Wednesday, October 1, 2008

WW/ On the Winnemem Path of Life

My husband and I follow the Winnemem way of life. The Winnemem people have lived on the McCloud, or Winnemem, River from the beginning of time and were entrusted by the Great Creator with taking care of hundreds of sacred places from the Sacremento River to Mt. Shasta. How did a Sansei from southern Idaho come to follow the Winnemem way of life? Providence. Ancestral guidance. Compassion by those who have spiritual and historical claim to this land.

Twenty years ago, my husband and I adopted our daughter Soon Sun from Pusan City, Korea. From the day she joined the family, it was clear that our little five year old daughter had endured emotional trauma and that its effects went beyond our ordinary parenting abilities. We called the adoption agency begging for help. But they were perplexed also. Therapy which depended on words proved to be be futile. In desperation, we even called a friend in Oklahoma who was a spiritual doctor and who had helped many of us in the past. He suggested we go with him to a woman doctor in Northern California for help. We accompanied our friend to the first of many ceremonies of Winnemem spiritual doctor and leader, Florence Jones.

Winnemem leader and doctor, Florence Jones had brought her ceremonies back to the sacred sites in the Seventies, one of the first petitioners with the passage of the first Freedom of Religion Act. At her ceremony, my doctor friend and I joined a long line of people who had arrived asking for help. She carried a small root and smoked me up. An elderly man, Emerson Miles, her cousin and translator assisted her. Florence handed me a small spirit helper box to hold with both hands on my heart. I closed my eyes. She asked me if I saw anything. At the moment she asked I saw an image of two small animals standing by a fir sapling. In front of them, I saw the Great Mt. Shasta growing up out of the ground higher and higher, and told her that. She asked, “How do the little animals feel?”

“They feel like that’s the way it’s supposed to be and they’re satisfied, er .. happy” I stumbled with my words.

She finished my sentence, “They feel normal.” I nodded my head. She said, "That's good. What else do you see?"

Just then I saw an image of Soon Sun and told her.

She said, “You think you’re a bad mother but you’re not.” That started my tears flowing as she continued, “When you need help, come to me; I will be your mother.”

For a moment, I felt a tug of guilt, because I have a mother, but I pushed that thought away and accepted her words into my heart.

I also saw another image, Mark Miyoshi, taiko drummaker in Mt. Shasta, his smiling face floating, looking at Mt. Shasta, but before I could tell her, Emerson clapped loudly once and I jumped, startled. He said to Florence, “Did you see that? A white butterfly just came. That’s good.”

I opened my eyes again, a bit dazed and thanked her. I walked down to Ash Creek to join the family. My younger brother Roger who also came for help for his two sons and Soon Sun were playing. Roger said, “There was a little white butterfly who flew over and tapped each of these kids on the head. Wish you could have seen it!”

Since that day, I have often been comforted by the white butterflies which I associate with my doctor and Winnemem mother.

Will and I continued to go to the Winnemem ceremonies, and I would call Florence on the phone from time to time just to check in. I didn’t expect she knew me from all the hundreds of other people who came twice a year to ceremonies, but she was always friendly enough. One day when I called, a man answered and said, “I can’t talk. They’re wheeling Granny out to go to emergency. She had a stroke!” and hung up. I was stunned and didn’t know what to do.

Hesitantly, I called again the next day. The woman who answered asked, “Are you the lady who called earlier? I told Benny we should have asked for your phone number but things were happening so fast.” Sharon Branham, a Hoopa friend of Florence told me that Florence would be coming out of the hospital in a few days. The circumstances were that her family members were all out of town for a tribal commitment, and they needed someone to care for Florence when she first got home. Before I knew it, Florence had ok’d my daughter and me to go to her little ranch.

A few days later, Soon Sun and I were sitting by her three season pond, ducks swimming, and from the side, branches filled with pink roses spilling into the water. Such a serene place. Soon, Florence was driven in her Cadillac, and she and three elders were helped out by “Bear” who was living in one of the trailers at the ranch, helping out and learning the spiritual Winnemem way. Emerson and Margie, Florence’s elderly daughter, both blind, and Leona, hunched and elderly, were all being taken care of by Florence. She did the cooking and cleaning. These four elders kept each other company and lived peacefully at the ranch. My unspoken heartfelt prayer for our daughter, troubled by abuse, was answered. Here she was surrounded by wise and good grandmas and grandpas, on a ranch full of animals.

