Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Performing Nation, Performing Identity

An early version of the essay I co-wrote with Cindi Alivtre, and appears in Eating Fire, Tasting Blood, edited by MariJo Moore:

Performing Nation, Performing Identity: American Indian Storytelling, Poetry, and Song
(thoughts on cultural survival in the wake of the new Indian Wars)

by Carolyn Dunn (Cherokee/Muskogee/Seminole) and
Cindi Alvitre (Tongva/Cahuilla)

When we began writing on the topic of American Indian holocaust and survival, the first idea that came to us was the fact that in spite of overwhelming attempts to exterminate indigenous peoples religiously, culturally, politically, and economically, native peoples in the Americas have continued to flourish and survive. Our participation in this project is from purely a diasporic perspective; that is what are the ramifications of several forced migrations of a people from their ancestral homeland, a place which is so clearly culturally identified from traditional stories, songs, poems; from within the body and soul of a people that a connection to the land is what has remained in the memory and hearts of a people that weren’t supposed to survive? How can thousands of native peoples, from over 500 different tribes, nations, and communities come together in a place that itself is full of the storied conquest of native peoples in place names, in film, literature, oral history, and name? When the forced migration occurred from reservations and rural communities starting from Indian Removal and well up into the twentieth century, native people left ancestral and adopted homelands to call urban areas “home”. What was the impact of these immigrants upon the many native nations still living in the urban landscapes, facing erasure and extinction in a city that looked nothing like their ancestral villages? It is through ceremonial performativity, that is, the artistic, folkloric, mythological and political relationship native peoples share with the nations of origin that has allowed us to survive together in a place in which we have been simply erased. We cannot be simple labled “urban” Indians because we are a diasporic people, dispersed and spread out across the world, far away from home, family, and community.

First, let us identify and unpack our terms. Webster’s defintion of disapora is as follows:
“noun, Greek, meaning dispersion; from diaspeirien to scatter, from dia + speirein to sow. 2. a: the breaking up and scattering of a people; b: people settled far from their ancestral homelands (e.g the African diaspora); c: the place where these people live.”

Through the breakup of tribal lands, through separation, adoption, boarding schools, relocation and termination, native peoples in the United States have been separated from ancestral homelands, settled far from those ancestral homelands, and relocated in large populations to urban areas that are far from the nation. Los Angeles then, with the largest urban American Indian population in the nation , is a site of displacement, temporal and spatial, that is an ongoing experiment in cultural survival that continues into the 21st century.

Ceremonial performativity becomes important in this discussion of holocaust, diaspora, and survival. J.L. Austin, the linguistic philosopher, described performativity as the following: “A performative is the semiotic gesture that is being as well as doing. Or, more accurately, it is a doing that constitutes a being; an activity that describes what it creates. As native peoples, the performance of our identity is intimately connected to our stories, songs, and poems; to the landscape in which we inhabit that informs our being as well as our doing. It is through our ceremonies, our songs, our words, that our rituals are reenacted in daily life. We speak of our creation and connection to each other and to the landscape, and our actions, our dances, our artistic expressions, reify the core of who we are as native peoples.

The result of colonization and government policies of termination and relocation have resulted in a substantially large, multi-tribal population of young indigenous peoples existing as second and third generation urban American Indians, some with or without tribal relations “back home” in tact. The role of the traditional and modern storyteller is the role that forms the subject ancestrally and represents “the call” from home. The late Lee Francis III wrote about his son, Lee IV’s experience as an urban Indian in the essay “We The People: Young American Indians Reclaiming Their Identity” :

“My son was born in Fairfax, Virginia. He is an urban. Since infancy, my spouse and I told our son story. We told story about all of creation, seen and unseen. We told him about the People. We told him story about the People of Fairfax, Virginia. He learned about the civil war and the pogroms committed against the People. We told him stories that incorporated that values, attitudes and beliefs of the People. We told stories about hummingbird and coyote and the tree people and the cloud beings…

“It is a sad reality that a majority of urban Native students do not have a clue about the trials, tribulations, joys, and hopes of the People.”

