Susan and I were driving down from Louis’ above the Cliff House at lands end in San Francisco with our grandson Liam, almost 10, and to our surprise saw hundreds of people lined along Ocean Beach! It looked like some kind of military formation. As we got closer we saw dozens of Native Americans in full regalia on horses, lined along the beach. Even closer we could see that they were life-size paintings on plywood cutouts, and dozens of people were gathering to look at them.
We had to stop and find out what this was all about! Down at a white military style tent was a man named Thom Ross dressed up like Buffalo Bill Cody, signing copies of large poster showing the real Wild Bill in 1902 on this very Ocean Beach with nearly 100 of the “Indians” in his famous show.
“I was raised in Sausalito on movies and TV about cowboys and Indians,” Ross explained. “I spent some time in Montana, and came across this picture. I didn’t realize the Wild West was right where I grew up and became fascinated. I ended up wanting to recreate this picture as a way to explore the relation between the mythic and factual memories we have of the past.”
This day a group of Native American’s had chosen to come to Ross’s installation and bless it, and support the passage of any spirits that might need help. A crowd of about three-dozen gathered around as a Yurok medicine man, introduced by a Lakota and his rapper son, lit sage, said prayers, and drummed out a song to the creator. The group watching was a mirror of racially diverse San Francisco. Many were clearly smudging for the first time. As the elders called for appreciating our oneness with all that is, and feeling the connection between all people, I couldn’t help but reflect on our times.
It’s only two days from 9/11. Who can’t remember the horror of that day, and feel the shift that occurred there. I remember hearing a commentator on KQED reporting on Obama and McCain putting aside campaigning to visit ground zero. He went on to talk about how politicians wouldn’t go to earlier anniversaries for fear of looking exploitative, but that mood has changed. Of course George Bush’s visit right afterwards defined his Presidency. 9/11 has been a mixture of myth and fact from the very first hour.
“Buffalo Bill was the Walt Disney of his day,” Bob Horn said when we talked about the show on the beach. I noticed that all of Ross’s Indians had elaborate war paint and decorations. In the photo hanging in the tent I looked very closely and they didn’t have elaborate war paint. The Wild West show mythologized the Native American, just as the Indian Wars were ended, and the genocidal conquest of the American West by Europeans was a done deal. I’m sure to Native Americans their Trail of Tears compares to our 9/11. Caucasian Americans didn’t fly planes into tall buildings to settle the west, just sent cavalry out from the Presidio to clear out the “savages.” Of course it was justified. All acts of terror and war are.
As I was focused on the blessing ceremony, Liam was busy sifting through the sand with two powerful magnets he’d gotten at the toy story with “Nana Susu” the day before. When we first stepped on the beach he’d dropped them accidentally, and when he picked them up they were covered with iron filings. He was fascinated with the big Indians, but this iron filing stuff was magic. He began to harvest iron from the beach, magnet after magnet-full and squeezing the filings off into a little bag. The Native ceremony was abstract. This business of iron filings was tangible and real!!!
So we all live in different stories and lives. I went over to help him a bit, and then said “let’s take a picture with Wild Bill.” He wanted to do this. I’m real for Liam.
Susan came up and was all excited. “That woman we were standing next too said she was the great great great grand daughter of Buffalo Bill and carries his name, Cody!” We were amazed at this, of course. Real people carry history’s stories!
After the ceremony Liam wanted to go to the Exploratorium so we drove around through the Presidio from Ocean Beach, passing the old cavalry stables that housed the real horses the cavalry used in the Indian wars. Susan’s great grandfather was Sheriff Doc Standley of Ukiah, famous for leading some of the last Indian raids in that part of California, so Susan is connected to that history herself. We’re married so I am as well.
I keep wondering as I think about the blessing ceremony how these Native peoples could be blessing this “art” event, this mythical memory? What about the ignominy of Sitting Bull joining the Buffalo Bill show after his defeat? What about the Trail of Tears?
I realized that their faith is the Great Spirit, the great oneness, and that even the horrors and myths haven’t damped it for this small group. “I’m going to sing a song now, about the creator,” the Yurok man said. “I only sing songs about the creator. That is the only time I sing.” And he did, and danced, and shamelessly, and quietly touched us with his faith.
Perhaps life does have more force than death, and myth more energy than facts. Maybe these are the magnets that pick the iron from the sand of our lives, and make it stand up like magical hairs on our vibrating, magnetic selves. Perhaps it was this truth that little Liam was discovering there on the beach.
“Were you listening to the medicine man who sang on the beach?” I just asked Liam as I’m writing this post. (He’s playing a card game with Nana as I’m doing this post.) He looked up, smiled, and gave me a big “thumbs up.”