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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Grandpa Knew That


If there are energy shortages, individuals will have water problems.
If there is ecological damage, individuals will have water problems.
If there are economic crisis, individuals will have water problems.
If there are computer glitches, individuals will have water problems.
If there is political turmoil, individuals will have water problems.
If there is war, individuals will have water problems.

Almost anything that happens in the future can result in questionable availability of fresh water. This is not just an environmental problem. The continued pollution of the atmosphere, the surface and subsurface of the earth is not the only cause for alarm about availability of fresh water. Water availability to individuals is dependent on every other social system being in place, stable, healthy and at peace. It is inevitable that we will experience failure of one or more of these systems at some point in the future."
-from the Garbage Warrior's website:

On Wednesday, the 18th of Nilch'ih Ts'ósí, we went to a class at our local nursery. We signed up for a Rain Barrel class; it was renamed "Winter Tasks: Water and Lighting." The class leader, from the Urban Farmer Store, introduced the theme reminding us that winter requires us to alter our behaviors: our plants need less water and we have more dark, less light, daily. We are entering our rain season: November to March.

Most rain is directed off roofs directly into sewage drains which empty into the bay and the ocean. The city of San Francisco has begun a program to encourage people to divert their drains into rainwater harvesting systems. They are even offering rebates. We received handouts and a very brief demonstration. It's really quite simple. In San Francisco (and many municipalities) we water with potable water that comes pressurized, with energy added to it. Every drop of rain water saved, reused or diverted back into the aquifer reduces the water, energy and chemicals used to treat stormwater, and transport potable water from the reservoirs. Keeping this relatively clean (rain) water out of the sewer system is easy. San Francisco only gets a one inch rain twenty times a year. Every 1,000 square foot home, during a one inch rain, could store 620 gallons of rainwater.

The Urban Farmer Store has manufactured rain barrels from reused olive barrels. They are available for purchase. With the city rebate it's quite inexpensive to install barrels at home. You will need a little sweat equity. Other sleeker and larger barrels are available from other manufactures, at a higher cost, but the point is how easy and inexpensive a basic system is to set up. If you can't use your harvested water (you have no garden, or your architecture makes it impossible), you can at least let it drain slowly (soak in) and replenish the aquifer.

San Francisco has very few permeable surfaces, even less than Manhattan.

After a discussion of permeable pavers and rain gardens one of the participants asked, "When will I make my money back?"

The leader responded: "That's like listening to music and asking when am I going to get my return on this purchase?"

Nothing will allow a people to go beyond a third or fourth year drought; as they enter the fifth and sixth year, they will give up their hope for rain.

During this last "storm" (Friday, the 20th) I heard many complaints about the rain. The best one being that it would interrupt someone's granddaughter's soccer game. When this grandma was told that the storm was fast moving and would surely be gone by Saturday she was relieved, briefly, until she realized it would probably make the field soggy. That doesn't top my favorite complaint: I can't wear flip flops. (But that leads to an entirely different discussion of shoes and why the very population that forced hard soled footwear on us now refuses to wear them.)

Many thinkers are blaming our current environmental problems on an idea that humans "just couldn't handle the transition from being hunter-gathers to high technology."

Scholars have tended to view us (American Indians) as a people who lack technology and architecture. But Daniel Wildcat, a Yuchi of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma and co-director of the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center, offers a more nuanced understanding of our relationship to technology.

In Power and Place he writes: "It appears natural selection has not selected us for a particular niche or place on the planet, but has selected traits that have allowed human beings, with the use of technology, to adapt to different places and environments on our Mother Earth.

Central among those traits is our sociability or social nature. . .our physiological awkwardness dictates a necessity for toolmaking and manipulation absent among other animal species. This is less a sign of human superiority than a sign of biological difference. In my mind this explains why in our traditional indigenous ways of speaking and praying we so often describe ourselves as pitiful beings. Humans depend on many good relations and relatives to live and survive in this world—hardly superstition, just ecological fact. Nature, nurture, and technology are intimately connected."

As we enter this yearly ritual of excessive consumption (Thanksgiving till Christmas) I want to highlight the fact that our (world) economy is based on severed relations. Simply ask yourself where your electricity or water come from, who sewed your underwear, or where your last apple was grown and what was the name of the individual who picked it.

In Slow Money, Tasch writes: "By prioritizing markets over households, community, place and land, the modern economy does violence to the relationships that underpin health and that give life-sustaining meaning—family relationships, community relationships, relationships between consumers and producers and between investors and the enterprises in which they invest, relationships between companies and the places in which they do business, relationships to the land and in the soil. Such relationships are attenuated, or in the extreme, deracinated, by the modern, global economy."

We can start simply by shaping our lives to the patterns of the earth not "the market." Detailed knowledge of the earth's patterns is precisely what we find in the oral tradition and tribal languages of indigenous peoples; this knowledge has been handed down for generations. For many, though, this will mean a new beginning, shaping daily life, including the care and construction of home, first by addressing how they are using and treating dirt, water, human waste, sun and wind.

Michael Reynolds, the Garbage Warrior, creator of the Earthship calls for "direct living," building the mechanism for "taking responsibility for what happens beyond the reach of our fingertips. Light switches and faucets" into each home he builds whether it is on Pine Ridge, Nogales, or Andaman Island India.

The land has a rhythm, if we step in time. We can be dancing in a house of beauty.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

K'é: It Begins Here, In the Thin Winds

We have just celebrated the "top of the year". The month when we store and prepare our corn. We pick piñon, leaving those that received rain for the deer. If we have had the first frost we happily begin telling our winter stories. We gather medicine; it will be used to heal the family during the cold winter. We, the earth surface people, and the animals, each begin our preparations to move to our winter homes.

It begins here, our year, in October.

During the month of Slender Winds (Nílch'ih Ts'ósí) we continue our preparations: grinding corn, cooking and storing our harvest. We hunt. Meat is preserved. The winter story season is in motion, and our children sit inside it. At night adults play stick and moccasin games and children play with string. We attend ourselves and our winter homes, and the animals attend to theirs, many going into hibernation. We have a late sunrise and an early sunset. And as our language tells us, Nílch'ih Ts'ósí blows.

Anthropologists are keen on explanations, noting "the calendar of an agricultural people concerned with season, weather, and crops naturally varies from calendars determined by hunters and warriors." As do calendars determined by the market and apostolic conversions. Aside from the mistaken belief that agricultural people are a people without hunters and warriors, this accounting of where a people place their attention fails to acknowledge how a life rooted in the environment cuts through the false notion that agriculture, technology, hunting and gathering are unrelated and disparate ways of understanding and interacting with the world.

During these months of winter stories, children, parents, aunts, uncles, and grandchildren are called together, to play and listen. We are called together to give our attention over to skills and knowledge we've learned through a devotion to story and storytelling. These dark and rainy day moments ask us to attend to language. They require us to speak across the generations, back through the ages, following the migrations of our ancestors and those we joined, left and met along the way. They require from us, at every age, to communicate across experience: First Man and First Woman, Changing Woman, the Warrior Twins, old Coyote, Bat Woman, Butterfly and Reared Within the Mountains.

I was raised by my Grandmother. She was raised to believe the only good Indian was a Christian who spoke unaccented English. Last Thursday we saw the film, The Only Good Indian, at the Palace of Fine Arts, thanks to the 34th American Indian Film Festival. The Only Good Indian told the story of a young Kickapoo abducted on the Kansas plains and taken to boarding school. In one scene he is forced to eat soap, for his refusal to answer in English. When I was four I was forced to eat soap myself. Our familial obsession with cleanliness, not talking backwards and Catholicism carries over into everything I write and every word I speak (properly or not).

