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Witness, Mounds, Survival

Photo credits, clockwise from upper left: Kristine Wook, Cristina Eisenberg, Nathen Domlo,

By DJ Lee

October 2, 2009. A tan, windowless Holiday Inn meeting room in Spearfish, South Dakota. I slipped in, feeling unsteady, and sat in the back. The topic was “Witnessing: A Workshop,” one of a dozen simultaneous panels at the Western Literature Association Conference.

Witness. Our country had witnessed some hard things that year. The H1N1 pandemic, also known as swine flu, had infected almost a billion people worldwide and killed many. Signs at airport security warned: “Travelers should be aware of an outbreak of influenza which has been identified in Mexico, the United States, and other parts of the world.”

The workshop leader, a woman with long dark hair, stood at a podium talking about effigies and burial mounds. I’d never seen a mound myself, having spent my entire life on the west coast. She talked about the bones and spirits of her ancestors buried in embankments, enclosures, and other earthworks across the Midwest. About how most of these mounds were mined, looted, and bulldozed by white settlers. Her voice was quiet and firm. The mound, she said, was an animate force, a presence. She had written a book of poems set on Blood Run, a massive mound site on the South Dakota-Iowa border.

Reader: I know I’m not alone in being drawn to synchronicity, or coincidence, or whatever you want to call it, as a way to make sense of our nonsensical existence. When life’s messy moments inexplicably fold in on themselves, create an iterative pattern, much like a poem or piece of literature, and suggest some larger meaning, I feel a spiritual connection.

As I sat in the conference room intrigued by these mounds, the events of 2009 pressed hard on my consciousness. Barack Obama was inaugurated president and Joe Biden vice president in January, a celebratory event offset by racial violence that same month. A white police officer in Oakland, California, had shot and killed a Black man, Oscar Grant, setting off wide-spread protests and demonstrations. The New York Times reported that “the violence reflected anger among young people—and particularly young Black men—who feel that they are unfair targets of the police.”

The woman leading the workshop was Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. I hadn’t heard of her. I had made a split-second decision to join the workshop based on the workshop title. Allison told of being a shy child who was extra-sensitive to the outside world. I found myself listening more intently than I normally would at a conference, and after a several minutes, I moved closer to the front so I could hear her better. She said as a child, she wasn’t as attentive to the social networks and situations around her as she was to the way a tree shadow fell upon the grass each day or the way animals gathered in a certain section of her native landscape. That idea of witnessing moved me, and it would stay with me for many years. It became a practice I consciously engaged whenever I felt anxious. Allison also talked about survival. “Survival is a catch-all word in contemporary culture,” she said. “But survival is more than that. It’s an active force.” Active force, I learned later, is a physiological term that refers to the length of a muscle in proportion to its strength. The examples I found referred to the heart muscle, specifically. Survival, then, of the kind Allison was discussing, was located in the heart of the body, literally. Then she led us through a series of generative exercises, instructing us to “witness” our surroundings. I don’t recall what I wrote for the exercise or much about the rest of the conference, but I’ve never forgotten that fleeting and potent hour.

Ten years later, COVID-19 started burning across the globe. Then George Floyd was murdered, Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted worldwide, and the US presidential election descended to chaos. It felt as if the events of 2009 had returned in monstrous form. Under those unbearable pressures, I had the sudden and inexplicable need to visit the mounds of the Midwest, which I still had not seen. In the mellow month of August 2020 and through September and October, my husband and I set out on a series of weekend trips through Illinois and Ohio, sleeping in state park campsites by night and visiting the Great Serpent Mound, Cahokia, Seip, Fort Hill, and many others by day. Most of the mound sites were reconstructions, as we learned from the signage, because 19th-century farmers had ploughed over, developers had built suburbs, cities had erected buildings, and the government had even set up military forts on these once sparkling centers of life and ceremony. For that reason, the sites left me depressed, feeling as if all good things eventually fall to ruin.

One weekend in early October, my husband and I spent an afternoon at the Mound City Group among the ellipticals and domes and rectangular wall cradling the site. The day was hot, and we had just entered the cool of the day, shade stretching across the place. Maybe because the visitor’s center was closed, and only a few people milled about, the place felt hushed, holy, and serene in a way no other site had. My husband read the interpretive signs, but at that point I didn’t want the bland language of the National Park Service. I was thinking about Allison, the woman I’d heard all those years ago, the power of her words, the images of effigies and mounds she’d written about, and the record of witness in her memoir, Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer, a book I still had on my library shelf back home. I remembered how I approached her at the conclusion of the workshop like a fangirl, thanking her profusely. Her talk had meant a lot to me, I said. What I didn’t understand was how her ideas would stay with me for more than a decade.

“I have to buy your book,” I said.

She spoke with earnest generosity as she told me to run over to the University of Nebraska Press in the book display room. “Tell them,” she said, “‘I know there’s only one copy left, but Allison said I could buy it.’”

Reader: I was about to stop this essay at the book table in Spearfish, South Dakota, but that would cheat you of the real ending. Because on October 10, 2020, just after my mound visit, I popped online for the annual Black Earth Institute retreat, virtual this year, of course. Scanning the faces of friends and acquaintances drawn together by this beautiful organization, I spotted Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, smiling through her Zoom square. I had not seen her since the room in Spearfish, had no idea she was connected to Black Earth, and yet her words and books had touched my life for years. She was sitting in a house overlooking a cove in Hawaii, glowing. Just seeing her gave me a sense of confirmation, as if I was not only witnessing the active force of survival, but living it.