National Museum of the American Indian

I had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. yesterday. The architecture is grand if not overly stated. It is difficult to imagine that the seemingly organic facade is representative of a people who place great respect upon the earth.

In another context the curves could portray elegance and wonder. But as a welcoming to a museum which presumes a tribute to indigenous people, I immediately felt a disconnect. It seems that assimilation is at play here.

After revealing our metal objects and being wanded by museum staff, we followed the signs over the elevators and followed the suggestion above the elevators to begin our tour on the top level, four. 

We were immediately submerged into a series of curvy chamber like rooms, very dark, each profiling a tribe of the Americas highlighting distinctive features. The exhibit space was confining and not intuitive to navigate. Each exhibit was like a singularity or a pod and stood disconnected from the others. The connecting hallways were confusing and crowded. 

Everything was untouchable and behind glass. I kept thinking this is so antithetical to a culture that I have come to admire for their connection to our planet. None the less, the prevalent slickness of the skilled placement of beautiful and often authentic objects combined with the pinpoint accuracy of lighting couldn’t dispel the sadness of the plight of a beautiful culture.

A tribute to the demise of a culture or maybe its survival in spite of the efforts of their rivals and adversaries couldn’t be more clear, than here, in DC. This location, “our great Capitol,” represents what I was taught in public school to be the essence of our democracy, the essence of sanctimony.

After self guiding ourselves through the upper level we stepped down into level three. This is where things became confrontational. The exhibit was titled Nation to Nation and featured many, I think dozens of broken treaties between Sovereign Natives and the U.S. government. Each treaty featured the Native vs US interpretation of the specific treaty and how each meant different things to both parties and how each have been broken. 

I noticed that we were the only whites in my view in the museum at one point which heightened my shame for my ancestors and contributions I unwittingly make to colonialism. There was a mural depicting a treaty signing that looked like the same white male model was used to depict about 30 U.S. representative signees. It was deplorable.

At some point we walked over to the sound of Hawaiian children signing Native Hawaiian songs on the ground level in the Rasmuson Theatre. They were being accompanied by adults with instruments. The voices and instrument tones were coalescing upward to us from the vast open area from which we were looking down over a railing with a dramatic view. It sounded very pleasant and celebratory. My heart could not bridge the gap and I felt only sadness as these young people jubilated their Native songs with pride. We retreated back into the broken treaty exhibit to dismay.

We could hear Robert Redford narrate the horrific injustice imposed on Natives by westward expansion on a video in a nearby theatre. The treaties were commingled with quotations of our founding fathers, including Jefferson. My feeling of angst and shame continued to escalate. How could one nation commit such atrocities to another people? 

And then, as I walked into another gallery, there was the Indian Removal Act. As hideous as all this had previously been, I became at an even higher level of consternation and disbelief. Graying ink on a large sheet of parchment proclaimed the removal of Indigenous people from their land and to the east of the Mississippi. How could this all be possible, how could my European forefathers and mothers perpetuated genocide, willingly and orderly without regard for moral impairment?

The Trail of Tears bears witness to the abhorrent removal of Native people by the U.S. government from lands that had been occupied by their ancestors for thousands of years.

At this point of our museum visit I was overwhelmed by emotion and conflicting thoughts. The museum, at the heart of the Nation’s Capitol put much resources into the exhibition of a genocide it committed and has never ended. Native people have never been rescued in the way that Jews were liberated from the concentration camps. Rather, they were pushed further and further and in many cases required to assimilate with their white oppressors.

On the lower floor, we rushed through, as it was getting near closing time. In a very large gallery there was an exhibition of posters that demonstrated how influential Native American life has been in marketing U.S. goods, products and services. As we exited this gallery there was an exhibit on Pocahontas. As I tried to read the many interpretations of her life I mostly thought of how trump mocks Elizabeth Warren by bullying and trivializing a great people and how we continue to dehumanize a frail culture and have brought them to the brink of non-existance.

The atrocities committed by the country I was brainwashed, from an early childhood, to respect is morally corrupt and a dark cloud upon humanity.

I didn’t discover methods for reconciliation, healing or positive reflection during or after my visit. The experience was more like I had been reported to about a terrible, hateful country of which I am a part. The National Museum of the American Indian (although informational) highlighted, brazen and without accountability, the Native American Genocide. How shameful.

Goodnight, mom

Black as a moonless night sky without twinkling stars your desires twisted the Milky Way into knots forever clenching me, and to those I am helpless to love. Ours was no love, certainly not the promised mother’s love. Rather a pit into which we threw all sorts of things, perhaps each other. I was pulled from you with cold forceps and tugged into the bright cold lights and resisted til faint of breath. It’s another day and your shadow inhabits me, buzzing like a pesky fly. Your gang’s loathing shall be testimony to your eternal essence. And yet you told me you loved me, sobbing and believable. Helpless I replied, I love you, too. 

Winter Snow

It has been a while since my walks in the woods revitalize and inspire me. At one time the woods were clearly a place for me to go and rejuvenate. Now, I bring a bag of sadness, always close.

