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Friday, April 22, 2016

How to Wrestle With Sorrow

 




How to Wrestle With Sorrow


If you have to mourn, do it on a screened-in front porch of a tin-roofed house on the cemetery side of a small southeastern town, on a day when raindrops plunge from the sky like suicides off some cloud-obscured bridge, ramming their determined little heads into the pavement as if they are on a mission from God.  If you can’t escape grief, invite your dogs over to curl by your side, dogs with round brown eyes lifting now and then to make sure your sobs mean you’re at least still breathing and dinner may be delayed but not cancelled altogether.  If you cannot beat back the heaps of sorrow layered like so many socks stuffed into a drawer, no not one more minute, then put on your absent lover’s flannel shirt against the chill, watch the sodden redbud blossoms wash down the street’s sudden asphalt river, spit out every curse your father ever uttered, and a few you’ve learned from friends he would never have approved of.  Blow your nose so loudly you startle the hormonal robins wading through wet grass in avian lust for worms or nesting materials; their silly feathers dripping, beaks bright as lanterns.  You’ve been there.  You know.  If you must give yourself over to lamentation, do it right: keen all the names of those you’ve lost, offer up what shattered pieces of heart you’ve got left; question faith, justice, and the point of creation in a world that worships the un-dead.  But just remember this: it was real.  That hatchet of joy sunk into your chest?  That opening up of the sealed tomb?  That sliver of connection to your own immaculate beauty and strength?  It was all real, every bit of it.  And once known, that is a wound you’ve earned, a brilliant seed sown that no one can ever uproot.

Deborah A. Miranda 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

"That Word"



That Word 

with thanks to Mary TallMountain

I’m wondering about good-bye,
about the word, the act, the way
it rings and rings through the cave
of my body like a bell with a solid
stone clapper, ceaseless echo -
each cry of abandonment a shot
that ricochets off ribs, pelvis,
vertebrae, skull until I am nothing
but a pinball machine of departures,
my heart smacked and jarred by
electricity, my teeth buzzing
with all that is not spoken but
still swarms and contracts, 

don’t go

                                 come back

       don’t leave me

I’m wondering about leave-taking,
the synchronized art of letting go -
what bony mechanism in the hands
have I never learned to release,
which Rosetta Stone, Berlitz primer
contains the blistering language
that will make my tongue curl into
a silver sob of acceptance,
stop this corporeal cacophony,
let my clenched lungs open –


         don’t leave
don’t go
                      come back

I’m wondering about these rules,
how good-bye means done, over, end –
and what if I overthrew the system,
erased those inky bitter laws, wrote
my own regime’s manifesto across all
that freed white space, alphabet looping
like a murmuration of starlings,
each letter knowing when to turn
sideways, dive and roll, pump upward
into the curve of a wave that spells
so long, till soon, take care -
a design made of faith like feathers,
light enough to carry us
through spirals of time
where there is no word for good-bye
or return, just one heart
always already tucked
inside another:
                              micha eni hikpalala,
            I’ll see you.



Deborah A. Miranda

Friday, April 15, 2016

Split This Rock: My First Time

 


After last night’s poetry readings/performances at Split This Rock, I clapped with all my heart, cheered with the crowd at the Nat Geo auditorium, then, before the lights were even all the way up, gathered myself and walked out into the dark.  Out through the crowd of well-dressed people in the museum holding their little dishes of cheese and fruit, juggling tall glasses of champagne and exchanging phone numbers; out past the guards, and onto the lively street of D.C. at ten p.m. on a Thursday night.  

Cherry blossoms drifted through the air like little pieces of a hundred different alphabets.

I didn’t speak to anyone.  I didn’t want to speak to anyone.  My head and body and heart were all full of tenderness and an exquisite energy that I could not voice and did not want to disturb.  Even now, 9 hours later, words are hard to summon.  Hearing poetry/story told with such passion, honesty, and craft – all at the same time! – for two hours was like standing in front of a tsunami, watching it come towards me, letting it pound me into the earth, and then miraculously rising to find myself still alive, more alive. 

For the record, last night’s readers:

Bobbi Johnson (oh my god this girl is a hurricane; high school D.C. Youth Slam Champion 2015, her poem about the erasure of Black girls and women’s names and presence is engraved in my soul; it's not in the program or online, but as soon as I find it, I'll post here)

Sara Brickman (Split This Rock 2015 Poetry Contest winner, “Letter From the Water at Guantanamo Bay” – I couldn’t breathe and when I re-read this poem, I feel claustrophobic in the most exquisite way.

