Sacred Trees and Resurrection

When I was looking through some old family photos, I wondered, what is this picture of a tree?  Then I saw my grandfather Heie Johnson almost hidden up in its branches.  I don’t know where it was taken, or by whom.  (Any Johnson relatives know the answer to that?)

Heie Johnson in a tree – Version 2

1930s

I’ve been doing a lot of research about my ancestors, trying to understand their legacy in me, trying to understand colonization and the possibilities for a different way of being. I came across a story concerning the missionary efforts of Christians in early pagan Germanic lands.  It said,

The favoured method of showing the supremacy of the Christian belief was the destruction of the holy trees of the Germans. These were trees, usually old oaks or elm trees, dedicated to the gods. Because the missionary was able to fell the tree without being slain by the god, his Christian god had to be stronger.

This is a sadly perfect example of the colonization forces of Christianity–that part of its history which is about domination, conquest, and empire.  But since today is Easter, I wanted to go back to something I learned from Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in their book, Saving Paradiseabout another force in the history of Christianity, a force that moved against domination on behalf of equality and interconnection.

They researched the visual world of early Christian worship, and what they found were beautiful mosaics: a deep green meadow under a blue sky, flowers, a tree with four rivers flowing from its roots spreading out over the land. There were sheep in the meadow and a figure of a man who was the shepherd of the sheep, with a kind and radiant face turned toward the people. There were men and women, all with radiant faces, each one holding in their hands a laurel wreath crown.

Each week as part of worship, after the readings and hymns, after the sermon and prayers, there was a communal potluck feast for all the members of the church. As people sat down together, those of the upper class were sitting next to workers and servants. Special attention was given to widows and their children, and to all the elders. At this holy communion meal, all brought what they had to share, and partook of its bounty together.

According to Brock and Parker’s research, this would have been the experience of Christians in the early centuries of Christianity. Most people were unable to read, but the symbolism of the images around them would be immediately apparent: the Garden of Eden, the original Paradise. The tree in the meadow was the tree of life described in the book of Genesis.  At the center of this early Christian worship was a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. He was the radiant man tending sheep, the Good Shepherd, a living presence in their midst. They believed that by his resurrection, he had restored the original paradise, and reestablished the presence of the divine spirit within the whole created earth.

The Christian community was meant to be the living embodiment of this resurrection paradise. In the midst of a world controlled by the harsh realities of the Roman Empire, they came together to celebrate a new earth, imbued with the beauty and grace of divine blessing. They were an oasis of care and connection. Their vision of radical equality undermined traditional social status, and they operated a vast social welfare program that offered livable options for the poor and enslaved. When someone became a Christian, they dedicated all of their material belongings to the community. Christians were not allowed to kill or become soldiers in the army. They were striving for life in Paradise.

One thing that Brock and Parker did not find, in the visual world of the early church, was any representation of Jesus being crucified on a cross. Early Christians acknowledged the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Many of them had probably seen actual crucifixions, since the Romans carried out this brutal form of execution in public places, to terrify the populace and reinforce their imperial control. But for the followers of Jesus, the church itself—their communal gathering—was not a place to be filled with images of torture and cruelty. It was the place to remember that love was stronger than empire, and that heaven was possible here on earth.

It was only much later—nine centuries later—that the church first created images of Jesus on the cross.  Brock and Parker asked, “Why did Christians turn from a vision of paradise in this life to a focus on the Crucifixion and final judgment?” In their book, they trace the complex changes—century by century—that could account for such a development. Their trail of clues led to the 8th century, when the Frankish King Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne, attempted to conquer and annex the Saxon people’s lands along the Rhine River. (Some of my ancestors lived along the Rhine River.)

The Saxons had practiced a hybrid form of Christianity, a blending of the Christian story with their earlier pagan practices—Thor and Woden and Jesus were all acknowledged, and their worship was held in sacred groves of oak trees or around holy springs. The Franks justified their expansionist assaults by claiming that the Saxons were not true Christians. They cut down the sacred oaks, and deforested the whole countryside. They baptized the Saxons under threat of death. The Saxons kept rebelling decade after decade, but ultimately lost the wars. And, sadly, it was their descendants (also my ancestors) who eventually carved that first image of Jesus on a crucifix, and carried out the first pogrom against their Jewish neighbors.

Christianity, once offering hope for those persecuted by the empire, had become the official religion of empire.  By the middle ages, paradise had been relegated to the afterlife, and the communion feast had been turned into story of death and sacrifice and judgement. It was in the 11th century that Bishop Anselm of Canterbury created the “theology of atonement.” This interpretation of Christianity, still haunting us today, claimed that humanity’s sins had so offended the almighty God that it required the sacrifice of his son Jesus on a cross, to bear the punishment for all of our sins. (If you thought that this was what all Christians believe, did you realize it only started in the 11th century?)

