‘A Sadness I Can’t Carry’: The Story Of The Drum
In the summer of 2020 I was — and there’s no fancy way to put this — falling apart. My mother died that March, just after Covid hit. My …
In the summer of 2020 I was — and there’s no fancy way to put this — falling apart. My mother died that March, just after Covid hit. My father died a few years before. Strung between the fixed poles of my parents’ deaths were the loss of my marriage, Trump’s election and the sudden and, it seemed to me, inexplicable deaths of my two best friends.
On March 16, 2017, my friend Sean Fahrlander woke up coughing. He stumbled across the bedroom in his house near the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation and collapsed on the floor. By the time his partner got there, he was dead. Not even a year later, my other friend, Dan Jones — whose Ojibwe name was Gaagigebines — went for a walk with his daughter after dinner around the small Ojibwe reserve northeast of Fort Frances where he was from. He, too, coughed and tried to clear his throat. He told his daughter that he wasn’t feeling well and that she should get the car. By the time she ran home and came back with her mother, he was in the middle of a massive heart attack.
They were my guys, and when I got the news about Sean and then Dan, I collapsed but continued living somehow. One moment I would be fine, the next, inarticulate with rage and the next numb and unknowing. There’s an old joke that goes something like this: An anthropologist asked a Native elder what the world is made out of, and the elder tells him that the earth rests on the back of a turtle. What, wondered the anthro, does the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And what does that turtle rest on? The elder says: Look, it’s just turtles all the way down. I might have been the earth, but my grief was a bit like those turtles. Or at least that’s how it felt — a huge stack of loss with no bottom to it. Then in August of last year, I started dreaming about Jim McDougall.
I grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota; Jim’s place was roughly an hour and a half southwest, on the White Earth Reservation. Our reservations are close and closely related: Both house the same tribe (the Ojibwe, also known as the Chippewa), we share the same homelands and our religious societies are intertwined. White Earth was originally made by strong-arming families to move there from the Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, Turtle Mountain and Fond du Lac reservations, so we are related by blood too. My family was part of that coercive migration, and most of my family is officially enrolled at White Earth, though none of us have ever lived there.
I only know Jim at all because we had been a part of the Big Drum. Ojibwe Big Drum society, or “drum,” as we call it, is a large, loud, social healing ceremony that takes place in dance halls designated specifically for that purpose in communities mostly in Minnesota and Wisconsin, throughout the year. To be seated on a drum, to be a member of the society, is both an honor and a profound, lifelong duty.
I’d always admired Jim and watched as he danced — a little bowlegged in that way of Ojibwe men, but light on his feet. And I had heard him joking with other drum members, watched as he threw his head back and directed his laughter at the ceiling. After the dreams started, I felt that I had to see Jim in particular, but also sit with other men like him. I felt that they could help me unravel everything that was tangled up inside of me, could help my heart find some kind of peace.
My dreams about Jim hadn’t been specific — no clear directions or visions — just a repeated slumbery tap on the shoulder. As a Vietnam vet, Jim was part of a long fighting tradition. It was because of that service that he was also part of Big Drum. It, like Jim, was born out of war.
Jim McDougall, a longtime Big Drum member, at home in Waubun, Minn.Credit…Jaida Grey Eagle for The New York Times
Around 1750, a large Ojibwe war party armed with French guns and powder attacked a Dakota village at Mille Lacs Lake (Bde Wakhang in the Dakota language) from the north. They slaughtered Dakota in the open and dumped bags of powder down the smoke holes in the Dakota lodges, burning women and children alive. The Dakota fled down the Rum River and spread out to the west and south into the plains. The loss of their forest homelands was deeply felt and often remembered. In the decades that followed, the Dakota and my tribe lived together and in tension: We found a strange way to not get along. We intermarried and traded and lived with Dakota near our borders and fought with and destroyed and were destroyed by Dakota farther away. As Gen. Jacob L. Devers remarked in relation to working with the French during World War II: “For many months we have fought together — often on the same side.” Kind of like that.
Roughly 100 years after the war party’s attack, a Dakota entourage arrived in Mille Lacs bearing a ceremonial gift for the Ojibwe who had conquered them, a shocking kind of grace in the face of grief and loss. They were received and feasted, and the Dakota presented a drum and a ceremony to the assembled Ojibwe. They were told that the ceremony was one of peace meant to forever close the wound of our mutual bloodletting.
