Thursday, October 18, 2012

Beginning Again: Tadaima! Okairi! Wnnemem Way

It's been a few months over two years since I've blogged regularly. No writer's block. I've been writing grants, or postcards to the BIA, Department of Agriculture, US Forest Service, painting signs, emailing, putting together tri-folds, putting together informational sheets and handouts. Yes. I have been working hard for Winnemem Wage, our Chief's playful way of saying, "for nothing." Will is at the office, working for the same wage, and for the same Boss (the Boss who made the salmon and the rivers and Mountain of northern California and South Island New Zealand). He is almost finished with his film "Dancing Salmon Home" after almost four years. It will premiere at San Francisco American Indian Film Festival at the Bridge Theater, November 6, at noon. That may seem like a dead spot in a film festival but we will fill the house.

 During my absence I have resolved a couple of issues which also helps me write freely. One, I will write about later. The other is that residue of awkwardness being an Asian who is tribal in the United States. The United States is a very racialized and divided country. People are divided into categories like insects pinned neatly in old cigar boxes for our science projects back in the Fifties -- Coleoptera in one box and Lepidoptera in another. The divisions between peoples did not stop with categorizing subcultures. Each person of culture, like me for example, have lives split neatly in two, never the twain shall mix. We live a rather schizoid life from the time we were children, going through the school door and being "'Merican" and going through another, calling out "Tadaiima!" to Grandma and feeling hugged by her familiar response "O-kairi!" from inside the kitchen with delicious scents of shoyu vegetables and bits of meat for tonight's sukiyaki supper wafting out, carried by the subtle-sweet scent of gohan, rice-- a memory which always emphasizes the alone-ness within the silence whenever I come home to a place far from another time, far from a childhood Home.

And then there is the awkwardness of being an Asian who is tribal in the Eugene Asian community. I mention Eugene, because in many ways, being Asian here feels so different from being Asian in Seattle, in Portland, in Idaho. For a moment in time -- 1960's through the 1980's to be exact -- Eugene was very much like those cities I mentioned, comprised of descendants and elders of laborers coming to work the fields, the canneries, the railroads. They left their mark on their descendants and raised us to have a particular style, value system, point of view and plan of action, living in this country. But all of these friends moved on finding it difficult to find their niche here, someone to share a life with, a job which inspired them, some respite from institutional racism, a community center, place, a heart within the city, soul. Nothing wrong with Eugene and being in the Asian Community now. "But you don't know what you got 'til it's gone." I miss that generation of bachelor Filipino, Japanese farmworkers, Korean ancestors five generations ago, Chinese ancestors seven generations ago kind-of-roots, roots which got tangled up back in the Sixties, and grew us, the people of my generation together not apart. Everything, together and strong. Back then at the UO, we all hung out at the Longhouse, an old army barrack reminiscent of what our ancestors lived in, in the WWII concentration camps, out on Indian land for the most part. There was a sort of beautiful symmetry to find our safe house in such a residential shape, filled with the indigenous spirit, right smack in the middle of an unfriendly campus with doors and books and dorms shut to us. The old Longhouse welcomed us Eugene sojourners and Never-fit-in people, black, brown, yellow, white embraced by the Community that always lived here in Amerika from the beginning. They are the "that's just the way it always has been and that's the way we keep on doing it" people. We got the full treatment, the "Open the door, cook the stew. These poor kids need someplace to go" kind of welcome to the university and to Eugene. Back in those days, there would be no need to explain to another Asian about being Asian and tribal.

 I am not complaining about the explaining. It is always an opportunity for me. As an Asian person here in Eugene, yet rooted in another decade with another community vibe, values and soul, to be asked by so many Nikkei, "what are you?" "are you pure Japanese?" "Are you half Native American?" it gives me a chance to expand the limits, you might say. I answer, "I'm Japanese . . . and tribal, following the Winnemem Way of life for the past 25 years." If pushed for explanation, "Just as Grandma and Grandpa's generation chose to leave Nihon to make a better life for their kids in America during chaotic times in their home country, I left America to make a better life for my kids in Winnemem." That's usually the end of story. People must sense there is a long story behind it.

In our case, Grandpa didn't leave Japan for a better life. He liked his life fine in Seki-shi, a small village in the Gifu Prefecture in the mountain region where the Gifu River flowed. He, the seventh son, was sent by family so that Uncle Goro, his older brother, restless adventurer, with big dreams stuck in a small village, would have family in the US. However, Goro did not come across the ocean to be stuck with family members so Grandpa left, but not before he successfully cultivated a hybrid of a red carnation, big head and long life.