It begins here, with the willingness to face the pain and shame involved in relearning our languages, and the willingness to face the ridicule and social discomfort of devoting our time, resources and money to them, and to each other. I often joke and say we, the learners, are providing community service by giving people something to laugh about, as we talk like children. Children grow into the adults we help shape them into. Our gods knew this, and so they gave us words. They set us tasks. They told us to remember, to live, this way, now. Each morning we rise into the same now our ancestors rose to—the opportunity to live, good, in this way.

Many people believe the oral tradition is more fragile and less reliable than the written tradition. Many believe it is also less advanced.

Alfred Morsette, paatúh kananuuninó, Not Afraid of the Enemy (Sahnish)

Began recording with Douglas Parks, linguist, on July 1976 in Twin Buttes and completed his recordings in October 1979 in Bismark. They always met during winter (roughly October through March), following the "old custom" of telling stories only during that time. When they would meet Alfred would tell 2 to 5 stories. In the end he told 61. He'd tell stories for three hours, first in Sahnish, then he would tell the same story in English. He'd take a break at 10:30 for "a little lunch." And in the morning he would rise and sing Arikara songs till breakfast.

He had a phenomenal memory for songs. After he heard a song once he retained it. At the turn of the century the Pawnee brought 20 songs to the Arikara, he was the only one to still remember them. In one week he recorded the old grass dance songs (one set from Crow Ghost and a second set from Red Star). In the end he recorded over 200 songs and then "told the story behind each one."

In his introduction to Myths and Traditions of the Arikara Indians Parks describes working with Alfred: "I would turn on the tape recorder when he was ready, and then he would proceed to narrate, frequently closing his eyes and folding his arms as he recited from memory the details of the story, told, as he would say, exactly as he had heard it. Some stories he had been told only once or twice while a child or youth; others were accounts he had heard later in his life. He had repeated many of the stories to his own children when they were growing up, but many had not been related to anyone since he heard them originally, so the latter required thoughtful preparation before recording."

The Advocates for California Indigenous Language Survival recommend creating an immersion situation for yourself, one where the sounds that surround you can confirm your world. Language carries everything: prayers, recipes, k'é, skills and philosophy. Deb Murillo, at the Breath of Life workshop, spoke about devoting 3 hours a day to language. She is faced with the heartbreaking task of reviving a language where there are no living speakers. The Advocates live by the simple truth that it is never to late. Three hours listening and speaking words to yourself, to your family, to the ancestors; they are listening.

Portrait of Alfred Morsette, paatúh kananuuninó, Not Afraid of the Enemy by Niki Lee

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My Grandpa Knew That

Never Forget.

I received an email, announcing the arrival of 700 Marines in New York on November seventh, from my cousin. Her son is a Marine; he has served two tours of duty in Iraq, and she is proud.

We have a long history of fighting for our homelands. My uncles escaped service because, like their father, both were alcoholics and color blind; but my cousins served: Cipriano Montes (World War II), Gilbert Tamayo, Bobby Tamayo, and Frank "Babe" Rodriquez (Vietnam).

My cousins' email proudly announced, in blue boldface size 16 font: It was built with 24 tons of scrap steel from the World Trade Center. It is the fifth in a new class of warship—designed for missions that include special operations against terrorists. It will carry a crew of 360 sailors and 700 combat-ready Marines to be delivered ashore by helicopters and assault craft.

Steel from the World Trade Center was melted down in a foundry in Amite, LA to cast the ship's bow section. When it was poured into the molds on Sept. 9, 2003, "those big rough steelworkers treated it with total reverence," recalled Navy Capt. Kevin Wensing, who was there. "It was a spiritual moment for everybody there."

Junior Chavers, foundry operations manager, said that when the trade center steel first arrived, he touched it with his hand and the "hair on my neck stood up. It had big meaning to it for all of us, " he said. "They knocked us down. They can't keep us down. We're going to be back."

The email concluded with this request: Please keep this going so everyone can see what we are made of in this country! Blessed are those who have one hand held by God and the other held by a friend!

I keep asking myself who could think of this.

Never Forget.

The official US Navy sight says the Commissioning Ceremony of PCU New York (scheduled for November 7th, 2009 at the Intrepid Museum Pier 88 South, Pier 86 North NYC, NY), "is the occasion when the ship will 'Come Alive" and the New York becomes USS New York.

When the ship was Christened, on the first of March, 2008, in Avondale LA, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England offered the follow "remarks:" "These three ships (USS Arlington, USS Somerset, the USS New York) stand for 'life, liberty. . . and the pursuit of all who threaten it' and will ensure that we never forget. . . 11 September 2001."

President Bush, the born again, inspired the ship's motto "Strength forged through sacrifice. Never Forget." when he visited the Pentagon on September 12, the day after the towers were struck down. He told those at the meeting, "I will never forget." And he continued by going around the room, looking at each person, his eye to theirs repeating, "never forget."

During the ship's Christening England went on to say, "Ultimately what will win the war on terror—like the cold war—are the choices people make, whether the terrorists' path of violence, or the far better path of Peace, Democracy, and Development."

Never forget language.

Never forget the way we live matters.

I still cannot fully comprehend this Frankenstein project: transforming the refuse of the Twin Towers into a war ship, Christening this weapon, and then bringing it to life in a public ceremony.

Everyone knows the Marine's motto: When it absolutely has to be destroyed over night.

Never forget our genocide is not complete.

The earth is our mother. She sustains us and any livelihood founded on her destruction is unequivocally self annihilating. Contemporary society is very pleased with itself, extolling the superiority of its skill set and the victory of technology over hunting, gathering and agrarian lives.

Deloria and Wildcat remind us that our ancestors judged their spiritual and intellectual development when "people could recognize an imbalance and address it as a society of interrelated people."

The attack on the Twin Towers clearly reflected an imbalance.

In his book Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, Woody Tasch asks his readers to commit to a few basic ideological truths: "We need to discover ways of thinking and speaking that can put economics in its place. . . In our devotion to money, market, and machine, we are destroying not only the fertility of the soil, but the fertility of our imaginations."

Slow Money as a philosophy offers a redress to our current imbalances by non violent action. These non violent acts are a greater threat to this nation than any weapon yet manufactured by the US Military because they place the relationships between people, plants and animals at the center of all thought and all activity.

Tasch continues: "Advocacy revolving around agrarianism and around appropriate scale and appropriate technology. . . are part of the broader historical movement toward the possibility that one day, non-violence might trump violence as an organizing principle for the affairs of man."

Never forget: We are children of earth. Who are they?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

My Grandpa Knew That

Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, in his first book, Banker to the Poor, writes, "Like navigation markings in unknown waters, definitions of poverty need to be distinctive and unambiguous. A definition that is not precise is as bad as no definition at all."

Poverty is often thought of only in terms of cold hard cash, or in recent times, the quicksand of credit. But I grew up with Dolly and her coat of many colors, and "I knew I was rich." It is precisely this wealth, of spirit and dissent, that has and continues to inform my work (as a wife and as a writer) today. My greatest failing, as a writer, has been my inability to offer a distinctive and unambiguous explanation of my understanding of poverty and wealth.

I am beginning this series for that sole purpose.

In July I came across Christopher Ketcham's Article on Daniel Suelo, the sadhus who has lived without money for the last 10 years, residing just north of Monument Valley, in the caves outside of Moab. My first feeling on reading this article was "this is what they want you to believe" that you've got to live in a cave if you want to live outside this economy. I thought it was nothing more than a propaganda leaflet in the "you can't ignore the economic realities" machine. The same machine that ignores the environmental and colonial realities so intimately shaped by said economy. As the web leads you to click on and click off, I did.

