Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Last week, I attended The Associated Writers Program Conference in Denver, Colorado, as a panelist on "In a Place of Bones: Indigenous Writers and Place-Based Writing," organized by Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhran. Panelists (above) were Chip Livingston (filling in admirably for Linda Hogan, who is recovering from a mild heart attack), Deborah Miranda, Ahimsa, Elaine Chukan Brown, Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano, and ku'ualoha ho'omanawanui.

This is my presentation:


First Story
I want to open with a short excerpt from a story told by my grandfather, Thomas Anthony Miranda, about one of journeys he took as a young man.

Tom was born in Carmel, the son of two indigenous survivors of the San Carlos (or Carmel) Mission, in 1903, just as California Indian populations hit rock bottom – five or ten thousand, down from one million, pre-contact. After 1900, though, California Indians began a painstaking recovery; our losses so great that recovery also meant a necessary reinvention of our identities, and slow, sometimes clumsy, reconnection with the land. Here’s what Tom says about a period of time he spent working far from home as a vaquero on the Carrissa Plains, near Bakersfield, in his early twenties:

I wanted to get away. I’ll tell you what made me leave there: I could see a light from the Carrisa Plains every night, and I said, I wonder where the hell that light is? You could see it from the Carrisa Plains as soon as it got dark every single night. None of the guys knew what it was. But it was that light that they had over here on Mt. Diablo. You could see it that far, about 300 miles. You could see it that far. We never could make out just what it was. You couldn’t see the Mountain in the daytime but as soon as it got dark, we could see the light. If the days were hot or there were fires, we didn’t see the light for two or three weeks at a time. When the earth would clear up and the air was clean, we could; we used to sit out there and we were wondering, especially me. I didn’t know how big the world was anyway.

I used to sit out there and look at the damn light. There was a Missourian there, and he said, that’s a big light, it’s a long way from here. We were told that it was 300 miles; we could see that light going around just like that. It looked like it wouldn’t ever stop.

I left the Carrisa Plains. I went to Santa Maria and that didn’t work; shoot, go around with a bunch of kids? I was a big man, so I said, I’m going to get the hell out of here, I’m going to see the country, see the world.
What I wanted to see was where the hell that light was coming from.
Second StoryNow I’ll back up and give you a bit of a geography lesson about Tom’s location, and the significance of his words about the light on Mt. Diablo.

Mt. Diablo, Pico Blanco and The Sur Rock were each considered a place of emergence, the place where the world began after a great flood, by local Indian peoples; including some of my ancestors, whose community at San Carlos Misson had been artificially created by the cramming together of Esselen, Ohlone, Costanoan, Salinan and other tribes from that general area. Such places are sacred; the Wintun, Pomo, Northern and Southern Miwok, Nisenan and many other Indian peoples also revered the mountain from afar or traveled there to conduct important ceremony. Who we are is where we are from. Where we are from is who we are.

As the Esselen, Ohlone and Salinan communities went into the Missions, forcibly encouraged to leave behind their individual cultures for a pre-made Mission Indian template planned by the Franciscans, beliefs and stories began to merge as several Native cultures intermarried, lived together in close quarters, and shared survival knowledge. In a time of great loss, there was also great innovation and resourcefulness. It isn’t hard to see how the specificity of which mountain was sacred for which community could be lost, while the knowledge that a sacred place of emergence, a mountain, did exist, and was retained.

In researching my grandfather’s Carrisa Plains story, I learned that the light Tom yearned for as an adolescent on the Carrisa Plains was an airplane beacon, the very first in California, placed on Mount Diablo in 1928. I found it bittersweet that Tom yearned toward one of the places that the indigenous people of his birth region regarded as a sacred place of origin, that he chased after that light, which would lead him home from his journeys.

The name “Mt. Diablo” was, of course, another Spanish gift. A story told and retold in many forms (personal journals, newspaper stories, oral histories) explains the name this way: during the Mission era, a group of wily Indian runaways being chased by Spanish soldiers take refuge on Mt. Diablo. Apparently the Indians are cornered in a thicket, dense green and dark, the Carquinez Straits on one side, soldiers on the other. The soldiers decide to bed down for the night, finish this job in the light of day.

Surprise! In the morning the Indians are gone. The cliff is still there, the woods are still there, the soldiers are still there. But the Indians, huddled in the Mother’s arms, have miraculously escaped.

