067: Christmas Stories 6: A Year-End Connection with Sun, Earth and People

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MERRY CHRISTMAS! This is the 6th of 7 Christmas stories. Click here to read: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7.

AND — if in the year-end rush you missed our earlier Hanukkah Week series, you can jump back to enjoy that here: Part 1 of 5 for Hanukkah.

 

    We promised you a wide diversity of Christmas stories in this holiday series and we’re proving our commitment today and tomorrow with our two, final real-life memoirs.
    (Tomorrow, on Christmas, you’ll find a special Christmas-Epiphany story that looks ahead to the traditional visit of the Magi. It’s a story from a writer in Pennsylvania, the Rev. John Emmert. However, if you’re like the staff here at ReadTheSpirit’s Home Office and prefer to keep your computer switched off on Christmas Day, then you’ll be glad to know that we’ll keep this wonderful collection of 7 stories up on the site throughout this Christmas week as our holiday gift to you!)

    TODAY — we move from Friday’s story, which unfolded in the west-African country of Togo — to a story involving native peoples here in the United States.
    Today’s story is brought to us by Pat Chargot, who Michigan readers have known for decades as one of the top reporters and feature writers at the Detroit Free Press. In recent years, though, Pat has switched journalistic genres to become even more widely known across the U.S. as a feature writer for the award-winning children’s newspaper section, The Yak.
    Now, Pat is turning to yet another vocation in her life as a writer: helping to tell the stories of Native Americans. In 2008, you’ll hear more from Pat, via ReadTheSpirit, concerning her Native American friends and colleagues.
    As part of this new personal interest, outside of her regular work for the Yak, Pat has been studying Native American cultures at Eastern Michigan University and has been working on special, personal writing projects in this field.
    Late on Friday, Pat visited a Winter Solstice celebration and, over this weekend, wrote the following story for us.
    AND NOW, this holiday gift from writer Pat Chargot …

A Year-End Connection with Sun, Earth and People

No doubt you missed one of the nicest, most meaningful holidays of the season.

    Not Christmas, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah — the Winter Solstice on
December 21, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.
The day on which it is possible to imagine the sun stopping at the end
of a string, like a cosmic yo-yo that’s been thrown down, before
beginning its half-year journey back home from the south.
     “Here
comes the Sun!” the Beatles sang -– years before a type of winter
depression related to a lack of sunlight was acknowledged to be so
common that it officially was recognized as Seasonal Affective
Disorder, or SAD.
    Feeling blue anyone? It would seem that
celebrating the turning of the sun is an idea whose time has come.
But, actually, it’s a very old idea — and one that your own distant
ancestors may very well have celebrated.
    So I felt honored to be
invited to last Friday night’s Winter Solstice Celebration — my first
— at American Indian Health and Family Services in Detroit.
    I
had just finished monitoring a wonderful class on North American Native
Cultures taught by Kay McGowan, a Choctaw anthropologist, at Eastern
Michigan University, and it was Kay who graciously had invited me to
the event, which unlike larger and better-known Native American winter
solstice celebrations in New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest,
is not open to tourists.

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    My own Christmas preparations were
sadly in arrears, and part of me wanted to stay home and play carols,
decorate the tree and wrap gifts. But I was too curious to let the
opportunity pass. And so, instead of baking cookies, I tossed together
what I hoped would be an appropriately Native American salad — a dish
to pass — that included three native ingredients (wild rice,
cranberries and walnuts) and drove from my home in Ann Arbor to the
once solidly Polish west side Detroit neighborhood where both my
parents grew up.
    Memories danced in my head of Christmases Past
at my late grandparent’s house — I could have walked there from
American Indian Health, on Lawndale just south of Michigan Avenue.
    Almost immediately upon parking the car, I felt inexplicably alive
with anticipation. It
was the same feeling I often get when I travel alone, particularly when
I find myself in a new place for the first time.
    Impossible to
explain why I felt it here: I was in a poor neighborhood lined cheek-to-jowl with modest
bungalows, some of them run down and only a few strung with lights.

   But a day later as I write this story, I’m still absorbing the evening as it sinks in and
becomes — what? Perhaps just another memory, but possibly a new
holiday tradition, the first of many to come, celebrated with my own
family and friends.
   Why not? No matter what our religion or
spiritual beliefs, the Winter Solstice is a celebration we can all
share, like the Chinese Moon Festival. The sun and moon belong to us
all, even to those who fail to notice the beauty and mystery of their
movements.
    The evening was filled with more surprises than Santa
could pack in his sleigh, not one of them commercially inspired or
shopworn.

