Monday, May 24, 2010

WW/ "On" for Granny

Yesterday Will found a video link which showed Granny in 1975 at Ceremony. It was one of her earlier ceremonies which she brought back for the sake of the young people, we think held at Dekkas, her doctoring place. By the time I met Granny, this spring ceremony was known as an Elder's ceremony, giving thanks that the elders -- having gone through another winter, were here with us. At least, that is what she told me that year, and it was a hard winter.

I felt such happiness as I watched Granny saying prayer in her own language, surrounded by her people, blessing them, going into trance as she was going to doctor them. The film stopped there, of course. It was just a little glimpse reminding me of the way she held herself, so strong, when she was taking care of the people, focused energy, and beside her was her translator and cousin, another beloved Elder I was lucky enough to have known, and another elderly cousin who taught me "the ropes" when Maki, my eight year old daughter and I showed up on her doorstep to stay with them until Granny got strong enough from a small stroke the summer after I went to my first ceremony up at Dekkas. They all looked younger on this film, their hair still greying, not white. Granny's translator was heavier. Granny was strong, moving among her people without a walker, she called it her "horse." Granny was the first spiritual leader to follow up on the first Native American Religious Freedom act and apply to bring her ceremonies back.

Recently, I stumbled upon a blog referencing me as a Japanese (correct) Tribal member (correct) and a foolish woman who worshiped Florence Jones as a god. That caused a momentary "ouch" but I understand that non-traditional people could get that idea in this fast world where the generations do not follow in their elder's footsteps so in a hurry to make their individual mark.

I bring this up because this little video clip brought to memory my relationship with Granny -- and how it must look to people who have not been raised in old ways, and those who were non-Indians if they were to observe me at ceremony with Granny. It was my responsibility during that time when her family was very busy hosting hundreds of people, and carrying on the old ways, that there was someone who would make sure Granny was comfortable at all times, and the family kindly let me carry on because that was kind of my role, why I visited every month, why I came for a month during a summer to be with Granny. I liked our relationship. And it continued at ceremony. I'd bring her tea, I'd push her wheelchair. I liked staying with her while others went to the other sites important to ceremony. I fixed her plate up. I liked to sleep in her tent to help her through the night if needed. Those observing this who never had my upbringing would think this was foolish, understandably. But what they were seeing was not a worshiper. They were seeing an old-fashioned granddaughter lucky to have a grandmother who was healthy, with a strong mind into her nineties. She grew precious with each passing day.

The blog which was critical of my actions also gave my blog address out, so perhaps some of you reading find yourself here through that picture of me, so I welcome this opportunity with a clip of my granny (and other people if you're interested). She is very special to her people, and she was very special to our family.

Will and I came to Granny with our newly adopted daughter, five years old, relatively new parents, and already over our head. We were trying to parent the best we could without support. No one had ever walked in our shoes before. Counselors, psychologists were stymied. I'm not going into detail about what we all (including our daughter) were dealing with -- extraordinary circumstances which baffled Holt Adoption Agency. All they could say was that our daughter came from a bad orphanage and they have stopped working with them after meeting her. That was not helpful.

Her story did not fit the neat little legend many adoptive parents get from Holt about a little baby found at a fire station and cared for in an orphanage, wanting a family. Maki didn't want a family. No one asked her what she wanted to do before they ripped her up and put her on a 24 hour plane ride to these two strangers. And before then, no one held her, watched over her, hugged her, spoke to her. Her good memories were guys who put her on their lap and gave her candy for being cute. Clearly, in her new life, that was not the case. Maki soaked in language quickly. Her quick clever mind picked up many things, but the baggage she brought overwhelmed us all.

I will return to this at a later point, and connect it to our Granny.