The Ojibwe were instructed to pick, or “seat,” people for different positions in the ceremonial society. They were told that every member who was seated should be someone who had killed a Dakota person in close warfare, people who had “touched blood.” They were also told that as the years passed and the ceremony spread to other communities, they would run out of people who had killed a Dakota and could then seat people who had killed other enemies. Eventually, if they stuck to the ceremony and its message of peace, they would run out of people who had killed anyone at all.
Beyond the history, it’s hard to know what to say about Big Drum, because it’s hard to know what I can say about it. The Oneida comic Charlie Hill once said his tribe was originally from what is now New York, but the tribe migrated to Wisconsin because they had a “little real estate problem.” Almost all tribes have. But we also suffer from a curiosity problem: outsiders peering in and fetishizing us with a collector’s obsession. So we’re protective, secretive, often mute (in public at least) about our ceremonies.
Big Drum, however, is a little different. It is possible to talk about it somewhat. At its most basic level, the Big Drum is quite literally a big drum, originally made out of a hollowed-out tree trunk but subsequently out of barrels cut in half, with a raw hide stretched over the open ends, painted, decorated. It is also a ceremony (made up mostly of singing, talking, eating and dancing), and it is a society (made up of people from the community in which the drum sits). Big Drum exists to heal people from physical, psychological and social pain and grief. Outsiders are welcomed there. I’m not sure why. It could be that, like the first Big Drum brought by the Dakota, the whole thing is meant to heal communities and close the distance between them. In any event, it is one of the few outward-facing Ojibwe ceremonies, and visitors are invited to come and mingle and partake.
I didn’t grow up going to drum with my family. It was something that my older brother, Anton, and I grew into. We began going about 30 years ago, not as drum members and not as spectators — drum dances aren’t a spectator sport. We just went to be there, to hang out with the people, to spend time with friends. Later, Anton was seated on a drum and then, nearly a decade after that, around 2005, I was approached and asked to be a part of a drum society, too. It’s hard to say, and feels strange to do so, how many times I went to drum before I was seated or after. As strange, I suppose, as asking Catholics how many times they’ve been to Mass. Drums just happen. You go to them. When you’re a member, you go to them a lot: your society’s, other local ones. It would be nice to think that I was seated because I was important. It would be more honest to say that I was dependable.
There are still positions on the drum, however, that can only be held by veterans. Among their duties is to put families who have suffered a tragic loss into mourning and to, at the right time, take them out of it. The thinking is that only veterans — those who have risked themselves in combat, those who carry the grief of their own losses as much as the agony they feel at having taken lives — truly understand the meaning, the terrible weight, of life and death. And they are the only ones who can help us heal from it. There’s something to it.
Jim’s trailer sits on a slight rise above the shores of Strawberry Lake, caught in spangled glimpses among the leaves of oak and maple, in the middle of White Earth Reservation. Strawberry Lake is small, gorgeous, intimate in the way of lakes in northern Minnesota. “This is it, this is it right here,” Jim said last August as he opened his arms to embrace the trailer, the maples, the lake, everything.
Jim has wide, powerful shoulders and huge, crushing hands. But despite all that strength, there’s a lightness to how he moves, or there was: He’s very sick now. He used to have long salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache that reminded me of old-time Ojibwe leaders’ in photos. I’ve known Jim for about 25 years. I don’t know him well, but he feels familiar, uncle-y.
In 1971, Jim was nearing the end of high school when he volunteered for the Navy. “I broke up with a girl I’d gone with for a few years there, and I waited till after school was out, and I talked to my cousin and told him what I was going to do. He said, ‘I’ll go with you.’ We stayed drunk for a week. Took the train over to Fargo. Signed some papers.” He was inducted into the Navy after he graduated.
I asked him why, during the height of Vietnam, he volunteered. He shrugged and said, “I wanted to be like my dad.” A lot of people at White Earth, and by extension from Native communities across the country, volunteered for the armed forces for the same reasons: tradition and the lack of other opportunities. Off Jim went. First to Naval Station Great Lakes, and then to his shipside assignment on an aircraft carrier.