Worship was no longer a communal gathering of peace and love, but became visually and ritually punishing, intended to stir up fears of future horrors. The priest at the communion table was said to be re-enacting the death of Jesus each time, and this sacrifice was an indictment of all humanity. This death-focused theology found its natural counterpart in the Crusades. While up to then, Christians had been forbidden to shed blood without doing penance, now the boundary line was drawn at the church doors. Soldiers were promised heaven if they died in battle killing Muslims, Jews, or heretics. And so the process of colonization continued.

Decolonization is about learning the stories of our history, and rejecting the beliefs and practices that involve domination, conquest, and subjugation.  But decolonization also includes uncovering the liberating threads we might find in the midst of the forces of domination.  The stories of the early Christians around a communal shared meal are stories that give me hope. The stories of the people of the Rhineland worshiping in groves of sacred trees give me hope.

And here’s a new question:  the Christian missionaries thought their god could conquer the old gods, because they weren’t immediately killed when they cut down the sacred trees. But maybe they just got the timeline wrong. Because now, after too many trees have been cut down over the last many centuries, we are all in danger of losing our lives.  The destruction of the forests threatens the whole planet. I think we need to bring back the sacred trees.

The picture of my grandfather in a tree gives me hope.  I think he knew that the divine was present with him in that tree.  And these days, my own worship includes planting young trees in this place I call home.

Read this book:  Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, (Beacon Press, 2008), I quoted from pp. 263-271, and pp. 224ff.

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East Frisian Teetied (Teatime)

The most identifiable tradition of my East Frisian ancestors is a tea ceremony.  In fact, East Friesland is the tea drinking capital of the world.  Since I am a tea drinker this delights me.  I don’t know if my great grandfather’s family brought this tradition with them to Illinois–it never made it into our family lore–but as I seek to reconnect with my East Frisian ancestors, the tea ceremony feels just right.

Tea first came to East Friesland from Asia in the 17th century, via the Dutch East India Company.  Many Frisians were sailors on those trading (and colonization) journeys.  Tea began to compete with beer as a beverage of choice.  By the 18th century, when most of the Dutch and Germans were choosing coffee, the East Frisians continued with tea. It was drunk a few times a day, morning, afternoon, and evening, and helped to warm you up in the cold rainy weathers of this land near the North Sea, as well as make a break in the working day.

There is a very specific way to make and serve East Frisian tea.  You start with the soft water of the area, and then a blend of particular dark tea leaves, mostly Assam, with several others blended in.  There are traditional porcelain pots and cups.  You heat the pot with hot water, then empty it, and put in one spoon of loose tea per cup, plus one for the pot. Then you pour water that has just boiled, but is not boiling, over the leaves, to let it steep for 3-5 minutes.  Then it is strained, and poured into cups into which a piece of kluntje, or rock sugar has already been placed.  Then, a small amount of heavy cream is gently poured into the sides of the cup, without stirring, and it forms a small cloud floating in the tea.

It is a communal event, a daily ceremony.  Someone pours the tea for everyone.  When drinking, the idea is to taste each layer separately–the creamy layer, the clear tea layer, and the sweetness of the final layer.  One site said that the creamy layer represents the (cloudy) sky, the clear tea represents the water, and the sugar represents the land.  It is customary to have (at least) three cups of tea, and you place your spoon into the cup to signify when you have had enough.

There is an East Frisian saying, “Opwachten un Tee drinken.” “Wait and see and drink some tea.”  I was able to find an East Frisian tea blend to buy online, and also some fairly similar kluntje–though not quite the same.  But when these arrive, I will have to try it myself, in honor of my great-grandfather and his family.  One last thought–I am curious that there is also a connection to tea on the other side of my ancestral tree–the tea doll of the Innu people.  Somewhere in the middle, I am sitting here right now with a mug of black tea.  I find myself wondering how all these peoples have come together in me, and whether I might learn from their wisdom and bring some healing to their brokenness.

“Remain in the land and nourish it”

One of my hopes in exploring the stories of my ancestors is to see what cultural wisdom I might reclaim from everything that got lost in translation, especially regarding their relationship to land.  Today I was diving deep into internet stories about East Friesland, the ancestral land of my great grandfather Henry Johnson. His parents and grandparents had traveled from East Friesland to Illinois via New Orleans in the 1850s.

