Tuesday, June 24, 2008
From Mebane, North Carolina--
Back on the Longest Walk. Still difficult getting internet access and getting on the blog.
Stayed with great folks at the Ocaneechi-Saponi reservation. The last full blood there died in the mid 1700's, so these folks look more like light skinned African Americans than full blood Indians. But they have recreated a traditional village, and are reviving their 'extinct' language. They also cooked up some seriously good fried chicken.
Interpersonal conflict continues on the walk, but it seems to be getting aired more, and resolved. People who took off for the NOrthern Route say conflicts are rife there too, and that visitors from the Southern Route did not feel very welcome.
One friend here, a Navajo, said he thought there was so much interpersonal conflict because of the work we were doing healing Mother Earth and the Native history on this continent. It's as if with every step we take we are soaking up her wounds and the historical wounds of the people we encounter. So naturally that's going to play itself out among us.
Other people have complained of the chaos and lack of leadership. The people who have taken on leadership positions are or have seriously burned out. Today and yesterday our extremely competent Japanese translator and finance coordinator blew her stack. Another walker stepped forward and asked Dennis to lighten up on the walkers, that everybody was burned out.
But the same Japanese woman led us in a hula dance and song today, which we all did. I didn't realize the hula was actually a martial art. You can see in the dance and song that it incorporates light and dark, and is nothing like the Hollywood versions of it I have seen.
These moments of song and dance as well as people's honest expressions of how they feel seem to have helped the mood of the walkers.
Dennis Banks has returned to the walk after being away with the Lumbee and Tuscalero people. He tried to get them both to join us, but word is that since the two tribes do not get along, when each one heard the other was going to be on the walk, they both cancelled.
Indian Country Today has run a good clarification story of an incident between walkers and police in Columbus, Ohio.
We are nearing the end of the walk, and will be arriving soon in Washington DC.
A medicine man in Peru once said "How you arrive is very important."
I am thinking a lot about that as we near DC.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
"Lighten up! Reduce, reduce, reduce!" Nate keeps yelling at the Longest Walkers.
Nate is the Longest Walk's sargent at arms, the one that keeps us organized, wakes us up in the morning, gets us into morning circle, convinces us to help load and unload the huge weight of luggage we carry in trailers from town to town--
the backpacks, the sleeping bags, the tents.
Nathan is tall and has a big commanding voice and perhaps because of this is not loved by certain people. "Oh shut UP," mutters one woman after Nathan has barked another set of orders.
But he gets the job done. And he has reminded me, with his latest order to 'reduce', of how much baggage I carry around.
I realize that one of the reasons I am on the Longest Walk, aside from my desire to bring more respect to Mother Earth and Native sacred sites, is to reduce my baggage, in both the physical and the metaphorical sense.
When I am walking, I can feel every little extra ounce in the canvas bag that I carry strapped around my shoulder--oh why the hell am I carrying that stupid comb, do I really think I will suddenly want to whip it out while I am walking and comb my scraggly-ass hair that hasn't been combed in a week?
I feel, as I put one foot in front of the other towards the seventeen miles a day that we walk,, a letting go, a freedom and focus. There is nothing that is important but my feet, the road, the land, and the rest of the people I am walking with.
With none of the tempting baggage of my past around me--no house, no car, no job, no history, I am free.
Free to invent new baggage.
I did what Nathan "suggested", unloaded some of my winter stuff from the trailer and sent it away in a brown box.
Afterwards, I promptly went to Good will and spent $12 on 3 new skirts, which of course will fill up the hole left by my old baggage.
In the warm Alabama night, I join a Native man* as he sits with two light-skinned local Cherokee men who are wearing traditional dress.
Usually easygoing and friendly, he flares up when I sit down.
"Yes sit down," he barks, "You might learn something. "
The atmosphere is already thick when I sit down, so I wonder what's been going on.
"You can't prove you're Indian," he eventually says to all of us, taking out his tribal enrollment card from his back pocket and waving it around.
"That's right," I say. " Which is why I call myself an ally and not an Indian, even though I may believe the family oral tradition of Indian blood."
"Well I'm working on it," says the younger of the Cherokees.
"I can not only prove I'm an Indian," he continues. "I've lived it. All you can talk about is the Trail of Tears," he says to the two Cherokees.
He is getting angrier, his voice rising.
Actually, he is a mixed blood, and has spoken of being discriminated against by both whites and Indians.
When the two Cherokee leave, he continues on.