Taking care of Florence was simple. She had already taken care of the stroke by using her own herbs. She just needed rest and someone to cook and clean. Soon Sun and I worked during the day, checking in on the elders. Leona watched me like a hawk making sure I knew that everything had its place and how Florence liked her kitchen to be organized. Emerson talked with us, and laughed at his own jokes sometimes, and gave wisdom other times. Margie, Florence’s daughter, sat in her chair, carrying all her dolls and bags. Although she could not see, she heard everything. She also would speak in her crackly, gentle, sing song voice about everybody, about the history, about the family.

We had a lot of time to ourselves. Once the housework was done, Soon Sun and I would take walks outside with a bag to pick up the cans and litter. I said, “Let’s do this for Grandma Florence because one thing we do know is she did not drink the pop, and these are not her pop cans. It’s not easy for an elder to do all this bending work.” We also raked the shredded magazines which had been mown down with the grass and dispensed of them. According to Leona, Florence watched us through the window and remarked, “That woman works like a man.” My daughter and I felt warmed by the compliment. It’s still the compliment I treasure the most.

Grandma taught me how to cook while I was there. As a Japanese I didn’t learn to cook huge pieces of meat. But granny taught me how to cook enough meat to feed a crowd, good and tender. She taught me how to make Winnemem bread.

One morning, Grandma and I talked about Soon Sun. That afternoon she told Soon Sun, “Come in here with me,” and took her to the kitchen. She smoked her off with the root and put her hands on Soon Sun, particularly on her back, wiping as if to take something off of her, and gathered it into her hands and placed it on her spirit helper box. Florence shook with it, and as she closed her eyes, she still shook. When she finished she looked at my daughter and said, “I have never seen so much fear in anyone. What are you afraid of, little girl?” Soon Sun who was giggling throughout, trying to wriggle away, ticklish, just laughed.

I was surprised. Soon Sun seemed fearless in her behavior. Nothing seemed to faze her. But I was to learn ten years later, how filled with abuse her little life had been, and how her brave little spirit had to become detached to stay alive. Bravado became her personality, and her shell for so much of her life.

One morning Florence said, “I’m sending you back to your husband. But first, I’m taking you around the world.” I didn’t know what she meant, but it sounded exciting to me! I learned that going around the world was to go around the boundaries of the Winnemem world, exactly 100 miles as Grandma said. This was a spring tradition when her family gathered to help her gather all her medicinal herbs. I remember at the first stop I asked if I could put down tobacco as I learned from my doctor friend and I still remember Grandma Florence looking at me with teasing eyes, “What for? Plants don’t smoke!”

Along the way around the world we stopped at the spring where we filled up recycled jugs with the water that Grandma Florence and the others used every day. They did not drink tap water. The water tumbled from the roots of big sugar pine down the mountain side into a small pond. That place is still one of my favorite places.

The next day we were to return home to Oregon. Florence took my hands and told me, “You come down anytime you want.”

I'm sure my smile reached from ear to ear because I was thinking "Thank you, Creator, for a grandma, for elders, for a little farm with animals, for all that I no longer have from my childhood and can provide my daughter and that she needs so much” and that is still my prayer. “Thank you!”

I returned every month from that time. During the summer vacations, Soon Sun and later my foster daughter Margaret and I would come to stay a month. As Florence, whom by then we all called Grandma Florence, or Granny, would often remind us, “This is the University of Life!” This was the best place to teach the children how to grow up.

At the ranch, our daughters learned how to take care of animals, how to take care of home and land. At the ranch, our daughters and I sat at the feet of elders listening to life lessons. So many stories of life about the Winnemem before gold was found in the Sacramento River region and harsh stories of life afterwards. At the ranch, our daughters connected more than they have to any other place with a sense of belonging -- aunties, uncles, cousins, Granny’s big family. And the biggest gift, they found faith. I won’t exaggerate that either of my daughters kept faith. As each precious elder passed on, especially Granny, they may have been set adrift. But as Granny always told me, “they may get lost, but they know where to go when they need to.”

