Thursday, March 4, 2010

Grandmother, I'm home!

At the closing ceremonies of the Journey for Peace and Dignity, the realization hit me like a brick that the oppression and subjugation of the Indigenous world was actually contained within my own personal herstory.

When my mother was living out her last days with growing Alzheimer disease and dementia, in what must have been a weak moment, she pulled out a daguerreotype from her darkest recesses of safekeeping. This photograph on glass, (that probably had not seen daylight for decades) I immediately recognized as a beautiful Native American Grandmother dressed in European clothing. I lit up exclaiming my recognition of this person as a Native woman and incredulously asked my mother who she was. She quickly snatched back the leather box and mumbled barely audibly that it was my Grandmother’s Grandmother, or Mother, it wasn’t clear. Just that brief glimpse of the glass plate silver negative image against black, has remained indelible in my mind. I don’t know why I didn’t pursue it at that moment. My relationship with my Mother had always been difficult, but I fully expected that precious leather covered box to be among her belongings after she died and I would see this beautiful Grandmother again. But alas, it mysteriously disappeared. This was a deep dark secret that was never supposed to be revealed.

This image from 1776 representing Brittania and America aptly describes my relationship to my mother - as anyone in my family will attest.

Furious that I had been deliberately cut off from my ancestors, I vowed in the closing ceremonies of the Journey for Peace and Dignity to check my DNA and to seek out my Grandmother’s birthplace to really find out the truth of who my people were. When a woman has her DNA tested, it will reveal what is in the chromosomes of the direct line of the mother and the female lineage only. A male can test the lineage of both male and female lines of the genealogy, and a female can use a male close relative, son, brother, nephew to test to determine both lines. My test came back revealing that there was no European DNA in my matrilineal bloodline. To fulfill my promise at the closing ceremony, before embarking on this project in Colombia, I sought out the birthplace of my Grandmother.

Early October, I left my home in Santa Fe. I had prepared myself as best I could, dispensed with my belongings and drove for three days through intense rainstorms in the mid-western plains to my Grandmother’s birthplace. I arrived in Maumee, Ohio, late at night, looking for any hotel I could find. I was attracted to some very bright lights that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere and found myself at a huge mall with a strange name, Fallen Timbers. An expensive hotel was there, and although it was out of my price range, it was late, so I checked in.

The next day, Saturday, I went to explore Maumee and discovered that the 13th Annual Historic Home tour was taking place in the small mansion where Mary Wells Wolcott had lived with her husband James Wolcott, a prominent citizen of the Maumee River Valley. Mary Wells Wolcott was the granddaughter of Chief Little Turtle, the leader of the Miami tribe during the Revolutionary War. Her Grandfather, William Wells, had been captured as a young adolescent prior to the Revolutionary War and was raised as a Miami Indian. He married Chief Little Turtle’s daughter, Sweet Breeze. Mary Wells was their third daughter.

In the house was a small bookstore with a few books about the Native peoples who had inhabited the region. The Land of the Three Miamis – A Traditional Narrative of the Iroquois in Ohio, by Barbara Alice Mann fell into my hands. A respected scholar, historian and teacher at the University of Ohio, Barbara Alice Mann had written this book for her granddaughter. Back at the hotel, I opened to Chapter One. “Since you are curious about the Old Things, Granddaughter Grey-Eyes, I will tell you who we are, where we came from, and what I heard from my Mothers and Grandmother relative to Old Times”. She opened a portal. I fell into the loving embrace of my ancestor, a kind, gentle, beautiful Grandmother with glistening eyes. I could feel her love and a sense of profound relief that I had sought her out. Now, finally, she could reveal to me this beautiful and painful story of the Iroquois, the sad tale of the fate of her (our) people - right in the place where so many brave warriors had shed their blood and died to protect their land and people, the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

The Three Miamis were three great rivers. The name Maumee came from the French version of the name Miami. (I remember my Grandmother telling me that she had come from a place called Three Rivers). The Native Peoples of the Land of Three Miamis lost the decisive Battle of Fallen Timbers outside Maumee just after the Revolutionary War, loosing the whole Ohio territory. I discovered that the mall and hotel where I was staying had been built on top of the very place where the Battle of Fallen Timbers had been fought. The fertile land of the Land of Three Rivers (Ohio means beautiful river in Iroquois), was to be the payment by Washington to the men who fought against the British in the Revolutionary War.

All praise and thanksgiving to Barbara Alice Mann, and all writers from the Indigenous world, who have written the truth of the story of their people, a story that was never recorded or grossly mis-recorded in history. She writes, “Those habits of silence that were formed between 1850 and 1950 remain strong in the east, Granddaughter. People who hide for a living get secrecy built in their bones. Even after the need for it passes, they are reluctant to speak of the Old Things. Some still carry secrecy so far even today that they do not speak of the Old Things even to their family members. Indeed, one of the strategies of hiding in plain sight was not to tell the children who they really were, but to let them think they were European”.

