Issue Thirty-Six - Summer 2020

Tribal Radio

By Tressa Brittin Berman

KMHA went dead today. The “voice of the people” silenced in the middle of some sad country song. Life moves along the prairie edges – some don’t make the wide turns, hug too close to the ground, their bodies pulled out from the ditch. Inside a weather-worn trailer a newborn kicks its way into the world as a bottle rolls to the floor and out the door to reappear under melted snow in a spring thaw. Underneath the frozen ground lies one thousand years of history as water from the monster dam wears away at the image leaving only its traces in the memories of elders. A new generation retrieves words – Dosha magu. Word lists substitute for language, then become language. Sugar is proffered as food, while women plant and harvest their gardens, keepers of the corn. How to see around the bend of the river. How to reverse the dam. River shut off trickles up through grazing land fifty years after the fact. Fifty years of electricity to Chicago, hundreds of miles away. A river turned lake, stocked fishing.

“Casinos will be the end of sovereignty!” declared Russell Parshall (Left Hand Eagle), Mandan-Hidatsa artist and rock-n-roller, a generation ago. Today, restless cowboys and oil workers saddle up to be mesmerized by spinning wheels getting hopeful on their luck while well-pressed Indians clean up the cans, change the bills and walk the floor in black and white fancy dance, stow their name tags until the whole dream evaporates. All that glitters is…jingles of dancers’ dresses swaying and clinking in the sun as girls and women enter the rhythmic dance circle. Muscled men burst with the life beat of the drum, feather bustles, beaded moccasins, dancing in their own time. Tipis and tents rise against the velvet green horizon as the sun rests like orange jello taking shape to hang on the day. The shape of a circle. Across the prairie the drum sounds at a distance while an old woman sews a shawl fringe to the blare of a television. The circle turns in on itself. New ones coming of age replace the old ones, ever standing for the ones who have gone before. Not all goes with them. Pieces of knowledge remain sewn inside the skins of grandchildren too young to know their secret gifts. With age comes the potent urgency of re-membering. The task of putting it back together again becomes the journey of making and mapping, like a thread of sinew stretched across time and space.

A quilled ball in the hands of a girl. “My father made me give it to that white lady doctor, but I didn’t want to. Now I hear it’s in the Smithsonian museum,” an elder, Caroline, said about her younger self. A personal memory. A fragment of history. Registered in a museum database for all time, still bearing the imprints of a little girl’s hand. Some with memories too vivid try to erase them. Like ships in a bottle they claw at the inside and sail themselves over the edge. No computer can bring the old chiefs back to life. The knowledge lives inside the people. The radio transmits the signal. Sound waves of recipes, stories, music, language, community, all our relations. Sometimes there is static.

Robert “Bobby” Bear, Jr. (Swift Hawk) walked with one leg shorter than the other. He is the hereditary Chief of the Sahnish people. The bottle keeps sailing down the Mnisose. The turtles still feed on its banks. The Turtle Priest goes when he can, talks to them, feeds them, prays for the life-giving river. Memories return like a note in a bottle, or a bull boat, or in the spring, when wildflowers capture the sunlight in a hue of pastel pinks, prairie roses peeking through grass. It’s a long and complicated dream with no wakings, only turnings. A young man jumps off the bridge connecting one side of what used to be a river to the other. A star quilt marks the birth of a new baby soon to get her Mandan name. Born in a snowstorm crossing sheets of black ice, she bursts through like the sun, as my car thuds over a prairie dog hole and the radio comes alive.

Copyright Berman 2020