While on the carrier, he worked in aviation fuels. “It was dangerous work,” he said, “bombs and fuel everywhere. A lot of people died from accidents.” He did his years and got out, but there “wasn’t [expletive] going on in the ’70s.” He worked as a mechanic for a while, but that wasn’t enough, so he went back in. “I was in for a total of 11 years. I thought maybe I could make it a career. It didn’t work out, though.
“I got in trouble with my drinking and stuff like that,” he says of his service after re-enlisting. “But a lot of guys do. To hang in there with everyone else, I had to learn how to drink.” Then the drinking started to show. “My division officer called me and told me I had a choice.” He could go to treatment or get out. “I got out. They let me go with an honorable discharge. I tried to get back in later, but they said no.”
Jim is modest and self-effacing. He resists the impulse to draw larger meaning from his life. As he put it, he liked being in the service and was happy (if that’s the right word) to serve during Vietnam. The fact that he kept trying to re-enlist, that a man would go back into the Navy soon after he fought in such a war, says something. I don’t know what the toll of that service was for Jim. But serving in a war, killing even if by proxy, seeing death, being responsible for it, all of that changes a person.
My father was changed twice, once as a Jew during the Holocaust when others were trying to kill him, and again only a few short years later when he served in the Philippines and Okinawa, his force intent on killing other people. The same is true for my mother’s father, Ojibwe, from Leech Lake Reservation, who also served in World War II, but his war was much worse. He was bombed and shelled and frozen and forced to kill, over and over and over again. I’m not sure if he was a nice man before, but he struggled to be one after he got back. The whole relationship between Native people and military service feels, to me, like a kind of simple arithmetic. We collectively grew up with a fair amount of pain, and then many of us joined the military and caused suffering that, directed at the enemy, bent backward and affected us. Some more deeply than others.
Jim started to realize that he was an alcoholic. Blackouts, D.W.I.s, drying out in the drunk tank. Finally, after one bender, he woke up in jail still drunk. He started praying. “I said: ‘This is it. I’m done.’ And since November of 1990, I was done. Haven’t had a drink since.” Whatever dry well of pain that Jim might have been trying to fill with booze began, gradually, to be filled up with something else. He met his wife, Betsy, in 1992, and they’ve been together ever since. In 1994 he was seated as a veteran on the Big Drum at White Earth. “If I hadn’t gotten involved with Betsy and her family, it would have taken me a lot longer to get involved and to get my life in order. I get something out of going to Big Drum. I get a good feeling in my head and in my heart.”
There’s a process that sometimes occurs (not always or even often) during the Big Drum to help end a family’s mourning called “wash their tears.” Typically, men will wash up men, and women will wash up women. I’ve seen Jim do this many times over the years. A family is seated in chairs near the drum, and the veterans approach them with bowls of water and soap and combs. They literally wash the faces of the bereaved, and comb and braid their hair. These big men, with their strong hands, wash and comb with a delicacy you wouldn’t think possible. In so doing, they wash away our sadness. Even though Jim hasn’t washed me up, I’ve always felt a kind of calm fall over me when I’ve seen him help others with their grief. My breath comes easier. My hands don’t play so fretfully. I felt similarly as I sat on Jim’s porch and listened to him talk.
He listened to me, too. We spoke of my mom and dad, and when I started talking about the death of my friend Sean, I became overwhelmed. Rather than cry, I drifted off into silence, or some version of it, as I stared at the lake between the trees.
That old feeling, that feeling of being very small in the presence of my grief, kept me pinned to my chair. I finally managed to wonder out loud why the loss of my parents didn’t rock me the way the death of my friend did. I wondered out loud that maybe it was hard to talk about Sean because he had come to stand in for all the losses: of my parents, and of other friends, my marriage, all of it. Maybe, I wondered, the problem wasn’t that ghosts were real but that there were too many of them, too many to manage.
“Maybe,” Jim said. “That could be.” Jim is many things — a veteran, a ceremony man, a White Earther, a Vikings football fan. But he’s not a Buddha.
“My uncle had this black lab named Shine.” Then Jim’s voice broke. He fought back tears. “There’s been more than one Shine. But the original. The original Shine was one [expletive] great dog. When we drove that truck into town, Shine would climb up on the top of the cab and ride like that. And he hunted, and he protected us. He was a family dog. He was just a mutt born in White Earth.” Not unlike Jim, I thought. For that matter, not unlike me. Sometimes what hurts us and also what moves us, is profoundly ineffable. For me, infuriatingly so.
