Osage River Bend

Thomas & Theresa Heisler wedding

[Thomas Heisler and Maria Theresia (Theresa) Gerling at their wedding 2/16/1886]

I am continuing my exploration of my own ancestors settling in America, and how they may have participated in the colonization of this land.  My dad’s mother, born Lucille Mary Heisler in 1897, was the daughter of Thomas and Theresa (Gerling) Heisler, originally of St. Thomas, in Cole County, Missouri.  Thomas’s father (and my great-great-grandfather) was Johann Heisler, who came to Missouri about 1850, where he lived in St. Thomas with his wife Elizabeth (Koetzner) and was a farmer. They became a “well-known” Cole County family.

The first post office in St. Thomas was dated 1855.  It was a small German Catholic farming community, named for St. Thomas the Apostle, which is also the name of their church.  It was one of several Catholic communities founded by the Belgian Jesuit priest, Ferdinand Helias, who was known as the father of mid-Missouri German Catholics.

According to Russel Gerlach, in “The German Presence in the Ozarks,”

Some Germans were attracted to the Ozarks seeking religious freedom. Osage County attracted several thousand German Catholics whose principal reason for emigrating from Germany was religious. Their spiritual leader, Father Helias, established a parish in Westphalia in 1834, and in subsequent years seventeen settlements, composed primarily of Rhinelanders, were established in Osage, Cole, Miller and Maries counties.

I read that because the immigrants from various regions in Germany carried those tensions with them to these lands, he helped to settle them in communities which were ethnically differentiated. By the way, it was eye-opening for me to learn that in the German ancestry of my dad’s family, at least four different cultural and linguistic communities were represented–the East Frisians, the Rhinelanders, the Swabians, and the Westphalians.  The Heislers were from the Swabian culture. (But more on that in another post.)

What about the Indigenous peoples who had lived in Cole County before?  Well, their name remains in the river that winds through the area–the Osage River.  St. Thomas was formed in a fertile bend of the Osage River.  It was Osage Nation land before the settlers came. According to the website of St. Thomas the Apostle church:

The Indian Territorial Government established Cole County in 1821, paving the way for eager settlers to purchase this fertile land.  Perched above the river bottom and close to today’s parish cemetery, German immigrants built a small log church for the families that lived in the area.  Fr. Ferdinand Helias, S.J. began ministering to the needs of Catholics in this area in the early part of the 19th century.  A larger frame church was built to support the Indian Bottom Settlement.  As the city of St. Thomas took shape further east of the river, Father Peter Eysvogles, S.J. persuaded the families of Indian Bottom to move the church to this growing community.

I was struck by how the names “Indian Bottom” and “Osage River” spoke to the history of the land, even after its people had been removed. My own ancestors came a full generation after that removal, but definitely were among the settlers eager to purchase this newly “available” land.  The Osage Indians had a wide ranging territory that included land now in the five U.S. states of Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.   The first Europeans to meet them were the French explorers Joliet and Marquette in 1673.Osage Ancestral TerritoryIn 1803, when the United States made the Louisiana Purchase agreement with France, they claimed ownership of Osage territory. According to educational materials of the Osage Culture Traveling Trunk,

Between 1808 and 1872, the Osages had little choice but to cede all their lands in present-day Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas, and most of their land in Oklahoma, to the U.S. Government. The last land cession was in 1872, when the Osages ceded their reservation in Kansas and moved to a new reservation in Oklahoma. This is the current Osage reservation.

You can find out much more information about the Osage on that website, which is dedicated to educating children in Missouri.  I want to include one more map from that program to emphasize the extent of these ceded lands. osage_ceded_lands_poster

Special thanks to my cousin Jim Pattyn for sharing his genealogical research into our Johnson family.

 

 

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Plants and their wisdom

Sea Kale emerging

Sea Kale emerging in my garden, April 3rd.

This morning, I have been reading Farming While Black, by Leah Penniman. It is a marvelous book on so many levels–history lesson, gardening guide, liberation manual–and it feels a privilege to learn so much from a work that is actually focused toward Black farmers and gardeners. I knew so little about the skills of enslaved Africans who brought with them to these lands African plants and knowledge of growing them.  I knew so little about the work of George Washington Carver who was one of the first to study and promote regenerative land practices.  I know so little about multiple plants and their habits and their gifts for us.  Get this book!  

But then, after reveling in reading all morning, I find myself opening to multiple layers of deep grief underneath the joy of reading the book.  Grief for the African peoples who were stolen from their land and enslaved.  Grief for these Turtle Island lands, whose balanced ecosystems and soils were so depleted by the cutting of forests, and the plowing under of the soil, as well as by the war waged on their people.  And grief for myself and my communities–that we have lost our connection to the ecosystems, we have lost our connection to the wisdoms, we have lost our connection to the plants.

I get overwhelmed with the abundant knowledge in the book, and I remember this feeling in other wonderful books I have read, the feeling that I have no hope of learning everything I need to learn, in the limited years left to me on this planet.  I get the feeling that I have no hope of regaining access to the collective wisdom that has been cut off in so many ways.  And I realize that this too is part of colonization.

