Crowded Memories

Photo: puzzle pieces scattered on the table

Going through my boxes of old files in the basement, I am now working on files related to activism in solidarity with Indigenous people in Boston back in the 1990s. I found some correspondence with one particular activist, for example, and I am remembering the long process of getting to know each other, building trust, and finding ways to be helpful in that struggle. But when my ministry calling required that I move to another place (Cape Cod, at first, and then Maine), it meant that all of that relationship-building was lost, in a way, and I had to start all over again in a new place to build trust, to make connections, to find ways to be of use.

When white people are moved to act in solidarity with Indigenous people, it requires a lot of work to create relationships of trust. There is such a long history of colonization, of oppression, of theft, of genocide, between us–and a long history of “helpful” people doing damage. And yet, the more I became aware of that broken history, the more I have felt moved to participate in such solidarity. Not without mistakes. But I have continued in these other places seeking to build relationships of trust with other Indigenous people, doing the long work of decolonization.

I am not one who usually has spirit-filled dreams at night. Usually, in my dreams I am at a conference or gathering somewhere, along with a whole crowd of people, only some of whom I am acquainted with. I am trying to find my way around, or find food, or find my way back to where I was before–such mundane anxieties. Sometimes I meet old friends there. Often, I feel lost and overwhelmed by all the people I don’t know in places I don’t know.

I started feeling like that as I was going through these and other files from Boston. So many people with whom I have done work, shared conversations, struggled for justice, had significant experiences, lived in a household together, loved, hurt or been hurt by, and yet, I had forgotten so much of it. If I were not looking through these files, I wouldn’t remember much of what is in them. It all slips away with the effort and energy of building a life in a new place. Only a few relationships carried into long distance realities.

Sometimes I fantasize about not having moved everywhere, living somewhere and staying there my whole life. But I realize it is only a fantasy. This came clear to me a while back when I watched the movie Kuessipan, about two girls who grow up as best friends in an Innu community. In the description, “their friendship is shaken when Mikuan …starts dreaming of leaving the reserve that’s now too small for her dreams.” In reflecting on that movie, I realized, I would have been the one who left. In fact, I did leave a small town to go off to college, and I kept traveling to “bigger dreams.” I guess that journey is also in my blood. My grandmother left Canada to come with a foreigner to America when she was 17. Perhaps she too was seeking a bigger life, bigger dreams.

And now, here I am, sitting alone in the basement, going through memories, looking back on the many people I met over so many years. Sometimes I feel so tired. Sometimes I feel lonely in the midst of the crowded gatherings in my dreams. Sometimes it is a relief just sitting alone with the boxes, trying to make sense of the puzzle pieces of my life. It is a humbling journey. May Spirit help me to remain curious and grateful.

Climate Catastrophe in Disguise

Wild pansy purple and yellow, blooming in December

A climate catastrophe sometimes shows up as the fragile beauty of a wild pansy blooming in mid-December in Maine. I took a photo this morning, before the snow arrived this afternoon, our likely first plowable snow of the season. Very late for us. The unseasonably warm days feel bright and pleasant, nothing dangerous. But I am thinking of the deadly storms that blasted through the midwest last week, tornadoes killing dozens of people in an unprecedented long trail of destruction. I am thinking of giant raging wildfires in the west, and monster hurricanes in the Atlantic. Sometimes the change feels like nothing much at all, unless I stretch my eyes to take in the bigger picture.

We arrived at our current house and yard six years ago after a 4 month search to find greener housing. We were able to downsize, to add insulation, to cover the south facing roof with solar panels, to install energy efficient heat pumps, to create a garden. Our actions fit the best choices we could make at that time, to align with our love for the earth and all her creatures. In that, they were like a prayer, like a magical spell to further the possibilities of earth community based in mutual respect. On a spiritual level, I have to hope that our small choices can ripple out for good.

But these individual actions don’t make a dent in the greater physical scheme of things. The giant polluters of greenhouse gases continue to ignore the limits of earth to push for expanding profits. We, as a planet, have already exceeded the hopeful atmospheric carbon dioxide goals of environmental organizations like 350.org. Now we’re at 415 parts per million. We’re on the way to unmitigated disasters that we can no longer walk our way back from. Scientists can make some predictions, but no one really knows how the increase in global temperature will play out in the next years and decades.

