“What’s bothering you, Grandchild?” asked Grandfather when I arrived home from school. “You seem troubled about something.”
“I tried out for the track team because I like to run. Several of us ran around the track while coach timed us. The others trying out told me that I was the last one to sign up, so I was the ‘low man on the totem pole’ and would be the first to go when people were cut from the list.”
“Why were you so late signing up?” asked Grandfather.
“I didn’t know about the tryouts until today,” I explained. “I don’t think that the others on the team really want me because I am from the reservation.”
Grandfather was quiet and waited for my question.
“What does ‘low man on the totem pole’ mean, Grandfather?” I asked. “The other team members made it sound bad.”
“The lowest position on the totem pole, Grandchild, is the most important,” said Grandfather.
“Then why did they say I might be kicked off the team first, if the lowest spot is the most important?” I was confused.
Grandfather thought about it and said, “‘Low man on the totem pole’ has been used as a bad thing by people who don’t understand about totem poles,” explained Grandfather. “The bottom totem is the strongest and holds all the others up. It is the support for powers the other totems represent. All totems together have great power to keep people safe and to guide them during life journeys. Only the strongest can connect the totems above it with Mother Earth below it. Being in the lowest place on a totem pole is an honor.”
I felt better after Grandfather told me all of this, and when I went back to school the next day, I enjoyed practice more than ever.
The coaches decided who would be on the track team, and cuts were made. Those whose names were called to be on the team stood with the coaches, and when my name was called I ran to stand with the team.
Later I told the coach that I was happy to be on the team, but I was surprised to be chosen.
“You are the fastest runner we have, and you will be our anchor during relays,” said the coach. “Here is your running jersey.”
I ran all the way home that day after practice. Grandfather was right again.
Grandfather stays active in tribal events and decisions. He says that since we live here, we should take responsibility for helping the tribe’s livelihood. Grandfather says that I am old enough to start learning how the laws are made, and he took me to one of the meetings.
“How long do you think it will take?” I asked, and Grandfather’s reply was a surprise.
“It will take long enough for us to figure something out,” Grandfather said, and that made sense to me.
We went to the Grand Hall. We walked in, shook hands with the others, and sat on the floor in the circle. A circle is always so that everyone can hear everyone else.
The meeting was started by the chief, who asked if anyone had anything to say. A person from town was there, stood, and started talking loudly about something for a very long time, but I did not understand what was being talked about. When the person from town stopped talking, all of us reservation people looked at each other and did not say anything. We waited for the town speaker to sit.
The chief turned to the speaker and said, “You talked for a long time, and we listened. From what I can figure out, you want us to let you bring a school class to look at the buffalo. Did I understand correctly?”
The person from town answered for another long while.
The chief then said, “I don’t think we have enough time for you to answer any more questions. Just send me a letter with the day and time the school will come, and that will be fine. We are almost out of time for this meeting.”
I turned to Grandfather for a cue as to what I should do, and I saw Grandfather’s eyes laughing.
The chief then asked if anyone else had anything to say, and one of the elders asked to have permission to graze his herd of cattle in an area of reservation that was not in use. The chief asked if anyone objected; no one objected, so the meeting was done.
As we walked away I asked, “Why were your eyes laughing after the chief told the person from town that we didn’t have more time for him to answer more questions?”
“You listened to the long talk. Then you heard the chief ask a question that could have been answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but instead, we heard another long talk. The chief didn’t want to hear hundreds of words when just a few would answer the question. That is why the chief asked a letter to be sent, so we would not have to hear more talk that meant nothing.
“Did you learn anything, Grandchild?” asked Grandfather.
My reply was, “Yes.”
Hard times fell on Grandfather and Grandmother during one hot summer. The crops did not grow well. The ground was hard, and Grandfather could not do enough to the soil to make it so that the seeds would sprout and grow into strong plants.
“The ground is too hard for the seedlings to break through easily, “Grandfather said with a sad voice. “Without rain to wet the ground and give the plants moisture to use, we may have a small harvest this year.”
“What will we do, Grandfather?” I asked. “Will we be hungry?”
“No, Grandchild. We will not be hungry. We will just not have as much as we had in past years. We will be fine, though,” was his reply.
We walked from the field to the house, and along the path we saw that ground was hard and dry, too. Dust danced around our feet when we stepped.
“Grandfather,” I asked, “how do you know we will be fine?” I was worried, but Grandfather knew that. Before he answered, he saw something not far away, and he smiled with his eyes.
Grandfather began, “See this path we are walking?”
“We must look ahead of our own feet. Look ahead on the path … just up the way a bit.”
I looked ahead, along the hard and dry path, just as Grandfather instructed.
“What do you see ahead? It’s in the middle of the solid ground where we walk.”
I looked again, and in the middle of the path was a very small plant growing. It was different from the dry grass that was on both sides of the pathway. It was green and standing straight up.
“What is it? Why is it there?” I asked.
“That little plant is a sunflower. It shows us that even when the ground is hard and the rains have not visited for a while, we can still find a way to live, just like it has done. We may have to look for new ways to get by, like the plant sprouting from the path instead of from under a shade tree, so it can get the sunlight it needs.”
Grandfather did not look so sad after that, and we walked on home to order sunflower seeds so that we could start a different crop that would grow in the hard field.
We had a good crop after all. I am glad that we saw the little plant growing in our path, telling us to look ahead, instead of looking at the dust at our feet.
Grandmother and Grandfather never made me go inside early at night unless the next day was a school day. We sat outside under the shade tree and watched Sun set behind the distant hills. In the fall when Sun sank low in the sky, I often saw Grandmother go inside for a minute, but she returned with her dance shawl.
“Are you cold, Grandmother?” I asked one night.
Grandmother smiled and said, “No, I’m not cold. I am getting ready.”
“Ready for what?” I asked.
“Listen, Grandchild. You will hear the invitation soon,” she said.
Grandfather went inside and returned with his hand drum. He leaned against the tree and started to drum softly.
Grandmother smiled and wrapped her shawl over her shoulders. She stood up and started to dance. “Do you hear them?” she asked me.
“Close your eyes and listen,” Grandfather said.
“All I hear is your drum and the cicadas chirping,” I said.
“The cicadas are dancing, too. What you hear is their jingles as they dance,” Grandfather said. “They keep in rhythm with the drum, just like Grandmother is doing.”
I listened while I watched Grandfather step with each drum beat. The cicadas, too, chirped with each beat. It was like they danced together.
“Earth has a heartbeat that all animals can hear. The drum is a symbol of the heartbeat. Grandmother celebrates the life of Earth with her dance.
Grandmother stepped, turned, and made her shawl sail when she spun. The cicadas must have liked the dance, too, because they became louder the more Grandmother danced.
I went in the house and came back out with my dancing moccasins on, and I joined in. We celebrated until the cicadas grew silent. Then Grandmother, Grandfather, and I sat and watched shadows in the moonlight.
“Each season and each time has a way of celebrating life,” Grandfather said. “Together we can always dance.”
BC Culbertson has been a lifelong resident of northeast Kansas, but has traveled the country, giving presentations on Native American star lore. Grandfather Says: Native American Parables and Other Lessons from Reservation Life is a short book of fictional stories set in parable form. Culbertson plans to have a short novel published by the end of summer 2018 tentatively titled The Excavator. Look for both books on Amazon.