Saturday, September 26, 2015

Being California Indian in a Post-Canonization World

In the aftermath of the chaos surrounding Junipero Serra’s canonization, California Indians are exhausted.  Whether we thought there was a chance of derailing Serra’s sainthood or just wanted to record our anger at the injustice of his canonization, we worked hard and pushed ourselves through an emotional hurricane the past year.  We are not beaten, though; just bone tired, heart-weary. 

But a lot of ugly words are being thrown around on the internet and in conversation about Indigenous people who attended or even participated in the ceremony. Words like “traitor,” “betrayal,” and worse are being used.  I’d like to say something about this. 

I am not Catholic, and have absolutely no loyalties to the Church or the Pope.  Yet clearly, as a woman with Esselen and Chumash Ancestors, I am angry, anguished and frustrated by Serra’s canonization.  Of the many problems I have with the canonization, one of the biggest is this:  sainthood for Serra sets up what I feel amounts to permission for Round 2 of missionization and an outright gift to genocide-deniers.  Therefore, I have invested much of my writing and energy to speaking out against the canonization. 

At the same time, I feel that other California Indians - like Vincent Medina, who read a passage from the Bible translated into Chochenyo as part of the canonization ceremony - have the right to take part in the ceremony without the scathing criticism or disrespectful jokes now being slung at him.

Why do I feel this way?  I have said many times, as survivors of genocide, every single California Indian person alive right now is a treasure.  We do not have the luxury of denouncing or expelling people because their methods of decolonization differ from ours.  Working together, creating bridges across those gaps, can only make us stronger and more vital, and give us the diversity and strength we need for this battle.  Because of this belief, I can respect Vincent's position even though I would not have chosen to make my stand in exactly same way.  This wasn’t an easy journey for me, though.

As someone who values transparency and clarity, I appreciate that Vincent has been up-front about his choice; he repeatedly spoke out regarding his anti-canonization position in the media and on his personal FB page, yet he did not renounce his Catholicism, which comes to him through a beloved and devout family network of Indigenous people.  He is also open about being gay, which is another difficult stance for a devout Catholic.  This kind of border-dwelling is not for the faint of heart, but Vincent is not keeping any secrets.

I grew up in a family plagued by secrets; secrets about violence, dysfunction, alcoholism, sexuality, mistakes, death, and fear.  I learned early and continuously that to speak my truth about the world was dangerous – people might abandon me, hurt me, take away my freedom, or even hurt themselves.  There was a time in my life when I internalized my family’s aversion to truth and dependence on lies, and I was not honest about many things.  I put up with abuse, I did not defend those who needed it most because I feared conflict.  It was easier to remain silent, to look away, or to make up a story that hid the truth. 

In short, you might say that I grew up with a missionized mind and soul.  I “feared the lash” that would come from speaking my truth, from resisting oppression.  I cowered, and in my cowering, I allowed great damage to happen, and to continue – to myself, to my little brother.  As I grew older and moved away, the scars of my early obedience to fear controlled every relationship I had, from my first spouse, to my friends, and eventually, to my own children.  The mission followed me wherever I went.

For a long time one way I avoided the truth about my life was to simply hate the ways in which both my father and mother contributed to my scars.  I blamed them in a simplistic black and white scenario in which they were bad parents, and I was a victim.  As I got older and learned more about colonization, missionization, and Historical Trauma, I was tempted to extend my hatred and righteous anger to the religious and legal institutions that stood behind those events.  I teetered on the verge of hating Catholicism, hating all of Christianity, hating every priest I saw on the street, hating just because it felt so good to have someone to blame for the blows I’d taken, the blows the people I loved had suffered.  This is what they mean by “internalized oppression”: the mission of my mind made me think that hatred was my idea.

It took years, a lot of lessons from life, and yes, a certain amount of courage, for me to learn that something as easy as hate can’t be right, or satisfying.  I still wrestle with the desire to hide from conflict, to blame others, to lash out at someone else in ways that make me appear to be the victim.  I still feel the weight of that mission wall around me.  Some days I think, seriously?  Is there no end to these adobe bricks?!

But it took so much time to be that hateful.  It took so much energy.  It ate so much of my soul.  As I began to value my writing and my creative energy, I realized that the more my hatred took over, the less generative and productive my work became. Each burst of hatred and bitterness was another adobe brick in the mission walls, locking me down.  I was becoming bitter, incapable of generosity, unpredictable in my moods, at a loss, spiritually. This was never so clear as when, in the course of writing Bad Indians, I tried to describe my father.  Initially I thought, I have to write about all the bad things he did – I have to write that truth.

Yet, my writing of those details was terrible.  Terrible to write, and terrible to read. Flat, predictable, without heart, with nowhere to go – I found myself thinking, I might as well just write, “My father - meh,” and leave it at that, since any extended attempt at writing came out shallow and pointless. In short, my writing didn’t create any goodness – for me, or in the world - when I wrote from hatred. I was building more walls, not bridges.

