“Would you like some sunflower seeds?” The Native-American woman sitting next to me at the bus stop turns to ask.
“No thank you, but thank you for offering,” I gesture, clamping a hand across my belly. “I just ate.”
We return to silence, waiting for the bus together.
In my peripheral vision, I watch as she continues drawing the sunflower seeds from their package in small groups, creating a well of unhulled seeds in one palm. Then, taking her hand to her mouth after her palm is full, she carefully cracks each seed one-by-one with her front teeth. Her well-practiced tongue deftly picks up the freed seed meat, tucking each along the bottom edge of her cheek. When my bus-stop companion has collected enough seeds, she drags the edge of her jawline clean with her tongue and chews on the seeds’ meat in an appreciative and meditative manner. Ritual eating. She is fully present.
Four-lanes of traffic move without stop in front of us. Two-lanes of traffic move by our joint right. We are parked on the bench. Early. No bus. Waiting.
“I’m going to the Native American Center,” she reopens our conversation. “I had to transfer. Do you have to transfer today?” Her transfer slip is lodged between her ring and pinky fingers on the hand holding the perpetual well of unhulled seeds—her left hand. The story of her hands tells me she may be in her fifties.
“No. Not today. Today, it is just this one bus,” I answer. The sunshine feels good on my face. I turn my face to meet the shifting sun, grateful for my bench companion’s calm presence as we wait.
“You are lucky.” Changing the subject, she continues, “My brother is having a show, an art show at the Center. He is an artist—a pretty big deal. He lives clean. Doesn’t drink. Doesn’t smoke. Real clean, my brother. You should meet him. We are Lakota Sioux. You should come to the show. I’ll introduce you.”
Without stopping, she continues, “I bet you’re wondering why I have this busted lip. Like I said, I’m Lakota Sioux. I was walking home late one night with my groceries a week or so ago when three Chippewa gals jumped me. They were leaving a bar. They’d been drinking.”
“Oh, my. I’m sorry to hear that. Is it healing alright?” I ask, trying not to be overly intrusive.
“Yeah, I had some stitches. They’re out now, but it still looks pretty bad. “Her report is matter-of-fact. “You know the Chippewa don’t like us.”*
I think back to my one history course on Indian treaty rights. Chippewa. Ojibwe. Anishinaabe. My head is swimming with names, given, chosen, preferred, rejected, taken by various First-Nation Peoples of North America. Our conversation has entered uncomfortable, conversational territory—personally, politically and historically—and my knowledge is sketchy. Who names things? How do we name things? From whose perspective do we tell our stories?
I am not sure how to reply appropriately to her report.
“Well,” I pause to take a breath, “you know with so many of ‘us’ out there, I would think that ‘you’—all—would need to stick together. I am sorry that you were hurt so badly.”
The bus pulls up, slowing to a stop. With the familiar expulsion of pressurized air, our conversation comes to a halt. As we stand, my bus-stop companion turns to me, shrugging her shoulders, “Yeah, well, it happens. Come and see my brother’s work. He is real good.”
“Thank you for the invitation.”
*Prior to extensive contact with European traders and settlers on the North American continent, peoples of the Great Sioux Nation were being pushed off of their native lands in what is now the Upper-Midwestern portion of the United States (Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin) by the westward expansion of the Ojibwa. Territorial conflict betweeb the Ojibwa and Sioux intensified after the Ojibwa gained access to European weaponry, resulting in the Sioux having to relocate permanently.