Aracelis Girmay (Read from her new book Black Maria: I will quote from a review here, because I didn’t know how to sum this up without the poem in front of me: “The crowning achievement of this book is a jaw-dropping long-form poem which weaves together stories from the youth of astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Girmay’s dreams of her own future child.”  “Jaw-dropping” is not what happened for the audience last night, however.  I have never heard an entire auditorium of people breathe, sigh, moan, and cry out in concert before.)

Craig Santos Perez ("Spam's Carbon Footprint" SP-SP-SPAMMMMMMMM)  made us laugh and groan with recognition.  “CARE”  made me cry.  "Daddy's Here." Oh, Daddy.

and Ross Gay ("A Small Needful Fact" but this is the smallest part of what you need to know about this poet)

I don’t know if I can take much more of this festival, but since I read today with other Indigenous poets Heid Erdrich, Karenne Wood, Trevino Brings Plenty and Eric Gansworth, I don’t seem to have much choice.  If you don’t hear from me again, know that I went up in flames, willingly.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Namo'esa [to cleanse]

Back in February, I took part in a three-day Digital Storytelling Workshop at my university.  I've been collecting video, photographs and documents for many years now, but finding the time to master even the basics of iMovie has been difficult.  This workshop gave me the chance to do my favorite thing: obsess over a project for three whole days (I would have gone longer, but that was the limit of the workshop, and since I don't own an iPad, the files for the video are stored and I haven't received them back from the workshop leaders yet).  Multi-media presentation, mixing historical documents with story, photographs, recorded voice ... this, to me, allows so much more story to happen!

We brought a script to class - what we thought we'd be using as our narration - and workshopped it with peers and the two wonderful workshop leaders.  Mine changed considerably over the first two days, as I cut away, invented and honed what could be done in the 3-4 minutes of storytelling time allowed.  This time restriction is partly human attention span, and partly what can be managed in a three day workshop.  I pushed the limit, as I'm in love with the video footage and the sense of being close to the Ancestors that the song included gives me.

The version of iMovie we used was limited to iPad's less flexible edition (the workshop was focused on using iPads with students in the classroom), so some of my desired outcomes were impossible.  I could rework this video in my copious free time using better software, but given my other commitments, I'm going to let it go for now. 

I thought this video might stand as an introduction to the group of poems I'm working on that explore the voices of the California missions themselves - what they think and feel about their roles in the subjugation and wounding of California Indians.  It became a poem of its own, as language is wont to do when the poet lets it take over and stops being so bossy.

Here is the video, followed by the script.  I offer it up to the Ancestors.

Namo'esa: Cleansing

Namo'esa [to cleanse]



They call the California Missions the “21 beads of the mission rosary.”  They call this road El Camino Real.

What would these missions say, if they could speak?  What would I ask them, if they would answer?

Were you complicit in war crimes?  Or were you, too, victims of Spanish colonial greed and conquest?  What skeletons did you tuck away in those adobe walls?  What is your secret name?

Some missions give me an alias, an alibi.
Some missions confess as if I were their priest. 
Some spit at me for my pagan ways.
One mission, national landmark, wanted me to burn her down.
Some deny any knowledge of floggings, rapes, angry neophytes who torched fields.
Some missions have committed suicide, leave me only a brief note.
Some missions swell fat with lies manufactured for profit by Disney.

I listen.  I listen to them all.  I listen to swallows.  I listen to clay bricks.  Adobe.  Ghosts hiding in a fourth grade mission diorama.  Bells.

I listen, but it’s not easy.  Sometimes I don’t like what I hear.  Sometimes I cry. 
I offer tobacco.  Sage.  Mugwort.
I offer poems, prayers.
I offer my blistered feet, promises made of sweat.
I sit in the shade of two hundred year old olive trees, wear the stains of their black fruit on my skin and clothing.
I run my fingers beneath the breathless music of twenty-one fountains afraid of drought.
I taste the bruised sweet flesh of fig trees whose roots clenched around memory like a club.

Beneath the missions, our homeland stirs.  Beneath this unhealed scar running up the side of my homeland, I follow the tracks of a time-traveling coyote.

