Saturday, November 2, 2013

Carrying Traditions With a Smile On Your Face

*WARNING: This blog post deals with religion, faith, death and culture.  Comments filled with hate will not be tolerated. 

Yesterday I posted this photo with the following caption to my Casa On And Off The Rez Facebook page. 

I ordered a few crosses from a friend's cousin recently.

Today I got a call saying they're ready and other people are trying to buy them so I HAVE to pick them up today.

Unfortunately, I didn't drive in to work today...I rode the work s

I managed to pick them up with the use of a coworker's truck, but then had to decide whether to leave them in my office till next week...or to take them home on the work shuttle...

I decided to take them home.

My coworkers are STILL laughing.

I was a little nervous about posting this picture to my Facebook page, because I thought I'd hear from someone saying that I was treating the crosses with disrespect or something like that.  I also have a sharp divide in friends who are very, very, religious and ones who are very anti-organized religion.  

Just in case anyone is curious, I am very open about the fact that I am not Catholic or Christian, but I still honor many of the O'odham Catholic practices because it has been woven so tightly with O'odham culture, that I cannot cleanly separate the two.  When I was younger, I was angry and refused to participate in some events, but by doing so, I missed out on a lot of special moments in my community and I hurt many people around me.   

I've learned to focus more on family and tradition and to be guided more by a sense of what I feel is right.  I do not attend church (nor do I want to) and I do not want anyone to try to "save" me or guide me to something else.  I know for others, that may be troubling, but I believe in treating people the way you wanted to be treated, and I'm sure if you're a devout Catholic, you don't want someone to try to convince you to be a devout Morman or Buddhist or the other way around.  Please respect my beliefs, I respect yours, whatever they may be.  

Now, back to my photo.  I asked a coworker  to take the photo because I wanted to document the things that I take on the work shuttle, and I thought a few others might find it humorous.  Much to my surprise, a LARGE number of people liked the photo, and every single O'odham who commented on it found the situation funny.  I did not read ONE single negative comment come from an O'odham person.  Also, it is important to note, that all the positive comments came from other, O'odham women. 

Of course, as O'odham, we see one of these types of crosses and we know what they're for, especially during this time of year.  It would never even occur to us that it might be an odd sight. 

What DIDN'T occur to me was that my non-Native friends (which I have a lot of) wouldn't understand why I'd be carrying wooden crosses around or taking them home on my work shuttle. 

Here's my explanation for the crosses, which, as promised, is very long and complicated. 

The crosses are for my family's cemetery. Nov. 2nd is the O'odham celebration: Limosañ.  Some people call it, "All Soul's Day," but it's celebrated in the O'odham way.  It's a day to honor, feed and energize our departed loved ones for another year in the spirit world. It's somewhat similar to El día de los muertos, except O'odham aren't supposed to come into contact with our spirits.  My family never celebrates on Nov. 2nd, for various reasons, but we always celebrate.  Although we've had "hard" years, it's a time for family and remembering your departed loved ones, plus there's lots of delicious foods.  Limosañ is one of my favorite holidays because of the love that it emphasizes.     

As most of you know, I grew up in the village of Pisin' Mo'o, but my family is actually from a smaller community called, Ku:pk.  Ku:pk is where my mom grew up as a girl and where I spent most of my summers as a child.  It's about a 30-40 minute drive from Pisin' Mo'o on dirt roads.  I would estimate that it's a three hour drive from Tucson, 2 1/2 if you if you have a truck sturdy enough to take the back roads from Sells.  

The road to Ku:pk through the dirty windshield of my sister's truck. 
Ku:pk has never been "big" but when I was a kid, there were people who lived there year-round.  Now I think there are only two or three people who live there, part-time. 

Next October we'll be hosting the Ge'e Piast (Big Dance) there though, so there have been some additions (like a dance floor) and they've brought in electricity.  It was the dream of my great-uncle, Vincent JoseMaria-bat to host Ge'e Piast in Ku:pk.  My aunt and cousins have been working hard for the past few years to get ready for it. 

In Ku:pk, there are a few houses (maybe five or six), a feast house, a small church and a cemetery. 

The cemetery is different from the ones you see in town.  The gate that marks its boundaries are made with mesquite wood and barbed wire.  There's no grass.  There are very few headstones.  There are no trees or statues or crying angels.  There is no mortuary where people gather.  There are no men in golf carts who stand around waiting to lower the caskets into the ground with the push of a button like they do in the movies.   