For many young urban American Indians, the concept of the landscape of home is a faraway image told of only in story from those who left it behind. Home is also problematic in the sense that as a result of colonization, it is not always the “safe place” in the traditional sense of “home”. It is not “safe” due to cause and effect of colonization, externalized and internalized oppression. Eduardo Duran and Bonnie Guillory Duran’s theories of intergenerational post traumatic stress disorder that leads to domestic violence, substance abuse, and suicide, are often located in a trajectory that begins with and ends with the sense of home: home encompassing domestic space, land base, tribal center, language, literature, and economic struggles. Home also represents environmental and political struggles: the struggle for an ever decreasing land base which is still “held in trust” by the American government ; land that is used by others for toxic waste disposal on or near reservation water and agricultural systems; the desecration of sacred places such as Puvungna (the Tongva place of emergence in Southern California) and Puthidiim (Ajachumen place of emergence present day San Juan Capistrano Mission.

Many young Indians have some concept of their tribal identity, yet an outside “other” constructs an alternative “Indian” identity for them. How many of us have been told, “Funny, you don’t look Indian,” or “how come you don’t have black hair?”, or “Do you have a tipi in your backyard?” or “I knew you were an Indian; you’re so spiritual!” We are constantly barraged by images of the pretend, or the Hollywood Indian. If we don’t wear beads, feathers, or turquoise, then we’re not seen as authentically Indian by the non-Indian “other”. The return home, then becomes an important aspect to a ritual of remembrance for many young urban American Indians.
The role of story, as Lee Francis states, is the ceremonial performative of modern tribal and clan identity. This return home informs what has become the Native American or American Indian canon: the writings of many contemporary writers, from Mourning Dove on through Dawn Karima Pettigrew, reflect this sense of home: a contested space. Story for us then becomes the connection to the landscape, to the nation, to our identity as an American Indian, as a tribal person. It connects us to what Paula Gunn Allen calls “the universe of medicine” . It is through the story, through the landscape, that the performative speech of storytelling calls us into the web of creation that calls us home.

It is difficult to imagine the urbanized southern California landscape replaced with hundreds of Tongva villages and even more brown bodies weaving buff-colored juncus baskets, or shaping redwood planks for a ti’atem, lashed redwood canoes, the earliest form of transportation to and from the southern Channel Islands. But we can...and we do, at least in moments when we have to withdraw from the reality of a sprawling city like Los Angeles, inundated with silicone and spiritual orphans. We feel alienated, even as native, we have become immigrants. Even to many relocated Indians who since the 1950s make Los Angeles their home, we are not real and have no status, federally unrecognized, extinct, not here...go away imagination woman. How can we give them eyes to see our pain?

The white sands, once abundant with life of the ocean are now scattered with the disposable culture they call “civilization”. The sandy shores are inundated with newcomers in g-strings and pseudo tans, whose ignorance of the sacred ones contribute to the continued destruction of Tongva land. They look at us as if we are the strangers to this land, with our brown skin, assuming we are one of the “illegals” from the south, as if this is truly their land.

I (Cindi) walk across the massive constructed rock barriers, returning to that place where I spent countless hours as a young girl, shrouded like indigenous royalty with seaweed skirts. It was on these rocks that my relatives would speak to me and teach me as I sat watching the sacred ones. I learned of the creations and watched forever as they flew into the skies, as they crawled onto the rocks and as they freely swam in the tide pools. I learned the gentleness of life in the water as I swam beyond the crashing waves without fear.

The Torovim, the dolphin people, forever danced along the ocean horizon, protecting the Tongva. Our elders emphasized that they are the protectors are the ancient ones and forever the caretakers of the world. It was in the old days they trusted man. Today, the tourist boats chase they to catch a glimpse of their silver beauty and to seek out the grey whale during the migratory journeys to give birth to future generations. Moomat, the ocean, now purifies herself by casting remnants of oil spills onto her shores. No longer does my father dive into the ocean to gather food for his family. The shellfish are contaminated with excrement and chemical that empty into the bays. I listen and hear the ancient language of the Ocean People as they roar with foamy frustration at the destruction of their own tribes. They tell their story over and over, with the crashing of each wave onto moonlit shores.

Our people have resisted the ways of the intruder for over two hundred years, beginning with the arrival of the Catholic missionaries and Spanish soldiers in 1769. In their quest for world power and wealth a nation of people violently lost their lives. Within a fifty year period after the missionaries arrived our populations, which at one time exceeded 10,000, dwindled to a few hundred survivors. The missions bred disease of the body and of the soul. Sensing the obvious danger, many fled inland finding sanctuary of surrounding tribes. We have carried the stigma of being called “mission indians” without acknowledgement of the diversity of our people or respect for our individual names.

