She was so covered with blood that those who found her thought at first that she must have been severely injured. It had been four days since her people had been slaughtered and lay dying on the cold ground near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. The bodies around her were stiff and emptied of blood now frozen under the snow. In a last act, a mother had found what shelter she could on a creek bank, bundled her baby as much as she could against the cold, and covered her with her dying body. For four days this baby girl had lived in the shelter of her mother’s frozen body. And that is where they found her.
Her name was never known or spoken again. It left with the breath of her people. She came to be called Zintkala Nuni, or ‘the Lost Bird’.
Yesterday, while the trees in our New England woods burned red and orange in the gray of the rain outside our windows, I learned along with my children about westward expansion. We talked about the railroad and gold in the Black Hills. We heard about men in comfortable chairs with papers spread out in front of them. And after my children left the plains and returned to their playing, I kept reading. When I was a child in school I remember seeing dates and names on a chalk board. There were thick text books with pictures of generals in the military and maps of battlefields. I’m sure there must have been a chapter on the Sioux of South Dakota. There must have been dates and names of treaties and of bills passed in the halls of congress. But when I sat at a school desk trying to memorize dates, names and places, I never experienced the ache in my chest like I did yesterday.
Later in the day, with the image of Lost Bird under her mother’s frozen body still fresh in my mind, I read about hearings before our modern congress. Once again there were testimonies and evidence being presented to our elected leaders, and once again people with good intentions were trying to discern truth amid double talk and to further what they believe is best for our nation. My mind filled with images of blood spilling in snow and on white sheets and in petri dishes.
It is always the most vulnerable, those with voices we can’t hear and languages we don’t understand, whose blood stains show up darker than the scratches of pens on white paper.
Lost Bird likely slept to the sound of the ghost dance; a circle of men and women dancing and crying out for a messiah to come and bring with him the spirits of their dead and restore to them their land. There were feet pounding, hands raised, voices crying in grief and loss and hope and desperation. She heard her people’s cries; longings for peace, for grief removed by resurrection, and for a land of the truly free. It pounded like a heartbeat as she slept.
Others heard the beat as well; a sound of death and fear.
And men sat in the halls of congress and signed papers. They weighed arguments and discussed what amount of human suffering was worth it for the good of the masses. While in another world, the ghost dance pounded with hope like a heartbeat.
I read the testimony of babies and science and women’s rights and money and freedom. There were pictures of intelligent faces and washed and manicured hands but all around I could see the red blood staining babies under the wounded bodies of their mothers and the white blanket of deceit and frozen conscience.
We haven’t changed. Mothers and babies have not changed. Men have not changed. But when as a society we tote things like #shoutyourabortion, I believe there is something that has died in places deeper than our wombs. In this world there are stories that make nothing easy and simple. The waters we wade as a society are deep and filled with many stumbling stones of fear and safety-seeking power. It’s so easy to paint a Native American or a soldier or an abortionist or a prolife activist as a monster. We’re so good at wiping war paint on our enemies and not seeing the people underneath.
But I truly believe that there is something broken in all of this. We have fought for our rights as women, and in the process we have let something more essential become a casualty of that war. We’ve despised a tenderness that calls us to sacrifice. Being a mother calls us away from our right to our body, to our time, to our personal growth plans, to our schedule, to our autonomy, to how we look to others. It weakens us in those ways; it makes our decisions no longer based on our wants or appearance or comfort or even what seems best for us.
But as we’ve fought for our rights and despised the weakness of motherhood, we have lost the strength of it as well. When a woman can stand over a petri dish that holds a child strewn in pieces, and that woman can laugh and say, ‘it’s another boy’, something is deeply broken. That is a loss of something strong and beautiful.
Strength, in both women and men, is what rises when we see vulnerable life and we would give our own lives to protect it. Strength is the mother who places her body as a shield between her baby and flying musket balls. Strength is in the finger nails of a dying mother as she scrapes in dirt on the side of a hill to shelter a child as the blood spills from her body. Strength is in choosing life when it means our own life is changed forever.
There is a lie we’ve embraced as a country and told to our young women. Instead of a baby, we see something we don’t need to love or protect called fetal tissue. We’ve looked once again at a people, and said they are not a people. They are less than those of us who can talk together about their fate and sign papers making something tragic legal.
And in doing so, we’ve created and become so many Lost Birds. There are children whose faces we will not see, and whose names will never be spoken. There are men and women who have moved past the decisions they made, gone on to have good and happy lives, and yet never feel completely whole. The death of the life in them was its own ghost dance; the promise of hope and the erasing of past injustices or mistakes. But for many, the ghost dance hasn’t ended with an abortion. There’s a grief, and a steady background beat of loss, that continues.
Near Wounded Knee Creek, before the massacre, the ghost dance pounded out the hope of life resurrected. It promised that someday the world would be made new and that peace and safety would come to a people who had been broken and essentially enslaved. There would be a reunion with those their hearts were aching over in loss. The enemy would be destroyed.
I’m crying out with a similar song. My hope is in a Messiah who let Himself become weak to save us with sacrificial strength. Rather than clinging to the right of autonomy over His own body, He gave it to us as broken bread. He died so that we could live. He looked at a people who were not a people, and covered them with His blood to make them a people. He calls for us to come and to be forgiven; to be held by Him. As we draw close there is no pain, or sin, or brokenness that makes Him despise us. We live sheltered by the warmth of His crucified and risen body. My hope is in a resurrection that has already taken place that ensures resurrection to come.
And yet, this world still suffers. We’re still waiting and pounding out a song of grief and wailing as we witness the suffering of the weak and the death around us, whether from abortion or war or sickness or injustice. So, what do we do as we wait for the last enemy, death itself, to die? We speak for those who cannot speak, and cry with those who mourn. We hold out plainly the truth as we see it and love those with whom we disagree. We embrace weakness when it’s what is required to love strongly. And we pray. We let our hearts feel the tenderness that sin would try to harden, we let our eyes burn with empathy for those who suffer, and we lift our voices to the only One who can speak light into darkness. We ask Him to replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, and to make them beat to the rhythm of His own; a steady pounding that resounds with the sure hope of a day when He brings all Lost Birds home.