As for me, even after Margaret and Soon Sun moved to other places, I continued to go, every month. A few years ago, my beloved Winnemem mother passed on just a couple of years shy of 100 years old. As I sat in the prayer house around the Sacred Fire the day of her funeral, Mark, Head Man of the Winnemem and husband to Grandma Florence's successor, her niece Caleen came in and said, "Granny asked Caleen and me to take care of you and Mark Miyoshi. So we are offering you tribal membership. She was thinking about you guys." I still blush at my naive response which was to ask "would I still be Japanese?"

During that year of grieving I would think back on that moment many times feeling so stupid. One morning, as I was remembering, Grandma's voice filled me "Where do you go when your children need help? Where do you go when you're sick? Where do you go to pray?" That gave me the courage and words I needed to talk to Mark and Caleen correcting the perception. Of course. I was Winnemem. I may have been born Japanese, but I knew in my heart that my issei grandparents put me on this path in response to my private loneliness being Japanese in America. I am not turning my back on family. Family is with me all the time. I am not erasing my personal history. That forgetfulness is encouraged in America, but not in Winnemem. The Winnemem people accept me wholly for who I am. I am not discarding my upbringing. I am embracing it -- my gentle grandfather Shichiro Kawai who taught me all I believe about nature in the farmlands of Idaho, from Misao Kawai who taught me right from wrong, from my mother and uncles and aunts who modeled every day family clans and extended ties. Because of Grandma Florence's compassion for us and her desire for us to be taken care of even after she had gone, because of Caleen and Mark's compassion, I have the opportunity to belong where I belong. The embarrassment which tied up my tongue was gone.

I went back to the ranch and broached the subject with both Mark and Caleen. I told them that I felt Granny had visited me and what she told me. They each laughed and said "We were wondering when you were going to come around." Caleen explained you can be born Winnemem and not be Winnemem. It's the path of life you live. Spiritual ties were significant as are blood ties.

I am Winnemem, rather than American. It is of great comfort to me that my leader is Caleen, not GWB or any other president trapped in a political reality which makes moral leadership impossible. While presidents prosper, Caleen gives everything up for her responsibilities to the land and for the ceremonies as well as caring for her people. Winnemem leaders are not materially rich but they are wealthy in responsibility. (Caleen joked once as we all worked hard on our outfits getting ready for ceremony, "We're all working for Winnemem wage" which is -- at zero -- a whole lot less than minimum wage.) My leader is responsible for 100's of active sacred lands. My leader leaves people in awe with her wisdom gained from personal (not textbook) knowledge of every aspect of Nature. My leader prioritizes elders and children as issues of greatest significance. My leader looks into the future generations. When my leader goes to war, it is far from being a war of destruction and hate. She follows the spirit not the ego and listens to the Creator for direction rather than put words in god's mouth. My leader understands that global warming is really a global “warning.” The work must be for all of nature, not discrete pieces. The work includes a transformation of lifestyle as we know it. We cannot remain outside of the solution. My leader knows this because at the same time that the salmon knew and the rivers knew and the Earth itself knew, she also knew that we are in the last days of crisis, not at the beginning.

I am thankful to my immigrant grandparents for teaching me well. I am thankful for the hard life my mother lived, forcing her to bring her babies home and sacrifice personal goals to live under her parents' roof for our sake. I am thankful to my family for all they endured so I could be brought up influenced in the old way so much so that I became homesick away from them. I am thankful to have been led by our daughter Soon Sun from Korea to the loving help, the family and sacred places of the Winnemem people.

As a sansei, I feel I've come exactly where I am meant to be . . .side by side with the Winnemem to carry on the good work.

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

from Outside the Monster's Belly

from Outside the Monster's Belly
. . . following Earth instead (Rakaia River, site of Salmon Ceremony, photo credit Ruth Koenig)


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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.