Thursday, March 27, 2008

Planting in January by Jerry Lopez

It is January

The coldest month of the year

And there I was outside in 40 below

Pounding at the soil with a steel stake

Pounding with all my might

I was doing all this pounding to plant a seed

Not just any seed

A seed I just could not seem to take care of

A seed that I thought would do better here than with me

So there I was with the seed in hand

Pounding and pounding away

With every thrusting effort the ground would dent

Then dent a little more, and a little more

Finally the dent would be deep enough

To plant this seed

I placed the seed deep within in this dent

Pulled out my reused glass jar of “organic, chemical free, fare trade, water”

And poured it so ceremonially over the seed

Within seconds the water had frozen

But I smiled, said some words and walked away with all the confidence in the world

For I knew deep within that the seed had everything it needed

It was a seed that could find life in the most challenging conditions

Just not with me

And so I walked away and never looked back

Months later the snow began to melt

The ground began to thaw

The birds returned and the leaves began to bud

The garden was beginning to flower and

Soon the garden took on full life and the people noticed

All those walking, driving, running, and cycling by would stop and look

The beauty of the garden was breathtaking

People could not help but slow down and look

Slowing down and looking was happening to everyone

Looking at such beauty traveled deep into the people

This beauty began to bring peace, love and harmony

Into the minds and heart of all those who slowed down and take it in

This garden was so profound that an entire community began to transform

The people were smiling and greeting each other

People began to pick up the trash and be kind to each other

Parents began to play with their kids and read them books

Kids began to wake up on time and run to school

Or at least walk and not be late

Then one day I walked by the garden

I was in awe

Suddenly the wind was taken out of my chest and offered to the flowers

A tear formed in the corner of both my eyes and my chest pounded slow yet strong

Time began to slow down and slow down some more

Everything came to a stop

I looked around and all but the flowers were a blur

I looked out upon the flowers and asked, “Which of you did I plant?”

But none would answer

I asked again

And none would answer

I asked four times and on the fourth time I asked

“Which of you is the one I planted at a most difficult time

A time when in my hand was my heart

And you the seed was my heart

I planted you here until I was ready to return

Which of you was this seed?”

Again there was silence

Just as I accepted my fate of not knowing

A voice spoke to me and said

Your heart has always been within you

But when you planted me

You too gave life to all of us

Now I belong here with all the seeds

That have been planted by the hearts of many

And so do not worry

There is much more of me inside of you

So go plant more seeds

No matter how hard it may be

No matter what season it is

When you plant a seed from the heart

Beauty will flower and all people will smile

Jerry wrote this for the Spring Equinox which was celebrated last week on March 20, 2008 in ceremony with Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Reflections on Chalchiutlicue by Bawshkeeng Wabigun (Tara Chadwick)

(L to R) Renee, Vanessa, Tara and her son Mictla

Reflections on Chalchiutlicue… notes from the Indigenous Women’s Water Policy and Leadership Training, March 20-23, 2008 @ Lake Itasca Biological Field Station.

Before I read the evaluations that I’m just patiently waiting to unfold, I want to leave a written reflection on the weekend’s event. I returned home to a fresh, soft blanket of snow and a new pint of sap in our maple bucket. It was 40 degrees in Northern Minnesota when we left early this afternoon, and 25 in St. Paul when we arrived here at 5 pm… interesting temperature change.

This weekend was the most recent culmination of years of work toward an endeavor to bring together the scientific and cultural knowledge of our local indigenous communities in an effort to boost our community readiness to engage in strategic systems change in water policy and management in local, state and federal arenas.

We started the journey toward this weekend with months worth of planning, logistics, location, ideas and timelines. Next was the content, resource guide and invitations to presentors and participants. Finally were the reminder calls, registration forms, supplies and sleeping assignments. Thank goodness for teamwork!

We invited all the women we could think of who are engaged in strategic, political, educational, or cultural work with water, especially those who regularly share their knowledge with other people in their community. We even invited women who we know would not be able to join us but who might be inspired to engage their own communities in similar endeavours.

When it finally arrived, the day of travel was difficult and filled with all sorts of obstacles, from snow, to rain, to ice, copy machine problems to vehicle space limitations… many of us made it to our departure point feeling anxious, uncertain and stressed out! But we were determined to begin in a positive and peaceful manner, and so we gathered in the Maynidoowahdak Community Center in honor of the call for 8,000 drums for Mother Earth, and we shared some food, thoughts, tobacco and songs to recenter ourselves and focus on our intentions for the training and on the road ahead.