Deborah A. Miranda

Saturday, April 9, 2016

April is the Cruelest (California 4th Grade Mission) Month


I happened to look in my spam folder this morning, and found this cry for help waiting in limbo.  I quickly pulled it out and wrote back.  Thought I'd post them both here, as it's THAT time of the year and I'm getting a lot of these kinds of notes from frustrated and distraught teachers and parents.

Here's how I responded:


Hi M.,

Your note ended up in my spam folder for some reason.  I just wanted to tell you that this is an ongoing battle!  Not sure how you found my email, but if you haven't yet read my blog piece about this, try that: http://whenturtlesfly.blogspot.com/2009/12/4th-grade-california-mission-projects.html

The comments on that particular post have some good ideas from both parents and teachers.

Here are a few more ideas:

1.  Many 4th grade teachers allow students to do research on the tribes that were taken into the missions.  A report on this tribe is the alternative to the actual mission report.  

2.  An alternative to the mission model might be creating a topographical map of Indian territories in the state, or just in your county (seeing the state filled with Indigenous names and territories is an awe-some experience for Californian kids used to seeing cities and freeways); or a display of photos of Indian baskets, jewelry, clothing over time - it's fun to do a "then and now" comparison, since children often don't realize California Indians today also dress in jeans, Lakers sweatshirts and sunglasses! 
 

3.  Try googling for the tribe nearest you and email a contact person to see if they have any members who do classroom visits.

4.  A Timeline of California Indian History:  By researching the tribes from pre-contact to the present, students learn that many California Indian tribal peoples are still here, still practicing our culture, and human just like them.  Many kids think California Indians are all dead - I nearly scared one young girl to death at Mission Dolores once!  The visual effect of a long scroll-timeline is powerful, especially if students make it multi-media (photos, maps, charts, drawings): you can wrap it around the room, and students can walk along to see major events - including the arrival of the Spanish, Mexican, and Americans and, most importantly, on into the present - and their research can include often erased facts such as population dives, loss of languages, recuperation of languages, important court cases about land, establishment of California Indian Basket Weavers, California Indian Conference, etc.

5.  Simply educating yourself about what the doublespeak on mission websites really means can be helpful.  For example, the "monjerio," the room where single Indian women and girls were kept at night, is often explained to children as simply "the women's quarters."  The fact that women and girls were LOCKED UP in this room against their wills, that it was dark, smelly, had pits for toilets, was full of germs, and kept little girls away from their mothers at night, is never spoken of.  YOU can teach the children how to read critically, question the websites they read, and search for more honest information.

6.  I have a letter to 4th graders on my newer blog that might be helpful, too.  Feel free to use it.  http://badndns.blogspot.com/2015/12/dear-sierra-open-letter-to-california.html

Alternatives to 4th grade mission projects tend to take a lot of work, which is partly why it's hard to get educators to change their lesson plans (that, and many simply don't realize that they aren't teaching truthful history - mis-education perpetuating mis-education).  There isn't an actual alternative curriculum available yet though several groups are working to get them accepted. For now, focus on learning the truth and translating that is often the best thing you can for your students.  Letting them know that there ARE other truths out there is a great first step, especially if you are just realizing what the missions are about and don't have time to plan for this year - there's always next year, and since you are IN California, you can actually layer mini-lessons in all year long.

Many thanks for your concern, and please, let me know if you come up with something new that I can add to my still in-progress list ...

Sincerely,
Deborah Miranda

Note to all: If you have more suggestions, PLEASE write into the comments with them.  I'll keep a list and update it for this blog.  Also, if any of the curricula in progress have actually been made available, please let me know that too, and sources to give.  Many thanks, all.  

And I'll leave you with this: "Gabe's 4th Grade Project" - Huwa!  Thanks to Vincent Medina and News from Native California.


https://vimeo.com/136237208
Click on photo to see video



Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Second Arrow



Here at W & L, we have three more days until the end of classes; finals week follows that, and then Spring Break. 

Just about everyone I see here is sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, and bogged down in professional, personal and world drama.  I'm counting myself as one of those people. 

As I walk to school in the biting wind beneath a promising sun, each step feels like one step too many.  I keep tripping on Lexington's famous bricks.  I'm kicking myself for falling back into depression after a wonderful reunion with family over the weekend.  Why am I so bad at dealing with life?  I argue with myself about the best way to deal with my exhaustion:  count my blessings, admire the wild violets in uncut grass (they'll be gone once the lawnmowers move in), make another, better, "to do" list? 

