If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. - Mother Theresa.
One cold winter afternoon many years ago when I was living in Montana, a friend and I went to visit a family on the Fort Belknap reservation. It was snowing and the wind was whipping across the barren, dry earth. As we pulled up to the house, a young girl came outside. She grabbed our hands and welcomed us. Inside the house, the room was full of people. A woodstove warmed the air and we sat down with our hosts to visit. It was a tiny place, only about 500 foot square. There were no separate rooms to speak of. Against the back wall, a sleeping area was marked by a tattered sheet hanging loosely from the ceiling.
We sat for most of the afternoon, sipping instant coffee and talking about life. There were three generations here, living together under one roof. I sat quietly, caught up in the energy around me, lulled by the warmth of the fire and the sound of the grandmother singing her grandson to sleep. They talked about their family, about life on the reservation and their dreams for their children. As we talked, the mother stood at the stove, feeding the fire and stirring a pot of venison stew. Her daughter, the girl who had come to great us, stood beside her, cooking the traditional fry bread in oil. As evening fell, they invited us to stay for dinner.
I looked around the room. The furniture, what little of it there was, was in rough condition. The walls of the house had cracks in them, wide enough for the winter wind to blow through. From where I sat, I could see outside. And this sweet family. There were so many of them. They had so little.
“Oh, no.” we said.
“Please,” she begged us. “You are our guests. We want you to join us.”
She ladled up bowls of stew, serving us first, and then the others. It was warm and delicious. They treated us like family and for that, we were grateful.
The second story is about a group of young women travelling from Great Falls to Ashland, a tiny town on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. The drive from Great Falls to Ashland is a long one. Almost 6 hours, to be exact. You drive from Great Falls, across the plains to Billings, and then east to Ashland, through miles of nothingness.
It was late at night when we took off, well after the sun had set. We were going to visit our friends for the weekend. We drove and sang songs, laughing and telling stories. It was the dead of winter. Snow covered the plains and the road was empty. We drove for hours and sometime past midnight, the car started to act funny. Two hours left into our journey, the car died. We were on Crow land, on an abandoned stretch of road. There were no cars in sight. It was freezing cold. We were alone with no way to call for help. And we were scared.
If you’ve never been to Montana, you may not know that there are miles and miles of nothingness. Dry barren earth cracked from the hot sun. The sky is as blue as blue can be and stretches for miles. And in the evening, it is pitch dark save for the twinkling of the most beautiful starry skies you have ever seen.
On this night it was especially dark. Out on the highway, there are no street lights. No houses. No light at all. In the distance, we thought we saw something flickering. And as it was the only thing for miles, we grabbed a flashlight from the glove box and set off towards the light.
It turned out to be a porch light of a small trailer, set back from the road By the time we reached it, it was almost 2:00 a.m. The trailer was dark inside. We were wet and shivering by now, having walked through the snow to get there. We tapped hesitantly on the door and seconds later, a light came on inside the trailer.
A man answered the door. He rubbed his eyes and looked out at us, a group of white women, cold and wet and standing on his porch. Without hesitation, he took one look at us and invited us in. Five strangers in the middle of the night. He made us coffee and built a fire. He gave us blankets and food and called our friends to tell them what had happened. And he waited with us for hours while our friends drove to pick us up.
These days, my heart is heavy. I wonder what it will take to remind us that we are one family. One people. One nation. I think about that Assiniboine family who generously shared what little they had with us. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if that kind Crow man had not opened his door.
What will it take for us to open the door so no one has to stand alone in the darkness?
I stand in solidarity with the people of Standing Rock.