Five years ago when I looked down at my father’s dead body as it lay in the room at my brother’s house, I felt nothing. When my mother lay dying in my sister’s house a year ago, I wanted to leave. Yet if the sun catches the trees in a certain way, I think of my friend Dan, and I miss him so much I’m made mute, frozen in my grief until the tears come and I am doubled over and then brought to the ground. Where we find relief can be just as hard to predict. Jim hadn’t done anything grand for me. He hadn’t washed me up or wiped my tears. But he’d given me permission to look at my life and my feelings a little more closely. Because of Jim’s personality and the power of his experience, he gave me space to think about something I hadn’t given myself a chance to process.
If we were at a ceremony, Jim would be able to help me directly. He would seat me in a chair and wash my face and head, and dress me in new clothes and dance for my grief. As a veteran, Jim has held the entire span of a person’s existence in his hands. As a veteran, he has caused grief, and so — with wisdom or without it, intentionally or not — he can carry our grief, so we don’t have to.
Native people are keenly aware of what we’ve given to this country. Across what would become the United States, Native people fought rapacious European powers and, when the time came, fought an expanding American government in order to protect themselves and their homelands. In the 19th century, the United States fought more wars against Indian tribes than it did against “foreign” powers, among them: Tecumseh’s War (1811), the Creek War (1813-14), the First and Second and Third Seminole Wars (1817-18 and 1835-42 and 1855-58), the Arikara War (1823), the Winnebago War (1827), the Black Hawk War (1832), the Cayuse War (1847-55), the Apache Wars (1861-1900), the Puget Sound War (1855-56), the Rogue River Wars (1855-56), the Yakama War (1855-58), the Utah War (1857-58), the Navajo Wars (1848-68), the Paiute War (1860), the Yavapai Wars (1861-75), the Dakota War (1862), the Colorado War (1864-65), the Snake War (1864-68), the Powder River War (1865), Red Cloud’s War (1865-68), the Comanche Campaign (1867-75), the Modoc War (1872-73), the Red River War (1874-75), the Great Sioux War (1876-77), the Buffalo Hunters’ War (1877), the Nez Percé War (1877), the Bannock War (1878), the Cheyenne Campaign (1878), the Sheepeater War (1879), Victorio’s War (1879-80), the White River Ute War (1879), the Pine Ridge Campaign (1890-91), the Yaqui Wars (1896-1918).
Alongside these punitive, barely remembered wars were equally destructive federal policies directed at Native people and Native nations, such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which sought to shift all Indians from east of the Mississippi to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. There was the General Allotment Act of 1887, which tried to dissolve tribes and tribal ownership of their homelands by assigning parcels to individual Indians to farm — this policy resulted in the loss of over 90 million acres and thrust Native people into seemingly perpetual cycles of poverty. There was also the federal policy of taking Native children from their homes and sending them to federally funded Indian residential schools, where they were forbidden to speak their tribal languages, practice their religion or wear their traditional clothing.
In a speech he gave in 1886, Teddy Roosevelt said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the 10th.” We had suffered from American violence for centuries and we — as American allies and members of the armed forces — had visited violence on others. Violence defines the lives of Native people in ways unlike any other group of eventual Americans.
In the modern era, beginning in 1914, Indians joined up in staggering numbers. Some from northern tribes walked or paddled across the border to Canada and enlisted. Many didn’t. Barely 1 percent of Navajo and Pueblo men served in the Allied Expeditionary Force. In contrast, 39 percent of Osage and 54 percent of Quapaw men from Oklahoma did. By war’s end, the U.S. War Department estimated that more than 17,000 Indian men registered. Sixty-five hundred were drafted. The rest volunteered. All in all, as much as 30 percent of the adult Indian male population participated in World War I, double the national average.
The Indian boarding schools were a rich source of volunteers. Schools like the Hampton institute and the Carlisle, Chilocco, Haskell and Phoenix Indian schools sent thousands of students off to war. Most of these schools had a military feel — students marched to class and wore uniforms and were better suited to Army life than most white Americans. Many were paid more, too: At boarding school they had received vocational training that qualified them for better billets, as carpenters’ mates, shipwrights, blacksmiths, electricians and colliers, among others.
