A Healing Process

Michelle Streeter

Writer’s comment: I took NAS 181B, Native American Non-Fiction, during my last quarter at Davis. I had been writing poetry and short stories for over three years, and I had shared some of it with Professor Inés Hernandez prior to taking her class. I had never been exposed to other Native American poets and writers before this class, and when I read I Tell You Now; Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers for a reading assignment, I was inspired to write this piece. The writers combined storytelling, history, poetry, and social commentary to express their personal identities as American Indians. Professor Hernandez allowed me to write a paper in a format which emulates the style of the autobiographical essays from the text. It really became “a healing process” for me and I hope the readers will take some time to read it slowly and listen to my voice speak through the ink and the paper.
—Michelle Streeter, Pit River/Cabazon/Cahuilla/Maidu/Washo

Instructor’s comment: Native American Non-Fiction is offered to NAS majors as well as to students wanting to fulfill the GE requirement. One of my main objectives in the NAS 181 sequence is to encourage students to find and nurture their own voices and to work consciously and respectfully with language. Michelle was an NAS major and senior when she wrote this essay. She is also a young poet who is beginning to do formal readings of her work. In many ways she came to this course with a firm sense of her own voice.
         While Michelle wrote exceptional “regular” essays for her other assignments, this essay was her most personal and was inspired at least in part by the essays in I Tell You Now. In this piece she demonstrates her process of reflection through self-conscious recollection (as well as formal research), which is an aspect of the creative/critical process of writing as I present it in class. She clearly understands how important her personal “I” is and how much it matters what her “eyes” notice. In her embrace of N. Scott Momaday's concept of the “living memory,” she has skillfully interwoven her journal entries, her poetry, and her native language into an honoring essay for her loved ones. The validation of her own individual creativity and the recreation of her vision in relation to family, community, and history is her healing process.
—Inés Hernandez-Avila, Native American Studies

I was born into an Indian world. From the beginning, I shared with my family, my mother’s family. My father had left my mother, who is 5/8 California Indian, soon after I was born. I grew up without a real father, and only recently have I realized how much I hate that fact. I was born in the hallway of a hospital in the Bay Area. Even then it seems that I wanted to do things my way. It was the beginning of my strangely unique life. Many of the things that have happened to me sound like a story from the mind of a lunatic.
         I remember the best times were spent with my sister and my mother when I was around four or five and we lived in Truckee. Bridgette was doing cartwheels on the lawn and she got bee-stings on her hands and feet. Dad was gone by then and we lived in Village Green in the trailer. One morning mom told us that Indians never went out looking for eggs and that Easter is really supposed to be about this guy named Jesus—he died, or was born, or came back to life or something important like that on that day a long time ago. We colored eggs anyway for fun.
         I was very talkative and strong headed—friends with everyone. Old Gladys and Ernie lived next door to my grandparents, just down the street from us in Village Green. I would catch Ernie when he came home from working in the woods with my grandpa and I would see if he saved me any goodies from his lunch. I would eat anything. He usually saved me something sweet; maybe Gladys knew and put it in his black metal lunch box just for me. Those are secrets that I will never know. They passed away with Gladys a few years ago, probably earlier since she had developed Alzheimer’s disease. The old folks—they sometimes take it with them.
         The trailer park was not near a reservation; Washos never got a recognized land base when they were pushed out of their homeland. The old Indian fighter William Phipps went down in history because he successfully moved (killed) the native people, who were seen as dirty because they didn’t care to hide their beautiful nakedness. I am part Washo along with many other things. My grandmother is Washo, Pit River (Achomawi), and Maidu, all native to Northeastern California. Her Pit River great grandmother, Wilis-Kol-Kold, or Susie Jack, was supposedly related to Captain Jack. Many Pit Rivers believe that this historic man was not a Modoc, but an Atsegewi Pit River. Wilis-Kol-Kold married and had three children. Her daughter Edna married a Maidu named Bob Lauwry, and their daughter Viola was my great grandmother, whom I was blessed to know as a young girl.
         She considered herself Achomawi, even though she was devoutly Christian. She and I would sit and watch the gospel television shows and she eventually gave most of her little money to the hands of these strangers. She lived in Susanville, with her mixed-blood husband, on the rancheria where my grandmother, mother, and sister were born. I would visit her there, and I would listen to her remember her mother, who was considered an “Indian Doctor.” Some of her mother’s habits were blended in with her Christianity, like the way she would heat up a big river rock on the wood stove and put it in my bed before I slipped in for the night. I remember rubbing the smooth, warm stone with my feet.
         Grandma Viola died when I was around seven. I remember the day distinctly because something unusual happened that evening. By this time I was living in Grass Valley, and my mother had married a non-Indian named Gary Streeter. We lived on a large ranch and my sister Bridgette and I were always outdoors. That day I had climbed up a big oak tree near the creek. I climbed too high and I was scared to climb back down. I hollered and cried, and Bridgette just teased me like a big sister does from the ground. “Just climb down! Don’t look, just climb!” I was making this into a huge spectacle (as I often did) until I heard a strange noise and then Bridgette was crying. I climbed straight down that big oak like a squirrel to see what I had missed. An owl had flown straight at Bridgette and screeched at her. She was scared spitless. We ran inside and told mom. Not more than an hour later the phone rang. Grandma Viola was gone.