Yesterday, at dusk, that magic moment and as the snow was spitting slightly from the west I walked into it. I couldn’t help myself. I needed to be outside. Very quickly I felt sad and empty. My dad was on my mind, my friend Roland and my friend Greg and Wayne and Brad. They were there but not there.

Photo of Brad Webber on right (1943-2017)

My two sons have moved to the opposite coast. One is in a band touring the country and based in LA. The other has settled with a family and I am happy for them both. Alternately, deep in my heart there is a loss for these two, who I feel I never had enough time with. Someplace in my mind I had always imagined spending time with them in the woods. Doing things that my dad and I did. It seems to have vanished before it got started.

Growing up, the woods were always a place of immense discovery for me. I couldn’t stay away. I loved hunting and when it wasn’t hunting season, us neighborhood boys would build forts and camps and chop out trails with our coveted axes and saws. Every turn ahead was unknown. What would we see next? A rabbit, an old cellar hole, an old well, an unknown hill with a view to the ocean?

It is so strange, now I feel mostly loneliness when I walk in the woods. The trees and topography haven’t changed and the wildlife, as evidenced by the photos on my game camera is still abundant. I am in the process of training my brain to get beyond this feeling of melancholy but it feels like a heavy rock, to big to move, currently.

photo by game camera

Unlike many of my friends I have never suffered from depression, anxiety or PTSD. I have much empathy for those who do and cannot really imagine a life under such duress. In this past year however, I am getting a glimpse into what it is like to feel empty and not full of enthusiasm, courage and a willingness to embrace my uniqueness. Some days I have felt empty, mentally and physically. Not all days though, thank goodness, as some mornings I wake up inspired to tackle my creative interests, especially drawing and painting.

photo of Kevin Freeman
photo by Sandra Freeman

I attribute my current circumstances to having the benefit of age. I am 58 years and am entirely grateful for each new day. They come and go so quickly, I can barely grasp them. As I sit at home at the kitchen table, my makeshift winter studio, I gaze out the picture window into the woods beyond our garden. I see the maze of tree trunks and reaching branches. I look for some relief and imagine walking and the memory of the all familiar embrace of nature, the maternal nurturing that I was once so compelled by and dependent on. I won’t give up, for it is to compelling. But now is right for this shift in my soul. It is undeniable.

Gravare Su

I have many memories from early childhood. For example, one morning, at six years old, I recall sitting on the toilet and looking at my hands and fingers and thinking I will never be old. This thought may have been inspired by observing my grandmother’s hands. I recall how fresh and strange my hands looked and how time seemed to move so slow. As I got older and a friend of mine lost a family member, I recall that I felt envious. Looking back it sounds insensitive but I must have felt incomplete, not fully manifested without someone close to me dead. The first significant person I lost was my paternal grandmother, Edna.

I mostly recall the severity of how her death effected my father. It wasn’t especially real for me in the way it was for my dad and I would later understand. His grief was astonishing to me. I knew she was dead, but as a seventeen year old, I had so little experience in this aspect of life. Later I often dreamed about her, still alive and very old. In the dreams I had not visited her and forgot about her. She lived in a small trailer and dreaming, suddenly I would visit and greet her with waves of emotion and guilt. I am still afraid of such dreams with her.

As the years have flowed on, I am saddened and astounded by the many losses of friends and relatives that have passed on. I am writing this because I am especially sad by the passing, this year, of my friends, Roland (71) and Greg (55). Roland was a poet and mentor. We both shared our passions with each other of the creative process and often compared our strikingly similar methods. He loved words and language. I met Greg as a volunteer photographer at high school track meets. We would often find ourselves trying to get the same shot at the high jump or pole vault and realized our shared fascination with photography. We soon learned that music was our deeper connection. Greg was so supportive and generous, and combined with his kindness it was so easy to grow in our friendship.

Roland wasn’t in good health and often suffered from exhaustion. Greg was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig disease. Roland passed away suddenly, after being admitted to the hospital for less than a week. I lost contact with Greg less than a year before he died. Our last communication was by text. He explained to me how exhausted he would get from writing, through an iPad with voice recognition, just a few words. I thought about him constantly, praying for him. It was very difficult to imagine what he went through.

My mom also passed away this year. We were estranged, mostly. She was committed to breaking my family apart and I was forced to choose my family over her. At some point I made an emotional disconnect and we never fully reconciled. Although our last exchange included saying we loved each other. Her death did not ignite a similar loss I feel for Greg and Roland. Loosing a mother is likely a once in a lifetime event and I am still understanding what this means for me.

My story really begins way back, when my dad cultivated in me a love for nature and the woods. He taught me how to walk a straight line and never be afraid to be lost. He taught me the names of trees and how to look for animals. He demonstrated how to hunt patiently and without movement. I was sold, hooked and forever became a student of the forest.

Throughout my adult life I have retreated to the woods for rejuvenation and firewood. The woods are an endless source of inspiration. Nature is a master of so much. My painting is deeply connected to observations and the awe that I continuously experience on walks.

