Black History Hero: DeNorval Unthank

DeNorval Unthank, MD

In third grade at Alameda Elementary School in Portland, one of my friends was Gregory Unthank. Gregory’s grandfather was one of the best known names in Portland’s African American community. Dr. Unthank was one of those local heroes who persevered and served tirelessly through times of hostility and bigotry. Their sacrifices and courage made all the difference in the historic struggle for civil rights and justice.

You can read biographical sketches of Dr. Unthank here and here.

“A Negro may have a few more doors closed to him and he may find them a little harder to open, but he can open them.  He must keep trying.”
Dr. DeNorval Unthank, 1899-1977


Indian Bracelet

“I’m going to Wounded Knee.”

At 9 years old, I was standing in our kitchen with my now divorced parents when Dad told Mom he was going to assist the Native American activists who had seized control of the South Dakota town and were surrounded by heavily armed US Marshals and FBI agents.

“We’re going to try to get some food in.”

My mom was plainly not enthusiastic about the idea of Dad entering a siege that threatened to explode into open warfare at any time, but she chose not to argue with him about it. He had made up his mind.

“Well, be careful. Don’t get yourself shot.”

It was commonplace when I was growing up that adults, especially young adults, had no idea what was so often was falling upon the ears of children. I know from my own experience as a parent that it is easy to forget that children are completely unable to take in certain words or conversations without utter bewilderment or fear.

Shot? I thought to myself. “Where are you going, Dad?”

“South Dakota. I should be back in about a week.”

Dad didn’t just look at the siege on the evening news one night and decide to go help. He had been deeply involved with the Indian community, particularly the Sioux, for some years. He worked at a social service agency in Portland called the Urban Indian Bureau. His close ties to the community had made him almost an honorary member. He made ceremonial drums and gave or traded them to his Indian friends.

Frank in 1976

One such friend was Frank White Buffalo Man, the last surviving grandson of the famous Sitting Bull. For one drum Dad made, Frank traded a wonderful oil-on-canvas he had painted of a bald eagle in flight, which still hangs in Dad’s house. Dad’s friendship with Frank also rendered another honor. Dad presented each of his children to Frank to receive a Siouan name. I went with Dad to meet him, and Frank White Buffalo Man named me Hoksila (pronounced Hoke-sheela), which means, “Young Man” or “Boy.” At age 8 this left me rather underwhelmed. On the one hand, I knew I was being honored (or rather Dad was), but I had hoped for something like “Bear Killer” or “Big White Wolf.” Young Man? Gee, I hope I can live up to that! Even so, I have never forgotten the meeting or the name I was given. I have recently learned that this very word was also applied affectionately to warriors or soldiers, just as in English we might say, “our boys in uniform.”

Dad would take us to pow-wows. There was a big one every year at Delta Park in Portland. I was utterly entranced by the real ti-pis, traditional dress and the fry bread. The music and dancing I found hypnotic. Even as a teenager in Montana, I didn’t pass up opportunities to go to Native dances or other events.

I didn’t understand what was happening in South Dakota, exactly. It sort of blended in with the general upheaval of the times. My own experience was of the demonstrations that my parents went to, and some of which they had taken me to. I vaguely understood there was something to be upset about. I also knew this meant marching and picketing with signs and chanting and singing songs and making your own cigarettes which didn’t smell anything like the ones my parents smoked. The police often showed up and that meant trouble. That I had I seen on the news, not in person. But the occupation at Wounded Knee was on a whole other level. The AIM militants had machine guns, not folk songs. The Federal response was to prepare for a full military engagement, and this meant tanks, cannon and fighter jet fly-overs. Luckily I didn’t know this at the time. My parents, whether by design or by accident, manged to shield us kids from most of the insanity that we would have seen on the evening news.

When Dad came back, he brought two things. One was the story of his attempt to sneak food into the besieged Indians under the cover of night. With another person they were creeping through a field when they were spotted and arrested by the FBI. They were booked and locked up for the night. The next day they were kicked loose and had to leave.

He also brought souvenirs for us kids. He gave me a copper c-shaped cuff bracelet with an Indian design on it. I put it on and wore it for the next seven years. I rarely took it off. I slept and bathed and showered and swam with it on. I got used to washing off the green mark it left on my wrist. I was occasionally teased by my peers for wearing a bracelet, even though there wasn’t anything especially feminine about it.

I invested the bracelet with immense personal significance and value. It was from my dad. It memorialized an adventure that epitomized for me his courage and sense of justice. It represented the Native culture we both admired. It held every bit of this meaning and reminded me of it every day, every time I looked at it. I was going to wear it forever.

I certainly tried to. When I was in high school, I had to take it off for sports fairly often. Eventually a crack appeared in the middle of the band, and I knew it was going to break in two. I asked someone if it could be welded back together, but I knew that it was time to give it up, not repair it. I took it off some time in my sophomore year when it finally broke, and eventually it was lost as I moved around over the next two years. Since I stopped wearing it because I had to, rather than by choice, I told myself that everything that it meant to me I could keep with me always, even though the bracelet was gone. I had seen Citizen Kane when I was eleven; I knew my little Rosebud could end up in the flames, but that I didn’t have to lose what it stood for. I let go of my childish idea of wearing it forever — reluctantly, though.

