From the Desk of Susan Harness: Shifting the Gaze

Susan Devan Harness (Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes) is a writer, lecturer, and oral historian, and has been a research associate for the Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research at Colorado State University. She is the author of Bitterroot: a Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption (Nebraska, 2018) and Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption: Outcomes of the Indian Adoption Project (1958–1967).

Shifting the Gaze

Oblique writing. Some call it ‘not writing.’

But it’s a tool in my kit that allows me to conjure forth yet another story about an event on one man and the brutal outcomes left in the wake. The problem is, this story has been captured, analyzed, discussed, imagined, and written about so many times. Perhaps too many?

“How many biographies can be written about this man? This event?” I ask my editor.

“As many as are required to fully understand,” he answers, simply.

Helpful. And not.

Years ago, before we were married, my husband and I camped on the edge of the Wise River, in Montana, amidst the tall grass, golden in the late September light. We built a fire, and I watched sparks ascend to disappear among the stars, which themselves disappeared into the Milky Way. I scan the effervescence in a “Where’s Waldo” kind of exercise, looking for something I can recognize, but the path is so bright and luminous as to hide the familiar constellations.

I realize, this is a metaphor, and I pull my mind back to my office where I sit, and read, and write, and delete, and write some more, and delete all of it. In frustration I grab another book, another reference, but the words keep telling the same story over and over and over, carrying the same cadence of history marching forward. I put the book aside; it’s just this one event, on one man and the brutal outcomes afterward. How hard can it be? The thing is, I have a plot twist, a Big Reveal, that I’m trying to fit into this work of creative nonfiction; but it’s as if it’s a puzzle piece that got placed into the wrong box. It doesn’t fit. So, I read some more, I write, I drink endless cups of black tea, dark, rich and aromatic. I look outside at the snow blanketing the ground in kaleidoscopic brilliance. It’s -5 degrees Fahrenheit at 9 a.m. We still have about two more months of winter left.

I remember hearing that Eskimos had over fifty words for snow, a truth revealed by Franz Boaz, the great anthropologist who has grown tarnished over the years. I Google “Eskimos” and “fifty words for snow” and discover that that number is just the beginning of snow description. The Eskimo-Aleut language family is comprised of two groups and contain twenty different languages. Therefore, when the base words are combined with different suffixes, all with nuances, you get hundreds of descriptions for our simple word ‘snow.’ I feel inept. I can only describe the snow as ‘brilliant.’

Once, when I was very young, Dad pointed out the constellations in the Bitterroot Valley sky: Ursa Major—he was a game biologist, so the big dipper nomenclature didn’t really cut it, Ursa Minor, Orion—I only really ever saw, and continue to see, Orion’s belt; my mind gets lost in the vastness between the stars—and the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters. Did you know that the rods and cones in the back of your eye can’t translate images in dim light? Which is why you must look off to the side in order to clearly see this star cluster. I played with shifting my gaze, watching the cluster appear and disappear.

I sigh, and return my attention to the page. One event on one man, and a brutal outcome.

I shift my attention to Facebook, scrolling through the endless news that doesn’t really matter, fun stuff, thought-provoking, annoyance-provoking, yet here I am. I stop on my niece’s post, and I smile. The post consists of a mixture of letters and symbols, the traditional Salish language, followed by an English translation and an image of what she sees or is feeling about this image. I’ve heard the Salish language; it doesn’t sound easy to learn, yet she’s taken it upon herself to return to the Flathead Reservation, where she was born, and learn to speak it in her 50s, with the focus of becoming fluent. I’ve only just met her. Such is the downside of child placement: finding your roots in later years.

I call her. “Why did you decide to learn Salish?” I ask. Her voice is quiet and studied. “When I was a young girl up on the Flathead, when Clara and Tony, your grandparents, had a bunch of people over, we were all sitting around, and then they made us get up and leave the conversation. I asked my mom why? Mom is direct. ‘They’re talking Indian now and they don’t want to be bothered translating.’”

I think that’s how a couple of generations felt. My niece tells me that on the Flathead last year there were fifteen fluent speakers. Now there are eleven. The language is being stolen by old age and Covid-19. I cannot convey how so very proud I feel for this woman who is learning to translate the world in two languages that contain two ideologies. She’s building a bridge that reconnects past to present.

I come back to my page…a bridge that was nearly destroyed by one event on one man and the brutal outcomes afterward. The stories sound the same because they’re from the perspective of the descendants of the bridge destroyers.

I shift my gaze off to the side of the told stories, slightly right of center, where the cluster of issues become so clear. And I smile and trace the path of getting here: the phone call, the Pleiades, the brilliant snow, the talk of language, the questions!

I stop looking out the window, and my tea grows cold while I begin to translate that event on one man, which destroyed a language and so much more. And I write a new story in my own words, as an Indigenous woman, as a survivor.

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