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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

K'é: Nothing Short of a Major Revolution

"The horrific sociological issues deeply imbedded in Pine Ridge, and perhaps all of the reservations, are having a tidal wave effect and are pushing these people—collectively—toward the very brink of utter destruction—mind, body and soul. Short of a major revolution, I am unable to conceive of a way these people can ever recover, let alone survive. They are, unfortunately, being help captive by a fortified wall of profound ignorance and warped ideology inflicting the greater majority of American people."
-Lena Walker, Bellevue Nebraska, Indian Country Today 2008/07/25

"There was a woman who used to wash the clothes for the enemy in a kind of way she wan an enemy herself, not an enemy who could frighten one but just an enemy and she said the enemies would win because they had wonderful weapons that no one had ever seen, all the enemies had wonderful weapons that no one had ever seen."
-Gertrude Stein , Wars I Have Seen

"The awareness of one's origins is like an anchor line plunged into the deep, keeping one within a certain range. Without it, historical intuition is virtually impossible."
-Czeslaw Milosz

"My own decision proceeded, not from the functioning of the reasoning mind, but from a revolt of the stomach. A man may persuade himself, by the most logical reasoning, that he will greatly benefit his health by swallowing live frogs; and, rationally convinced, he may swallow a first frog, then the second; but at the third his stomach will revolt."
-Czeslaw Milosz

Many have swallowed the frog of you don't matter, and those days are over. And while our material conditions have changed for the People both on and off the reservation the questions before us remain the same: How can we find food and where can we find shelter. Our answers to those questions have shaped us. Material conditions have always been changing. What we retain is our integrity. We—the Diné—emerged from Mother Earth, that is why she is sacred to us. Our ability to think and gather power through prayer and cooperation (in our neighborhood of earth, plant and animal) resides in a firm belief in our intellectual and spiritual knowledge. This expertise was given to us and it is our responsibility to use it and pass it down.

The pace and preoccupation of this age in the U.S.A. gives the feeling that we and our lives are small. Too small to affect a meaningful change and certainly too overextended to devote any daily portion of time to doing anything "extra." It's as if we are caught in a stream and the current is pulling us farther and faster down river. As if the complexity somehow trumps our responsibility to step outside it. We are Dorothy in ruby slippers dancing the grapevine down the yellow brick road. If I only had a brain. If I only had a heart. Courage. A home.

Once we were warriors, now we're just Indians in line. The forts have changed but the commodity lifestyle has not. Clinics. Casinos. Cost-co. FDIC insured cash depositories. Consume don't create. This is a lie. Some hold onto it as if their lives depend on it. For many their lives as they know them do depend on it.

Recognizing the state we—the Diné, all Nations (Sahnish, Tongva, Colville, etc.), citizens (by birth, force or naturalization)—are in is the easiest task before us. I don't believe we don't know. From the beginning we've understood that our relations will sustain us—provide for us both companionship and the necessities of life (meals and shelter). The first relationship we have to look toward is to our mothers, the People to Earth.

Those that refuse to recognize the occupation of our homelands extends into our psyches consequently refuse to take any meaningful (daily) action. Those that do recognize the occupation have work to do, daily work, emotional, physical and spiritual work. Work based on the fact that "the substance of the universe is relationships" and the knowledge that community is defined and organized by responsibilities not rights.

Our origins and ancestors bind us to specific places among certain peoples. Where those ties have been maintained and nourished we are strong. Where they have been severed or neglected we float like rotting flesh down a poisoned stream of you are nothing and your days are over, grabbing hold of anything we can get a hold of. Whether we fell from the sky or emerged from the earth we each brought with us a story of our origins. These stories provide us the means for addressing the world. They tell us who we are and how we are supposed to act. They are the filter all action should flow through prior to, and once committed. We are a thoughtful people. We are an observant people. We are not stupid. We know. It is only the enemy who tells us their weapons are more wonderful than ours. It's our choice to call a lie a lie, or to believe it.

Once we were warriors living and dying according to a code. Our lives had meaning within that code, because we smoked ourselves in it. We ate it. We shat it. We taught it to our children. We are still, Diné, Sahnish, Tongva, Colville, etc., Traditional knowledge is timely. It always has been, the task that faced our ancestors is the same task that faces us now. How to apply it to the contemporary world, in a daily practice. It is not a disembodied philosophy it is the knife that skins the deer.

How can we abandon our knowledge now? With 50% of Navajo living outside the protection of the sacred mountains and given the nearly septic state of our environment, our families and our neighborhoods. We must retain and prioritize the belief that we and our traditional beliefs are viable today. They are not historical or romantic, they provide us with contemporary solutions to contemporary circumstances.

Facing the 50% of us who live outside the protection of the sacred mountains requires those who live within their protection to account for our absence, the life and the shared consequence of it. Our lived experience of our kinship system (K'é) requires a set of behaviors from all of us, not simply those within reach (be it ideological or geographical proximity.) It is only the enemy who seeks to convince us that we and our system of belief and prayer are no longer viable. It is only the enemy that tells us their weapons are better. We become enemy Diné when we agree and then attempt to force others into agreement via poverty, social neglect and isolation.

