It was on the second day of ceremony that the curtains parted for me. Raised as I was by my grandparents,and Nihonjin, as a tribal member, I would stand behind, follow. As a singer, I would stand in the second row to sing the best I could. Someone had to be in the second row, correct? If I happened to be in the "front row" someone would remind me by standing in front of me. Everyone was used to it.
But on the second day of ceremony I got it. There wasn't a first row, a second row, a third row in Winnemem. This wasn't a choir. There was a frontline. A frontline of battle is a comfortable place for me to be. I finally got it that there was a frontline, a line as long as the number of people who wanted to stand in it. No one had to stand behind in work as important as this. It was revealed to me, on the frontlines, that that's where you felt the dancer you were supporting, felt all that was happening and could play your part in it. I wasn't the only one. Let's not forget our Maori friends. At first they held back unless told, "we're having sunrise ceremony. Want to come?"
That night, the Maori supporters who had, like me, respectfully come down the first day, stood to the side, held back until they were told by the Head Man to come to the other side, extending that frontline, "to get a better view." But one thing I learned about our Maori friends, they're not there for the view. They're there to "stand with." So there we were all on the frontlines, singing and jumping to the beat, all around the circle where the Sacred Fire blazed and the dancers danced their hearts out. I looked across at Tia, Pauline, on the last day also at Mareke too, dancing hard for the warriors.
I say often to Headman Mark Franco and Chief Caleen Sisk Franco, from my 30 plus years of experience teaching middle and high schoolers, I have never met young people as those in the Winnemem tribe. Mostly homeschooled, the youth are very comfortable around parents, uncles, aunties, adult guests. No generation gap. Lots of playfulness in the adults view. No embarrassment between them. When Caleen and Mark bring their daughter Marine and visit, I've seen Marine hug her mom in the stores. I've even seen her drop to her knees to tie her mother's shoes on her own, not being asked to but just because it felt right to her. On the New Zealand trip, often I would see Marine rubbing her dad's tired stiff shoulders, and braiding his hair. I told her brother Michael who represents his tribe with such dignity with his natural ability to speak publicly -- like his mom -- that I wanted to thank him. I always pray for my Chief and Headman, that their burden will be lightened, that there will be significant help, and I realize on the two week trip, that Michael and Marine are an answer to my prayer in themselves. They are such a comfort to their parents.
I see the Winnemem young men and women, without being told, carry the big things, give up their chairs, play with the little ones. I've seen them take care of the ongoing Sacred Fire at the ranch. I've seen them jump off the first waterfalls on the McCloud over and over and make sure others feel safe and can jump themselves, clamber up Dekkas Rock (a mountain) to put up the flag and pray for their people.
In New Zealand, Jessie and Nina never ever let me stand behind them in the dinner line, or stand while they sat. They always gave up their chair. They may be shy, but there's nothing shy about their resolve. And always with a smile.
I was so proud of Nina. She has really stepped up to being what we've referred to as "our little Chief," the next one in line after her Aunt Caleen. She will be going through her coming of age with her sister this summer. She should have been able to do it last year, but the Forest Service leader stubbornly holds to her racist position and will not allow the four day ceremony to go on by guaranteeing safety of the young women who will be swimming across the river on the fourth day from speeding jet boats -- the Freedom to have Every Bit of Leisure Time Whenever the Individual Wants To takes precedence over a whole tribe's Freedom of Religion.
Caleen called Nina to the circle and asked her to sprinkle river water from the Winnemem on the ground all around the circle which she did while we sang. She did so, with no remnant of girlhood shyness. It's as if she had grown up overnight. Caleen had Nina do this so that the Rakaia and the Winnemem River will know each other, the people will know each other, they will know Nina, and she will come back again as an adult and as the Chief and bring her people again to keep the relationship going the next generation with the Ngai Tahu, Waitaha Mamoe Fisher People.
It was day two of Salmon Ceremony for the young dancers, the second day of fasting, of keeping the Fire going all through the night, the second day of dancing hard, taking turns sleeping through a frigid New Zealand night on the river. It could have been a hard day for a teenager to keep up a great attitude. But there they danced, harder than they danced the day before. Marine, her cousins Marissa, and Jesse, little ten year old Aurora, still uncomplaining, in outfit, singing the songs.
I know why I am on the frontlines. It is for my Chief and Headman, always. It is for the sacred work in front of us. But those who know me well, my heart just bursts with joy to see these young Winnemem men and women growing up strong following their Winnemem Path of Life with all their heart, growing up without the all too typical embarrassment of having parents, but instead having affection, pride and TRUST, for heavens sake, for their parents, uncles and aunts, growing up forging strong bonds with their cousins, growing up to be warriors, tribal advocates, guardians of the Earth and Salmon, growing up to be good Dads, Moms, Uncles and Aunts themselves, growing up Winnemem so that this goodness carries on.
I do want to take this moment to say that among the youth dancers was David Martinez, about my age, white hair, also fasting, also dancing all four days with all his heart, representing. I hope he knows when I refer to our young dancers, he is included in my heart -- his heart always young.
No words can fully describe the dancers, the dances, the songs, the singers, the prayers. Video might convey the spirit of what happened there but Will will never put together a video with songs, prayers intact out of respect for the Winnemem. So many who have lost their way or for whom this is a hobby capture the songs, and the tribe hears their sacred songs playing in the most unlikely places. Will and I know that what we are lucky to be part of is not a performance of a memory, but the real thing. And there are no words which can express the real thing. Imagine all the realness which is no longer practiced. Imagine all the prayer fires which no longer burn. Imagine those ancient connections between nature and human, from elder to grandchildren which have gone dormant and cannot be replaced by word or by film. That is how precious those four days of ceremony were, everything connected -- generation to generation, fish, river, mountain to the tribes, that moment of ceremony to the future with the past, the connection to ancestor spirits forged by those who still carry it on with such heart that they bring the Head Man to tears, Maori and Winnemem, Nur and Tu-Nah.
Dedicated to: Michael, Chris, Jesse, Arron, Jamie, Ben, James, Jared, Robbie, Nick, Kayla, Marine, Nina, Jessie, Aurora and the ever youthful Dance Captain Rick, and David and those young ones who kept the home fires going.
The last night at Rehua Maraem, as we all stood to speak individually, I remember Tia's words. She said that she got emotional at the airport when we first arrived. She admitted that for some reason she thought we would be 29 "old people." We all had a big laugh. But then she went on to say, that as she saw the young people filing into the airport lobby and she realized this was a tribe which would go into the future and this was a relationship which would go on another generation and another, it made her heart fill. Exactly. I know exactly what she means. It is, as she said, beautiful.
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