By Dovie Thomason
Dovie weaves history within her narratives to engage listeners in the context of her life experiences as Native American. What happens when a narrative is described both as “massacre” and “victory”? Are we responsible for our ancestors’ actions?
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: A Simple Story about History and Courage
- Can you imagine a meeting with someone who shares an historical event with you, but from the opposing side?
- What would you feel you wanted to say to them?
- What would you want to hear them say to you?
- What current Native American/U.S. issues are you aware of today? Would it make a difference in resolving conflicts if people approached opposing views as Dovie and this man did?
- An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
- The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King
- First Nations/Native Americans
- Taking a Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Dovie Thomason and I have a simple story to tell you, but simple stories have context. They happened somewhere, and I was in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and I was in a tent.
Now I’m a professional storyteller so often we’re intense it’s where we perform, and this tent was set up in the parking lot of a bargain outlet. Cheap stuff, but good.
And so there we were in this tent and nobody seemed to know we were there. Cars pulled in and went shopping. We stood in the tent. As the day went on buggies started to pull into the parking lot because Gettysburg is in Amish territory. And many of the people from the buggies went into the tent. So we began.
When it was my turn to tell, I was introduced briefly; audience was told that I was Lakota and Kiowa Apache and I could tell immediately the audience didn’t know what the MC was talking about. And so I tried to familiarize myself. Making relationships is so important, and so I said Kiawah Apache, then called The Plains Apache. Now the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma Lakota once called the Sioux. They still didn’t know what I was talking about, and so I went that extra step and I said, “You know the Sioux we had that unfortunate encounter with General Custer.”
The audience recoiled. It was almost like having them, but… not and so I started telling a story. I made it an amusing story one of our traditional stories. It had animals, it had misbehavior, it was funny. I used character voices. I won them back. They had been repelled. I won them back.
When the concert was over I came off the stage. I was greeting the public. It’s part of the thing we do. It’s a real pleasant part, because people tell you what you did that matters. How your own life had an impact on their memories of their own experiences. How they read what you had to say. It’s very precious to me.
But I was distracted. Just out of my sight in the queue of people waiting to speak to me was an old man. I mean old man. And I was taught to respect my elders. He was so old his body had started to take that shape I think of as the question mark where the shoulders bend and bow under the years and years of heavy, heavy experience and hard work and well, gravity…and the head is turned down toward the earth or maybe it’s to the generation coming up. It’s a precious part of the posture of the old.
And he was waiting, and he’d been waiting, and nobody was deferring to him, so I said, “Excuse me, there’s this Grandpa here and clearly he wants to speak to me.”
I stood up and said, “Please take my seat.”
And he took my seat and immediately took my hand. As he held my hand, you know the kind of skin I’m describing about old oan hands that haven’t been working for a few years now, and all the calluses of years of labor gone. And now his hands were cool and soft, and he held on to my hand and I his and he said,
“I just wanted to meet you.”
I said, “Oh that’s very kind to want to be met. I don’t always get to talk to everybody. It’s nice that you stood so long, waited so long to say hello. “
And he said, “Well it’s more than that I wanted to introduce myself.”
I said, “Well that’s only fair. You know my name and I don’t know yours.”
“Yes, Dovie Thomason” and he said, “George Armstrong Custer.”
I was without words. I couldn’t say a thing. I just looked him in the eyes and I said what you say when you talk about the death of a relative though it was more than a century ago, “I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, and I meant it.
And he looked at me and said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, not descended from the General directly. His brother Tom, that was my grandfather.”
“Always the nicest of the boys I heard,” I said to him and I thought well that was flippant or that was wrong.
But no, I’d read about this. I’d researched this. I tell stories about this. My relatives killed his. His relatives killed mine. I’d seen the photos of that battlefield and I knew that old man had seen them too. And still, he wasn’t letting go of my hand. He smiled and the forgiveness and the kindness and his smile said to me what his words repeated, “No, no, I’m sorry for your loss, but I’m happy that you remain. I’m happy that you’re here with his story as I’m happy that I got to hold your hand, and know your name, and meet like, you know, people do.”
As I said it’s a simple story. But it wasn’t a simple act. The courage of that man after a century was greater than any of his ancestors.