From where I sit, I can feel overwhelmed and helpless. I don’t have the energy to be out in the streets anymore, an activist like in my younger days. I don’t have the money to donate to activist organizations like I used to when I was working. Many activists I respect talk about the coming collapse of economies and civilizations, even within the next decade. I don’t imagine that I have the physical capacity to survive such a collapse, given my age and health. So what is there to do?

What helps is to recognize my limitations, to take in the very smallness of my being. What helps is to see young activists in the street, sharing their anger and love with loud voices. What helps is to remember that Indigenous people the world over have already experienced the collapse of their economies and civilizations. Pay attention to their advice. What helps is to recognize the smallness of my being, and yet remember how I am interwoven with the ancestors and all the interrelated beings of earth. What helps is to keep on loving the trees and birds and frogs and even the squirrels of this small place we are lucky to share with them. What helps is to offer bird seed as a prayer in the morning. What helps is to imagine the unimaginable largeness of the Earth, our mother, and her mysterious powers that we cannot measure or predict.

Our pond, frozen, with light snow cover.

Wenuhc? Wen nil?

I have been posting recently about my latest research concerning my Innu third great grandmother, and because of that I want to write today some clarification about identity and relationship. The more I am learning about Indigenous people–through study, through language, through cultural sharing by Indigenous people–the more I understand that I am not Indigenous. This might not even need to be said, except that there is currently a problem of people with ancestors even more distant or nebulous than mine trying to use those ancestors as a way to claim status as Indigenous or Métis, to get benefits from governments, or preference in hiring or hunting rights, for example. Sometimes they actually use this to try to take away benefits from Indigenous communities.

Years ago, when I was still just beginning to learn about all this, I wasn’t sure if I was permitted to claim an Indigenous identity, or a Métis identity. A few times I did, out of my own ignorance. And it is not simple for those of us who are mostly something else, but want to honor our Indigenous ancestors. Even so, I can’t imagine trying to use it to take something away from Indigenous or Métis communities. What I hope for is to be a good relative, a friend, to use my position in this society to act in support of Indigenous communities.

For my latest presentation in our Passamaquoddy language class, I found myself drawn to a word in Passamaquoddy that has been used to describe non-Indigenous people: “Wenuhc.” What does it mean? Some definitions say, “white person.” And that is partly true—it refers to white people. But, its roots come from an old meaning. When, they say, strangers came here to Wabanaki land, the Native people said, “Wenuhc?” It meant, “Who are they?” It also held a question, like, “Where are they from?”

When I ask the question of myself, it comes out: “Wen nil?” “Who am I?” The traditional way to introduce oneself is by naming the place where you come from, and your relatives, the people you come from. But for me, as a wenuhc, that wasn’t so simple. The more I played with the concepts, the more confusing it became—which certainly is a characteristic of many of us living in the mainstream culture of the United States. I want to share some of what I wrote—but mostly just the English translation:

The early strangers said, “We are Englishmen.” I speak English, but my roots are not English—so am I English? Wen nil? Who am I? Three of my grandparents have Germanic roots. But, I can’t speak German. I have German roots, but am I German? Wen nil? Who am I? My grandmother came from Quebec, and she spoke French. I can speak French, a little. I have French roots, but am I French?

Wen nil? Who am I? My grandmother’s great grandmother is named Marie Madeleine. She was Innu. She spoke Innu. Now, I know how to speak Innu a little, only a very few words. I have Innu roots, but am I Innu? Now, I can also speak Passamaquoddy a little, but I am not Passamaquoddy.

Wen nil? Who am I? I don’t know. I am a wenuhc woman, a “who are they?” woman. I am far away from family. Sixteen years ago, I came to Wabanaki land in order to work. Now, I am done working. So, what am I doing? Am I a preacher? Am I a witch? Am I a writer? Am I a gardener? Wen nil? Who am I? Tama nuceyaw? Where am I from? All my grandparents lived in cities. Now, I live in the city, Portland. Am I lost? How do I find myself? Am I a stranger? Am I your friend? Am I foolish? Am I wise? I don’t know. Wen nil? Who am I? I am confused.

