What is silence? Is it the mere absence of words or sound? Or is it a sound itself? Simon and Garfunkel in their early 1960s hit, "The Sound of Silence," focused on a meaning that seems to predominate in our society—that silence implies apathy, or a lack of communication. They sang: "Silence like a cancer grows. Hear my words that I might teach you, Take my arms that I might reach you. But my words like silent raindrops fell, and echoed in the wells of silence."

For Native peoples, silence historically was understood as a means to convey often profound understandings or revelations. For example, in Frank Waters' classic work, "The Man Who Killed the Deer," a brilliant novel about Pueblo life, there is a telling passage that reminded me of the power of silence and of the exquisite role that it once played in Native deliberations, reflecting a heightened degree of maturity. He said, "A Council meeting is one-half talk and one-half silence. The silence has more weight, more meanings, more intonations than the talk. It is angry, impatient, cheerful, but masked by calmness, patience, dignity. Thus the members move evenly together."

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Copyright © 2009 Indian Country Today. This article first appeared in Indian Country Today 28:31 (July 2009), 5.

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