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   The first was a bonfire on the agency’s snow-laden
lawn. I actually smelled it before I saw it, a scent more heavenly than
incense: cedar burning. Is there a seasonal fragrance more instantly
transporting? I can only think of fresh cut evergreens, and there would
be plenty of those inside.
    The agency is housed in a former
historic Catholic Church: St. Petrus, built in 1905, based
on what I could make out on the cornerstone of the adjacent old school,
which is now a clinic staffed by the most dedicated nurses, doctors and
therapists you could ever hope to meet.
    I passed the fire
on my way up the long walkway to the front door. It crackled rather
than roared shooting tiny star-like embers into the night from a
shallow dirt depression edged with large, evenly spaced stones in the
center of a large circular clearing. There were baskets with the Four
Sacred Plants — tobacco, sweetgrass, cedar and sage — to throw on the
fire as an offering.
    There were even chairs to sit on at the
edge of the circle. Lovely! When’s the last time you stumbled on an
outdoor fire like this in a city in winter?
    The clearing was a symbol of
the Circle of Life, the foundation of Native American spirituality,
inside of which one could pray and pay honor to the Four Sacred
Directions.
    So I said a silent prayer — and why not? As Kay once
reminded her non-native students, and that was most of us in the class, we all are
descended from people who were once indigenous and whose spiritual
practices were intimately tied to the natural world.
    Most of our families severed that connection centuries ago, but here it really did seem to be authentically alive.

    Inside, the old church’s altar, communion rail, pews, statues and
other artifacts had long ago found new homes, leaving a high vaulted
ceiling and rustic wooden beams. In their place were tables and chairs
covered with cloths and sprinkled with pretty, simple seasonal
decorations, all collected from nature: bright red berries, pinecones,
birch bark baskets, greenery. Not a single red velvet bow or
non-Earth-friendly ornament anywhere.
    The church was a kind of
Native American art museum!
    The walls were completely covered with
large, colorful murals depicting various aspects of traditional native
life, which as Kay will tell you is still alive in many places in this
country, in cities as well as on reservations, the tribal homelands of
one or more tribes.
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    There were stylized paintings of Indian men,
women and children in their beautiful, hand-made regalia; a Three
Sisters Garden planted with corn, beans and squash, the nutritious,
low-fat diet across much of the continent for thousands of years and
still eaten by many peoples today; and all kinds of Great Lakes
animals, including the eagle, the heron and the wolf.
    I arrived
just in time to behold –- and that is the right word –- a woman with long
graying hair parted in the middle and woven into long, thick braids, a
regal and youthful-looking elder wearing fashionable red-framed
glasses, make her way to the head of the gathering, to a circle of
singers and musicians, and address her native brothers and sisters in
her first tongue, Ojibwe, which also is known as Anishinaabemowin.
    I had no idea what she was saying, but the sound and clarity of her
voice and the words themselves were beautiful, rich and embodied great softness and sensuality, like the earth itself.

    I had heard it once before, on a recent visit to Walpole Island
First Nation, at the far end of Lake St. Clair, where I learned my
first Anishinaabemowin word, “boozhoo,” which means hello –- and sounds
a lot like bonjour. It had also proudly been pointed out to me by Chief
Joseph Gilbert that Anishinaabemowin, not French or English, is the
original language of the Great Lakes Region. Not many residents of the
region speak it anymore, but some still do and more are learning.

    So
I’m standing by myself in a church that isn’t a church, getting my
bearings — I had yet not spotted my friend and teacher Kay. I’m feeling a “foreign language”
that can’t really be called foreign flow through me in waves,
unmistakably communicating pride, hospitality, gratitude and at one
point, anguish.
    I’m a big fan of time-travel fiction, and I
began to feel as if I had stepped back in time –- or out of time — the
way I did one day last summer at a 3-day Civil War encampment at a historical site.
    “Everybody thinks we’re just like everybody
else,” Kay had said near the end of her first lecture, adding: “I hope
maybe you’re seeing that we’re not like everybody else.”
    Later, I
introduced myself to the speaker, Mona Stonefish, 69, a Potawatomi, and
told her how deeply I had been moved by her eloquent speech.
    “I couldn’t speak any language as a child,” she said. “I was non-verbal for eight years.”

