“A Litany For Survival”

I find it almost impossible to reflect on the trip as a whole, so I thought I would start at the beginning. Driving into South Dakota, I was expecting nothing but feeling a small sense of familiarity. Not because I had been in the state before, I knew what I experienced was to differ wholly from the reservation and the lives they lived, but I was maybe expecting a semblance of modern life that corresponded with my own, especially in the gas station. The first thing I noticed was the amount of people gathered in the space and how quick they were to notice the outsiders. I felt fine and safe, having trust in Bruce that he knew how to keep us here, yet my observations were quick and turned to the man in the corner smoking a cigarette not just at the gas station, but inside the gas station store with children very close by. Outside, multiple people came up to us trying to sell us their crafts, displaying desperation in our reaction. This was my first realization that maybe the sovereignty of this nation really should indicate to people that they indeed have entered a foreign country where habits and laws completely differ from the modern existence in the rest of the United States (this was not one of those United States).

Unable how to extend my response to our trip except in a lengthy and detailed way of every feeling I had, I felt myself getting bored with my own reflection. Then the sweet and inspiring lady, Justine Epstein, out of the blue, sent me an excerpt of a poem over text message that may have helped me with some point or perspective (let me try it out because otherwise I have no idea how to start).

Regardless of its connection to our time in Pine Ridge, I find this poem provoked something in me.

A LITANY FOR SURVIVAL

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who live in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
futures
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive

– Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn

Reading and re-reading this piece of writing, I tried to establish the subject of the poem as us, the students, or the Pine Ridge residents who welcomed us, and became confused trading out our experiences, deciding whether or not they were the ones with fear. If one thing is clear about our trip and our experience, they are the marginalized population living outside our dominant culture in which WE are entirely able to “indulge the passing dreams of choice” (ll. 4-5). Their oppression has been wholly caused by the society that we easily take part in without much of a second thought. The graffiti “Death white man” had been a notable mention of last year’s class and had remained untouched for at least a year, as if the message was wholly agreed upon. Although the message said “death white man” I was unsure what the writing meant. Was it a threat to those entering the reservation? Or was it, as I wish to interpret the message, a statement about white men and what they have and will always be associated with: death (to the people, to their culture, and especially to their land).

We don’t understand what survival means, one reason why many were uncomfortable with our trip and deciding whether our slight immersion in their culture was the “right” way to approach this subject. I found myself wondering if we would ever be able to understand having never ourselves been threatened as they had been, or “imprinted with fear.” We all saw their fight to keep their culture, as Lorde says “seeking a now that can breed futures,” with their ritual, which extended to their children, and with their education of us, outsiders, in order to maintain some sort of existence that includes their traditions.

At the start of the trip, I was grateful to have the chance to meet Mike Junior at the gas station, as he provided us all with comfort saying something like “you guys look like a bunch of CC students” and others responding “do we really stand out that much?” Yes, we really did.

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2 Responses to “A Litany For Survival”

  1. Robby Dohrn says:

    Incredibly powerful poem. I agree that one of the reasons many of us (myself included) felt uncomfortable dropping by the reservation was that we have not had any experiences of basic, serious, suffering. I had no reference for the experience I was in the midst of. I learned love with “my mothers milk” and I always fell asleep without fear that the sun would rise again. Experiencing a place so close to home and yet so far from my experience has definitely left me shaken and unsure of how I can experience suffering of others without comprehending it and then just move forward again.

  2. whitneyperry says:

    Helen, this is a beautiful poem and I thank you for the discussion about where we fit into the poem. I don’t have a strong ability to analyze poems so I needed your discussion to understand what it meant. When you said: “We don’t understand what survival means” I stopped and thought for a while about the implications of what that means. The subliminal unwavering security that I always feel affects me in ways that I can’t articulate or probably even identify. It is possibly one of the biggest influences on who I am and what I believe in. For me this poem raises questions of understanding and whether these fundamental differences can block mutual understanding. I think that love and thoughtfulness can overcome these sorts of blockades but it is certainly important to identify and be aware of. Thank you for posting this poem and raising these questions for me.

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