Friday, June 10, 2011

Following Isabel

Following Isabel

Re-reading parts of Almanac of the Dead, finding that it helps me write (by which I mean, get a grip on, wrap my mind around) these essays about my Carmel Mission ancestor, Isabel Meadows, and her survival of the missions ... and her narration of stories about those who survived with her, and those who did not.  Silko’s descriptions of wars that never end is so apt, and the nearly infinite ways of splintering souls that she describes, are so like what Isabel describes in her mixed Spanish-English heartbroken vocabulary.  How Silko found the words to write like this, and how Isabel found the words to speak like this, and how these words find their way into the world to change it, are just rocking me back on my heels this morning.  When someone is broken down to the very bottom of what can survive, how is it that such power can arise out of those shards?  It has to be a power that comes from beyond one individual; it has to be the power of brokenness itself, the transformation that brokenness incites, absolute loss and betrayal.  How can I write about this?  Have the words to write about it even been invented yet?

One of the ways Isabel managed this was simply by telling the bare bones truth about the lives of Carmel mission Indian survivors.  Just that: telling what happened between husbands and wives, between mothers and children, between lovers, between sisters, brothers.  Between priest and confessor; between Indian woman and white rapist; between kidnapped Indian children and slavemasters.  The truth:  the infidelity, the physical blows, the moments spent gathering chia seeds or picking wild strawberries together; the drunken fights between brothers, the pain of having an only son hung by the whites, the exhibition of an ancient old woman to a group of thrill-seeking white picnickers for the few pennies it brought.  She just tells the truth, but it is a truth long hidden by mythology, lies, stereotypes, guilt, horror, fear, history-by-the-victors.  It is a truth which, beneath the piles of gilded bullshit called California history, doesn’t break down but grows sharper, more pungent, potent with repressed clarity.  Distilled truth, perhaps: cooked beneath the lies, growing harder, sharper, unrepentant and medicinal as rattlesnake venom. 

Isabel also managed to tell these stories by listening and observing the chaos she saw going on around her, rather than denying that it happened, rather than self-medicating to block out the pain.  It’s startling how little she writes about herself, despite living to be 85 years old; instead, she focuses on the Indian community where she lived all her life.  She takes in the stories of others, those who are not able to give them to Harrington, and she preserves them.  She is receptive as an open basket, calling those stories into herself.  At times, she appears judgmental towards her peers, condemning their drinking, multiple sexual partners, illegitimate children, cruelties toward each other, petty feuds.  That is the colonized soul in Isabel speaking, then; and even at that moment, she is testifying against colonization’s rapacious setting of Indian against Indian.  For in the very next breath, Isabel makes a direct connection between the loss of community and land, and that destructive behavior she records.  She says,

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. Before, in Monterey, it seems like every other house had a bar and 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. 

I find that statement she makes about the loss of El Potrero to be a phenomenally astute analysis of post-colonial trauma; a moment in which she completely transcends her Catholic training, her European anti-Indian sentiment, and her own self-hatred.  A moment in which she loves her people, and mourns for them, mourns with them, mourns for a specific loss of a specific piece of land that happened nearly 100 years in the past, but which she ‘remembers’ as if it were yesterday.  Isabel had to have heard this story from her mother, and her mother’s generation.  Yet when she tells that story, she tells it as if she saw those El Potrero Indians – the infamous Estefana Real, her children, her sisters, their children – forced off of their land, camping on the banks of the Carmel River, and weeping with rage.  They had to leave, and they were gathered together camping at the river – and from there the Indian people dispersed,” she says, and in my heart, I hear an echo:  “By the waters of Babylon, where we sat down; yea, we wept…when we remembered Zion.”  

Isabel listened to that story about the theft of El Potrero, one of the last Indian-controlled pieces of land left; she listened to the immense, unspeakable grief underneath the words of the story, and she made the leap from that moment to the drinking, fighting, self-destructive behaviors that followed, and said:  we lost hope.  The descent into clinical depression, the self-medicating, the self-hatred at losing – she didn’t have the modern psychological vocabulary for that, but she did her best, and her analysis of the situation is deeply moving, insightful, beautiful, and above all, loving.  

Sometimes you write about pain in order to express love for those involved.  And oh, how Isabel loved those bad Indians.  That is the third way I see Isabel managing to speak the unspeakable: through sheer love.  A tenderness for those drunken Indians, those knife-fighting, coal-throwing, back-stabbing, starving, prostituted, wife-abusing, poor, Spanish-speaking, Indian-speaking, fragile souls who had been removed and erased to the point of ultimate despair.  Yes, she bad-mouthed their violence, their pursuit of alcohol, their cruelty toward women and children.  She didn’t like their behavior.  But she never lost sight of what had made them that way.  She never lost sight of who they could have been, if not for Missionization; she never forgot that they were good people driven insane by insane punishment.  If Isabel teaches me anything, she teaches me that: you can love even in the midst of witnessing your loved one’s self-destruction.  You can love, and despair, at the same time.

For me, this is of course about my father, about loving the broken jagged pieces of him despite the gashes inflicted by his touch; but it is not just about my father.  It’s about the contemporary Esselen Nation and our incessant in-fighting, the power-plays, the mistrust, the betrayals, the grief over lost sisters and lost relationships, cracks driven into us by the wedge of the BIA, the U.S. Government, the demand for blood quantum and paper trails for a people whose blood was spilled all over the state, and for whom even the joke of a signed treaty was so dangerous, they had to be hidden away from the eyes of the world for decades.  I see us as a forest cut down, stumps splintered and riddled with iron wedges driving through to separate us at the root.  Recovery seems impossible.   

I see my sister trying to hold the tribe together by sheer will power.  One woman, no matter how amazing, cannot do that.  Is she holding on to a memory, a dream?  I’m afraid to even think that way; her hold is so tenuous.  I want to believe we will make a comeback, we will remember how to love one another, learn how to love our broken selves as the makings of a mosaic.  I want a tribe to come home to, a center to the universe, a place and a people that will hold me, comfort me, welcome what I can give.  

I want what Isabel wanted.  It must have seemed impossible to her, too; but she never stopped hoping.  She wanted the U.S. Government to give the Carmel Indians some land, a place to call ours, a place to be a people again.  She was looking for an acknowledgment of our presence; for us to be given permission to exist.

Some say we can’t wait, and it can’t be given.  We must act now, and we must take what is ours, claim it.  Sovereignty.  But you can only claim it if you speak with a single voice, a single mind, a single dream.  And we cannot.  We are made of me and I and mine and want, multiplied by hundreds of years of violence.  

Yet Isabel never stopped hoping.  It was not simply because she was a strong woman.  It was because she loved.  It was because she knew the truth.  Her part in healing our brokenness was to listen, to remember, and to tell.

I don’t feel that I have done any differently; I don’t feel that I have done any more.  But it is all I can think of to do: to admit the power of story.  To follow her example.  To love our brokenness, and hope for transformation from splinters and shards into whole, vibrant, brilliant mosaics.

Can we do this?  How do we do this?  

We is the operative word.  This healing is not something that can be done alone; the healing of a community takes that whole community.  And how to lead a community toward wholeness is, I believe, something that can be accomplished through story.  We have so many great storytellers.  I’m trying to learn from them, trying to enact that transformation.  Isabel is our teacher.  In this project about her stories, I am trying to bring her teachings back to our tribe in a way they will be able to hear. 

Isabel, do you see me?  I'm so far behind you.  But listening.  Listening.

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