Sunday, May 31, 2020

History Lessons: That's Not Our "Way"

We all have our stories...our traditions and rituals. There is a story of how I received this mug.

Sundays include church-going for a lot of people, and it was for me for over 40 years. As an organist, pianist and/or Music Director for most of my life, Sunday mornings required a lot more than just showing up, playing/singing a few hymns, and socializing with family and friends we hadn't seen during the week. It meant prayerfully preparing service and worship music for the congregations who relied on being uplifted and inspired for the new week ahead. Pressure? (Insert a sarcastic "Nooooo!" here.)

But I'm not going to write about or speak for folks on the subject of what happens on Sunday mornings for the majority. No...this week begs for a perspective that may offend some, but...nevertheless, it's the truth. And we all know that the truth can be difficult to admit.

I attended via Zoom, the 2nd Talking Circle hosted by the Riverton Peace Mission on Saturday, May 23. The [timely] subject matter was racism. The question for discussion was: "What did you learn from your grandmother about racism?" Wow. That's a loaded question, because I had several Grandmothers. I kept my notes:

On the Starks side of the family (Lutheran/Methodist...basically Reformation). I viewed my Grandma Starks as a mild-mannered, gentle woman. It was on the family farm on Sunday afternoons/evenings where I developed my love for bluegrass music. My Uncles would brandish their instruments on the wrap-around porch of the farm house, and sing (in harmonies, I might add) the old traditional hymns, Depression-Era folk  songs, blues, etc. Most of the time, my Uncle Earl and Aunt Sharon would lead, but sometimes they'd all just spontaneously break out into some serious jams! My Dad would break out his ol' Horner harmonica. My Uncle Ralph would bust out in song, and though his singing voice wasn't exactly "American Idol"-type quality, it didn't matter. If he didn't know "Red River Valley" like the back of his vocal cords! I would sit on the my little Sunday dress and black patent-leather shoes, and listen...after running through the prairie with my brother Mike and my cousin Tim, who would tease me mercilessly about one thing or another. I would climb trees and spy magpie and robin eggs. I would run all over the lawn, barefoot, feeling the green grass under my feet. I would go upstairs and read my Grandpa Starks' collection of Peanuts comics and Louis l'Amour paperbacks. My Grandma Starks didn't even have to announce that the cookies were done. We could smell them from a mile away. When we'd leave, my Grandpa Starks would slip me an extra cookie and say: "Don't tell your Grandma."  I never did.
   My Grandma Starks was big on the Golden Rule: "Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you." Seemed simple enough. Treat others as you would want to be treated. "Great! Can I go out and play now?"

On the Lund side of the family (Lutheran, I think): I learned all kinds of things from my Grandma Lund. Most of to sew doll clothes. She was an avid doll collector (and that's putting it very mildly), and I would spend literally hours with her, learning how to make little doll blouses, shirts, pants, skirts. Seriously, I thought I would go insane. Until she would say, "Time for lunch!"...and she'd stop everything, go up into the kitchen and start on her homemade biscuits. She would get salad from the grocery store (mainly the seafood salad), but those biscuits?!?! O..MG. None compare, to this day. I have the recipe!
   What I learned about racism from Grandma Lund? A lot of derogatory swear words...and they were pretty colorful. I remained silent as she would talk about her views about [N-word], "Nips", and those "filthy Indian drunks". "Oh, but I don't mean you, dear." And I believed her....because I know that she truly did love me. But I was young, and the truth really don't say those kinds of things to a young teenage girl who is already greatly confused about her own identity.

