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Sunday, August 16, 2020

Toppling Mission Monuments and Mythologies

 

Serra’s Paternalism as a Form of Violence: Why the Statues Must Come Down

by Deborah A. Miranda

Delivered at the Toppling Mission Mythologies Conference, July 15 2020, sponsored by the Critical Mission Studies Project. The Conference Roundtable Response from Jalane Schmidt and Amy Lonetree is posted separately here. 

Saleki Atsa, Haku. Thank you everyone, especially to our organizers and to the participants and our audience. This is a huge occasion and I’m really, really honored to be part of it. I come to you from a place currently called Lexington, Virginia. I also sometimes, in my more bitter moments, call it Confederatlandia, but we’re taking care of that. I want to give acknowledgement to the land I’m on right now, which is Monacan land here in Virginia.

This conference, in a lot of ways, is about voices that haven’t been heard – as the Assemblyman was just telling us. In Bad Indians, I tried to create a space for those voices, and pull those voices out of the archives. This is one voice, and I thought it was appropriate for today’s topic. It’s from a section called “My Very Late 4th Grade Mission Project: Glossary definition: Padre.”


PADRE.

  “The neophyte community was like one great family, at the head of which stood the padre . . . To him the Indians looked for everything concerning their bodies as well as their souls.  He was their guide and their protector …”  (Zephyrin Englehardt). 

The Padre baptized us, gave us names and godparents; he taught us our catechism, officiated at our first communion, posted our marriage banns, he performed our weddings, baptized our babies, administered last rites, listened to our confessions; he punished us when we prayed to the wrong god or tired of our wives or husbands. He taught us to sing (our own songs were ugly), he taught us to speak (our own languages were nonsensical), he made us wear clothes (our bodies were shameful), he gave us wheat and the plow (our seeds and acorns fit only for animals).

                Yes, that Padre, he was everything to us Indians. At the giving end of a whip, he taught us to care for and kill the cattle whose hides were called “mission dollars,” worked us in the fields of wheat and corn and barley, instructed us in the building of adobe to make the Church, the monjerio, storerooms – promised it all to us if we would just grow up, pray hard enough, forget enough. 

But it all went to Spain, to Rome, to Mexico, into the pockets of merchants, smugglers, priests, dishonest administrators and finally the cruel Americans.  Nothing left for the children the Padre had worked so hard to civilize, poor savages pulled from the fires of certain Hell. He was our shepherd, we were his beloved and abused flock; now the fields are eaten down to the earth, we claw the earth yet even the roots are withered, and the shepherd has gone away.  

But we are pagans no more! Now we are Christian vaqueros, Christian housekeepers, Christian blacksmiths and shoemakers and laundry women and wet nurses and handymen – none of us paid with more than a meal or a shirt or a pair of discarded boots – but Christians, poor Christians, drunken Christians, meek targets for 49’ers crazed by goldlust or ranchers hungry for land. We are homeless Christians, starving Christians, diseased and landless Christians; we are Christian slaves bought and sold in newspapers, on the auction blocks, San Francisco, Los Angeles, one hundred dollars for a likely young girl, fifty dollars for an able-bodied young boy, free to whoever bails the old men out of jail: every one of us baptized by the Padre, our primitive souls snatched from this Hell our bodies cannot escape, we are Christian, we are Catholic, we are saved by the Padres and for that, Jesus Christ, we must be grateful.

(Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir. Heyday 2013)


I chose that piece to read because we are told that Junipero Serra brought Christianity to California Indigenous peoples – with the implication being, we Indians lived in a deficit of spirituality, of self-governance, and of an understanding of relationship with higher powers. If Serra had brought us the choice of Christianity – with no punishment for choosing to remain faithful to our own religions and ways of knowing the world – perhaps that would have been different. But Serra did not just “bring” us Christianity; he imposed it, he forced it, he violated us with it, giving us no choice in the matter. About this, Serra famously wrote that he was doing no more than a father would do with his children. Paternalism, as he used it, is a term that comes with overtones of wise fatherly responsibility and guidance. But the paternalism that Serra claimed as his right to impose was much more sinister; under any label, the paternalism practiced during the missionization of California was a form of violence – particularly when those being subsumed already live in cultures rich with religion, languages, literatures, governance, family structures, and social traditions that have served them well for thousands of years. We were living in a wealth of spirituality – not a deficit.