I even stop at a cafe to pick up a cup of chai, a rare treat in these diabetic days.  There, I run into a local pastor who tells me a funny story about some bizarre selection of songs he heard at an earlier gathering, and when I laugh at the story and the pastor's wry, puzzled expression as he tells it, I surprise myself.  I didn't realize I had a laugh in me.

As I walk back out into the street, I remember this story:

“The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is." The Buddha then asked, "If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.”


No matter how many times I remind myself not to loose that second arrow, the one where I berate myself for being slow, tired, overwhelmed, inadequate or simply bad at adulting ... I do it anyway.  I guess what I should praise myself for is not going on to the third arrow??


Anyway, as we trudge toward the end of this semester, enduring wacky spring weather, meetings, political doomsday, and whatever personal demons are at work ... I'll keep working at catching that second arrow before I release it.  This does not come easy to me.  I think it's important to note that it is much harder for survivors of trauma (that first arrow) - and this group most frequently includes people of color, LGBTQ, low-income and women's communities - to overcome deeply ingrained narratives of blame and guilt.  And being a "survivor" doesn't mean we've left those moments of trauma in the distant past.  It means we're always already survivors, walking through racism, sexism, micro and macro aggressions ALL. DAY. LONG.  When is there time to recuperate?  When is there a place to take refuge?

I'm glossing over huge things here.  Probably because I'm too tired and busy to dive into the places this post could go if I let it.  Some of this, I simply don't have language for yet.  But I want to try.

Little moments of joy do happen.  Maybe it's just a good laugh.  Maybe it's knowing, really knowing for sure, for one fierce moment, that we are loved or protected or cherished.  Time isn't linear.  I'm learning to return to those moments and let them feed me when my soul is starving.  And sometimes there are little gifts, like this morning's violets. 

I'm no Pollyanna.  Life can suck.  A lot. 

Another reason why that second arrow really isn't necessary.  I'll keep reminding myself.  Again and again and again.  Like those wild violets: persistent, resistant, tenacious little suckers. No wonder I love them so much.



Saturday, March 26, 2016

Elegy Boxes



During times of loss, it's hard to find a way to express what is inexpressible - whether that's the end of a relationship, a wound from a betrayal, or a death.  Separations, partings, departures - in my own life, I've accumulated a lot of them, and in most cases, never got the chance to properly say good-bye, or make sense of the good-bye that I received from someone else.  

Poetry has served me well for many years, acting as a kind of container that I get to shape, in just the way I want to shape, my grief.

But sometimes - as much of a ceremony as writing, revising, and occasionally publishing that poetry can be, sometimes - I just need more.  

Right now I'm experiencing a kind of loss that, in the grand scheme of things, isn't the end of the world, but still acts as a catalyst for all those other doors into old pain to fly open.  It's one of the injustices of the Universe that for some of us, one loss can open up a can of grief-worms that just go flying all over, as if they own the place.  Unexpected losses, the kind you have no time to prepare for, are surprisingly fierce.  Saying goodbye to someone whose work has helped me process many a trauma has acted as a reminder to me that I still carry around a lot of baggage that pokes and stings me in ways I no longer find useful.  

Crafting something physical to hold these old pains has become a part of this farewell.  I've never been good at good-bye - a word I've experienced as more of a curse than the blessing ("God be with ye") of its original meaning.  This should come as no revelation to those who know me.  But maybe I can learn something from this particular goodbye; that is, how to say goodbye, how to do goodbye, so that it is not uncontrolled devastation.  And, looking back at some apocalyptic good-byes in my life, in some cases good-bye was good riddance; owning that, too, is something I've had difficulty admitting.

So I began this project, Elegy Boxes.  It isn't finished yet, but it's coming along.  It's been such a positive experience, though, that I want to share it with those who might also crave a construction project made from grief.

The basics are simple enough: start with about 500 written words, the core of a loss, written down.  Simple?  This part cost me some blood, sweat and tears; a little extra therapy time; and brutal (yet crucial) honesty.  In the end, I knew when I was finished with each piece; you will, too.  Mine are focused on individuals with whom I did not get to say good-bye, or with whom I did not "do" good-bye very well (I suck at good-byes; okay, okay, in all fairness, no one ever taught me!).  I call them "elegies" based loosely on the poetic form; nothing here is by-the-book, in case you haven't guessed yet.

