My friend Marc Dadigan talked about a friend, recently on Facebook, who asked why he had so much on his page about Indians. I am sure my Facebook friends might have a similar question. For Asian people "Identity" is something important. I know a friend who started the DisOrient Film Festival announcing the 5th year that Identity was no longer an issue and chose for Opening Night Justin Lin's Fast and Furious Tokyo Drift. However, even now, another five years later, "Identity" is still a big thing with Asian people. There are still new immigrants, and no matter how many generations Asian families are here in the US, we still grapples with a country which still does not see us as Descendants. My grandchildren's generation, if I had grandchildren, still go through being asked "where are you from" or "what are you." They still get surprised reactions that they speak English with no accent, and Asian women endure pickup lines about geishas, or are regaled with anecdotes about trips to Asia or how these guys know how to tell us apart -- Korean, Chinese or Japanese. In fact my beautiful single Korean daughter just shared with me yet another bad experience at a night club. In her words, another guy with "Yellow Fever" came on to her and she whirled on him with "Soooo, how's the 'you look like a geisha line' been working for you?" then answering sarcastically for him, "NOT SO GOOD? then why don't you just think about dropping it." That may have not been nice. But sometimes a girl gets really tired. So much weirdness out there about who we are, it is no mystery why identity will always be something we grapple with in a land who can't see us for who we are. In this existential quandary I present this blog about my answer to the perennial question, "Who am I" with an experience somewhat unique in the American landscape for a Nikkei born in the USA.
When my Asian friends get on my Facebook, they may have questions. Although plenty of my posts are about Asian community events, my own experience as an Asian, and plenty of my posts are about the diverse and beautiful reality of my life, since I am a tribal member of the Winnemem my Facebook makes it clear that my identity definitely is Winnemem rather than white American. I ask myself sometimes, how do I explain this? I know it seems like a logical effortless flow for me. Therefore, I can say (since for Asians everything starts with the grandparents), it's a very logical effortless flow full of the ancestor's blessings.
I recently began to think, if my Grandfather and Grandmother, new from the Mother Country were able to have chosen for me, their eldest grandchild, what would they have chosen. Would they choose to send me to a school who would strip my Mother Tongue away because it was the enemy's language? Would they send me to a teacher who put me in a coat closet every time I slipped into Nihongo until I messed my underpants, and sat in that all day, excruciatingly embarrassed playing a nursery rhyme game (The Farmer in the Dell) and standing in my crusty underwear praying no one could smell it in the middle of a circle my classmates formed around me singing, "The cheese stands alone, the cheese stands alone. Hi ho the derry-o, the cheese stands alone." Alone.
Or would they choose to send me to learn in a circle of children with elders and parents and a community all around them, vigilant without imposing, as I grew into what I would be within the clan. Would they choose to send me to learn about nature as a human also part of nature, learning from the ancient trees, the water, the earth, the four legged, the insects, the fish, the plants, the medicines. Would they choose to send me to learn where everyone and their families were part of the school community, everyone belonged? Would they have chosen for me a school where the curriculum was to learn how to be a good human being and do do their part, to "tend" in nature? Together.
I know where they would send me. I know what they would choose for me. All Grandparents from all the waves and waves of immigration to the Americas would have done that for their grandchildren out of love for all of us . . . if they could have. No grandparent would say, "I choose the other because my grand kid's gotta' toughen up." They would not have thrown their grandchildren into the giant vat of racism, violence, alienation, addiction, depression and just hoped they would survive and succeed. They would, if they could, found us a place we can grow and give and find happiness. I know my Ojichan and Obachan are happy, as the words in an old Shaker Song Simple Gifts says, that their granddaughter, was able to, in "turning, turning, come down right."
But my ancestors like all other waves of immigrants to this country bore violent discrimination and persevered. My grandparents were finally given the ability to get citizenship after they had grey hair, after their sons came back from WW2, (for many Nikkei, in caskets) and was finally allowed the right to vote after their hair got more grey, 20 years later. Yet they raised their grandchildren to love the Bill of Rights and serve this country. I did as a public school teacher. I taught love of the Bill of Rights and serve the community by making it safe and inclusive and respectful. This brings us to 2013. This millennium would have broken their hearts -- to see the ugly legacy of mining for gold and mining for uranium, digging for oil. The new gold is food and water. It would have broken my grandfather's heart that the target for making it rich quick is now as fundamental as food and water. He believed food and water should be precious and abundant. My grandfather and grandmother had a beautiful abundant garden all the years of their lives. We ate from the garden. We weren't wealthy. We did not go to restaurants and our food did not come from the grocery stores when I was growing up. We grew strong on simple nourishing food from our labor, and from gathering along the ditches. Each harvest, my grandfather would carefully gather seeds. He dried them, and wrapped them in newspaper, patterned with Japanese characters. I still have a box of his last small packages of tomato, cantalope and squash. My grandfather and grandmother always missed living right next to a river. Our outings would invariably be to rivers. He was a fisherman. My grandfather was a fisherman and a gardener, and with grandma they were fieldworkers and farmers after the Alien Land Law was lifted. His heart would have broken with agribusiness, with Monsanto, with dam-builders who dam up rivers and divert river systems for fracking. My grandmother would have called it crazy. They were not political people. They saw too much violence. It would have broken their hearts to see what their grandchildren and her children had to do to say No to the craziness. It took enough for them to say No to their home country by leaving it. This millennium would have asked too much of them, because No was not in their vocabulary even though this is not the turn of events they would have chosen for America.
