Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Columbus Message from Outside the Belly of the Beast

NASU had asked me to prepare a speech for Indigenous Solidarity Week about colonialism but the day of the panel was cancelled.  I am happy to see so much activity on Facebook against the Columbus holiday and a drive to change it to Indigenous Solidarity Day.  One sad comedian suggested changing it to Bartholome de las Casas Day to honor the higher up Bishop in Spain who criticized the violence of Colombus' voyage.  Bu a student of mine researched him further and found he supported the African Slave Trade.  A man of very little integrity.  I'm posting this here because I wrote it to give.

I am Misa Joo, a third generation immigrant and a tribal member of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe of northern California.  Outside of this circle in the land of Columbus Day, the Government is still shut down.  Elderly, and people depending on their federal government are out of luck.  Ours government officials don't about food on their table, delivery of warmth to their homes.   For quite awhile, I’ve been thinking of something Russell Means founder of the American Indian Movement and historian said, “America, Welcome to the Reservation!”  That is my message to you today, on Monday of NASU”s Indigenous Solidarity Week, because we are in the final phases of colonization in this country, where our own government now turns its hungry eyes on their own.   Our dependence on other countries to feed our national addiction to fossil fuel has become increasingly difficult, embroiling us in war after war from the War in Viet Nam through those in the Middle East.  If you watched Gasland 2, you know that corporations and government are now focused on domestic shale deposits and ordinary to wealthy white Americans have been driven from their homes by fracking with their communities literally becoming ghost towns.  Their rights of life, liberty and property no longer work for them and their lives have turned to dust.  When it comes to what Winona La Duke, Native American economist and lawyer describes as the X-treme Extraction Industry, an individual has no rights, and no access to protection.   Day by day we read that Congress blatantly has become a shelter for the wealthy and, at the same time, Congress overturns programs which helped families, youth, elders, farmers, small businesses, laws which protected human rights, the right to vote, turning the United States into a third world country – 2.3 million in prison, the highest number in the world, drastic growth of numbers homeless and unemployed,  over a third of Americans without healthcare,  our public schools gutted, another generation at war.  Welcome to the Reservation.

I spent most of my adult life teaching middle school American History and language arts.  I grew up in a time of school reform.  Outdated textbooks were thrown out, and multiple perspective, and critical thinking was in.  This was an exciting time to teach AND to learn history and literature from many perspectives, and I took advantage of that and shared what I learned with my students.  I believed then, and still do, that the most important thing for me was that my students believed that history was in their hands, and history included their families.  Role models were not exclusively generals, Presidents and capitalists but more appropriate to prepare for adulthood are role models who fought for freedom and resisted slavery, who resisted colonization and fought for Mother Earth, who gave back, served and represented the highest ideals.

All my students will remember their first spelling list began with the phrase sovereign nations followed by the names of the Oregon tribes and the tribe of this valley, the Kalapuyan people of the Confederation of Grand Ronde. The first book they read was a book by Michael Dorris written for the 500th Year observance of Columbus, titled Morning Girl which when they come to the end of the book, the students realize the family they had fallen in love with were Taino and by the conclusion of the book, it was too late to objectify them when we read about the giant sails of Christopher Columbus’ ship paused on the horizon.

One of the first history lessons began with questions.   “Does anyone know what third world means?”  The hands go up.  “What makes a country third world?”  “Can you name some third world countries for me.”

Then followed by the question, “Does anyone know what a first world country means?”

My students predictably named the continent of Africa, Mexico and China as third world countries.  They described them to be countries with war, sickness, poverty, illiteracy, environmental destruction, and dictatorships.  First World countries named, also predictable:  the continent of Europe, the United States and Canada and described as advanced, good healthcare, educated, abundance of natural resources.  Then the work begins when I provide my students’ with primary sources from the journals of Columbus, Marco Polo, Cortez’ conquistadors and abridged portions of Before the Mayflower of the African Kingdoms.  It becomes apparent that China, Mexico, the kingdoms of Africa were greatly advanced in every way.  They were the First World Countries before Columbus’ voyages.  The first hand accounts of these countries describe universities with vast libraries, medicine, art, fantastic markets where wonderful things were sold.    I also provide chapters about Spain during the time of Columbus and it is clear that the European Nation States was a Third World region devastated by the environmental crisis of over used land, famine, a region of continuous war between the European nation states, all their resources funneled into military and for exploration.   Our study leaves us with this question.  What turned everything upside down?

I give them a journalizing challenge.   “You are a captain sent by Spain to explore and you have to decide who makes up your crew.  Who will you bring?  What will you bring?  Why?” In their journals the students made these great lists – artists because there were no cameras, a doctor, a musician because we could learn their music and share ours, a cook, a poet so he can describe what he sees just right, a botanist so we know what’s poison and what is medicine, a dancer for cultural exchange.  Without exception the young people interpret the job “to explore” as learning about another country, and sharing with another culture.

Then I gave them Columbus’ short list – horses, soldiers, sailors and a surgeon. Clearly, this was a military expedition.  Columbus’ journal is illuminating.  The goal   was to take land, take slaves and take gold.  He remarked on the beauty of the Taino people who greeted him and his men, and their peacefulness no evidence of weapons and says  “It will not be hard to take them.”  The Taino were the first slaves, their hands cut off if they did not collect their day’s quota of gold, their leaders violently killed and displayed to keep the people in terror.  The Taino were hunted down and killed or enslaved until their numbers were reduced to almost nothing.   This exercise and research is an introduction to a clear definition of colonization with use of primary sources.

