|Debra Magpie Earling|
Yesterday I took part in a panel on the use of non-fiction by Native women writers at AWP. The panel was organized by Elissa Washuta, lecturer at the University of Washington and member of the Cowlitz Tribe, and our panelists were Debra Earling (Bitterroot Salish tribe), and Ernestine Saankalaxt' Hayes (Tlingit). It was one of the best discussions about the power of storytelling I’ve ever had with other Native writers, and my appreciation for these women and their work just fills my heart. What a gift Elissa gave us! The session was full of stories and gems, like Ernestine’s wondrous phrase, “Truth chronology” when responding to a question about narrative structuring of events. There is a chronology to the truth, she said, a truth chronology which transcends temporal chronology. At least that’s what I heard.
So, what does writing non-fiction, as part of a multi-genre collection, mean for me as a Native women? Well, it means that I have long since been seduced by the power of language to craft and change and save and, yes, when captive in the wrong hands, destroy. It means that I learned early on to use words and story to keep myself from disappearing in a colonized world that didn’t need one more Indian child seen OR heard. It means that I have learned to use whatever talent I possess with language as a weapon to fight for my tribe and our Ancestors, as a ceremony to praise our culture, our people, our history, and as a tool to do what I can to craft a future for us as we move forward into the 21st century.
Nowadays, I use language to keep my tribe from disappearing. In large part because of my sister Louise Miranda Ramirez’s passionate pursuit of tribal recognition, her efforts to re-establish cultural knowledge, and her persistent (and as yet unfulfilled) push to have a small piece of our tribal homeland returned to us, I have found my way into the work of my life. “Every time you publish something, every time you speak somewhere, re-tell a story found in some archive, I log it into our records,” Louise told me early on in my grad school career. “I add it to the documentation for recognition. I put it in the Tribal Newsletter. Your work makes us visible and real in the eyes of this colonizer’s government.” My sister was letting me know that my work as a scholar was an extension of my responsibilities as a tribal member.
I have long been deeply suspicious of the entire tribal recognition process, and the past twenty years have only made me moreso. This is a grueling story for another time; long story short, the process is hideously expensive – we are talking millions and millions of dollars per tribe – and the bureaucratic governmental wringer that the United States puts non-recognized Indian tribes through reminds me of a rapist being put in charge of supervising a rape victim’s court testimony. But Louise and I understood long ago that we have found our place in this struggle side-by-side, each doing what she does best, as a compliment to the other. Although we both had a contentious heart-bond with our father, it was with gratitude that Louise turned to me once and said, “The best thing our father ever did was give us each other.” As usual, she hit the nail on the head.
So, while Louise works toward federal recognition (among many other goals she has for The Esselen Nation) I have turned my attentions as a scholar and poet to work that addresses my responsibilities as an Esselen tribal member. I realized that our tribe’s story is scattered, fragmented, chopped up, strewn around the world in museum collections, library archives, family photo albums, newspaper morgues, anthropological publications, field notes, crumbling Mission records, and half-forgotten tape recordings of men and women whose voices wait for us to find them, and listen. In order to re-assemble or reinvent a tribal identity, California Indians must be detectives, poets, theorists, dreamers, mosaic artists – in short, storytellers. Without a story of our own, I understood that The Esselen Nation would in fact become extinct, whether our bodies continue to exist or not. Unfortunately, the story we have inherited is not a story which honestly represents us and is rarely, if ever, told by members of the Esselen Nation.
This was the impetus behind Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir – in which I used the multiple sources listed above, and multi-genre writing to pull our story back together. As I’ve stated elsewhere, when too many pieces of a broken thing have been removed or are too damaged to reassemble, we are not just faced with loss. We are also being given an opportunity to transform, to remake ourselves. In Albuquerque at the Indigenous Book Festival, a Cahuilla woman told me that in her culture, potters are obligated to reuse the broken shards of pots to make new pots. Obligated. That’s a good word for how I felt as I uncovered or encountered the many shards of my tribe’s history: obligated to honor and re-integrate them, by whatever means necessary.
With non-fiction, for example, I can take a story from my grandfather about that light he used to see as a kid working as a vaquero on the Carissa Plains, and, with some research about that actual light – which turned out to be an airplane beacon on Mt. Diablo, 150 miles from him – write about the ways we are called back to our homelands and the power of those homelands and places of emergence. The story is there – I knew that my grandfather’s fascination with that light was about something deeply moving for him. I can hear it in his voice on the old tape recording, and feel it in his use of words. But without the non-fiction research, I never would have known why. Or explored my own fascination with the yearning for return, for xulin, a kind of taking back. We might think that research – that academic , intellectual, analytic act – would make my grandfather’s story less personal, less heart-felt. But it actually brings my grandfather and his story closer to me, more accessible, gives me ways to understand his fascination for a light located on one of the peaks in Ohlone creation stories might have also been a longing for home.
Recently I thought long and hard about another story from my book, the one about Vicenta Gutierrez, and how a non-fiction format was the best way to honor both the story and the voice of the young woman who told it. Here’s the story, told by Isabel Meadows, the Carmel Indian woman who deposited her stories with ethnologist J.P. Harrington:
Vicenta Gutierrez, sister of El Huero Gutierrez, when a girl went to confession one evening during Lent, and Padre Real wanted to grab her there in the church. And next day, nothing could be seen of the Padre there, and he was never seen again. He probably fled on horseback in the night. Some said he fled to Spain. He was a Spaniard. He grabbed the girl and screwed her. The girl went running to her house, saying the padre had grabbed her.