My East Frisian ancestors were some of those who plowed over the fertile prairies back in the 19th century.  Grief.  But at least they knew how to grow their own food, and provide for their families from their land.  I read online recently that in the last two generations, most Americans have lost the capacity to do that.  More grief.  I don’t know how to do that.  And I can’t envision getting to that ability before I die.  Plus, it is not really something we can learn from books.

In Farming While Black, I was reading about herbs and their healing properties, and there were too many to take in–even though it was a limited list of the herbs they grow and find to use in their community.  I feel lucky if I can learn about two or three herbs in a season.  All of us should have been learning the herbs since the early days of childhood wandering in the woods.  The plants are our elders, our guides, the wise beings who know how to feed us and heal us and care for us.  This separation from the plants is also a part of colonization.

One answer to my dilemma is about community.  No one is meant to have all the knowledge on their own.  It is okay that I can’t learn it all on my own.  But I feel grief too for the fragmentation of communities that has kept us from sharing this learning and wisdom with each other.  And I feel grateful for each person who has shared their knowledge of plants with me.  I feel grateful for organizations like the Resilience Hub, who bring people together to share so much wisdom of soil and plants and ecosystems.

But for this moment, I want to honor the pain of colonization, honor the pain of what has been lost, honor the pain of so many threads of connection that were torn apart and destroyed, never to be rewoven.  It is a long journey to healing.

Wolasuweltom

“When you think in Passamaquoddy, your whole life revolves around being thankful for everything that’s around you,” says Roger Paul, our Wabanaki Languages teacher.  “Everything about what you look at, or what somebody tells you, you think gratitude.” The root verb for giving thanks is wolasuweltom (he or she gives thanks, is grateful). To say “thank you” to someone you say “Woliwon.”  

He went on to comment, “…in other cultures I’ve noticed it’s about, ‘What am I to gain from this?’, …or ‘What’s my goal?'”  He told a story about a woman he met in Washington, DC, who wondered why Indigenous people didn’t come to testify in Congress about why they needed certain funding–they might send lawyers or other non-Native employees to explain–but she had never seen an actual Indigenous person explain why they needed this funding.

Roger said, “It took me a while, but I figured it out. …The reason, I told her, was because we’re not about going to demand what we deserve. We’re about being thankful for what we already have… So… we’re not good at going up to say, ‘Hey, we deserve this–we have an entitlement to this–you owe us this.’ …We’re more at, ‘Oh, this is all we get? But, you know what, I can use this. Thank you.'”  He said, “It’s that attitude, that almost every word in our language surrounds that concept of gratitude.”

All this was during a conversation among a few of us before class last month.  Ironically, earlier that morning I had been thinking about my final presentation, in which we were supposed to introduce ourselves in the language.  I had thought to myself that perhaps I should try to say something about why, as a non-Wabanaki person, I wanted to learn to speak Passamaquoddy.  What was my purpose or goal in doing this?  In English, I have said, I wanted to “decolonize my mind and learn to think in a new way.”  But I couldn’t figure out how to express what I meant in the language, even with the help of the online dictionary.

So when Roger spoke of how the language itself was not so much about expressing goals, as it was about giving thanks, I was struck by the irony of it all.  Here I was, even in my attempts to speak the language, thinking exactly like a white person.  And maybe, the goals and purposes didn’t matter as much as I thought they did.  Maybe I should try to say, instead, what I am thankful for.

Later, I asked Roger if it would be okay to quote him for the blog, and he gave me a generous yes.  I am thankful for all of these conversations, more than I can say.  These days, I am less and less sure of the purpose of anything I am doing.  I am less and less sure of my goals.  But I am reminded, each morning, to give thanks for everything around me.

Ducks in Spring

Anishinaabe Land

Anishinabe Treaty ConferenceIn an earlier post, I began to explore which Indigenous people belonged to the land where my East Frisian ancestors had settled in the 1850s.  But I had not done that for the land where I was born, in Detroit, Michigan. I wasn’t surprised to read that it was Anishanaabe land, the land of the people of the three fires, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa), and Potawatomi.  Significantly, I didn’t learn about them while I was growing up. Nothing. But as a young adult, that changed as I became an activist. I remember participating in an Anishanaabe gathering in Muskegon, Michigan. I found the button I still have from that gathering, the “Great Lakes Anishinabe Treaty Conference,” in 1982.

The Anishinaabek were really the first Indigenous peoples that I learned about. It has been so long since I lived in Michigan (I left in 1983), that it is hard to remember too many details about what I learned at that time, rather than later.  I remember a children’s book written by Edward Benton-Banai, in which I learned the word for grandmother was Nokomis.  I remember that sovereignty was important, and treaties had historically been tools for taking land away from the people, but they also preserved certain rights to hunting and fishing.  Louise Erdrich is a brilliant Anishinaabe novelist from whom I learned much more of the people’s lives in the context of colonization.

