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November 08, 2012

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Thanksgiving Redux

Sitting on the couch of our television room, watching CNN’s election coverage, I was oddly reminded of the first Thanksgiving. There was no pumpkin pie, squash, roast venison, or Indian corn. But there were a couple of Indians.

Rocke Afraid of Hawk is a friend of mine from the 1970s when we were very young men working for a South Dakota rancher for few bucks an hour. We knew almost nothing about the world and the world knew even less about us. Last Tuesday night we were a couple old men, sitting in the dark, watching Wolf Blitzer and John King operated brilliant touch-screen devices that were supposed to explain it all. My favorite dog of all time laid on the couch with me, his head on my lap, his world at total peace.

Rocke sat in a big chair to my left and only the color-show of John King’s magic illuminated his classic Lakota face. On the chair to my right sat Rocke’s twenty-something relative, Mathew, who had been helping sort buffalo at the Cheyenne River Ranch all day long. They had been the first to vote in their precinct in Cherry Creek, on the Cheyenne River Reservation that morning, before they piled into their very old pickup and came down to the buffalo roundup. Everyone was worn out. Jill was still at work, hustling to get out of the office in time to be one of the last to vote in Rapid City and make it back to join our TV vigil.

It was serendipity that they were there on that day, more a question of chaotic planning than anything intentional. Though the fact that Obama was getting re-elected added to the excitement, the main stimulus for Rocke Afraid of Hawk was that he was about to become a buffalo rancher. A Wild Idea crew had been working for a week to set up corrals and organize the transfer of 175 buffalo from our herd to Rocke and his family. We had been building up the herd for over eighteen months, which is how long it took for the BIA and Tribal authorities to figure out what was required for Rocke to actually own a herd of buffalo on the reservation. We were still working on finding him financing and because Rocke owned almost nothing, it was impossible in the normal markets. Despite the fact that the USDA Department of Economic Development takes credit for loan guarantees for just such projects, we had been turned away from several banks with the smug smiles and shaking heads of old fashioned racism. Luckily, we had found a benefactor who pounded a big fist on a banker’s desk and vowed that if he couldn’t find a bank that would meet its responsibility, that he would do it himself.

Sitting in that darkened room, I wondered if Rocke knew how many people were crawling out on a limb for him. He is a fine man, but he is not a man of John King’s world, so I supposed that he might not understand. In fact, Rocke is a very quiet man - respected as an elder even before he reached the usual age for such honors. But he has always talked his heart with me and that night was no exception. There were a couple beers on the coffee table in front of us, and along with the excitement of the day they might have contributed to the comfort of the situation.

We began by simply trying to listen to CNN’s coverage of the election. Mathew had proved himself a good worker that day, and even though he had had a couple too many of the beers, I could see why Rocke saw him as something of a hope for the family.  Mathew grumbled a little about the inattention of all administrations toward the reservations, but he had little idea of what was really ahead of him. Rocke grinned and said proudly that he considered us all to be part of one nation. It took me only an instant to know that he was talking, not about Republicans and Democrats, but of humans and buffalo. “We are coming together,” he said, and made an elegant hand gesture that included the entire shadowy room. “The beings are here.”

I have heard Rocke say these things for years and was busy trying to understand what was happening in Florida. “Yea,” I held up my hand dismissively, as John King broke down the Latino Women’s vote with a flourish of finger touchings. “You’ve always believed in other beings.”

Rocke laughed. “No,” he said, “you believe in other beings. For me,” he held out both hands like it this was too elemental to be explained, “They ARE. They are here.” He pointed into the corners of the room as if he was pointing out individual birds. It suddenly dawned on me that's what Wolf Blitzer was talking about - a two-billion dollar political campaign that had never mentioned severe poverty, overpopulation, or commerce-driven climate change had missed Rocke Afraid of Hawk by a million miles.

He was still pointing into the corners of the room. “The beings are there. And there. And over there. And they can’t speak and they are counting on us to speak for them.”

I gave up on CNN and turned full on to Rocke. He was pleased to have my attention and his dark, wrinkled face smiled in an earnest attempt to make me understand. Though I knew some would label him as a crackpot, he was already making more sense than magic underwear or the power of markets to find the perfect path. “Dan, you know that the buffalo taught us to speak.” He nodded and smiled. “It is true. They gave us language. We need to use that gift to speak for them.”

I sat there for a moment like a fool. And that is when it came to me; there would be similarities between the Thanksgiving that was coming in a couple weeks and that very first Thanksgiving almost 400 years ago, when a goofy guy named Squanto gave us secrets that saved everyone with the brains to listen.

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