I have been reading Yunus's work, after it was introduced to me by Woody Tasch, the author of Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered. Reading Tasch's book is what made me decide to quit writing For Future Reference in favor of My Grandpa Knew That; at least once on each page I would hear myself screaming "Shicheii, bil bééhózín." (More on Slow Money coming.)

Working through K'é and For Future Reference I have tried to unravel the negative feedback system many of us (land based people) find ourselves in: we are rich, in knowledge, but this knowledge has become worthless in what is known as The Market, and more perniciously, it is becoming worthless to many of us, in what we know of ourselves and our minds. Many American Indian political and educational professionals are responding to the abject poverty in both reservation and urban communities in ways that leave the heart of our nations (our knowledge and expertise) behind.

There are economic realities and we cannot ignore them. But these realities do not form or result from an isolated universe, as a sort of Merry-Go-Round we either have a ticket to ride, or not.

I reread Ketcham's article on Suelo and want to point out this passage: "In 1987, after several years as an assistant lab technician in Colorado hospitals, he joined the Peace Corps and was posted to an Ecuadoran village high in the Andes. He was charged with monitoring the health of tribes people in the area, teaching first aid and nutrition, and handing out medicine where needed; his proudest achievement was delivering three babies. The tribe had been getting richer for a decade, and during the two years he was there he watched as the villagers began to adopt the economics of modernity. They sold the food from their fields—quinoa, potatoes, corn, lentils—for cash, which they used to purchase things they didn't need, as Suelo describes it. They bought soda and white flour and refined sugar and noodles and big bags of MSG to flavor the starchy meals. They bought TVs. The more they spent, says Suelo, the more their health declined. He could measure the deterioration on his charts. 'It looked,' he says, 'like money was impoverishing them.'"

The idea that money could be impoverishing is significant. We must take it seriously without being flip or ignorant about homelessness, nutrition and health care.

"The economy" is a cultural framework with undeniable consequences on our daily lives, but it is also a fabrication. We do not need to accept the rules as they are laid down for us.

Yunus writes:

"Experts on poverty alleviation insist that training is absolutely vital for the poor to move up the economic ladder. But if you go out into the real world, you cannot miss seeing that the poor are poor not because they are untrained or illiterate but because they cannot retain the returns of their labor. They have no control over capital, and it is the ability to control capital that gives people the power to rise out of poverty."

I do not believe that keeping our focus on moving up the economic ladder is the best approach, but his point about "retaining the returns of our labor" is clearly true. If we can refocus our attention to the land, and land based communities, consequently redefining capital, and the control of capital, we might be able to make some of the many changes essential for our survival.

Deloria and Wildcat, in Power and Place: Indian Education in America, describe an Indian Metaphysics, offering it as a way of approaching solutions to our contemporary problems. This metaphysics uses an indigenous knowledge base as its point of origin: dirt, water, people, plants, animals and the relationships between these beings as recorded in our languages, ceremonies, games and material culture.

I begin here, in the dirt, with the people.

The title for this series is inspired by Duane BigEagle's poem, My Grandfather Was A Quantum Physicist.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

K'é: 'ólta': Formal Education

It's that time of year, back to school. I would be just getting home from my Grandfather's sister's homes. They would take me in, and shuffle me about, to insure my head would be good, after my Grandfather's passing. I'd be stuffed with recipes for tségha'nilchi', white corn, blue corn and yellow corn bread-tamales-soups and mutton. The Body of Christ was the last place I wanted to be, but in San Francisco it was my only option.

My grandma believed an education would solve all our problems.

T'áá hó 'ájít'éego t'éiyá.

Diné Bizaad: Bínáhoo'aah (Rediscovering the Navajo Langauge, ©2007, Salina Bookshelf, Inc.) gives a rough translation of this statement: "success is up to you, achievement is up to you, perseverance is up to you, the amount of self-effort that you exert is up to you, it (success) is up to you, it (success) is all in your own strength."

Shimá Sání dóó Shicheii, dóó Shimá for all their disagreements agreed on that truth: T'áá hó 'ájít'éego t'éiyá.

With my mind, organization/plans, and their instruction I could be successful. I was already cooking, making toys from the dump, sewing, planting and raising seeds, caring for livestock and I could sing and dance to the complete songbooks of Cabaret, Glenn Campbell, Neil Diamond and Johnny Mathis.

Words and language develop a strong sense of self. One of the essential gifts of my home schooling was the difference of their opinions coupled with the passion they (My Grandma, Grandpa and Mother) each held for their theories.

Chief Manuelito said education is a ladder. Article 6 of the Navajo-US Treaty of 1868 mandates "formal education" of the People's children—If knowledge is a ladder, I ask, to where?

In his diaries Kafka repeats: "When I think about it, I must say that my education has done me great harm in some respects. . .Often I think it over and then I always have to say that my education has done me great harm in some ways. . .Often I think it over and give my thoughts free rein, without interfering, and always, no matter how I turn or twist it, I come to the conclusion that in some respects my education has done me terrible harm. . .Often I think it over and give my thoughts free rein, without interfering, but I always come to the conclusion that my education has spoiled me more than I can understand. . . I often think it over and give my thoughts free rein without interfering, but I always come to the same conclusion: that my education has spoiled me more than all the people I know and more than I can conceive."

At Corpus Christi I learnt, that like my mother, I talked backwards and pronounced English wrong. I also learnt we were heathens, a fact my mother and I argued about long into high school. I was good at school as long as I didn't let it leak into the house. I was even better at home, as long as I kept everything there hidden from school.

Often school is a place that takes our children away from us, from our beliefs and from our values.

Diné Bizaad: Bínáhoo'aah's chapter on 'ólta' stresses the centrality of thoughts and knowledge to traditional Navajo culture. Paying attention was the key to success at home. Watching, I learned everything, especially the things I rely on most today: how to budget my money, how to cook food, how to grow plants from seed, how to pray and how to laugh. Words flew like songbirds out of Bat Woman's basket and I made a home for them, each one, inside myself.

My Grandmother died when I was entering fourth grade, and my Grandfather died when I was entering eighth. From them I know what is closest to my soul.

I was taught that knowledge is a shield and we walk behind it. My entire oeuvre asserts: We must root ourselves, firmly, in the teachings of our ancestors. Tradition responds to a changing world. That is the precise nature of its power: to provide answers to life's questions and to offer responses to daily experiences.

Our daily decisions and activities provide us movement and are infused with direction. It is vital we know this and remember that, as we send our children off to "day schools" and as we say our farewells to good friends.

This column is about keeping good relations.

Living within the structure provided by our system of K'é helps us face each other, our near relations as well as those, "not strangers, but only lacking the knowing."

I met Sonny Tuttle at Santa Fe Indian Market, two years ago. He had a booth near ours, and made the rounds, looking for pretty women and talking good story. He was a most wonderful talker. He was the most positive person I've ever met. So full of light and energy. There was no one who could keep up with him, save ma'ii, maybe. He was there in the morning, setting up before we were, and he closed down the clubs at night. At 75, 76, he put us all to shame, with our coffees and early bedtimes. In his finery of crisp jeans, red wool wrapped braids and tall cowboy hat he looked good.

He ran the circuit: pow wows and Indian Markets. The summer time circuit that gives us all an excuse to drop everything, jump in the truck and stay up all night singing, dancing, talking, and making babies. This year he placed fifth in the Men's Golden Age dance category at the 111th Annual Arlee 4th of July Celebration.

Growing up it was the summers I loved most, for they gave me time with my family, time to learn what it meant to be, human.

With deep sadness I learned that Sonny died in a car accident near Hungry Horse on Saturday, July 25th. His memorial was held on the Flathead reservation in the St. Ignatius Longhouse. I will always remember Sonny dancing on the tables at the La Fonda. He told us that he held court there, every Saturday, every Indian Market. I see him, now, dancing. May he dance, always in beauty.