Others who have been separated in this way from their ancestors will benefit greatly reading and understanding the creation stories, the migration stories, and the story of the colonization and genocide of their people and a culture from the perspective of those who lost everything, even their identities. Barbara Mann recounts the stories in such a way that even though it is “bugs on bark” as she puts it, ink on paper, I felt I was actually hearing the story.

My ancestor in the daguerreotype lived three or four generations ago. All my life I believed my predominant ancestry to be Irish. I wonder now, what of my Mother’s Fathers Mother, and my Father’s Mother’s Mother. While furs and pots were being traded as colonizers pressed westward, women were also seen as a valuable commodity—especially beautiful, strong, gentle, free women who knew how to live on the land. The peace-loving people of the lands of the Three Miamis had been driven from their homes, fields burned, tortured, given small pox infected blankets, essentially treated like vermin by the colonists. Later the Native children were rounded up and sent to boarding schools. The women had to hide their identity when they married, or even before they married. It was survival.

Do we hold the memory of culture in our genes? For decades, I have been insisting that the Iroquois Thanksgiving Prayer be recited at every Thanksgiving feast I have given or attended. The prayer was a core component of the ritual performances in Colombia. I have read and re-read Paul A. W. Wallace and John Mohawk's White Roots of Peace, a history of the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy (known as Haudenosaunee by the people) and how the Great Law of Peace came into being.

Very strong evidence indicates that this Great Law of Peace was the blueprint for the Constitution of the United States.

The Iroquois had already dealt with the issue of defeating tyranny in their society four centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. They had created a living participatory democracy in the form of the Iroquois Confederacy, and ratified the Great Law of Peace, August 31, 1142. But the Founding Fathers would not--and could not give credit to the Iroquois Confederacy for their contribution to their ideas of democracy and the molding of the US Constitution. They could not reveal to the colonists that Iroquois women had equal (and sometimes greater) rights and power. For instance, the elder Clan Mothers chose the clan leaders and determined whether men should go to war. The Founding Fathers could not allow such egalitarian ideas into their public arena. That was just too much freedom. Because they were only dealing with the political form of tyranny they had experienced in feudal society, they failed to address or even recognize the root causes of oppression.

Ever since the Constitution was declared the law of the land, non-white, non-male people of this Republic have had to fight their way out from under a tyrannical, oppressive and arrogant mindset. The Founding Fathers believed they were designing a brilliant new form of government specifically to protect the colonies and the future of the New World from the tyranny of the power of kings, but they themselves did not seem to reflect upon their own arrogance and violence as tyrannical form. A slave owner himself, George Washington, was actively committing genocide against the Native People. This policy of genocide was justified by the god given “Right of Conquest” that had first been established in 1066 England that entitled the violent takeover of territory by William the Conqueror, making him the first king of England. This is the right of kings. Although such a right is not to be found in the Constitution, this might makes right approach to international relations is a cornerstone of United States foreign policy to this day. The Monroe Doctrine sought to write out this right in International Law to protect US interests, but the US continued to reserve the right to armed aggression when it served our own interests of expansion.

As a US citizen and an American, it is an act of patriotism (or matriotism), to bring to light the hypocrisy contained in our history, especially with an objective to honor the Founding Fathers by carrying forward their original intent to create a free and democratic Nation to serve as an example to the world. The Euro-American fight against feudalism is over. Consciousness has evolved. If we as Americans have any right to claim the United States as a free country, then the time has come to take responsibility for the way we use this right of freedom to address the root causes of an even greater oppression—the tyranny of violence in all its manifestations. It is a disease that has consumed the world and presents the greatest threat to our survival as a species.

From Iroquois history I gained deeper insight into the inextricable connection between freedom and peace. The Statue of Freedom who graces the Capitol Dome in Washington DC stands as a constant reminder to Americans that freedom is peace. I recognize this statue as America, Freedom Triumphant (as she was called by the sculptor), as the Iroquois Mother of Nations. In one of her incarnations, she was the “Peace Queen”, Jigonsaheh. As history tells it, the “Great Peacemaker”, Degenawidah, came across Lake Ontario from the north in a stone canoe with a mission in his heart to bring peace to the warring peoples who were living under the oppression of the patriarchy of the Mound Builders. He sought out the famed Peace Queen, Jigonsaheh, who was actively making a stand for peace. Together they created The Great Law of Peace. With the help of Ayonwantha, (Hiawatha to the European mind), they brought an end to the wars, formed the Iroquois Confederacy, the oldest living democracy on Earth, and planted the Tree of Peace.

It seems like a miracle that The Peace Queen, The Mother of Nations, could make her way to the top of the Capitol Dome in Washington, DC. But there she stands, a constant reminder of the Nation's core value, freedom, and of the First Nation peoples. As Morrnah Nalamakau Simeona, a kahuna from Hawaii recognized, she is "the conscience of the Nation". The next point of my exploration of my American soul was to pay a visit to this Statue of Freedom in DC with my friend Katya Miller who has researched the Goddess of Freedom for many years.

This is the plaster model of the Statue of Freedom that is now featured in the newly constructed Visitor Center at the Capitol.