What I learn from this Passamaquoddy writing process is that I am not well connected to a place or to my relatives. My being a lesbian, my being a justice activist, my moving around a lot, all contributed to a feeling and reality of being disconnected from place and family. And given the injustice I found all around me in “American” culture, I don’t regret the need I felt to resist it, to break away from it. But in some ways, that is a very “American” way of being. “America” celebrates individual identity and mobility. It defines who we are by what we do.

When I seek to find my way into relationship with the earth, with all beings of the earth, with the ancestors, with spirit, when I begin to value this relatedness, I see more clearly how I have been cut off from places and people that I might have been from. And I see more and more clearly how I am not Indigenous. I am wenuhc. I am “Who are they?”

And that truth is real, it is okay. “Who am I?” is an open question. It is why I make a spiritual journey into earth community. I can learn. As I learn to be thankful for everything, I begin to feel how I am related to everything, despite being wenuhc.

Note: I first learned about the word “wenuhc” from my Passamaquoddy language teacher Roger Paul. More recently, the organization I volunteer with, Wabanaki REACH, posted about this word on its Facebook page, quoting Rebecca Sockbeson (Penobscot), 2019.

Photo: Pileated woodpecker on a pine tree near our house. The woodpecker is a symbol of friendship for Wabanaki people.

Beauty and Trauma

Juvenile female cardinal near Joe Pye Weed and flea-bane

I have been at a loss for words these past few weeks. But sitting quietly in the back yard–often next to the frog pond–has enabled me to see some beautiful birds. I’ll start with this cardinal, cardinals being for a long time my favorite bird. I saw this rather scraggly (like all juveniles) female while I was lying in the hammock reading. I love their little chirps.

I saw the cardinal just as I started reading a new book, Carnival Lights, by Chris Stark. It has taken me several weeks to finish because it was so painful. I had to stop and start, stop and start. This novel should have all the trigger warnings. It brings to life the theme of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and it also weaves the past into the near present (1969) with the long history of land theft, murder, and oppression. I grew to love cousins Sher and Kris, two teenage Ojibwe girls, running away in Minnesota. But I am not even sure to whom I might recommend the book? I felt like I was plunged into vicarious trauma as a reader, and I wouldn’t want to re-trigger that kind of trauma for my Native friends, one of whom already mentioned that, yeah, she’d never be able to read it.

Yet there were also threads of beauty and resilience interwoven into the tapestry of the story that fed my spirit too. Such powerful gorgeous writing, such depth of expression, such love. It is a brilliant book. I first found it because it was recommended by a Native author I love–Mona Susan Power. So perhaps for some Native women, the trauma is well known and understood, and the beauty and love in this story is a healing balm.

For me, in between reading, I had to go to my own backyard to find the grounding and fortitude to be able to continue. I was sitting near the pond watching the frogs when two yellow warblers (I think that’s who they are) started flitting about in the bushes, trying to attract my attention–perhaps away from something else? It seems too late for there to be a nest, but who knows? It must be almost time for their migration south. They were definitely letting me see them, and then flying to another bush close by. I saw them on two or three separate days, and caught these photos.

I think this is a yellow warbler in the nine-bark bush near the pond.
I think this is a yellow warbler female, seen on a different day in the same nine-bark bush, with a summer sweet bush in the background.

What do we do with the obscene brutality and violence that our whole society is built upon? What do we do with the exquisite beauty of a bird on a summer day?

A hummingbird hovering while drinking at the feeder

Language Roots

Some presenters at Healing Turtle Island this summer suggested that we all, colonizers included, should seek to uncover our own distant Indigenous languages. I had the idea then to learn to introduce myself in the Innu language, the language of my matrilineal ancestors, and then to mark their transitions to other languages. (Three of my grandparents have Germanic roots, but in this exercise, I limited myself to my matrilineal line.)

I want to thank Roger Paul, my teacher of Passamaquoddy/Wolastaqey, because I could not have approached the Innu language without having learned so much about Passamaquoddy. From what I can tell, the structures of these languages are the same, the grammar, the animacy, even some of the words are cognates. So with this foundation, I was able to use the Innu dictionary online to shape sentences that might bear some resemblance to how the language is spoken, though no doubt I have made errors.