Yes, I was born Japanese American to a farming family in southern Idaho. I was born after the war by a little over a month, 45 miles from a Japanese American concentration camp but not in it which made all the difference in the world in terms of family bonding and sense of stability including how I felt being Japanese. My family was multi-generational. We spoke Japanese because it wasn't outlawed. We ate as a family not in a mess hall. The circumstances of a failed arranged marriage put my little sister, mother and I with my grandparents, two uncles and an aunt. We were surrounded by caring adults. My first language is Japanese. Since we worked on a farm, the only adults we saw were family and our only playmates, each other. We also were the water carriers for our family in the field, and obediently stayed in one place while they hoed crops so far they appeared as white dots, a half inch high. We were a very traditional family. We were taught, not that we always followed, but we knew the importance of patience, endurance, non-complaining, and giving rather than taking. Obedience was not a bad word. That is fortunate because we waited for our family from the head of the row without investigating the drain ditch having been warned against drowning. We were did this day after day, which now as an adult, I am surprised by our dependability. (Neither of us swim, though, which is the side effect of those days in the field). Obedience was more descriptive to us. It was what our job was as kids who did our part for the family. I remember feeling really good about doing that well, both of us with the burlap water bags in tow for our family as they neared us every half hour or so. May sound weird in the individualistic society all around us, but like I said, on a farm, life was not complicated by what others did or believed. We liked our life, we liked family, it was our rock. Our upbringing had a pre-war Meiji era bushido core with definite "inaka" -- non urban -- leanings. We were mountain people living on the Gifu River. My grandparents raised us in the way they were raised by their parents. That is the only way they knew. Grandpa was born around the mid-1880's and Grandma born around the late 1890's. Their family lived in a mountain village small it had no name close to Kami no Mura. To this day, my grandparents are the only ones of the village to have left it. That means our family were a bit different from those who immigrated from busy seaport cities caught up in the great changes.

One of my core values family values is "On." "On" is that feeling of unrepayable debt a person owes one's parents. I learned about "On" in Japanese language class in college when I was in my late 20's. I never heard the word "On"while growing up, but I must admit that I felt it every day of my life. And, actually, the way I experience "On" extends further than one's parent which I will talk about later. I cannot really put into words sufficiently that feeling of "On." For example, as I'm typing this, the word unrepayable comes up as a misspelling. The concept is foreign to this culture and English. But I will try.

In the presence of the elders of my family I have that feeling of treasuring them, of great fortune to be "of them" through thick or thin. I experience their human foibles on the one hand, and on the other, their moments of courage, all of that with an enhanced emotion. Frustration is accompanied with a feeling of endearment. Adults do some crazy things and I often share with my sister and my cousins some of those stories with laughter and affection, not indignation and embarrassment. If there is a small break and disagreement, it comes with personal pain. It's not something easily ignored. And the good we are given by our parents and grandparents is also enhanced, deepened. It is never unnoticed and taken for granted that we receive much and with sacrifice. They don't have to talk about what they do for us; it is noticed, and felt. I can't describe it except to say having "On" for them is a good feeling to the core. Also when we follow in their footsteps, it feels good. It feels grown. It feels right. We are not embarrassed that we are being naive, unsophisticated and to follow in your parents' and grandparents' footsteps should be avoided. That is a difference between traditional peoples and American society which I have noticed.

In 1950, when I started public school, everything changed and life did become complicated for me. Everything about school was radically different from family life and I began to try to navigate all the cultural conflicts just as many generations of traditional children do, not the least of which is the process to unlearn one's mother tongue. In my days, it was forced learning and on a particularly bad day when I returned home in a condition that revealed to my family that I was being severely punished for speaking Japanese, everyone switched to English when speaking to my sister and me . .. except for my Grandmother who stubbornly held on to her language and was my harbor. But it becomes second nature to my sister and me how to shift from home culture to school culture seamlessly.

Now I move the story to 1968. I leave home to teach in a small Washington school. Like youth my age, 21, I do feel the great change in the country. The Vietnam War was central. My friends were drafted, going to Vietnam. My classmates were dying. Dr. King is assassinated in April, 1968, before I report to school in the morning and when I walk in, the hallway is crowded with celebrating students AND teachers dancing and yelling "the N--- is dead!" I escape by plane disregarding the cost if the ticket on a first year teacher's pay to go home to my family where I can grieve Dr. King then back to work with renewed strength to say to my precious classes, "It hurt to see the celebration of a great man's death so I went home. I tell you this because I care about you and we should be honest to each other." That spring RFK is also killed. I don't have family, friends or community where I fit. My alienation is complete.