The road ahead was long, it seemed to take forever to get there. And along the way, it was after all, the first day of Spring, we decided that we must add a workshop on tobacco seed planting. I had to stop at three different stores in Park Rapids, MN, before I could find soil that did not bear the Caution, Warning, Danger, Poison label that indicates the presence of toxic chemicals. Our next plan was going to be digging out frozen soil from the earth to plant the seeds… I am ashamed to say that I found it at the last stop, Walmart. The purchase of the only available package of organic potting soil, which was actually Canadian sphagnum peat moss, intruded on my five year boycott of the monster store. I’m sorry that Simone couldn’t join us from IEN, at least she could have used my scab peat purchase for a discussion about the peat mine that’s being proposed for the Red Lake bog, and the environmental and political impacts that are expected.

When we got to the park, it was dusk; we found a beautiful homey cabin filled with smiling women, and a feast of corn, rice, meat and berries spread out and steaming ready. We ate, and then headed out to find the fire, which had already been lit for the full moon ceremony. It had been snowing the whole day so we weren’t even sure which direction was east. The fire was magnificent, though, warm, huge and welcoming. There were wooden benches arranged around the fire, just enough for everyone to have a seat. We had a beautiful ceremony, and just before the end of it, our grandmother shone through the icey mist, a reminder of how the first water must have looked when it first arrived to surround our gwenawjiweengay mide wahkeeng.

After the ceremony we shared some social singing, drumming and snacking in the main cabin, then retired to our various sleeping quarters. Morning came very soon, I awoke, very uncharacteristically, at the break of dawn, despite my best efforts to sleep for as long as possible, I had to get up and get ready. Beautiful dreams about what lay ahead gave me strength and inspiration to go and talk to the other Midewiwin women about how we could create the offering ceremony that would happen next. I had dreamt about our teacher, gweewisence daywayigun. He was sitting with us, teaching us about the various elements we all have in common with him, each other and with all our living relatives on our mother the earth.

It was he who led us on our walk to the headwaters of the Mississippi. We could hear the loud, strong voice of the water speaking, singing to us, as it went flowing through, over and under the line of rocks that spanned the river; they could be crossed in two or three strides. Our grandmothers arrived first, and began their work, we all followed, set up a place for our teacher to work on the ice which was still strong enough to stand on, over the water at the shore of the Mississippi Headwaters. It was a timeless moment, I think we all felt like we remembered having been there before, remembering the memories carried by our ancestors, realizing as we stood there, that we are making a connection that was lost long, not too long, ago.

Next came the beautiful sounds of creation in harmony. Together we observed, felt and witnessed the coming of a new beginning. After the first song, the sun shone through the icey mist; after the second song, tiny black manidoons appeared among us, barely visible, hopping around on the snow. After the third song, the women spoke, sending their voices of observation, memory and intent into the future, near and distant. The speaking was a collective teaching, all voices equal, all participants active, engaged. The voices identified changes that had occurred over historical time, compared them with previously held observations, qualitative and quantitative measurements encoded in the memory, songs and teachings handed down for generations. The women analysed the differences between our historical and current situation, with the water, the earth and the environment. They posed hypotheses for how things could change, and identified an agenda of the most pressing issues… our voice and Midewiwin perspective in the development of land and water management policies, including a retroactive ban on the commodification and privatization of water; water quality restoration worldwide; access to clean, safe water for all human beings now and into the future. Then they spoke of solutions, benchmarks, what it would take to turn the present course of events to a series of desired outcomes. In the next 500 years… we would like to see the rivers restored to drinkable quality. We do not need to worry about the health of the earth, she will survive, it is us, human kind who are in danger. What befalls our brother the wolf, who walked the earth with Waynaboozhoo, will befall the Anishinabe. What will it take to ensure the survival of our people? What will we do? What will I do?

“lis-ten to your heartbeat, lis-ten to your heartbeat,” my three year old son chants…

The grandmothers echo his instruction. And inspiration. We have knowledge, technology and the power to create the change that we seek. Our only responsibility is to remember our teachings, offer our tobacco, pay attention, reflect and act. Do. Plan. Seek. Talk. Organize. Work. Walk. Speak.

