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Friday, August 15, 2008

K'é: I Feel Like Singing Today

Every summer we made the drive to New Mexico and Colorado. During the first nine years of my life it was to visit my Grandmother's family and after 12 it was to visit my Grandfather's. We'd pack the old 1970s Nova with three on the tree and I'd take my spot, standing on the front bucket seat with my mom to my left, steering and my Grandma on my right giving directions. We'd pack our food and drive straight, hitting the desert at night, eyes wide as the windows were open. No air condition. No stopping. Just my mom singing, "hey noni ding dong, alang, alang, alang."

I didn't know much about nothing then, like why we were here, in San Francisco, and why they were there. It was just something like air; and we seemed to take it for granted. When we got there we'd slip into their lives, like ours was a dream and upon waking it was over. After two weeks or three months we'd get back to San Francisco and reverse the process: work, rent, phone calls and the dueling banjos that were my Grandma and Grandpa.

Our house was a mad dog we lived inside of.

Around the corner we had the Rodriguez', Augustin and Josephine. Indians from Chihuahua, Old Mexico. Theirs was an open door to us, the kitchen warm. Mamacita was my Grandma's best friend and Papacito was my Grandfather's. They were Indians like us, except from Chihuahua. Mamacita didn't speak English and we didn't speak Mexican.

The life of my knowledge comes from them, those trips and the way we tried to hold ourselves together, making a meaningful whole from parts, like magnets, that faced opposite directions.

The problem was one of orientation and in some small way the summer journeys would sooth our souls struggling so profoundly with place—especially our place in this world of the City.

It is said that we, the Diné, live in the center of the world, and from here— we each stand surefooted in the middle of ourselves, our ancestors and Gods—we make hózhó—in our mind souls, with our bodies, for our families, with the land and our movement across it. We move. We move for work. We move with the seasons. We move with marriage, for ceremony, to gather, and as we move we remember to take what is essential: clothes, ponies, pollen pouch and hand drum.

Nothing is more essential than ourselves, this perspective, so that moving does not become a going away, but a taking with. From the earliest times, as the children of Changing Woman returned home, they came upon those who remained and recognized something—a familiarity of voice, something in the eye, a word, a way of approaching—perhaps something as simple as their shared humanity. Life. Upon meeting these strangers, who were familiar, they said, Who are you? How have you been surviving? They told their stories; one side to the other. They listened; one side to the other and in the end they said, can we join you? And if it was agreed they did. In this way we grew, through memory, through a storied recognition of the real in someone else and most importantly in a solid understanding of who we were and how—in detail— we had taken the shape we had.

It was not the trip in itself so much as the simple but all encompassing fact of our making it. In taking the time from work and saving throughout the year, those visits to my grandmother's brothers and my grandfather's sisters revealed their belief, individually, that there was something to be handed down. Something beyond the daily skills we grew up integrating into our urban life: cultivating our own food, butchering our own meat, making our own clothes—always with the guiding principles: doo ajiníi da, doo ajít'íi da.

For my Grandma that something included a knowledge of the Colorado River, the Pueblos and horses and for my Grandfather it was always his beloved mountains and the plant people who were rooted to them. What was handed down through the journey was a belief in self. A "Survival This Way."

Survival, I know how this way.
This way, I know.
It rains.
Mountains and canyons and plants
We traveled this way,
gauged our distance by stories
and loved our children.
We taught them
to love their births.
We told ourselves over and over
"We shall survive this way."
(Simon J. Ortiz)

We do live by staying alive (D'Arcy McNickle) and while the pressures—ancestral, familial, historical—weighed on each of my grandparents uniquely as man, shizhé'é, as woman, shimá, manifesting itself in a self hatred only the colonized can know, they each made their own estimation of the best way to deal with being who they were. And they each, in turn, showed us who we were in San Francisco, California. Shimásani turned to the Roman Catholic Church, while he turned to any wine available.

Choices. We all make our own, and I've looked to both the Catholic Church and to alcohol as a way to dress the wounds myself. When the answer has been and continues to be standing in the center of oneself—a self that prioritizes the roots, the routes, and the memory of what it is to be more beautiful than broken.

We are leaving today to Market, taking 40 through Albuquerque up to Santa Fe. That famous trade trail from Chihuahua up to the Northern plains. Many have made the same journey for generations. And as we pack (paintings, beadwork, writing paper and pens) I am happy to hear Diné Bizaad flow smooth, happy to see others who have chosen to remain whole , those I respect, not only for their commitment to our nation (Tom and Melissa Barnes of Durango Custom Hats and Saddles, Virginia Boone and Leonard Markus of Medicine of the People, and Eli and Trina Secody of Runway Beauty) but for their willingness to hazard their fiscal health and well being as a consequence of that choice.

"The tribes have seen a thousand changes and yet remain who they are. . . so we sing, have reason to sing of our people's lives and experiences. By our very existence, our birth—individual and collective, we cannot help but sing."
(Anna Lee Walters)

Friday, August 1, 2008

For Future Reference: Water Is Not a Renewable Resource

On August 1, 1953, during the 83rd Congress, the House unanimously passed House Concurrent Resolution 108, and while house resolutions are not enforceable by law, as statements of general intent they are binding.

