Is there still a place for Indian time in this busy world?
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
When we are young it seems that time is either too short or too long. Summer vacations are much too fast and it seems like the school year is forever.
But something happens to time as we age. The older we get the faster it flies. Remember the old saying; "Time is like a roll of toilet paper: the closer you get to the end, the faster it goes.
Out here on the Northern Plains we have another form of telling time: It is called Indian time. It means that a meeting will start when everybody gets there and the meeting will last as long as all of the people have had the chance to voice their opinions. Indians didn't spend their lives with one eye on the clock because they had to deal with that thing called time long before they ever saw or heard of a clock.
Time was measured by the movements of the sun, stars and the moon. You've all heard about using the moon to gauge time. "It will be many moons before I see you again." There is a town in Wyoming called Ten Sleeps. It was named because from one point on the map it took 10 nights of travel (10 sleeps) to get to that location. Where the journey originated we don't exactly know, but it must have been a well traveled destination from that locale to make it important enough to name a town after the journey.
When Lakota children started school, maybe at the day schools that were common in the early years, or later at the Indian boarding schools, time became an important factor in their lives. Classes started at a certain time. Recess was at a certain time. And if you attended a mission boarding school, the morning church service was at a certain time. The way their grandparents measured time became inconsequential. But isn't it a thing of beauty to measure time by following nature. For example, when the nights became so cold that the branches in the trees made snapping noises, to the Lakota it was known as "The moon of the popping trees" (December). And then the children started to follow a routine based on time.
The dining rooms were opened for meals at a certain time and the closed at a certain time. The Sunday night movies were held at a certain time. And so the children from the far reaches of the Indian reservations were now oriented to living their lives on a time schedule.
Of course time had a way of weaving itself into many facets of Indian life then and now. The children know what time Sesame Street is on the air. They know what time a basketball game is going to start and if they were told they had to see the principal at 9:00 a.m. sharp, they kept their eye on the clock to make sure they were there on time. And so time was not only a friend, it could be an enemy.
For those who left the reservation to enlist in the military, they ran into a whole new system of keeping time. The first night in basic training, or boot camp as it was best known, they heard the bugle play reveille as the sun rose and taps when the sun set. The clock no longer read 3:00 p.m., it now was known as 1500 hours. In the Navy time was measured in bells.
A joke in the Navy was about a radio station on the San Francisco Naval Shipyard that one day announced the time like this: "For all of you Army personnel, the time is now 1500 hours. For you Navy guys, the time is now 3 bells, and for you Marines, the big hand is on the 12 and the little hand is on the 3." Needless to say the Marines mutinied after that little announcement.
While in the armed forces Native Americans were thoroughly acclimated to time. Many even learned to synchronize their watches with their squad leaders before heading into a potential firefight. The word would be, "We will kick off at 1600 hours. Synchronize your watches." Of course, the men about to go into battle changed it to, "Time to simonize your watches."
And so time has become a part of our lives. We get up to go to work by an alarm clock and leave work when the clock strikes a certain hour. Children rush out to the street to catch a school bus at a certain time and they are dropped off at the front door by the bus at a certain time.
Does that mean that Indian time is no longer relevant? If you have ever had to attend a Tribal Council meeting or a board meeting on an Indian reservation you would not think so. A news reporter from a Rapid City television station showed up for a meeting of Lakota that was supposed to start at 9:00 a.m. Well, he sat and checked his watch every five minutes until it was nearly 10:00 a.m. before the key people scheduled for the meeting began to wander into the meeting place with little or no urgency. It drove the reporter right up the wall because to the media time is money and this guy felt like he was about to break the television station's bank.
In a way it is sad to see the concept of Indian time vanish, but like so many things that are dependent upon the clock, it will probably happen. What do you think?
(Tim Giago is the editor and publisher of the weekly Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He founded the Native American Journalists Association, The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today and the Lakota Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can call him at 605-721-1266)