"Why did you go to South America? It was guilt, wasn't it?"
I feel like he is pushing all his pain towards me, wanting me to feel it.
"We are victims," he says. He knows I'm half-Jewish and begins to tell me how much more victimized his people are than mine. I know that the story of my relatives has been told and heard and that the story of his still needs more telling, but I am reluctant to fall into the "my people are more victimized than yours" trap, one that I have heard before from friends on the Left and one that I feel ultimately leads nowhere.
"Yes you are," I say. "But now what? What can be done now?"
"There is nothing to be done," he says, "the hoop has already been broken."
Instinctively, I recoil from this level of despair, even though I have seen it in the eyes of Indian men before.
I'm finding it difficult to write about the walk, because there seems to be so much pain that flares up between all of us--between the races, between the generations, between full bloods and mixed bloods. Several people have made final angry speeches in morning ceremony and left the group. Others have pleaded, "Why can't we all just get along?" and "We all bleed red."
The same stories that are played out in the country, and in the world, are played out here.
"I know why they whine, I know why they cry," said one Native guy while we walked together. "They are human beings."
Like human beings have been doing for centuries, we turn on each other, we blame each other, we talk behind each other's back, we throw our pain at each other.
But we keep walking.
Then suddenly, we are stopping in a new community and people are showering us with welcome and praise and appreciation, and we remember why we are doing this.
And maybe the hoop can be mended.
(*I am deliberately leaving out details like name and tribe to tell the story but maintain the privacy of the people involved.)
When I was in junior high school in Berkeley, an African-American friend named Gwen, took a trip down south to visit some relatives.
"Damn," she said when she returned, "I couldn't understand hardly anything they said."
"Like what?" I asked, stuffing my clothes into the gym locker next to hers.
"Like Ma Da Go Cafone." She said.
"Ma Da Go Cafone," she repeated. "It means 'my daughter went to California."
I thought Ma Da Go Cafone was so cool that I used it as a powerful mantra to torture my younger brother, repeating it over and over and telling h im I wouldn't let him know what it meant until he turned 13. I kept my word, but he was probably disappointed.
White or black, people here in the South talk differently than I do.
A pale skinny guy on the Greyhound bus from Alabama to Tennessee began to make conversation with me while I was trying to catch up on my writing.
"Ahm gon ta Paduca tagit me a truck." he said.
Oh lord, I thought, some redneck that has nothing better to do than make conversation that I don't understand.
"Hmm," I said, staring intently at my writing pad. Scribble, scribble.
Eventually he began to make so many semi-intelligible comments that I was forced to put down my pen and listen.
And I found that the guy had a lot to teach me. About what it's like to be a truck driver in Alabama, for instance, when all the small and middle sized trucking companies are folding because of the price of gas, and the big companies are cutting back on salaries and benefits.
"Everythang's gon corporate, " he said. "We're losin that human touch, we're just numbers ta them."
Well, I thought, this is a language that a lot of people in this country seem to be speaking.
I learned about his passion for genealogy--something we share--and about how to speak Southern.
"Yont." he said. "Mayonaisse."
"What?" I asked politely, wondering if he might be trying to tell me about his daughter going to California.
"Yont ta come with me ta Paduca? Mayonaisse a lotta people on this bus!"
He laughed, then admitted that he had stolen a lot of his lines from a famous Southern comedian who makes jokes about rednecks.
But it was new to me, so I laughed too.
"When ah wuz up North, "he said, "ev'body loved the way ah talked. They jus kept asking me over and over to say something, anything."
The countryside we were passing was green, with rolling hills. Alabama was much more beautiful than I expected.
"That's my town," he said, "just over that hill. Not much to look at, just simple country living, but it's where I'm from. I love it. Wouldn't want to live anywhere else. "
I had put my writing pad down. He was actually a pretty interesting and good hearted guy.
At Nashville, the bus stopped, and I got off, wishing him goodbye and good luck.
He said something in response that sounded like a mouthful of cornbread, but which I now recognized as the secret language of the South.
Friday, June 13, 2008
Coming into "The South" for a northerner (or better said, a Westerner) like myself, has felt like visiting a foreign country.
I have, quite frankly, approached Alabama and Mississippi with more trepidation than when I travelled into the Amazon jungle.
The names of the cities here are not just city names to me--they are syllables that evoke particular images from my childhood: Birmingham, Montgomery, Hattiesburg translate for me into "rabid white crowds, dogs, hoses, George Wallace, lynchings." As we walk through these cities, walkers and locals say: "This is where two black men were lynched," or "this is where a rabbi was murdered."
