Friday, June 20, 2008

"Gonaway Tribe: Field Notes"

Arrived here amidst mud and rain. There are twenty-one Indians left. Very few of them are old and wise!

The ones I have found are living with the younger Indians near town. This is bad because the young Indians tell the old ones to ask for more money, but I get around that by telling them that I am to pay a certain price and no more.

The old woman, Sadie, says that I am fortunate in coming here in the winter time because it is against the law of her people to tell these stories she told me in the Summer time. She says if she told a story like this in the Summer that a rattlesnake would bite her (but I bet a dollar bill or two flashing in her face she would forget her law).

These Indians realize they are the last of their tribe and they ask a frightful price. But, I have managed to “jew” them down to at least half of what they ask.

I wasn’t able to do much these last few days with the Indians as they are altogether too civilized. They would not have me around at all, said they were “too busy it is Christmas and we do not want to be bothered,” also they keep saying that I should come back when the sun is out, that I mess up their houses and track mud in.

Every day's delay probably means another Indian gone!

Our work is probably and secretly the most important in the Indian line, because in the years to come people will always be finding Indian relics, but they can’t find talk no matter how deep they dig! Once it is gone, it is gone for good.

Mrs. Simpson is dead. Her son and Susie are alive though. I have arranged to talk to them this afternoon, that is, Susie is going to talk, Petie Simpson says he doesn’t speak much Indian language. He says that he was brought up around white people and only speaks a very little Indian. I don’t know how much of this is true but I will go to work on him.

Isn’t it a shame that Mrs. Simpson has died! Another valuable specimen gone!

Susie says that white people do not pay enough but I told her that there is no work to this, “all she would have to do is talk.”

Petie hates the government, he says that they are not doing a thing for the Indians, says all the whites are moving in on the reservations around here; and that they are moving in so much, that there are more whites than Indians on the reservation … he swore and cursed the government out all the time I was there this morning.

Susie says the government has robbed her people ever since the start. She hates white people. I told her that I consider no Indian below my class and that I like Indians very much and that I felt just as she does about the whites coming in and taking the country away from her people. After making friends with them and making them believe I felt the same as they did, they finally consented to talk…Susie was going to tell in Indian what she thought about the government … My how the Petie Simpsons hate white people – they could not use too many words in telling me, too. It is a good thing they don’t know that this research is for the Smithsonian!

When I go to bed at night, it makes me happy to look back over the day and know that I am getting the language before the last of them that speak it are gone.

Yours Sincerely, etc.

Los Pajaros

based on writings by Father Serra, May 1773 and June 1774.

Seeing your people come through the fields
we noticed a great flock of birds
of various and beautifully blended colors
such as we had never seen before.

We noticed a great flock of birds
swooping out of the heavens just ahead
such as we had never seen before
as if to welcome newly arrived guests.

Swooping out of the heavens just ahead
six or more soldiers set out together on horseback
as if they came to greet newly acquired hosts
in the far Rancherias even many leagues away.

Six or more soldiers set out together on horseback.
Both men and women at sight of them took to their heels
in the distant Rancherias even many leagues away,
fleeing the soldiers, so clever at lassoing cows.

Both men and women at sight of them took to their heels
but the women were caught with Spanish ropes.
The soldiers, clever as they are at lassoing cows
preyed on the women for their unbridled lust.

The women were caught with Spanish ropes
Indian men tried to defend their wives -
prey for the Spaniard’s unbridled lust -
only to be shot down with bullets.

The Indian men tried to defend their wives
of various and beautifully blended colors
only to be shot down with bullets
seeing our people come through the fields.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

In the Basement of the Bone Museum

In the Basement of the Bone Museum

Look at us: lonesome piles
of sticks with no names,
no tribal ID, no stories
but the one in our teeth
that brought us here.
Our curved ribs stacked
like bows waiting to be strung.

Look us over, test us, try us.
Place your own smooth palm
over the broken web of our
souls: can you hear it? the rush
of belonging in dry marrow?
Will you know us without
our long hair, our brown flesh,
no tongues in our skulls to speak?

These bones, they’re all we have
to offer. Lay out our incomplete
skeletons on this clean white table.
Sing us that happy clapper-stick
song for dancing; twine
glowing abalone and olivella
among our faded vertebrae.

Do you remember us?
Do we look like someone you knew?
We confess everything, chewed
by the mouths of history and science.
We ache with fractures
from the echoes of that turbulence.

Touch us. Claim us.
Take us home. Tell us,
we have never forgotten you.

While at UC Berkeley, my sister arranged for us to visit the remains of seven Esselen ancestors found at Los Padres National Forest and stored at the Hearst Museum. Through a complicated system of having another tribe sponsor us (we aren't federally recognized), the Esselen Nation will be the lead tribe for reburial of these remains later this summer.

