahoma. After only a few days on the job at the University of Wyoming, I am traveling back to Walters for the annual Comanche Homecoming Celebration. 
To be sure, I realize the benefits of air travel. I’ll be reunited with friends and family from near and far in a matter or hours, traversing great distances that even a car ride would take north of 14 hrs to compete. 
And yet, flying is certainly an abominable way to travel. Just a few minutes ago, I was comfortably seated at the far end of seats near gate A49, when a middle-age woman sat uncomfortably close to me.

True to form, she immediately popped open her laptop, fired up her cell phone, and began yelling into the receiver. In the course of ten minutes, I heard every detail about the new house she and her husband are purchasing, right down to the interest rate of the mortgage, and the need for her husband, David, to be very careful in making sure that all of the paperwork gets filed in a timely manner.
Poor David. I suspect there will be hell to pay when she gets home. Seems he misplaced the documents amid the sea of folders in their home office.

When I could no longer take listening to the details of a perfect stranger’s life, (keep in mind I had no choice in the matter), I moseyed toward the restroom for a brief pit stop prior to boarding.
And even in that hallowed sanctum, I could hear a voice from the stall next to mine, barking complaints into his cell phone about the poor planning that went into the entire trip. Apparently, he wanted a direct flight to begin with and couldn’t countenance having a layover in Denver.

All of which leads me to conclude that the golden age of air travel had to have been in the 60s and 70s, when flights were cheap, the cocktails flowed freely, and cell phones weren’t yet thought of.

Even so, it’s nice to be going home. I’m enjoying my new job in Laramie and excited for our future there. But the allure of home in Walters is never far from my mind. Change is afoot in my life. But Walters, I suspect, will always be my true north – no matter how far south I have to travel to get there.

Country and Culture

I’m writing today from steamy Carnegie Park, home of the Kiowa Gourd Clan’s annual celebration. While an American flag is prominently displayed in the middle of the arena and scores of veterans line the rows of chairs behind it, the event is decidedly not a celebration of America’s Independence from Great Britain. 

Somewhere around the time that the Kiowa Indians came to call this part of Oklahoma home, the early days of July coincided with the ripening of the skunkberry, indicating that the time for holding the sun dance was near. As Kiowa warriors came to defend their territories in the infamous “Indian Wars” against the U.S. Cavalry in the late 1800s, trophies of battle were proudly displayed in the literal center of the annual ceremony. Given its origins, the event became more a celebration of tribal insurgency than a celebration of American Independence from European powers.

Yet, it is impossible to discount the appreciation for our country here marked by a plethora of red, white, and blue, along with the deep admiration expressed repeatedly for the young men from Kiowa Country who have fought with honor on distant shores. It’s also noteworthy that Native Americans have the highest record of military service per capita of any ethnic group in the United States. It is fair to say that American Indians are a rather patriotic lot all things considered.  

But if there’s a conclusion to be drawn from the Kiowa Gourd Clan celebration and its implications for the nexus of culture and country, it is that America’s relationship with its tribal nations is rife with complexity. And though it may be surprising, it is exactly this complexity that makes the annual celebration here in Carnegie a quintessentially American affair.

A couple of years ago I wrote that America is like a large dysfunctional family. I think this is still mostly true. Consider the hullabaloo surrounding the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby opinion. Proponents of Obamacare and those who generally support the mass availability of contraception have bemoaned the “dangerous implications” of the Supreme Court’s “radical” decision. Meanwhile, faith-based organizations and those opposed to family planning have hailed the ruling as a profound “victory for religious freedom.”

Given our divide, it’s clear that both our internal relationship with other Americans, and America’s relationship with tribes, are complex things. And yet, like a marriage on the rocks, America somehow manages to hold it together year in and year out, providing relative stability for the world and bags of cash when good will isn’t good enough.

It’s true we can do more to cooperate and solve big problems. We can be more united and less inclined to bickering. But as a society we seem to hold our collective paradox rather well.

With our population so divided on so many issues, perhaps celebrating our cultural disconnects really is the best we can do.