Missionization, for California Indians, was more like indoctrination in an abusive cult than spiritual grace. Natives who resisted or refused conversion were beaten, imprisoned, starved, exiled from their homelands – usually by soldiers, at the behest of priests. Religion was the stealth weapon of Spanish colonization; a “moral” reason for conquest, to protect lands Spain wanted for itself. In addition to Catholicism, the Spaniards brought disease, including their own special brand of syphilis that not only sterilized Native women but caused birth defects, blindness and death. We lost 90% of our population in missionized territories, in 70 years. In other historical contexts, this is called genocide, a crime against humanity. Violently enforced religion is not missionization, it is terrorism.

The missionaries’ efforts directly caused generations of trauma to California Indians from which we are still recovering. But we are recovering. As Athabascan scholar Dian Million writes, “We are not our trauma. We can work at healing without being victims. We can be damaged and still be sovereign.”  

Why, then, should Indigenous peoples – and anyone aware of or interested in actual history – welcome the monuments to Serra that are everywhere in California?  

Serra, many argue, was simply "a man of his times." In other words, colonization happens, and we should not blame those caught up in it. But that has a flip side to it:  if Serra was, in fact, “a man of his times” in 1769 when he founded the first California mission in San Diego, he should have known better: Bartolome de las Casas knew better in 1552 when he published "A Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies," and spent his entire life working for the freedom of Indians and return of their lands (a wealthy man, a priest, and former Indian slave-holder); a document Serra and all priests in training would have read and debated. Padre Antonio Horra knew better in 1799 when he protested soldiers' rapes and beatings of Indian converts at his California mission.  The Church officials in California and Mexico sent poor Padre Horra home saying he had gone insane from the stress of missionization and his inability to deal with the hardships of The New World. Horra, however, told a different story:  “The treatment shown to the Indians is the most cruel … For the slightest things they receive heavy floggings, are shackled, and put in the stocks, and treated with so much cruelty that they are kept whole days without a drink of water.” Horra added that charges of insanity were false and brought against him because of his serious charges of cruelty by priests and soldiers, and mismanagement of Church resources (Bancroft 587).  In closing, Horra asked to be sent back to Spain because he feared for his life – not because of savage Indians, but due to his own Franciscan brethren.

Many many other letters, diaries and records of others traveling in California during Serra’s tenure and afterwards left behind testimonies of the brutality brought on by the missions.  In 1786, French explorer Jean-François de la Pérouse observed that during his visit to Mission Carmel a mere three years after Serra’s death, “Everything reminded us of a habitation in Saint Domingo, or any other West Indian slave colony. The men and women are assembled by the sound of the bell, one of the religious conducts them to their work, to church, and to all other exercises. We mention it with pain, the resemblance to a slave colony is so perfect, that we saw men and women loaded with irons, others in the stocks; and at length the noise of the strokes of a whip struck our ears.”  Other visitors in the same era noted that Indians were even beaten with a whip or cane when they did not “attend [to] a worship ceremony.” 

These people saw through “the eyes of their time” and what they saw disturbed them deeply.  

I feel strongly that as one of the few descendants of the Indians who survived the missions, I have a responsibility to my Ancestors and to my own descendants to speak up and try to create a clearer understand about why Junipero Serra’s statues and monuments are another historical flogging of California Indians; these honorings of Serra work to erase, silence, and discredit California Indian lives and histories just as much as the original missions. No, Serra was not the only one involved. Yes, he was part of an intricate machine run by the Spanish Crown’s political desires, the Spanish military’s might, and the Vatican’s multiple ambitions to convert and acquire both souls and wealth. But Serra was also a man who, like many before him, was faced with a choice: go along with the program, achieve his own personal goals, and ignore the larger crimes – or take a stand against inherently inhumane and unChristian acts against a people who were obviously vulnerable to diseases and technologies far different from his own.

Serra made his choice. It was a choice that we California Indian peoples have suffered for. Economic, psychological and intergenerational trauma continue. But that choice does not make him a saint, or worthy of a statue valorizing him as a leader of any kind. Those of us alive now have a choice, as well; in fact, we have the same choice: do we remain silent, frozen with old fears and mythologies, or speak out, take action, finally assert that other, more complete histories that we know, histories that reveals the Indigenous figure is not kneeling, and the missionary has no halo?