It is not until I move to Eugene that I find myself in a community. Advertised in the papers was a class called Asian American Experience, one of the classes added to the syllabus of colleges across the nation after the Berkeley and San Francisco sit-ins and school boycotts where students and faculty sacrificed so that colleges could become more than factories. I joined the class and I finally met a community -- each of us did -- and formed unions inside of the University and community cultural groups in the city. In Eugene, with very few so-called minorities, the unions and community groups worked with one another to support one another. And being who we are, we also played hard with one another. BSU, NASU, AASU, Gay Pride, Bridges (low income political support group). The multi-ethnic networking which I still value today is rooted in those years.

In Eugene, The Asian organizations and the Native organizations, both on campus and in community, began to especially connect. I remember those days when we'd hop in a car to Root Feasts, Pow Wows, basketball games on the reservation, and also to Obon in Seattle, Portland. NASU and the Longhouse community would support our Asian conferences and come to our after-parties. Asians from Vancouver BC to LA would travel through for the conferences, some staying at my house where the parties were. The parties attracted college students and people through grandparents age and the children. THAT kind of party. There were the other kinds too. We would be on each others committees. Pow Wows meant the Asians would be making sandwiches and lemonade by the jugs for the drummers, and would help by housing drums (families) and when that happens, friendships are made and some of them for life. When the friendships are made, from the tribal side everything is shared including family. My family also began to consider my "little brothers" and "aunties" from these relationships their family too. That is how Marvin Stevens and family of the White Horse Drum and Kenny Moses and his family became part of my own family circle.

This leads me back to Granny and my daughter. When our daughter came she came to a community, a huge extended family of Native, Latino, African, Anglo, Asian Pacific uncles and aunties, cousins. But it was not possible to have that fantasy life Will and I had dreamed of, a child to raise in our circle. Maki required something else. Our good friend from the White Horse Drum from Seattle area was a father figure to me. He took care of us down here in Eugene. He married some of my friends. He put a Sacred Prayer Fire in our backyard to help us. He came through each year to see how we were. We learned a lot from him. I would say at that point, we were following a path of life through him. The year before Maki came to us he came through on his way to Granny's Ceremony, his first time, and stopped on his way back. He talked excitedly about this woman Doctor who did with water what others did with fire. He talked about the sacred spring of Mt. Shasta and what he witnessed there. We had news to share. We would be parents of a child from Korea before the holidays and he would be Grandpa Marvin. As a vet of the Korean War, he felt this was a blessing and said he would be very happy to meet his Granddaughter on his way through next time.

I bring this up because by spring after our daughter joined us, we called him for help for our daughter. He said we should wait until summer and he would take us to the ceremony at Mt. Shasta. He said for this, we needed to see a woman doctor, and we needed a doctor who could see us more than once a year. That is when we went to our first Coonrod Ceremony and met Granny and joined the lines of people who came for help.

Granny and her cousin smoked me up and told me to breathe the root in. I shut my eyes and breathed deeply. They asked me to share what I saw. As soon as she said that, images came to me. The first was a little animal on its hind feet and a small pine. Then in front of them the Great Mt. Shasta bolted out of the ground, shoving itself up to a great height. I told her. She said, how do the animal and the tree feel? I said, they feel satisfied to be who they are and for the mountain to be what it is. She responded, "they feel just normal." I said "Yes! That's it!" She coaxed, "what else."

I said I saw Maki's face, laughing, and Granny said, "You think you're a bad mother don't you." The tears came as I nodded. My heart which felt like a clenched fist broke open like a dam and cried too. "Well, you're not," she said.

Grandma took my hands and held it in hers and told me to settle my heart. That she was there for me and my daughter. She told me anytime I needed help, to ask. She said she was my mother. Inside, I felt like a thirsty person drinking her words in like fresh water, and then I remember hesitating because I have a mother. I pushed that guilty thought away and breathed her words in deeply, opening wide up for this blessing.

Then just as the next image came in, her translator clapped loudly and then he shouted, "Did you see that!" and the image disappeared leaving me confused. I opened my eyes when I heard him not focusing. I heard him, "that white butterfly just came out of her and flew away." It was finished and I got up on wobbly legs, and the next person in line took the chair to be doctored. (By the way, after years with the Winnemem I know what that third image meant. It was simply my old friend Mark Miyoshi's Winnemem Name in a picture. I saw it even before Granny met him. She met him two years later.)

I continued down to Ash Creek where my little brother Roger Amerman was with our kids, his two sons and my daughter. He said, "Hey, Misa! You should have seen it. This little white butterfly came and touched the head of each of the kids and flew away!" Our children splashed and loudly joined in in excitement of the white butterfly that touched them. They felt special.