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    She said she was a survivor of the government’s infamous Indian
boarding-school system. Like thousands of other native children, she was taken
from her parent’s home in an attempt to “kill the Indian, save the
child.”
   The schools existed for decades in both Canada and the United
States, setting off what psychologists have termed an
“intergenerational trauma” that shattered countless families, scarring
the survivors as well their children and even grandchildren. Most of
the survivors never talked about the issue, and even today, those still
alive are just beginning to talk about it.

    But tragedy often
walks in beauty.
    As Kay said in class, “the one thing white people
always respected us for was our artistic talent,” and there were
artists everywhere at the celebration. Women wore earrings and other
jewelry they had either hand-beaded themselves or been given by
friends. Kay (who earned a degree in fine arts at the Center for
Creative Studies before getting her doctorate in anthropology), beads,
embroiders and paints virtually all her clothes. She never wore the
same outfit twice to class, and I have to say: I looked forward to
seeing what she would wear almost as much as to hearing her lectures.

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    On Friday night, Kay led me into through the clinic, where the
staff was busy checking blood pressures, into a small room where two
large tables displayed hundreds of pieces of traditional jewelry, dolls
and baskets woven from sweetgrass. 
    She introduced  me a James Aquash,
a shyly reticent elder who lives alone in a rooming house in the Cass
Corridor, working all day every day on his art. Kay calls him, “the
most talented Native American artist in Michigan.”
     “He goes to Walpole Island to pick his own sweetgrass,” Kay said of James, who was born there and is a Potawatomi.

     “He’s a master basket-maker. When I went to the United Nations (to
testify before the body on Indian affairs), he made jewelry for me to
wear so that his spirit was with me.”
     One basket in particular
took my breath away: Asymmetrically designed, it was so delicate it was
hard to believe a man had made it, with a dream-catcher no bigger than
a nickel woven into the lid, like a tiny spider’s web. Beautiful!

     Yvonne Moore, a Seneca Black Foot, a clinical psychologist turned artist, was selling her clothespin “spirit dolls.”

    “I made them so that women don’t loose their dream,” said told me.
“I’m always trying to do positive things for people and that’s how I
came up with it.”
    She clearly had not lost her dream. The dolls
were quirkily charming, as individual as the members of a miniature
tribe. My favorite was one with a cobalt-blue deerskin dress!

    A
number of speakers briefly addressed the gathering, including Kay’s
twin sister, Fay Givens, the director of American Indian Services, one of
the celebration’s three other sponsoring groups in addition to
American Indian Health and Family Services.
It was the first time all four groups –- the other two were the North
American Indian Association and Southeastern Michigan Indians
Incorporated –- jointly hosted an affair, which was seen as a sign
of growing unity in the community.
    “I think of the thousands and thousands of years that our people have celebrated the Winter Solstice,” she said. “For the Choctaw, this is the birthday of the sun.” (The Choctaw are known as “the people of the sun.”)

   The sun’s birthday party was a sunny affair, with hugs, kisses and
more laughter and goodwill in one room than I had felt anywhere in a
long time.
    The buffet groaned with good food, including corn,
black beans, venison stew, an Indian-style ratatouille and several
kinds of Indian fry bread, including Navajo, which is made with whole
wheat.
    “The native veteran’s group cooked the turkeys,” Kay said.
    The elders were served first, then the women got their food, which is customary, said Kay.

    I met Native Americans from many different tribes across the United
States and Canada.
    A young man stopped by, a social worker named Randy who works with Kay. He was carrying his six-week-old son, Dylan, who had been passed from person to person and admired.
    “He just got his Indian name today from Jose,” Fay said of the baby.

    Neither Randy nor the baby are Native-American, but Randy said he
felt honored that Jose Marcus, 74, a Taos Pueblo elder at our table and
a master drum maker, had just minutes earlier observed the baby tilt his
head to the ceiling and bequeathed him a traditional name, “Sky.”
    “I feel closer to the native community than to any other community,” Randy said.

    There was intermittent drumming and singing honoring various elders
and others who had served the community with distinction, including a
19-year-old Marine who had just arrived home that day for a 7-month
leave.
    The drums were like a heart beating, the pulse of a long
chant that included a refrain of only two distinguishable words:
soldier body, soldier boy.
    I talked to him later, at the buffet table.
    “It felt like they really appreciated what I’ve been doing,” said Travis Williams, an Odawa.
    It was his first Winter Solstice celebration.
    “It’s awesome,” he said. “The music, the people -– it’s a really good atmosphere. I feel really welcome here.”