* * *
         Grandpa is from the Cabazon Band of the Cahuilla Indians, who live in the Southern California desert. He is half Cabazon/half Mexican Indian of some kind. He didn’t know his father, and his mother Rosina died when he was a baby. He was raised by his aunt, the daughter of Captain Jim Cabazon, who was the political and ceremonial leader, or nétt, of our lineage. He was raised in a shack in the desert speaking his language even though he was taken from his home many times to go to school. He was beaten for speaking his language, and he ran away so many times that the school gave up looking for him. He liked to be at home where he was related to everyone and he could participate in the ceremonies that were being desperately held on to. He has told me stories of our family, who were mostly singers and doctors, and he made sure that I spoke his language when I was little. When my mother married Gary and I had to move away from Truckee, the language slipped from my tongue only when I was dreaming.
         Grandpa always felt like he had failed because he wasn’t ha’waynik (ceremonial singer) or pul (doctor). He is the elder of what was once the most powerful lineage in the valley. His given talent is that of a storyteller, or historian. He doesn’t realize the power of his memory and words because he sees all that has been lost.

The name of a village, the name
of a man, Cabazon.
Where the Ceremonial Mats Were Spread,
my people lived, Maswuut Helaat.
The same blood that has been there
since The People moved from the mountains
to the mouth of Painted Canyon, a place
where every clan would come for peace.

         He met my grandmother at the Sherman Indian Boarding School in Riverside, California. He fell in love and followed her up into her family’s territory because most of his family was dead or alcoholic or had moved off to Los Angeles to become assimilated. He found peace working for a logging company in the Sierras. He could be out in the mountains working hard and spending time reflecting on his relatives in nature. The outdoors gave him good memories to replace the bad. He never broke his ties to the Band, always making the journey back home for important tribal council meetings. Later, I would make these journeys with him.

Around Rabbit Peak, past Lily Rock,
then go south at Taquitz Canyon,
to Catherine’s place.

Auntie’s house rises above the indigence—
a concrete-block castle
with a make-shift roof
A refuge, under the smile of a crescent moon . . .

         Bridgette and I grew up in relative seclusion. Gary was abusive in every way, and it seemed that he had just wanted to adopt us so that he could use us like washcloths. He hated Indians, or at least the fact that we were Indians. I think he was like people in colonial times: he used our Indian-ness to justify abusing us, two young girls and their mother. Looking back, I used to feel sort of sad, mostly angry, but after a great deal of reflection, I thank him for teaching me some of the hardest lessons of my life. He showed me how ugly people can be and so I really never get surprised by the ugliness in the world. This is good when you live among Indian people because it helps you not to get angry about other people’s ignorance and lack of respect. I don’t hate all white people, but he is just one of the many who has made my life very painful.

* * *
         I knew that I was different from other kids, but since Gary didn’t let us have friends over or go to friend’s houses, I never had enough exposure to kids at school to really understand what the difference was. I was dark- skinned, but not so dark that anyone really bothered me about it. I was very interested in learning, and from the first day of elementary school I was placed ahead of the rest of the class in most of my studies. I had classes with only one or two other “gifted” children. Sometimes I was just on my own, as in the case of reading.
         I was always a bookworm. Gary had taken some courses at a junior college and had texts and encyclopedias. I remember reading Gary’s high school biology book when I was in first grade; I had reveled at the idea of photosynthesis when I was just six years old. Rainy winter nights were spent traveling through the United States in maps and history books. I never was interested in foreign lands; I liked learning about nature and geology and romance. I don’t remember feeling confused about history material that neglected Indians; I just ignored most of it as fact and absorbed it like it was just a novel. It was another world that was not part of mine. I see that this was a grave mistake on my part because I neglected to learn some very important things that everyone else in this world sees to be fundamental. I am not comfortable with the idea of others having some advantage in knowledge that I lack.

