“Kill the Indian, and save the man.”

My Mohawk grandmother.  This is the cover of the book my mother wrote about her adolescence growing up on the Mohawk reserve.

My Mohawk grandmother, Mary Sawatis Jacobs. This is the cover of the book that my mother wrote about growing up on the Mohawk reserve.

“History is a relentless master.  It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.   — John F. Kennedy

When I was a kid, we’d pile into the station wagon and head to the reservation to visit my mother’s Mohawk side of the family.  My father liked to go there because the men drank beer, fished, and told stories.  My mother liked it, because it was where she felt truly at home.  We kids liked to go because we had lots of cousins, the adults got busy talking, and we were left to look after ourselves. In the summer we swam in the river, and traversed the shoreline, weaving through sweetgrass that smelled like fresh rain.  The cousins taught us how to swear in Mohawk.

There was one church on the entire reservation and it was Catholic.  Father Jacobs was the priest.  He was Mohawk, but also a Catholic priest.  I never questioned this.  The church had a bell tower and a bell rope that hung in the entry.  You could pull that rope down and ride half-way to the ceiling when it was time to ring the bell.

Other than hearing the odd word or phrase spoken in the Mohawk language, or the fact that my male cousins all played Lacrosse, there was not a lot to make the reservation seem much different than the town I was from.  Except that on the reservation, nothing was paved.  There was only dirt and stubby patches of grass. When it rained, people set down planks of wood between their driveway and the door in an effort to keep mud out of the house.  Meals were simple, but hearty.  The items served most often were corn soup and beef hash. Both of which were lovely and delicious and always homemade.  (I guess they also ate a lot of fish, because it was there for the taking, being that the St. Lawrence river wrapped around one side of the reservation, while the St. Regis river cut a swath through the other end.  But I don’t like fish so the recollection of it tends be hazy for me.)

What was missing at that time was festival, ritual, and feathers.  I don’t remember any Native ceremonies or regalia.  There were no sweat lodges.  No pow wows. No moccasin-ed dancing for rain or peace or any other thing.  If we attended church there, it was the same Catholic mass as the one we experienced at home.

The point is, that my comprehension then of what it was like to be Mohawk, to be a Native American living on a reservation, was lacking cultural context.  It was years before I understood why.  I knew that when my mother was growing up, many of her cousins were taken from their homes and placed in an Industrial boarding school in Canada. They were forbidden to speak their native language or participate in native ceremony.  They were there, boys and girls (in separate schools), to be “educated”, which actually meant, to learn to be “white.”

That those schools were often brutal, the quality of education poor, and the food even worse, is well documented.  But Indian schools did more than decimate native cultures, they robbed those children of any value they previously may have thought they had.

Without a culture or a sense of worth, what is left?

My mother’s reservation has come back to their culture slowly, like a long forgotten memory drifting into consciousness once again.  It is not called St. Regis anymore.  We use the Mohawk word instead, Akwesasne.  I love the sound of that.

I began this post on Monday, which was Columbus Day.  In part because of the Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge, which had as a topic:  Living History.  But mostly because of the day, which my mother cannot let go by without muttering at least once — Columbus, that murdering bastard!

And then I read a piece in the Washington Post which made me wonder again, why do we keep a holiday in honor of a man we now know dealt a brutal hand against the natives of the lands he explored (which wasn’t even America)?  In one of the reader comments, a man asked if there actually were any Indian reservations around these days?  I was about to reply that why, yes, in fact there were many reservations still around, but then I spied another comment a few lines down that wisely pointed out – Do not feed the trolls.  And I realized, of course, it does no good.  You can lead a person to information, but you cannot make him think.

Still.  Can we agree to not honor mean men?  I’d like to believe that history can teach us how to live better.  Kinder.

Maybe one day, we could even get it right.

n.b. The title of this post is a quote taken from a paper read at a convention in 1892 by Richard Henry Pratt, the U.S. Army officer whose brainchild it was to assimilate Indians into a white society.

Who do I think I am?

