Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms

My favorite novel of all time is Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms.  Published in 1997, it is the story of Angel, a girl who was taken from her Native relatives as a tiny child and raised in foster care, after being abused by her mentally ill mother.  At 17, she comes back to find her grandmothers and learn about who she is.  During this time, people in her small village discover that hydroelectric dams are planned for their ancestral homeland in the north, so four women travel by canoe to help in the struggle against it.  I first read this book when I was working (with Massachusetts “Save James Bay”) against the hydroelectric dams that were being built in Quebec, and I learned later that Hogan had drawn from that situation in creating her fictional account.

But this brief description of the plot can’t do justice to the many layers of poetry and meaning that are woven into her narrative.  I learned about what it might mean to be deeply connected to a place–to be indigenous to a place.  I learned that loving the earth isn’t just about loving the planet, but rather about loving a particular island or river or peninsula or forest.  I learned that we can love the earth even if we are not indigenous, even if the earth keeps some secrets from us.  It helped me along my journey to find my own connection to the earth.  The elder Tulik tells Angel, “Here a person is only strong when they feel the land.  Until then a person is not a human being.”⁠ [p.235]

Linda Hogan tackles issues that face Native people–including the taking of children and the taking of land–and brings alive for all of us the heartbreak and courage that are born in this brokenness, and the beauty that may be created as people move toward healing.  As we face more and more destruction on our planet, we all so much need to learn to “feel the land.”

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Allies Share Both Sorrow and Joy

Birch light and dark DSC07802If we seek to rebuild our relationship to this land, I think it is also vital for non-Indians to rebuild their relationship with Indian peoples. To do that non-Indians must become committed allies to Indian people’s struggles. Real relationship involves interaction with the whole of a person and community, sharing both sorrow and joy, struggle and celebration.

Indian people want us to move beyond stereotypes and learn more deeply and accurately about Native issues today. They need allies in their struggle against racism and colonization. We can use our advantage and position as people living in mainstream society, to be a resource for Native peoples’ concerns.

When we can learn to share the pain, and share the struggles of Indian peoples, then we also will find ourselves sharing in the celebrations. In her novel, Solar Storms, Linda Hogan begins with a story of an unusual feast given by the woman named Bush. This feast was a grieving feast: Bush was grieving the loss of the young child, Angel, after she was taken away by the white county authorities from their tiny Native community. She held a feast in which she prepared food for her whole community, and then she gave away all of her possessions to them. Hogan writes, in the voice of one who had been to the feast:

…I watched the others walk away with their arms full. Going back that morning, in the blue northern light, their stomachs were filled, their arms laden with blankets, food… But the most important thing they carried was Bush’s sorrow. It was small now, and child-sized, and it slid its hand inside theirs and walked away with them. We all had it, after that. It became our own. Some of us have since wanted to give it back to her, but once we felt it we knew it was too large for a single person. After that your absence sat at every table, occupied every room, walked through the doors of every house.

By this sharing of sorrow, the sorrow became bearable. Native American people are too often bearing the sorrows of our history alone. If we want to share in feast with them, we too must carry the burden of sorrow. Once we let ourselves feel this grief, we realize it is much too large for one people to carry alone. But the more of us who carry this sorrow, the more of us who carry the struggle, the more bearable it will be.

When we open our hearts to the earth, we are opening our hearts to relationship with all who live here with us. We are recognizing the brokenness and the sacredness of each person and each being, each place and each story in that place.

If we wake up to the earth, we must listen to all her stories

All places and all beings of the earth are sacred. It is dangerous to designate some places sacred when all are sacred. Such compromises imply that there is a hierarchy of value, with some places and some living beings not as important as others. No part of the earth is expendable; the earth is a whole that cannot be fragmented…
Leslie Marmon Silko

Winter Path DSC01793When I was in theological school, we spoke of the sacred texts in which people find revelation of divinity. To be open to the sacredness of earth, is to let the earth be our text: let the earth be the revelation for the presence of divinity. The earth can be teacher, the earth can be sacrament, the earth can be worship, the earth can be Goddess.