* * *
         My mother was a school bus driver, and you could tell by looking at her that she was Indian. She loved children and the children loved her, too. Other kids would always tell me that my mom was their favorite bus driver. They thought I was so lucky to have a mom like her. She liked to drive the bus for the handicapped and mentally disabled, and she would take them donuts for a special treat when she had a little extra money. I knew this and, as I said earlier, I loved sweets, and I would get up an hour early on those days to ride the bus with them so I could have a donut, too. The children on that bus always had a smile for me because they loved my mother. They liked having me along because my mom and I would sing silly songs for them and they would clap along, laughing.
         It was always common knowledge at school that I was Indian. My mom would come to class and talk about it. Sometimes she would bring in my cradleboard, of which I was very proud and protective, and we would tell funny stories about how I loved my cradleboard so much that when I was too big to be tied in, I would only go to sleep if I could have my head under the sun shade. I was shocked when I realized that everyone else didn’t have cradleboards. I felt sorry for all those other children.

Your arms, like laces on a cradleboard
tell me that I am safe.
A baby, I nestle in your warmth.

         My Uncle Fred was around intermittently throughout my childhood, and he was like a god to me. He always treated me like an adult and talked to me about spirituality. I loved him like a father, and to this day I make decisions with him in mind. I ask myself, what would Uncle Fred think about this? He was murdered on the Cabazon reservation when I was eleven.

With utmost respect,
I think of you.
With a weighted voice,
I speak to you
Like I am eleven
and the world is the same.

That day at Donner Lake
we smelled white sage—
my introduction
to an old, unknown friend.
Each time, that scent
takes me there. . . .

I am happily drenched
with a shiver of goose flesh
and I am tossed up in the air
like an infant, smiling.
My big friend who plays rough,
but with a lenience for my youth,
catches me with grace.

Your son slips out of his mink diaper
that you so much prize—
to think, now he is almost a man.
With an evil ammunition,
you are stolen by the air.
We both seem to wait
for our father.

Father, Brother,
Everything to me.

         Uncle was trying to collect evidence against these non-Indian opportunists that had established gaming on the reservation. The Cabazon Band’s attorneys went to the Supreme Court and went down in history as setting the fatal precedent that would allow this same exploitation on other reservations around the country. Not only were these modern-day colonialists using us to make money through legalized gambling, they used the sovereign status of Indian land to negotiate weapons deals to Nicaragua and provided meeting places for CIA officials to meet and discuss covert operations such as the notorious “October Surprise.”
         As a little girl I saw a lot of dirty dealings, and innocently rubbed elbows with organized crime figures. I remember being both intrigued and threatened by their guns and wealth. We had absolutely no idea what we were involved in. This was not the way things were done before these white folks came to “help” us. I lost my uncle because someone wanted to take advantage of us “stupid Indians.” Well, we are not stupid anymore.
         This is where I start to get angry.
         I knew my uncle was dead when it happened on July 1, 1981. I was sleeping out in the front yard with Bridgette because we liked to “camp out” during the warm months. My uncle was doing the same down in the desert. He had his girlfriend over, and another friend had just stopped by to check up on Fred. He had been concerned about his safety because on Monday morning he was taking incriminating documents to the District Attorney’s office that would hopefully put these criminals in prison and get them off our land. He just needed to make it through the weekend.
         Sunday night, while we were camping under the stars, my uncle and his two friends were all shot in the head by a hired gun. Uncle was bound and gagged, and evidence indicated that Fred knew his killers. The other two were shot down in their tracks like deer. I know how my ancestors felt. Maybe this is why I scream inside when some clueless person says or writes about how Indians should put the past behind them and take part in this great “modern society.” Maybe this is why some people feel I’m racist.
         Maybe I am.

Proud warrior
with a heart
like a weight
pulling him down
to the center of the Earth.
The Red tears fall
like a thunderstorm
in the hot afternoon.

         Bridgette didn’t notice anything at all that night, but I couldn’t sleep. I was nervous and upset and all torn up inside. I went inside the house because it was late and the lights were still on. Mom was up and she was crying. I looked at her and I knew.
         We stayed up all night listening to a furious wind that wasn’t blowing outside. It radiated through every crack and duct in the house carrying with it a sound like anger. I don’t think people believe this story, so I don’t usually tell it, but I don’t really care anymore. I felt it. I knew. We found out a couple days later we were right.