I am also prone to the delight, likely through DNA, of cutting firewood. Two of my paternal uncles provided income for their families with a chain saw. My father found other means for a livelihood but still loved cutting firewood and hauling it out on his homemade jitterbug. His enthusiasm was so inspiring that it rubbed off on me. It would seem to be the antithesis of nature bathing, yet a valid way, I have found, to enjoy another side of nature.

My New World, European ancestors were known for selling firewood which would be shipped from Cape Neddick Harbor to points south including Boston. They would work in the woods with crosscut saws and oxen. I expect this would have happened in the winter months when the swamps were frozen and passible by ox carts. They likely stripped as many trees from the land that would have been economically beneficial to them.

This desire to work in the woods isn’t exclusive to my family. There is actually a local culture, nearly exhausted to death now, that loves saws, axes, chains, malls, splitting wedges and tractors. My friend Brad, who passed away two summers ago, and whom I miss very much, shared my enthusiasm and lineage right back to the woods. We admired each others tractors and axes, gadgets for hauling as refined gentlemen might admire a well aged bottle of scotch. There was a camaraderie among many locals, a lust for getting into the woods and taking action.

With the cycling of life and death most of the old timers have expired and are replaced by those from away and who pose no risk of injury to themselves from a chainsaw.

Oil on canvas titled Gravare Su

Gravare Su, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 18″ x 24″

It is only in the last year, however, that I find a deep melancholy when I saunter upon the foliage carpet of the forest floor. I am continuously reminded of my father and ancestors who once walked these same woods where I now live and left their presence by their long, labor intensive stonewalls. It was my aunt who owned this land, now my home and brought me here, when I was very young and paid me to help her refresh boundary lines and monuments.

Last summer, I was walking nearby by my home on Gulf Hill. I found a path which I knew led to an old cellar hole. As I made the choice to follow the path, I also remembered there were old rose bushes, honeysuckle and apple trees around this spot which is now nowhere but once hosted civilization. I was immediately reminded of my friend Roland’s poem, Old Roses. I was very sad thinking about this. Roland died the previous February. Greg had passed away only a few weeks prior. I felt helpless with my grief as I approached the old cellar hole. These feelings were new to me and I didn’t wish to suppress them. I moved forward with a very heavy heart bearing witness to the subject of the poem. The loss of Greg and Roland commingled in my heart. I prayed for their spirits to soar and was grateful for their release from mortal pain.

On this particular day, I had come to the woods with expectations. I thought that a nice long walk would bring me closer to a feel good state. They almost always had. The trees, ledges and even bird chatter had other ideas and I submitted. I called forth the anguish and sadness. I was overwhelmed at the old rose bushes, the loss of Roland and more recently Greg. I couldn’t step back.

I was very sad for days. Was this grieving? I thought it must be, a sort of do it yourself version. I didn’t have a plan other than let the feelings rise and be aware of the validity. I then noticed the woods weren’t calling to me the way they always had. When I thought about going for a walk I instinctively reacted against it and realized I now associated my sense of loss with the place I loved most.

I drive by Roland’s home daily. I am always reminded of him, of his hearty cheer and enthusiasm for conversation. Greg was gone far to soon for me and in such a brutal way. His disease was the opposite side of nature from what I experience on my walks. Both natures co-exist, both a grand mystery, experienced. I no longer drop in on Roland, nor am I invited. His home now has tenants. The same place with different cars in the driveway. I imagine Greg soaring though the universe, free of pain, as his family and friends miss him so deeply.

I have always had empathy for my elders who had lost loved ones. I could see the pain and anguish they were feeling. Now, it seems inevitable that I have moved into the ranks of elder and will either live longer than my remaining friends or pre-decease them. There is only certainty of more sadness. The deeper the connection, the greater the love, the greater the loss. If this is the way of nature, I am grateful to have such great and wonderful people in my life to cause this much anguish.

Why I cannot vote for Janet Mills for Governor of Maine

A previous Attorney General of the State of Maine, created an opinion, called the, “Schneider Opinion,” against the Penobscot Nation that would withdraw their sustenance rights for fishing in the waters of the Penobscot River. The Penobscot Nation filed a lawsuit against then Attorney General Schneider and others who were claiming their fishing rights in the river no longer existed. Janet Mills, as a subsequent Attorney General, has defended this lawsuit in the First Circuit Court.

I cannot understand how that the State of Maine can be forthright and challenged the sovereignty of Maine’s Native People. Although this issue is multifaceted and cannot be explained by me, in its entirety, I can only conclude that this action is against a group of people and for this reason it is racist. The basic objective is to deny a culture the right to continue a practice of consuming salmon and further diminish their already frail existence.

It is further egregious that Janet Mills is also fighting against the EPA to raise the legal toxin levels in the river.

Democrats are happy to vote for Mills as they downplay these racists acts which she has perpetrated on their behalf.

I find this situation unconscionable and cannot vote for anyone who is perpetrating racism.