After I was deep into it, I laughed at myself, because to whom could I speak these words, since I am not in touch with any Innu people right now? But then it seemed that perhaps they were for my ancestors in the spirit world. And so this is dedicated to them. I also want to acknowledge that though I have studied French, Google translate was my helper in the French language parts of this exercise, and unfortunately there is no Quebecois French in that translation program, so some subtleties have not been included. I have heard it said that Quebec French is closer to ancient French ways of speaking. I begin with a photo of my great-grandmother, since she is at the heart of the story.

Claudia Tremblay

My great-grandmother Claudia Tremblay.

Mishen Claudia nitishinikashun.
My name is Mykel Claudia.

Claudia iapit nitanishkutapanukum ishinikashu.
Claudia is also the name of my great grandmother.

Shekutimit utshiu, ińnu-assit.
She is from Chicoutimi, in Innu territory.

Ukuma ińnushkueuńua, Mańi-Matińin ishinikashuńua.
Her grandmother is an Innu woman, whose name is Marie-Madeleine.

Ińnu-aimińua.
She speaks the Innu language.

Eukuannu nui ińnu-aimin.
That is why I want to speak the Innu language.

Mańi-Matińin uitshimeu Pień McLeod, kie mitshetusheu.
Marie-Madeleine marries Peter McLeod and she has many children.

Utanishu, Anisheń ishinikashuńua.
She has a daughter, named Angele.

Ashku Anisheń kutuńnuepipuneshit ashu nishtᵘ, ukauia Mańi-Matińin nipińua.
When Angele is thirteen years old, her mother Marie-Madeleine dies.

Natshe uitshimeu Anisheń kakussesht. Shushep Tremblay, kie mitshetusheu.
Later, Angele marries a French-Canadian, Joseph Tremblay, and she has many children.

Anisheń utanishu Claudia, nitanishkutapanukum an.
Angele has a daughter Claudia, that’s my great-grandmother.

Kakusseshiu-aimu.
She speaks the French-Canadian language.

Mon arrière-grand-mère Claudia parle la langue canadienne-française, comme son père Joseph Tremblay.
My great-grandmother
Claudia speaks the French-Canadian language, like her father Joseph Tremblay.

Très probablement, Marie-Madeleine et Angele parlaient aussi la langue canadienne-française, ainsi que leur langue maternelle.
Most likely Marie-Madeleine and Angele also spoke the French-Canadian language, along with their mother tongue.

Mes ancêtres canadiens-français sont au Canada depuis le début de la colonisation, depuis l’an seize vingt.
My French-Canadian ancestors have been in Canada from the beginning of colonization, since the year 1620.

Je ne peux pas compter le nombre d’ancêtres français qui se sont installés au Québec, atteignant onze générations en arrière.
I cannot count the number of French ancestors who settled in Quebec, reaching eleven generations back.

Ils ont abattu de très nombreux arbres et cultivé la terre dans un climat difficile.
They cut down many, many trees and farmed the land in the difficult climate.

Malheureusement, leur arrivée a entraîné la maladie et la mort de nombreux Innus.
Sadly, their arrival brought disease and death to many Innu people.

Les Innus vivent dans leur terre depuis des temps immémoriaux, et y vivent encore aujourd’hui.
The Innu have lived in their land since time immemorial, and still live there today.

Claudia a une fille Yvonne, c’est ma grand-mère.
Claudia utanishu Ipuan, nukum an.
Claudia has a daughter Yvonne, that’s my grandmother.

Par ma grand-mère Yvonne, j’ai l’héritage des colonisateurs mais aussi, dans ma descendance matrilinéaire, l’héritage des colonisés.
Through my grandmother Yvonne, I have the heritage of the colonizers but also, in my matrilineal descent, the heritage of the colonized.

Yvonne a déménagé aux États-Unis à l’âge de dix-huit ans, où elle parlait anglais.
Yvonne moved to the United States when she was eighteen, where she spoke English.
Ipuan atutsheu Upashtuneu-assit ashku kutuńnuepipuneshit ashu nishuaush, tanite akańeshau-aimit.