He left Goro to join the railroad construction crew for the short line between Montana and Wyoming. The boss said everyone had to be able to carry the railroad ties. Grandpa had good upper body strength and could whack down a railroad spike in one blow, but being only 5' tall while the men of the all Black crew he worked with were taller, Grandpa would not "make the grade." Out of the boss' hearing, one of the men said, "Frank! We need you. Hop on up!" And Grandpa grabbed the tie and hoisted himself up and moved his legs. That's what the boss saw, Frank, holding the tie on his shoulder and walking in step with the other men. Upper body strength is right! It was called the short line for good reason. When that job was finished, rather than following the railroad builders to the next job, Grandpa put together a crew of Nikkei together and they moved to the farms of Idaho, Twin Falls area, to work the fields. Grandpa, eventually was asked by Grandpa Marshall, Potato King of Idaho, to work for him, promising him a little house. With more security, it was then time for Grandpa to return to Japan to his small village to go through "omiai" and marry. All women who came to the United States from Japan were not picture-brides. The picture brides phenomena is an aberration of the tradition of "omiai" where families are involved, a professional is involved, and the couple have a say. The picture bride phenomena came from the recruitment of cheap labor, the low pay that workers received, and their uncertain and hard life in the US.

This was in 1918. Grandma said that the voyage was very difficult on the USS Yokohama for a young woman who had never traveled far from the village. Grandma grew up close to the Gifu River where cormorants were used to fish at night and the boats carried torches to trick the fish into coming up toward the light. The fishermen put rings on the long necks of the fisher-birds and stole their catch from their long beaks. She traveled far from her students in sewing school, from her mother and her brothers. Grandma did not pack the purple kimono which she told us about and which I always imagined her wearing as she watched the cormorants and fisherman on her river. Being inaka -- "small town" -- Grandma had never seen a banana and did not know how to eat them. She learned. She never ever ate so many bananas again after the trip on the USS Yokohama! I think we all inherited her distaste for the smell of bananas since. Being inaka, our dialect, and our values are very "old fashioned" when compared with the majority who came from port cities of Hiroshima, and Yokohama. We are mountain people. Isolated. In fact, Grandma and Grandpa were the only ones who left Seki-Shi to immigrate (besides Uncle Goro, of course, and later, my Aunt Tsuta who went through omiai with Uncle Bill in the Fifties and came to America and the Idaho fields too.) Grandma said that she was sitting in the little waiting shed with the dirt floor for awhile before she realized this was not a waiting shed, but this was to be her new home. She and Grandpa installed a blanket to divide it in half -- the Muratsuchi on one side and the Kawais on the other. Grandpa had brought the bride of his friend Muratsuchi at the same time he brought Grandma home to the Idaho field, their new SHARED home.

 We grew up in Grandma and Grandpa's home -- Mother, my sister and I -- for our whole life from the age of 2 for me, and just months for my sister. That is all I knew. Japanese is my first language. My sensibilities and values are very much Kawai. When I was five, in the early '50's, land opened up on western side of southern Idaho due to water from the Snake being diverted to water the desert. At the same time the Alien Land Law had been challenged in Oregon brought by the Namba family of Hood River. That meant the American born Nisei could buy land, and many did, Nikkei who were in Hunt Camp, the concentration camp in Minidoka, Idaho. These families never returned to their homes in Oregon and Washington, the hate and hostility of their former neighbors. We bought land in the unincorporated area of Marsing, Idaho, across the state from Twin Falls. My childhood memories are warmed by being surrounded always by family. I bathed in an ofuro put together by Grandpa -- men first, then when the water was a bit cooler, Grandma, Momma, my sister and me. One washes first before stepping in to soak. Hygienic enough and a pleasant memory. Our toilet was an outhouse, hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Our life was simple and good. I remember Marsing the most. We spent a lot of time with Grandpa who was an elder by then. We followed him everywhere. He taught us all that we saw -- the plants, the insects, the blooms, the good alkaline soil (I only found out by googling it that alkaline is considered to be challenging soil but I learned from my Grandpa's perspective -- "good soil,"), the animals, the birds, the tree, a single Cottonwood on the landscape which grew by the drain ditch where an old mean badger lived in a den dug into the bank. Those are my roots.

Stuck in Eugene by myself in 1969, during a time of great chaos in the nation, I eventually found my lonely homesick self at the UO Longhouse. At every crisis there was an "off-the-grid safe space" where I found myself: Divorce? I found myself with a cup of steaming coffee in my hand, sitting by Wilma watching her bead with colorful beads so pretty you wanted to taste them. With unemployment and risk of losing my house, I found myself, with another hot cup sitting by Wilma watching her bead, and at the Longhouse finding future roommates who would keep me with a roof over my head -- Bob Flor, Filipino, Roger Amerman, Choctaw. When Will and I adopted our daughter from Korea in 1986 our little five year old was "acting out-pissed" about being moved from her familiar orphanage. We found Holt Adoption completely unprepared. All they could do was to stop any further relationship with the orphanage for themselves. Child psychologists who left me in the waiting room and took the child off by herself were not up to the challenge. These psychologists always come back flummoxed with the tale she wove for them. We turned, not surprisingly to a friend and Snoqualmie doctor, driving up I-5 to see Kenny Moses who was going to be at the Child Welfare Act conference in Portland. When his workshop was over, where he talked to tribal people about going back with their children to their traditional ways of healing, the participants on their way out saw an Anglo man, an Asian woman and little little girl, and our friend Don Moccasin, Lakota, standing waiting for help. And that led eventually for deeper healing to Granny, renowned Winnemem spiritual leader and doctor which is story in itself.