    Someone gave Fay an eagle feather, which only native people legally
can obtain, in tribute to her tireless efforts to help the local Indian
community. In the native community, there is no greater symbol of
respect.
     I felt embraced, too, a stranger in a warm and welcoming family.

    It was Tom Lowler’s third celebration. The retired owner of a firm
that sells industrial instruments, Tom described himself as “very
non-traditional.” His mother was Wyandot and his father was Dutch and Irish, “but I’ve always known I’m an Indian,” he said.
     “I’ve always been proud of it. But I ran a big company, and I only got involved when I was semi-retired.”
    He had on his beige Wyandot tribal sweatshirt with a patch bearing a green turtle, the tribe’s symbol.

    The various Wyandot tribes are known collectively as the Turtle
people, and historically have lived in both the United States and
Canada. The Wyandot Nation of Anderdon are still concentrated in southwest
Detroit and its downriver suburbs.
    “Our tribal roll has in excess of 1,000 members,” he said.
    About 200 of them live on Grosse Isle just south of Detroit, where Tom grew up and developed a strong connection to the Detroit River.

   “We used to sit on the riverbank and talk about how our ancestors
used to run back and forth in canoes to Canada,” he said, remembering. “Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to live back then?”

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    There was a lot of heartfelt concern expressed for the planet.

    “There were once wild rice fields everywhere in Michigan,” said Ray
St. Clair, 39, an Ojibwe language student at UM and EMU who returns to
his reservation in White Earth, Minn., “The Place of the White Clay,”
to harvest wild rice from a canoe.
    (Wild rice isn’t really rice;
it’s a marsh grass that still grows naturally in a few places, where it
is harvested and sold by Native Americans. The wild rice sold at
supermarkets typically is farm grown.)
    Ray, a Gaawaabaabignikaag –- I
had him write it down for me –- said he was working with the Michigan
Department of Natural Resources to reseed some of the state’s lakes
with wild rice.
     He had on a handmade green-and-brown cotton
shirt decorated with gold metallic leaf appliqués, my favorite shirt of
the evening.
     “My auntie made it,” he said. Ray said he was on his way to Mt. Pleasant to Saginaw Chippewa Winter Solstice celebration on Saturday. “Mother Earth is going to cleanse herself with snow, so it’s time to get ready for next year,” he said.

     “I have so much to be thankful for –- my language and my culture.
You can’t take anything with you, so I’ve decided to give back to my
community, to my culture.
     “It’s such a beautiful, beautiful
culture. We have to leave something for our kids. Who are we if we’re
destroying everything?”

    Many who attended on Friday evening repeatedly thanked the Creator “for bringing us together on this beautiful night.”
    Lisa Parrish, 45, a former Detroit police officer and now an
American Indian Health nurse, said she was sorry to see it end.
   
“I love it,” she said. “There’s this feeling of connection. That’s the
basis our community. I wish the rest of the world could live like
this.
     “It’s hard to go back to the outside, everyday life. It’s often so cold.”
     She said she was half French and German, and didn’t look obviously Native American, with pale skin and brunette hair. “I’m Cheyenne and Cherokee and I’ve been adopted by the Shawnee,”
she said.
     Lisa “always had a hole” in her heart before attending her first powwow in the early 1990s, she said. Then, “when I walked in and heard the drums for the first time, that hole
I could never fill was filled up and I balled like a baby.”

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     I followed Jose outside. He was carrying his two drums, and on the way I asked him about the fire.
     “The fire is our life,” he said. “The fire and the water are our main sources of survival.”

     I watched him walk into the circle and stop for a minute, his long
thin braids and brown face barely illumined by the dying fire.
     When he came back, I asked him to share his private thoughts.
     “I said goodnight to the fire,” he said. “And my drums were blessed, too, by the smoke.”
     He gave me a wide smile. Then he said, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and I want a hug, too!”

COME BACK TOMORROW — or anytime this week — for our final Christmas story, which looks ahead to Epiphany. Feel free to share these stories with friends and invite others to visit this site and enjoy your favorite holiday story with you.

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK, please. Click on the “Comment” link at the end
of this story online to leave a comment for other readers. Or, you can
always Email me, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, by clicking here.

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