His father, Heye Broer Janssen traveled to the U.S. on the ship “Fannie” with 16 total family members including his parents Broer Janssen Martens and Geske Alber Schoen, arriving in New Orleans October 28, 1851. (The name Martens was dropped in the U.S. and they were called Janssen and then Johnson. Previously in East Friesland, people took the first name of their father as their last name.)  Henry’s mother, Helena Hinrich Janssen arrived in New Orleans on November 8, 1854 with her parents Heinrich Johann H. Janssen and Esse Classen Beckman. Her parents died a few years later, and she and her brothers and sisters were cared for by relatives and neighbors. Heye and Helena (Lena) married in 1862, and Henry was born in 1865, the second of ten children.

I must offer thanks again to my cousin Jim Pattyn for all his work in exploring the genealogy of our common ancestors.  In my search for their relationship to their land, I found myself recording all the towns in which they had lived in East Friesland, in fact for many generations prior: Firrel, Grossoldendorf, Kleinsander, Kleinoldendorf, Hesel, Moordorf, Schwerindorf, Strackholt, Remel.  These small towns are all within about 30 miles of each other in the center of East Friesland, somewhat near the larger town of Aurich.

625px-Ostfriesland_Verkehr-de.svg

East Friesland Map: Photo by NordNordWest – own work, using Ostfriesland de.svg by Enricopedia., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5273792

In a letter dated April 16, 1846, from Alton, Illinois, one of my distant relatives (Heie Keiser) encouraged his family back in East Friesland to come join him. He praised the opportunities in his new home.  I was struck by one of his closing statements. He wrote:

And also think not as the old wives used to say, “Remain in the land and nourish it.” We agree much more with the poet, when he says, “Hail to you Columbus, glory be to you, be highly honored forever.’ You have shown us the way out of hard servitude.”

The East Frisians had a deep love of independence and freedom, and they resonated with the “American dream.”  I appreciate their love of freedom, but in my study of the process of colonization, I cringe at their praise of Columbus–one can see that they jumped at the chance to be part of the settling of this land that was new to them. They were able to work hard and acquire their own land to farm and to cherish.

But as a feminist scholar, I also like to notice wisdom that is hidden by being contradicted.  I wonder, who were the “old wives” who had offered this different sort of wisdom that was being rejected:  “Remain in the land and nourish it.”  That is a heritage I want to claim today, the heritage of the old wives, the ones who stayed.  (I think it also filtered into the ones who came to the U.S., because from what I can gather, the East Frisians were careful farmers who took care of their land so that it might continue productive for long years.)

I also heard about another custom of German immigrants (not sure from which parts of Germany) who carried in their pockets across the ocean some of the soil from their homes, so that at least they might be buried with some of the soil of their own land.  In this exploration of the ancestors and their relationship to land, there is something to grieve and also something to be thankful for.  I think that what Margy and I are trying to do with our land here in Portland might fit into that old wives’ wisdom–remain in the land and nourish it.

 

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.

 

 

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?

Wabanaki Languages 102

I wanted to study Wabanaki languages with Roger Paul as a way of decolonizing my mind.  Yesterday we began the second semester and already I am experiencing two challenges which seem directly related to this very decolonization process.

Wabanaki languages were spoken for thousands of years, and only more recently have been written, usually with the aid of outside linguists who were sent to each tribe and devised writing systems that differed from each other.  These writing systems are still in flux.  There is an “official” writing system for Passamaquoddy for example, exemplified in the online dictionary, but there are also phonetic systems that spell words more closely based on how they sound.  Roger really doesn’t care how we spell the words.  He grew up speaking the language, but only learned to write it as an adult.  He cares about how we pronounce and speak. So this is a shift from my own ingrained habit of learning more by seeing a word written, than by hearing it spoken. (Though of course, all babies learn to listen and speak before we learn to write. And we do learn to write the words as well.)

The second challenge is that Wabanaki words do not exist as fixed isolated units, but change form in relationship to the context and meaning. In the first semester, we studied lists of words (and a few phrases), beginning to create a basic vocabulary.  But in this semester, we will be studying sentences.  Words in relationship to each other.  And words as sentences–because a sentence might be expressed in one “word.”

As I think about it, I realize how much this may reflect underlying differences between Euro-centric culture and Indigenous culture here on this land.  Euro-centric culture is object oriented–taking things apart, categorizing them, defining them.  Indigenous culture is relational–nothing exists except in relation to everything else. Likewise, English words are more fixed in form, while Wabanaki words are relational.

Last semester, I gradually created a huge set of flash cards with all the words presented, so I could practice and learn them.  I created recorded excerpts of the words and their meanings, so I could listen to them (especially in the car) and get the pronunciations into my head. But now, we are stepping into a different sort of process. The change goes deeper.

Kuskicinuwatu?  (or) Gooskeejinuwadoo? (or) Do you speak a Native language?

Robins in berry tree

Robins hidden within the branches of a winter tree.