The June after the second time I went to ceremony at Coonrod is when my daughter and I started going every month to Granny. We spent the month with her to take care of things after a small stroke but Granny had used her medicines and showed no effects of it. She did need her rest though.

This is where those who are raised differently miss out in understanding what our relationship is. They call it worship. I felt such solace and comfort there with my then eight year old daughter. I felt more myself in my skin than anytime before since I left my Idaho family. I was me, peaceful, and grounded. My heart felt normal, it felt the way I felt at Home around my grandparents and my mother. That is my niche, to help my elders. To be happy together WITH them. Granny's cousin had taught me exactly how Granny likes her kitchen. I figured out what kinds of food Granny liked by our visit. I learned when she liked her tea. And I improvised what I wanted to serve her, a treat with tea, something healthy and yummy for dinner, things cut for easy eating. It made both of us happy. And my daughter learned by watching and being there, by serving Granny. This didn't have to be one of those "back when your mommy was your age" speeches children hate. Maki got to feel the best childhood I could give her, my childhood with grandparents, helping her mother. My daughter and I cleaned the house as I was sure Granny liked it. We went outside. There was a litter of pop cans. I said, Granny doesn't drink pop. Let's pick these up for her. She'll feel so much better when she can look out at her yard at her roses if we picked up the cans."

I also noticed that her helper had mowed the lawn with the tractor mower and mowed over newspapers because the ground was littered with strips of paper. We took a rake to it. We made short work of it together. It was still cool in the morning and a few hours before we should fix lunch and the hot early afternoon. When we went in, her cousin, Leona said, "She (pointing toward Granny's bedroom) that that woman works like a man." I filled up with happiness. I shared that with Maki, that Granny said we worked good and hard.

My daughter's days were filled with puppies and kitty kats which helped her heart. We would take Granny on rides. We would sit out at the pond or in the backyard and just listen to the insect buzz in the sunshine.

In my private prayers I thanked the Creator for filling that sad and lonely place with another Grandma. I was Grandma's girl and when my Grandmother died, I, the whole family was, as my uncle described, thrown in all directions. He said she was the hub of the wheel who kept us together. It was true. We were scattered and never came together as a clan after she died.

Granny made a home for our daughter far from the chaos of urban Eugene on her little farm with animals, a pond, and roses, three elders, where her heart could grow. I felt part of a village, not alone raising our daughter. At ceremony, it was the same thing.

Caleen who is now Chief was the first person in Maki's life to say to a circle of women, this little girl must be told No when she is doing something wrong. The men need to be told that they must say No to this little girl when she is doing something wrong. It is their job as uncles. And Maki sat on my lap and listened. She listened to me frankly talk about what was happening and listened to her Auntie Caleen and felt safe. I didn't know that at the time but now as adults when we talk together, she appreciates the adults so much who took the time and had the courage to be honest with her.

Florence Jones, Emerson Miles and Granny's daughter Margie are our daughter's Rock. Florence Jones is my second mother. She was my doctor and cured me of small things and big. She cured me of cancer the same year she cured two of my friends who came to her for help. She saved my mother's life. My mother was given very little hope when she was taken in for her second heart surgery. But the morning of the operation when I went to her room she was smiling and said, a star landed on my feet last night and traveled up my leg to my head, and I felt so warm inside. I'm going to be alright. I knew what happened because I had called my Granny that night outside the hospital to share my sadness of the doctor's dim hopes and she said she would go out to the Fire and to settle my heart. She would pray for my mom.

Despite the fact that the operation could not help her and considered a failure, my mother lived to be almost 90 years old. She lived about twelve years more -- able to live independently, take cruises to Alaska and tours to Asia, and finally live four years with me which was a blessing for me.

And that is what I owe my Grandma Florence -- no less than for rescuing our family, for rescuing our daughter whose life was twisted by neglect and prolonged abuse and who is now healed and who is now a strong, happy adult, for curing me of cancer, for saving my mother's life so that she could experience an independent and carefree life she had never before, for introducing us to her sacred places so they will know us, for taking care of us all like a Mother my Doctor and Spiritual Leader.

