Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Drawing Strength from WilmaMankiller (corrected)

In the Summer of 2006 I had the unbelievable good fortune to hear Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, speak at a conference and her words have stuck with me ever since.  



(Caption at the bottom of the page) 



I had just graduated from the University of Arizona and was bumbling my way through one of my first jobs when I was sent to the Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations conference in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Wilma Mankiller was an unbelievably accomplished person.  She was a published author and respected lecturer, she held 18 honorary degrees (several of which were from Ivy League Schools), she was inducted into both the National and International Women's Hall of Fame and was one of the few Native Americans to ever receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 


She also sat on the board of the WEWIN organization.

She was an incredible human being that fought for education and equality for her people and on behalf of Indigenous people everywhere.  She is a nothing short of a hero.  

In 2006, it wasn't common to have a recording device in your pocket everywhere you go, like it is now.  Although I'm sad that I don't have a grainy video of her speaking that day, I am very glad that was allowed to simply experience her words.  

Her speech was stunning.  It was the first time a public speaker had ever brought me to tears and I was filled with so much emotion and inspiration.  She was humble and funny and I was in absolute awe of the power she emitted into the room.      


I wish I could find a transcript of her words.  I've written to the WEWIN organization to ask for the video footage of her speech, but they haven't been able to locate it.  I'll share what I can remember, even though I'll likely butcher her words and for all I know, I might be retelling her story completely wrong.  This is simply how her story lives in my heart.  

Feel free to correct me if you remembers her speech more vividly, or have footage or a transcript, I'd love to hear from you.  

Here it goes: 

She told us about winning her election and becoming the First Female Principal Chief in the Cherokee Nation.  She said that she didn't really like that title, because there had been female chiefs in the past, but their culture changed and became male dominated, and people forgot that female history.  

Her election was not easily won.  And once she became Principal Chief, her presence wasn't always welcome.    

She elaborated by telling us this story of a time when she was purposefully left out of a meeting with other chiefs.  I'm unsure of the exact breakdown, as each tribe's government or traditional structure is different, but it was their custom to have all the chiefs and the principal chief together at a gathering.  She laughingly suggested that her invitation must have gotten lost.  But she knew she had been purposefully excluded as part of a statement from the other chiefs who didn't approve of her newfound status.  Wilma didn't let that deter her from showing up at this important event.  She didn't wait for an invitation.  She simply showed up.  

When she showed up, the other chiefs were very visibly disappointed to see her.  They were all sitting on a stage, in nice, big comfortable chairs that were designated just for them.  All the seats were filled and they were conveniently one seat short.    

As she walked up to the stage, one of the other chiefs reluctantly acknowledged her.  He waved his hand to the folding chairs in the front row, where the audience members would be sitting and triumphantly sneered at her, "You can sit THERE."  

Wilma didn't hesitate at all.  She looked at the chair, smiled and said, "Thank you." Then she picked up the chair and carried it on stage.  

The other chiefs couldn't do anything expect move over for her and make room, which they reluctantly did.

She said that that experience taught her that you have to make a space for yourself, even when you don't think there's a space for you.  

I had been drawing on that powerful idea for years as I began to encounter sexism more and more frequently, or maybe I simply became more aware of it.  

But I've never needed to draw on the strength of Wilma's words more than I have since the Dawn of Trump.  Our country has become more racist and bigoted and often, I'm being made to feel unwelcome in my traditional lands.

My people were here first. 

Surprisingly, I'm not simply made to feel this way by racists, bigots.  Sometimes I can be made to feel unwelcome by new allies who are well meaning, but who can't contain their excitement at my presence.

It can be tiresome and disheartening and definitely infuriating at times to be the only brown person in a room.  It is devastating to have to explain the concept of a "system of oppression" to someone who has never before been a victim of oppression in their entire life.  I'm unsure which part is worse, seeing the look on their face as I connect the dots for them, or being able to rattle off the connections off the top of my head.  

"Why don't Native Americans vote?"
"Why don't more Native Americans have college degrees?"
"Are you from the reservation?  But did you grow up there?"


"How did you get out?"   
"How can we get more Native Americans involved?"