I dedicate this month's K'é to my dear friend, Elizabeth Treadwell Jackson, mother of Ivy and Gemma, and the late Mr. Sonny Tuttle, father, artist, and traditional dancer.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Sunday, March 15, 2009

K'é: Alcoholics and Child Molesters

for all friends of Bill

I was at a party and a friend was telling her sister's story. She had just adopted a family of three Yup'ik kids from Alaska. It's a story she tells often, about the kids, their history of FAS, the complete selflessness it took to adopt the lot of them, in order to keep them together.

Most people don't know much about the ICWA of 1978. She does. She had to deplete her savings in order to legally adopt them.

At this point in the story most people's sympathies are with the storyteller and her sister, especially considering the expense she went to raise another woman's children. We're the lone hold outs. Mostly I stand there silent. This is not a teachable moment. But this time the storyteller refused to end the session.

The mother, of the children, is, of course, a demon. All three kids have FAS. You'd think she would learn. To stop drinking or not to get pregnant, I'm not sure which, but you'd think she would've learned by now.

We stand there silent, and an unusual thing happens. The party host notices. Silence and tension build among the listeners but the storyteller is not affected. She keeps on talking. The kids require an unbelievable amount of work and many financial and social resources. Her sister is dauntless. She refuses to let them sink into the squalor. Their village, there's nothing there. "I mean they're all alcoholics and child molesters."

I am a child of alcoholics and child molesters.

It's common knowledge. Childhood shapes every aspect of adulthood. If I make it, March 29, marks my 20th birthday. 20 years sober. 20 years is half my life, nearly to date. If I continue on this road I will soon have more days sober than I had drinking.

Of the many things that have gotten me here, white knuckles included, nothing has helped more than my home schooling. I exist because my mother bore me and I am who I am because they, my family, raised me.

The Indian Child Welfare Act was first established in 1978 (25 U.S.C. § 1902) in response to the historical removal of Indian children into non Indian families . The imposition of western models of the family on Indian families has been devastating. The intent of ICWA is to "protect the best interest of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian Tribes and Families," by giving jurisdiction to the tribe in matters concerning all of their members, especially their children.

Removing children from the family removes the future. Their removal is a final blow in the systematic destruction to our clan, kinship and traditional educational systems. Removing children says, there is nothing here, in this house, in this culture, in this village to learn from. You are nothing, of no value.

Traditional knowledge enables us to see our place and our responsibility within the movement that is history, as the community experiences it. When children are born they have a responsibility—that responsibility is to become an elder.

Vine Deloria's chapter, "Knowing and Understanding," in Power and Place: Indian Education in America, offers the following insight:

"Even the most severely eroded Indian community today still has a substantial fragment of the old ways left, and these ways are to be found in the Indian family.

Even badly shattered families preserve enough elements of kinship so that whatever the experiences of the young, there is a sense that life has some unifying principles that can be discerned through experience and that guide behavior."

Mine is one of those "badly shattered families." I have never wished my experiences on another, nor have I ever wanted to be removed from my relations.

"The old ways of educating affirmed the basic principle that human personality was derived from accepting the responsibility to be a contributing member of a society. Kinship and clan were built upon the idea that if each individual performed his or her task properly, society as a whole would function. Because everyone was related to everyone else in some specific manner, by giving to others within that society, a person was enabled to receive what was necessary to survive and prosper.

The family was a multigenerational complex of people, and clan and kinship responsibilities extended beyond the grave and far into the future.

The elder exemplifies both the good and the bad experiences of life, and in witnessing their failures as much as their successes we are cushioned in our despair of disappointment and bolstered in our exuberance of success."

It has taken me over half my life to sift through the good and bad examples from my home. Where I have wounds I also have salve.

Kinship in its most expansive sense helps us account for our movements and experiences across the land, up through the previous worlds and into the Navajo Nation now. Our memories of migration, colonization, slavery, alcoholism, drug abuse and urbanization are revealed in the strains and breaks to our families, and in our responsibility to address those strains and breaks today.

When we turn our backs on any member of our community, and fail to recognize them as such, be they father, ant or rock we turn our backs on ourselves.

Healing a community requires more of us than removal. Individual families are targeted as the illness in most therapeutic models, but the removal of specific children, by itself, does nothing to address the roots or context of family violence. Taking children from their villages and giving up on whole communities to locate and develop the necessary resources to survive is part of the overall agenda to annihilate Indigenous people and Indigenous culture.

My Grandfather's and my Uncle's response to their own spiritual suffering was one of violence. Their choices form a legacy we pass down. Like clothes, they affect future wearers for generations. The world told them they were nothing and no one and they acted like that was a truth they would never escape from. I witnessed their failure, and bore the weight of some of it in particular. These experiences of observation and abuse taught me the consequence of believing their lies and hate, and of accepting their realities and visions as my own.

In the worst of moments my Grandfather took his fight against his own degradation out directly on his children’s' bodies and souls and my Grandmother attributed the blame to our culture: "Don't be a damn fool like your father. Crazy Indian."

Last year I had the clarity of mind to recognize, in part, why I drank. It was that feeling I didn't want to have, I sent the drink in search of. The particulars of feeling like a nothing may be a family pain, especially for our position in the world and the deep irreparable fissures in our family caused by our experience of racism and religious persecution. I stopped for a moment and said out loud, "this is why I drank. Not to feel this." And then I kept on walking. The spiritual strength and emotional maturity required to make a different response is a gift also given by my relations: the unfathomable belief that we can be "more beautiful than broken."

Sunday, March 8, 2009

For Future Reference: I am I cried

part two

President Obama's words to as-Aribiya refuse to leave my ear hole:

"[I]f you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task."

When Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) Bishop Richard Williamson there was a swift and strident outcry. Williamson's denial of the Holocaust is unpardonable. Few could tolerate his statement: "I believe there were no gas chambers."

In the midst of the uproar his SSPX colleague Father Floriano Abrahamowicz, another of the four "traditionalist" bishops excummunicated by Pope John Paul II, told the Italian newspaper, the Tribuna, "I know the gas chambers existed—at least, for disinfecting—but not whether they caused deaths or not."

In response to Obama's recent words, there has only been shrill silence.

Even when I repeat his words to others the response has been, "Yeah. Right. What's the problem."

This is hardly the same.
No it isn't.

Recognize: 2., to know by some detail

The United States of America is a settler colony. The settlers moved in and continue to occupy our homelands. In response the Nations within (Indigenous Nations) have continued to assert three things: we exist, it happened here, and it is happening now. The details of America's history as a colonial power go beyond this writing.

Historically we, Indigenous People of the America, have failed to register as a people. Our history does not seem to bare weight. Our elders lack authority. We've spent the last 517 years simply asserting our existence.

Invisibility is a power many of our ancestors used to great strategic affect. This is different.

Recognize: 4., to acknowledge the existence, validity, authority or genuineness

The day after the oral arguments for the California case against Proposition 8 opened and closed, the San Francisco Chronicle was already reporting that the court seems to favor the validity of Proposition 8.

During the arguments proponents for Proposition 8 said that the weddings performed during the 5 months when same sex marriages were legal, would not be invalidated, but they would not be recognized.

Where is Duane Big Eagle when you need him?

Obama's election has been hailed as a turning point in the U. S. national consciousness, a day after of sorts, a moment in linear time reflecting an evolution of thought, a wholescale shift in character, a now to oppose a then.

We are flooded every day with words and images that deny our humanity and experience. On June 6 of 2008, in McLean VA, the USPS issued the new priority mail stamp. On Janaury first of 2009, additional postage was already required. Regardless it was my only option. I refuse to send an elder a SASE with the defaced Black Hills as postage. I asked for other stamps. The Postmaster said there were none. I can do math. So I asked for other stamps that would add up to the new rate. It took nearly 15 minutes and her constant sighing, but I left with a SASE that looked not unlike the image on the official USPS poster for suspect mail.