But a majority were sent to the infantry. They were there to shoot and be shot. Most likely aware of America’s sins, they nonetheless believed in and were committed to the American cause. During W.W.I, Native people raised over $25 million in war bonds, equivalent to $75 per Native American alive.
Indian soldiers descended into modern mechanized war. They lived below ground in the dark, tormented by rats and the sweet stench of rotting corpses. They endured trench foot and dysentery. They were gassed and bombed and picked off by snipers. Among the sufferers was Sgt. Otis W. Leader, a Choctaw tribal member and machine-gunner in the 16th Infantry Regiment. Leader fought at Soissons, Château-Thierry, Saint-Mihiel and the Argonne Forest. He was wounded and gassed multiple times.
Sgt. Thomas Rogers and Joe Young Hawk (both Arikara) fought at Soissons. Rogers was an incredible soldier and was cited for bravery after he captured, “at night, barehanded and alone,” many German sentinels. During the same battle, Young Hawk was nabbed by the Germans while on patrol. He turned on his captors and killed three with his bare hands. During the fight, he was shot through both legs but still managed to capture two Germans and march them back to American lines. The most daring, though, was Pvt. Joseph Oklahombi, a Choctaw. At Saint-Étienne, Oklahombi was among a group that rushed across 200 yards of open ground. Together they commandeered a German machine gun and turned it on the enemy, killing 79 Germans and taking 171 prisoners. They held them for four days before reinforcements arrived.
It was during W.W.I that myths of Indian bravery and immunity to suffering were amplified. As with all myths, there is a bit of truth in them. Maj. Tom Riley, a commander in the 165th Infantry Regiment, wrote, “If a battle was on, and you wanted to find the Indians, you would always find them at the front.” But it is just as true that you always found them at the front because the government put them there: Indians suffered casualty rates five times as high as the American Expeditionary Force as a whole. When they returned home — having fought and suffered for the country even though many of them were not American citizens and wouldn’t be until the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 — they returned to trouble.
At White Earth, where Jim’s family is from, veterans came home to find their reservations clear-cut by aggressive and unscrupulous lumber companies in their absence. They left a forest and returned to a wasteland. It has been suggested that Joseph Oklahombi struggled with alcohol abuse when he returned from the war. He died on April 13, 1960, when he was struck by a truck while walking along a road.
Not all veterans suffered. Navajo, Eastern Cherokee and Lakota veterans started American Legion posts. Those who traveled overseas had seen the world — France and Belgium and Germany and England — and picked up skills as clerks and bookkeepers and heavy-equipment operators and machinists and secretaries and trigger men. These veterans led their tribes into the second half of the 20th century. The government didn’t always keep good statistics regarding the race of its military personnel (my grandfather listed “white” as his race on his induction paperwork in 1943), but Native people currently serve at five times the national average.
I’ve noticed that outsiders are fascinated by this. Why, after all, would Native people put their lives on the line for a country and people who tried to bury us? Why fight for a country that never fought for us? But some Native people have always thrown in with America. Others threw in with the British. Or the French. Or the Spanish. During the Civil War, some Natives joined the Confederates and others the Union Army. When the United States emerged triumphant from these early conflicts, Native people continued to join up. Some did it to carry forward older cultural ways of being. Others because they embraced the country that had grown up around them. And others still because it was the only path open to them.
It may be hard to reconcile our service with how we’ve been treated, but only if Native people are understood as merely Native. We are Native, sure. But we are also American. We are Native and American and we are men. We are women. We are trans. Whitman may have claimed that he contained multitudes, and Bob Dylan may have amplified the idea. But Native people, arguably, contain more.
When I moved to California in 2011, there were times when I couldn’t travel back home to help out on the drum. The drum I’m on convenes twice a year — once in the fall and once again in the spring, year in, year out. When I separated from my wife two years later and became a single parent, it became even more difficult to attend a dance. Recently, Covid has meant that I haven’t been to a drum in over a year. At first when I missed a dance, I felt that I was letting my community down. That has since given way to the fact that I just miss it. I miss the closeness I feel when I’m around my people, the clusters of conversation and laughter that spring up here and there among people around the drum. I even miss the twitchy, nervous feeling I get when I have to speak or dance. I miss our words and our wordlessness. As the pandemic broke us apart and locked me in my house, as the horizon of my world increasingly became measured in the width of the bezels around my screen, I missed the raw awkwardness of the ceremony itself. And I also missed Joe Nayquonabe.