Of course, to the soldiers, this is far from a miracle. This is a disaster. The padres will be furious, the crops will go untended, the relentless grinding of wheat and corn slowed. There is no other labor pool but these Indian neophytes, and soldiers might find themselves hauling logs and mixing adobe in the sun. No, this mountain was an evil place, with an evil spirit that the Indians have long worshipped – ay, el Diablo! It must be the devil helping them, those pagan animals! Yes, they must have called on the Devil himself, and he answered.

And that’s what they told the priest when they returned to the Mission, horses lathered and spent, soldiers dirty, exhausted and empty-handed.

That’s the Spanish story. I imagine that there is much left untold.

Places of power were not tread on lightly; those runaway Indians would have understood the power of the mountain’s reputation. Fleeing to the Mountain was likely an act of desperation, perhaps even a call to the energy dwelling in that place.

Indigenous peoples in half of California knew that this entire mountain was infused with the power of creation, from root to cloud. The rocks, soil, meadows, streams, trees, sun – all sacred, sacred, sacred, sacred.

Onto this luminous landscape come this group of Indians from Mission San Jose, runaways, tired, perpetually hungry, nowhere left to call home; they are on foot while the Spanish soldiers and mercenaries pursue them on horseback. In a moment like that, what thoughts, what impassioned prayers, come to your lips? What deep memories do you scour for the refuge of a canyon, a cave, a passage where you cannot be followed? What ancestors do you call on, what old medicine from your childhood, what stories, songs?

Even now when it seems the world has ended and the gods are preoccupied or angry with your people, even with the floggings, the sickness, the deaths of loved ones as well as leaders – even now, you feel the mountain drawing you. You remember her true name: Tuyshtak, “at the day.” You feel the heat of her breath with the soles of your bare feet. Hear her heart, pulsing. Despite everything, this mountain remembers and bears the magnificent traces of creation.

You turn and follow that knowledge. Lead your people – perhaps a husband, children, beloved friends – up, up, onto the flanks of this Mother. Protect us, you pray: we have no tobacco, no sage, no feathers. We can make no offering. Hide us, Mother. Take us back into your womb.

Is that how it happened? The only story we read about in history books, eyewitness accounts, credit the devil with helping those pagan souls.

But where did they go, those Indians? How did they escape? Did they cross the Carquinez straits, with their treacherous currents, borne up by the desperation of fear? Did they slip past the soldiers as the night watch slept? Did they hide themselves in the trees, in the very earth, in a cave, to emerge at last when the hoof beats were no longer heard? Did they die, trying to swim or climb away?

This is what we can know: Wherever they went and however they got there, the group of Indians were not lassoed like cattle, tied up, made to march back to the mission in the shame of capture and sin, the stocks, flogging, whatever the padre or soldiers dictated. They did not go back to the Mission. Wherever they went and however they got there, those Indians were free.
And that’s as much a miracle as any birth, or rebirth. That’s a story worth telling, worth remembering, worth yearning towards one hundred years or more later.

That’s a story worth following home.

Third StoryWhen my kids were little, I used to tell them I was the Queen of California, and that the most beautiful places of all – Carmel, Big Sur, Monterey – were our homeland. The bitter truth always was, and still is, that after Missionization, and after Secularization, the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen people ended up with no land at all. It wasn’t until recently that I learned some of our family members actually had been granted land, actually owned, and worked a rancho of their own in the Carmel area. Who were these ancestors, and what happened to them, and to their land?

Fructuoso de Jesus Cholom married Yginia Maria Yunisyunis on July 3, 1803, at San Carlos Mission. He was eighteen years old; Yginia was thirteen. Fructuoso and Yginia are my great-great-great-great-great grandparents.

According to Steven Hackel, author of Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis, Fructuoso de Jesus Cholom had served as a mission alcalde prior to secularization; a kind of overseer, or boss. With his wife Hyginia, Fructuoso received a small parcel of land (one square league) during secularization in 1835, awarded by then-Governor Alvarado; Fructuoso was one of very few Indians given this opportunity (Hackel, 401). This rancho, called “El Potrero de San Carlos,” supported Fructuoso and his surviving family by allowing him to pursue the hide-and-tallow trade, as well as run cattle; he lived on this land until his death in 1845.

