Remembering the songs

“Yai Ya!” my grandson called, as he opened the kitchen door and walked in. This happened nearly daily or several times a day once he was old enough to walk the few blocks from his parents’ house to ours. He didn’t knock, of course. And he was partly calling his grandmother and partly just announcing he had arrived. It was partly greeting and partly invitation. He was here! Where we were! It was good.

How many generations of young Salish boys showed up at their grandparents’ homes with just those words? How long had those syllables been echoing, more or less unchanged, through the abodes of people living in this valley? This place?

Place is a tricky concept to nail down, but I tend to enjoy all the various ways people have tried. They end up talking about the central realities of human life–story, memory, kin, tradition, culture and land. My grandson traces his heritage in this place we share back, on his father’s side, into the “time immemorial” that the Salish like to talk about. I trace my own heritage back to Kansas, and then to Maryland and then to the Irish highlands on one side, and back to Utah, and then Ohio, then Massachusetts and then to the London slums on the other. Those connections, of course, are also part of my grandson’s history.

In Remembering the Songs, I found the segment on Jerome Vanderburg, a Salish man who made his home a place of music, held my attention in the most interesting ways. I knew Jerome’s name and had seen him, but I didn’t know him personally and I knew little about him. My own children grew up alongside a girl, our next door neighbor, who was a relative of his–probably either a granddaughter or a niece. So watching the film was a little like eavesdropping a bit on a neighbor here–filling in the human world around me with a bit more detail, a bit more story, making the place I live a little deeper and richer.

But how to use it in the classroom?

I would start with how recognizable as a person Jerome is to me. My own family–both my mother’s and father’s lines, are full of people who found the meaning of life in family and noncareerist passions and enjoyments, such as music. My grandfather lost his farm during the Great Depression–and I heard somewhat vague expressions of disgust at the ways of bankers and government functionaries, who, I was given to understand, cared a great deal about money but about “the little guy” not at all. But such were not the main story in life. My people didn’t dwell on it. They found another farm–not as good and without reliable water–the dry farm, they called it–and survived, finding life’s satisfactions in family events and in nature.

I don’t think the story of being displaced by the big moneyed interests of modernity is a rare story, and I don’t thing it is overly entangled in race. I think it’s a story that speaks to many of us. I also think the question of how to live in a world of large powers that displace us and to a great extend surround us invites the attention of a great many people, including young people.

This suggests the direction of my explorations, at the moment.

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