When I was six,
you brought me a bag of silver dollars
because I didn’t have a dad—
you were my dad.
We celebrated my birthday
with the wind in our hair
and you showed me the way
to a good Indian heart.

         This was the beginning of years of escape for me. I hid from things with alcohol and drugs and food. There were years of fist fights with my stepfather because I wouldn’t take his crap anymore. High school was a long, windy road.
         I graduated from Nevada Union High School with a twisted view of myself. I was a good student, but as time passed, my grades fell with my self-esteem. I was always the rebel, and I was always testing the system. I loved it when I scored the highest SAT score in the school; that was my revenge against everyone who thought I was stupid. It was all very ironic because I had no intentions of going on to college. I had no idea that it was possible, or what college even was! I had learned from my stepfather that I would never amount to anything: I was just a crazy Indian. I was ugly and stupid and a drug addict. People like me don’t go to college. So I ran away.
         Somewhere in Los Angeles, a year and a half later, I realized that I was too far from home. I learned many hard things about people when I was there, so many that I can’t tell them here. At one specific point, something woke up inside me and I began to see and hear things that no one else did. I wasn’t going insane, I just think it was my Uncle Fred telling me to go home. I listened, and after a few months of soul-searching at my grandparents’ house I considered going to college.
         A friend of my mother’s eventually talked me into applying for admission at UC Davis. He personally escorted me to the admissions office, and I was accepted on the spot. After our meeting, he took me to meet a man named David Risling to find out about financial aid scholarships for Indians. Dave took me out to DQ to a sweat, and I began to walk slowly, tentatively on the right path.

I walk around the fire,

Arms up
(eagle fan dances)
Turn around
(across my skin)
Go on in
(ancestors sing)

I had unknowingly stumbled home.          I came into a new world filled with too many things to even begin to describe. I have questioned myself many times, but I have learned to listen to the answers I receive from people, books, and dreams. For four years I have learned who I am and celebrated the reality of my existence; my ancestors survived total annihilation through warfare, disease, and assimilation. Northern California Indians were shot on sight for sport and for financial rewards by gold-hungry intruders. My Southern California relatives were massacred at the hands of the Spanish. It is truly a miracle that I ever made it to this world.
         Today many things are the same as they were for my ancestors. My grandfather must look at his children and grandchildren and be reminded of the death and heartbreak that he has experienced in his lifetime. I take this very personally, and I get angry and frustrated when I think of all the horrible things that my family has faced for the past six generations. I just want my family to be whole and secure. I want my grandfather to be happy. With him in mind, I have done what I do best: learn, not just from books, but from listening and praying.
         I started learning (remembering) Cahuilla, my native language, last year, and I can actually talk with my grandfather now. He and I have shared more through this process than we ever had before. At first he had a hard time getting used to talking Cahuilla when we weren’t on the reservation; he had been beaten too many times at the mission school for this offense. Now, when I visit him, we sit and talk about the places we go and the people we see when we are there. We take a journey with words, and in our minds, we go there. Grandpa remembers a lot now, and I pray for the strong memory that my ancestors had, so I will remember the words and the songs that I am given.
         I have also taken time to go up to Pit River country to get to know the land and spend time with my cousins. Up there I have known a sense of peace, more precious than all the money down at Cabazon. I realized that I carry a part of that place inside me, the living memory of those who came before me. My grandmother was surprised when I started going up there, but I think she knows that by doing this, I am honoring her. I don’t want her to ever feel that Grandpa’s blood is more important than hers.
         Despite all of this, I have a deep regret in not taking the time to keep in contact with my other grandparents, my father’s parents. I just always felt too different from them, and my father never responded to any communication we sent to him—birthdays, graduations, illnesses, accidents . . . he never called back. Maybe now that I am graduating, I will make the effort to find them and ask them about their ancestors.
         My life has been put before me like a movie; the script unfolds and guides me through every stage, each act. In reading this script, I realized I was meant to go to law school. I want to know the rules in order , as David Risling says, to “fight fire with fire.” I know my Uncle Fred hears this and smiles. I get little signs every once in a while that show me that he is still around, and when I get these signs, I know I’m on the right path. In the past few days he has shown me that this new chapter of my life is only a few months away, but for now, I have many relatives to see, stories to learn, and places to feel.