Upon Fructuosos’s death, some of the land was sold to Joaquin Gutierrez, an emigrant from Chile who had been a soldier at the Presidio in Monterey, with the agreement that Yginia could continue to live on the land until her death. By 1850, Yginia was joined on the land by her daughter Estéfana Real, and her surviving underage children. By 1853, Yginia had sold the remainder of her husband’s rancho to Gutierrez, and around the same time, Estéfana married the Chilean. Marriage to a non-Indian was most likely the only way to secure what was left of Estéfana’s inheritance during post-secularization, when Mexico sometimes honored land grants if the head of household were European.

Unfortunately, Indian claim to lands, a rarity in any case, were never honored by the incoming Americans. Beautiful El Potrero, on the Carmel River, did not remain in Estefana’s hands long.

Fourth StoryIn a story recorded in 1934 by Smithsonian ethnologist J.P. Harrington, Carmel Indian consultant Isabel Meadows, a relative of mine by marriage, says,

The Padre gave the Indians that piece of land that is now called ‘El Potrero’ on Sargent’s ranch. And when the Americans came, the Indians were chased out. The Padre gave them the land with papers written up, but the signatures weren’t held valid when the Americans came. Sargent ran them off when he bought there. They had to leave, and they were gathered together camping at the river – and from there the Indian people dispersed. The government never helped the Carmel people, not with anything were they helped. The land they were given by the signature of the padre didn’t hold, and they had to disperse to wherever they could. Thrown out, they stayed among the other peoples only to find their life as the most poor. And they were exposed to all kinds of vices and drinking. The American government instead of caring for them like they cared for the Indians in other parts, seemed like it didn’t know these Carmeleños existed.

Some died of sadness and others went away from there, dispersed and scattered everywhere. Some ended up living away in Sacramento or in Santa Barbara. Throughout all those places there were Carmeleños hiding that they knew the language. And many died with smallpox also, and with measles—they didn’t know how to protect themselves. And years were ended with drunkenness . . . these poor people drank until they died. Some drank from sorrow because they had been cast out.

The history of the Carmelo and of Monterey tells of many accidents and fights and stabbings and clubbings and everything that happened to the Indians when they were drinking. And many deaths resulted from the drinking of whiskey and wine. In this manner, the Indian people were finished off faster—with the drinking and with so much sorrow that they had been cast away from their land. (Isabel Meadows, 1934, qtd. in Santa Cruz County History Journal, Issue 5, 2002.)
The loss of land is a kind of soul-wound that the Esselen Ohlone Costanoan Nation still feels; a wound which we negotiate every day of our lives. As Isabel’s story indicates, Bradley Sargent, a New Hampshire man who became a cattle baron in California, earned his fortune in large part by “buying” – or forcibly ousting – Indians, Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans, off land granted to them by previous governments. In 1858, only five years after Estéfana married Joaquin Gutierrez, Sargent “bought” her land. Estéfana and her family were among those Indians who, as Isabel says, “gathered together camping at the river – and . . . dispersed,” marking another stage of exile in our own homeland. My grandfather Tom’s journeys throughout California reflect, I think, a search for belonging that had begun generations before.

But the story – the story of that land, and Tom’s deep pull toward Mt. Diablo, which looms large over the El Potrero landscape – still exists, and testifies that our connection to the land lives on beneath the surface of our lives, like underground rivers that never see the light of day, but run alive and singing, nonetheless.

As I researched, wrote, and dreamt about Tom’s story, the strangest thing happened: I located El Potrero on a contemporary map of California. My whole body leaped forward, the palms of my hands tingled with a rush of blood, when I learned that El Potrero, the last Ohlone-Esselen Costanoan-owned land in California, home to my immediate ancestors Fructuoso, Yginia, Estéfana and her children, is now part of the Santa Lucia Preserve. The Preserve, a privately owned piece of land designed to both earn enough money to perpetuate a trust which then preserves the bulk of the land in its original state, was a completely unexpected blessing for me. I thought the land would have long since been asphalted over and lost to us.

Further research has revealed, not surprisingly, that El Potrero as lies in the shadow of Mt. Diablo’s profile, the sacred place of emergence toward which my grandfather Tom Miranda yearned as a young man, knowing – without quite knowing that he knew – that who we are is where we are from.

Where we are from is who we are. Our bodies, like compasses, know the way home.

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