Saturday, February 29, 2020


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