Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Entering in the Middle

Since it really isn't fair to start in the middle of a story, we should go back to the beginning. The only problem is that nobody agrees on the beginning. It was too long ago and the oral tradition has been broken and corrupted by the systematic genocide of indigenous people across the United States. After hearing the stories of people from tribes across this country, its islands, and the various countries of South America, it has become apparent that we share one story. There are slight variations, but its melancholy, nostalgic helplessness and bitter frustration bring tears to people from Patagonia to Hawaii to New York. However, for the sake of time, we will focus on one thread of this collective history. For the Ahwahneechee of Yosemite Valley, this story begins in the middle.

A young woman asks her father-in-law why he doesn't talk about the traditions or stories of his people.

"You don't know what it was like!" he snaps uncharacteristically. "It was dirty to be an Indian. We pretended we were Mexican."

Now many years have passed since this exchange and despite wanting to share his knowledge of his culture, stories, and personal history, he can't. He can't because he has forgotten, or was never told by his parents. He tells the stories he knows and repeats the phrases he would have been beaten in school for speaking, but they are faded and jumbled. He teaches his neice how to pound, leech, and toss acorn, even though he would never have done the job of women when there were women to do it. Now whatever he can remember he throws out to whoever will catch it and keep it alive. There are not many.

This man is my grandfather, and my sisters and I are the generation of completely successfully assimilated Indians. The Federal Government of the United States has accomplished its goal to not just exterminate the civilization of Yosemite Valley, but to deny its very existence by denying federal recognition.

However, motions that were started in the last century have caused imminent and impending change to our existence. As of January, 2011, a non-profit organization under the title of Southern Sierra Miwoks has begun to make its case to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in a quest for federal recognition that started in 1982. Here, the story's missing pages become a problem.

Many descendants of the Ahwahneechee believe that they are descended from the people of Mono Lake,  the Pauite. They argue that Chief Tenaya, the last free chief of the Yosemite area, was Paiute, and that Chief Bautista, a Miwok, aided the Mariposa Battalion in chasing down and erradicating Tenaya's tribe. My father remembers that his great-grandmother spoke Paiute, Miwok, and Spanish, and does not see the tribe of Yosemite as an entity of either larger group.

I am here today not to take a side in this intratribal conflict, but to say that this division and anger is what the conquerers intended. Now is not the time to argue over our true origin, (which is most likely a mix of both, and if you go back far enough, we are all one people) but to move to reclaim the story with no beginning. It is time to learn and write about the people and legends of the valley, whether they be Miwok, Pauite, or both. It is time for us, their progeny, to learn both languages, and attempt to preserve both cultures as well as our elders can remember them. It is time to teach others of our past so that they may know we are not extinct, merely forgetful of who we are. We are a people with collective amnesia attempting to put our life-story together from what others tell us about ourselves, but we are still a people.

Projects have been initiated to save what we still know, and it is here where we shall place our efforts. Federal Recognition under any name will not be who we are, but it will give us the power and resources to control who we are today, and who we become tomorrow. The main goal of this blog is to document the progress of our latest effort, The Wahoga Village Project. A traditional village is currently being constructed by the Mariposa Indian Council, where my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather once lived. This village is to be the new site of traditional ceremonies and gatherings, and outreach programs for the general public. My youngest sister, with the help of our parents, has constructed our family 'umacha' in the place where my great-grandfather's house once stood.

The first constructed umacha in the new Wahoga Village

There are also plans for a reconstructed virtual replica of the village for use in spreading knowledge of the existence, history, and culture of the People of the Valley.

1 comment:

  1. Spencer, I feel blessed and honored that you chose a picture of the kids and I on our first trip to the Village. We had such a beautiful time! This project that you and your family are part of is more important than I really know. You are destined for great things, cuz. And this is just your beginning. I love you, Cousin.

    ps- sorry for all the cheesiness lol