Forgiving our fathers

It’s interesting how the second time around, a book or a film can have a different impact on me depending on what season of my life I’m in at the time.  Steve and I recently watched Smoke Signals, an excellent indie film written, directed, starring and produced by Native Americans*.  I first saw this film in 1998 and simply remembered it as a very good movie.  Part road trip, part coming of age tale and with a skillful interweaving of the past into the present, Smoke Signals tells the story of a young man going to claim his absent father’s ashes.  Rather than re-invent the wheel, I refer you to a very good  film review written by Robin at Rusty Ring.

Lately my book and film lists include works by and about Native American people.  They’re helping me to understand and put some the broken pieces of my life together.  I belong to the Muscogee (Creek) from my father’s side.  Native American men carry such a burden and there are differences and similarities depending on whether he is a ‘reservation Indian’ or, like my father, one who walked away from his Indian roots and tried to assimilate into White society.  This film showed some of all of that.

My father died in 2002, when I was 39.  In nearly 40 years, he had been more absent from my life than he was present in it.  As I become more mature and compassionate, I am coming to realise where he came from and the unbearable fury and brokenness that he brought to our family.  I can’t honestly say that I am ready to forgive my father, but I am coming to understand him.

Smoke Signals is a great movie, but what knocked me out about it this time around was the final scene.  Here, one of the main characters recites a poem Forgiving Our Fathers.

Forgiving Our Fathers
(edited by Sherman Alexie from an original text by Dick Lourie)

How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream.
Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often or forever when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage,
or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all?
Do we forgive our fathers for marrying or not marrying our mothers?
For divorcing or not divorcing our mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning?
For shutting doors?
For speaking through walls, or never speaking, or never being silent?
Do we forgive our fathers in our age or in theirs?
Or in their deaths?
Saying it to them or not saying it?
If we forgive our fathers, what is left?

*Native American – A member of any of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.  (The Native American name controversy is an ongoing dispute about the changing terminology used to refer to the indigenous peoples of the Americas and broad subsets of these peoples)  I acknowledge this and for now, and in this post, use the term Native American.

Many Americans have come to prefer Native American over Indian both as a term of respect and as a corrective to the famous misnomer bestowed on the peoples of the Americas by a geographically befuddled Columbus. There are solid arguments for this preference. Native American eliminates any confusion between indigenous American peoples and the inhabitants of India, making it the clear choice in many official contexts. It is also historically accurate, despite the insistence by some that Indians are no more native to America than anyone else since their ancestors are assumed to have migrated here from Asia. But one sense of native is “being a member of the original inhabitants of a particular place,” and Native Americans’ claim to being the original inhabitants of the Americas is unchallenged.  Accuracy and precision aside, however, the choice between these two terms is often made as a matter of principle.

NB:  I’ll come back to this topic at some future point in a post, probably titled ‘What’s in a name?’


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