California AAA's western wonder page sports the "Mountain Men" this month. Sculpting of Gutzon Borglum's giant homage to four U.S. presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln—began in 1927. Fourteen years later, Mount Rushmore National Memorial stood head and shoulders above South Dakota's Black Hills. The magazine arrived shortly after my frustration at the post office.

These are trifles. Yes. But these trifles wear us down in a relentless assault on our souls, as we face our occupied homelands today, as we face an academic and popular insistence that we don't exist, we did not know who we were, or where we came from, and our conquest is complete and definitive.

Recognize: 9., to acknowledge as having the right to speak.

The most painful memory I have, in relation to homophobia, is the trip my wife and I took to Minneapolis to bless our nephew. His maternal grandmother introduced me to her mother as "This is Reid. We met her at the wedding."

I stood there, dumb. What do you say to that? How do you maintain your dignity in silence?

I was not even a friend, or a roommate. I was someone met at the wedding.

I am the oldest of the generation of "children" and my wife and I have been together the longest. We flew at great cost, to my health and our one income household. In a sentence I was reduced to no one of no consequence. And I stood there and swallowed.

Some say the Navajo philosophy is to walk around the rock.

My soul is tired and my feet not rested.

No matter how many times my wife and I marry there are many who will refuse to recognize our vows. My own Nation included. I understand that we are asking precisely for what they refuse to give: an acknowledgement of our humanity.

In the 3 years since my nephew's baptism I've developed a fetish for Nebraska, somehow convincing myself that if I could understand their minds I could somehow make a space within it.

There's the rock. Walk around it.

When I was little I used to run the house singing Neil Diamond.

"I am," I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair
"I am," I cried
"I am," said I
And I am lost, and I can't even say why
Leavin' me lonely still
1971 Prophet Music, Inc. (ASCAP)

Some things are old. We feel them even when we are young. We do not know how. We do not always know why. But we know we do.

painting: Sitting Bear by Niki Lee

Sunday, March 1, 2009

For Future Reference: I am I cried

This month, For Future Reference will take the form of a series, unfolding.

". . . with the Holocaust. Everything in it already seems so thoroughly unreal, as if it no longer belongs to the experience of our generation, but to mythology. Thence comes the need to bring it down to the human real. That is not a mechanical problem, but an essential one. . .I do not mean to simplify, to attenuate, or to sweeten the horror, but to attempt to make the events speak through the individual and in his language, to rescue the sufferings from huge numbers, from dreadful anonymity, and to restore the person's given and family name, to give the tortured person back his human form, which was snatched away from him." Aharon Appelfeld, Beyond Despair

Things to be Desired
for Ershod

“You’re an Indian, huh?”


“What are you doing here?”

“My Dad worked these docks. They called him Beaver.”

“He the Indian?”

She nods.

“I come down here too.”

He steps up close. Shaved iced. He’s a barely holding together. Twilight is a blanket. For the moment they step inside.

“See. You’re lucky.”

Two hundred pounds of fat, she doesn’t feel. What is it he’s saying.

“You know your people.”

She heard it all; but she never heard this.

“Black people. We don’t know our people.”

They stand, shoulder to shoulder, in the silence of recognition. The water coming up to the edge. Sometimes pouring over. He to the left. She to the right. One man, five foot seven. One woman, five foot one. Thin. Fat. Black. Beige. Close cut. Thick waist length braid. Before them the island. Behind them the buildings. Overhead the new sky of the Embarcadero. The Central Freeway just torn down. Earthquakes expose the mud beneath the surface. Structures fall. Pancakes with no syrup.

She doesn’t know what to say. This was her moment to find the quiet and he keeps on talking. Her head packed tight with wishful thinking.

“My Sister gave me this. Have you seen it?”

He hands her a folded paper, the Desiderata. She looks at it. Reads. Still not looking at him. The intimacy between. Her father’s people always find her. Head nods and hat tips, an index finger raised to the eye; she walks the city streets and they stake a claim. Daughters lost. Fathers found. Uncles and nieces.

“He an alcoholic too?”

She turns and looks at his ear. Small ears. Hers are huge, no one disputes the size of ancestry in the earlobe. Strings of ears on museum shelves, hers still attached. They frame the face. Eye to eye, you never see it.

“You got that look.”

“What is that?”


She hands him back his paper.

“You know they found that in a deserted place.”

“My mom likes sayings.”

“Yeah. So does my sister.”

He’s the left foot. She the right. A wave of water rushes over.

“Oh shit.”

The blue horses of morning.

He jumps. From left to right, making his way over to the knee deep concrete hedge, he sits. The bay immersing her calf deep inside it. Offerings she has none. Olokun. Yemaya. Even Oshun gathers here at this seven point juncture. One minute piles upon another and she follows him over to the seat and sits like she’s expected.

The cold gets colder, wet pants, shoes, socks. His jack rabbit jumping has him dry. She’s wet. A slow soggy slopping over.

“How long you been sober?”

“Four years.”

“You guys have a real problem with that.”

“With what?” She’s ready to leave, but doesn’t.


She’s a lump of floured water. Poorly figured. No breasts, just flaps of skin, nipples like birthmarks. No suckling children or jealous lovers. Just an empty gnawing ache. Emptiness, fill it.

“I smoke crack, but I don’t do heroin.”

His speed picks up, or hers slows down. It’s difficult to judge the shifting perspectives. Cold water, darkening sky. The soles of her shoes sponges she can’t wring dry. Her back beneath the jacket, growing wide, loosing shape or absorbing it.

“See. That’s why I came down here. I told this woman to get me some and she brought me this.”
He holds his fingers out, palm up, in between them a swatch of air. He shakes his hand up and down.

“A balloon. And you know what’s in that shit.”

He drops his hand.

“I threw it away.”

Cars rush by. The night is on, not announcing it’s arrival.

“Fuck that shit. Excuse me, but no way. Not me.”

She breathes. Words. She has none. Wet feet, she had two.

“So I came down here. ‘Cause I know where it is and you know I might just go back and get it. So I come down here. Get me some air. That’s when I seen you saying your prayers.”

She keeps breathing air into the wordless mass. Two or more gathered together, this is a meeting. They are inside it.

He pours out of himself, “I wish you could see me another day. This shit makes me all paranoid. I’m not like this. Mean and paranoid. I’m a nice guy. If you could see me another day you would see. I’m not like this.”

His hands long strands of black thread. He wraps them around his words. They keep spilling forth, but like the girl they don’t hold water.

“Can I ask you a question?”


“Why do they do it?”

She waits for him to finish.

“What I want to know is how can they? I understand people like you and me. Why we use. We need it. I gotta have it. We’re hooked. But these people that sell it. How can they do it? Make their money off of other people’s misery. I don’t understand.”

Thoughts can smother even the strongest fire.

“I don’t know.”

She’s tired. Narcotics are high heeled shoes. She don’t use them.


He says, extending his hand. She takes it, puts her inside. Names, she don’t give one.

“If you see me on the street, and I look like this, don’t come up to me. I’m mean.”

She don’t answer. It’s a gift and doesn’t require a response. Recognition takes many forms, in the intimacy of what to do and when to do it. Whodini rings in her ears, “One love, one love, you’re lucky just to have, one love.” She likes the slow decay of fermentation. One drink is too many, one hundred not enough.

At the corner she throws her shoes and socks into the trash. He melts into the unlit night. Her father. Her brother. The beaver who likes living down at the piles, his head on the pavement, a bottle at his hip.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

K'é: Heathens and Homosexuals

"We have yet to register with him as a people who matter."

