The Heart in the Dark
by Randall Auxier
A bleeding heart liberal. That's what Richard Henry Pratt was. At this late date it doesn't matter whether believed "white civilization" was superior to other ways of life, or whether he just saw the inevitability of its march. Either way he stood on the advancing edge of a world that would have no place for these children unless somebody did something. The problem of the good heart in the dark isn't what it foresees, or why, but what it believes must be done. Pratt believed that the ancient connections these children carried around within themselves had to be severed, for their own good, of course.
We all have inner lives and outer lives, and these days they have a tenuous relationship. In the flux of modern life, to know your mind is tough enough, but to find your own heart seems nearly impossible. Uncertain of ourselves, of our center, we develop a social bearing that will enable us to conceal our feelings and thoughts when we need to, even from ourselves. And we need to. Feelings and thoughts are so transient. They won't come to rest and they don't rotate around a single center. We learn to be numb as we sightlessly decide whom to ignore and whom to care about.
Traditional life, the way people always lived prior to the industrial revolution, does not approach the inner-outer distinction in the way we moderns do. The inner lives of traditional peoples lie closer to the social surface. It's not hard to understand why. In traditional cultures the size of the primary group is limited. There must be enough genetic diversity, with a good mix of human types with their variable skills, but everyone learns to do everything necessary for the flourishing of the group. This is not mere survival, it is about flourishing. When you live in that sort of interdependent situation, everyone already knows everything about you. They have seen your failures and your successes, they even read your deeper desires with little difficulty. They know you. And you are known. That is the center.
One result of being known is that the inner and outer lives, what we feel and what others know of it, remain closely connected. In a way, nothing could be more beautiful, but such thick community can also be stifling to anyone whose aspirations or visions lead beyond the tight circle of this integrated life. Richard Pratt respected this way of life, but he believed it was unsustainable, given what lay in the future. He saw these children as future citizens of the United States, and if they could not negotiate the requirements of that designation, they would be at the mercy of a world that was not filled with bleeding hearts. It wasn't going to be pretty.
A handful of human cultural possessions tie our inner lives to our outer lives --ritual, shared memory, kindred blood, customs of dress and adornment, markings and scars. And no tie between inner and outer life is more powerful or precious than language. These children are in the process of having their inner lives severed from their outer lives. Look at their faces. They are learning an alien language from the outside in. They have been given "Christian names," as they were called back then, with a new way to pray and worship. They are far from home, deprived of shared memories with their close relations and their villages. This is assimilation. Those doing it, Pratt at their head, are aware of how much it hurts the children. They believe with Victorian liberal fervor that it's better than the alternative.
This generation of children may not recover, so goes the story, but their children or their grandchildren will, in the view of the do-gooders. John Fire Lame Deer went to a school like this, but later on. Pratt started the Carlisle School in 1879. His idea was that a military style discipline gave the needed structure and order that held the children together while they were being assimilated. Pratt had commanded Buffalo Soldiers --freed slaves who became US cavalry-- in the Indian wars. He had also "re-educated" some Apache warriors with some "success." Apparently he was a gentle sort of military leader who knew how to work with what was already in a man. It's a mark of good leadership, uncommon and valuable.
By the time Lame Deer was taken to Indian School, in about 1910, there were a lot of copies of the Pratt model, and the children were no longer volunteered by their parents. Due to the progressive policy of universal education, Indian children became conscripts. Most of the schools were not run by people with Pratt's kind of experience and his respect for the ways of traditional people. Lame Deer didn't learn much, even how to read, in eight years at an Indian School. The effort to sever his inner life from his outer life also failed. As he puts it, he remained "an Indian." But Lame Deer was unusual. A lot of his schoolmates were simply destroyed by the experience, their hearts lost in the dark. They disappeared into the nothingness of addictions, starvation, poverty and suicide. Some others survived, in assimilation, but Lame Deer believed almost all lost their hearts.
For his own part, Lame Deer explored the white man's world in about the same way a person might go to the zoo, but without the fences and cages. Having tried out what he found in the white man's world, he judged it not worth having and went home.
I don't know very many modern people who would choose to return to traditional life, but modern life comes at a high cost. The modern pathology is disconnection. Emile Durkheim called it "anomie," a breakdown of social bonds spreading through industrial society that makes it difficult for people to get their inner and outer lives to match up and function. All people were once traditional, but some of us are so many generations into the darkness that we can't recognize what was lost. We don't even suspect it is possible to be "known." We don't recognize the most basic of our own moral failings. We treat our language as an instrument for manipulating others.
It is no surprise that modern rituals seem to have lost their power to overcome the disconnect. If I feel a welling up of pride when someone raises my nation's flag as an athlete receives the gold medal, that seems to me like sentiment, not genuine connection. What is this to me? I admit I don't know. Watching one's child get married, or hold a newborn infant, does go deeper than sentiment, probably all the way to the sacred center, but we no longer know how to recognize the sacred. We certainly don't know what to say. We still observe our shared moments of real joy and grief with rituals, but the rituals fail to intensify the connection of the inside and the outside of our lives. We go through the motions, repeat the words. Can anything at all be done about this?
This circle is a Lakota giveaway ritual. The Lakota, like most traditional peoples, do things in a circle. Interesting contrast with modern religious gathering spaces. More on that to come.