We left the headwaters with a lighter step, and a stronger inspiration, and headed for the classroom, three miles downriver, on the shore of Lake Itasca’s East Arm.

The classroom was actually a basement science lab, with windows looking out on the Lake. At first, the transition from ceremony to classroom seemed too harsh, but we engaged our self discipline and entered together into the academic world of power point public policy, dotted with examples of real life situations that brought us back from intangible social theory to context that we could readily understand. We realized, I realized, that what we are doing is social change theory, only we don’t talk about it or write about it, we just do it. And keep doing it. And keep trying, even if the doing it doesn’t work out! I guess that is called 500 years of resistance and survival in my bedrock guide of (bedrock = below grassroots) growing up indigenous. For me, the development of political consciousness was inseparable from the development of social identity as an indigenous person. Citizen engagement and social activism was a given part of who we are and what we did, not a job acquired skill or a required reading. The lecture was good, though, a primer on what public policy is, means and needs in order to be a successful tool of social change.

Next we came to Grandmother Josephine’s presentation about the Mother Earth Water Walk, a remarkable committment to the ever present question: what will you do? Raise awareness, send a powerful message, work with the water, lead by example, follow our teachings. Josephine and her helpers will be walking through Chicago this May 1st- 7th and there is some concern for the safety of the walkers in this high profile water diversion area that is dominated by corporations who profit from the undeveloped consciousness of the majority of the masses. Josephine would like as much press and media attention as possible on the Water Walk for this year, and is inviting all women and men to participate and support the Walk to raise awareness and bring healing to the water.

After the classroom presentations, we returned to our eating cabin and feasted on buffalo stew. The third part of our day turned traditions and academics into creative practice. We transitioned, this time, into spring seed planting mode. Sharon shared the fruits of her trial and error tobacco seeding efforts. Smudge, tobacco, seed, tobacco, song. No water directly on the plants, only on the soil around the edges, till they’re big enough to plant in the ground about June. Keep covered, warm and constant temperature. Our seeds were planted, ready for us to take home and, hopefully, sprout in four days, a reminder of ourselves and our commitments and intentions.

Then, after watching a youth video and listening to a poem that reflect our work, our history and our intentions for the present and the future, we were challenged to take on a commitment to produce a creative message, one that reflects the learning that had taken place. In other words, it was everyone’s turn to work together or separately, to do something. Anything. Somehow! This is the exercise with the push that we need to turn the theory, back into action. Two hours later, we had a wonderful time, sharing what we had created. There were posters, skits, singing, drawings, paintings, beading, and cutting:

• Mainstream messaging through music (Mississippi River lyrics, karaoke)
• A Water = Life collage illustrating the interdependence that all the elements of our creation history share, surrounded by four pairs of moccasins that represent the Mother Earth Water Walk
• A red cuxtal and charcoal drawing representing the relationship between water, women and mother earth and reminding us of our responsibility and what could happen if we do not fulfill our obligations.
• The capers of Wally and Dory, the Minnesota walleye, and their run-in with a Red Lake fisherwoman.
• A Publicity Poster for the 2008 Mother Earth Water Walk, incorporating the issues of corporate commodification and privatization of water; bottled water quality, shelf life, and the generation of plastic bottle waste.
• A worldwide water quality and access comic strip storyboard.
• A beaded lace representing the free flow of living water running through the arteries of mother earth (undiverted and undammed).
• A poster for a Midewiwin culture based Younger Youth Water Education Project
• A room-wide game of ring around the rosey, exemplifying the movement of water

The sharing of our creative productions was followed by popcorn and an in-depth documentary titled “Green Green Water” filmed by a Minnesotan woman, about the relationship between Minnesota based Xcel Energy Corporation and Manitoba Hydro. The film focused on the effects of dams and electricity generation on the lives and livelihood of Crees from northern and central Manitoba. It was sobering to see the destruction that a dam produces, so that we can flip on the lights.

At the conclusion of the video, a call to action was spurred by a presentation by participants in the weekend workshop who are also danzantes from Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc. They related the experience of the Manitoba Hydro dam to the many dams that have been and are being built throughout central and south American right now as part of Plan Puebla Panama and Nafta, Cafta and the current country by country trade agreements that are being negotiated, such as the trade deal with Columbia that is before congress right now. US internal and international policy is driven by the voices of powerful corporations that profit from exploiting and destroying common natural assets such as rivers, acquifers, and land based deposits of minerals and rocks. These trade and “implementation” agreements are taking away the power of indigenous people to provide for and protect our people and common natural assets. The only way for us to regain our power is to reclaim our power. Reclaim our power. As the grandmother shines brightly, watching.