Sometimes I feel like I don't belong and that my voice is not valued.  I've left some places in tears, thinking I won't go back, that it's a lost cause and I should move on.  


Then I remember Wilma's advice: Make a space for yourself, even when it doesn't look like there's any space for you.  


So I keep showing up at these spaces that lack melanin, and allow myself to do things that I find interesting whether or not there are other brown people there.  
I'm making a space for myself, even when it looks like there isn't a space for me.    


Rest in Power, Wilma Mankiller-bat.  You continue to inspire.  



About the photo:
--------------------Wilma Mankiller and I at the WEWIN Conference in 2006.


I bought a disposable camera in the hotel gift shop, because I needed to have a photo with her. I was embarrassed to ask her for the photo, but she smiled and waved me in. My husband took a few photos with the disposable camera, but the film was exposed and the photos didn't come out.

Luckily, another woman who was waiting to have her book signed offered to take our picture. The entire conference was about women helping other women, so it made all of us smile when she offered. By then, my husband had taken a few photos and it had caused a bit of disruption, but she still told the woman who offered to take a photo with her camera to take an extra one, "Just in case, to make sure we get a good one."

Wilma laughed about "looking greasy." and said she had looked better the day before. 

After we took the photo she signed my book, "Everyday is a Good Day: Reflections from Contemporary Indian Women" which she contributed to and edited.  

Thursday, June 15, 2017

To be Tohono O'odham


Sending love to Tohono O'odham Water Protector, Vana Dee Worthy, as she makes her way back up to North Dakota to fight the system. Stay strong, sister. 


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To be Tohono O’odham

To be Tohono O’odham means to be a human from the desert, which in turn means we are born to be water protectors.

My Hu’uli-bat, my grandmother was a water protector who always made sure we used every drop of water possible.  She’d have us wash our faces in a basin of cool water, then arms, legs and feet, pulling from it the perpetual dust that clings to you all day and changes the color of your skin.   

That water was then purposefully tossed on a plant or a spot of crumbly dirt that needed to be packed down again.  It cooled the earth and brought the sweet, wet dirt smell to our nostrils and made it feel like home.  

We had a water olla under our wato, the shade structure connected to our home.  The olla was wrapped in cloth and anytime the adults took a sip of cool water, they checked the cloth.  If it was dry, they carefully spilled more water on it, which cooled the remaining water inside by evaporation.  

Visitors were given waterthey were never asked.  They were never given the opportunity to decline.  Who would decline?  We all know to be healthy we need to have water.  

Sudagi o wud doakag.  Water is life.  

Plants in my Hu’uli-ke:li bat’s garden would be slowly soaked with water.  I’d always imagine them stretching out and basking in the water soaked mud, the way a human might relish the feel of water on a hot, summer day.  

To be Tohono O’odham means to have been born waiting for the rains.

It means to start our new year by pulling down the clouds when the saguaro fruit is ripe, in the heat of the summer.  To be Tohono O’odham is to pull the sweet bahidaj from tall ha-ha:san to make wine.  And it means to dance and sing down the rain of course.    

The rain in the desert comes with a crash.  First we see the Jegos coming, a wall of dust, sometimes taller than buildings comes sweeping through.  The jegos announces the rain that we’ve all been waiting for.  The smell of the wet desert is intoxicating.  It fills us with joy.  

We open doors and windows to greet the rain.  The small flecks of rain that come inside are welcomed, like hugs from an old friend.  

Our monsoons bring the desert back to life.  It cools the earth and perks up the vegetation.  The rain brings life back to the desert.  

Sudagi o wud doakag.  Water is life.  

To be Tohono O’odham is to cherish water. 

It is to be concerned with water tables that are “overdraft” like a bank account.  But how are we paying those fees? 
To be Tohono O’odham, a person from the desert, means you’re cousins with the Akimel O’odham, the river people… but are they still river people… if they don’t have a river?  

To be Tohono O’odham means you can taste the sweetness of the water.  Except now there are some places on the rez that have high levels of arsenic and you’re not supposed to drink that water anymore.  

But don’t worry though, the Environmental Protection Agency can change the levels that are acceptable for human consumption on paper. 

