In Leslie Marmon Silko’s highly-acclaimed 1977 novel, Ceremony, Tayo, a member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico experiences the horrors of the 1942 Bataan Death March in the Philippines during World War II.
Tayo, who joins the military after the Japanese Imperial Army bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, endures the brutality of an approximately 60-mile march to a prison camp after U.S. and Filipino troops are forced to surrender after a long battle. Along the march, he watches as a Japanese soldier kills his cousin Rocky, with whom he grew up as a brother in the same home.
As an American soldier, Tayo and his fellow native people were welcomed with open arms by white people, especially white women, and cheered on and physically comforted while still in uniform. Once back home, suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, Tayo faces the same discrimination he faced growing up as his paths crossed with the dominant white power structure, which urged him to assimilate.
Tayo grows bitter. His PTSD almost completely disables him. What finally heals him is a modern native ceremony for that era, a new native ritual that doesn’t demonize the entire white culture but allows for nuance and discourages generalizations while keeping the traditions of Tayo’s ancestry alive.
It’s a brilliant novel, interspersed with written versions of oral storytelling, and I highly recommend it.
This may seem like a longer introduction to get to a local issue I want to address, but I think at this point it might well take some type of unique reconciliation ceremony to complete the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City, situated on riverfront property near the I-35 and I-40 junction. I’m not being flippant about this issue of ceremony.
The center is only partially completed, and it’s been in the making for several years, but it needs about $40 million in state money to complete it. Another $40 million will come from private donations. The state has put in more than $90 million so far, according to a media report, but the project has stalled. Last year, House Speaker Jeff Hickman didn’t even allow a vote on the issue.
This year, as a recent NewsOK.com story noted, “A sense of despair has settled” over the issue.
There has been some speculation that Oklahoma City, which gave the land to the state for the project, could take over and finish the project with agreements with some of the native nations in the state, which is probably better than nothing, but I hope it doesn’t happen this way.
The unfinished center, which is being built to Smithsonian standards and would obviously draw visitors from around the world, stands as a symbol of broken promises and mistreatment endured by indigenous people here and across the world since western European colonization dating back centuries.
One Spaniard, for example, claimed Tayo’s Laguna area for Spain, in the 16th century, and the Spanish eventually established missions there. The 1830s Indian Removal Act, promoted by President Andrew Jackson, led to the Trail of Tears when native people were forced to walk from southeastern states to what is now known as Oklahoma so “settlers”-that’s what they’re called in elementary school-could grow cotton picked by slaves in Mississippi. The various Indian Appropriation Acts through the 19th century contributed to more hardship for native people.
The overall romantic “settlers” story, complete with covered wagons, shotguns and ladies in bonnets, still taught to children here as we glorify Oklahoma’s 1889 Land Run, is called systemic, institutional racism, and it’s not difficult to see the center’s recent funding problems as part of it, especially since the center should eventually pay for itself in the long-term in admissions fees and local and state taxes for hotels and shopping. It could lead to other development and other academic centers.
The two main arguments against the state providing more money are that there isn’t enough money in the budget to do so right now and that native people here should just pay for it themselves, even though various Oklahoma-based Indian nations have already contributed.
The counter argument is obvious. If this is going to be a state-operated and state-promoted center, a true Oklahoma effort, then the state should complete it with taxpayer money, even if it means passing more legislation for another bond issue. Oklahoma’s involvement here is an act of reconciliation and reparations on a symbolic level, and a part of the unique ceremony I would like to see. It means all of us here, whatever our ancestral roots or skin color, have a stake in it. The center would belong to us all. That’s important.
In the end, what we have here is a story. It’s about how a great symbol of reconciliation and unity in our state has been hopefully only delayed but increasingly seems impossible.
Silko, a Laguna Pueblo of mixed ancestry, begins her acclaimed novel with this story:
I will tell you something about stories
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
All we have to fight off
Illness and death.
You don’t have anything
if you don’t have stories.
Their evil is mighty
but it can’t stand up to our stories.
So they try to destroy the stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then.
He rubbed his belly
I keep them here
Here put your hand on it
See, it is moving.
There is life here
for the people.
And in the belly of this story
the rituals and the ceremony
are still growing.
There’s still time for reconciliation and unity, but if the center gets delayed much further, the lasting story might not be one not of healing and growth but of years of bitterness, perceived bigotry and, perhaps worse, historical amnesia and false pride under the contemporary term “American exceptionalism.”