A Home for Father’s Ashes

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Johnson embarks on an extraordinary 2,000-mile journey across the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains to find the place where his father’s ashes belong.
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Johnson explores both America and the question of belonging to a place whose history holds the continuing legacy of the displacement, dispossession and genocide of Native people.

More than a memoir, Allan G. Johnson’s Not From Here(Temple University Press, 2015) illuminates the national silence around unresolved questions of accountability, race and identity politics, and the dilemma of how to take responsibility for “a past we did not create.” In this excerpt, Johnson is just beginning his cross-country journey to find the perfect final resting place for his father’s ashes.

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Looking out the window of my room, it is hard to imagine that all this concrete, steel, asphalt, and glass lie upon the seamless and continuous portion of the earth that I passed over yesterday. The view is jarring, of something broken into pieces that no longer fit together.

I go down to the lobby, where breakfast is laid out—waffles and bagels and pitchers of dry cereal and the ubiquitous bowl of red delicious apples, which are true to their name only in color but hold up so well they have become the unanimous choice of hotels around the country. I pour raisin bran into a Styrofoam bowl and find a seat at one of the small tables.

A large-screen TV is playing a sitcom that includes one of the few black faces I have seen since leaving home. Behind me, a row of video arcade games flanks the doorway into the pool area. Baskets of artificial philodendrons hang from a fake ceiling beam. A long corridor of guest rooms recedes like one of those dreams where no matter how fast you run, where you’re trying to go keeps getting farther and farther away.

The black man on the TV is having a nightmare that he is about to be executed in an electric chair.

An elderly white couple sit down two tables from me and talk softly to each other, paying no attention to the TV. It is easier to do if you’re not alone.

What is it about silence that it should be so hard to find? I once attended a Quaker Meeting for more than a year, drawn by the practice of sitting quietly and listening for the sound of Spirit coming in. I can think of no other place in this country where people come together to be in silence for almost any length of time. We avoid silence as if it were an opening through which bad things enter. Maybe it’s true. “Stillness allows you to see what is,” writes Mary Rose O’Reilly, and the more there is that you don’t want to know, the more fearful the silence becomes.

The plastic spoon is too small for cereal, but it’s what I’ve got. I eat slowly. I like to eat. Eating is good. It reminds me what I am.

It is 8:00 a.m. in Watertown, South Dakota, population 20,237, most of whom are of German or Norwegian ancestry. This is not a bad hotel. I have stayed in much worse. It is clean and the staff is friendly and eager to help, and people unknown to me are quick to say hello, which is more rare where I come from.

I finish eating and step outside into the chilly morning air. Low gray clouds cover the sky. American flags along the road are snapping in the wind coming from the east, which I notice since wind from that direction in New England often means a storm.

I imagine the people here are as good as anywhere else, maybe better, hardworking descendants of the people my grandfather came to minister to during the late 1920s and through most of the Great Depression. Living out on the prairie, the nearest large town fifty miles away, they probably stick together and have the kind of self-reliance that Americans like to think of as uniquely their own.

I wonder how the Depression affected life on reservations. Could they tell the difference?

I take my father’s ashes from the suitcase and put them in my backpack. I would feel strange leaving him behind, even though any number of people I could name would assure me that it isn’t him. Still, I cannot go off to Hayti while this box sits in a hotel room with people coming in with vacuum cleaners and mops and little carts of shampoo and soap. Him or not, that isn’t something I can do. Besides, he is the reason I am here, and maybe he will be my divining rod when we’re getting close. It may sound like a silly idea, but the fact is that none of us really know anything for sure and this is no time to be acting like I know what I’m pretty sure I do not.

I sit on the bed and eat one of the bananas I bought in Minnesota and then call the Lutheran church in Hayti to arrange an appointment with the pastor. His assistant says he’s at his cottage on the lake, but if I come by at 9:30, he should be in.

I drive south on Route 81, rolling up the window against the cold. On the outskirts of Watertown, before the land shows itself again, is a huge complex of silos and buildings for turning corn into ethanol. All I can think of while driving by is the soaring price of food around the world and the four gallons of water it takes to make a single gallon of ethanol, which has to make you wonder why we keep hearing what a good idea it is, except for the ocean of money being poured into it by a government wanting to seem like it’s doing something about the energy crisis, and farmers making more money than they have in quite a while.

The road is straight through flat, cultivated land. I turn west at Route 22, which I think is what she said, until I go through Thomas and see a sign for Hazel, which I remember from the map. I stop and turn around.

The sight of a lake reminds me of the little patches of blue on the map and my father saying how lucky he felt to have been in the ‘lake country’ of South Dakota. But there is something incongruous about the flatness of the land circling the shore, not like the hills I am used to, making it seem shallow and temporary, like puddles after a rain.

