Saturday, September 12, 2009

Tender Mercies

This is what the poem below looks like when put through the "Wordle" device at . . . (click on the image to see a full-screen version). I've been thinking about lies. And truth.

Tender Mercies

White lies, chewed-up lies, maple sugar lies,
spiked lies, post-colonial lies, lies that curl your hair.
I’ve heard them all: drunken lies, sorry-ass lies,

paper-maché lies, lame lies, lies that beat you
with an ugly stick. Lies that roll on their backs
in front of you, begging you to believe them.

Iron lies that anchor in your gut and drag
along the bottom, rip up oyster beds,
scatter pearls in the muck. Oh those

sexy lies who seduce you with your own
terrible need, stroke the small of your back
with their black leather falsehoods, baby lies

with big brown eyes and pouty lips to match,
good-hearted lies that never meant to hurt anyone
with that switchblade … tell me, where

would we be without the lyric lie, the loving lie,
the lie told to save a life? The lesser-of-two-evils
lie? The what-you-don’t-know-can’t-hurt-you

lie? What is a lie, anyway, but an arrangement
of language to fit the occasion, like shifting
furniture to suit a room? What is a lie

but a storyteller’s best friend, a suave tale
that slicks back its words, leans
on the threshold of your heart, fits

into you like key to lock? I’ll tell you
the truth: like a prayer, every good lie
needs a believer to survive.

Friday, September 11, 2009



Small stones told their first stories
long ago, wore away each word.
Now they tell the story found
a hundred layers down
when a larger being burst,
gave birth.

Some stones emerge
like tears, spill smooth
and clean. Others chip
into testimonies, scarred
by the violent journey.

The most beautiful stone
lies buried for a thousand storms,
surfaces on the longest day
of the year, heats in the sun
like a speckled egg beneath
a mother hawk’s breast.
Tomorrow it will lie once more
beneath the multitudes.

Stones breathe slowly:
draw in air from one century,
let it out in the next.

Some stones bear white lines
crisscrossed maps left behind
by tiny voyagers, love poems
inscribed by creatures
from that molten dimension of desire,
or the work of unseen beings
whose sacred drawings hold
the world together.

Even when fanned out
on a sickle of gray beach
between summer rains,
stones think about becoming –
sand, soil, the grit and grind
of the world’s soul.

Stones take to the sky
as iridescent dust on wings;
particles shimmer down through the dusk,
bless our stubborn heads in the precise place
where the tender spirit enters,
and departs.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Mastiffs

"Balboa Throws the Indians Who Have Committed the Abominable Crime of Sodomy to be Torn to Bits by Dogs." Theodore de Bry, Engraving for America, 1590.10

Spanish colonizers—from royalty to soldier to padre—believed that American Indians were intellectually, physiologically, and spiritually immature, if not actual animals. In the area eventually known as California, the genocidal policies of the Spanish Crown would eventually lead to a severe population crash: numbering one million at first contact, California Indians plummeted to about ten thousand survivors in just over one hundred years. Part of this massive loss were third-gender people, who were lost not by "passive" colonizing collateral damage such as disease or starvation, but through active, conscious, violent extermination. Speaking of the Chumash people living along the southern coast (my grandmother’s tribal roots), Pedro Fages, a Spanish soldier, makes clear that the soldiers and priests colonizing Mexico and what would become California arrived with a deep abhorrence of what they viewed as homosexual relationships. In his soldier’s memoir, written in 1775, Fages reports:

I have substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing, and character of women—there being two or three such in each village—pass as sodomites by profession (it being confirmed that all these Indians are much addicted to this abominable vice) and permit the heathen to practice the execrable, unnatural abuse of their bodies. They are called joyas, and are held in great esteem. Let this mention suffice for a matter which could not be omitted,—on account of the bearing it may have on the discussion of the reduction of these natives,—with a promise to revert in another place to an excess so criminal that it seems even forbidden to speak its name. . . . But we place our trust in God and expect that these accursed people will disappear with the growth of the missions. The abominable vice will be eliminated to the extent that the Catholic faith and all the other virtues are firmly implanted there, for the glory of God and the benefit of those poor ignorants.