So following my Grandfather and Grandmother, from the Mountainous Region of Honshu, along the Gifu River to California, Montana/Wyoming short-line railroad construction, Idaho fields brought to life by the Snake River, I find myself along another river, the Winnemem, and another mountain, Bohem Pyuk, with people who are still defending the life of their tribe, their salmon, their sacred lands. And here I find myself during what all cultures in the world refer to as the Changing Time. For us Humans, it is an important time, when all the world and Nature comes to the point of no return. My ancestors' blessings, if I were to see their hand on my life from the day I breathed my first breath of air, brought me to this important point, prepared to make a definite choice, prepared to make a stand, and be able to tell false from true leadership, prepared to be a strong follower rather than a straggler, and able to feel the goodness of this life rather than be filled with fear and doubt. To be able to say Yes rather than live only a No to the destruction of the Changing Time is a gift. Yes to Winnemem is a No to the death of this planet. Yes to all indigenous sovereign people of the world is the one Yes we can say which is No to the death of this planet. The option has always been there, to be tend-ers in Nature, to be part of nature, to give our hands to the work of nature rather than destroy it. We only need to live with less rather than waste, and do more with our voices and hands to tend, to pray, to speak for Life, not live like addicts off of dead things -- as Winona LaDuke calls our addiction to unrenewable resources.
Who am I? I am a Nature-ized Naturalized Nikkei Tribal Member of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. There are Nikkei everywhere as I learned in Cuba among my Cuban Nikkei family there. My experience is more like theirs than my experience with my own blood relatives who are Japanese American. My Identity is integrated with the Winnemem Tribe as is the identity of Cuban Nikkei who were puzzled by the question, "do you identify Cuban or Japanese." They could not answer that question. After all, when they suffered under Batista during WW2 when the Cuban Dictator imprisoned all Japanese men 15 years old and over and left the Nikkei women and children to fend for themselves with their subsistence gardens. American Nikkei are so moved that in Cuba, the Nikkei women's Cuban neighbors plowed their own garden and then came over to help plow the Nikkei gardens. Friendships and neighborly relationships persisted through the war. The Nikkei were part of the revolution which formed their country. Other Cubans refer to them as Descendants, and the Nikkei history in Cuba is part of the whole. That is not the Nikkei experience in the US when the WW2 concentration camp and curfew laws over Japanese immigrant families were so complete on the West Coast that even those of us who lived outside of the wartime boundary of relocation and removal and did not go into camps still felt the hatred of our neighbors and country toward us as Jap aliens and non-aliens.
My experience allows for an integrated identity in this country. I don't live on a Winnemem Island in the United States. In becoming a tribal member I have joined a very American struggle of an indigenous nation's struggle to continue, to assert the precious Bill of Rights, to regain their sovereign treaty rights with the US Government. I also am part of building the US. As a school teacher in the public school system, and as a person who persistently stood for the Bill of Rights for all peoples, who was inspired by the justice movements of my youth to struggle and speak up for the ideals of a democratic nation, I was not passive or silent about America. Being a Winnemem Nikkei at the point of US history makes all the difference in the world to me. Today, this country's leaders would choose to support a few corporations rather than what is good for the American people or the Earth. And in allowing these few corporations to manipulate environmental protection laws, to hurdle over regulations which protect our health and safety, and to conspire with these corporations to pay very little for the public good and social services with taxes, threatening the American public school system, and the social services putting more and more American elders, veterans and families in harms way -- creating a new middle class, the working poor. I stand "outside the belly" with the Winnemem, a California Tribe, one of 90 percent of the California tribes left off the Federal Recognition List. Yes, the tribe suffers greatly from the policies of greed and hate. At the same time, they have intact their old way of life which would include their traditional education, medicines, government structure, a complete way of life. That is now my way of life, the medicines, the traditional education, my leaders, my way of life. Which would my Nikkei ancestors have chosen for me of they could? They would have chosen the place where I would be safe and where I could contribute positively. They would have chosen the place where I would not have had to deny them and could bring them with me. They would have chosen for me the place where I would have walked further with many many more ancestors. They would have chosen, I believe with all my heart, to be outside the belly of this beast, in 2013, and be on the side Life not destruction of our precious Food and Water.
So today, I am saying a prayer of thank you to my ancestors. They are Shichiro Kawai and Misao Ota of Kami no Mura in Gifuken Nihon on the island of Honshu. They lived along the Gifu River. Our background is samurai, living a simple bushido way of life of service before Japan transformed itself into an Empire and bully in Asia during WW2. My mother is Meriko Kawai Joo, her name signifying the new country of her birth. I was raised by them and George Shobei Kawai (still living), William Jiro Kawai, Ruby Tamako Aoyama and Grace Hideko Yamamoto (still living). I was also raised, walking side by side and often right behind while they lit my way by Wilma Crowe (Lakota, Hunkapapa band, still living), Dwight Souers and his beloved wife, still living, Twila Souers (Lakota, Brule band) Helen Castillo (Dine, still living). Anamethot (Kickapoo) Marvin Stevens, Kenny Moses (Snoqualme) Edison Chiloquin (Klamath), Harriet Amerman (Choctaw, still living), Robert Tom (Siletz, still living), Marie Brown (Umatilla), Paul Whitehead (Kootnia), and mostly for the past 30 years, Puilolimit, Dawinkai and Kows (all, Winnemem Wintu). Sawal maemus baeles bom.
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