Next, I typed the text into my computer, and printed it on the back of one-sided origami paper (you can play with font, size, colors ... right now, I am doing pretty basic stuff - triage, you might say).

The secret to printing on thin origami paper?  Print out your text on regular printer paper first, utilizing margin tools to create a "box" of text that will fit on the origami square.  I eyeballed it at first so I had someplace to start.  (People better at math than I am could probably figure out how to do this without a test print.)  As a test, hold the printing paper up to a light, and layer the piece of origami paper over it; you'll see immediately if the type would go off an edge).  Then, tape the piece of origami paper - plain side up - directly over the printed out text (I do this to make absolutely sure that the text fits).  Use tiny pieces of scotch tape, and don't press too hard.  I find that just two little pieces, at the top corners of the origami paper, is plenty.  Determine which side of a piece of paper your printer prints on; most ink-jets use the reverse side of the paper in your paper tray, so put the now-united two sheets of paper face down in the tray.

Hit "print."  The sheet feeds smoothly into your printer and out comes the poem, now printed on the back of your origami paper.

Gently, gently pull off the scotch tape.  It might take awhile to get the hang of this without tearing your origami paper, but it can be done; another good exercise in patience!

Now you've got the material for the outside of your box (or the inside, whichever you choose).  Follow the directions for a basic origami box.  I chose to put my text on the outside of the box.  Play with this; maybe you want your text on the inside, where no one else can see it.  Want a second, smaller box to fit inside the first, so that your text is completely enclosed, or so you can put mementos or sage inside?  For me, cutting off 1/4" of a second piece of origami on only two of the sides gives me a smaller square just the right size to make a second box that fits inside the first box.  

Now that I've started this project, it's become a mindful, yet intense, good-bye ceremony for me.  After walking around in a bit of a heart-broken daze for two weeks, now I feel focused and forward-thinking again.  Rather than sucking up my energy and time in formless mourning, my grief has found a way of making itself a home just far enough outside of my body to let it go ... a little bit at a time.

I was confident that I couldn't be the first person to think of using origami for something like this, or for poetry in general, and sure enough, I've found a few other like-minded projects online.  I especially like "Poetry Boxes" by poet Amy Miller, which is a different kind of box altogether; and Origami Poems Project, which uses a form of one-page book that I learned 25 years ago in my daughter's kindergarten classroom, taken to a whole new level!

I'm sure there's more out there; letter-press printers, especially, are good at thinking this stuff up.  If you try your own Elegy Box, send me a picture.  The innovations possible are infinite.

What to do with Elegy Boxes?  I have my own little ceremony planned.  Let's just say it involves sage, flame, and a certain fire pit in the center of four great oaks.  Use your imagination!  

Certainly, good-byes are all unique, and saying good-bye is much more of an art form than I ever imagined.  The important thing is to say it: say goodbye in your own good time, in your own way, so that good-bye is a blessing for both you, and the person or event to whom you want to bid a heart-felt fare-well.



Monday, March 21, 2016

After the Anti-Racism Rally


Last week, recruitment fliers from the KKK turned up in the nicer neighborhoods around our little town, Lexington Virginia.  WHITE POWER.  WHITE PRIDE.

For people of color, Jews, LGBTQ folks, and others targeted by the KKK, this was an ugly reminder of what we face as we walk around the world in our very human bodies.  But for many of our white neighbors and colleagues, these fliers were a shock - even though we've testified time and time again about how POC or other targeted groups often feel unsafe, our energies spent negotiating microaggressions or outright oppressions, our time spent jumping hurdles other people don't seem to see.  The shock was, as one speaker noted, a wake-up call.

Taking this kind of shock and molding it into action is not easy, but in less than a week, a new group formed - CARE - Community Anti-Racism Education initiative, and this group took the lead in making today's anti-racism rally happen.  Pastor Lyndon Sayers spoke eloquently about the need for white people to educate and take action against racism without depending on POC, LGBTQ and others to call out racism and shoulder most of the work.  This was a wonderful moment for Lexington; a claiming of responsibility and solidarity.  I'm very glad my wife, Margo Solod, and I were there to witness speaker after speaker - white, Black, Jew - stand before a microphone in a public park at "rush hour" (with looky-loo traffic just yards away and one screaming white man on the corner making his beliefs known), and loudly denounce racism, accept the burden of dealing with it, and affirm the work to be done.  I heard (not just once but twice) the history of genocide and land theft brought up in the name of Indigenous peoples who have suffered colonization - something rarely, if ever, heard at a non-Native anti-racist gathering.

