Rez Stories: Grandfather’s Arrest

04/02/2013 By Shawn Burns

I prefer stories over theories.

Stories help you experience and remember; theories help you explain and predict. Neither endeavour is flawless. Stories change over time, and in some ways, this is the point of stories, since we only need to remember what is important to us, and that changes over time too. Theories change over time, and in some ways, this is the point of theories, since we need theories to explain the available data and predict the future and the available data changes whenever the future arrives. But of the two projects, I prefer stories.

Stories make us us. That is a theoretical claim. Here is a story:

When I was twelve years old, my grandfather was arrested. He and a group of other Mohawks began operating private casinos on the reservation after the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) was passed by the federal government in response to a growing sentiment that state prohibitions on gambling should not affect Indian tribes, who were under federal, not state, jurisdiction (and who thought of themselves as sovereign anyway). But the federal government had a problem with these private casinos operating on Indian land, and they arrested the casino owners.

My grandfather always walked with his head to one side. He had injured his neck as a young man, and could not keep his neck straight for long periods of time. The story goes he was working as an iron worker and fell off a girder, but stories…well, you’ll see about stories. He was also diabetic, missing half of one leg, and used crutches and a wheel chair to get around a lot of the time, even when he wore his prosthetic leg. But he was Mohawk, and the stories we tell each other about resisting the government, fooling white people, being tough, never bending, taking up arms, protesting, barricading, fighting, fighting, fighting, those stories made other stories out of people. They made stories out of people like my grandfather.

The story of my grandfather’s, my tota’s, arrest, is full-blooded Mohawk. When he heard the feds were coming to arrest him on Mohawk land, his land, and take the gaming machines he believed he owned by right of sovereignty, law, and history, he went to war. The troopers pulled up in squad cars on the highway adjacent to his casino, but feared setting foot on the property, because there was my grandfather, sitting in his wheelchair in the middle of the parking lot, with a shotgun in his lap. The story goes he sat there for hours, facing off against the white government, while other casino owners were arrested next door and down the road. Not him, though. The old Mohawk man sat and stared and defied, and there would be no end. But, say the storytellers, a friend who was too pleased with my grandfather for what he was doing, and too drunk to know better, congratulated him for his standoff with lots of smiles and laughs and a slap on the back. This jarred my grandfather’s hand, and he pulled the trigger of the shotgun in his lap; the empty shotgun in his lap. The feds heard the relieving click and moved in immediately, taking my grandfather off to jail.

That story has been in my heart for over twenty years. It tells me about being Mohawk. It tells me about my grandfather. It tells me about the people who knew my grandfather. It is not a theory about Mohawks, though. It does not predict what people will do.

It is probably not true, at least on one view of truth. The explanatory, causal model of history, the one that dominates Western thought, the one that requires explanations and looks for causes and reasons and fears the uncertainty of linear future, that model of history preserves two elements that are important to itself:

1) A theory of people. This theory counts, in the Western mind, all by itself as evidence against the story’s veracity. Why didn’t the feds just shoot him, if he was sitting there in the parking lot alone, brandishing a weapon? Police have slaughtered homeless men carrying sticks; why waste hours on menace in a wheelchair? When we think we know how people are, that we have a theoretical model of their behaviour, stories about actual people often don’t make sense to us. Why would they allow anyone else near the scene, especially someone who was drunk, to approach the armed menace?

2) A theory of evidence. Evidence supports truth, in the Western mind, but not everything counts as evidence. And the more theory-laden a piece of evidence is, the more integral it is to the system, the more it would cost the system to abandon, the more weight it is given over other pieces of evidence, even to the point of denying that those sources count as evidence at all. The story, and the storytellers, have one version of events. The court documents that remain have a different version. In them, my grandfather is never charged with brandishing a weapon, or resisting arrest. He is just charged with operating an illegal casino. The fact of the document, all on its own, undermines the storyteller. The storyteller’s version cannot be true, since surely if it were true there would be something written down. On our theory, if something happens, we write it down. If it is asserted, but not written down, it is more likely, to us, that it did not happen than that it happened and we didn’t record it.

We want to know if stories are true when the world doesn’t make sense to us, when the future is uncertain because time moves straight and events fall into one another like dominoes.

On a different view of history, a cyclical one, the future is not uncertain at all. It is coming back around, and causality is built into the circle, not into past events. You don’t need to look for causal chains to explain an uncertain future, because the future is known. Truth, on this view, is about what matters, not about what happened. Truth is about what we can make useful, not what we can make a theory from. We don’t need theories, on this view, we just need stories.

I know the story of my grandfather’s arrest, and it is Mohawk through and through.