Is there really a New South? I have asked people along the way.
The response has depended on who is speaking. "Well, you know, the old-timers, they have a hard time changing," says one.
One of these 'old-timers', a white guy in his sixties who was a police officer during the Civil Rights demonstrations, says he thinks there is more racism now, exacerbated by affirmative action programs which are resented by whites. He is one of those people who thinks the country will collapse to the point where everyone will be protecting their own with big guns.
A black woman in a tiny country store in Mississippi, when asked if the KKK is still around, says "Oh yeah, they still around."
The cheerleading squads on the University campus in Hattiesburg are practicing when the Long Walkers walk onto the campus..they seem neatly divided into white and black. Professors on campus say that progress is still slow, though most of the young generation doesn't seem to suffer from the blatant racism that their elders have.
What amazes me is when a couple of different professors--at two different universities--tell me that many of their students come into their classes with no knowledge of the history of the Civil Rights movement here in the Sixties. One prof, after having shown a documentary on that era, was asked by his students: "Why weren't we told about this sooner?"
Trail of Tears? For most young people, it's also not in the history books. Unless you are one of the many people around here who want to rediscover their Cherokee roots.
I did go on a couple of Plantation Tours... an interesting way to learn about the colorful people who lived in these Southern plantations, and some of the history of the area. My friend Melinda, who writes a column on old plantations here in Tennessee under the name "Auntie Bellum" says she has only been on one tour that described the life of the slaves on these plantations.
There definitely seems to be a kind of Southern Discomfort going on with southerners and their history.
And with me. I am both fascinated and repelled by the South, which after all is a big chunk of our own American history,despite their efforts to secede. I have ancestors who fought and died for the Confederacy--some who may have lived in those big plantation houses and some who themselves picked cotton.
In Alabama, a carfull of teenage yahoos (no not the internet yahoo) drove around and into our camp yelling stuff about 'hippies' and 'little bitches'. We managed to chase them away, but not before one of the male walkers whispered, "It's the Klan" and a young woman admitted she was scared to death.
And yet, on the Longest Walk, we have met some incredible people here in the South--warm, hospitable, generous, thoughtful people, white, black, Native and all the combinations thereof.
(photo caption: One of the warm, generous and progressive people we met on the journey was this professor from the University of Montavalo in Alabama, (right), shown here speaking to two people from the Longest Walk. She traded the mask to the guy in the middle for his t-shirt, because the mask was originally from his people in Mexico.)
In the midst of the wide expanse of empty lots that the lower ninth ward has become, people on the Longest Walk Two noticed a newly built yellow house with an abundance of flowers planted in the front yard, a courageous testament to the stubbornness of homeowners who have refused to leave, and want their neighborhood back.
They stood across from the house and offered up a prayer for the home, as the residents sat on the front porch and watched.
Three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans' Ninth Ward, survivors like Robert Green (see below) have not yet received their city government checks to rebuild their houses.
Residents complain that the city is playing a 'waiting game'--holding off on giving survivors their money, and charging them for not mowing the uncut grass that has overtaken the empty lots that once housed middle class black families. Many of the owners of these lots are elderly, and survivors fear the government is simply waiting for them to pass on, so they can "gentrify" the neighborhood--ie, build new housing developments for upper income white residents.
Some residents, like Green, have decided the best course of action to prevent this is to stay in the neighborhood, even if it means living in unsafe FEMA trailers. Said one African-American pastor who has enlisted volunteers from UC Berkeley to help rebuild his home: "As long as I stay here, they''re not going to 'gentrify'.
In the midst of the wide expanse of empty lots that the lower ninth ward has become, people on the Longest Walk Two noticed a newly build yellow house with an abundance of flowers planted in the front yard, a courageous testament to the stubbornness of homeowners who have refused to leave, and want their neighborhood back.
They stood across from the house and offered up a prayer for the home, as the residents sat on the front porch and watched.
On May 27, Hurricane Katrina survivor Robert Green spoke to people on the Longest Walk Two about the post-Katrina situation, and why he is living in a trailer in the ninth ward:
My name is Robert Green. I've lived in the ninth ward of New Orleans for 38 years, and I'll live in it for
38 more years, god willing. My grandkids were here. Basically we lost my mother and granddaughter on the same day..On that same day, we lost all of our neighbors,we lost a lot of our family, we lost a lot of our history.
