©All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010
A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand and express my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.
Originally written for the New England Yearly Meeting sessions (Quaker) keynote presentation on August 6, 2005 (revised February 2010)
(This version is expanded from what I presented at Bryant College in Smithfield RI.)
An early friend I met at Cambridge meeting—a meeting known by some for being frequently frosty to newcomers—was John Woolman. I read Brother Woolman with relish, quickly discovered his account of nearly dying, how it provided the seed ground for his transformation. He put it this way:
In a time of sickness, a little more than two years and a half ago, I was brought so near the gates of death that I forgot my name. Being then desirous to know who I was, I saw a mass of matter of a dull gloomy color between the south and the east, and was informed that this mass was human beings in as great misery as they could be, and live, and that I was mixed with them, and that henceforth I might not consider myself as a distinct or separate being. In this state I remained several hours. I then heard a soft melodious voice, more pure and harmonious that any I had heard with my ears before; I believed it was the voice of an angel who spake to the other angels; the words were, “John Woolman is dead.”…
[Then carried in spirit to mines where people suffered because of Christians, awakening the next morning, he said:]
I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in men. And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Then the mystery was opened and I perceived there was joy in heaven over a sinner who had repented, and that the language “John Woolman is dead,” meant no more than the death of my own will.
—Woolman’s journal, “John Woolman is dead,” 1769, p 214
This experience came relatively late in his life, in 1769. He was 49 years old, and had only 3 more years to live. But it is telling, one among many of his turns of heart that as I read them in the chilly Cambridge friends’ atmosphere, warmed my heart and penetrated my fog. I might not use his language, nor carry all of his beliefs, but the fundamental message of dying to one’s past and awakening to one’s reality is true for me.
Woolman’s travels to Indian country
Later I learned about his travels to Indian country, the frontier, not far from his home in New Jersey. Here’s what he wrote in his journal:
Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they lived in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leading of truth among them, and as it pleased the Lord to make way for my going at a time when the troubles of war were increasing, and when, by reason of much wet weather, traveling was more difficult than usual at that season, I looked upon it as a more favorable opportunity to season my mind, and to bring me into a nearer sympathy with them.
—Woolman’s journal, Love is the first motion, to the Wehaloosing Indians on the River Susquehanna, 1761, p 142
“Troubles of war were increasing…much wet weather…traveling more difficult that usual at that season…” His response: “I looked upon it as a more favorable opportunity to season my mind, and to bring me into a nearer sympathy with them.”
Growing up in Chicago, I had a dim awareness of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Being who I was, subject to societal pressures and inclining toward delinquency, whenever considering Indians I sided with the white guys. Playing cowboys and Indians, I chose the cowboy role. My parents liked to take long car trips during summer vacations; one brought us to the Badlands. I knew the Badlands were connected with Wounded Knee, and for the first time considered the hardships endured by the Lakota Sioux in 1890 just before being massacred. Some had fled to the Badlands and tried to survive there during the blizzard conditions.
Mr. Kills-in-Water, Rosebud reservation, South Dakota, 1984
Margery Jumping-Eagle, Rosebud reservation, 1983
Rosebud reservation, 1984
Badlands, South Dakota
Wounded Knee Valley, Pine Ridge reservation, South Dakota, December 1990
Bigfoot Memorial Ride to Wounded Knee, December 1990
In high school, I read more about the events surrounding the Indian-white wars and slowly shifted my perspective. But it was only in 1983, going to the Great Plains myself, initially to be confronted with the flatness and intense light of that region—a challenge for my photography—that I suddenly discovered the depths of that suffering. I explored the Badlands, I was ineluctably drawn to the valley of Wounded Knee, I camped overnight nearby, unable to sleep in the valley itself because of what I sensed was the great evil perpetrated there less than one century earlier. In 1990, exactly one century after the massacre, I returned with over 300 Native people to commemorate that event: “wipe the tears” and “mend the sacred hoop,” in the words of the organizers, end the period of mourning and begin rebuilding the Lakota nation. Wounded Knee inspired and taught me to place myself in the body of another, to empathize, to exhibit compassion. And to attempt to depict thru photography some of that experience.
I could overcome my fear as I entered the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota, largely because of having faced my mother’s death just 5 years earlier. Another gift that even she could not anticipate. I was also learning from John Woolman.
The Southside of Chicago
This was part of my breakthru year, not only this trip to Wounded Knee which led to returns for photo projects, but thanks to my then 12 year old very daring daughter, Katy, returning to my childhood home on Chicago’s South Side. When we lived there it was all white. Black people were moving into what I regarded as “our” neighborhood. Gang fights and fire bombings ensued. My family, ignobly, was the first to flee, the first to engage in white flight. The year: 1955. Also the year of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, the year of the murder of the young Emmett Till, exactly my age and also from Chicago, and the year of the Freedom Charter in South Africa. A pivotal year, the import of which I’m slowly realizing. But in 1983, nearly 20 years after we’d fled to a Chicago suburb, I returned to my childhood home, overcoming my fears about entering my old neighborhood, required to share it with people of color. This led directly to my photo project with the Chicago Fellowship of Friends (CFF), who were located in one of the most notorious zones of Chicago, Cabrini Green. Not only CFF but my work on anti racism generally sprang from this breakthru year, including serving on New England Yearly Meeting’s Committee on Racial, Social, and Economic Justice, co-editing our publication The Freedom and Justice Crier, and my home meeting’s Friends for Racial Justice committee, which itself was also an outgrowth of my first trip to South Africa.
Charlotte Thomas and daughter, members of the Chicago Fellowship of Friends, Cabrini Green
East 86th Street, Chicago’s Southside, 1990 c.
My home at 1648 East 86th Street, 1992 c.
In my old Southside neighborhood
TO BE CONTINUED