Joe has been seated on nine drums, in a few different communities, which is extraordinary, because this means he spends half his weekends at a drum. Like Jim, he is a Vietnam War veteran. I’ve known him for about as long as I’ve known Jim and under the same circumstances: He’s a Big Drum guy. He’s the Belt Man on the drum. He’s very dark and very big, with small deep-set eyes and large round cheeks. He is, to me, an impressive man, and I am uncharacteristically desperate for his approval.
At drum he is punctual, and he has never, while I’ve known him, missed a dance. Joe always dances last, because the Belt Man always dances last. I like watching him. He ties on the feather belt and dances earnestly. His face, usually friendly, becomes a mask, and he looks intently left and then right and then left again as if searching for something. The Belt Man is something of an “über veteran.” A part of his job is to look after the souls of everyone at the dance, to make sure they are good and safe and protected, to catch any lingering badness or bad feeling and do away with it. The Belt Man’s dance is like a hunting dance: searching low and high, maybe miming the loosing of an arrow. The quarry is danger, or terror, or bad feelings, or all of the above. When Joe dances, I feel that he can see me, he can see all of us and all our troubles.
I arrived at his front door in Mille Lacs in August 2020 a few days after I visited Jim, almost in the shadow of the water tower emblazoned with the seal of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians, not far from where, in 1750, our ancestors killed those Dakota by throwing gunpowder in their lodges while they were sleeping. Across the street, heavy machinery was tearing down and chewing up a rez house not unlike Joe’s.
“Dave! Come in, come in, come in!” We sat down at his cluttered kitchen table, and he apologized for the noise outside. When I first reached out to Joe, I hadn’t told him that I was selfishly hoping to get something for myself by talking, as I had with Jim. I wanted a kind of healing that could come only from hearing his story. Joe dove right into telling me about his past. “I wasn’t a gung-ho G.I. Joe kind of guy. I didn’t have many options after high school, so when high school came around, they told me those were my choices — vocational school and the military. Right away I chose the military.”
But Joe was rejected: He had bad eyes and flat feet. He also had a criminal record. That left vocational training. Joe pursued it in Milwaukee as part of the relocation program begun in the mid-1950s: a government policy aimed at moving Native people from their reservations to urban centers where they would receive educational and employment opportunities. The purpose of the program was to “civilize” Indian people.
“I went there and didn’t have no clue what I wanted to do,” he told me. “But my dad had been a welder in the shipyards over here during World War II. So the first thing that comes to my mind is welder. Got a pretty good job.” Here Joe becomes reflective. “But when I talk about my civilization, I always tell them I learned the ‘N word’ and the ‘Q word,’ and I learned how to drink. That was my ‘civilization.’ I fought with that racism in myself a long time. I’m still working on getting it out of my system.” He is frank and clear, and he doesn’t seem embarrassed, because shame isn’t helpful. “I’m always working on it.”
While he was in Milwaukee learning to be civilized, a letter came for him back on the reservation informing him that he had to appear for a pre-induction physical. This was in 1965. The military didn’t want him before, but they wanted him now. He was drafted. Death came close the first day he was “in country,” when a guy was killed next to him. “We were fighting a guerrilla war. Ambushes. Sudden explosions. You never really knew where they’d be. Some of them were right in the villages farming, running little stores. At night they’d ambush us and then they’d go back to work in the village the next day. I wasn’t prepared for what I was going to see — the death, the pain, the mangled bodies. Emotional and physical pain.” That first day in combat, when one of the guys in his group was hit, they tried to give him an IV, but it was during the monsoon season. Rain like they had never seen in their lives. Joe tried to hold the man down so that others could insert the IV, but then he stopped breathing. “Right away: death.”
Joe was in Vietnam for six months. By his count, he “dropped in” via helicopter at least 60 times, sometimes multiple times in a single day. I can’t really imagine it. “I looked at that as a duty, a job,” he said. “I took an oath: the Uniform Code of Military Justice. You’re going to do this and that. Who the eff are you if you can’t follow your oath?”