Or is that just another way of saying genocide is legal, as long as there’s a government stamp of approval?   

Our ancestors were concerned with digging wells and hauling water, finding natural springs and places where the rain naturally pools, right off the mountains.  Our ancestors made pots that sat on top of heads to haul the water that the whole family would use in a day.  

Now we (mostly) have pipes that bring that water to our homes, to our gardens, to our bathrooms, to our showers where we can sing along to the radio, to our slip and slides or for some of us lucky enough, to our swimming pools that will be filled with dark brown O’odham a’al who turn into fish all summer long.  

We still need clean water.    

Somewhere along the line, someone forgot that we’re human beings.  They forgot that we need water every day.  

Somewhere along the line, people began to forget that we are born waiting for the rain.  

But we haven't forgotten. 

Bo him g ju:ki. The rain is coming. 

Sudag o wud doakag.  Water is life.  

Monday, May 29, 2017

Government Cheese and Powdered Eggs



Commodity food humor never fails to crack me up.  

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Decorating Easter Eggs on the Rez like...
I THINK this photo came from this FB page: NativeHumour

Growing up, we always referred to the food that came in these boxes as, "La:san" or "Commodities".  I didn't know what those words really meant as a kid, and even looking for these images today caused me to stare blankly at the computer for a few minutes as I thought about what the common, English terms would be to do a google search.  

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Commodity Beef in a can
Mmm...appetizing

When I was in high school, I learned that what I had referred to as, "la:san" was just an O'odham-ized form of the word, "ration."  I had never given it a thought before in my life, that when I read books about the U.S. Government confining Natives to reservations and supplying them with "rations," that it meant the brown boxes that arrived in a huge truck once a month in our village. 

Growing up, we always looked forward to the day that the boxes marked, "USDA Food" came.  My Hu'uli-bat and my Hu'ul Ke:li-bat had the delivery date circled on the calendars.  Often, it was their cousin, An:gel (pronounced in the O'odham way, of course) who would take my Hu'ul Ke:li to the pick up spot in his truck. 

They would come back to the house with several boxes for each household.  The boxes would have names hastily scrawled on the sides in thick, red, crayon letters.  First name, last initial.


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USDA - U.S. Department of Agriculture
Commodity Food Boxes
We ALWAYS re-purposed these boxes after we emptied them.


Although we had "The Store" in our village (yes, they called it a trading post, but we only traded money, so, that's just a regular store.), food was more expensive there, and my grandparents often relied on a hand-written line of credit that was paid off as soon as they got their monthly social security check, and usually had a balance towards the end of the month.  The next largest grocery store, a Basha's was (and still is) an hour away, in Sells, Arizona.  Of course, traveling there meant that you needed a ride, if you didn't have your own vehicle and/or gas money to help out whoever took you shopping.  Also, gas in general was more expensive on The Rez too.  

In between trips to the "big city of Sells" or the even bigger (real) city of Tucson for groceries, we made do with the boxes of food that came off a truck and anything else we grew, harvested, hunted or processed ourselves.    

When I was a kid, the only two things we received that needed refrigeration was a block of cheese and a block of butter.  The block of cheese was heaven.  We were lucky because we lived close to The Store, which had a deli-slicer.  Sometimes we'd go in and get a good chunk of it sliced for sandwiches and the rest we'd painstakingly grate and try to stretch out for the rest of the month.  
The butter was kind of a pain in the butt.  I didn't know what a "stick" of butter was for a long time, because we got one big hunk of butter.  In order to bake peanut butter cookies, I had to force cold butter into a measuring cup.  You couldn't soften the butter or anything, because you'd ruin the entire hunk.  The wrapping didn't have markings on it like butter you get at the store, so I it was measuring cup or nothing for those cookies.    

Later, when my grandparents were older they'd receive frozen commodities: beef in a white sleeved tube, then later, buffalo meat, which was surprising.  Buffalos aren't Native to the desert.  The village I grew up in was named Pisin' Mo'o (Buffalo Head) for one skull that was found there.      