California third-gender people performed crucial acts of mediation between life and death in a role that has been termed "undertaker" but was much more than grave digger, and whose sexual partners historically were normative men, not other third-genders. Much of what little we know about third gender joyas (Spanish for "jewels,") is limited to observations like that of Fages, choked by Eurocentric values and mores. The majority of Spanish soldiers and priests were not interested in learning about California Indian culture and recorded only as much as was needed to dictate spiritual and corporeal discipline and/or punishment; there are no known recorded interviews with a joya by either priest or Spaniard, let alone the salvage ethnologists who arrived one hundred years later.

While the Spanish priests’ disciplinary methods might be strict and intolerant, they were at least attempting to deal with joyas and joya relationships in ways that allowed these Indians to live, albeit marginalized and shamed.

Spanish soldiers had a different, less patient method. They threw the joyas to their dogs. Shouting the command "Tómalos!" (take them, or sic ’em), the Spanish soldiers ordered execution of joyas by specially bred mastiffs and greyhounds. The dogs of the conquest, who had already acquired a taste for human flesh (and were frequently fed live Indians when other food was unavailable), were the colonizer’s weapon of mass destruction. In his history of the relationship between dogs and men, Stanley Coren explains just how efficient these weapons were: "The mastiffs of that era . . . could weigh 250 pounds and stand nearly three feet at the shoulder. Their massive jaws could crush bones even through leather armor. The greyhounds of that period, meanwhile, could be over one hundred pounds in thirty inches at the shoulder. These lighter dogs could outrun any man, and their slashing attack could easily disembowel a person in a matter of seconds."

Columbus brought dogs along with him on his second journey and claimed that one dog was worth fifty soldiers in subduing the Natives. On September 23, 1513, the explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa came on about forty indigenous men, all dressed as women, engaged in what he called "preposterous Venus." He commanded his men to give the men as "a prey to his dogges," and the men were torn apart alive. Coren states matter-of-factly that "these dogs were considered to be mere weapons and sometimes instruments of torture." By the time the Spaniards had expanded their territory to California, the use of dogs as weapons to kill or eat Indians, particularly joyas, was well established.

Was this violence against joyas classic homophobia (fear of people with same-sex orientation) or gendercide? I argue that gendercide is the correct term. As Maureen S. Heibert comments:

Gendercide would then be . . . an attack on a group of victims based on the victims’ gender/sex. Such an attack would only really occur if men or women are victimized because of their primary identity as men or women. In the case of male gendercide, male victims must be victims first and foremost because they are men, not male Bosnians, Jews, or Tutsis. Moreover, it must be the perpetrators themselves, not outside observers making ex-poste analyses, who identify a specific gender/sex as a threat and therefore a target for extermination. As such, we must be able to explicitly show that the perpetrators target a gender victim group based on the victims’ primary identity as either men or women.

Or, I must add, as a third gender?

Consider the immediate effect of Balboa’s punishment of the "sodomites": when local Indians found out about the executions "upon that filthy kind of men," the Indians turned to the Spaniards "as if it had been to Hercules for refuge" and quickly rounded up all the other third-gender people in the area, "spitting in their faces and crying out to our men to take revenge of them and rid them out of the world from among men as contagious beasts." This is not homophobia (widely defined as irrational fear of or aversion to homosexuals, with subsequent discrimination against homosexuals); obviously, the Indians were not suddenly surprised to find joyas in their midst, and dragging people to certain death went far beyond discrimination or culturally condoned chastisement. This was fear of death; more specifically, of being murdered.

What the local indigenous peoples had been taught was gendercide, the killing of a particular gender because of their gender. As Heibert says in her description of gendercide above, "It must be the perpetrators themselves, not outside observers making ex-poste analyses, who identify a specific gender/sex as a threat and therefore a target for extermination." Now that the Spaniards had made it clear that to tolerate, harbor, or associate with the third gender meant death, and that nothing could stand against their dogs of war, the indigenous community knew that demonstrations of acquiescence to this force were essential for the survival of the remaining community—and both the community and the Spaniards knew exactly which people were marked for execution.

Thus the killing of the joyas by Spaniards was, indeed, "part of a coordinated plan of destruction" - gendercide, yet another strategy of genocide.

This tragic pattern in which one segment of indigenous population was sacrificed in hopes that others would survive continues to fester in many contemporary Native communities where people with same-sex orientation are no longer part of cultural legacy but feared, discriminated against, and locked out of tribal and familial homes. We have mistakenly called this behavior "homophobia" in Indian Country; to call it gendercide would certainly require rethinking the assimilation of Euro-American cultural values and the meaning of indigenous community.