On Dec. 4, 1966, one of the guys in Joe’s outfit was wounded. He was out in a field, screaming. “No one wanted to go after him. He was kind of lying out there. And there was lots of fire going on. I thought, Well, [expletive]. ‘OK, you guys,’ I said. ‘You lay down a base of fire, and I’m going to go get him.’ They said, ‘OK, Joe, go!’” Joe was shot in the back dragging the soldier to safety, an act of heroism that earned him the Bronze Star with a brass V for valor. That soldier still writes to him. Joe thinks he might be having a hard time. “The war will do that to you. I talk about that suffering at the drum. Lots of those guys are in mental hospitals. When I look back, I think maybe I should be there, too.” He laughs. Joe’s service in the field ended that day because of his wound. He was afraid he’d be sent back to Vietnam after he healed, but he was not.
Joe and his family have been involved in Big Drum probably since the drum first arrived at Mille Lacs with the Dakota in the mid-18th century. He was seated when he was 9. But despite that long connection and the safety and healing that drum societies confer, he struggled when he got back from the war. “I didn’t think nothing of the drums. I was 21, and I didn’t care. Who wants it? These [expletive] tom-toms. These damn Indians! Again: I was civilized, remember? And these guys? They’re crazy. I wanted to go down to the Blue Goose bar and roughhouse with the farmers. Let’s go to Onamia and party with the rednecks!” Mostly he drank. And mostly he drank because he had terrible, recurring nightmares, four of them in steady rotation.
The first dream was about one of Joe’s early missions, when he was deployed to protect an artillery unit. They were shelled by friendly fire. “We took off running,” Joe remembered, “and the first guy I come to had no face. He’s lying there, and he’s telling me to kill him.” Joe tried to assure him he’d be OK. Then the doctor showed up, and Joe left not knowing what happened to the man. In his nightmares, he hears a knock on his door. “It doesn’t matter where I am — my house or a trailer or wherever,” he describes. “It’s him, and he’s still missing his face. He’s saying to me, ‘Why didn’t you kill me?’”
The second dream is even more brutal. Like the one before, it’s based in something that happened in the field: “We were walking, and me and this guy were on point, and we took a smoke break. We heard something and went over there, and there’s this 12- or 13-year-old girl, and her gun is jammed, and she’s trying to fix it.” They told her to put her gun down. They offered her a little card that said that if she surrendered, she wouldn’t be hurt and she would be fed. “I went over there and gave it to her, and she took it and ripped it in half and spit on it and threw it back at me. Well then her gun unjammed and she was ready to put it on me, and my buddy opened up on her. Boom boom boom. Stomach, chest, throat.” They went over to try to help her, but she was hollering and swearing at Joe. “To her dying breath, she was cursing me.” In the dream, however, “her gun comes loose, and she’s ready to let me have it, and I wake up.”
He pauses as one of his daughters and some kids come in the house from running errands.
In the third dream, also based on something that happened to him, he and a group of soldiers are walking through an open field. They start to spread out to make themselves less of a target. Then he notices a water buffalo standing in the open. “He was big. I walk by, and he’s looking at me. Something must have happened because they opened up behind me. I look back and you can see the tracers going into him.” The buffalo starts running around and goes down but eventually gets back up, covered in blood. “He’s blood. Nothing but blood. In my dream he’s standing there all bloody and he comes after me. One-hundred-some guys and he comes after me! I start running and I’m doing good, but I start slowing down, and then I fall down and he’s on me. And then I wake up.”
The fourth dream is simpler: “I get sent back.”
Joe eventually quit drinking, but quitting didn’t make him any happier. “I was pissed off at everybody. The welfare people, the unemployed, freeloaders. I thought white people were right — we are lazy, no-good alcoholics. I was really a mess.” Joe used to visit a couple of World War II vets from a nearby community. By his own account, he was so far gone he thought it was a good idea to show them photos from Vietnam. When he was there, Joe got hold of a camera and started snapping pictures of dead bodies, both people he had killed and others he had found. It was an awful habit. The vets told him to burn the pictures. But Joe was stubborn and refused. A short while later, his mom’s house burned down with all his stuff inside, including the pictures. “Now when an elder says something, I listen.”
At the drum, he continued, “I started listening to the speakers, and I started asking questions about what my job was and why the drum looks the way it does and where these things come from. All of a sudden, the nightmares quit. They quit. The drums are the ones that keep me sober and happy and on the right road. They are good to me. I don’t think I would be here today without them.”