Columbus’ voyage sets a pattern for the United States.   American history is about one military incursion after another to become a country from sea to shining sea using treachery in some cases, and genocidal policies which did not differentiate between warrior and mothers, elders and babies.     The economic basis of the country was not just gold but also founded upon the slave trade and an inhuman form of slavery that shocked the world.

We’ve all heard apologists defend American slavery by saying other countries had slavery too.  “Why, even tribes had slaves.”  But the system of slavery in the United States is unique and referred to by Americans as that peculiar institution.

First, the American form of slavery is the only system in the world that is based on color, not enmity.

This leads us to the second defining point, the American form of slavery was purely for economic reasons, for profit. The American slave trade fanned enmity and political grudges between African tribes.  There were many battles stripping Mother Africa of her people and the Middle Passage between Africa and America became a road of blood and bones.  Two million people died on the Middle Passage and over ten million enslaved.    Those who were enslaved were not the weakest – they were the strongest, the leaders, the lawyers, the chemists captured by their enemies and sold for alcohol or gold brought in chains and sold on auction blocks. 

To continue what set American form of slavery apart from other forms is that it is also the only system of slavery that turned human beings into chattel, beasts of burden, deprived by LAW of religion, education,  families, humanity. Despite these inhuman laws of the land and violent consequences, the Slave Narratives show that the People survived.  They kept communities, they raised children, they told their stories, and were undefeated.  It is important to teach this, that no matter how many generations of never knowing what freedom was, Black people had freedom in their hearts, and were always first, and still are the first people to stand up and speak out for freedom, to fight for freedom, even die for it.  Slavery must be taught as an American story of great American Role Models.   The point of the lesson should be how African people kept freedom alive through all means possible if we are to pass on the love of freedom and the strength to struggle to the future generation.  If not, do we make this story about the slavers shivering in their beds at night in their mansions always fearful of uprisings, keeping people down by violence?

The American form of slavery is uniquely inhuman in that bondage was for one’s whole life.   Most evil of all, the American form of slavery is the only slavery in the world where babies were born into it, babies left to be naked and fed from troughs to get that human out of them.  But the African people designated elderly grandmas to take care of the children and to raise them as long as possible and pray for them that they would not be sold and separated from their families.

It is important to know the truth about colonization and slavery so these don’t just become words.  It is important to understand that these powerful countries who were First World nations before Columbus became third world through aggression and violence and greed.   We must know it and feel it to recognize how the combined legacy of colonization and slavery plays out in our current lives.  We need to recognize the twin legacies not only in the way one profits by degrading human beings, but also how one profits by degrading Nature.  Presently we live in a time where there is great divide between human and nature, where an extinction of a species, drying up of rivers, polluting the air is acceptable if there is profit in it.

It is our duty as human beings to resist the belief system that a prosperous life, a good life must come from destruction of other lives and destruction of the Earth;  that others must suffer great loss for us to have what we need.  We are the lucky ones to be born into the time where it is easy to see that such a system based on the demise of others is not working anymore and that system is precariously on the brink of self-destruction.   That is what we need to teach to help the next generation survive.

Only the people can change things.  We can still turn things around from destruction following good leadership with sound ideas.  Many of our grandparents emigrated from their birthplace to come to this land due to traumatic changes.  My grandparents left Japan at the turn of the last century when their country fell into chaos blasted open to the West by Commodore Perry and his “gunboats from America” to labor in the dusty fields of southern Idaho.  Two generations later, I have made a similar decision.  During these times of global catastrophe, when it was offered, my husband and I left the path of destruction set upon by our birth country for a path that supports life.  Since the early 80’s, our family has followed the Winnemem way of life.  We are the Middle River People.  We are salmon people.  Our sacred responsibility from the beginning of time is to the salmon, water, and sacred lands from Mt. Shasta to the Delta.  Chief Caleen Sisk always says if we follow the salmon, if we act in a way that helps their survival, we will have solved climate change.   I believe that to survive as a human race, we must listen to the indigenous peoples of the world.  I believe that before the leaders of the country my grandparents and parents made into their home destroys life as we know it, we must follow the message from indigenous leaders around the world to struggle for Mother Earth and resist the X-treme destructive policies of corporate greed.   We should not wait until we cannot be part of the solution, but stand up now when indigenous leaders are reaching out to the world with their message.  Stand with them.  Help spread the message.  Share your resources.

 Will and I are blessed and honored that due to circumstances, we had the opportunity to stand with the Winnemem Wintu Tribe of Northern California -- a state at the very beginning of an intense water war with a governor bent on making a name for himself by throwing  himself in with the X-treme developers of the state and sacrifice the public trust for a "short man's" Napoleonic vision, an Ozymandius, his structure being a freeway- sized twin tunnel to divert the whole Sacramento River  system away from the Delta.  Like Ozymandius, his structure will deteriorate into sand, but for Brown, first and during his lifetime, it will first destroy the largest estuary of this continent and incubator for many of Nature's species which grow up in the Bay Delta.  Instead the river will be diverted to another city to be built in the desert, and to feed the fracking industry and toxify the air and drinking water for populations of his people all through California.   

Our Chief is only the fifth Chief since White contact.  Within three generations, in recent history, her family has survived bounty hunters, massacres, boarding school violence, loss and drowning of homeland, loss of federal recognition, loss of human rights, and yet the Winnemem continue to be Winnemem.   To be Winnemem is to resist genocide, and resist participating in the destruction of Mother Earth.  To follow her, helps people rather than destroy people.  Working and living outside the belly is the only option I see, and following my Issei Grandparents, for the sake of future generations, I am a nature-ized Winnemem.
Beedi Yalumina,   We will never give up!       Hee Chala Baskin!

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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.