Like my Family Tree - old, propped up, but still growing strong.

Like my Family Tree – old, propped up, but still growing strong.

My maternal grandmother was full-blooded Mohawk and a devout Catholic.  She wanted to be a nun.  On her way to that vocation she met my grandfather, a tall, handsome white man who was also a state trooper trying to catch her mother in the act of selling whiskey.  It was Prohibition, and Agnes, my great-grandmother owned a speakeasy.  My grandparents fell in love, got married, and my grandfather gave up being a trooper to join his new mother-in-law’s business.  Not exactly a propitious union.  Nevertheless, it produced three daughters.  Only my mother, the youngest, survived childhood.  I was named Mary for that grandmother, though I never got to meet her.  She died when my mother was three.

My paternal grandmother went without a name for weeks after she was born.  My great-grandmother, having recently lost an infant son, wanted to wait and see if this baby survived before handing out a name.  Finally, one of great-grandma’s sisters looked down at my poor, swaddled grandmother and said she looked like a little pearl.  And that’s the name they slapped on the birth certificate.  No middle name, just Pearl and her surname, which was Crawford.  It embarrassed my grandmother, not having a middle name.  When she married she began using the initial from her surname as part of her signature, to legitimize the oddball she always felt she was, as though just the initial of a pretend middle name would make her just like everyone else.  It didn’t, and she wasn’t.  And that was okay by me.

I’ve never looked farther than three generations behind me.  I know nothing besides a handful of family stories that may or may not be true.  I might be related to Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the United Sates.  I might be related to Daniel Webster, statesman and Massachusetts senator.  There might still be a castle in England somewhere with a Stanfield still living in it.  I don’t have a pedigree to tout.  I know that among the generations whose lives I’ve been told something about, most came from England, Scotland, Ireland, and one at least, from France.  Or, like my namesake grandmother’s side of the family, they were already here.

I think a lot about family, about where I come from, and who I am.  When I was about seven or eight, I would stare in a mirror and experience a complete disconnect with the image looking back at me.  Who was that person, I used to wonder?  The face, the stuff behind the face?  Was I real?  I had no clue. (What a strange child I must have been.) When I got a little older I searched the faces of my parents and siblings for  family resemblances, something that would make me feel like I belonged, but  there was such a grab-bag selection of this nose with that jaw and those teeth or eyes, hairlines, cheekbones, hand and foot size that not one of us looked much like the other.  (Later my siblings and I would joke about the possibility of a milkman or two being thrown into the mix.  Except that we bought our milk at the store.)  It still amazes me when I run across families whose members look so remarkably alike that there’s never any question of relatedness.

Like my grandmother, I have also felt like an oddball.  Within my immediate family I used to think I could have been a changeling left on the doorstep by trolls. The feeling has abated somewhat in recent years.  But, sometimes I still feel a little out of sync with the people around me.  What I’m passionate about, what I think about, what I like and don’t like, what I dream.

And I think about the list of ingredients that went into the soup that made me:

A grandmother who thought she’d be wedded to Christ, but chose marriage to another man instead.  She left behind a daughter who was raised by so many other people it took her eighty years to find a place where she feels like she belongs.

Another grandmother who, for want of a middle name, thought herself so much less than she actually was.

Bootleggers, gamblers, drinkers, farmers, a failed blacksmith who played the fiddle, house painters, steel workers, bookworms, librarians – dreamers, all.

And something else.  I look back and see more than just the sum of what they did with their lives.  I look back and see qualities like tenacity, hope, and a desire to be better and farther than from where they began.  All those things are good in soup.

DNA is like a magic show.  I know that sleight of hand is involved, that the trick isn’t really magic, and sometimes I even know how the trick is done.  But it’s still strange and thrilling to observe.  How do geese know to fly south?  How did they know that there was a “south” in the first place?  There are all these questions I have.  In my next life, I think that I’ll study genetics.

Or maybe I’ll just learn to sing.

This post brought to you by the DP Weekly Writing Challenge.