Yvonne has a daughter Carol, that’s my mother.
Yvonne a une fille Carol, c’est ma mère.
Ipuan utanishu Kańań, nikaui an.

English is my first language.
L’anglais est ma première langue.
Nitakańeshau-aimin ńishtam.

Kci Woliwon/Thank you very much

I feel such gratitude that I was able to participate in the 4th gathering for Healing Turtle Island, this year held online via Zoom and Facebook Live. Healing Turtle Island is a 21-year ceremony, born through a vision of Penobscot Sherri Mitchell, bringing together Indigenous spiritual leaders from around this land and around the world, to share teachings and ceremony for the healing we need for our times. I am grateful that those of us descended from colonizers have also been welcomed into the circle, that we too might listen and participate in this healing.

I was present for the first year’s ceremonies in 2017 at Nibezun in Passadumkeag, and though I have held its intentions close to my heart, my health has prevented me from attending the last two years. Being online this year, while a disappointment in some ways, enabled me and thousands of other people to participate from all over the world. (You can participate too, by viewing the recordings made of most of the sessions on Sherri’s Facebook page.)

Healing Turtle Island 2020

Poster announcing the schedule, from Healing Turtle Island page.

I am sitting in the silence now, after the closing ceremonies from this morning, thinking about what I have learned, what I carry with me going forward. First of all, it was grounding to hear so many people talk about the need to restore our connection with the land, with the spirit, with each other. It helps me to remember that that has been a guiding principle for me for the last several years, (as well as the theme of this blog and of my book .) By seeing this expressed so passionately by so many people, I felt renewed in my own spiritual journey into earth community.

Secondly, I was struck by how many people spoke of the importance of Indigenous languages for the healing and decolonization of the land and the peoples of the land. Over and over people reminded us that the spirituality and guiding principles of Indigenous peoples are found in their languages. Many people spoke in their native languages, offered prayers, offered songs, and then sharing partial translations, acknowledging that so much cannot be translated into the violence of the colonizer languages. They also spoke of how colonization disrupted the languages, how a whole generation of children were punished for speaking their languages, how difficult it is to bring back the languages, decolonize the languages, but how utterly necessary.

This touched me deeply, especially now that I have been studying a Wabanaki language for the past two years. On the one hand, I was so happy to understand a modest percentage of what Passamaquoddy and Wolostaqi elders were sharing in their language, especially in the prayers and songs and personal introductions. On the other hand, it has sometimes been bewildering to me that I find myself on the path of learning this language. A door opened so fortuitously just after I retired, and I walked through it into Roger Paul’s class at USM. I often ask myself, what is this about?

I feel glad that I helped to increase the numbers to enable the class to continue for its mostly Wabanaki participants through four semesters. I am glad that Roger got permission from his elders to share the language beyond the community. I have said that I want to decolonize my mind, I want to think differently: nkoti-piluwitahas. During the weekend another thought came to me, that any of us who come to live in Wabanaki land should learn the original language of this land. It is only appropriate as respectful visitors. And I remember someone saying, years ago, if you really want to understand our spirituality, you must learn our language.

But I still wonder what my responsibility might be, as a white person learning to speak a Wabanaki language. I am very sensitive to how much pain there is, in the loss of the language, and the slow revitalization that is happening now. Who am I to be learning, while so many Wabanaki people have not been able to do so? So I go forward with carefulness and respect and humility.

One other thing that was shared over the weekend lit a spark in me: that we all, colonizers included, should be seeking to uncover our own distant Indigenous languages. I had this idea to learn to introduce myself in the Innu language, the language of my matrilineal ancestors, and then a few lines in the language of my French and Scottish colonizer ancestors, and then a few lines in the language of my Germanic-speaking immigrant ancestors who came later, but who form the largest part of my inheritance.

The thing is, the Innu language is in the same family as Wabanaki languages, and structured in the same ways, so I feel like I am learning so much about those Innu ancestors by this process. That has been one of the very great personal gifts for me of learning a Wabanaki language. So I say kci-woliwon, thank you very much, for the blessings of this Healing Turtle Island gathering, and to all the language teachers, and especially to the Spirits of my ancestors who lead me into paths I could not have foreseen or chosen on my own.

