Owls and Indians -- and some radicals who are neither

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at earthlink.net
Tue Feb 5 17:03:52 MST 2002

It's often rough to be a genuine radical in Free America, and it's
frequently tough as hell to live in this country and be a Native American
who is also a radical.  And it isn't just the bosses and their legions and
the racists who throw the thorns and gritty sand and  the knives and

It's also --  sometimes -- the non-Indian radicals:  some of the sisters and
brothers of the various Red Cards.  Not all of the non-Indian radicals by
any means.  Some are genuinely fine. No sweat. But some, no matter how they
may see themselves, have considerable growing still to do -- regardless of
their  particular chronological age.

Not that these are bad folks -- because virtually all of them, whatever
their personal and ideological idiosyncrasies, are good and committed and

Unlike the general situation in earlier eras, they mostly do recognize that
Native Americans still exist.  We've gained good ground on that score.

But they can still fall far, far short from that which we Natives wistfully
hope and still sometimes naively expect.  [After all, "from they who hath
more, more is expected."]

They can sometimes --  these particular non-Indian radicals -- be as
arrogantly and maddeningly and callously ethnocentric as a Christian
jack-leg preacher on the edges of Gallup. He -- the preacher man -- knows we
exist.  He just wants us in his corral and he wants us to be just like him.

Here, from an e-mail discussion list [with which I don't happen to be
affiliated] is an older Anglo socialist -- from an Eastern city -- recently
worrying about  " . . .people who wallow in politics of identity,
particularly national identity. Some of those people are among us and need
to be made aware of danger of stressing tribal, pagan, new age identity
and its incompatibility with rational modernist politics of democratic
socialism. "


Glacier Chill.

Missionary and government and  school principal chill.

Well, my idea of socialist democracy is that -- democracy -- and in the
context of a full measure of bread-and-butter and a full measure of liberty.
And to feather it out some more -- that means everyone having the maximum
number of reasonable choices.  And that boils down to the right to be
themselves in whichever socio-cultural setting -- or blending -- they wish.

I'm a Red.  And I also -- because I have a very special life-long
relationship with the Bear -- sometimes for special reasons wear a bear
tooth around and well below my neck.  Out of sight. Nothing at all
ostentatious. It's not a secret thing -- just private.

And that's just one of many, many things that for me are soul-basic.  My
kind of socialist democracy welcomes the right and respects the obligation
that I, as a Native person, have to those deepest-fires-of-all.  Or any one
else has to his and her Way.

There's lots of lip service in radical circles to the Native cause -- once
you raise it.  People may even ask you -- as an Indigenous Red -- to write
articles about the myriad of challenges facing Indian and Eskimo and Aleut
people.  And, usually, the articles eventually get published.

And hopefully read.  And maybe even acted upon.

Sometimes then, the previously unaware non-Indian radical can understand why
family and clan and tribe and tribal culture and a serving-the-community
ethos are so critical to us.  And why we fight for all treaty rights and for
full sovereignty and for bona fide self-determination.  And why we are so
committed to preservation of our communally owned earth and to the very
careful and respectful usage of its resources.  And why we always protect
our sacred places.

But I've learned that often simple intellectualizing doesn't get the message
through to non-Indians --  nearly as well as, say, true stories.  Stories
that for them are unusual stories.  Things that don't come from professors'
notes or blackboard formulae.

So I think I'll talk about Owls. One story is sad and the other is glad.

All things are consciously meaningful to Native and to other tribal
people -- and to others if  those roots are  genuinely close.  And this
certainly includes animals and birds. These thoughts are about owls of whom
I've been lately seeing many.

I'm not really an owl person at all.  But every Indian is attuned in some
fashion to those essentially lone fliers of dusk and shadow.  And whenever I
hear, as I so often do in the evening or early morning, the hoot of an
owl -- or see a big, heavy bird flying slowly in the darkness low above and
around the trees -- there are for me some very special memories.

I remember Nadine -- of a long, long time ago.  I was in my very early teens
and she, an extremely attractive young Native woman from a tribe with few
members in our immediate area, was in Flagstaff to attend Arizona State and
especially my father's art classes.  He painted her -- a fine oil portrait
which caught so very well her composed and quietly reflective and pleasant

And then one day she went with several other Native college students on an
outing to the edges of the vast Sycamore Canyon wilderness area southwest of
Flagstaff.  At one point, still afternoon with the sun 'way up, they parked
their car on the edges of the relatively rough forest road surrounded by
yellow pine mixed with scrub oak.  They had just stopped and Nadine was
sitting in the front seat.