I’d like to finish up with a very short poem.


Teheyapami Achiska

Giving Honor

for my sister Louise, and The Breath of Life Language Conference


Eni micha elpa mishmaxanano 

I feel you in my blood,

nishiyano nishiti’anaxno, nishahurno.

in my bones, my gut, my teeth.


Name sikosura niche a’kxi, 

You rise all around, 

kolopisik xulin opa.

return like a lover.


Nishkuuh, niche lahake.

my basket, carry me.

nishimila, niche lasapke.

my ocean, bathe me.


eni namexumunipsha, 

I am your hummingbird

name hi’iyatan neku masianehk.

you are a flower of the heart. 


Name cha’a nishkxatasaxno, 

I feel you in my head, 

nishxushuno, nishkeleno.

my hands, my feet. 


Uxarat kai pire.

We dance on the cliff of the world.

Name cha’a nishchawisaxno,

I feel you in my spine, 


nishxorksno, nishsixihano.

my throat, my womb. 

Namesanaxkak opa, eni inamkak opa.

You are a river, I am the rain. 


Mantuxite, mantuxite,

It is true, it is true,

mantuxite, mantuxite.

it is true, it is true. 


Nishwelel, lexwelel:

My language, our language: 

maksiri maknoco.

breath of life.

 

(Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir. Heyday 2013)


Nimasianexelpasaleki. Thank you.


Sunday, June 28, 2020

Caught




Caught

Memory is a great blue heron,
wing-shadow above my head.

Memory is a keen golden eye: 
forget your amnesia.

Memory is an elegant ghost
sweeping through shreds of fog;

she wants to spear me
with her bright beak, flip me

lengthwise, swallow me down
into the gullet of anniversary.

Memory stands in the still center:
specter with a sinuous neck

poised to flash. I am a small green
frog, tender flesh. Memory stalks me

on long yellow legs, aims 
her lightning strike;
                                 I am

that frog inside memory’s belly –
singing to what consumes me.

    ~ Deborah A. Miranda

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Transplant

In Washington State, where I relocated from Los Angeles with my mother and new step-father in 1965, I was always a transplant - either enchanted or despicable, depending on perspective. “I wish I had a year-round tan like yours,” a teenaged step-cousin told me; I think it was her attempt to be nice. “Mexican turd,” hissed another step-cousin, a boy my age with small blue eyes and skin the color of lawn mushrooms. Looking at photographs of Wickersham Elementary School in Buckley, Washington, where I went to 2nd and half of 3rd grade, I remember one of the places this transplant was given temporary sanctuary. In a third-grade classroom on the ground floor, an elderly woman named Mrs. Freeman taught; she wove her silver hair into a crown every day, and her role as a teacher was second only to her role as a healer.
It was Mrs. Freeman to whom I entrusted my first painstakingly handwritten story, “How the John Rabbit Family Lived in the Tall Grass,” with its tale of bunny love found, family formed, babies born, the awful hunting season that laid waste to it all – and the strange resilience of Mr. Rabbit to start again, with a new family, only to face the same threat. Perhaps it was the happy ending I tacked on; a little girl saves the rabbits by taking them in as pets. Perhaps Mrs. Freeman knew a writer trembled before her, too shy to speak in class but crying out for an audience.
Whatever her reasoning, Mrs. Freeman gathered our small class around her chair, and read my story out loud. A rare ray of sun streamed in the narrow window beside us, dust motes alive on that solar highway. A soft braided rug beneath us held the circle of suspense as she read each page with a storyteller’s skill. I was as entranced as my classmates at this presentation.
Somehow, having this beloved woman read my words out loud gave them authority, enchantment, power. I was seven years old. I had already been raped. I had told no one. We still lived in the same trailer park as the predator stalking me and other girls my age. Did I say this classroom was a sanctuary? It was nothing less than salvation.
Wickersham Elementary was an ancient dark red brick mammoth of a building, leftover from the Buckley's logging heyday; the worn stone plaque by the massive double wooden doors was engraved with the date “1914.” Inside, the interior was haunted by those long-gone pines cut and stained dark, shaped into polished wood floors, a sweeping staircase with curved bannister to the upper floors, heavy doors with wavy glass windows for each classroom, tall wainscoting, solid pine trim and window casings. This building had educated generations of children whose fathers were loggers, pioneers, business entrepreneurs. I was often lost in that building, and when I wasn’t, I was afraid of getting lost. In Mrs. Freeman’s room, though, I was safe. I was seen. I was - along with all of my classmates - loved.
Wickersham Elementary was built 58 years after, and six miles west of, "the decisive battle of the Indian War fought at Connell's Prairie," according to historical records. I was the only Indigenous student there in 1967-68. Torn down in 1973, about 4 years after I left, the building stood for 59 years on stolen land bloodied by murder, constructed of massacred trees hundreds of years old. Old historical society photos show logs bigger than the trucks hauling; photos that break my heart in ways even my Indigenized English can't speak. But look. There is a tiny seedling in that classroom. A little girl who has been transplanted again and again and again, whose roots keep being pulled up and set down in earth far from her homelands. That seedling is loved in that building. She holds onto her story. That story is the root that can never be severed. That story takes root in the woods and fields of Western Washington. I'm still telling that story.