 But here is a good place to introduce myself. I was born Nikkei, sansei generation, named for my grandmother, Misao. I go by Misa. Our name means "Life is beautiful." I am Winnemem and my Winnemem name is C'wisa which means "Chock full of song." For now, I will say that, for the first time, under Granny's wing, I was finally accepted and safe in this country called America. I would also dare say I am the first of my family to find a place in this land where we can bring our whole self in, no restrictions.

 There is a connection that I have with Grandma and Grandpa, powerful visualized memories of their homeland which are clearly useless in the American way. Grandma's story of a river full of fish with a little girl in traditional garb watching them even at night, singing, rowing, fishing; Grandpa's story of the ancient rocks outside the village with Kami spirit residing in them, the spring which came out of the ground and became the Gifu River; and Fujiyama, their sacred mountain, Grandpa's story about living at the foot of a small mountain, their family's mountain, and how an uncle or great uncle sold it because of marrying the wrong woman who did not understand -- none of this is useful in the United States where mountains must be sold to have value, and stories of Kami and rivers fished in the old way are quaint, exotic and not scientifically grounded. But as I write this blog, I'm thinking, here is my road map to Winnemem. I always credited Grandpa as raising me in a way I would recognize the Winnemem way as a good way of life for me and my family. But until this moment, writing this blog, I realize for the first time that may grandparents stories of their Homeland provided a road map to Winnemem. Being a child, I listened with rapt attention to the childhood stories, condensed precious memories of my immigrant grandparents. I visualized the stories and these images planted a powerful seed in me, which always flowered in my darkest moments. I remember then now as I note how I turned my children over to the Mountain for direction and healing, as I picked the medicine and faithfully used them to rid my body of breast cancer, as I received healing from the women's healing place by the River from the childhood trauma which limited my life, from each crisis, from each healing, strengthening my faith. I was brought here by the power of ancestral memory told to me as child in my grandparent's language before public school with its unspoken regulations: Leave culture outside the door.

 Grandma and Grandpa told me the stories over and over again until my heart was filled and I could FEEL the meaning when I saw another River, another Mountain, another Home at the foot of another Mountain, other Ancient Areas filled with Kami; until my heart was full enough to FEEL the lessons today and embrace the work because all of these places with spirit are endangered by those who profit from their demise. The consequences of breaking that bond to the land and selling it came from a story told by my grandfather and I FEEL it now it all its present practicality. We have to stop it. These stories are useful for me as a Winnemem whereas in America these same embedded heart lessons in stories would be left at the door like trash for Thursday morning pick up.

You do see the complications, however, of answering a question of identity posed by people who are Anglo or people who are Asian, with very different roots than the Asian roots stretching and tangling in American fields, canneries and railroads, our common stories of facing the dangers of lynch mobs and the' bloody work of hired company thugs on our skulls to stop the unions, and imprisonment of body and soul in desert concentration camps. You can see how it might be for us descended from such people as these first immigrants, that we might hone in to those safe places. It is easy to see why "safe space" might be made more distinguishable and understood by distant and precious life lessons our ancestors planted in us. And why some of those safe spaces will be facing the enemies of justice together. Growing up in the Sixties through the Eighties, we fashioned Identity from these stories born of ancestral memory which rose up when we faced doors slammed shut on us for jobs, schools, housing, churches. Those memories of sight, sound and smells passed on by ancestral stories rose up when in trying to come Home, we could sense the safe places between battles, not always in houses, lifting our heads smelling it first, then the light, then the sounds -- the smell of coffee instead if hot tea, the stew instead of gohan and yasaimono, and the same and familiar sounds of welcome and inclusion, Giggles, teasing, laughter, baby squeals, murmur of sharing, a drum, ancient songs, slight breeze, the light of a Fire, nature coming in closer, the ripple of a river, the splash of fish, stars, the shadow of a Mountain -- Tadaiima!!

In this strange, busy land which our ancestors came to find a better place for their descendants, because my heart held the stories, I found that place they dreamed of, it too in the midst of chaos like the one they left behind. I found a place worth fighting for. A Circle and in another language or even English with warmth around the edges, a most definite Okairi!

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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.