Each box typically had powdered eggs, powdered milk (which I hated), flour, lard, a loaf of cheese, a hunk of butter, apple, pineapple, tomato, grape, grapefruit and orange juice (which tastes exactly the same as the canned Donald Duck orange juice they sell in stores), canned corn, creamed corn, string beans, peas, potatoes (they were already peeled and in water), mixed veggies, peaches, pears, pineapple, fruit cocktail, condensed milk, canned beef, canned chicken -which was very much prized, as was the tuna, canned pork, "luncheon meat" (which is like Spam, only round and not as yummy), beef stew which my grandma really liked and "vegetarian beans" (which were like pork and beans, without the pork, annnnnd without the flavor.)

We'd also get a box of "dry stuff" like pinto beans, white rice (in later years, they gave my grandparents brown rice), mashed potato flakes, oatmeal, peanuts, corn syrup, honey that was thick and often crystalized and cereals that were the government equivalent to Corn Flakes and Chex.  The boxes were white and didn't have "fun" things written on them like other cereal boxes, but if you piled sugar on them, they were edible.  If you were using powdered of condensed milk, you'd be forced to choke the cereal down by your parents or grandparents who tried to convince us, "It's the same!" as regular milk... no, Mom... it isn't.  

The things that I was most surprised I had been getting cheated on all my life was with peanut butter and raisins!  Peanut butter came in a silver-lined, cardboard container (similar to the kind that Crisco comes in).  The top was a simple lid that snapped on (but without the snap) and the peanut butter came separated and hard.  You had to stir it pretty vigorously before you could get it to a consistency where it could actually be scooped out.  The first time I had Skippy peanut butter my mind was blown.  I had never understood the idea of people simply eating a spoonful of soft, sweet, creamy peanut butter.  We wrestled the thick, angry, peanut butter onto cecemait (tortillas) sometimes, we never bothered putting it on bread because it was too thick  and would leave your bread completely demolished. 
     
The first time I ever had soft raisins I was really surprised too.  La:san raisins came in a box, tightly packed at one end, so you'd have to pound the box on the table to get them out.  Sometimes you'd have to stab the raisins with a butter knife to get a handful of unappetizing clumps of raisins out.  I didn't know raisins were supposed to be soft and plump until I was in high school.    

I learned the same thing about prunes when I got one once as a sample at Costco.  I was shocked.  My mom made us eat hard prunes out of a crinkly plastic bag that didn't seem to keep out any air.  I hated them.  The one from Costco was an individually wrapped cocoon of deliciousness... turns out they were too spendy for my meager grocery budget.  

My favorite La:san food item will always be the farina.  My husband laughs every time I call "Cream of Wheat," "Farina," but the ONLY way I ever had it until I was an adult was from a white box, with a drawing of a baby wearing a green bib with that good ol' USDA logo on the side.  

I thought it was funny that there was a picture of a cow on front of the beef can, and a fish on the tuna and a chicken on the chicken... but for farina, there was a picture of a baby in a bib.  

When my mom and dad divorced, my mom kept my dad's truck, which somehow made us ineligible for commodity foods or food stamps (they counted the truck as income) but my grandma always had plenty of extra cans to give us, and we even had an aunt who would sometimes bring us the stuff her kids wouldn't eat.

Being a reader, I would spend a lot of hours pouring over the weird white packaging that our food came in.  I didn't know what the USDA was when I was a kid.  I didn't know what "food assistance" programs were, I just thought it was normal that our food would come delivered in boxes, off a truck.  

I would read the ridiculous recipes printed on the back of each box and wonder why they always listed recipes in two different quantities: for a family of four (too small) or for 200 people (waaaay too big).  

I often wonder if the recipes for 200 were originally meant for soldiers, but they just didn't want to spend time redesigning the packaging.  

If we've been eating like we're in a war zone all these years, the least we can do is laugh about it.  

Here's some of the la:san humor I've collected over the past year.  I'm sorry I can't credit whoever made these, either the links didn't work or there wasn't a credit listed.  

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I totally forgot about the plums in a can... because they were horrifying and disgusting and my brain erased their blobby, discoloured horror from my memory.  Thank you, brain.  


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Glorious commodity cheese
::singing:: cheeeeeeee-eeeeeeese::
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Powdered Eggs make the world go round
An O'odham delicacy

Mmm... now I'm kinda hungry.