AP Press writers Ben Feller and Christopher Wills begin their report on President Obama's recent ceremony to commemorate Lincoln's 200th birth date with the following: "President Barak Obama called on Americans Thursday to follow Abraham Lincoln's example of showing generosity to political opponents and valuing national unity—above all else."

Lincoln's "generosity to political opponents" clearly did not apply to the 38 men of the Dakota Nation publicly hung in the state that takes its name from their language, Minnesota. Their execution stands as the largest mass hanging from a single gallows to date.

The men were hung at Mankato on December 28, 1862, by the direct order of President Lincoln, who took the time and effort to phonetically spell out each of the warriors names so there would be no mistaken identities. Lincoln further went on to clarify the Dakota's position in respect to U.S. presence on their lands, degrading their position of being at war with the U.S. to his stand that there was no war; they were common criminals.

The U.S. has always criminalized Indian resistance to colonization, but Lincoln's order to mass execute the 38 Dakota reveals the power of language to manipulate reality, transforming 38 warriors into rats to be exterminated.

Lincoln's desire for national unity, at all costs, resonates strongly with President Obama, though he refuses to honestly appraise the divisions the U.S. faces today. After Congress agreed to pass his stimulus plan he spoke these words: "We are far less divided than in Lincoln's day [but] we are once again debating the critical issues of our time."

Black American Slavery was the Civil Rights issue of Lincoln's day.

Gay Marriage is the Civil Rights issue of President Obama's.

Many are reluctant to parallel racism and homophobia, afraid the specifics of their histories will be eclipsed by the large swaths of experiences that overlap. When community organizers use the language of Civil Rights to speak to the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California they are legally correct in doing so. Proposition 8 removes rights that existed for California citizens by a popular vote. My dear friend, the late, Deborah Dixon used to always tell me, "People would vote back slavery if it went to the polls."

The voting booth offers the protection of anonymity, and hate is easily expressed when people are spared accountability. When community organizers apply the language of Civil Rights to homosexuals they are treading tender ground, picking the scabs of wounds that have yet to heal and revealing one face hate wears today: homophobia.

Proposition 8 passed in the state of California in 2008, in the same election that earned President Obama his office. Indians and gays overwhelmingly supported Obama, many saying he "has our backs," he understands us and the unique nature of our lives. In full disclosure I never believed "he had our backs," he has made that clear in various speeches, but I did vote for him and against Proposition 8, simultaneously.

I refused to witness his inauguration when he chose Saddleback's pastor the Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural prayer.

National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director, Kate Kendell, said choosing Warren showed "how culturally competent Obama is on Gay and Lesbian issues. . .I think it's a reminder of how much work we have to do."

I have not been so understanding.

Warren, in print and at the pulpit, has equated gay marriage with incest, polygamy and pedophilia and while President Obama has framed his selection of Warren in the light of Lincoln's desire to bring north and south together after "freeing the slaves." I am not persuaded.

Maybe, like Lincoln, President Obama "wants us all to go back home and return to work on their farms and in their shops. . .That was the only way, Lincoln knew, to repair the rifts that had torn this country apart. It was the only way to begin the healing that our nation so desperately needed."

For First Nations and for homosexuals the very nature of our home life has been and continues to be attacked. Going home and getting to work, is often, for us, criminal behavior.

Indian country has taken issue with President Obama's inaugural address itself, specifically the lines: "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus-and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."

The primary issue has been with the language "the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve."

In our memory and experience these words are words of warning and consequently the tribes of the nations within the U.S. have taken note.

President Obama's official statement was " President Obama was not referring to Native American tribes in this line of his inaugural address."

His response itself is indicative of the problem, as the co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association Doug George-Kanentiio pointed out, "we have yet to register with him as a people who matter."

President Obama's beatification of Lincoln as the freer of slaves, laying the foundation for his ability to become the first U.S. Black president ignores the fact that women and children of the Navajo Nation, which officially endorsed Obama prior to the election, were still being bought and sold into slavery by New Mexicans as late as 1868.

In his first interview given to the Arab press he makes the unbelievable claim that "as you say, America was not born as a colonial power."

His ability to over look America's colonial history paired with his unpardonable selection of Warren to deliver the inaugural prayer, and the consequent missed opportunity to stand for the Civil Rights issue of his day, does not tell me he doesn't get it. It tells me, many don't get him and what he accepts and consequently endorses.

His consistent framing of the U.S. as "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus-and non-believers" is what troubles me most.

Clearly the U.S. faces serious political and economic problems, but the religious divide has come to determine limits and possibilities for us all.

My life has been dogged by the word heathen since I was nine at Corpus Christi, where we bought "pagan babies" with the "Mission money" that was collected every morning. President Obama's constant use of the term non-believer is degrading and closely resembles sanctioned persecution, if only for it's refusal to recognize our beliefs as such.

The Navajo are not non-believers. In our laws people, plants and animals have their own rules, rules to be respected. Our indigenous knowledge is ancient, specific, and shaped by a people's experience of a particular place. Our knowledge defines our relationships and gives us direction, illuminating what we are and what we can become, by providing a moral code, an ethic, based on accountability, responsibility and honor for all life. This core has come down to us in part through our kinship system of K'é. Which details our clans as well as our relationship to our environment—people, plants, animals, earth, sky, water, wind and his companion darkness. The inter connectedness and appropriate behavior in light of those connections are explained by our philosophy of K'é. When we have violated those codes, as we have in previous worlds, the result has been chaos and destruction. For those reasons we must live according to K'é today.

When Johnny Navajo went to Washingdoon in October of 1969 he said, "it seems to me that not many people in Washingdoon even knew of the slavery in our part of the country. The truth is that we may not be too well known here. But it doesn't matter, Grandson, because we know who we are."

This is why and how we live in proper relation. We know who we are.

The mass execution of the 38 Dakota warriors, the passage of Proposition 8, the Diné Marriage Act of 2004, the selection of Warren, President Obama's words regarding the dissolution of tribes, and his indignant response that he was not referring to tribes (I didn't mean you) and President Obama's consistent use of the term non-believer all reflect a denial of our existence and our experience, as Indigenous people of the hemisphere and humans who love.

President Obama 's selection of Warren and his use of the term non-believer reveals his tolerance for hate is higher than mine.

Any language or action that denies a person's humanity, as heathens and homosexuals, that persecutes us for who we are and who we love, diminishes and negates our relationships, our beliefs, our warriors, our wives, our husbands, our families and supports hate.

In his interview on AI-ARIBIYA President Obama said any conversation in "the Palestinian-Israeli theater" needed to be founded on mutual respect and mutual interest. He said, "anybody who has studied the region. . ." I ask do these considerations apply to us, heathens and homosexuals.

During his campaign he went to great lengths to convince the public that "words matter." To AI-ARIBIYA he said he wanted to be "someone who listens and is respectful. . .People will judge me not by my words, but by my actions."

Standing to speak is an action he will be judged by.

To the Muslim world he has said, "you will be judged on what you built not on what you destroyed." Here in Indian country, among the nations of this hemisphere, he wants to build a monument to Lincoln. We of all nations (people, plants, animals, earth, sky, water, wind and his companion darkness) want good relations.

Photo Credit: Jesus Saves Liquor and More, 3rd and Townsend, San Francisco by Reid Gómez

Sunday, February 1, 2009

For Future Reference: Our Trade Networks Once Ruled This Land

"The White Man makes us forget our holy places. He makes us small."
-D'Arcy McNickle, Wind From An Enemy Sky

Mexico and the United States of America signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo on February 2, 1848, ending the Mexican American War. Mexico exchanged over 1.2 million square territorial miles (land that is now claimed by the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California) for 15 million dollars and additional considerations, namely citizenship, Spanish language and land rights for Mexican citizens and their Spanish speaking descendants. The United States acted decisively and quickly in respect to their new found land wealth, the only obstacle being the Indians.