Thursday, February 6, 2020

Land Acknowledgment: Why Do It?




Liliana Ancalao, Mapuche poet & activist


On the occasion of planning to do a land acknowledgement for Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao's reading, I thought back to the ongoing debate over the value of this effort. Why a land acknowledgment? Does it really accomplish anything? Isn’t it just another meaningless, empty gesture that makes non-native folks feel as if they have checked a box that ensures their comfort?

I was reminded of the video short “Land Acknowledgment” by Baroness von Sketch Show, in which a white woman attempts to do a “recite and run” gesture toward Indigenous presence before a live show. Though she thanks the local Indigenous peoples by name, and even pronounces their tribal names without stumbling, she clearly views the statement as required cover-your-ass, trendy but not actionable boilerplate. A woman in the audience stands, however, and asks, “Isn't there something we should do? Should we leave, if we’re on someone else’s land? Or are part of the tickets sales or refreshments going to support Indigenous nations?” In short, the audience member takes the land acknowledgment as serious and important information that requires a thoughtful response, and some kind of action or reparation.

And in the video, that’s hilarious. Who takes a land acknowledgment seriously?!

This video story tells us that a land acknowledgment, in and of itself, is not enough. It is not enough to simply give it, and it is not enough to simply listen to it. To make a land acknowledgement truly powerful requires that we internalize the story to which it alludes: a story about sovereignty, colonization, decolonization, and truth.

Human beings are made of stories. Laguna pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko says,


I will tell you something about stories...

They aren't just for entertainment.

Don't be fooled

They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off illness and death.
You don't have anything
if you don't have the stories.
[The destroyers’] evil is mighty
but it can't stand up to our stories.
So they try to destroy the stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten –
They would like that.
They would be happy.
Because we would be defenseless then.

What happens when we forget the stories of Indigenous peoples?

What happens to Indigenous peoples when the dominant culture erases their stories?

What happens when United States citizens do not learn the story that Indigenous peoples had long existed here on these lands prior to contact with Europeans for many, many thousands of years –20,000 according to Western science, since time immemorial in Indigenous traditions?

What happens to the settler-colonial story of “civilizing” the wilderness when we remember that pre-contact Indigenous people possessed all the so-called hallmarks of civilization (language, religion, science, governance, the arts, cities and villages)?

Or when we forget the story that Indigenous peoples gave aid to early European travelers in need on all of our shores – east coast, west coast, Gulf coast, the interior -  preventing those travelers from succumbing to the elements for which they arrived unprepared, because to us, every life was sacred and hospitality was one of the responsibilities of being human?

What happens when we bury the story that the majority of those same travelers murdered Indigenous peoples in waves of increasing violence, forced (rather than offered) a new religion on us; what happens when no one hears the story that we fought back and resisted across every inch of this continent and were cheated, lied to, stolen from, massacred by U.S. military troops?

What happens when we silence the story that education came to Indigenous peoples not as a path to freedom, but because some government official did the math and discovered it was cheaper to educate an Indian child than to kill her?

What happens when we don’t know that Indigenous peoples in this country have gone from 100% of the population to one percent of the total population, yet we have the highest rates of suicide, substance abuse, incarceration, violent assaults and sexual assaults by the dominant culture? the lowest rates of high school graduation? the lowest enrollment in higher ed? the lowest economic status? the lowest life expectancy?