I write this column because my family has been destroyed by alcoholism and greed. This is my attempt to make something meaningful from that destruction, my attempt to stand in relation to what is left of us, of me, and to the political entity of the Navajo Nation. It is an invitation to everyone to use those same tools of subjegation (poverty, social neglect and isolation) for liberation, it is a call for nothing short of a revolution. General strike. Community based on responsibilities not rights. Speak the languages of your ancestors. Examine what you believe possible.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

For Future Reference

"The learner of an endangered language has a greater task than merely to learn the language. He is also working with the speaker to re-create a speech community." (p. xv, How To Keep Your Language Alive)

The problem with us is who we are, the substance of our daily lives, and the practicalities of our existence.

"The Master-Apprentice Program requires both the Master and the Apprentice to develop new language habits in order to create the desired immersion situation." (p., 9, How To Keep Your Language Alive)

As Vine reminds us in The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty, "Anyone could act like an Indian; it took a certain amount of self-discipline and knowledge of the customs to act like a Lakota, a Navajo, a Nez Perce, or a Crow."

On April 5th I went to the 8th Biennial Language is Life Conference for California Indian Languages, organized and hosted by the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival ( The Advocates do not leave the task of being or becoming to anyone, not to the schools, not to the Government, and not to the institutions whose purpose it is to destroy them. They take it on.

Many of the Advocates come from Peoples whom have been declared extinct, or who fail to meet current Anthropological standards of recognition. According to external measures they fail to have a history, they fail to appear as distinct, they fail to appear viable, the fail to appear at all. Some come from Peoples whose languages no longer have living speakers and some come from villages where the fluent generation is a dying one.

If we can no longer think of ourselves in our own words, in our own grammar, we will no longer be. Language is life, it prepares and eats our food, it hunts, it recognizes medicine, it prays, it teaches us what it means to be, who it is we uniquely are as a people from a place.

I come from a multilingual family that chose to stretch English to its breaking point, instead of teaching us the languages we sprung, like tségha'nilchi', from. In the stretching though we learned the power of thought, the strength of hearing and vision required to live in San Francisco shaping words from multiple alphabets and worldviews. Few understand us when we sit together laughing our toothless laughs, but we try to bang meaning out of this metal called today in this place called now.

English only. I have learned by their example to make it work for me, but more importantly I developed linguistic dexterity and desire and with this I move forward, replanting the roots we wrapped and stored in paper towels and aluminum foil.

The Advocates recommend spending at least 10 hours a week on language. Deb Morillo recommends 3 hours, a day. Their purpose is to create speakers. You create speakers through immersion. Re-creating a speech community requires the self-discipline and knowledge Vine spoke of. The ancestors knew this. You know this. In its most audible form creating a speech community means speaking, Diné Bizaad, Sahnish, etc., But growing up in a family whose ancestral strength resided in our ability to hide and run I know that additional forms of maintaining a speech community include those cultural practices we can, sometimes, and do, often, practice in the dark.

The punishment for refusing to submit to standardization and translation is powerful. It is applied equally to our finances, our souls and our psyches. The legacy of that punishment is evident in the paper trails we leave behind, in our homes and in our bodies. Standardization is a process of enforcing a certain rule: silence=subjegation.

When I was just learning to teach writing, a more experienced tutor explained to me that problems in grammar were largely problems in thinking, so if you cleared up the thought, the grammar usually worked itself out—provided you were working with a native speaker. I am a native speaker. My problems did not, do not, will not go away. Blame it on my dad, the Coyote Wino, or blame it on my Grandma, too devout Catholic who took me to bed every night, and walked with me, across our headboard into the Pueblo to visit people, knocking on doors and entering when invited.

Listen. Understanding requires that you take a certain approach, develop a method of listening and shared reciprocal experience of connection. The Advocates spoke of listening to the tapes in the archive, spending time with fluent speakers and when there were none to be found, to listen to the voices from the baskets, they will speak if you will listen.

I grew up learning that each person reaches across the space that necessarily exists between people in an attempt to hear to see to feel to touch and to taste. Language is life, it brings us together, in relation.

My intention for this column is to speak explicitly about language and developing a speech community with the goal that we each take, 10 hours a week (at the least), to living immersed in our ancestors' way of speaking, and consequently of living. It takes its title from my experience at the Stonestown Apple Store, with Specialist Billiejoe Jones. We were in the middle of our "personal shopping" appointment, and I was asking which programs and documents I would lose and which I may be able to salvage, after my computer failure last March, and nearly 10 minutes into it he stopped me, placing his hand out, saying "for future reference, no one says, os, it's O. S.." And reminded of Gertrude's experience with the Grafton Press, questioning her knowledge of English, and writing, I should have replied, "I suppose, said she laughing, you were under the impression that I was imperfectly educated." But I did not. And he continued to supply me with inaccurate information. And since white men, in particular, though Billiejoe was at the most 9 years old when Serpent Source purchased the failed computer for me, love to correct my English, usage and pronunciation, I have decided to use his phrase as a title for this column. Ahéhee'.

About Me

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I believe we can be more beautiful than broken. Devotion to language and literature, stories and storytelling, writing and reading will restore humanity and heal severed relations. There is no alibi in being.