Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Back to the Longhouse, 2008

This weekend was Homecoming at the University of Oregon. My friend Marcy was asked to organize a Homecoming weekend for the NASU alumni. The club had a long history, beginning in Fenton Hall. BSU and the Chicano students also began clubs during that time in the early 60's. NASU's proud history also includes organizing the first Longhouse on a college campus. James Florendo traveled to an early NAIA conference bringing home hundreds of signatures of Native students all over the country supporting NASU's endeavor. I joined with others to show that NASU had alliances, but this was before there was an Asian American organization on campus. All of this was part of my education -- one how to make a vision a reality, but also, how visions such as these grew beyond what one could ever imagine.

When I came to campus, I was Japanese American sansei, part of my generation's anti war movement, and alone. Far from my Idaho family and the Japanese American community and the familiarity of a small town in Idaho, I felt very isolated in this college town. Every time I saw black hair, I would do a double take looking for familiarity.

On campus, the concept of differing world view was introduced to me. It was a giant shift for me. My self concept of treasured weirdness was replaced by something which felt to be much truer I learned that being the only Japanese American family in small town Caldwell, Idaho, did not make me weird; I learned that I gew up with a cultural set and more importantly that my white classmates also grew up with their own cultural set. One was no weirder than the other and both were acquired at such a subconscious level, we never questioned it or looked at culture critically. We lacked the perspective to analyze it and get beyond my feeling weird or their feeling normal. You can imagine the powerful tool knowing about world view was for me.

During this time, a friend I met in class invited me to a pow wow sponsored by a Title program and for the first time in Eugene, I truly exhaled. Listening to the drums, watching a circle of traditional people of all ages, elders and children, dancing to old songs touched that part of my heart which hurt and I felt better. I would go even by myself the following years, sitting alone but not feeling alone. It felt good to watch the little ones grow up; I especially remember girl twins I later learned were Les and Bonnie Houck's girls. What I had missed so much in Eugene were the elders, the children, and the feeling of watching children grow up.

In the university daily I read about a class "Asian American Experience" by John Beckwith. I couldn't wait to meet the Asian people of Eugene! We all signed up. Half of us were young students. Half of us were older, community members. I was in between -- a teacher returning to earn a graduate degree. Two groups were organized in that class -- the AASU, a student organization now called APASU and still remains on campus, and the Asian American Community Group which included older students, and community people. I belonged to both. We were very busy. The two groups worked together. We supported the events organized by the student group. And we fed them and sponsored outings and other events which brought them a little bit of home. The community group remains morphing into other groups along the way -- Asians Together, and now PanAsian Community Alliance, a community group focused on justice.

It was only a matter of time, as it always is in Eugene, that the Asian American student group became closely allied with the other student union groups, a natural evolution in Eugene for people of color. My friend Debbie Osato dubbed our city with a new name -- Hakujin, Oregon. Hakujin is the term for white people. To get anything done, you worked together. And in working together, so much experience and wisdom came our way. As the experience came our way -- it is called diversity nowadays -- my world transformed to what it is now. It is such good work to work together.

Back then, we worked together to bring our stories, ancestors, poets, philosphers into the university classes. We designed our own classes. We wrote the books if there was none. We found monies set aside for students of color buried in remediation programs and designed a new program which had our college success as the goal. The Council for Minority Education was built on a Native American model, because the mentors of the movement were most Native, and the way things were done was by concensus, in a circle, with respect for every person. We supported one another's events. The Asian American Student Union and Native American Student Union did a lot together. For the pow wows, we volunteered to fix the sandwiches and lemonade for the visiting drums. Oftentimes, we would help with the housing. When we did our spring conference, the NASU students helped us get things ready, and came to all the parties to make it a good time, as did MEChA and the BSU students. These Asian American presenters and musicians from Seattle to LA and NY were always impressed by the Eugene welcome and do not remember this as a Hakujin town at all but as a town of a beautiful mix of hosts and friends. A lot of the planning work was done at the Longhouse.

So, this weekend was homecoming. And I'm still in Eugene. It must puzzle some people why this Asian person is at the Longhouse for homecoming. But it would be even more puzzling and awkward if I didn't go because my friends are like family coming back for homecoming . We shared the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties and even if much that we built has systematically been torn down by this President, we've also shaped a family and became our childrens' uncles and aunties, been through thick and thin, kids grown up and having kids. We have also gone all over this country and through our work and involvement in community wherever we landed, we continued the vision we picked up at the University of Oregon, together, transforming our own world.

The Longhouse, without exaggeration, was our college experience. It was the part of the university which welcomed us, which supported us, which included us, which nurtured us. A tiny WWII building, a hall and a small kitchen was our memorable campus experience. We could be sure to have a place to meet even if we were the Asian American union if we needed a place a bigger than the small sliver that the university provided us, right up against the bowling alley. Why do Asians so often get stuck right by a bowling alley? On Wednesdays, college students of all backgrounds knew there was a place they could go for homecooked meals at the Longhouse potluck. If we needed to study with a group, we could go to the Longhouse. All of us began to model our world after the Longhouse experience.

The boundaries of the Longhouse had nothing to do with the roads encircling this campus. They Longhhouse was connected to all the reservations, Indian people everywhere. One of my closest friends and someone I refer to as my younger brother, Roger Amerman, Choctow, although he was 12 years younger than I was like a teacher to me. Through him I learned how important it was for the student to go to the reservations and ask personally for support, and the support would be there such a deep and powerful way. I learned what happens to a small space (campus) when these elders and spiritual leaders, and tribal leaders came on campus to support the students and talked to them reminding them of the richness of responsibility they are inheriting as tribal college graduates. Indian Country, I learned, will never be for me again the small dots of land across this country, but will always be the heritage, promise and possibility of this whole continent. As immigrants we could have accepted our part in this heritage. Those who came as colonizers stamping their mark on this land missed it. The legacy of colonization, slavery, and point of view of overdevelopment and excess have become a destructive force. At the Longhouse, we all from many backgrounds were able to learn enough of the responsibilities we carry as descendents of immigrants. So to Roger Amerman, the Longhouse -- a new structure which is called The Many Nations Longhouse -- and NASU alums, thank you. To Rudy, first Native American recruited to play UO football who traveled so far and shared his heartfelt words, thank you. To all who shared the stories -- Bob Tom, Stuart Whitehead, Roger, Tom Ball, Wilma Crowe, thank you. To the hosts, NASU students, vice provost Tom Ball and Marcy who spearheaded this, to the new Alumni Association steering committee which includes Frank, Twila, Rudy, Roger, Colette and Marcy, with Alicia and me, thank you. I guess it's not a surprise that this is the first homecoming I've attended since graduating from the UO and that, in fact, it is the first I was invited to. The Longhouse, small though the old building may have been, was the whole campus for a multicultural community of students. That's not a small thing either. We look back, all of us, to the UO days -- or Longhouse days -- as a giant experience. We remember it as happy times where much good work came from our being together. That certainly is a lesson to me that it isn't magnificent buildings, the attention of powerful administration, being part of the right clubs that make the experience worthy. The humble sweeps away the grands everytime.

I will post the address to access the pictures Marcy's husband Dean took during the reunion on the blog. Thank you, Dean! BTW, the Ducks won!

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"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.