by Thomas Davis
Carty Monette, silver hair fine below his shoulder blades,
Eyes shining black, a handsome Indian man,
Told the story at a big Kellogg Foundation meeting
In Green Bay, Wisconsin.
He said he got the story from Wayne Stein,
A professor at a Montana College,
Author of a book on the tribal colleges.
There’s this river, Carty said,
That you see from the distance,
And it looks like it’s shining and beautiful,
A good place to visit,
But when you walk up to its banks
You see that it’s a river of people,
And all of those people are in pain,
And they’re crying for themselves,
Or crying out for help,
Or they’re sinking, or almost sinking,
Below terrible currents that flow downward
Toward a sea over hills,
Past mountains, around the bend.
Some struggle for shore,
Arms flailing and bodies twisting,
And a few make it,
But even though a few make it to the riverbanks,
It’s still a river so big
It sometimes seems to be the world.
Some of those who find the river
Take one look and go back to their valley
Or mountain or city or cabin by a more peaceful river
In woods where water’s sound
Helps them sleep at night.
Others come to the river’s bank,
And they reach out hands
And start trying to save those closest to shore.
Others see the river,
And it confuses them so much they get too close,
And they fall into the flow
And join in the wail of suffering
That makes earth tremble,
Mind recoil with anguish and fear.
Those who grasp a hand and are saved from the river
Usually get away from it as fast as they can
And find their way into the world
Where the sun rises every morning
And on a clear night moonlight shines
On dark waters of a still lake.
But some join others on the river’s bank,
And they start in with the work
Of saving those few they can reach
In the mass of people always flowing past,
And some of those who have found the river
And get out of the river
Keep reaching out for hands and minds
While working upstream,
Trying to find the river’s source,
And in these people lies part of the world’s hope.
I once told Jack Briggs, before he died,
That he was one of those people who were in the river
And then turned around once he was on the bank
And started reaching out to those he had left behind.
I also told him he was one of those
Trying to find the river’s source
So that pain and trouble could be taken from waters,
And the river could flow free of people to a shining sea.
His smile was as bright as Carty’s smile
When the audience clapped after he told Wayne Stein’s story.
But sometimes I stand on the banks of that river,
And I see faces of people I know,
And I hear cries of those whom I love,
And I feel myself slipping into the river’s flow,
And I have to turn around and reach out for other hands
In an effort to save myself.
And in those times, when I am in the grasp of other hands,
I know the glory of humankind
Even though cries of misery and pain fill my ears—
And in those times I lift my eyes to the hills
And see a shining horizon
And the wheeling flight of a wing-spread golden eagle
Making alive cloudless blue skies—
In those times I search for hope
And listen to songs of healing my wife has sung,
And I know the river of people
Is in the world, but is not the world.
There are valleys where yellow meadows shine
Amidst the gentle darkness of great forests,
And there are villages and towns
Where people talk and sing and make love
And walk the good path, the spiritual path, the real path
Of human beings.
* Carty Monette was the President of Turtle Mountain Community College in North Dakota as the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC) became a reality. He has been involved in the tribal college movement since its beginning.
* Wayne Stein, when this poem was written a professor at Montana State University, was frequently involved in both WINHEC and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC).
* Jack Briggs was the visionary founding President of Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.