“You Need to Grieve” by Morf Morford

I need to grieve.

It was my first time teaching at a tribal college. I was new to the community and had a ton of prep work to do for my classes.

We had about week of prep time before the school year began.

I was learning my way around campus, meeting other teachers and staff and a few local tribal leaders and trying to get ready for several classes I had never taught before.

In the midst of this, I got notice of a mandatory meeting for all non-Native staff and faculty.

I already had more to do than I could get done in just a few days.

I went to the meeting with all that I had to do on my mind.

About eight or ten white (they called us Anglos) non-Natives gathered in a sparse room.

None of us wanted to be there or had any idea why we had been called there.

A Native elder slowly walked into the room. He could have been sent by central casting from Hollywood with his withered skin, rumpled clothes and long gray braids.

In a slow, quiet, weary voice, he stuttered out, “You need to grieve.”

We looked at each other, thoroughly dumb-founded.

I kept thinking, I have lesson plans to do, I don’t have time for this.

But he continued, “My people have walked this land and fished these waters, we have spoken our language for more generations than we could count. We know the seasons and the tides, the animals and the earth, we know where we have come from and who our people are, we know our creator who gives us life and to whom we will return…but you have lost it all. You don’t know where you come from or where you belong. You have lost your faith and culture.”

My lesson plans were swirling around in my head like loose papers in a windstorm.

“You believe in a god, if you do at all, who is far from you, who doesn’t know your name or even the name of your people. You don’t know where you come from or where you belong. You don’t know your own people, your own voice and your own destiny. You have lost your culture and your history. You need to grieve.”

And then he walked out of the room.

I still had lesson plans to do. I still stressed and worried about my classes.

I had my classes and everything seemed to go well.

But that tribal elder knew more about me than I did.

Years later I still think about that encounter and I understand that the emptiness I see in the culture around me–and within me–continues to grow.

I need to grieve.


Ever since he was a teenager, many have described Morf as an “old soul”. Hitchhiking up and down the West Coast (and ending up in Oaxaca, Mexico), teaching at a Tribal College for many years and living in Beijing, China hasn’t made him any younger. Tacoma is his reluctant home. He’s never been sure if the feeling was mutual.