Art & Activism: Notes, Quotes & Wonderings
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This letter/editorial piece was published in the Ukiah Daily Journal (Ukiah, CA) on Sunday, February 24, 2008
Letter to the Editor:
The other night I attended a school board meeting in Kelseyville, California. The name of the school team was the subject of emotional debate. The school board has already responsibly changed the name away from "The Indians" and some apparently want it changed back.
I agree with the young athletes who spoke that the replacement name, The Knights, doesn't cut it. School spirit is down. I imagine they just want to get on with their lives, have a successful academic year and get to play sports with the whole town turning out to cheer them on. Young people are go-forward kind of spirits. And it is hard to go back in time and awareness once we know better. I doubt they would really feel heightened school spirit from sitting in the stands yelling, "Smash the Jews", "Cream The White Man", "Slaughter the Coyotes", "Pummel The Mexicans", "Butcher the Whales" or hear from their opponents, "Kill The Indians". And if the students had been empowered to come up with a new school name, logo and song, I believe they would have brilliantly risen to the task.
But instead the other night, I heard a sincere plea from the grownups of European descent to go backwards, to stay in the horrors of the all too recent genocide. The Indians (the real ones, not the mascot) present at the meeting once again had to hear themselves equated to animals, told that no one there was a racist, that there was no harm meant by the mascot name and caricature, and so on.
I was born and raised in Potter Valley and went to high school in Ukiah. Our school names were Bearcat and Wildcat to symbolize speed and accuracy and skill. Fortunately, were not called The Jews, The White Man, The Italians, The Mexicans or The Indians. Two of our star players were Pomo Indians and when I first met their grandmother, she told a story to my mother of white men hunting down Indians from horseback for sport. So the claim made the other night that this all happened a long time ago and we should move on did not ring true. This happened in my lifetime because it takes longer than one generation to forget the pain of rape and slaughter and kidnapping.
In 1965, I played on the volleyball team in high school. Sometimes if there was tension on the floor, there would be a fight afterwards, the White girls against the Indian girls, tearing out each other's pierced earrings and bruising each other's eyes. The claim that there is no racism here did not ring true.
One speaker talked about how proud she was to be An Indian (i.e. member of school spirit) and that it had meant so much to her to be the high school princess. I was high school princess in 1967. But it never occurred to me that there were no Indian girls nominated for the crown. And deeper yet, it never occurred to me to ask them, "How are the young women honored in your culture? Perhaps we could mix the two cultures or have two celebrations on home coming day." It does not seem appropriate to carry a peoples' name if you are not also willing to carry the history, the culture, the song, the stories, the traditions and the heartbreak.
I have watched my people lose touch with their own European culture and once lost in that sense of emptiness, when you no longer have a home, I watch us begin to steal. We steal land, songs, jewelry, food, clothes, and holidays. As Meg Christian writes in one of her songs, "I nearly tore up your house looking for my own keys."
So back at Ukiah High School 1967, if there had been such a meeting as the one in Kelseyville, I would have been sitting with the white kids. But guess what? The gift of change, like spring, is always in the air. The Pomo women educated my mother and father and our parents educated us and the other night, my sister Laurel and I were sitting with the Indians. The day my parents taught me to cross over the barriers between people was the finest day of my life.
How can we possibly dare to participate in decisions about other peoples' lives and hearts if we cannot cross over and sit with them? Maybe we won't speak, maybe we will just listen, maybe we will just let ourselves feel the hot and cold mix of nerves and relief that come when we dare to sit in peace with some one that isn't from our own clan. But that is where peace starts.
It does not come from Bush ordering the bombing of Iraq. It comes from sitting with the Iraqi women and children and the men that they choose. Just sitting. Watching the babies play together. And out of that simple example of well-being will come the next generation of decisions. The war against the Indians will not end until the people of northern European heritage cross over that isle, that river, that silence, that denial of history.
I don't like that my great grandparents remained silent and condoned the killing of Indians. But it won't help for me to pretend it didn't happen. The truth is hard at first and then it liberates and everything starts to change. I am not an Indian. I am sitting with the Indians. There is a big difference.
So, to the young people at Kelseyville High. Rise up. Call for a competition to find a new name for your school, for your team. Have art contests for logos and song contests for new songs. Don't get brought down and depressed in this mire. Your neighbors are telling you loud and clear, "This hurts. Please stop hurting us." The cleanest response is, "OK. That is not our intention so we will find another name. We will find the third way."