The summer before I started high school (1978), Dad, Jane and I drove across the country from Portland, stopping in Missoula to put all our things in storage. Then we headed toward the East Coast. Along the way, as I sat in the back seat of our Ford Pinto, I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. As we drove through the country where so much of the history took place, the whole sad drama of the clash between Indian tribes and the American settlers came vividly to life for me. On the third day of  our trip, we came to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. It was one of the most impressive and haunting places I have ever visited. There Sitting Bull, among others, led a huge army that  destroyed the Seventh Cavalry, killing every last man. The graves stand where they fell. And here I stood, with my Instamatic camera, 102 years later, privately cherishing the name given me by the grandson of the warrior chief. I felt connected to the land, its memories, the fallen, and the continuous thread running through time that ties the past to the present moment. I think Dad must have felt something like this, too.

A day or two later, driving through South Dakota, we walked through a tourist stop gift shop, and I saw some bracelets like the one I was wearing, the one that Dad had bought five years before. They cost a couple of dollars at the most. There was nothing special about them — not like mine: My bracelet had gunfire and war paint, Sun Dance and campfire and starry Great Plains nights. My bracelet remembered fallen warriors,  my brave Dad and the sons of Sitting Bull; it smelled like bison jerky and fry bread; it held courage and love and remembrance and a good name: Young Man.  If you can get all of that in a bracelet, it turns out you probably don’t need that bracelet – not forever, anyway.

The Divine Projectionist

This is my contribution to the February SynchroBlog. This month’s theme is “Creativity and Christianity.” You can see links to the other bloggers’ contributions below the post.

As a teenager I worked at a downtown Seattle cinema, in the old days when our corporate chain was obliged to employ union projectionists. Our projectionist would arrive a half-hour before the first show in our single screen, 900-seat theater, and would leave minutes after the last reel had rolled out. Without him the show did not go on. We, the ticket-takers and concession clerks,  did not know how to operate the projector, and even if we did, we were not allowed to.

He loaded and unloaded the reels, focused the lens, and switched from one projector to the next just as one reel finished and the other began. He had to time it; it wasn’t automated. Most importantly, he was there should the machine jam, or the celluloid melt or break. We could count on his skill to quickly splice the print back together and get the movie up and running again.

I see art as a kind of projection, a projection of the human soul. But it comes from the broader human urge to create, to fashion, to shape, to invent, to solve. Therefore to limit this impulse to the arts would be to miss the full scope of human creativity. An engineer, a relief worker, a car mechanic, a librarian, a counselor, business owner, is each projecting their soul, communicating that part of themselves that comes out of a deep human need to create what was not there before – machines, enterprises, order, solutions, plans, tools, survival.

Where does the urge to create come from? The Creator. We have this because in making us He stamped us with Himself:

So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. -Gen. 1:27

What we see when we observe the creative endeavors is the work of the soul, the projection of the image of God expressing itself through work and personality in the visible and audible world. Creating may come from a desire, as in childbearing, to leave something behind, a posterity, something reaching into the future beyond our own lifespan. It may come from a dim apprehension of the eternal. It may be a kind of mirror-making: “I see myself in what I have made.”  It may be a way of opening our inner selves to others: “See who I am by what I have made.” There is an element of mystery to this;  we don’t completely understand it. And there is something that holds us in awe when we see it produce really marvelous and beautiful things. But there is without any doubt a reflection of the Creator God in it all, the One who calls something out of nothing, and it is good.

Since every human being bears God’s image, this creative urge I suppose is present in everyone. But it is sometimes suppressed. It is sometimes perverted and becomes twisted into various desires to destroy. (In Graham Greene’s  short story, The Destructors, some boys in post-war bombed-out London discover a creative outlet in demolishing a building.) It can also be hindered through our physical, mental and emotional limitations. But as a Christian, the question arises: How is creativity, especially in the artistic arena, different -  if at all -  for the Christian? Does it make a difference  that we acknowledge God, that the Holy Spirit lives within us? Would the Spirit be like a divine Projectionist, making sure that everything is as should be in the projection booth?

I have wrestled with this question for many years. I cannot cite any authority or scripture, just my thoughts and observations.  But across the board, it seems the answer is: not necessarily. I’m sure it can, and probably should. What that difference should be, though, I’m not at all sure of.  Should it make a difference whether or not an artist is a Christian? Yes, but it clearly does not, much of time.

This is for the same reason that a person’s character, their lifestyle, their worldview, does not necessarily reflect the influence of God’s Holy Spirit on their inner selves. They have some responsibility in letting the Spirit take hold of them and work that influence. But what would such influence be on their creative expression? Leaving the question of skill or talent aside, how would one paint differently, or sing differently or write differently? You see the problem: for every outstanding artist you might point to who believes, I can offer one (or five) who does not believe in God or even the soul. But they are masters of their medium. Believing does not equal better.