I saw my colleagues, students, and neighbors brought together, and it was good.  

It was good.  Not perfect, but good.  One speaker quoted George Washington's letter to the Jews of Newport, which has long been cited as the founding father's commitment to religious freedom.  The line “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid”  made me physically wince.  Ouch.  Maybe, not such a great person to quote from at this gathering, as I'm sure that vine and fig were planted, watered, trimmed and watched over by enslaved Africans, whose very lives were owned by Washington; people who had no vine and fig of their own, and never would.

Still, I am heartened that the KKK fliers have been met not by silence and ennui, but by voice and action.  Thank you, Lexington.  

And thank you, those who came before us - you're still lighting the way.


After the Anti-Racism Rally

“every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” – George Washington, Letter to the Jews of Newport

We walk home arm-in-arm, chilled
by March winds. You heat up homemade

tamales – pork, butternut squash, queso –
and we eat with our fingers, scrape

our teeth along corn husk ridges and valleys
filled with masa tender as marrow. 

Before darkness falls, before the moon rises,
I go outside, stir steamy compost with a pitchfork,

pick up dog shit in the grass.
You want this to be a metaphor,

don’t you?  Or some apt allegory
for how cleaning up racism is a lot like

scooping dog shit so you don’t
step in it while weeding the Cosmos?

Maybe it’s the rich black compost
that appeals to you:

how we make beauty out of rotten
hulks of onions, green pepper cores.

Sorry to disappoint. This is merely a report
on my daily life.  Rebellious?  Radical?

Hell no: a small-town lesbian enjoying
ties to her indigenous roots, relishing her fig

and vine, dinner with her wife, all 
without permission or license

from the KKK – folks, that’s nothing less
than a fucking miracle,

a miracle built on bodies, blood, bones -
on dreams too tough to decompose.


Deborah A. Miranda

Thursday, December 17, 2015

DEAR SIERRA: AN OPEN LETTER TO CALIFORNIA FOURTH GRADERS

 
 
DEAR SIERRA: AN OPEN LETTER TO CALIFORNIA FOURTH GRADERS
 
by Professor Deborah A. Miranda (Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation) 
 
Dear Sierra, 
 
My sister Louise passed your message on to me; she's very busy as Chair of our tribe, and often asks me for my 2 cents worth when fourth graders write to her. You wanted to know the Ohlone-Esselen-Costanoan opinion of the missions. 
 
That's a tough question. The truth is, California Indians were doing fine before the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans arrived. We had everything we needed, including our own religions, leaders, music, languages, homes, families, foods, jobs and education. Our ways were different from the ways of Europeans, however, so they thought we needed "civilizing." When a people has religion, music, language, culture, education, and so on, however, that means they already are civilized. To force European culture on our culture was a huge mistake.
 
Our Ancestors were curious about the Spanish, of course, and about their religion, but we should have been allowed to decide for ourselves what we wanted. Instead, the missionaries made that decision for us. Of course, none of the Indians knew what baptism really meant, since for many years, no Spaniards knew any of our many languages. 
 
Can you imagine trying to go to your confirmation classes or learn a catechism when you don’t even speak the language – and then, the teachers beat you with hard, thick leather whips if you are upset? This was the situation our Ancestors found themselves in when the Spanish priests arrived.
 
Recently, Professor Jonathan Cordero, who is Ohlone/Chumash (California tribes) and teaches at California Lutheran University, published his research that shows how few California Indians truly converted, and how many of those converts subsequently died. Professor Cordero writes,
 
“Based on the Spanish records kept by the missionaries themselves, less than five percent of all baptized California Indians voluntarily converted (i.e., genuinely converted as opposed to simply having been baptized) to Christianity, and the vast majority of converts held a syncretistic faith comprised of both native and Catholic beliefs. 
 
On the other hand, nearly eighty percent of all baptized natives died prematurely. In other words, five of every one hundred baptized Indians was genuinely converted, while eighty of every one hundred died an untimely death. 
 