What does trauma look like when no one admits it is trauma?

As you’ve figured out by now, I could go on. I won’t. But I will say this:

When we silence or destroy or turn away from those stories, what happens is the story we are told instead, a story that goes something like this:

“This is the country where children learn names like Wyatt Earp, Davy Crockett, and Annie Oakley. This is the place where the pilgrims landed at Plymouth and where Texas patriots made their last stand at the Alamo. The American nation was carved out of the vast frontier by the toughest, strongest, fiercest, and most determined men and women ever to walk the face of the Earth. Our ancestors braved the unknown, tamed the wilderness, and settled the Wild West.” – President Donald Trump, State of the Union address, February 2020.

But this is not the story of the Americas. It is a story of intentional amnesia, of greed, of the need to erase Indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans and African Americans, Chinese, Mexican, and other immigrants, whose exploited labor and suffering either physically performed or enabled the vast majority of clearing, carving, fighting, taming and settling. It is a story that claims all of the bravery and determination of one side, and none of the bravery and determination of another. It is a story that has been weaponized, yet, like a boomerang thrown by one who doesn't understand the power of that instrument, will ultimately circle back and attack the unwary hand that set it into motion.

This is a story that aspires to epic, and yet, only by telling the more complicated, full story, would truly be heroic.  And this all matters because, as Audre Lorde and Joy Harjo remind us, we were never meant to survive – and we did.

For all of these reasons, then, a land acknowledgment serves as a mnemonic device for listeners: a reminder of what colonization (and missionization) have done to damage the very alive Indigenous human beings still struggling with the after-effects of what was an invasion of Indigenous homelands for the purposes of seizing land and the natural resources of that land. Inserting reminders into the land acknowledgment of past and current struggles - for example, citing Wounded Knee as well as Standing Rock or Mauna Kea - and suggesting ways to self-educate and/or work as an ally, enliven the land acknowledgment. When the land acknowledgement has become part of an institution's protocol (which has not happened at my university), those examples should be changed up frequently - to avoid oversaturation, and to keep the campus community updated on Indigenous issues.

Today we acknowledge the Monacan Nation, traditional caretakers whose cultures and customs have nurtured, and continue to nurture, this land, since time immemorial. We honor the presence of Indigenous Ancestors whose work enables us to live here today, and benefit from the harvests, waters, and beauty all around us. We acknowledge the responsibilities we bear to care for our Mother, whose Spirit is creation and sustenance, memory and story, in all her many forms, in all her acts of transformation. We honor our Indigenous relatives currently working to protect our planet's water, sacred spaces such as Mauna Kea, and environmental justice for all.

Nimasianexelpasaleki to Liliana for her visit here this week. I give these words to you with love from your sisters and brothers on Turtle Island.

Liliana Ancalao, Mapuche poet & activist

Deborah A. Miranda

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Honeyfishing with Poet Lauren Alleyne

https://laurenkalleyne.com/wp-content/uploads/book-cover-honeyfish-by-lauren-k-alleyne-uai-258x387.jpg


The Creative Writing Minor at Washington and Lee University was pleased to host Lauren K. Alleyne yesterday! Pleased? We were lucky, blessed, gifted with her presence...all of the above. It was a moment of sheer joy for all of us, faculty and students alike. Lesley Wheeler's beginning poetry class joined my advanced poetry workshop for Lauren, tea and cookies, and later for an outstanding reading. Books were signed, questions asked, and words of wisdom bestowed. I've sprinkled some of those gems below, in between my somewhat fuzzy photographs (sometimes the phone camera loves me, sometimes it acts like we never met).

Lauren K. Alleyne hails from the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Her fiction, poetry and non-fiction have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including The Atlantic, Ms. Muse, Women's Studies Quarterly, Interviewing the Caribbean, Crab Orchard Review, among many others. She is author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish (New Issues (US) & Peepal Tree (UK), 2019).


With Professor and Poet Lesley Wheeler


 "Punctuation doesn't have meaning - it has uses."

 


 "If I were a lawyer and saw an injustice, I'd drop everything, fly to that location, and offer to help people pro bono. But I'm not a lawyer (something my mother still regrets). But I still have an expertise - in words, with language. That's how I can help others who have experienced injustice."




