Sunday Morning ~ Taking
Mkhala nawo analanda malo. ~ The one who came to stay, took over the place.
~ Chewa proverb
October 10, 2021
I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts this year, many political, some historical. I’ve learned a lot. This week I finished listening to This Land, a documentary podcast about how Native children are being used to advance the far right agenda. Rebecca Nagle is the investigative reporter, a citizen of Cherokee Nation, who follows several adoption court cases. It is fascinating, educational, heartbreaking, and hopeful. I highly recommend it on this Indigenous People’s Day.
I often think about Native culture and customs. I’ve always been drawn to the earth and making a life from it. I used to wear my hair in long braids as a kid and once walking through town a family friend told me I looked like a little Indian. When I told my mother this she said, “You are an Indian. We have relatives who were Indians.” She said it so matter of factly I was surprised; It seemed like big news to me. I tucked that little gift happily into my psyche, choosing to believe some tiny part of me belonged here. I’ve never done anything with ancestry.com, but after my mother died, one of her relatives gave me a family tree that went back to the family’s origins in North America. A Frenchman came from Calais, France to Nova Scotia and the hand-written genealogy had written “Indienne” as his wife. She was the only person on the several-generation tree without a name. Something has always stopped me from investigating further. I think I’m worried it might not be true.
When I was nine I got interested in looking at National Geographic magazine. I read little of it, but the photos had me mesmerized and I was consumed with stories about the National Parks out west. I wanted, even then, to be in the wilderness. There was a big article about the geysers at Yellowstone and I wanted to visit there so badly. One spring evening that year, my father asked at supper where we’d like to go for a family vacation. Without hesitation I said, “Yellowstone National Park!” understanding that what we wanted meant nothing. He always asked what we wanted then ignored what we said, forced us to do what he wanted, then tried to make us think it was our idea. I can’t remember what my siblings said, if anything, but that was the end of it. We finished eating, he raised his newspaper, and we were dismissed. Weeks later, maybe early June, we were gathered around after dinner and he took out a Triple A Trip Tik and showed us a route from our house to Wyoming with the last pages ending at Yellowstone. I screamed for joy and ran out of the house, running across the street to my friend Beth’s yelling, “We’re going to Yellowstone National Park!” Neighbors came out of their house as I ran around the neighborhood spreading the good news. I was scolded for doing this and warned not to go blabbering about it to everyone. My father, who discouraged happiness, asked accusingly “Do you realize how many other children will never get this opportunity?!” I answered, dutifully shamed, “Yes.” (It’s interesting as I write this to think of how, somehow, my enthusiasm stayed alive.)
But, it became the talk of the neighborhood: my father was taking his five kids across country in the station wagon to visit Yellowstone National Park! People didn’t travel so far back then; a week at Cape Cod was a big deal. This trip was like going to the moon.
The saga of that trip has been the source of endless family hysterics. By current standards the authorities would have taken us into custody, but we lived to laugh about it. It was a bonding experience the way boot camp is, but those stories will be left for another time. What I am thinking about today is our stop at the Badlands National Park and the Indigenous man selling jewelry on the ground. His artwork was laid out on a beautifully woven blanket. My father chatted with him and I remember him talking about the sacred land we were on. Without anger, he spoke of the meaning it had. I thought he was very old, but that may have been my perception. I know I was broken hearted for him. I wanted to sit with him and stay there. I thought, this was wrong. My father picked up two necklaces and motioned for me to pick out one I wanted. He then told me to pick out a couple more. I chose one for me, one for my mother, and one for Beth. I don’t know if my siblings pick out any, but I remember my father paying the man and the man saying he appreciated the money. I remember my father saying, “You are welcome to every cent of it.” in a voice that had the most kindness I’d ever heard from him.
At Mount Rushmore my father paid an indigenous man to have our photo taken with him. It was a business at the edge of the park, not some random man my father grabbed. We were all smiling and he played the stereotype. I sit here now and am sickened by that memory. I have the photos in a crumbling album but I’m afraid to look at them.
It’s more than half a century later this day has been given it’s rightful meaning. Too long coming, but I’m grateful.
Love to all,