The Ongoing Struggle

I learned another new word in Passamaquoddy:  Mocahantuwok, which means wicked devils. I am not sure if the word is used in a friendly teasing way, or in a serious condemning way. But in a serious way, I have been thinking about using it for certain people in Washington DC who are bent on undermining the processes and hopes of democracy in this country.  You can guess who I mean.

It is not the worst time in our country’s history.  That might have to be the initial conquest of these lands, and the direct genocide of millions of Indigenous people.  (That oppression still continues of course, but perhaps in more indirect ways.)  Another contender for the worst time would be the 250 years of enslavement of captured African peoples. (That oppression also continues, also in more indirect ways.)  I don’t believe there was a golden age of American democracy, that we are now on the verge of losing.

But I do believe there was a dream of America that had something to do with democracy, cooperation, and reciprocity. I think about the poem of Black American, Langston Hughes, written in 1938.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

…Let America Be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed! This dream was not only dreamed in America either. In learning more about my ancestors in Europe, I was struck by the ongoing struggles between the forces of domination, empire, and greed and the forces of reciprocity, cooperation, and shared power.  For example, my East Frisian ancestors valued their freedom and resisted domination, resisted being forced into feudalism. Friesland actually means Free Land.

But those relational values were even more striking among my early Innu ancestors on this continent. I remember reading parts of the record that the Jesuits wrote about the Innu during early conquest times. How horrified the Jesuits were that the Innu people would only follow the lead of their leaders if they agreed with them. (Democracy!) How horrified they were that a man might agree to a contract, but if he went home and his wife disagreed, he thought he should be able to get out of that contract. (Power was meant to be shared!)

Those are the same values we are now struggling over, in Washington, and all over this country, once again and still. Will we create a society in which all people are included, in which power is reciprocal and we cooperate for the good of all? Or will some mocahantuwok create a society in which they dominate over others, accumulate as much as they can, and destroy the rest of the people and the world?

It is no easy struggle.  I don’t know how we achieve our goal.  But I know I choose to live by the values of reciprocity, cooperation, and democracy in every way possible, and I choose to align myself with others who share those values. Perhaps each time we do that, in all areas of our lives, we contribute some spark of energy that makes the dream more possible.

Sunrise

Winter dawn

The Swabian Alb

As I researched my Swabian roots, I realized that one eighth of my ancestral heritage is most likely tied to that place. One aspect of the decolonization process is for those of us with non-native ancestry to explore our roots in other places across the globe, places in which our ancestors might hold their own Indigeneity.  I found myself strangely moved yesterday as I watched Youtube videos about Swabia. See here is the thing:  before this week, I had never even heard of Swabia.  This is the forgetting that comes over so many families through several generations in the United States.

We begin to amalgamate, and make reference to a vague Germanic ancestry. But the more I learn, the more I realize that each of my various family lines came from distinct cultures and landscapes that are now considered “German.”  I want to record some things about that Swabian culture and place–nothing that can’t be found in Wikipedia and other online sources–but new to me. (Most of this is just copy and paste or mildly edited from public domain sources.)

Germany was slowly becoming unified over the 18th and 19th centuries (mostly after my ancestors had emigrated.)  This process was politically dominated by the northern Kingdom of Prussia, and therefore “Weimar Classicism” became the expression of German national “high culture.” As a consequence, southern Germany and by extension both the Swabians and the Bavarians came to be seen as deviations from a generic standard German, and a number of clichés or stereotypes developed about them.

These portrayed the Swabians as stingy, overly serious, or prudish petty bourgeois simpletons, for example as reflected in “The Seven Swabians” story published by the Brothers Grimm. On the positive side, however, the same stereotypes may be expressed in portraying the Swabians as frugal, clever, entrepreneurial and hard-working. Realistically, they lived on a land with thin soil and difficult access to water, so likely they had to be frugal and hard-working to survive.

The Swabian Alb (or Swabian Jura) occupies the region bounded by the Danube River in the southeast and the upper Neckar River in the northwest. In the southwest it rises to the higher mountains of the Black Forest. The highest mountain of the region is the Lemberg (1,015 m.). The area’s profile resembles a high plateau, which slowly falls away to the southeast. The northwestern edge is a steep escarpment covered with forests, while the top is flat or gently rolling.