What is the third way? The third way is when the first and second way is unacceptable. So instead of choosing between two negatives, you create a positive alternative.
Way one is unacceptable which is to keep the name "The Knights". Hate it. Bummed out. Depressed. No school spirit. Makes it hard for current and future generations to trust neighbors, feel safe at school, and get a good education.
Way two is unacceptable which is to keep the name "The Indians". That is to hurt the Indians again, make it hard for current and future generations to trust their neighbors, feel safe at school, get a good education.
Way three. Take on a new name chosen by the current student body that is not offensive to any cultural or ethnic group, to women or to endangered species. In a formal ceremony, ask the Pomo Indian committee, chosen by the Clayton Duncan family, to clarify that there is no offense in the new logo. In a public ceremony, offer up the new name, the new mascot, the new logo, the new song to a new era of peace and understanding in the context of historic truth.
And be sure to invite the National press - 60 Minutes, Oprah, and The Today Show so that they can come and celebrate a student body and a community that is moving on, not with hate and denial and mistrust, but with full disclosure and a joyful decision. Let it go down in history that in 2008, the student body of Kelseyville High decided NOT to call themselves The Indians but rather to actually be IN community with their Indian neighbors.
Why am I up here
In front of all these people?
It is a wild notion
To perform in front of people
Ah yes, I remember
I am not here for me
I am not here to promote my ego
I am here to serve the Great Spirit
To be a voice for those afraid to speak
To be movement for those who are stuck
I am here to reveal a mystery
To learn something new about myself
I give my talent to the wind
I give my weakness to the rocks
I give my fear to the stars
I give my confidence to the moon
I give it all away
So if I am great, it is not my greatness
It is the wind that will celebrate
And if I am not great, it is not my failure
It is up to the rock to carry the pain and disappointment
I am a channel here to do the work
To make the discoveries
To shout the joy
To call my mistakes "teacher"
I am here to give it away
To the people who come to watch and listen and feel
So that we will remember more than the time of day
Why am I up here
In front of all these people?
So that the Great Spirit may paint a picture on my face
This piece appeared in Tikkun Magazine, January 2000.
Winter morning. 1955. Should I sleep a little longer in my cozy dreams or
put my feet on the cold floor? I hear mom crumpling yesterday's
newspaper, lighting the wood stove. She slips out into the morning
moonlight to milk the cow. I want to be with her, with the moon. I am up
and for ever after, a morning person.
Our house is filled with music. Paul Robeson, The Weavers, Lena Horne,
Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Pablo Cassals, Mahalia Jackson. Hope and
disappointment perfectly entangled in each breath. They seem eager to be
alive even in the face of great risks like racism, poverty, drugs, child
abuse, and fame. I stand in front of the mirror imagining their sounds
coming out of my little body. This is how I learn the honest notes from
the false notes. With these icons as my guides, sleeping in is not an
Winter morning. 2000. The bear in me enters the cave to sleep, to learn
from my dreams. I have lost my sense of direction. Trust. Lost, I am
teachable. We are much older than 2000 years. We under-estimate
ourselves, distilling our diversity into a dominant culture calendar.
Halloween narrowed down to witches and pumpkins. Spring equinox dressed
in chocolate and bunnies. If I sing this in front of the mirror I find
I feel uncomfortable walking alone into the birthday party. I don't
really know Him. I forgot to bring a gift. People are drinking too much
and talking too loud. I have worn the wrong clothes. I vow once again
never to go out on a New Year's Eve with so many lost people on the
Were we supposed to celebrate all time? Were we trying to measure
transformation but got stuck in 2000 years?
Stop. Go back to the morning. Before the sun. It is still dark in the
northern part of the world. The down under feels her heat creeping over
the horizon. Watch her, listen. Mother Nature promises us transformation
by example. Still we lose sight of faith.
"Where have all the movements gone?" I wonder. Bad habit. Brilliant
change is everywhere. True, circumstances may shake us until our teeth
rattle, but once we surrender to the huge arms of participation, it is a
natural home. So many of us have come to this place. Why do we doubt our
Notice the speed at which the civil rights movement transformed the
world. It did not fix the world, it transformed it. By noticing, by
giving weight to participation, the next social change movement makes its
way through chaos and prepares a surprise attack on its sleeping
leadership. My faith renewed.