The destruction continued as went through oppressive rule by the Mexicans after the secularization of the missions. They say we were given choices to flee the confines of the missions and become ranchers, or to find acceptance in newly formed pueblos dominated by the invaders. The reality of the situation was that this “new freedom” was conditional. It meant a Tongva woman could be an obliging domestic or forced into sexual slavery to the oppressors. Hard labor was payed in aguardiente, numbing the loss and intoxicating the minds and the will of the people.

The women in particular lost their voices upon invasion of our homeland. They were treated like the women of the Spaniards. They were confined, separated form the men, and perceived as whores simply because they were not seen as human, but Indian. The inquisitors conquered, murdered, and grossly seduced Indigenous men into their ways. The emasculation of the men occurred by removing the ceremonies and traditions that made them warriors. Since then, they have attempted to recover their positions by fighting wars that are not ours to fight. This has led to the a distortion of masculinity-a twisted manifestation of right and wrong and constant questioning of who they are. Yet, even in their absence, in the midst of their abuses, as women, we cannot turn our backs. We have to help our sons, our brothers, our fathers, and our lovers to heal. We have now spent generations in a liminal state of decolonization. It is a constant challenge. Yet, we, as women, as life givers, once again become responsible for bringing new ways of healing to our families and community.

Healing reaches into all spaces. It takes a transformation of space where ceremonial performitivity occurs. There are few who will reach out, outside of the comfort of their Indian circles to look at themselves. In L.A. we have them all...Indian scholars, Hollywood Indians, Pow wow people, Redroad Recovery Indians, Aerospace Indians and even some churchy Indian folk, all seeking something that was lost in their journey to the western edge of the universe.

To step outside means to redeem any communal sanctity and to become voyeur of sorts. The looking glass reflects a haunting image of what we have become in their culture. We seek our reflection in pools of clear water lit by our grandmother moon, but her illuminated glow is lost somewhere under layers of asphalt and concrete. Out of desperation we look to other tribes to seek validation of our clandestine thoughts and good intentions. We must escape the constant chaos of the city that comes in wave after wave, never allowing us to stand and catch our breath. We frequently travel to gather and harvest healing food to bring home. Some of us go really far...like overseas. We did, two women, a local and a diasporic-homegirl. We dared to look beyond and take our own dreams with us and see if they fit anywhere in the indigenous universe.

The silvery jet roars across the Pacific ocean to Aotearoa, to the land where day begins. Days of packing un-colonized baggage, I anxiously await the opportunity to spill it out onto Maori earth, and see if they if their eyes see it the same way our do.

We are two women from two communities, both native, sharing our differences, embracing our similarities and airing our dirty laundry in an inter-national setting. The silenced knowings cannot no longer be contained. We unleash them, and our solutions, to the world. We talk about the space and place we have created to allow our communities, our families and others can come to access, to share, to transform and feel just fine being the trickster in a chaotic world.

The last of ceremonial houses were burned in the 1960s in native southern California. For generations the ceremonial house, the wamkish, was the center of the world. Our spiritual leaders fed the house to assure the balance and nurturance of our community. On the other side of the world, the Maori welcome us into their ceremonial house, the morae. In the midst of Maori ceremony the message is clear. We have a house, Mother Bears. It is a space of transformation and healing for the community. It there we sing and dance, we weep with joy and sadness as we feed the people....all tribes. We have come across the ocean to realize what we do have.

In Janice Norwood and Vera Monk’s collection of writings on southwestern women’s art , the landscape’s influence upon the myth and imagination of its writers and artists inform the region as well as the psyche of the individual and communal artist, specifically female artists. The landscape is a vehicle which artists draw inspiration, express social and personal aesthetic ideals, and form communal connections with society, place, community, spirituality, family, and creativity. Landscape provides necessary connections for life; it informs who we are and how we are in a way that sometimes there is no other expression for other than poetry and art. Native peoples in the southwest, because of our deep ancestral connections to landscape and the mythologies of the living landscape, express connections to the landscape in unique ways. Landscape tells the story of emergence, of history, or religion, and birth that is indigenous of our Native experience. The connections expressed through ritual and ceremony, through art and music and poetry, celebrate that ritual connection in the everyday. Tribal aesthetics are applied to the landscape, and the aesthetic cannot live without the land.

The indigenous mythology of the landscape reveals a relationship between people and earth that is revealed in very human ways. The difference between disaster fiction and Native ecological fiction is that landscape is seen in adversarial ways as opposed to simply, the landscape. Like Mary Austin’s “American Rhythm”, there is a cadence to the landscape, but there is an understanding of responsibility for the landscape that is missing in both Austin’s romantic past and the noirist disaster fiction of West and Macdonald.

