A Wednesday night Chapel talk given by Director of Leadership Giving Gordon Brownlee ’75 P’05,’09,’14
Good evening. I want to thank Hutch for inviting me to speak tonight. Wednesday chapel is one of my favorite moments—a chance to pause and be still during the busy school week.
I like Wednesday chapel because it is an opportunity to hear from someone you know – a teacher, a coach, a member of the Facilities Team—and to learn something new about them.
Tonight will be a bit different. I expect that most of you have no idea who I am, so anything I say will be new.
For returning students, I’m Mr. Pam Brownlee.
For you new students, you’ll get to meet Pam [Brownlee], Roz and Whiz, our dynamic team of counselors.
The first thing I want you to know about me is that I love history. Understanding our past can teach us so much about our present. And each of us has a story to tell.
In thinking about what I might share with you tonight, I could talk about my lifelong history with St. Andrew’s.
I could talk about my Dad arriving at St. Andrew's in 1942 and graduating on June 6, 1944—the same day the Allied forces landed at Normandy to begin the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany. Before he died last October, some of you seniors may remember him as a fixture on Alumni Point, cheering at crew races.
I could talk about my arrival in September 1970 as a 12 year old in the II Form (eighth grade), coming to a school at the dawn of integration—the first students of color had arrived just four years earlier—and coeducation was still three years away. My class, the Class of 1975, was the first class to graduate girls.
But then 30% of faculty could do the same (we have a lot of alumni on our faculty, which is a good thing!), and do you really wants some old geezer wagging his finger and saying, "Back in my day, we had three family style meals a day seven days week, and required chapel four times a week!”
All of which is true, by the way…
Rather than tales from the crypt, I want to go back to last weekend.
Last Saturday, Mrs. Brownlee and I attended the Nanticoke Tribal Pow-Wow, outside Lewes, Delaware.
The Nanticoke are an indigenous people who were here long before European settlers. When John Smith “discovered” the Chesapeake Bay region in 1608, he found the Nanticoke people who, after some understandable mistrust, welcomed the English and became willing trading partners. They were repaid with systematic oppression, spreading of disease and taking their land. The Nanticoke assimilated but also kept their culture alive. The beautiful dress, traditional dances, the burning of sage to purify the ground, and unique music on display at the Pow-Wow last weekend was a proud celebration of their culture and an important reminder of their heritage in spite of this history of oppression.
The Nanticoke also are Americans and, as last Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, they wanted to honor all those who lost their lives that day and in the weeks and months afterwards.
A few weeks ago, I had a call from Courtney Streett ’05 (my daughter’s class) asking if I would play the bagpipe—Amazing Grace in particular—as part of the 9/11 ceremony at the Pow-Wow. Courtney is a member of the Nanticoke tribe and with her husband John ’06 have co-founded Native Roots Farm Foundation. I was honored to participate, as I love sharing my Scottish heritage, and to have the opportunity to once again witness the proud heritage of an indigenous people.
You see, this event, for me, was a convergence of two distinct cultures that have played an important role in my life. I’ll talk more about Native American culture in a few minutes.
I am a Celt: English, Scottish, Irish blood—first generation on mum’s side. I have always been proud of my heritage, and as I grew older I wanted to do something to honor and embrace my past. I started learning the bagpipe in NYC in 1982; as a newlywed, I tested Mrs. Brownlee’s love and patience early and often. The learning was not pretty. Noel Coward said: “The definition of a gentleman is someone who knows how to play bagpipes…..and doesn’t!”
But playing the pipes connects me with my past and allows me to honor my family heritage.
I taught pipes at SAS for ten years. St. Andrew’s Pipes & Drums were a fixture at Arts Weekend, football games, state tournament games.
I’ve played my bagpipe at West Point Military Academy, Arlington National Cemetery, even at Culloden in Scotland, site of the final Jacobite Rising in 1745 (Outlander fans in the audience know what I’m talking about).
Perhaps my most memorable gig was playing Amazing Grace standing on top of Mt. Rushmore. Literally.
In 1990 our family moved to South Dakota where I led a fundraising campaign to reimagine the visitor experience at the memorial.
Mt. Rushmore is unquestionably an extraordinary engineering feat, carved with dynamite and pneumatic jackhammers by out-of-work miners during the Great Depression. It is one of the most recognized images in the world, representing the birth of our country, the “Shrine of Democracy.”
But to some, it is a desecration of sacred land. Mt. Rushmore is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota (Paha Sapa in the Lakota language). These ancestral lands were promised to the Great Lakota Nation in perpetuity under the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 (a treaty that conveniently ignored the fact that this land was already theirs). Unfortunately, an expedition led by a young US Army Colonel named George Armstrong Custer in 1874 discovered gold in the hills, and the treaty was abrogated just five years after it was signed.
