Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Time for Leaders


The following is a fragment from a novel-in-progress called An American History.

Roland Banks, whose real name was Seeds in the Wind, stood at the crest of a hill overlooking Coyote Hills in Fullerton.  He was an old man, with a face etched deep with lines.  He wore blue jeans and a t-shirt from a 1986 Pow Wow on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  His eyes were intense and sad.  Beside him was a young man, his grandson, Charlie Banks, a student of Native American studies at Chapman University.  This was Roland’s birthday wish, to visit this last stretch of virgin land that was once the tribal land of his people.

The sun was setting and neither man spoke for a long time.  They stood, listening to the gnatcatchers and other native birds, staring at the distant skyline, the miles and miles of development, houses and shopping centers and parking lots that had taken the place of so much native land.  It was almost all gone.  Even this land, Coyote Hills, was not theirs.  It was owned by the Chevron Corporation, who had exploited it for oil for over a hundred years, and was in the process of trying to turn it into a large housing/retail tract.

But for the time being, there was no oil being pumped, no houses being built, only the land—cactus, mustard plants, birds, sage.  Roland plucked a sprig of sage and pressed it to his nose and inhaled deeply. 

“This is a time for leaders,” Roland finally said, “Our people need a leader.”

“You are a leader.  You have kept the stories alive,” Charlie said.

“Sometimes, as a leader, you can get tired.  You can give up, because everything seems hopeless.  You feel like you are standing in front of a bulldozer that never stops rolling.”

“There are no bulldozers here, grandpa.”

“They will come, Charlie, they always come.”

“Do you remember, grandpa, what it was like before all the houses and buildings?”

“I only remember as far back as the orange groves.  My father remembered the sheep on the Bastanchury Ranch.  His father remembered what it was like before.”

“Professor Apodaca told us stories of the Sherman Institute in Riverside, where they tried to teach our people the ways of the white man.”

“They tried to take everything from us.  Our language, our dances, our whole culture.  They tried to scrub us clean of Indian and make us Anglos.”  There was anger and sadness in his tone.  “I was punished for speaking our language.”

“How many people are left who speak the old words?”

“Very few.”

In the distance, a lone coyote howled.

“This is a time for leaders, Charlie.”

“I don’t know how to be a leader,” Charlie said, “I don’t know enough.  I’m not even courageous.  I’m shy.  I’m not someone people follow.”

The old man looked the young man in the eyes and said, “THAT is why you are a leader.  A leader, a true chief, does not see himself as a leader.  He sees himself as a servant.  He sees only the need of his people.  He does not revel in praises.  He sees the deep problems, and devotes himself to fixing them.”

“I don’t see myself that way.  I’m weak, selfish.”

“You are not weak, nor are you selfish.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

“Lead.  Learn the old language, tell the old stories, gather together our broken community.”

The old man and the young man stood quiet for a long time, staring at the skyline, and then up into the stars, many of which were obscured by light pollution.

“That is where the old chiefs looked when things were hopeless, when the Spanish began forcing them into the missions, when the Americans began slaughtering them and putting them into places like the Sherman Institute.  When the people were broken, as they are today, a chief looks to the stars and remembers his ancestors, the mighty heroes who are his legacy.  A chief looks to the stars and remembers.”

“Many of the stars are hidden here.”

“But they are still there.  Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they are not there.  See there,” the old man pointed, “There’s your great-great-great grandfather, who was a chief, a great leader.  They are all up there, looking down on us, whispering their stories to us.  When there are too many cars and buildings it becomes hard to hear them, hard even to see their light, but they are there always, whispering to us.  Let us listen for a while.”

The old man and the young man sat down on the dirt, beside a cactus, and both were quiet and still, listening to the whispering darkness.

This is a time for leaders, Charlie thought, and began for the first time to feel the weight of what that might mean.

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