Here is some language: Whereas it is the policy of Congress, as rapidly as possible, to make the Indians within the territorial limits of the United States subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States, and to end their status as wards of the United States, and to grant them all of the rights and prerogatives pertaining to American citizenship; and
Whereas the Indians within the territorial limits of the United Sates should assume their full responsibility as American citizens. (emphasis my own)

H.C. 108, Termination policy, was comprised of a bevy of interlocking pieces, each designed to sever the U.S.'s Federal trust relationship with tribes and Pueblos, ending the trust protection of tribal lands, and liquidating tribal assets (disbursing after sale funds through per cap payouts) from tribal to individual ownership, converting homelands into "fee simple" titles sold at large and to (former) tribal members. In other words, dissolving the tribe as if it were a corporation. In this way the People would become Americans.

Termination would in effect grant them all of the rights and prerogatives pertaining to American citizenship, and in return the People would assume their full responsibility as American citizens. The tribe, as an entity, a body with a mind, a spirit and a responsibility of its own, would no longer exist, as would the U.S. Federal government's responsibilities and obligations to the Nations.

In the House Report No. 2680, 83rd Congress, Second Session, 1954, The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara of Fort Berthold were determined to be one of 96 in a list of 179 tribes and Pueblos local BIA officials believed ready to "handle their own affairs."

When tribes vocalized their opposition to being eliminated Senator Arthur V. Watkins of Utah countered, "They want all the benefits of the things we have, highways, schools, hospitals, everything that civilization furnished, but they don't want to help pay their fair share of it."

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations have paid.

George Gillette, Hidatsa leader, wept while the Secretary of the Interior J. A. Krug signed the document that allowed the flooding the prime river bottom lands of the Missouri River to build the Garrison Dam, resulting in the creation of Lake Sacajawea. The U.S. snatched 152,360 acres, one quarter of the reservation was flooded by the dam reservoir and 325 (80% of the total tribe) families were relocated, losing 94% of their agricultural lands, as well as their ability to "handle their own affairs."

Forced relocation and homeland destruction has left a spiritual and psychic wound in every member of the three tribes that comprise the MHA Nation, both on and off the reservation.

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara continue to pay. As part of the national Fossil Fools Day (April 1) Kandi Mossett, coordinator for the Campus Climate Challenge (Indigenous Environmental Network) scheduled a meeting on Fort Berthold to discuss clean (solar) energy on the reservation. The tribes are currently in the midst of heated negotiations regarding a proposed oil refinery on the MHA Nation. The signs for the meeting were torn down, the event unceremoniously moved and the North Dakota Division of Homeland Security was contacted. (For a full account see ICT, April 14, 2008, New Town, N.D.) Aside from the particulars of the MHA Nation's thinking and action, what is clear is that they are still paying for other people's resources (fuel, electricity) and entertainment (tourism in the form of water based recreational activities) while trying to address the poverty that has resulted from the U.S. reservation system and the MHA Nation's relationship to U. S. citizens, at large, as well as their own status as U.S. citizen, under the 1924 Citizenship Act.

During the Termination Era roughly 3% of the U.S. Federally recognized tribes were terminated, including 41 California tribes in a single "Rancheria Bill" in 1958. The unsophisticated language served further notice to tribal people of the time to what our ancestors knew during the U. S. government sanctioned wars and mass western expansion of settler colonists in the 19th Century. These policies still stand as statements of intent today.

Today, on the anniversary of the H.R. 108, it is necessary to remember that the desire to absorb First Nations into the general American populous remains the same. If we wish to maintain our position, in the land, as handed down to us (in oral tradition and tribal history) through our medicine, wise people and elders, we must discriminate and evaluate our daily participation in American culture.

Water is not a renewable resource. Those with dams on their homelands and on their sacred rivers (like the great Colorado) know this intimately.

Termination policy makes clear the entire project of Americanization—to rid the hemisphere claimed by the "original settlers " of all obstacles to what they envision as life via extermination (of people and their way of living). American consumer culture is not an inevitability, though many cannot see anything outside it, but the culture does exert itself with such force and persistence that it feels irresistible, and somehow a natural part of "progress" as if it is the very definition of "civilization" itself.

We face the legacy of Termination today in advertising, commerce, education, home improvement, enrollment, federal recognition and employment: Nike, Pepsi, Exxon, iLife, MySpace, TMobile, ATT/Comcast Broadband Cable, Direct TV, NASCAR, alcohol, Meth, Water Recreation, English, French and Spanish.

We face it in a flat and unimaginative notion of civilization.

Termination told the truth: They don't want us here and will stop at nothing until we disappear. The immigrant mythology of the U.S.A. is a powerful tool, able to lead new arrivals on the program of abandoning their origin stories, their ancestors and their way of life in exchange for the promise of full participation in the American Dream, in exchange for a flat screen TV, cell phone and iPod.

We are not immune; never forget. What's at stake and what are the costs? America needs Indians, for their mascots, entertainment, and for their national history, but tribal people engaging in tribal culture are the problem—always have been and always will be.

For more information about these policies read Creek/Seminole/Shawnee/Sac and Fox historian Donald L. Fixico's book Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960

For more information about the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations visit:

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.