[this is an excerpt from my article "Extermination of the Joyas: Gendercide in Spanish California," forthcoming in The Gay and Lesbian Quarterly.]

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lorna Dee Cervantes: "For My Ancestors..."

Here is another poem along the same lines as Wendy Rose's. Lorna Dee Cervantes is Chumash/Xicana. This poem is meant to be performed; try reading it aloud. Try whispering it.


after Phil Goldvarg

The bones that hold the holy.
Bones, grafted from bailing
and tar. The feathers
of a sleeker bird
resting in the nest.
The wry sense of autumn
calling like a winning smile.

The rapid fire. The wind
laid rest. The certainty
of servitude. The last ash
for the piki. Petals of a lost
desire. A woman's breast
releasing a flower of milk
on her dress. Buckskin bark
carpets the forests. Manzanita
swirls its own polish, her old bone
gleam. Her steady burn. The burl.

Bones weighed in at market.
The single bones, the married
bones with bands on bones.
Bones of a bonzai rectitude,
a fortitude of factories
on the horizon. Bones to raise
a Nation. An axe. An awl.
Bones stripped of their acorns.
Bones nipped from the grave.
Baskets of mourning
foreign to the settlers.
Baskets of bones
with rattlers inside.
Baskets of bones
with the teeth in hide.
Bounties of bones
with the people inside.

For every sale
there is a bone.
For every bone
there is a home
and a prayer
calling out the human heart,
chants on a drum
of human hide
with the bill of sale
still inside. And a brand
name still entails
a tag on the toe, a museum
label, a designer death
for you who were buried
with the names inside.

I say this peace, purple dove
of passion for you
who were robbed as bones.
For you who were stripped
of your meat. For you who were
worked to death grinding corn
at the metate you toted
for their feed, the sweet
smoke of age barely at your tail
when they packed you up
for the reinforcement.

Oh, Savior of the Mission of Bones,
Oh, Designer Death for the Architect,
Pope of the Bones
and the sainted orders--
the sainted terrorists.
Bones that hold,
the Holy.


c Lorna Dee Cervantes

first published in Divide, CU Boulder 9/27/03

(written for Transform Columbus Day Benefit, Oct. 3, '03. Aztlan Theater, Denver)

Transform Columbus Day, Aztlan, 10/11/03


Monday, September 7, 2009

Wendy Rose, Hopi/Miwok

Note: these skulls and crossbones are imbedded into the Santa Barbara Mission wall. More bone "art" is displayed inside the mission, along with the bones mixed with adobe to make walls. Wendy Rose's poem (below) was one of the first pieces of grieving for California Indians that I read, somewhere around the age of 30. Her words expressed outrage, disbelief, loss, and a kind of mourning for which I had never known words existed.

Excavation at Santa Barbara Mission

When archaeologists excavated Santa Barbara Mission in California, they discovered human bones in the adobe walls.

My pointed trowel
is the artist's brush
that will stroke and pry,
uncover and expose
the old mission wall.
How excited I am
for like a dream
I wanted to count myself
among the ancient dead
as a faithful neophyte
resting there and in love
with the padres
and the Spanish hymns.

A feature juts out. Marrow
like lace, piece of a skull,
upturned cup, fingerbones
scattered like corn
and ribs interlaced
like cholla.
So many bones
mixed with the blood
from my own knuckles
that dig and tug
in the yellow dust.
How fragile
they have become
to float and fall
with my touch,
brittle white tips
shivering into mist.
How helpless I am
for the deeper I go
the more I find
crouching in white dust,
listening to the whistle
of longbones breaking
apart like memories.
My hands empty themselves
of old dreams,
drain the future
into the moisture
of my boot prints.
Beneath the flags
of three invaders,
I am a hungry scientist
sustaining myself
with bones of
men and women asleep in the wall
who survived in their own way
Spanish swords, Franciscans
and their rosary whips,
who died among the reeds
to wait, communion wafers
upon the ground, too holy
for the priests to find.

They built the mission with dead Indians.
They built the mission with dead Indians.
They built the mission with dead Indians.
They built the mission with dead Indians.

by Wendy Rose

from Going To War With All My Relations: New and Selected Poems by Wendy Rose. Entrada Books, 1993

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