We closed with evaluations the next morning, written and shared, one more offering of tobacco, and a song to celebrate our milestone accomplishment. We have stood together, we will continue to stand together. To Stand Strong. We are the buffalo. The wolves. The turtles. We are the grandmother, Waynaboozhoo, the fire and the water. Atl tla chinolli… the fire and the water. We are agitated, like boiling water, spurred to action. To reflection. To figuring out the answer to our ever present question: What will you do?

Meegwetch. Ome Teotl.

Bawshkeeng Wabigun (Tara Chadwick)
March 23, 2008, Upon returning home from the Water Retreat.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Language Too Beautiful to Lose...

February 3, 2008
A language too beautiful to lose
By David Treuer

ONLY three Native American languages now spoken in the
United States and Canada are expected to survive into
the middle of this century. Mine, Ojibwe, is one of
them. Many languages have just a few speakers left --
two or three -- while some have a fluent population in
the hundreds. Recently, Marie Smith Jones, the last
remaining speaker of the Alaskan Eyak language, died
at age 89. The Ojibwe tribe has about 10,000 speakers
distributed around the Great Lakes and up into
northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba. Compared
with many, we have it pretty good.

If my language does die -- not now, not tomorrow, but,
unless something changes, in the near future -- many
understandings, not to mention the words that contain
them, will die as well. If my language dies, our word
for "bear," makwa, will disappear, and with it the
understanding that makwa is derived from the word for
box, makak (because black bears box themselves up,
sleeping, for the winter).

So too will the word for "namesake," niiyawen'enh.
Every child who gets an Ojibwe name has namesakes,
sometimes as many as six or eight of them. Throughout
a child's life, his or her namesakes function a little
like godparents, giving advice and help, good for a
dollar to buy an Indian taco at a powwow. But they
offer something more too. The term for "my body,"
niiyaw (a possessive noun: ni- = "I/mine"; -iiyaw =
"body/soul"), is incorporated into the word for a
namesake because the idea (contained by the word and
vice versa) is that when you take part in a naming,
you are gifting a part of your soul, your body, to the
person being named. So, to say "my namesake,"
niiyawen'enh, is to say "my fellow body, myself."

If these words are lost, much will happen, but also
very little will happen. We will be able to go to
Starbucks and GameStop and Wal-Mart and the Home Depot
as before. We will tie our shoes the same way and
brush our teeth and use Crest Whitestrips. Some of us
will still do our taxes. Some of us still won't. The
mechanics of life as it is lived by modern Ojibwes
will remain, for the most part, unchanged. The
language we lose, when we lose it, is replaced by
other languages.

And yet, I think, more will be lost than simply a
bouquet of discrete understandings -- about bears or
namesakes. If the language dies, we will lose
something personal, a degree of understanding that
resides, for most fluent speakers, on some unconscious
level. We will lose our sense of ourselves and our
culture. There are many aspects of culture that are
extralingual -- that is, they exist outside or in
spite of language: kinship, legal systems, governance,
history, personal identity. But there is very little
that is "extralingual" about story, about language
itself. I think what I am trying to say is that we
will lose beauty -- the beauty of the particular, the
beauty of the past and the intricacies of a language
tailored for our space in the world.

Yes, that's it: We will lose beauty.

My older brother Anton and I, among many others, have
been trying to do something about that. For the last
year, we have been working on a grant to record,
transcribe and translate Ojibwe speech in order to
compile what will be the first (and only) practical
Ojibwe language grammar. Since December, we have
traveled once, sometimes twice, a week, from our homes
on the western edge of our Minnesota reservation to
the east, to small communities named Inger, Onigum,
Bena and Ball Club, where we record Ojibwe speakers.
We've also taken longer trips to Red Lake Reservation
(to the north) and south to Mille Lacs.

RECORDING Ojibwe speech in Minnesota, where the
average age of fluent Ojibwe speakers is 55, means
recording old people. My brother, at 38, is very good
at this, much better than I am. For starters, he is
much more fluent. And he looks like a handsome version
of Tonto: lean, medium height, clear eyes and smooth
face, very black shiny braids and very white shiny
teeth. This helps. He has made this kind of activity
his life's work; it is what he does.