The geology of the Swabian Alb is mostly limestone, which formed the seabed during the Jurassic period. The sea receded 50 million years ago. Since limestone is soluble in water, rain seeps through cracks everywhere and forms subterranean rivers which flow through a large system of caves until they emerge. Thus there are hardly any rivers, lakes or other forms of surface water on the plateau.

Many different types of beautiful caves can be found there, from dry dripstone caves to caves that can only be entered by boat. Sometimes the discharge of the water from subterranean rivers can be spectacular, too, for example, the Blautopf, (“Blue Bowl”) a source for a tributary of the Danube.Blue Pot

Also because of the porous limestone, the Danube nearly disappears near Immendingen only to reappear several kilometers further down. Most of the water lost by the Danube resurfaces in the Aachtopf, a spring for a tributary to the Rhine.

Much of the Swabian Alb consists of gentle to moderate hills often covered with forest or cleared for small-scale agriculture. The traditional landscape was grass fields with juniper bushes. Today this has become a comparatively rare sight. However, in certain places it is protected by the government (the province of Baden-Württemberg.) The soil is not very fertile, the humus is often as thin as 10 cm (4 in). Many small limestone pebbles are found on the surface.

Fossils can be found everywhere in the Swabian Alb. In a number of caves (including Vogelherd, Hohlenstein-Stadel, Geißenklösterle and Hohle Fels), all just a few kilometers apart, some of the oldest signs of human artifacts were found. Best known are: a mammoth, a horse head, a water bird, and two statues of a lion man all more than 30,000 years old. The oldest known musical instruments have been found here, too: flutes made from the bones of swans and griffon vultures, some 35,000 years old, and a flute carved from the tusk of a mammoth dating from the Ice Age, around 37,000 years ago. Perhaps most astounding is the oldest representation found so far of the human body, the Venus of Hohle Fels.648px-VenusHohlefels2

This Goddess figure, carved from mammoth ivory, and likely worn as a pendant, was found in caves that my very ancient ancestors may have frequented. Of course, people moved around between those ancient times and more recent times, the Celts and the Gauls intermarried with Germanic tribes, but some of the ancestors of the Swabians may have been present even then.

So as I think about my place on this earth, this is one of my places!

 

 

Decolonization Lessons from Plants

Bittersweet around a tree trunk

 Bittersweet vining around a tree trunk.

After spending a week going through soil to remove bittersweet roots, I have been thinking about invasive bittersweet as a visceral metaphor for colonization. Bittersweet comes into an area by seeds or roots, and then reaches for the sky. It vines around any support, living or dead, to keep climbing higher and higher. When its vines first wrap around a tree trunk, like in this photo, it may look green and healthy and beautiful. It may even seem to appreciate the tree on which is grows. But eventually, it can kill the tree, either by suffocating its trunk, or by the sheer weight of its leaves and branches.

Below is a photo, taken by my partner Margy Dowzer, of a huge bittersweet vine, 4-5 inches in diameter, tightly wrapped around the trunk of this tree.  It has been cut near the bottom, which is the way to stop it growing. But you can see how it has warped the trunk and become embedded in its flesh. A huge maple tree next door came crashing down after it was covered in bittersweet vines and flowers. Bittersweet will spread to a whole area, and kill other plants that are trying to grow. Bittersweet embedded in tree trunk

And this is like colonization. When Europeans first came to this land, they planted themselves in several locations and tried to grow as much as possible. They wiped out many Indigenous communities through disease and warfare. They used the lands cleared in this way to grow crops and build towns. They kept spreading out across the whole continent, bringing destruction to Native peoples and ecosystems as they took over. They imagined that their own growth and reaching for the sun was the only thing necessary and valuable, and took no notice of the harm they were causing.  And of course, it isn’t just past history, it keeps happening today. Our whole economic system is based on continual growth. “More and more and more!” might be the mantra of the colonizers and the bittersweet.

Might there be another option? There is a different sort of plant that was brought to this continent by colonizers. In fact, it was called “English-man’s foot” or “white-man’s footprint” by Indigenous peoples because it appeared wherever the settlers showed up. Its familiar name is broadleaf plantain (plantago major). It too spreads all over, and especially in disturbed soils. However, it is a humble plant, and a useful medicinal herb. Indigenous peoples soon discovered its healing properties and added it to their herbal pharmacies.