Tellingly, when we created the new interpretive center and films at Mt. Rushmore, the story was heavy on the symbolism and the actual carving process, but only touched on the experience of indigenous people. I’m pleased to report that in the 25 years since we left, that important story is at least a part of the Mt. Rushmore experience today.
The Black Hills were home to the Lakota people, who like the Nanticoke, were systematically driven from their ancestral lands by the westward expansion of America. Throughout North America, indigenous tribes were rounded up and forced on to reservations.
To the east of the Black Hills is the Pine Ridge Reservation, one of the largest and the poorest reservations in the country. Unemployment is chronic; 34% live below the poverty line; alcoholism is rampant and fetal alcohol syndrome is a tragic reality for too many families.
The Pine Ridge Reservation encompasses a portion of the Badlands—the site of the last Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance movement began in the late 19th century as a ceremony to call on the spirits of the dead to join with the living in stopping white expansion and to unite native peoples in peace and prosperity.
In the winter of 1890, the last Ghost Dance was held at Wounded Knee, SD, led by Spotted Elk, a Miniconjou chief. Fearing the unification of the Lakota tribes, US Army soldiers opened fire with rifles and light artillery, resulting in the systematic slaughter of 153 men, women and children. This was the last major conflict between the US government and the Lakota Nation.
Fast forward 80 years, to the early 1970s, a time of tremendous unrest throughout this country. In 1974, there was what became known as the Second Incident at Wounded Knee, in which two FBI agents were killed in a gun battle with members of the American Indian Movement (AIM). An AIM leader named Leonard Peltier was tried and convicted despite little corroborating evidence. To read more about this time, I highly recommend In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, by Peter Matthieson.
Of course, I was blissfully unaware this was unfolding as I was a just a boy here at St. Andrew’s. I may still have envisioned the plains Indians living in teepees.
So it should be no surprise that the Lakota Sioux feel a deep sense of betrayal, bitterness, and even hopelessness. We felt the tension between the mostly white community of Rapid City and the Lakota nation as soon as we arrived.
But then we went to Black Hills Pow-Wow. Called He Sapa Wacipi Na Oskate in the Lakota language, the Pow-Wow brings together over 1000 dancers, drummers and singers from over 100 tribes across US and Canada. It is whirlwind of color, and sound and smell.
During the Grand Entry, the arena is awash with dancers (men and women) competing in Fancy, Shawl, Grass, Traditional, and Jingle Dress, accompanied by drum circles rhythmically beating these enormous drums with the high pitched wailing sound of the singers, and the smell of burning sage, wafting throughout the arena.
This was, quite simply, the most inspiring, hopeful, transcendent, and humbling experience we had ever witnessed.
The theme was “Come Dance with US”—and the image of our six year-old daughter, Lindsay, dancing with ten year-old Otakaway will live me with forever.
This wasn’t a simple tourist attraction. The Pow-Wow is a serious movement to preserve and promote indigenous culture. The dances, music, and songs each tell a story of the past, a visual and auditory window into their history.
I’d like to share one last story.
The Pow-Wow Board consisted of six to seven members of the Lakota nation….and Mrs. Brownlee. She was invited to do marketing for the group by its chairman, Tom Bad Heart Bull, and became a valued member of the board.
A Viet Nam veteran and full-blooded Lakota, Tom Bad Heart Bull had seen and experienced trauma and horror in his life. He invited Mrs. Brownlee to be a witness during his Sun Dance, a ceremony not open to the public. The Sun Dance is a sacred ritual in which the individual is tethered to a pole with a length of buffalo rawhide attached to their chest by piercing the skin with a bone. The person then dances under the hot sun for hours until they start to hallucinate. This vision quest is said to bring forth the spirit of their ancestors and help illuminate their path forward. Mrs. Brownlee chose not to attend, not because she was squeamish about seeing a grown man in such agony, but because she understood the sacred power and deeply personal nature of this ceremony. Quite simply, she felt unworthy to witness such an intimate act.
So, what are we to conclude from all of this?
- History is written by and favors the victorious and is skewed toward the dominant culture.
- It is important to honor the past, but not to blindly accept established narratives at face value.
- Our hope for the future lies in our ability to see things anew, to be open to new understanding. In forgiving and to being forgiven, to accept that we are culpable, even if we were not responsible for the inequities of our forebearers.
Amazing Grace is a song about redemption and forgiveness: “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” It is also hymn that reminds us how fleeting our time on earth is: “When we’ve been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”
Playing that hymn from the top of Mt. Rushmore, at the site of the Battle of Culloden and at the Nanticoke Pow-Wow, gave me fresh ears to hear and eyes to see.
Thank you for listening and allowing me to share a little bit of my history with you.
As we begin this new year together, I look forward to getting to know as many of you as I can and to hearing your history, your story. When you see me, please share it with me.