That's the most important thing to me, it's not necessarily bringing back the house that I live in, because I live in a trailer and that's my home. My children are here, PJ saw, Dennis saw, and Chris saw we have a family, but we are standing actually on people's houses, on people's land. One of the things that's kind of funny actually is we had a guy from Italy and he said
What do I grow on my land? And I said if I owned this land I wouldn't be living in a trailer
We have so many families that are not here and we have so many families that ought to be here...and the Longest Walk is something that can bring attention to the fact of the Ninth ward and how many families are displaced. My granddaughters were witnesses when my mother and my sister died, and what's important is they are happy again. That's the most important thing, family is happy, family is coming back.
We have to realize that this was land that a long time ago they allowed, I could say that, they allowed black people to own the land down here. They've owned it for 60 or 70 years, they've taken care of it..this grass would not be this high if the people were here. This neighborhood would be full of people with faces like y'all have if the people were here.
What we have to do, when the railroads came though communities in the old days, if one family didn't sell then they couldn't develop the land, and we're gonna stand here and reclaim our homestead. As you can see, we are reclaiming this house and rebuilding it..
As you can also see I have a sign that says we want our country to love us as much as we love our country. .And we feel that every day because the volunteers, people like y'all, even the children bring people that bring help and hope to us so we have something to look forward to..
We also know that we are part of a country that we paid the price for, my grandfather had 10 kids, all of them served in the armed forces. I have an American flag flying. It's important to me on days that we feel like we have to fly it at half mast that I feel like we are a part of this country because we paid the price, we paid for land, we paid taxes. Like i say to you, we have a lot of heart sweat, a lot of people who want to be back home but they are just not being embraced by the powers that be. So bringing attention to this neighborhood is really important to us, and it's going to make a difference..
A lot of people don't realize one person can make a difference, one march can make a difference. the difference that y'all make is that y'all are not just marching in this neighborhood, y'all are marching all over the country. We had Jesse Jackson here, we had Al Sharpton here. They marched in here, and they marched out. Y'all have done more justice by coming here than they've done when they've come down. What's most important is not the cameras that they like to stand in front of, but it's the people whose faces I see, people who make us whole again, and that's what y'all are doing for us, you're making us whole, and that's important to us.
I didn't get into much of the facts of my granddaughter and my mother dying, but basically their spirits are here, and as long as this land is not redeveloped for anything that's unnatural, anything that doesn't have family houses back, people back, then they're going to be happy.
(holds up xerox photos of grandkids) My grandkids as you can see, they're happy, and that's the most important thing to me... as long as they're happy I can be happy. My son is happy. My kids are happy.
We were a community and we spent a lot of time with each other, that's something that was important to us, that we get that back and that we really work it.
People like Charles, like Mr Richards who lie in this house right here like Mrs Guerney, they're going to stay here and make sure that we reclaim this land and that the use of it is something for the people, because what is better than family to take back the land.
I thank y'all. It makes a big difference to us to see that we are cared about by so many different people...
I'm gonna walk with y'all, gonna carry the flag when we walk through the neighborhood..
The most important thing is that y'all are here, y'all are bringing attention to it. Y'all are bringing love back into the neighborhood.
We asked for $150,000 for people to rebuild homes, but the city government comes up with all kinds of reasons not to give the money. .Down here, you can see the loss of houses.
Everybody should have received the money like they did in Mississippi. Whether Louisiana is still corrupt, whether Louisiana has a different agenda, we're not going to let that agenda change our desire to rebuild our houses, we're not going to give in to the fact that they're not doing what they should be doing..
I haven't really received any money yet, i'm still waiting to receive it.
I'm getting a house built with Brad Pitt. When Brad Pitt builds it. I'll give him 85% of my Road Hall money, which I don't mind because the main thing is to rebuild the house..
But it's kind of crazy.
My mother had 4 children ,all of us share in the property..they won't let me build with all 4 children, I have to build by myself and both of them have to give up their right to the property just to let me rebuild..and thats kind of a crazy thing because we're all in it together and we should be able to rebuild together..that's the way they make the program work
And besides that they have a lot of people who have family that won't come together, that's another roadblock..
For me, in my situation. what I have left of my mother's house are those back steps..so if my nephew wants to have soemthing I can give him a piece of the back steps y know what I'm saying but if we want to build the house i have to get them to sign off.
That's the reason I came back to the FEMA trailer, even when I knew it wasn't safe.
A lot of the people who are working with us, I wouldn't have met them if I were somewhere else so it's important to have someone here.