Shape shifting as we move along the street darkened with porcelain bodies, leathered, grunged and inked with borrowed ancestral symbols. Swiftly, we thread our way through bodies quickly inspecting their tribal tattoos and wonder, “What tribe are you? Were you people also annihilated and dispossessed of their land?” Once again, we become the trickster, hiding our own identity, never to be found out, only if we choose to. Concrete paths lead us to the storefront of Mother Bears, our community house, our sacred space...in the midst of chaos. Taking a deep breath, secure in an energy that is familiar, assuring us that there are others as myself who also are in a constant negotiation of who they are...here in LA, whether you be native-native or diaspora, the ceremonial houses have returned.

“Every poet is aware of this primordial depth in language, whereby particular sensations are invoked by the sounds themselves, and whereby the shape, rhythm, and texture of particular phrases conjure the expressive character of particular phenomenon.” ---David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

As a young poet growing up in Los Angeles, I (Carolyn) couldn’t feel the voice of the landscape as I could in more rural places. David Abram posits that landscape and oral culture are so closely related that the suppression of the landscape affects the ability to speak of place. “If we listen first to the sounds of an oral language,” Abram writes, “to its rhythms, tones, inflections that play through the speech of an oral culture, we will likely find these elements are attuned in multiple and subtle ways, to the contour and scale of the local landscape, to the depth of its valleys or the open stretch of its distances, to the visual rhythms of the local topography.” Rather than California as what David Fine calls “the place at the end of the west,” to its indigenous inhabitants, Los Angeles and Southern California teems with meaning related directly to the landscape, to the sense of place and meaning that place names invoke missing in the literature of Los Angeles based upon its Anglo mythologies. In his work with the Western Apache, Keith Basso talked about the concept of “stalking with stories”: how landscape and language are intertwined and language reminds the Apache of landscape and vice versa. California’s indigenous peoples have similar stories. Driving along the freeway at rush hour, with the city’s beautiful people riding along with cel phones attached to cosmetically enhanced ears, riding alongside the city’s poor, dispossessed, and colored, I wonder if they truly will ever know that we ride with them, under cover of beads, feather, buckskin, and abalone. Out of the cracks in the cement, like the forgotten ancestor they are, sprout broad leafed California alata, yellow blooms bright against the whitewashed adobe so many now call home. The green tobacco reminds me that the land’s voice is strong, even over the roar of traffic, airplanes, oil refineries, and shipping lanes. In the midst of this native diaspora, the tobacco gave me a story:

Coyote Tears
Mist of rain
and wild tobacco
dot the earth
in subtle
songs of remembrance
longing for
the loss of a language
of harvest
and blessing.
To rule this land
is to subjugate
the center
of the world
by blood,
by living,
by water
and power.
And she knows
the sound
of footprints
upon rain
is a breath
of dying
and decay.
So this land
barely standing in
the midst
of darkness
and peverse delight.
Oh where
is the song
of survival,
of living
on the
cusp of disaster?
I can see her:
in wild tobacco
in a mist of rain
that sails away
on a whisper
of survival.
I wander
the landscape,
her breasts empty
only for those
who do not
I picked this earth clean,
and she gave me
wild tobacco,
a mist of blessing rain,
a breath of desire
and she sings
sacred songs
only for those
who listen.
Tears glisten
upon the breath
of ancestors
who cry
what they want
to know
and what will happen
if I begin
to howl a love song
lost to the souls
of decay
and wonder
where is
my voice?
Where is
the red earth
and gifts she honored me
as my tears
land in soft
moon shaped
puffs of smoke,
turning ash
to clay
and wild tobacco,

Stalking with stories, the landscape of the Los Angeles American Indian diaspora emerges through the Anglo mythologies in the narrative of its indigenous peoples, reminding us of the role the place played and still plays in the larger city narrative. It also connects us to that universe of medicine, to the ceremonial performativity that reminds us of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. We just need to listen to the stories, hear the songs, and use them as the roadmap that will send us home, in all parts of the world in which a diasporic people call home. The ceremonial houses, placed upon the now urban landscape, the places where story is shared and relived, is where we find our spaces of remembrance, of renewal, and of regeneration.

(c) 2006 Carolyn Dunn & Cindi Alvitre

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