Indians have always been a problem for the United States and Mexico. The problem being, unequivocally, who we are as a People, our concepts of the world and our understandings of our place within it.

In Nations Within, Vine Deloria Jr., clarifies this concept: "In almost every treaty. . .the concern of the Indians was the preservation of the people. . .The idea of the people is primarily a religious conception, and with most American Indian tribes it begins somewhere in the primordial mists. . . because the tribes understood their place in the universe as one given specifically to them. . .a council to remind the People of their sacred obligations to the cosmos and to themselves, was sufficient for most purposes. The tribes needed no other form of government except the gentle reminder by elders of the tribe when the people were assembled to maintain their institutions."

The solution to the problem of us has also remained the same: extinguish our spiritual title, traditional knowledge, and physical occupation of our homelands through war.

In 1864 Christopher "Kit" Carson was recruited to finally and definitively subdue every Navajo who stood in the way of United States and New Mexican settlement and occupation. In a letter dated, Jan 24, 1864 he wrote:

"They [Navajos] declare that owning to the operations of my command they are in a complete state of starvation, and that many of their women and children have already died from this cause. . .I sent the party to return through the Cañon [Tséyi'] from west to east, that all the Peach Orchards, of which there were many, might be destroyed, as well as the dwellings of the Indians. . .but it is to the ulterior effects of the 'Expedition' that I look for the greatest results. We have shown the Indians that in no place, however formidable or inaccessible, in their opinion, are they safe from the pursuit of the troops of this command; and have convinced a large portion of them that the struggle on their part is a hopeless one."

The United States desires our absorption into America— by means of violent and absolute dissolution. Full assimilation as citizens (English speaking mass consumers) in exchange for the territory of our souls as well as our homelands is the only option afforded us. Even when we are granted nominal or ceremonial management of our souls and lands (via such acts as the IRA of 1934) the terms are clear and unforgiving.

We, across all first nations, have been and continue to be punished for who we are, what we believe and how we propose to live on our own homelands. Those punishments have historically taken place in military, religious and educational arenas (Wounded Knee 1 and 2, The Long Walk, The California Mission System, the persecution of Carrie and Mary Dann, Western Shoshone sisters, and the boarding and vocational school system). Regardless of the terrain the enemy has remained the same: landed cultures and landed peoples whose world and life practice are most usually defined as traditional.

When the United States burned our peach orchards and cornfields, and slaughtered our sheep (during the livestock reduction period) their message to us as Navajo and to all first nations was simple: you cannot remain alive if you continue to be who you are. You can join the regular citizenry or you can die. America can afford her Indians but she cannot abide the Diné Nation.

The United States makes some believe they are weak and they have no choice, it promotes a relentless force that acknowledges nothing and no one outside its terms or agenda, claiming that your best defense is to find a way to make the best of a bad situation, and live with what it claims are a series of inevitabilities.

Never has it been practical or realistic to be Indian, and certainly it is not today. Punishment of traditional peoples who live traditional life ways are largely economic. There are many areas we do not have legal access to (The Black Hills, The San Francisco Peaks, LA City and County) but my concern today, on the eve of the anniversary of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo, is our use of money.

Tribal language speakers know that traditional culture requires tribal language. The best way to create and maintain language immersion is to live in traditional culture. Living traditional culture often feels economically impossible—every one will tell you that, over and over. During the best of times it is a fiscal challenge on the books of our nations and in our individual pockets.

Our trade networks once ruled this land. People and goods moved in the four directions, forming alliances, families and enriching individual cultures without jeopardizing our identities. These networks were shaped and built on honor and responsibility. Goods were expected to be well made, raw materials were expected to be of high quality and craftmanship was rewarded fiscally.

Some say those days are over.

I don't believe it. But, I know our only hope, as humans, is to place our faith in land based philosophies and ethics. Traditional cultures that express and nourish humanity are still viable today. With our little money we can start supporting traditional ethics by supporting artists, educators, scientists, and engineers (farmers, herders, horsemen and builders) financially. Everyone needs to make a living, everyone.

All of America's economic stimulus plans seek the same thing: the rescue and fortification of American ideals and standards of living. We can stimulate our own economies, even and especially those of us who live in cities, simply by only supporting, with currency, people and institutions that contribute to our health as humans on Earth.

Objects have power. The power to foster the health of the planet and our health as humans. The politics of poverty are clear to everyone. Yet we often resign ourselves to our own dehumanization, simply because it seems cheaper, faster, more convenient, or somehow inevitable. These are advertisers' and politicians' lies. They are paid to manipulate our commerce.

Food, dolls, stories, baskets, beadwork, silverwork, weavings, hand drums, flutes, songs and dances tell us who we are and teach us how to care for ourselves and our relations. Farmers, artists, wise men and women, weavers, dancers and singers invest their time and money living tradition, making a place for us in the here and now. They invest their resources in us and our future, creating and forging relationships that support us as individuals and as people. When we support them we support ourselves. When we purchase objects or services based in hate and exploitation we are funding hate and exploitation.

Trina Secody of Runway Beauty and Secody Records, Navajo, wife, mother, and independent business woman reminds us all, "Walk in Beauty. . .they are more than words. . .it is a lifestyle"

Photo Credit: Beauty Unlimited by Reid Gómez

Thursday, January 15, 2009

K'é: Light Green Bananas

Last week I heard about a new environmental movement: Light Green.

Elisabeth Hasselbeck, former Survivor, host of The View and author of the forthcoming The G-Free Diet (living gluten free), hosted a consumer advocacy segment on the daytime show detailing the ways you can go green without much trouble or expense. Her guest, who I neglected to record the name of, but she might have been sponsored by (an employee of) Disney, took us from stage left to right, listing what products you should spend your béeso on and those you shouldn't.

Before beginning though, she said. Going green doesn't have to be hard. I like to think of it in shades, or grades, from dark green to light green. Some people would have you driving Hybrids and making your own baby food. Those are the dark greens. We're here to show you how to go green without changing your lifestyle or wasting your hard earned money. I added the part about hard earned.

Stage left. Fruit and vegetables. I have these in categories. Things you shouldn't even waste your money on and things you should absolutely purchase organic. In the first category: oranges, pineapples, bananas. Wait, bananas are the sacred food of my nation. I begin to listen more closely. All these things come with their own skin, which you peel off. Precisely, that's what makes bananas the perfect food, aside from corn and mutton. You just peel it off and there goes the pesticides.


She's on to the absolutely organic. Whoopi is chomping on a hard green apple. Apples, peaches, grapes, these you should cough up the money for. Or, Miss Elisabeth adds, you can just peel them. On to the next display. Miss Shades of Green sort of stammers, about the skin, peeling it off, some is absorbed by the fruit. Time is ticking, and so is common knowledge. The View Master has a stopwatch and Miss Shades of Green has to move on.

Peel them?

Last weekend I also saw the toxic comedy, Blue Vinyl, a film by Judith Helfand ( and Daniel B. Gold. The film follows Helfand as she tries to convince her parents that their decision to side their home with blue vinyl, embossed to look like wood, was a big mistake. Her father assures her the vinyl siding only poses a threat in the unlikely event of a house fire.

He must not be afraid of the End of Days, and he must not live in California.

The film documents her efforts to prove to him the vinyl is not so harmless, to the environment, the factory workers and the neighboring communities.

He's in Long Island and in Long Island Louisiana can seem, not so close, the people, not so real, certainly not related, the danger not so tangible. Besides it's cheap and the vinyl is good for the resale value.