The high death rates for Indians did not result primarily from epidemic diseases as is commonly reported. Instead, the austere living and working conditions at the missions contributed to rates of death that grossly exceeded birth rates and that consequently led to the near destruction of native populations in a manner more severe than in Baja California.”
 
Civilized people don't hurt other people for being different. Many Indians do not think the Spanish were very civilized. Even during Junipero Serra’s time, visitors to the missions from Europe wrote letters and diaries saying, “This is as bad as the slave plantations in our colonies [in the West Indies]” and an explorer named Kotzebue wrote that “ … the soldiers attacked the Indian villages by night, lassoed the Indians, and dragged them back at their horses’ tails to slavery in the missions.”
 
As we know, making slaves out of people is not something a civilized nation should do.
 
The Missionaries did a lot of things that hurt Indian people and families. For example, all little girls over the age of 7 had to go sleep in the monjerio, a small building with no bathroom and small windows way up taller than anyone could reach. These rooms were dark, smelly and dirty, and the young women and girls kept in there got sick from germs and lack of fresh air. They were also very homesick for their families. It must have been scary to be away from their moms, dads, and siblings all night.
 
The Spaniards whipped Indians – men, women and children - if they broke any of the priest's rules. In our Native culture, we did not rely on physical punishment to discipline our people, so being whipped or put into stocks or chains was very frightening. Many Indians didn't agree with, or understand, the Spanish rules, but were punished even more if they protested or tried to run away.
 
You asked about favorite priests. The Spanish priests, and later the Mexican priests, were human beings with the same gifts and flaws as anyone else. So, some priests were considered 'kind' and others were considered 'mean.' But even a ‘kind’ priest world keep Indians in the missions against their will, have Indians whipped for leaving or for breaking other Spanish rules. Father Junipero Serra, for instance, wrote in his letters about how much he loved the Indians, and how badly he felt when the Spanish soldiers hurt or killed Indians. But even though Father Serra knew that the missions caused many terrible problems and deaths for Indians, he still did not change how he went about trying to convert Indians to Catholicism. He still believed that the Catholic Spaniard's way of being human was the ONLY way of being human, and that Indians – even the very old and wise! – were “children” who needed him to be their “father.”
 
This way of thinking is called "colonization." Colonization (or in California what we call "Missionization") was the belief that Indians needed to be taught how to live like Spaniards even if those Indians didn’t want or need to be taught.
 
Other Spanish priests who came to California, like a man named Father Horra, saw what was happening to Indians in the missions, and spoke out against it. The Church said these men had “gone insane” and sent them back to Mexico or Spain. Is it crazy to want to stop killing people?
 
Even as far back as 1552, a priest named Bartolomé de las Casas decided that enslaving and killing Indians was wrong, and wrote an honest report about it. Father Junipero Serra and all the other Spanish missionaries knew about this report.
 
In short, Missionization was a disaster for California Indians. The average Indian baby born in a California mission only lived to be 7 or 8 years old. Also, because of a European-American disease called syphilis, many Indian men and women could no longer have babies. It became harder and harder to maintain our population when so many were dying of starvation, over-work, and disease.
 
In the 65 years that the California Missions were run by the Catholic Church, the numbers of California Indians went from about one million to 350,000.
 
Can you imagine if 8 out of every 10 people you know died from being taken over by another group of people who showed up in your town and took over? Nowadays we call that bullying.
 
So mostly, the missions were not that much fun for Indians. But some of us did survive. We are still fighting for simple human rights like religion, education, languages, health care, and the honoring of our Ancestor’s remains (construction often leads to the digging up of Native burial grounds or sacred places). 
 
I hope you learn a lot about the missions and the California Indians who had to live there. It was a crazy time, a hard time, and a sad time. My sister and I want our Ancestors to be proud of us. We are only here because a few of them managed to survive, and used up all of their strength so we could live. But we know who we are, and we work every day to make our Nation stronger. 
 
Good luck with your project, 
 
Professor Deborah A. Miranda
Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of the Greater Monterey Bay Area
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
author of Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir 
Washington and Lee University
[updated 2015]

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Real Thanksgiving




Yesterday, on Thanksgiving Day, our neighbor up on House Mountain left a message that he's got a deer for us.  Since we eat only local meat as close to organic as possible, whether game or domesticated, this means once again our freezer will be full of protein unadulterated by antibiotics and other USDA-approved additives, and for that - especially as non-hunters - we are most grateful.

