Three years ago, I had the extreme good luck of meeting an amazing, unique man called Dennis Banks at the Kapwa 3 Conference in Baguio. The 75-year-old Native American leader, teacher and activist from the Anishinaabe tribe of Minnesota, and co-founder of the American Indian Movement, had been invited by my in-laws Katrin de Guia and Kidlat Tahimik to be one of the main speakers at the conference that aims to bring together indigenous culture-bearers, scholars and artists to strengthen and keep alive what is known as Sikolohiyang Pilipino. Kapwa 3 in 2012 saw the participation not only of many Philippine groups such as the Talaandig, T’boli, Panay-Bukidnon, Aeta, Mangyan, Ifugao and Mountain Province, to name a few, but also indigenous tribes from other countries such as the Karen of Thailand, The Ainus of Japan, and through Dennis, the Anishinaabe of Minnesota.
One afternoon early in the conference, I was asked to translate for Dennis as he spoke before 150 indigenous delegates. He spoke simply and powerfully about his people and their beliefs, his respect and appreciation for Philippine indigenous culture, and his experiences as a young Indian boy growing up in white America. It was not a pretty story. He was forcibly taken from his family at age four to attend a boarding school where Indian children were not allowed to speak their native languages, and beatings occurred on a regular basis. Some of these children died under such cruelty. Between the ages of four and 15, he was allowed only one, 30-day visit home. But Dennis was one of the strong ones. He ran away every chance he got. When they would catch him, they would beat him, and ask, “Why do you keep running away?” And he would answer, “Because I don’t like this school.” One day, he ran away for the last time at the age of 15. Dennis dedicated his life to championing Native American rights and preserving Indian culture.
Later that evening, Kidlat and I offered to give him a ride home, as he was staying at the De Guia home on General Lim Street. Before heading home, he said he was hungry and wanted to try some local fast food, so we took him and his daughter through a Jollibee drive-thru. While we waited in line, I told him how deeply I had been touched by his speech that afternoon. As it turns out, he had not told the entire story.
Dennis said that whenever he would run away and come back home, he would ask his mother if she did not want him to stay at home. She always told him how much she wanted him to be at home rather than at the boarding school, that she tried her best to get him back. But he did not understand why, when the school authorities would come to take him away, she seemed to do nothing to stop them. As he grew into his teens, he no longer believed her story. When she died some years later, he cried no tears at her funeral.
About 50 years later, a documentary was made about his life. One of his daughters accompanied the film team to an American institution (the name of which I’ve forgotten) where all government records are kept. Since he had been a ward of the government while in boarding school, they were sure to find something that would speak of his experience there. A few hours later they returned with a box of records they had kept on him. “See, I told you I got good grades in school!” he crowed to his daughter as they saw A’s and B pluses line his report card.
As they got deeper into the pile, they found letters. He soon realized that these were letters his mother had written to the government. With hands that would not stop trembling, he read each one. “Please send my son back home…”, he read, over and over in many a letter. One letter even contained the exact amount to cover his bus fare from boarding school back to his home. The government had left everything as is, and seeing those bills and coins inside the envelope just tore him apart.
Dennis visited his mother’s grave, and for the first time in his life, cried tears of grief for the mother who had loved him after all, who had done what she could to bring him back home. The love had always been there, dancing around him, but his heart had been shuttered against it by her imagined rejection. As I listened to his story, I felt waves of emotion wash over me. I imagined the doors of his heart opening wide, like the floodgates of a dam that had been holding all this emotion he hadn’t known existed. Finally, he could freely allow himself to bask in her love and to reciprocate that love. There was grief, yes, but there was also that feeling that because of this unshackled love, time went around this man and reached out to his past and healed it. With love, Time became a ring that held all to its bosom. Time transformed into Now, and past, present and future existed all at once. As we collected our burgers, I laughed inside, wondering how I could experience something so profound at a fast food drive-thru. But I quickly pushed aside my wondering in exchange for wonderment. This was the best way that I could honor the man, his experience, and the gift of his sharing it with me.
This story has stayed with me through the years, and it is only now that I am able to write about it. I wanted to share it with others but I didn’t know how, I wasn’t sure if I ought to. But I think that stories like this need to be told, for our own redemption. Love and compassion and forgiveness are not time-bound acts. They teach us that who we are is eternal, that what we feel and how we act matters. We are sacred and magnificent creatures participating in this soul-expansion called Life.
Having told this story, I understand now why it needed to be told: that we may tread our paths joyfully, and allow each experience to open our hearts rather than break them. Our shadows exist as a foil to the light that we are, the light that is our true nature.