Right after college, he apprenticed himself to Archie
Mosay, at that time the oldest and most influential
Ojibwe spiritual leader, who grew up in the hills of
the St. Croix River Valley in Wisconsin and did not
have an English name until he was 12 and a white
farmer he worked for gave him a pocket knife and the
name "Archie." He kept the knife and the name for
another 82 years. Archie and my brother were friends.
Deep affection and respect and tenderness ran in both

The people we are interviewing are also our friends.
There is Tom Stillday, from the traditional village of
Ponemah on the Red Lake Reservation. Tommy Jay, as
he's known, is somewhat famous for his spiritual work
and for his sense of humor; he refers to his knees as
his baakinigebishkigwanan, which means "openers," and
once he described his Indian name, Ozaawaabiitang
(Yellow Foam), as the "puke of the waves as they wash
up onshore." He is a Korean War combat veteran, has
served on the tribal council and was the spiritual
advisor for one or two sessions of the Minnesota
Senate. He is also my daughter's namesake.

Then there is Anna Gibbs, also from Ponemah, also
famous -- for her voice and her special and
spectacular cept by human grasping.

Since we've begun our project, six of our informants,
our friends, have died, including Mark Wakanabo, who
worked as a janitor at our tribal school for decades
until someone realized that since he was a fluent
speaker, it would be better if he pushed young minds
toward the language rather than pushed a broom. He was
a sweet man, about whom I knew very little, except
that he was gentle, with a soft voice. Two of his sons
(identical twins) were my friends through middle and
high school.

Luckily, other people are working on making more
Ojibwe speakers. My good friends Keller Paap, along
with his wife Lisa LaRonge, David Bisonette, Thelma
Nayquonabe, Harold Frogg, Rose Tainter, Monica White
and others, have started an Ojibwe language immersion
school named Waadookodaading (We Help Each Other) on
the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in north-central
Wisconsin. The school has been in operation for six
years, and all the children in the program have passed
fifth-grade aptitude tests mandated by the state of
Wisconsin. Sixty-six percent of them scored in the top
10 percentiles in English and math, compared with a
much lower passing rate among students in the tribal
and public schools on and near the reservation. And
yet the students at Waadookodaading received no
instruction in English and their math was taught in

LAST spring, I went spearing with Keller Paap and Dave
Bisonette on a lake in their treaty area. Band members
fought for and won the right to continue exercising
their treaty rights on ceded land, and so they do. One
of those rights is to spear and net walleye pike
during the spring spawn. It is cold on the water in
April, and it was that night. We took the boat across
Round Lake to the northeastern shore and into the
shallow waters where the fish spawn. One person ran
the motor, the other stood in front wearing a headlamp
and speared the fish with a long pole. With a few
modern modifications, this is something we have done
for centuries.

The night was very foggy. Mist skated over the water
and billowed up, disturbed, over the gunwales of the
boat. We kept close to shore. Round Lake is a resort
lake and many of its bays and inlets are packed with
houses. (It is rumored that Oprah Winfrey has a house
there.) Most of these places were closed up,
shuttered, waiting for the tourists to come in for the
summer. The docks reached down into the lake as if
testing the water, but finding it too cold, drew up
halfway on the banks. Yet here and there, lights shone
from living room windows. And when the house was
perched especially close to the lake, we could see
televisions glowing ghostly and blue.

It was past 10 -- time for Letterman and Leno. Dave
and Keller and I spoke Ojibwe over the puttering motor
and the watery stab of the spear going down into the
water and the clang as it came out with a walleye
wiggling against the barbs. The pile of fish grew on
the bottom of the boat, and they flapped dully, trying
to fly against the unforgiving aluminum sky of the
boat. A dog barked from shore. I could hear, clearly,
Letterman's Top Ten List coming from an open window.
Fish scales, knocked loose by the tines of the spear,
were plastered all over the inside of the boat, and
they sparkled like jewels when swept by the lamplight.

This way of life and the language that goes with it
felt suddenly, almost painfully, too beautiful to
lose; too impossibly beautiful and unique to be
drowned out by the voice of a talk show host or by any
other kind of linguistic static. And I thought then,
with a growing confidence I don't always have: We
might just make it. *