And then suddenly, down -- fast, fast down -- came a shadow, landing on the
hood of the car.  It was an  big owl, whose daytime appearance was as
unusual as snow in Northern Arizona in August.  It can happen but  it
virtually never does.

Planted on the hood, faced by several startled young people, the owl looked
through the glass windshield at only at one -- and to that one, Nadine,  it
looked hard and directly into her eyes for a long, long moment.

And then it flew away.

And Nadine said, " He has told me that I am going to die."

She was the only person of her tribe in the car. And there are as many
different Native cultures as there are Native tribes.  This was not the
belief of the others and, although shaken, they attempted to talk her out of
it -- pointing to her excellent health.  But she said virtually nothing and
they all then returned to Flagstaff.

Three days later she was dead.  The causes were "natural" -- but never even
remotely delineated.

Her portrait, the young and serene and assured person of a vastly long time
ago -- another age --  hangs  timeless and full-of-life right here in our
Idaho home.

Jump far ahead in time to the Navajo Nation country, 'way up in the
beautiful, very isolated  Lukachukai Mountain region -- in what's
Arizona, not far from Four Corners where Arizona and New Mexico and Utah and
Colorado intersect.  There it is very high altitude   -- 7,000 feet above
sea level -- at Navajo Community College [now Dine' College] where I was
then teaching and doing some other academic and some activist things.  But
the Sun is bright and generally very warm even in the winter -- the season
at which this particular event occurred.  And it isn't all that windy right

I was in my classroom with about thirty Native [mostly Navajo] students --
trying to take western/world sociology and, through  intellectual and
psychic alchemy, transpose it into something meaningful for both the Navajo
and American worlds.  And then -- something very unusual -- a young
policeman came to the open door, immediately drawing the attention of my
students and then, of course, myself.  He was a friend, a campus security
officer, as well as a student.

"Could you come with me for just a few minutes?" he asked.  "It's important
and I know you are the one person who can help."  We walked out of the
building as he added, "Some people are a little concerned."

He pointed to the towering Ned A. Hatathli Cultural Center  about one
hundred yards away -- reaching six stories above ground toward the deep blue
turquoise sky. The Center is named for my father's long-time art student and
old family friend, the late trail-blazing Navajo educator who was the
principal founder of the College.  Ned  had also known Nadine.

My security officer friend pointed to the very top of the Center.  "See
that," said he.

I saw --  'way up, sitting on the very top -- a huge super-white owl.
Looking right down in our direction.

"My God," I said, "I'd have to go to Maine or Canada to see that."  I went
on, "That's Snowy Owl." I looked hard.  "Probably a male, given his size and
the way the feathers look."

He grinned, relaxing slightly.  "I knew you were the only one around here
who could help us."

Then he grew serious again.  "Tell me, is he O.K.?"

"He's O.K." I said, "Nothing to worry about.  No witch thing.  Just  a
little off his regular trail."

The officer now  relaxed very visibly.  Then I looked around.  Most of the
class had quietly followed us. They were grouped  a bit self-consciously and
cautiously at a distance. Calling them over, I explained that Snowy Owl is
an Arctic and Sub-Arctic friend that goes a little further south to winter
and was undoubtedly forced 'way down into our area by the rough storms
coming through the  Plains and Rockies -- right into the not far away San
Juan range of Southwestern Colorado.

"What safer place for him?" I asked, "Than the top of our Cultural Center?"
Agreement was widespread on that.

Other people were now gathering.  Class was obviously over -- co-opted by
our extremely impressive visitor.

And people were glad he'd come to see us all.  "Maybe he's bringing us
something good," one of my students quipped.  Another, with a practical
bent, added seriously "we'll take all the help we can get."

Snowy Owl stayed around through that day and the following night and the
next whole day, immobile and impassive -- impressively so. His is the only
flesh and blood entity I've ever known who could play to his audience
without an apparent flicker of motion. But sometime that next night,
undoubtedly sensing the cessation of storms to the north and far up and
beyond, he quietly left.  And we missed him.

But I remembered -- as I always do -- Nadine.

And all of the things so very deep and so very old and so very precious.

Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]

Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
www.hunterbear.org (social justice)

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