Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mourning, Grieving, Healing, and Reconciliation

A few days ago, I received a text message from a long time friend asking me to give him a call when I had a moment. I responded as quickly as I could—this friend wouldn’t make a request like that unless he had something really important to share. When I called, he told me that Joseph Crow Neale, a one-time very close friend of ours, and the principle chief of my tribe, had passed away from a heart problem earlier in the week.  He was under sixty years of age, and from what I gather, his health had been in decline, but no one thought his light would be extinguished so soon.

I was beside myself as I took in this news, and unsure how to respond. For years, I had prayed that somehow our friendship would be reconciled and restored, and that we would be able to pick up where we left off, but this news took away any hope of that future outcome on this side of eternity.
Over the last few days as I have had space to reflect and grieve, I’ve given a lot of thought to the important role he had in my life and in the lives of many other people. He wasn’t perfect, and as much as we ourselves are able to see our shortcomings, he would have been ready to admit them.

He was generous with his time, and would spend hours with young men and women in our tribal community, and he would patiently teach them as much of our tribal traditions as they were willing to learn. He always wanted to make sure the younger generation could feel proud of their Shawnee heritage, and that they could hold onto some memories of our ceremonial ways and traditions. I had a conversation recently with a member of our tribe reminiscing over how much he cared for her youngest daughter when she was brought to our tribal grounds as an infant. He said, “These young children are the next generations of our people.”

I remember when my best friend in the whole world, Willie, had his daughter and son on our tribal grounds for the first time. Crow went out of his way to always make sure these children were included. On one occasion, Crow took paints with Emalee, Willie’s daughter, and had her “help” him decorate a coconut shell rattle.  I believe making gestures like this to include young people like Emalee, likely positively shaped her own memories of what it was like to grow up in a tribal community.

Crow and his late father were always willing to share responsibilities and give our people opportunities to learn by doing. In allowing others to gather materials for ceremonies or take care of various aspects of preparation, he would allow people to make mistakes, and then use these mistakes as an opportunity to educate. He valued giving people an opportunity to at least attempt to figure things out on their own before intervening.  

Crow would work tirelessly for our tribal community. Every year he set a goal of making some type of improvement to the land, and he sought to involve whoever was willing to help make those improvements. He launched into the construction of our tribal council house (designed by his uncle, Flying Duck), and he also led work parties in the construction of an arbor, the transit and assembly of a supply shed granted from Fort Necessity, as well as the creation of an earthen oven.

Crow encouraged our people to explore and visit the sites of some of our ancestral villages. In fact, I remember one occasion where the owner of a piece of property that was once the site of one of our villages allowed us to take a few stones back to our ceremonial grounds as a gesture to symbolically reconnect us with those lands. We took road trips all over West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio to help ourselves and other Shawnees to connect with their past.

Crow and his father were two of the first people I ever saw pursue servant leadership actively. By tradition, chiefs usually would eat first during feasts, but for Crow and his late father, they chose to eat last—they believed that it was a more important principal to ensure that everyone in the tribe had eaten—and that elders would eat first. They taught by example that we take care of our elders, and that we seek the good of others before we seek our own welfare. This concept is in line with our common Christian heritage as well as much of Native tradition.

He and his father allowed me to spend a summer living with them and learning the old ways back when I was in college, and during the months after graduating and before I started my first “grown-up” job, they invited me back into their home where I continued to learn from their leadership and mentorship. Thankfully I was offered an opportunity to give back (and learn additional skills) by helping put a roof on their house and repair parts of the home that had fallen into disrepair. Toward the end of my time with them that fall, they handed me $200 for “helping out.” That same day, my mom called to tell me that my first student loan payment form came in the mail—I owed $200. They had providentially helped me address that financial need.

Crow and his dad helped me grow in my relationship with Christ from some of the earliest moments of my walking with Christ. I witnessed their examples of generosity with time and resources (along with similar examples from friends in Morgantown), and sought to emulate their rich faith, and learn as much as I could about Jesus and the Bible. Crow used to listen to the Bible on cassette everywhere he went, and, as a result, he was incredibly familiar with the scriptures. He often had a timely verse for various situations.

The last time I remember speaking to Chief Crow was in the fall of 2004. I had just heard a sermon about recognizing people who had been a positive influence in your life, and when possible letting them know the valuable role they had in helping you become a better person. I was driving home to visit my parents in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and I thought, “I’m going to call Crow and thank him for the positive influence he had been in my life.” And so I called out of the blue, and told him just that. I thanked him for the lessons he had shared with me, and for the important role he had played in helping me become the person I had become, and for taking the time to pour into myself and many others. He thanked me and let me know he appreciated the gesture and the words, and then we said goodbye for what ended up being the last time.

Looking back from this present vantage point, I would have never imagined that this conversation would be the closest he and I would come to reconciliation on this side of eternity. I can only imagine there are many others who have had similar relationships with people with whom they never get to experience the full reconciliation that they hope would happen on this side of eternity. Crow’s untimely demise is a very compelling and sobering reminder of the importance of keeping short accounts with others, and striving, so far as it depends on you, to be at peace with others.  Not everyone has an opportunity for those types of conversations, but when we do, we should take them. There is healing and reconciliation that can take place for all.

And now, as I think about Chief Crow’s legacy, it is my heartfelt prayer that our people will continue to move forward even more strongly, and that we will collectively embody all of these wonderful attributes of this leader who has gone to be with Jesus. To me, I feel like that is the greatest way we can honor those who no longer walk this earth, and it is a gesture of reconciliation and healing that can carry forward into future generations for the good of all people.


snowbird neale said...

thank you for this wonderful tribute and characterization of a beautiful human being and his life. Our family is greatly appreciative. I personally hope we all can come together to honor his legacy and memory with the dignity and grace he deserves and that his father, Raincrow, taught us all to practice. God bless everyone. <3

John Smith said...

Chanchanchepon, That pretty much says it all. Raincrow taught us our jobs, now we have to do them, no matter how it hurts. Thank you for your thoughts, i too, have a lot to say, you know me, i could never get it out right so that it would do Crow and his Father justice. God Bless.

WolfSong Woman said...

Thank you for this tribute. We are all better individuals, because of the love Raincrow and Crow showed us.

Michael Cooper said...

Goodbye my dear friend and may I meet you and all of my family on the other side

Eric said...

I'm sad to hear the news of Crow's death, but I appreciate the way you speak of him and your relationship with him. I pray that you and the rest of the tribe will be able to grieve well.