But if we wake up to the earth, we must listen to all her stories. If we live in the Americas, we must pay attention to a story of brokenness in each place because of the theft of the land from the Indigenous peoples who belong here. If we are seeking to restore our connection to the land, we must reckon with that brokenness. All of us are a part of the brokenness.

Lakota writer Luther Standing Bear said, “Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers’ bones.” To be indigenous is to belong to a particular place, through that interweaving of dust and food and knowledge which accumulates over centuries. When I lived in Jamaica Plain, I used to walk in Forest Hills Cemetery. None of my ancestors were buried there. No familiar ghosts recognized me or called my name. I was not indigenous to that place, nor to any of the places I have lived.

I learned more about what it might mean to be indigenous to a place through the marvelous novel, Solar Storms, by Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan. Her main character, Angel, is a young woman who had been separated from the Native community of her birth, and raised in foster care after being abused by her mentally ill mother. When Angel returns with her relatives to their ancestral lands, something happens for her.

A part of me remembered this world… it seemed to embody us. We were shaped out of this land by the hands of gods. Or maybe it was that we embodied the land. And in some way I could not yet comprehend, it also embodied my mother, both of them stripped and torn…. My heart and the beat of the land, the land I should have come from, were becoming the same thing.

In the novel, Angel’s family has returned to their homeland in the north of Canada because it is being threatened with hydro-electric development. This is no pristine wilderness or unspoiled scenery to which she is responding. The land is under assault, and they feel a responsibility to fight for its protection. She speaks of how the bonds between the land and the people had been broken by the developments of many years. The elder Tulik tells Angel, “Here a person is only strong when they feel the land. Until then a person is not a human being.”

Another member of her family was a woman named Bush who was Chickasaw from Oklahoma and had become part of the family through marriage. She had also come to help in the struggle. Angel talks about how it was different for Bush. The land in the far north loved Bush, “but it did not tell her the things it told the rest of us. It kept secrets from her.” Here was another Native American, yet she was not indigenous to that particular land. Through this story I began to better understand how loving the earth was not just about loving the planet, but about loving a particular river, a particular valley or hill or peninsula.

Quote from Leslie Marmon Silko is from Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit.
Luther Standing Bear was quoted by Vine Deloria quote in God Is Red.

All the Water Is One Water

Earth_high_def_1024Earth is a water planet. …Between earth and earth’s atmosphere, the amount of water remains constant; there is never a drop more, never a drop less. This is a story of circular infinity, of a planet birthing itself.
                                                                                                   Linda Hogan

It is a tradition in my congregation that every September we gather ourselves together with a water ritual. We bring water from the places we love, the places we may have traveled, to pour into one container. At the end, each person takes some of the water, and we bring it home with us.

One summer, I attended a similar ritual with Starhawk, at the beginning of an Earth Activist Training. Starhawk began collecting water many years ago. She brought water back from her travels around the world, and asked her friends to bring back water when they went to far off places. They poured all these waters into one big container. Over time, people brought water from the sacred Ganges River in India, and from the great Nile River in Egypt; even melted ice from Antarctica. After a while, they had waters from every continent.

When you pour it in one container, all of the water mixes together, and every drop has some of the molecules of water from every place. So if you take a small bottle of water out, you have the waters from many places in one bottle. Each time you have a water ritual, you add some water from the bottle you saved from the previous ritual. In that way, each ritual, each small bottle, contain the waters from all over the world.

Why would we want to have a small bottle of waters from everywhere in the world? For me, it is a reminder that water is sacred–without water there would be no life at all. It is also a reminder that we need to take care of the waters of the world. All water is connected, and the same water recycles itself through the whole earth. All the waters on earth are really one water. So even if we get water from our kitchen tap, that water has been around the world on its journey

Linda Hogan reminds us,

It has lived beneath the lights of fireflies in bayous at night when mist laid itself around cypress trunks. It has held sea turtles in its rocking arms. …It reminds us that we are water people. Our salt bodies, like the great round of ocean, are pulled and held by the moon. We are creatures that belong here. This world is in our blood and bones, and our blood and bones are the earth.

