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Essay

Agency stories

By January 1, 2021 One Comment

Maybe it was the little chapel she’d insisted on showing me, a place she thought any visit to the Northern Cheyenne mission wouldn’t be complete without a peek inside. I was tired and had miles to go, but her resolution kept me trotting along behind.

Many years ago, when the mission was run by the sisters, it was the convent chapel. The sisters are long gone, their motherhouse converted into a middle school. But the chapel remains. “You have to see it,” she told me. “Security,” her jacket said, and she was formidable. But sweet too.

The school enrolled both Northern Cheyenne and Crow kids; they live beside each other in Montana, old enemies actually. When I brought divisions up in the museum, she laughed. “Oh, all of that’s over now,” she said. “I married a Crow after all.”

In the little chapel it came up again, something about peace between the tribes these days, which prompted me to say, “That’s right—you married a Crow, didn’t you.”

“And divorced him too,” she said, right back at me. “That’s when I found out I was pregnant.” She stopped for a moment, as if doing some figuring. “That’s 18 years ago.” And then, “Seventeen years I been sober.”

The drinking thing came out of nowhere. “Oooh, tough?” I said.

She shook her head. “I just didn’t want to keep living like that.”

Other Native people have told me similar cold turkey stories. A Yankton woman, on oxygen, told me she loved her husband, the WWII vet whose story I wanted to know, a Brule Sioux who’d lost both legs above the knees in the winter cold at the Bulge. He’d been married before he spotted her. She was just a girl really, 12 years younger than he was. But that first marriage of his hadn’t work out, which is not to say he didn’t have drinking problems—bad drinking problems, she told me.

“Quit?” I said.

One day he was fixing a lawn mower. Right then and there, it ended—the drinking. He came into the house and told her he was done. End of story.

In the basement of an old church on the Navajo reservation, a middle-aged guy told me in such exacting detail how he’d rolled his truck years ago, I might have guessed it happened last week. “There I sat. I told myself right there there’d be no more drinking.”

I looked at his wife. “And did you believe him?” I asked.

“No,” she said, as if the question was silly.

They’re all Natives, but I know others. A man who lives not far away told me about a binge on New Years Eve–ice box outside, snow’s whipping so hard it’ll take your face off. He flipped the van about a mile from his farm, walked home, lucky to be alive.

He woke up in the afternoon of New Years Day. His wife was standing at the back door, one child in her arms, another beside her, suitcases packed. “She couldn’t take it anymore,” he told me. He quit. Right then. Hadn’t had a drink since, he told me, his family all around, listening to his story, even the kids.

Our son called one night years ago to tell us he had a problem he’d determined he was going to end. He bought a pint of whiskey every night until the night before, when he’d bought a fifth, then told himself he didn’t want to be that man. He quit, went to AA for 100 days straight. When he got married, one of the men standing beside him was his sponsor.

I know more than a few stories of overpowering human will. I know very well that success stories can only be told in certain places at certain times, but I can’t help thinking that today, New Years, has certainly got to be one of those times.

Not in my lifetime have I sat down and written a list of New Years resolutions—it’s all silliness, I would have said. Besides, most often they’re a joke waiting for a punch line, aren’t they? “I’m going to lose forty pounds.” Okay, sure.  

But even to Calvinists like me, human agency, human will, is nothing to sneeze at. That Northern Cheyenne security guard brought up her drinking–I wasn’t fishing. There we were in a tiny chapel for nuns long gone from the mission. “Seventeen years, I been sober,” she told me, looking me straight in the eye, proud as any warrior.

January 1 may be the best day to tell resolution stories, because we are always more than victims. If I sound too much like another Siouxlander, the Reverend Robert Schuller, forgive me; but nothing kills the human spirit more than despair, believing change can and will never happen, God helping us.

All of that last week from a little chapel the mission decided to keep even when the nuns were gone. All of that shining in the round and happy face of a mom who’s looking forward to her son’s high school graduation this May, that son she found out she was going to have just three months after she got sober.

Big smile. Big warm smile. Big warm, clean smile.

Happy New Year.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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