Ten other people from the Breath of Life Workshop, all members of California tribes, accompanied us to the basement of the Hearst, where the curators had carefully laid out all the remains, including the mummified body of a small infant. It was a very private, very bittersweet visit for us all, and that's all I really want to say. But I've been trying to write a poem about repatriation for a long time, and after I returned home, I dreamt of bones speaking to me. Fragments from an old piece (called "Repatriation") I'd put aside years ago resurrected itself and became the framework for this poem. I guess those fragments were just waiting for the right home, too.

Monday, June 16, 2008


One of the most moving events at Breath of Life was our private visit to the Hearst California Indian basket storage area.

Although we had to don gloves (we were told, to protect US - ironically, the pesticides once used to keep insects from the baskets are now hazardous to anyone who touches the baskets ... though I recently read that a bacteria has been discovered that can eat the pesticides and leave the baskets undamaged), we were allowed to hold, touch, pray over and sing to, our ancestor's baskets. One woman used the amazing database there to find a basket by her grandmother. She held it and cried with joy.

I took a few photos, but my camera died. Here is what I was able to get. I borrowed Louise's camera and took some photos of Salinan/Ohlone/Costanoan baskets, and when she sends them to me I'll post them. That was as close as we could get to Esselen baskets. We held them and Louise said prayers in Esselen.

These are cooking and water-carrying baskets. California Indians wove them watertight, then coated the inside with asphalt. Filled with rocks heated in a fire, then with food (acorn mush, soups, etc), then alternated with newly heated rocks, the baskets were hard-core working class.

Here, my friend Thelma (Kon'Kow Maidu), holds a basket with a unique snake design. You can see how we were crowded into the aisles. The shelving units have big wheels at each end, which are turned to slide the shelves to one side or another in order to open different sections. The rows of massive shelves went on and on - just for the California baskets.

These designs are stunning. The darker sections are done with maidenhair fern, a beautiful black, square stem that I've held, and which reminded me of onyx.

These conical baskets are called "seed-beaters." Women would hold them in their arms or support them with wide strips of woven belts, and sweep seeds into them in the fields. What I've always loved about baskets: they are as beautiful as the act of feeding your family should be.

There are many baskets like this one: unfinished. They look almost comical, as if their hair were standing on end, but I always wonder why the basket was left incomplete. Was it simply collected that way because it was desirable? or was it stolen, or did the basketweaver die, or flee, or decide she didn't like the design, leaving her work behind her? My fingers itch when I see these baskets, even though I'm no basketweaver myself. I just want to finish them, complete that circle.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"Teheyapami Achiska" (Giving Honor)

Teheyapami Achiska
Giving Honor

Eni micha elpa mishmaxanano
I feel you in my blood,
nishiyano nishiti’anaxno, nishahurno.
in my bones, my gut, my teeth.

Name sikosura niche a’kxi,
You rise all around,
kolopisik xulin opa.
return like a lover.

Nishkuuh, niche lahake.
my basket, carry me.
nishimila, niche lasapke.
my ocean, bathe me.

eni namexumunipsha,
I am your hummingbird
name hi’iyatan neku masianehk.
you are a flower of the heart.

Name cha’a nishkxatasaxno,
I feel you in my head,
nishxushuno, nishkeleno.
my hands, my feet.

Uxarat kai pire.
We dance on the cliff of the world.
Name cha’a nishchawisaxno,
I feel you in my spine,

nishxorksno, nishsixihano.
my throat, my womb.
Namesanaxkak opa, eni inamkak opa.
You are a river, I am the rain.

Mantuxite, mantuxite,
It is true, it is true,
mantuxite, mantuxite.
it is true, it is true.

Nishwelel, lexwelel:
My language, our language:
maksiri maknoco.
breath of life.

This is my first poem in Esselen, and made possible only by the hard work of Louise Ramirez, who compiled our first dictionary, and the linguistic help of Ruth Rouvier, who held my hand through the grammatical constructions. I haven't figured out how to put accent marks over letters, but the general rule is, the second to last syllable gets the emphasis. Also, per Louise and Dr. Shaul, I don't use the International Liguistic Alphabet markings (for example, instead of an S with an inverted V on top for "sh", I simply write "sh"). In Hebrew we would call this a transliteration. At the conference, LeAnne Hinton called it a "practical alphabet." The main thing is, this is a poem in the Esselen language that I can pretty much read out loud at about the speed of a first-grader.

If this poem were a child, then Louise and Ruth would be the midwives, and The Breath of Life Conference would be the birthplace/homeland.

John Fowler of ktvu came and did a story on the conference. You can see the video (Louise is in it!) at

Blog Archive