On the Northern Arapaho side: My Grandmother, Loretta, gave me my Indian name: "Sweet Singing Woman". The amazing thing is...she had never heard me sing. I know that my entire Northern Arapaho family watched in silence as I was raised in a white, Mormon household. Yes, I am a product of White privilege. Whenever my (adopted) Mom and I would go out in public (like to Bi-Rite or Woolworths)...I felt eyes on me. I would hide behind her. But she would say: "Don't be afraid. Just wave and say 'hi'!" So I did. Little did I know that this was a White-Indian competition. I felt like an experiment.
   As I progressed musically (several piano and music competitions)...I didn't think about how I poured everything from my inner self, frustrations, emotions into the 88-keys before me. Music was the only avenue I had to express my confusion.
   I think my Grandmother Loretta knew this when she saw me for the first time in many years, on a Christmas Day when I was a pre-teen. She brought me everything she thought I would need as a Native Woman. A simple shoebox full of deodorant, tampons, toothbrush, toothpaste, pretty rocks, a strand of sagebrush with a ribbon tied around it. I've always loved the smell of Wyoming's sagebrush.

On the Welsh side: My Grandmother Richards (an Atheist) was a very intelligent, strong woman. From what I gathered from my biological father's side...there is a great affection for animals. My grandfather, Dr. Eugene Richards, was the Director of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Cedar Sinai. My Grandmother, however...was an advocate for animals, and I remember her saying: "Humans have the ability and intelligence to look out for each other. Animals in this world, however, cannot. Who will speak for the animals? It is us."
  I've felt a crossover from my Native roots to my Grandmother Richards. She had a particular interest in my daughter, because she watched her, like my Grandmother Loretta watched me. We are all connected in some way, and we all hope for the very best for future generations. I sensed that, at the time I met my Grandmother Richards, she could tell that I was very conflicted...mentally, religiously and spiritually. I like to think that she and Grandmother Loretta connected in a way that only the generations of women can.

Am I a "Tribal Elder"? No. I wouldn't even, ever assume to be, in the Northern Arapaho sense. But am I an Elder of Life? Yes. Those of us who have lived out our histories know we have Wisdom to impart beyond our years. Time is all we have. 

So my contribution to all of the chaos that is happening right now is: "Didn't we tell you so?"

Didn't we tell you that racism and violence would raise its ugly head, over and over? Didn't we tell you we wanted peace instead of war? Didn't we tell you that the greed of money would not bring you happiness, and be the demising legacy you would not want for Planet Earth? When will this end?

I've learned, since being back home...that there is a certain definition that confuses the boundaries between the "Cowboys and Indians". Drunks, druggies and gangs. "Park Rangers". Not the Native Way!  One and several bad apples can ruin it for the entire barrel...but do not judge the entire barrel by those those bad apples! The WRIR struggles enough without the added conflict.

That goes for white folks as well! What is the "White Way"? We know full well that there are those who do not tolerate racism and the injustices against Natives. But we also know that there are organizations and religions that have doctrines that are steeped in racism from their very genesis. The Mayor of Riverton is a White, LDS (Mormon). I hope that he doesn't view American Indians as Book of Mormon "Lamanites" (dark-skinned) in need of "saving" or becoming "pure and delightsome". There will always be a resistance against such a Nazi-like theology/doctrine. But beliefs one should tell any Native culture what or who they are, nor what is and what isn't. This might make me a bit unpopular with religions that have shaded histories they aren't proud of (genocides, crusades, inquisitions, extermination orders),'s the truth. We need to end prejudice and division, once and for all. Be that person who breaks the chains of a slavery that has disparaged hearts, minds and souls for centuries. It starts with me, it starts with you, it starts with us. The time of burying heads in the sand and sweeping critical issues under rugs is over.

That said...I am glad to take a moment to remember what my Grandmothers taught me, good and bad.

I was recently told by a good friend: "It is the women of our societies who will save us."

I've read so many articles on the subject of racism lately...isn't it time that we are better, instead of bitter?

Be good. Don't be bad. Don't destroy.

Be nice. Don't be mean. Don't burn the bridges that generations before you have tried so very hard to build.

Be strong. Because the Nouns of Life are going to hand us all a lot more challenges than we know.

Don't despair. Karma is aware.

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

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