Two answers are usually offered. One is that the Christian artist possesses a worldview that colors everything that the artist concerns herself with, and always takes God and His revelation into account. The other is that a distinctly Christian ethic oversees everything she does in her work.  To put this in plastic-wristband terms, “How would Jesus see this?” and “How would Jesus do this?” I think for some people, these questions do not lead them into deep waters, but very shallow ones. Instead of experiencing freedom in such inquiry, they suffer the imposition of very tight constraints on their creative vision and sensibility. Often they end up seeing themselves as conscripted into a Ministry of Propaganda for God, in which every effort must be baptized with Godly Messaging or worse yet, Christian Retail. The saccharine and the trite, the manipulative and the tacky often win out.

The other way in which they might go astray is to not ask these questions at all, and concern themselves only with the mundane — without the least penetration of truth and grace into their creative work.

A person who abides in Christ, who walks in intimate friendship with God’s Spirit, is a person who is being changed. A changed person is a changed artist. But does a changed artist mean changed art? This I do not have an answer to. I have a vague idea that the art the new person makes maybe better than what the old person made, but in what identifiable way? I keep coming to the fact that the Spirit is in the business of changing what we do by the more important work of changing us. But what does He want the Christian artist to do? As with most questions of the Christian life, we begin on the inside.  Do I create what I do because of who I am, or do my creative efforts go to making me a different person? It seems that these two things work together , much the like the Spirit and the person who seeks to be ever more yielded to Him.  So why should I want to create? What do I want to do?

Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. -1 Cor. 10:31

I ought to seek God’s glory. Our creative work can do that, whether it’s poetry, prose or photographing a duck. I ought to love my neighbor. I can do that through my creative work. But I have learned that one of the things that marks a spiritually mature person is their desire for Jesus. More than what He gives, they want Him, to simply be present with Him and grow to see and know Him more. If I have turned my creativity over to Him, I believe He will use it to reveal Himself more deeply to me. Just as love and generosity on my part bring me closer to Him in his love and generosity, my creativity brings me into a more intimate knowledge of Him as creator. Now I am beginning to sense that how and why I create may cause what I create to recede in importance. Perhaps now I am finding my way into the freedom that the Spirit brings. I find freedom in a simple truth I learn in the first chapter of Genesis: the Creator is always above what He creates, and that is true for us as well.

•  •  •

I have contended that there is no qualitative difference in the  Christian artist’s work. They may or may not photograph the duck differently, or choose different subject matter, but it won’t be better simply by virtue of their faith or spirituality. This may not seem to comport very well with what I have said God wants to do and may be doing on the inside of the faith-filled artist. But how can one deny that many traditionally minded Christians live in an  impoverished subculture, where art seems to be just another tool, or a distraction from truly spiritual realms of life.  And much of the schlock we sell as art is derivative at best, “christianized” versions what we admire in the “secular” world. The truth is, for whatever reason (and it may be what I alluded to above), we lack the freedom to fully express ourselves in the arts the way we do in other vocations and avocations. We produce engineers, nurses and counselors (which, again, can be creative work) but few artists. Consequently, there are few Christians found among today’s prominent painters, sculptors, choreographers, playwrights or filmmakers. And where we produce the most, in music, few have mastered their art or exercised the same degree of freedom as their secular counterparts.

Consider one of my favorite movies of all time: The Elephant Man. No Christian producer or director has ever made as beautiful and moving a statement of  the sanctity of human life as this. The creator? David Lynch, a follower of the late  Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and a practitioner of his Transcendental Meditation®. And one weird dude. I know people who would decorate their homes with Thomas Kincaid® prints but would never consider Lynch to even be an artist. Yet, I would contend that he has better represented a Christian perspective in this film than Kincaid’s® country cottage pastorals ever will. (Until very recently we have been offered the Left Behind movies as the best evangelicals could produce. Thankfully that is changing.)

This leaves me loosely holding the conclusion that it is the soul as the image of God (or having the image) that projects  -  produces -  the creative objects that the souls of others respond to in such profound ways. And if this is true we should expect the work of any great artist to be worthy of our attention. They may be running their booth without  the Projectionist, and without Him, things could spin out into chaos or the abyss at any time. But remarkably they manage to occasionally give us the extraordinary and the profound.

The fact that people with no regard for God often project the true and the beautiful is testimony to God’s patent on the human soul, the infinite worth of the image of God and the one who bears it.

This is what all of us, regardless of what our chosen medium is, should aspire to: a real soul-to-soul communion with our neighbors that leaves them different, encouraged, enlightened, thinking, opened to the unseen, reaching for something better and higher. And my hope would be that we fix our dependency on the Projectionist, the Spirit of Jesus, to accomplish that.

.  .  .

Here are the link lists so far for February’s SynchroBlog.