I am grateful particularly to Calvin, our closest neighbor up on the mountain. He is our age, mid to late 50's, but he looks 20 years older.  Maybe it's his thick silver beard and weathered skin.  Maybe it's working flat-out all of his life to support a family on very little actual cash but lots of ingenuity and smarts (I knew many men and women like this, growing up poor in rural Western Washington).  This man's family has lived on House Mountain for six generations.  They have always lived primarily off what they can raise and hunt.  Calvin remembers when his family used to raise goats because the deer population had been decimated (along with turkeys and pheasants) - a combination of over-hunting, cattle-grazing, and reduced grazing/food resources for these animals.  All of these creatures have since rebounded, and the deer, in particular, now require careful culling to maintain an even environmental keel (the turkey are plentiful, too, but it takes a lot more turkeys to overeat a mountain than it does deer).

So we have always given Calvin and his son permission to hunt on our 68 acres in the saddle of House Mountain - the 68 acres we are blessed to steward - in exchange for some of the venison.  It's been a deal that works out for both of us, as he augments his hunting area, and we don't have to buy expensive, organic meat.  Over the years, I can't count the times Margo and I have stood out under a starry winter sky talking with Calvin when he came to deliver our share - sipping his peach moonshine (no, we don't know where he gets it and we know not to ask), exchanging local gossip, catching up on the movement of deer, the number of eggs his hens are producing, the howling of coyotes all around us, a cooler of venison at our feet.

We moved away from the mountain into town two years ago, reluctantly, but motivated by a need to be closer to medical facilities and eliminate the 20 minute drive both ways in order to get to frequent appointments with massage therapists, acupuncture, neurologists, and all the other specialists required for someone with a rare degenerative disorder such as Margo's.  But Calvin keeps us in his deer deliveries.  When we head up today we'll take a homemade apple pie as our ritual thanks to him.  A bartering system as old as human beings.  

I'm thankful for this good ol' boy who treats his Jewish/Lesbian/Native American neighbors with respect and affection.  True, Margo's butchering skills, her ability to sip moonshine and smoke cigarettes, talk local politics and swear like a ... well, a mountain man, doesn't hurt.  And I can sip that smooth, smooth moonshine with the best of them, swear reasonably well, and make good enough conversation.  

But that's not what earned us Calvin's respect.  I think it is the fact that he knows that Margo and I love that mountain and everything on it in a way he recognizes deep in his bones.  For him, that says it all.  For him, that's the litmus test of a good person.

Maybe ... maybe that love of place, of creatures, of the way this planet is home, is the common ground we've all been seeking.  A place to meet and agree, be thankful, appreciate what we've been given - maybe that's the only thing that is going to save us from our more destructive selves.  Out of all the ideologies human beings have come up with, home is the simplest and most complex one of all.  The one we must agree on, if we are going to make it through the inferno of hatred and fear we've created for ourselves.

In that spirit, I offer this poem, written a few years ago after another one of Calvin's deliveries.  It appears in my collection, Raised By Humans, from Tia Chucha Press.  Here you go; the real Thanksgiving.


Eating a Mountain




You stand in the kitchen, cut
up a buck that a friend
shot for us.  I watch you trim,
slice, decide: this is stir fry,
this is steak, this is stew.
These are treats for long-suffering
dogs on the porch, panting.  Oh,


we are rich!  I rinse, pack,
mark the cuts, this beautiful
deep red velvety offering. 
Eating this deer means
eating this mountain:
acorns, ash, beech, dogwood,
maple, oak, willow, autumn olive;


means devouring witch hazel, pine,
lichens, mushrooms, wild grape,
fiddleheads, honeysuckle,
poison ivy, crown vetch,
clover; means nibbling wild onion,
ragweed, beggar’s lice, Junegrass,
raspberry cane, paw-paws,


crispy green chickweed,
and so you give the meat
your most honest attention,
dedicate your sharpest blade –
carve up that deer with gratitude,
artistry, prayer, render a wild, sacred animal
into wild, sacred sustenance. 


How we eat this deer is a debt
that comes due on the day
we let this mountain
eat us.

Deborah A. Miranda