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DeMartin: Ten Bears reconsidered

Sometime toward the end of the 1980s, a luckless, middle-aged, but stubbornly determined writer stepped from the shelter of his automobile, which doubled as his living quarters and writing space, clutching a manuscript that would become his most famous work, “Dances With Wolves.”

Upon its pages, nascent author Michael Blake attempted to portray, for the first time, the groping uncertainty of America’s native people as they struggled to accept that their long-cherished prairie culture was about to be yanked up, roots and all, by an invading force of unimaginable strength and determination.

The characters he sketched were vulnerable, heart-sick, and very much overwhelmed by circumstances too fast-moving to grasp, must less control. Most took the story for entertainment. But others, those with a keen ear for irony, were left to wonder if Blake had not created something more profound; an object lesson for our own time.

The scene, which best embodies this idea occurs when Ten Bears, the kind and grandfatherly tribal elder, has brought troubling news. Bearing down upon his prairie people are gold-diggers, land speculators and a punishing political machine determined to exploit the entirety of western resources. With his long memory and psychic wisdom, Ten Bears is asked to puzzle out its deeper meaning.

Gathered before a crackling wood fire within the womb-like confines of his buffalo hide lodge, the wise man reaches for a tattered sack and pulls from it a most curious object, the helmet of a Spanish Conquistador, dating to the time of his “grandfather’s grandfather.” He holds the relic before him in a gentle but intuitive caress, as if to summon forth its resident energy. It is kept, we learn, not as a memento but as a token warning to future generations that those “who find something to want in our country” have come before and, more presciently, will come again.

With the gentleness that is his nature, he circles the subject slowly. “It is hard to know what to do,” he murmurs. Then, “I don’t know if we are ready for these people.” Finally, with a sadness amounting to despair, he concedes, “But I think you are right. I think they will keep on coming.” He orders the village struck and the people moved to safety. But in their mournful flight, their beloved prairie will be left to its fate.

At work here is one of the most imperishable charms of literature; the way an idea such as this can be captured and thereupon fixed to the page. No matter that on first encounter it might be thought mere “storytelling.” It can yet, in time, given slow, careful reflection and deeper, more personal experience, re-emerge to resonate with powerful new meaning — as it now has in the lives of a new generation of prairie people, this one living contemporary lives, ironically, upon the very same western grasslands that Ten Bears called home.

Our own story is one of a happily-settled and otherwise contented people thrown suddenly into mayhem by the grasping hand of an invasive force desperate to seize for itself newly discovered and unclaimed wealth, seemingly, at any cost. Like Ten Bears, our choices are few. We can collaborate, capitulate or flee.

To drive the point home, I suppose, one would today have Ten Bears pull from his sack the hard hat of a Halliburton oil worker. It could then be asserted, as foretold in elder lore, that the homeland has been set upon yet again.

DeMartin is a contributing columnist from Beach.