I began my visit with Joe with a mixture of fear and admiration. Fear that Joe wouldn’t like me. Admiration for how directly and humbly he addressed his own shortcomings. Our conversation often drifted back to the idea of duty — to yourself, to the community, to forces outside ourselves. For Joe as much as in Ojibwe tradition, duty is related to help and care more so than to violence and destruction. “If you don’t keep your vows, what good are you? I always thought about that — it means something to give your word to people and to the creator. If you don’t keep your word and your vows, what good are you?”
Sixteen years ago, I was approached by a drum owner of a drum at White Earth. And I was seated as a “drumheater.” At the time, my brother told me that a drumheater, Abiigizigewinini, was an important position. We are the only ones allowed to physically move the drum from the home of the owner to the dance hall. We are the first to arrive at the ceremony and usually the last to leave. The dance can’t proceed without our contributions and approval. Being there first, staying last, being present — that has become my duty.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of our duty to one another, and to ourselves. I am not from the kind of place where epiphanies are all that common, and I’m not the kind of person to recognize them when they occur. But I know this: When I talked to Jim, and again when I listened to Joe, I could breathe a little more easily.
“There’s two words we use a lot at drum, two ideas: wiidookodaadidaa and zhawendidaa. Let’s help each other, and let’s care for each other,” Joe said. “If we did those two things, our community and our whole world would be a better place. Those are the two words I live by. At my age I’m getting a little slower. But I’m getting to where I want to help. What can I do to help? I’m here. If you need me, I’m here.”
The story of the drum, of Jim and Joe, are not stories of atonement. Culturally speaking, we don’t do atonement. Even the word feels strange on my tongue, an unfamiliar Christian flavor. What the Dakota gave my tribe was the responsibility and capacity to carry their grief for them: to tend it so they don’t have to. What Jim and Joe offer me — personally, and in consideration of what I’ve lost and the losses I’ve inflicted on others — is not wisdom (though they both possess it), or absolution (that’s not theirs to give), or even grace (that ever-elusive thing). What they offer is a much vaster peace by taking into themselves a sadness I can’t carry. I think it would kill me if I tried.
My siblings and I have decided that we will be “washed up” at Big Drum in White Earth in the fall. We will be seated in chairs in the center of the dance hall, and the veterans will attend to us. They will, one by one, dance around us. They will speak about their authority to wipe away our grief. Our faces will be washed, and our hair will be combed and our faces streaked with red pigment. We will then eat as a family. When it is over, we will give away things our mother loved while she was alive (candy, warm blankets, fishing rods, but not the cigarettes that contributed to her death).
I can’t speak for my siblings, but the veterans will also wash away the loss of my father, and my friends, and the many who have died from Covid and the many who have died and continue to die at the hands of the police and the republic. In all likelihood Jim and Joe will do the washing.
The magic and the healing my family will receive — if you believe in such things — reside in the connectedness between people and place that drum has to offer as much as in the spirits that enable the ceremony. When my parents were still alive, when Sean and Dan were still alive, when I was young, I traveled to the community of Lake Lena, near Pine City, Minn., to attend a funeral: a very elderly and much-revered spiritual leader named Albert Churchill had died that week. The wake began on Sept. 10, 2001, and went late into the night. The next day, as I drove from my hotel, I heard the news on the radio. I burst into the gymnasium where the funeral rites were about to begin. Something terrible has happened, I said. After the funeral was over, almost instinctively, a Big Drum owner brought the drum to the gym. It was impromptu. Not something that happens very often, not the usual scheduled drum dance. But it felt right and necessary to sound the drum to offer healing and support for the dead, the missing, for the country more generally.
If Jim and Joe and the other Native veterans I’ve talked to are to be believed, when the Dakota brought us the drum, a feeling of indebtedness and duty and profound concern displaced darker habits: of revenge, self-satisfaction, victimhood, self-righteousness, violence and reliance on the myth of our own innocence. My private, singular grief is still with me, though it sits in me differently. And it will be eased somewhat when my tears are washed away this fall. America is still the complicated, dreamy, enraged country it has been for a long time. Big Drum is, now, an old, powerful thing. But the ceremony was young once. It was once new because the world it appeared in was new. We needed that ceremony when it came to us that first time, we needed the drum that September and we need it now.
David Treuer is an Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota and the author of “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present,” a 2019 finalist for both the National Book Award and the Carnegie Medal.