Linda Hogan quotes are from Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living Worldpp. 99, 106, 108.

The Larger Whole

Reflected SkySpirituality is our experience of connection to the larger whole of which we are a part. I believe that each being is sacred, and we are all one family, one circle. My deepest experiences convince me this is true, even though we may forget, even despite the ways we may be estranged. Linda Hogan writes that the purpose of ceremony is to remember that all things are connected. She says:

“The participants in a ceremony say the words ‘All my relations’ before and after we pray; those words create a relationship with other people, with animals, with the land. To have health it is necessary to keep all these relations in mind.”

As we begin to build bridges across the broken places within our hearts, across the broken places between peoples, across the broken places between people and the earth, we are doing the work of mending the world. We are awakening, we are remembering, the reality in which we actually live, the unity of all. The Buddhists call it inter-being. In South Africa it is called ubuntu: we are all born to belonging, and we know ourselves in just and mutual relationship to one another. We move beyond the small self of the ego, into the larger Self some call God, or what I have called Mystery. Thomas Merton writes,

“We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

The purpose of spirituality is to remember that all things are connected and to heal the brokenness between us.

An old Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and day had begun.
Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?”
No,” answered the Rabbi.
Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”
No,” answered the Rabbi.
Then what is it?” the pupils demanded.
It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”
                                                                             (Hasidic Tale)

Quotes from Linda Hogan, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World, (New York: Norton, 1995)
Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, edited by Christine Bochen. (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2000)
Hasidic Tale, Quoted in Spiritual Literacy, edited by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, p. 502. 

Webs of Connection

Think about language. Humanity is a social species. Not only our bodies, but our minds are interwoven. Human beings speak to each other. I am able to create sounds with my voice, and a certain meaning awakens in your mind. When I say the color blue, you can hear the word blue, and see it within your imagination. When I say the word love, you can call to mind a whole wealth of feelings and memories.

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Photo by Margy Dowzer

We belong to each other. We are part of a larger whole. And yet, we forget. Wars rage on in the Middle East, millions die from disease in Africa for which treatments are already known, poverty sits alongside wealth, industry pollutes the air and water. This is why we need to understand brokenness as well as wholeness. Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan tells a beautiful story of a broken clay woman. She writes:

I remember the first time I saw the clay woman …in a museum gift shop. …Her black hair flowed behind her, and on her clay feet were little black shoes… Her stomach attached to earth, just above North America. Her name was written on a tag, “The Bruja Who Watches Over the Earth.” Bruja is the Spanish word for a woman healer, soothsayer, or sometimes a witch.

I loved the flying soothsayer who protected the lands beneath her. She was connected to them by her very body, the very same clay. …I bought the clay woman and asked the clerk to mail her back to me, then I returned home, anticipating the day The Woman Who Watches Over the World would appear.

When she arrived, she wasn’t whole. Her legs were broken off, the gray interior clay exposed beneath the paint. I glued them back on. Then she began to fall apart in other ways. Her nose broke. Soon one of her hands fell off. The woman who watches over the world was broken. Despite my efforts she remained that way, fragmented and unhealed. At first I was disappointed, but then I thought, Yes, the woman who watches over us is as broken as the land, as hurt as the flesh people. She is a true representation of the world she flies above. Something between us and the world has broken. That is what the soothsayer says.

Linda Hogan’s bruja is an image of a creator who is connected to us in our actual reality, broken as we are broken, not merely a perfection to which we might strive. Broken Web DSC01269The brokenness is within us, the brokenness is between us, and also between people and the earth. But—this is important—we feel broken because we are meant to be connected.

Quote from Linda Hogan,The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir (New York: Norton, 2001) pp. 17-18.