 "A poem will come back to you when it's ready. And sometimes we're not ready for our poems! It can take ten years or more. But rather than put a bad poem out there, wait. The poem you want to write will come back for you when it's ready, and when you're ready."


 "Image, sensory experiences - your brain stores what it needs, whatever it is you need in order to go on from a particular moment. Later, during a freewrite, you push past what you know - and then you have access to those images and sensory memories that inform you, inform your writing."


 "What your life is determines what your relationship with words is, and will be."






One of my favorite poems from Lauren's reading last night was "Variations in Blue," - a poem about a kind of freedom or privilege we don't think about very often.   



Lauren ended our session by giving us this guided freewrite prompt:

1. think of a place.
2. Think of a story that happened there.
3. Now think of a memory or story of yours that is unrelated to that place.
4. Ask a question to the you (or subject or object) from the 1st place you thought of.
5. Answer the question.


Where the prompt led me:

Up in the Tehachapi Mountains
the dry earth is home
to ants, gophers,
gila monsters. Once,
at my Aunt Sally's 
house, I sat down
beside a black widow,
her geometric warning
bright as a glass bead.
What is it about the color red
that looks so pretty
to a four-year-old-child
who hasn't seen her parents
in a year? Perhaps the memory
of her mother's favorite
lipstick, skillfully applied  -
a ruby promise left behind 
on her cheek.

Deborah A. Miranda 

 

THANK YOU, LAUREN!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

"Living Poets Society" Drops!




Last weekend I walked into my favorite writing café, Pronto, to find two of my students seated at a table across from one another, earphones on, intent on their screens. They’re both excellent scholars and poets, and I had a brief moment of compassion that they were spending their weekend sweating over some assignment. But hey, at least they were here at Pronto, studying in solidarity.

“Professor Miranda!” Joëlle and makayla called me over to their table, faces illuminated with joy. No, it wasn’t because they saw me – it was what they were working on. “We’re editing our first podcast!! It’s called Living Poets Society and we’re having too much fun.”

I didn’t know it was possible, but these two just went up several more notches on my respect meter. A podcast?! When did they have time? One woman is a single mom of a 2-year-old (at a university where that’s rarer than hen’s teeth), and both are seriously engaged in senior projects and full-time classes and trying to get by. Both have taken several classes with me, and are in my current advanced poetry workshop.

We talked a little, and I asked for the link when the podcast dropped. I’d just mentioned to someone else about how the time for listening to podcasts has faded now that I live so close to work that my commute is a 10-minute walk or a 5-minute drive. But this podcast? This one, I’d make time for.

I was not disappointed. The link appeared in my inbox yesterday. I waited until this morning to listen. What. A. Treat. to eavesdrop on the thoughts and talents of Joëlle and makayla! This conversation is everything: manifesto, vulnerability, motherhood, sexual joy, ars poetica, black hair, eyebrows, softboys, and love. I mean, who talks about love anymore and means companionship, tenderness, sexual compatibility? These two women do.

Ya’ll should take a listen to Living Poets Society. You might learn something you didn't know. You will definitely learn something about being alive, 20-something, black, woman, poet, in a small private PWI in the un-fucking-believable year that is 2019. [p.s. the "Why I Write" piece that makayla refers to hearing in class is from Stephen Graham Jones. Sadly, a video of Jones reading this manifesto with a delightfully manic, feral, delicious gleam in his eye has since been removed from the internet. We can only hope it returns one day.]

I can't wait for the next episode.

Excerpt from Living Poets Society: 

“…What is your favorite hair style? Black. Black hairstyle.”

“Black. Cuz we’re black, black, blackity black black black unashamedly black unapologetically black, we don’t care, k?”

“Black and multi-faceted.”

“Yes...We contain multitudes.” [whispered]

“WE CONTAIN MULTITUDES.” [chanted]

“And probably way more than Walt Whitman.”

“Amen.”

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Song for your Journey: for Karenne Wood


Dr. Karenne Wood, Monacan poet and scholar, walked on not long ago, taking with her a large piece of my heart. 