I had a lot of questions about this story. Why does Isabel Meadows tell Harrington this story about a girl named Vicenta who is raped by a priest? And why retell this story one hundred years after the crime? Why give room to these particular destructive powers when trying to harness the creative powers necessary to create our mosaic history? I knew these are questions that people would ask, even members of my own tribal community.
There are, at least, four main acts of cultural work that this story performs.
1. It spotlights and gives voice to an act of colonization that is, to this day, under-reported. Statistics tell us that 34% of Native women are raped sometime in our lives; 1 in 3! and 80% of the rapists are non-Indian. As Sarah Deer says, “[contemporary] Native American women suffer the highest rate of sexual assault in the United States,” yet when she travelled into Native communities,
advocates tell me that the Justice Department statistics provide a very low estimate, and rates of sexual assault against Native American women are actually much higher. Many of the elders that I have spoken with in Indian country tell me that they do not know any women in their community who have not experienced sexual violence. (456)
At the same time, prosecution against rapists of Native women are notoriously non-existent. Last year, I read “Dear Vicenta,” the letter I wrote back to Vicenta Gutierrez in which I told her, “it happened to me as a kid,” at a reading of young Native students recently. Afterwards, a young Native woman approached me. She handed me a folded piece of notebook paper, said, “Thank you,” and left. When I opened up the piece of paper, I saw that it was a letter. It read, “Dear Professor Miranda: it happened to me as a kid, too.” Clearly, Vicenta’s story is relevant to Indian women today.
2. I believe Isabel’s telling of Vicenta’s Story acknowledges rape as a colonizing weapon, and in fact asserts that rape of indigenous women is a crime. Vicenta not only names names (“Padre Real”), but her speaking out about the rape calls attention to rape as a crime, and works as a call to action from her community. Given the centuries of rape as a colonial weapon, and the generations of raped Indian women who came before her, Vicenta’s loud protest at the violation of her Indian body is nothing less than amazing. I did some research: I located the young woman Vicenta Gutierrez in Monterey census records, established that she lived in Carmel during the 1835-1840 era of a priest named Jose Maria Real; I learned that he did, indeed, abruptly leave Carmel and was, in fact, the subject of several gossipy letters by other priests who noted that his ‘relationships’ with Indian women resulted in many children who bore his name. Let me be clear: these priests were more concerned with the breaking of priestly vows than in the well-being of the Indian women and children. In that time and place, when California Indians, especially women and children, were legally being sold as slaves, the rape of a native woman was almost an oxymoron. If you were a native woman, you were a raped native woman. You were available to be raped at any time. So “telling” typically brought on more abuse, not justice. And still, Vicenta told.
3. The story preserves Indigenous women’s knowledge about being female, colonized, survivor. The women of Vicenta’s community – including Isabel’s mother, aunts and friends - heard and remembered her story, but the oral tradition of our community, for many reasons, did not seem to have a viable future. Isabel seemed to intuit that, in a perilous time, Vicenta’s narrative had to enter into the written realm, leave the community of Indian women, in order to return to us someday – as it turns out, almost two hundred years after it happened. To me, this means that Isabel herself knew the power of story, and believed in our survival; she trusted that Indian women would, somehow, continue - and she knew we would need this story as part of our education as women. Isabel learned about this kind of education from her mother, who learned it from her mother, and on backwards into time immemorial. She passed on that inheritance in the only way she could: by making a white ethnologist into her stenographer!
4. In this way, Isabel’s story also serves as a teaching device for Vicenta’s descendants, Isabel’s descendants, for contemporary California Indian women – for me, my sisters, our daughters, our granddaughters. Through the vehicle of Isabel’s words, we are engaged in a very indigenous practice: that of storytelling as education, as thought-experiment, as community action to right a wrong. Isabel preserves and praises Vicenta’s brave act. She exhorts the Indian women who will one day read Harrington’s notes to also speak out against injustice. This has happened to other women, she says: they resisted. You can resist too.
So my non-fiction response to this story, which in Bad Indians is a long letter written directly to Vicenta, gives me ways to have a kind of conversation with a young Carmel Indian woman who, like me, faced violation and resisted the silencing about violation our culture demanded. It gave me the opportunity – and the responsibility – to enter into the education of other Indian women, and myself. The ways in which I researched materials – finding Vicenta in an old box of my mother’s Xeroxed materials that included an 1836 Monterey Census, locating Vicenta in mission records, matching up her timeline with that of Padre Real, looking at Real’s documented relationships with other Indian women in the correspondence of other Franciscan priests in the area at that time – it all worked together to allow this conversation.
Interacting with Vicenta’s story (which is what a non-fiction approach allows) makes me part of the thread that goes back over 100 years to Vicenta, and forward for hundreds more years into the lives and education of future Indian women. Perhaps this is part of what Ernestine Hayes means when she says there is a chronology of truth: truth has its own time. I know that I am grateful beyond words for this story. It’s a kind of homecoming and belonging which I could never have predicted.
Isabel, I feel certain, knew all of this, and acted on it. She knew her responsibilities, knew they extended far, far into the future, beyond what she could see or imagine. She knew storytelling was the vehicle that could go there. She understood about Ernestine's Truth Chronology. And she's still teaching us all these years later. Nimasianexelpasaleki, Isabel!