I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago when I had a bite from a black fly appear on my hand, itching like crazy. My friend Sylvia (who is an herbalist) suggested plantain. I made a poultice by chewing up some leaves and then putting that mash on the bite, letting it remain until it dried. It helped to ease the itching right away. Plantain is also good for all sorts of wound healing, stomach troubles, fevers, and is anti-inflammatory. You can eat young leaves in salads, and cook older leaves in stews. It is also useful for breaking up compacted soil, and combatting erosion.

So perhaps we who are not Indigenous to this land might learn from the plantain a new model of how to be here, in this place we now find ourselves. Perhaps we too might become humble and useful, growing only close to the ground, paying attention to healing and the easing of pain.

Plantain

Plantain

“Friends of the Indian”

Chives after rain

Chives after the rain

Permaculture teaches us to observe the patterns in nature, and I thought of patterns when I saw this circle of chives after the last rain storm. Plants are so beautiful, especially when they bloom. Especially when they form a circle after rain.

Everything is green now. I go outside and do what I can in the garden. Inside, I finished watching the Ken Burns series The West. One of its stories has really stayed on my mind–the story of a well-meaning white woman who tried to help, but ended up causing harm to Native peoples. I think about how often that pattern has repeated itself in the last 150 years. And I wonder, how do we keep from repeating it again?

Alice Fletcher was a white upper-class feminist, one of those women that we lesbians of my generation have been so thrilled to discover–because she lived and worked with her romantic companion, Jane Gay.  Born in 1838, she went to “the best schools” and was active in the feminist and suffrage groups of New York city. Eventually she found a mentor, the director of the Peabody Museum, to study anthropology and archeology.  In 1881 she lived with and studied the Omaha Indians of Nebraska. She appreciated the culture and became close to many people there, even adopting a son, Francis La Flesche, who himself became a professional ethnologist.  She and he published a multitude of articles and books about Indigenous culture and music.

But she also came to the conclusion that Indian people needed to be brought into the mainstream life of America culture. According to PBS,

Containment had been the goal of federal Indian policy throughout much of the nineteenth century, but in 1883 a group of white church leaders, social reformers and government officials met at Mohonk Lake, New York, to chart a new, more humane course of action. Calling themselves “Friends of the Indian,” they proposed to remold Native Americans into mainstream citizens and to begin this process by re-educating the youngest generation at special Indian schools.

Alice Fletcher devoted herself to pressuring the government for the allotment policy: the breakup of tribal landholdings into individual holdings. “Friends of the Indians” thought it would be good for Native peoples to become more like their white neighbors, to farm, to own their own land individually, rather than collectively.

In 1882, the Bureau of Indian Affairs hired her to make a survey of all Indian lands for their suitability for allotment. The same year she was hired to manage the allotment of the Omahas’ lands. After the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, which provided for the eventual breakup of all Indian reservations, she managed the allotment of the Nez Percé’s remaining lands.

But allotment failed drastically in so many ways.  First of all, it failed to honor the choices of Indigenous peoples–most of them did not want allotments but were forced into it. And ultimately, it robbed Native nations of millions of acres of their land, and undermined their cultural sovereignty as nations.

Between the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887 and its repeal under the New Deal in 1934, allotment continually deprived Indians of many of their remaining lands. The outright sale of “surplus” lands — parts of reservations left over after allotments had been assigned — and the subsequent sale of allotted lands themselves shrunk the Indian estate from about 150 million acres before the Dawes Act to 104 million acres by 1890, to 77 million by 1900, and to 48 million by 1934. By the time of its repeal, according to one study, two-thirds of the Indian population was “either completely landless or did not own enough land to make a subsistence living.”

Alice Fletcher thought she was a friend, helping, doing something good for Native peoples.  But her help caused harm.  No wonder Indigenous people are cautious about those of us who might show up eager to “help.”  Patterns.  And how do we know that what we think of as help might later be revealed to have caused harm?  Let’s ponder that question for a while.

Sea Kale blooming

The perennial sea kale in bloom smells like honey.