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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Summer of Stein

"Imagine the Grand Canyon turned into a lake."  (Up the Yangtze)

Last night we watched Up The Yangtze , the 2007 film by director Yung Chang.  The film documents China's Three Gorges Dam and the relocation of young Yu Shui and her family.

It has taken four years for Ms. Niki Lee to face Chang's film—four years to prepare to endure the harrowing sorrow and despair she knew the film would provide given the obvious parallels with the Garrison Dam on the MHA Nation.

"Did you know we're going to be flooded?  Did you know we're going to have to leave everything behind and we're going to be flooded?"  (Waterbuster)

During the building of the Garrison Dam one fourth of the MHA Nation's lands were flooded for the creation of Lake Sakagewa—a lake named after the celebrated Shoshoni slave, and "unwed mother," who helped Lewis and Clark on their expedition, as they forged the Oregon Trail— another monument to western expansion, and the relocation and molestation of tribes in the process.

Up The Yangtze begins with the story of the Ghost City, the place were dead souls must pass before they can return to the earth as reincarnated spirits.  The Three Gorges Dam floods some of that city and some of the sacred sites that relate to this spiritual point of entry.  Where will the souls go on their journey now? 

The Chinese need the dam for three principle reasons:  electricity, water control, and navigation (water recreation).  This is what they say.  This is what we hear.  They told the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations similar things when they began work on the Garrison Dam in 1946, work begun as part of the Pick-Sloan Project along the Missouri River.

As we watched the land be flooded by overweight Americans, tourists, cash economies, mass produced commodities and water I kept thinking of our Nations and our own relocations (to reservations, cities, and casinos as employees).

Every night I dream this dream.  I open my eyes to the end of the world; I have survived.  I wander, sometimes with Ms. Niki Lee, sometimes on my way to find her.  Once I fell off the face of the earth.  I survived that too.  Sometimes I wander for hours.  No one can kill this dream, not even needles from my Chinese doctor.  The dream is old; I've had it since I was a child, sans Ms. Niki Lee.  Relocation is an ancient nightmare, one the ancestors remind us to survive and one we are responsible to recognize the reoccurring terrain of.

Our connection to China is not only one of commerce and mass consumption.  We share the earth; we share humanity.   This goes beyond my constant harping about flicking switches— turning off as much electricity as we can (lights, computers, and chargers), and my concern with the toll technology takes on our humanity and personal relations (including the mass suicides of Chinese workers confined to produce iproducts, or those Chinese whose bodies were savagely put on display for an international tour in the name of science and education).

Watching Up The Yangtze underscores the fact that the greatest war in progress today is the war against the land and against landed people—indigenous people everywhere, those that emerged from Mother Earth, those that fell to her, from stars or rain clouds, those that know first and foremost their place as relations among her children, those that seek balance.

The film is a painful reminder of all our rivers and relocations.  What do we do and where to we go?

D'Arcy McNickle's 1978 Wind From An Enemy Sky begins with Bull, the tribes strongest and most respected man, walking up the mountain to see this lie he refuses to believe:  the dam.  In his sorrow and fear he shoots the dam with his gun.

Bull tells his grandson:  "I am a big man.  I have always been called so.  They gave me my name, Bull, because they said I was strong even as a boy, growing up.  But when we saw how the white man built that place in the rocks and stopped our water, turned it away, I was not a big man.  I fired my gun—a puff of smoke.  You were frightened because I could do nothing. . .After a while, you will understand it.  The white man makes us forget our holy places.  He makes us small." 

McNickle wrote this novel to honor the MHA Nation and their experience with the Garrison Dam.  He wrote a novel.  He created in light of devastation and destruction.  He devoted himself to his passion and purpose—to language and story.   

In 1837 Geroge Sand wrote: "To destroy life is the past time of a Gentleman."  Patience, in Mauprat

Kundera tells this story in "Works and Spiders" a chapter in Testaments Betrayed.  He was 13.  His father hired a friend, a Jewish composer, to teach his son the basics of musical composition.  Kundera wasn't a gifted musician.  The war was everywhere around.  The composer wore the star, and people had begun to avoid any connection to him.  Asking him to teach Milan was his father's show of solidarity—shared humanity.  Kundera followed the man from place to place, each smaller than the last, as the man kept getting relocated throughout the ghettos.  He took his lessons among strangers, strangers to both men, as the composer simply had to go where they sent him.  The bustle of ghetto business surrounded them.  Kundera remembers one moment in particular, this moment shaped him profoundly.

After one of his lessons the composer walked him out and stood by the door.  For no reason Kundera could recognize he said:  "There are many surprisingly weak passages in Beethoven.  But it is the weak passages that bring out the strong ones.  It's like a lawn—if it weren't there, we couldn't enjoy the beautiful tree growing on it."

Kundera continues:  "But dearer to me than the remark in itself is the image of a man who, a while before his hideous journey, stood thinking aloud, in front of a child, about the problem of composing a work of art."

I have been reading story after story of escapes made by people fleeing the Nazis and the Gestapo.  Every artist carried their work with them, no matter how cumbersome:  Beckett, Benjamin, Man Ray and Gertrude's long time collaborator Virgil Thomson. 

Man Ray and Thomson fled Paris together by train.  Man Ray took one loaded camera and Thomson brought 14 pieces of luggage, including 6 trunks of scores he planned to debut in the states once he returned.  The Spanish border guard thought the scores might be military code and refused them entry.  Thomson would have to go on without them.  Thomson refused and offered this explanation:  they were Mozart sonatas.  The guard replied, "Ah, Mozart!" and let them pass.

The artist devotes her life to creation, not destruction.  Elzéard Bouffier plants trees.  I write.  Ms. Niki Lee sews.

"This is how walls have fallen." (Those Who Thunder, Linda Hogan)

About Me

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I believe we can be more beautiful than broken. Devotion to language and literature, stories and storytelling, writing and reading will restore humanity and heal severed relations. There is no alibi in being.