Mostly, there are white crosses like the ones I have in that photo, adorned with paper or plastic flowers, attached to the crosses with wire.  There are candles, momentos and containers of water left by loving family members throughout the year. 

When someone dies, the men in the community are the ones who dig the hole for them.  The men of the community are also the ones who lower the caskets into the hole with ropes.  They climb inside to place a blanket directly on the casket and to carefully place shaved, mesquite logs side by side across the entire length of the hole.  The logs rest on a ledge which is slightly wider than the hole where the casket has been placed.  On top of the logs, huge bunches of creosote are spread over the top of the logs, until you can't see underneath it.  Everyone is given the opportunity to grab a handful of dirt from a waiting shovel and say their final goodbyes as they toss it into the grave.  A white cross is placed at the head of the grave then finally, the hole is filled as we stand and watch.  All men take a turn as five or six shovels kick up dirt and fill the hole to the top.  The weight of the dirt pressing against the cross secures it firmly in place.  After the mound is shaped, the flowers and wreaths, brought by guests are placed on top. 

The crosses wear with age, they're exposed to the heat, wind, rain and blowing dust.  Sometimes, after years and years, crosses will need to be replaced.  There is no company that does this, no service which you pay.  Repairs are done by the family.   

This cross OBVIOUSLY needs to be replaced.

Before Limosañ, the entire family cleans the graves.  Old flowers and candles are thrown away and holes that may have formed due to the decay of the logs and creosote underneath the dirt are smoothed over.  On Limosañ we decorate the graves with new wreaths and set out new candles.  We invite them to a feast which we've set up just for them, and which we don't attend.

My mom and nephew at our family's cemetery, getting ready to decorate the graves. 

The next morning, after the food is blessed, we can then partake in the feast, warming food and sharing with our extended families.  Nothing goes to waste. 
When I was a little girl, my hu'ul ke:li-bat, my late, Great-Uncle Vincent always maintained our cemetery.  He made new crosses by hand when they were needed and painted them right outside his cement house and left them there to dry. 

When hu'ul ke:li-bat passed away, my brother, Adrian dutifully took care of our cemetery, often stopping at the graves of our hu'uli-bat and hu'ul ke:li-bat to say hello.   

I have three brothers; my oldest brother is an academic and a professional with a demanding job and a BIG family (who is ALWAYS busy), my middle brother lives out of state, and my youngest brother, who was three years older than me, is buried in that same cemetery. 

My two oldest nephews don't have the resources, knowledge or skill to maintain these responsibilities.  My husband, who isn't O'odham, will be making our family's crosses in the future, but it will be a self-taught adventure for him.  Our cemetery needs crosses now and there was no one to make them, so my sister and I made the decision to order these three crosses on our family's behalf.  The cousin of a friend of mine made them for us and we paid him $55.00 total for three crosses.

A miscommunication on the timeframe led us to this outcome:

Struggling with three crosses with a smile on my face.

I think it's important to note, that in that photo, not only am I holding crosses, but I'm also wearing a laptop on my back and waiting for my ride back to town.  Although I didn't intend for the black and white photo to be so striking, it really does capture the struggle that I face on a daily basis as a progressive woman, struggling to maintain my history, culture and obligations to my family.

This is new territory for us, for O'odham women, to be forced to care of our family's cemetery.  It's an emotionally heavy task that has even higher cultural implications that can't all be explained in writing.

I was thankful, yesterday for the opportunity to laugh with my fellow O'odham women who are also struggling to maintain these ways and who understand my family's history and our challenges.   

Being in the O'odham community, there were many smiles and non-denominational offers of help, which I very much appreciated, but which I laughingly declined.  The crosses are now at my sister's house, where they'll stay until we will load them into the bed of her big, red truck and make our way to Ku:pk in the next few weeks.   

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, and for those of you celebrating today, Happy Limosañ!



  1. Wonderful story! I think anyone who is sensitive to the importance of culture can appreciate this. (from a mil:igan reader)

  2. Beautifully written... Happy Limosañ to you as well... P.s... Looking forward to that dance in Kupk as its is my fourth and final walk.. Wonder what your auntie Edith-bat would say... I'd like to think toes tapping anxiously waiting to dance with your great uncle Vincent-bat. :)

  3. Thanks for posting this! Enjoyed reading it!
    T.O. in L.A.