They're selling the house? They just put the vinyl on.

You gotta see it. The film that is.

The point, in the end, Helfand and Gold are trying to make is: My house is your house. (

When I was little and I got some cool new toy, like crystal knocker balls that hung from a silver ring, real silver not that fake nickel plated stuff, my Grandma's first words would always be: Where did you get that?

Mostly because she had to navigate my travels and treasure hunting. The daily trips I took with my Grandpa, on our way to Dog Patch, en route to the liquor store we'd always stop and sift through the dump, back when there were "local dumps," and he'd locate the jewels among the garbage. I had a very extensive collection of marbles and bottle tops. Knocker balls were contraband.

I'm not supposed to have used things. You never know what they carry. Not cooties, we had cooties of our own, so we weren't afraid of them, but life. You never know what experiences things hold the residue of and we were supposed to be careful. We were sensitive to that: residue.

We didn't have a lot of money, but my Grandparents turned our poverty into endless hours of magic. Food, we grew it. Clothes, we sewed them. Toys, we built them. Music, we played it. From this and that, our feet, our hands and our minds we were never without something good.

Any idiot knows you can't peel the pesticides offa apple, offa skin, off the earth.

My Grandpa being the coyote he was would often urinate in the most creative places. But he would never urinate in his soil. The neighbors yard, yeah. I mean what did she do, but plant Mrs. Butterworth bottles and Christmas Poinsettias from Safeway. He ate his dirt, not for food, but for information. He tasted what it had and from that he knew what it needed. He watered his dirt. He went back in his shed and mixed up plants and potions to make it good, for us and for our bellies and spirits.

Food was a politics they could both agree on, not like Jesus or the Catholics. Food made us different. The tongue hanging out of the pot was only one example.

Back to the sacred food of the Diné.

Bananas are the number one selling fruit in the United States; they out-sell apples and oranges combined. Over 170 million 40 pound boxes of bananas were sold in the United States alone, in 1997. In 2007 the Hawaiian Islands alone produced 9.7 millions pounds.

Anyone who loves bananas as much as we do knows they're good green, they're good yellow and if they go black you can mash them into a bushel of muffins. Anyone also knows bananas bruise, easily.

The point, though, is not in the peel. Though the peel does allow you to carry one in your purse, or fold a half one up for later. The point is in the people and the dirt, not to mention the Banana Republics.

Bananas are grown in dirt and they are grown by people. In the course of a growth cycle both the people and the dirt are treated with an insane amount of toxic chemicals (pesticides). Chorpyrifos (declared toxic by the World Health Organization), DBCP (resulting in sterility among workers), nematocides/Aldicarb (lethal at .9 mg per pound of human weight). Soil is often flood irrigated. Songbirds and hawks are dying as a result of the poisons. Latin America has increased pesticides use five fold since the eighties, all to meet the United States consumer desire for summer fruit in winter.

The question of today is not my Grandmother's. The question of today is how much does it cost? And can I get it cheaper?

I was raised with the twin phrases: we don't do that and we don't say that. These words gave me strength at four and continue to give me strength today.

K'é is the way we work together—with and through our relations. K'é recognizes that the earth is our mother, we emerged from her. We have the responsibility to care for her and she cares for us. Our fundamental philosophy relies on this responsibility, on respect and the nurturing of good relations. It is our belief and our practice that these relations guide each of our daily activities, including the purchase of bananas.

Given their ubiquity and value, they are a perfect product for us to exercise our good sense and stewardship.

As long as they have a resale value commercial bananas will be grown. People, animals and the earth itself will pay one price while the consumer is charged a lower one.

In Blue Vinyl, Judith Helfand tells us "Consumers have the power to transform a market and make a hazardous product obsolete."

It doesn't take a genius. If you want to save some béeso don't buy Elisabeth's book, buy organic bananas.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

For Future Reference: At the Crossroads, Knowledge Is What You Know

This is the month of the melting snow. The first, today, the feast day of the Ifa God of the Crossroads. Rain. Dark mornings and early nights. Winter Solstice reminding us that we are close, together, to spring. Work requires hands. We have them. Hands working. The men take this time to plan how they will plant, while children sit and listen to narratives that tell us who we are.

For many January first marks the time when Christmas bills start arriving. Credit and debt shapes many lives more intimately than the ancestors, what they taught, what they know.

For a long time I've said, with pride, "we don't have a casino." Now we do.

Fire Rock Casino opened on November 26, 2008. The doors opened at 4 pm. The people standing in line since 8 am. Once open the casino hit capacity in 45 minutes. While more waited outside over 400 got in. The first day totals were $1.2 million.

Navajos are noted for a great and many things, the least of which is not our pride. We have numbers. We have land. We have many living speakers.

As recently as the Unites States Great Depression many Diné were living well, grazing their sheep and teaching their children. Sheep is life. K'é the fundamental law of the nation. The seasons providing the time and space necessary for our teachings. The U.S.'s general economy and culture was on the periphery of our daily lives. In practical terms we stood firmly in the center of the world.

This is no longer the case.

Our world is touched and our daily lives shaped by the world wide web, employment/unemployment, formal education, Christianity, drug and alcohol abuse and the consumer-entertainment industry.

The same day the Times reported the Fire Rock opening, Jason Begay wrote a significant article about the effect of gas prices (rising and falling) on the nation.

Some facts from his article (Officials Study Impact of Falling Oil Prices," Window Rock, Nov. 26, 2008): People are happy about the fall in pump prices. The U.S. federal government served notice they were cutting $10 million from federal grants for the nation's operating costs. Oil costs have gone down approximately 66% in the last 4 months. In the 2008 fiscal year the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas company was earning $47.2 million. The 2009 fiscal year projections for the nation were $172 million, providing oil prices remained the same. The Budget and Finance Committee will have to address and account for the difference in projections and actual returns.

For all the details please read Begay's article in full:

A week before, former Chief Justice Robert Yazzie and Lorraine Ruffing and James Singer of the Diné Policy Institute of the Diné College published an opinion piece in the Times: Wall Street, Navajo Way meet at Crossroads.

Some facts from the article: 70% of Navajo income is spent outside of the nation (off reservation), after the recent fall of the U. S. economy the Nation's trust portfolio fell over $240 million.

I recommend everyone read their article in full:

Yazzie, Ruffing and Singer conclude with the following: "With the current economic crises we as a people have the freedom and responsibility to examine where we are and where we are heading. A choice, then, is laid on the road before us: whether to continue down Wall Street, or hang a U-Turn on Navajo Way."

In 1934 Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas arrived from Paris for Gertrude's American lecture tour. The first line of one of her lectures was: "Knowledge is what you know."

Fire Rock Casino. The Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company. The Nation's Trust Portfolio. Money. Do we know how to live without it? The U. S. Economy. Do we know how to live outside it?

In previous writings Judge Yazzie has remarked that our strength as a people came, in part, from our homogenous culture and our isolation from the U.S..

No one doubts our ability, as a people, to take what we see as the best in other worlds and refashion them into something uniquely and passionately our own. Perhaps our defining characteristic is our ability to adapt to the changing world while retaining our indescribable core: K'é, Diné Bizaad, these our winter stories and the time to tell them.

Our challenge today is no different than the challenges faced by our ancestors. They too had "the freedom and responsibility to examine where we are and where we are heading."

In practical terms we must untangle our minds and our national and personal economies from the U.S. economy and culture.

The U. S. economic crises is a direct consequence of certain beliefs about the world and the people who inhabit it. Our grandparents know this. We know this too. The problem is that many no longer believe it is possible to live whole, in the center of the world, or they lack the practical steps to return our daily activities to those practices which maintain balance (ecologically, socially and spiritually) and identity.

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.