So it is not worship I feel for Granny, not anything as foolish as that. It is the deepest feeling of unrepayable debt. It is "On." That unrepayable debt means that you are blessed with the drive to "do the right thing to honor Life and future generations because of what was done for you by those who took care of you" and it is a gift which keeps on giving.

One more note. I notice, though my life, that immigrants and their children learn very quickly what part of their culture, their family, their way of life must be checked at the door before entering -- before entering the school, the classroom, the meeting, the job, whatever place. We automatically learn what things about ourselves will cause us to be misunderstood, limited, judged, overlooked, disrespected, put in danger, whatever the level of negative response. Being a hyphenated American can feel mentally unbalanced, I've always explained, like a split personality. But I have found a better more accurate metaphor through Karen Yamashita's excellent new novel I-Hotel about our generation and the state of the nation 1968 - 1980. Being a hyphenated-American is like being conjoined twins with yourself (Siamese Twins). We are seen as freaks no matter what, dragging along the American me and the traditional me.

I have not experienced a hyphenated identity in a tribe. There may be a moment or reaction individually from time to time, but in the big picture of the tribe and everyone in it, in tribal societies, we can bring our whole selves in -- just do it with respect. My husband who is Anglo by birth, and I who am Japanese by birth do not have to leave anything outside the door as citizens of the Winnemem tribe. Sometimes we both have that awkward moment of doubt if we are interfering with a tribal person's view of how things should be but that's more our worry, or our putting too much on something not important at all. We are solidly tribal members whether we are at the village and ceremonies or whether we are here in Eugene. As Caleen says, it is our belief, our path. As Granny helped me clarify, "where do you go for your kids? where do you go when you're sick? where do you go to pray?" We go the Winnemem way. It is the way of the least contradictions, the least compromise of my childhood upbringing, the least violation of our most deeply felt values, where the core and center is, what is the most important in Life for Will and me.

So for those who came to my blog through the person(s) unknown to me who judges me foolish because my relationship with Granny is different than what they're comfortable with, thank you for reading and taking the time to hear my point of view.

Here is my Granny before I met her. It is in 1975 after she brought back her ceremonies, the first spiritual leader to apply to do so after the First Native American Freedom of Religion Act was passed.


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  2. Beautiful Misa :) I don't know that the person who wrote that about you will understand, or if they even care or conceive of these things, but I feel I learned a lot about you reading it. Thanks for sharing.

    To be "American" is to be displaced from our communities, our elders, our lands... even our first languages that we learned from our mothers. All are things as Americans, we attempt to replace by materialism, money, among other things... things that can't fill that spiritual void and need to be human as we were originally instructed. We were each given instructions on how to be human, but a lot we've forgotten... or were forced to leave behind to survive.

    We shouldn't have to do that anymore. All people need to get past that and re-member. Its hurting the earth not to, its hurting ourselves and our children not to. I am not saying we should all be one big happy tribe, and ignore race/ethnicity (that's problematic in so many ways, and seems to be the current racial project of "America") but our family is our family for one thing - adopted or born of our bodies.

    Re-membering, following spirit in the humble ways that we can, is not worship. That's a Christian word that doesn't encapsulate the way tribal people live(d) their lives with respect for all creation. Not to say Christian people can't or don't do that, but I think we ought to rethink some of those words like that when applying them to tribal ways of life, as you use your first language to describe your feeling of the concept.


    I was thinking today about how we are not taught to respect our elders in this society... as I was driving an elder of mine to the emergency room today.

    People at Stanford might accuse me of being a pet or of worship or of any other kind of relationship really, and its hurtful, but what it comes down to is our elders need us as much as we need them. And that's been normal for thousands of years.

    What would have happened if I didn't take this elder to the emergency room?

    We neglect our elders the way that society is built right now... We lose so much with that... as a society always valuing the young, the inexperienced, the same ol' mistakes over and over... the individual devoid of any context...

    A funny question comes to mind... does every old person become and Elder? :)

    Anyway, thank you for sharing, as a person who is an Elder to me.

  3. I always feel you express exactly what I see as true, and now I read this and feel understood. That means a lot to me. You are a remarkable thinker, Kayla -- and a doer and a person led by spirit following with such confidence that it becomes all one thing. Thank you -- and I was told my my 92 year old Lakota friend, Wilma Crowe, some people just get old! Poor things. Thank you for reading this and understandingl.


"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.