The Anishinaabek lived in the area of the Great Lakes before any Europeans arrived.  I learned from Roger Paul, in my Wabanaki Languages class, that the Anishinaabek were related to the Wabanaki many generations ago, and lived on the east coast.  About a thousand years ago, they were led to move west, and they were guided to stop in the Great Lakes. The Anishinaabe languages are in the same language family as the Wabanaki, (and the Innu as well), called Algonquian by linguists. The word for “my grandmother” in Passamaquoddy is Nuhkomoss.  The Innu would say, Nukum.

The first Europeans who interacted with the Anishinaabek in the Great Lakes region were the French.  When Michigan later became a territory of the new United States, the majority of people living in Michigan were Native people.  You can find out many more details of the history of the people from that time forward on the website of the Ziibiwing Center of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan.  Michigan still has twelve federally recognized tribes today.

I think the first step in the process of making right relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is to learn the history of our peoples’ interactions with each other, to understand the traumatic process of colonization that occurred on these lands. Only if we know the history can we begin to make sense of the present.  With the mixed blessing of the internet, it isn’t so hard to find out these things if we look.  Do you know what Indigenous people lived on the land which you now occupy?

Angela Andrew

angela-andrew

Photo by John Gaudi/CBC

I just learned today that Angela Andrew, an Innu artist in what is now Labrador, best known for her crafting of traditional Innu tea dolls, died February 5th at the age of 72. I posted earlier about the Innu tea doll that my friend Wells gave me, which was created by her. I found this article in the CBC News from Canada.  I am so glad I learned about her and her tea dolls before she died.  The article said she was also instrumental in teaching the Innu-Aimun language to young people, and she had an infectious smile. If you can hear me in the spirit world, Angela, thank you for your beautiful work! her daughters plan to continue making the dolls.

Ancestors and Whiteness

Can learning about our own ancestors help white people in undoing white supremacy and colonization? Or could it possibly be a distraction from the real work? When did our ancestors become “white” instead of German or Ukrainian or French or Irish? How did it happen? If our ancestors owned land, when and how did that happen, especially in relationship to the stealing of land from Indigenous peoples?

We were talking about these questions in my Maine-Wabanaki REACH group last night. It has been helpful to join in a small group with other white folks committed to the process of ending racism and colonization. We ponder the difficult questions together, in the context of the wider work of Maine-Wabanaki REACH which is in conversation and solidarity with Wabanaki people.

It seemed to us that understanding our families’ histories in the context of colonization, can help us to better understand colonization, and to make it visceral and real for us.  It is not just recounting the stories we may have heard in our families, or read about in research, but juxtaposing those stories with the history of colonization, land theft, and slavery, in the particular locations in which they lived.

I have already done a lot of exploring of the matrilineal side of my family.  Last night, after the meeting, I wondered how this might have played out on the other side of my family–my patrilineal ancestry.  My dad’s ancestors came to this country from Germany.  But more specifically, his great-grandfather and great-grandmother arrived in Illinois as children in 1851 and 1854 from East Friesland. East Friesland was actually a somewhat isolated culture on the North Sea with its own community and language, in some ways more closely related to Holland and old English than German.

Thousands of East Frisians came to the midwest during the middle of the 19th century, drawn by the promise of cheap fertile land and a long-standing love of freedom. Most of them worked for a few years, then were able to buy land, and become successful farmers, from what I can gather.  In America, they formed closely knit communities centered around their church, their family and their language.  But over the course of three generations, the young people had assimilated into the surrounding communities, and no longer spoke their parents’ language.

By the time the East Frisians arrived in Illinois, it had already been colonized for several generations.  But the name gives a clue.  On the Illinois State Museum website, I read about the Illinois peoples losing their lands.

In 1803, the Kaskaskia tribe signed a treaty giving up its land claims in the present State of Illinois in exchange for two small reservations on the Kaskaskia and Big Muddy rivers. The Peoria, in turn, ceded their Illinois claims in a separate treaty signed in 1818. Finally, in 1832, two years after President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, the Kaskaskia and Peoria tribes agreed to merge and moved west to a reservation in Kansas.

So I wonder if the German immigrants even knew about the history of the land they were so excited about farming?  More research surely to do about all that.

In the course of this research, I may have coincidentally solved a mystery that had recently emerged in my DNA reports.  According to my DNA analysis, 15.3% of my ancestors came from the British Isles.  But from my genealogy research, I thought that number should be just 3% (my Scottish ancestry).  I didn’t think I had any other British or Irish ancestry.  So what was that other 12%? Was there some family secret I hadn’t heard about?  Well, I learned online that East Frisian DNA is indistinguishable from that of the British Isles.  So rather than a secret in the family tree, I think this 12% might be my great-grandfather Henry Johnson (also known as Heinrich Jansen), who was 100% East Frisian.

And when did they become white?  Well, I’ve got to stop for today, but I’ll come back to it. In the meantime, a 1920 census with Henry Johnson listed–see between the blurred out parts.  And the “W” next to his name.

Henry Johnson 1920 census section