In less than a century we experienced great movement. The youth movement!
The labor movement! The civil rights movement! The peace movement! The
solidarity movement! The women's movement! The disability movement! The
disarmament movement! The gay rights movement! The environmental
movement! Movement! Transformation! Is there any reason to believe we are
Do I insult God, the universe, the inexplicable power when I fail to
appreciate our brilliance? When I sulk and allow fear and confusion to
influence my personal foreign policy? On my knees, from my bear cave, I
Thanks to elders who bring a century of experience to the debate. Thanks
to young people who come with fresh perspectives, unburdened by the
weight of history.
Thanks to those who no longer accept dominance in leadership. Thanks to
people of multiple- world ancestry for dancing identity. Thanks to you
who have learned a divine blend of detachment and engagement which has
brought revolutionaries through impossible predicaments.
Thanks to you of northern European decent who confront your racism.
Thanks to you men who are redefining masculinity in response to feminism.
Thanks to the women who no longer alter natural instincts in the presence
of arrogance. Thanks to lesbians for loving women amidst misogyny. Thanks
to lovers who discover that sex in the arms of love is different from sex
in the arms of despair.
Thanks to those sick with twentieth-century viruses and immune system
deficiencies whose activism has forced review of patriarchal health care.
Thanks to you who risk your lives for whales, gorillas and redwoods.
Thanks to you who rise above cynicism about religion to a self-defined
I feel the cold air hit my sleepy eyes as I follow my mom out into the
dark morning. The world is full of transformation. I listen for the song
birds, the singers who dare to shout and whisper the honest notes. The
moon and the sun tell me my true age. Mother Nature promises
transformation. Faith comes with the noticing. I am a morning person.
In 1999 I was asked to submit a piece for a compilation of thoughts called Prayers for a Thousand Years, edited by Elizabeth Robersa and Elias Amidon. Elizabeth and Elias are advocates for social justice and spiritual awakening. They are on the faculty of the Naropa Institute. This compilation includes writings by Alice Walker, Marian Wright Edelman, Ram Dass, The Dalai Lama, Noam Chomsky, Judy Chicago, Margaret Randall, Joy Harjo, Nelson Mandela, Mzwakhe Mbuli, and oh so many more (well over 200 contributors in all).
I am waiting for instructions.
From the sky comes the scope of my unlimited possibility
From the trees come the calendar of time, ring by ring
From the wind comes the passion that fills me just before I learn
From the water comes my gratitude for in it, I recognize myself
From paintings on the stone and drums on the mountain I am reminded that I am not the first. From the inquisitive and demanding nature of my niece I am reminded I am not the last.
From the girl child in the sweat shop whose little fingers bring in ten cents an hour, to the poet who shakes the world round when she speaks "Good morning", to the woman beaten beyond recognition by the man who says he loves her, to the activist who wraps herself around a tree as the blades drown out the sound of her beating heart, to the teenager holding the doll she never had after it comes through her body and will be with her for the rest of her life, to all these I cry out my womanness.
From the lovers hiding to the lovers who kiss in the moonlight as bombs fall just yards from their dreams, reminding me to feel joy when athlete and disabled dare to kiss, when Jew and Arab dare to kiss, when Irish and English dare to kiss, when man and man dare to kiss, when woman and woman dare to kiss, when black and white dare to kiss, reminding us all that for as long as loving evokes fear in our hearts then we have yet another mile to walk to heaven
From the motion of people, movements, in search of higher places, at first the object of disapproval and fear, we grow like dancers hurling through space, our blood splattering in the air and floating down in slow motion, the star dust of perfect intention, like skaters holding each other up for the world to see, crashing on brutal ice at essential moments. I am inspired by my peers as we reach to understand our purpose here
I have torn open my soul, worked to a sweat, wept with humiliation, struggled with confusion, battled with apathy and disillusion, confronted my beliefs again and again until I thought I would drown in sorrow and yet, here I am, on the dawn of a new millennium, profoundly informed by all life and love. I am ready to take the next step. Yet this time, I am filled with calm and grace, I feel less fear than ever before, I have learned compassion in spite of myself, I do talk to the trees and listen to the wind, and I am waiting for instructions.