I turn south again on 81 and then west at the next road, where the sign reads, “Hayti, pop. 351.” There is speculation about the naming of the town, some believing that Seymour Cole, the first postmaster, spent some time in Haiti while in the Navy, and it came from that. A rival theory is that it came from the practice of hay tying—tying hay in bundles used for fuel. And then there is the story that Mr. Cole simply closed his eyes and stuck his finger on a map of the world.

I don’t know how many people lived here back in 1912, but I can guess it was about double what it is now, judging from what has happened to the population of Hamlin County, how quiet the land seems, so few people moving about. The number of farms has been dropping for a hundred years as small ones are gobbled up by bigger ones and young people cannot make a living at it and move away, leaving towns full of old people trying to remember what it was like before. There were more than a thousand farms in the county when my grandfather was here, but fewer than five hundred remain today.

It feels like a ghost town, although the people here might be offended to hear me say it. There are half a dozen short cross-hatched ‘avenues’ and streets lined with small frame houses, some better kept than others. The single main street runs east and west, with a collection of buildings at one end and the large brick county seat building at the other. There is a post office, a 24/7 fitness and tanning salon, a bowling alley, a barber shop, a provider of hand and foot care, a small grocery store, and the Lazy K Motel, with a handful of rooms and a large brightly colored children’s play structure in the back. A few blocks away is a powder-blue water tower with hayti written across it. The avenues have names like Pioneer and Dakota, Flasher, Charger, and Pheasant, while the streets are numbered, like in New York.

The church is near the end of a residential street. I go inside and up a short flight of stairs, where the pastor’s assistant welcomes me and shows me into an office across the hall. The pastor is young and earnest, fast-talking, friendly. I don’t imagine he gets many visitors like me. I tell him about my father’s dying and my wanting to know more about the places he had been, and the pastor warms to the subject, mentioning his love of history. His assistant appears at the door, and while they talk I look about the room, crowded with bookshelves and religious objects and mounted on the wall a set of antlers and a fanned-out turkey tail.

I ask him about the farms’ being so far apart and are the people lonely because of it. He shakes his head and says the more spread out they are, the closer they become. They have church and holidays and events at the school. Then he smiles and says city people can be strangers living right on top of one another. Point taken.

I want to know what it is that binds people to the land. Native Americans see the land as sacred, I say, part of who they are, a matter of spirit. Is it that way here? No, he says, taking no time to think about it, he would not say it was a spiritual thing. It is ownership of the land that matters most to them. But they may be coming back to that, he says, the idea of the land belonging to God.

Just how far back was it left behind, I wonder, the idea that land belongs to God? I think to ask but he is off on something else with me trying to catch up, something about ‘east river’ and ‘west river,’ which turn out to mean east and west of the Missouri, which cuts the state in half on a rough diagonal. He is talking history now, reservations and land and flyers sent to the miserable people of Europe in the nineteenth century, posted in churches and public squares to advertise land in the ‘New World,’ free to anyone willing to live and work on it. They came in droves, Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians, imported to drive out the Indians and clear the land for investors and robber barons looking to get rich on railroads and mining and timber and for politicians after statehood.

We sit in silence for a while and then I remember where I am and ask what Jesus would have made of this.

He says he doesn’t think Jesus would have liked it at all, the kingdom of God being about equality and fairness, justice, love.

Then, I ask, how do you reconcile building a nation on stolen land?

He pauses, looking out the window, and then says it was a long time ago and you cannot steal what people do not think they own.

I wonder to myself, if the land belongs to God, then is owning it a presumption, an affront, and is stealing it a desecration?

The earliest white settlers, among whom were my ancestors on my mother’s side, at first acknowledged an absolute Native American right to the land, something Native Americans could not morally be compelled to give up. It is plain to see in their writings and letters. And yet the settlers did exactly that, often with a vengeance that shocked the ‘savage’ tribes who might ally with them for some temporary advantage. The settlers were people who put great stock in their Christian faith, so how could they not have known what they were doing? And, if they did know, what am I to make of that now? Who were they? And who, then, am I, descended from them?

We have been talking for most of an hour when I ask about the trees.

Every one you see out here was planted by white people, he says, and before that, it was all grassland and prairie.

So, I ask, what if a person wanted to go where there are no trees?

He points a thumb back over his shoulder and says you go sixty, a hundred miles to the west. He makes a little smile and says out there the farms are really far apart.

The conversation drifts. We talk about trees and prairie. I ask about the reservation above Watertown.

He says you’d never know that’s what it is. It looks like anywhere else, white people everywhere. If you want to see a real reservation, go to Rosebud or Pine Ridge.

How far is that? I ask.

Real far.

Excerpt from Not From Here by Allan G. Johnson. Used by permission of Temple University Press. ©2015 by Allan G. Johnson. All Rights Reserved.

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