Medicine and the Arts
He stood up and walked in quiet shoes to the stage. (Once in the middle of class he had stopped to explain his feeling about walking everywhere in silence.) He set his notes on the podium and covered them with his hands. In a clear voice, without apology for his informality or a look at his papers, he unfolded the winter counts of the Sioux warrior Blue Thunder, of the Blackfeet Bad Head, and of the Crow Extends His Paw. He stated that these were personal views of history, sometimes metaphorical, bearing on a larger tribal history. He spoke of the confusion caused by translators who had tried to force agreement among several winter counts or who mistook mythic time for some other kind of real time. He concluded by urging less contention. “As professional historians, we have too often subordinated one system to another and forgotten all together the individual view, the poetic view, which is as close to the truth as the consensus. Or it can be as distant.”
He felt the necklace of hawk talons pressing against his clavicles under the weight of his shirt.
The applause was respectful, thin, distracted. As he stepped away from the podium he realized it was perhaps foolish to have accepted the invitation. He could no longer make a final point. He had long ago lost touch with the definitive, the awful distance of reason. He wanted to go back to the podium. You can only tell the story as it was given to you, he wanted to say. Do not lie. Do not make it up.
He hesitated for a moment at the edge of the stage. He wished he were back in Nebraska with his students, to warn them: it is too dangerous for everyone to have the same story. The same things do not happen to everyone.
He passed through the murmuring crowd, through a steel fire door, down a hallway, up a flight of stairs, another, and emerged into palms in the lobby.
1823 A man, he was called Fifteen Horses, who was heyoka, a contrary, sacred clown, ran at the Crow backwards, shooting arrows at his own people. The Crow shot him in midair like a quail. He couldn’t fool them.
He felt the edge of self-pity, standing before a plate-glass window as wide as the spread of his arms and as tall as his house. He watched the storm that still raged, which he could not hear, which he had not been able to hear, bend trees to breaking, slash the surface of Lake Pontchartrain and raise air boiling over the gulf beyond. “Everything is held together with stories,” he thought. “That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”