When I arrived in Virginia 16 years ago, Karenne welcomed me to her homeland, offering her hospitality with open hands. Over the years we knew one another, Karenne Wood became a necessary and cherished part of my life. She visited my Native American Literature classes at Washington and Lee University (and gave readings) multiple times, was always available to confer with about Indigenous poetry and politics, invited me to read with her (and accepted invitations to read with me at conferences or community gatherings), celebrated our writing accomplishments, and commiserated over our frustrations with academia. We exchanged poem drafts and teaching strategies, dog stories, kid stories, and encouragment for the long haul. Karenne befriended my wife, Margo Solod, and always asked after her when we checked in over email or messaging. Karenne's own health - a 20 year battle against various kinds of cancer - was something she was more reluctant to discuss, but which she took very seriously. She knew how quickly everything could change; how luscious each and every day was, and therefore, how to celebrate life. 

When renowned poet (and now Poet Laureate of the United States) Joy Harjo came to read at my university in February of 2019, of course I asked Karenne to come welcome Joy to Monacan land. Karenne replied that she had been working on a land acknowledgment protocol with U of Virginia, and that "I am happy that people want to hear our language and acknowledge our presence. If you want me to do the prayer before Joy’s talk, I am willing. It’s brief. As for a gift, I thought of a honeysuckle basket with a lid, made by our tribal elder Bertie Branham." I didn't realize until the day of the event that Karenne would be coming from Charlottesville after another radiation treatment, or that speaking was difficult for her. That night, she shone. Her love for Joy Harjo, and a natural gracious, generous energy carried Karenne through the reading, and dinner afterwards. That was Karenne - always a giver.

In short, Karenne was a beautiful human being whose joyful presence in my life eased some of the loneliness I experience as the only Indigenous professor at my university, and taught me much about living in the moment. I will miss her deeply. At her Celebration of Life service, over 200 people came to hear stories about her life from her two daughters, tribal members, and friends. I guarantee you, Karenne was beloved by every single one of them, and many many more who could not attend.

I know I am not alone in my grief, or in feeling blessed by knowing Karenne Wood. In that spirit, I offer this poem, which came to me early this morning.


Song for Your Journey

            - for Karenne Wood

Heart battered as an old tree,
skin stretched to hold each year –
inscribed with the initials
of those who have loved you,
scarred characters too deep to erase:
imperfect letters, perfect.

This tree’s bark knows the iron blows
of despair, but still guards
what’s inside: all the circular years
spreading like ripples
from a pebble thrown into the center
of a lake with no name.

At dawn, mist swathes the lake in long soft breaths.
A Great Blue heron
spears the water, shimmering bass brave
the mysterious air in pursuit
of solace, and somewhere at the core
of this poem your soul

quests like a damselfly, skitters across          
a wide blue absence.
Friend, let the slim glitter of wings
carry you into sunrise where time
spins its spiraled arms, calls you
dear heart, darling, daughter –

and all of your branches burst into leaf,
one shining green prayer

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at a time.

Deborah A. Miranda

Karenne's obituary from the Academy of America Poets, where some of her poetry is posted:


Karenne Wood
1960–2019
Karenne Wood was born on May 31, 1960. She received an MFA from George Mason University and a PhD in linguistic anthropology from the University of Virginia.
She was the author of the poetry collections Weaving the Boundary (University of Arizona Press, 2016) and Markings on Earth (University of Arizona Press, 2001), winner of the Diane Decorah Award for Poetry from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas.
Of her work, the poet Heid E. Erdrich writes, “These poems move us through indigenous history to reveal our presence today—in an act of resistance and revelation and faith.” An enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation, Wood directed the Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Center for the Humanities. She formerly served as a repatriation director for the Association on American Indian Affairs, the chair of the Virginia Council on Indians, and a member of the National Congress of American Indians’ Repatriation Commission.
In 2002 Wood was named the Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year, and in 2015 she was named one of Virginia’s Women in History by the Library of Virginia. She also received the 2009 Schwartz Prize from the Federation of State Humanities Programs. Wood died on July 21, 2019.
Some of my favorite pictures with Karenne, at readings or gatherings... 


After Joy Harjo's reading and talk at Washington & Lee University, this past February.



 With Mojave poet Natalie Diaz at Washington & Lee University.

 At the Library of Congress, L to R: Deborah Miranda, Karenne, Eric Gansworth, Louise Erdrich, Linda LeGarde Grover, and Stephen Graham Jones.