It was only when I finally admitted that I had loved my father – truly, madly, deeply, the way a young girl idolizes her daddy – and wrote that part out first, that I could then turn to the ugliness he had also given me.  Because my father wasn’t all good, or all bad.  He was a terrifying, beautiful mixture of both, and although talking about his alcoholism or his anger was part of the truth about him, it wasn’t ALL of the truth about him.  He also had an incredible touch with plants, understood color like an artist, could be tender and heart-broken as a child over a sick pet.  In fact …

My father was complicated.  And so was my love for him.  That was the truth I’d been trying to avoid. That was the bridge I’d been trying to burn.

So when I see people slamming Vincent Medina or other California Indians for their choice to remain Catholic, or even to participate in the ceremony, I want to say, look: it’s complicated.  There is no one way to be California Indian.  Many people think that my choices to live far away from our homeland, be active in academia, live as a Two-Spirit person, are very un-California Indian.  And I admit that there are times when even I desperately wish I were living at home, learning things I can only learn from elders and people who have been working all their lives with the materials, languages, land and peoples of our homeland.  But one thing I’ve learned in 54 years: each human being has individual talents and skills, and the trick is to figure out what yours are, and what choices you must make to put them to best use. I’ve made choices that not everyone approves of, or is comfortable with.  The choice to come out.  The choice to identify as Indigenous and commit to the work of decolonization (hey, as a mixed-blood, I could pass as vaguely ethnic and run with the unaffiliated pack).  The choice to support a woman’s right to abortion.  The choice to say, I’m not a Christian.  Some people have written me off for those choices, even in my own family. 

Here’s what I know about living in a black and white world:  Lumping people together into one group – those people are good, these people are bad - is almost always an act of fear. 

So while I would have chosen differently for myself, I respect Vincent’s choice and I acknowledge his reasons for making that choice.  

Vincent posted a statement on FB saying that by participating in the canonization ceremony, he specifically wanted to let the world know that not only did California Indians survive such a massive genocide, but that some of us are actively working to reclaim language, culture, and identity, to thrive as creative and modern people, and to speak languages that the Church worked violently to wipe out – and to speak these words in the presence of the Pope and the world. 

I have fears about what the post-canonization world is going to look like for California Indians, but I recognize that Vincent’s actions have solid reasoning behind them, a strategy that has value in any struggle against oppression.  During the Civil Rights Movement, their African heritage did not prevent a large majority of Blacks from being both Christian and opposed to racism, even though most American slave-owners were Christian and imposed Christianity on their enslaved workers.  Instead, Civil Rights activists called out Christians who did not live honestly by their own belief system and challenged them to live up to their own sacred truths.  For these activists, evolving as a people who rejected institutionalized racism did not mean a refutation of a once-foreign religion that had become theirs.

Thus, I can see the value of Vincent’s hopes that his Indigenous presence might act as a catalyst and reminder of Indigenous surviance.  Perhaps because I am a woman who lived in silence about my romantic and sexual attraction to other women for decades, I know the power of finally speaking out, and the yearning for an audience to hear my voice. In addition, I admire Vincent not just for his cultural work, his commitment to learning his language, and for his work as a Two-Spirit person, but for his courage to do all this in the face of much opposition.  To voice his truth as a contemporary California Indian man is not the easiest path he could have taken. 

I want that kind of courage – along with the courage I saw in so many California Indians during this fight – as part of our community.  Together, we have so. much. power.

We Californian Indians live now in a post-canonization world.  Canonization of Serra happened, and we must work to survive its aftermath: the disrespect done to us by the Church, by media coverage, by educational institutions and yes, by each other.  Wounds have been re-opened, and many of our learned coping responses to stress and anger have popped right up (oh hello old triggers!  I see you!).  We must ask ourselves, is this the best bridge I can help build toward what happens next?  Have I cut myself off from the possibility of diverse, rich California Indian voices in conversation?  Will I be part of a community that stretches and grows with change, or divides and diminishes? 

As I write this, I’m speaking to myself.  I’ll be fifty-four years old next month.  Some days, it feels as if there is so little time left in this life for me to learn everything I want to learn, and to accomplish all that I want to leave behind.  Some days, it feels as if I have just crawled out of the mission.  Sometimes, I think, if I have to move one more fucking adobe brick, I am going to lose my mind.

I want to have conversations with my relatives, not battles.  Let’s save our ferocity for decolonizing, and give our compassion and patience to one another.  I want to be part of a strong, deep California Indian future.  I’m not saying we can’t disagree or engage in critical thinking, even argue back and forth - but haven’t we built all the mission walls we ever want to build?  

Nimasianexelpasaleki.  Thank you for listening. 


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