Legacy of the Ancestors: Beyond Oppression

Creative Nonfiction published in ZYZZYVA, Vol. 27, 1994.


In 1988, when my elderly father had a heart attack, I moved to Corvallis, OR, where my ancestors had lived. I had always been proud that the Macks, Barnards, Wigles, and Starrs had come across the plains in l852 to settle in the Eden of Willamette Valley.

My tough great-grandmother homesteaded her 160 acres, learned how to shoot, and drove off “marauding Indians” trying to steal her corn.

Now I know that the few Kalapuyans left from smallpox decimation and land-theft were starving. So much for the “empty wilderness” myth. In this l50th year celebrating the Oregon Trail, how can I still honor my ancestors without accepting all their values and intentions?

Although I had been oppressed as a female and had identified with the “underdog,” now I became aware of my status as a member of the oppressor class — White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, first-world healthy, wealthy, and educated. These are the phases of self-awareness I have passed through:

A. Rejection of the Oppressed:[break]Paralysis & Denial

During my childhood in Geneva, NY, I went to Kanadasaga Girl Scout Camp, never knowing my home town was built on the site of the Kanadasaga Massacre, even though I collected many arrowheads.

I never knew that members of the Iroquois Confederacy, descendants of survivors of the massacre, lived only 30 miles away. I never knew there was an Onondaga Reservation.

B. Help for the Oppressed:[break]Missionary Stance

In 1977 I married Selo Blackcrow, a Lakota Sioux spiritual leader, and went to live on Pine Ridge Reservation in Wanblee, SD, to raise a sacred herd of buffalo. My first Indian name was Wiyan Tanka, “Big Boss Woman,” because I had energy and plans. I knew what to do to end poverty and alcoholism.

Fortunately, nothing I did worked, and I came to learn from those around me.

C. Rejection of the Oppressor Class:[break]Guilt & Self-Loathing

Next I became a counter-culture ostrich, ashamed of my old friends. Vindictively self-righteous, I began re-educating myself in “corrective history.”

I learned that our revered Declaration of Independence calls Native Americans “savages”; that all 39l Indian treaties have been broken by our government; that of the 435 native tribes in the United States, whole non-English-speaking pockets of sovereignty still remain within our country. I lived in one.

D. Identification with the Oppressed:[break]Wannabes & Indian Lovers

I began to hate wannabes and Indian-lovers — because I was one, but I was trying harder. I didn’t wear beaded headbands and buckskin dresses. I nearly starved eating only treaty- issued commodities. I lived without electricity or running water. I drove cars held together with baling wire. I thought everything Indian was best and enjoyed anti-White jokes in Lakota.

I was glad when everyone forgot who I was. I learned to give away my clothes and feed everyone who came. I learned to work hard and live on “Indian,” or “just-right,” time. I also learned that Dorothy Blackcrow could no longer get car insurance or bank loans, or be served in Sturgis, SD, cafes.

E. Rejection of the Oppressor Role:[break]Knowledge & Responsibility

It’s hard not being an oppressor in an oppressive society, yet many of us practice being “in this world, yet not of it.” This is where I’m stuck: how to return the land, return the rights, and work together to heal ourselves and Grandmother Earth.

Yet many of our values are similar to native ones: integrity, silence, courage, generosity, consensus, co-operation, respect — for the land, the elders, the children, for all living beings (including the ocean, rocks, trees, sky). The power of prayer and the world of the Spirit are real for many of us.

_After knowledge comes choice: to live by the values of Manifest Destiny or the values of Manifest Harmony: the Peaceable Kingdom.

As native values became my values, I realized, ironically, that I could not honor “the elders” in the abstract, yet not care for my own, far-away elder. In fact, I had to resign my job, leave my adopted Lakota culture, and rejoin the “outside world” in order to care for my father who lived alone and who had just had a heart attack.

Now, two years after his death, I still believe in living communally. In fact, my home has been blessed as a “medicine house,” which means it’s open to anyone who comes: everyone welcomed and fed, no one turned away.

The plot of land I caretake lies in Corvallis between a McDonald’s and Payless. I think of it as one small pocket of organic garden in the mainstream of insanity. I try to live lightly on the earth, in peace and harmony with all my relations, even slugs. Most of my below-taxable income is shared through peschelt (potlatch) giveaways and honoring ceremonies.

I am no longer lost, like Columbus. I know the land my great- grandparents cleared belongs to The People, the ancestors of this place and the generations to come. I’ve been exploring Kalapuyan sacred places, names, stories, myths, and history. And I’ve been on the sacred mountain, Tcha-ti-man-wis, “Place Where the Spirit Dwells.”

Each June I honor this place of refuge, highest peak in the Oregon Coast Range, with a ceremonial burning to Honor the Ancestors — including my Mack relatives as well: after my father’s and my uncle’s ashes were scattered to the four winds in 1991, they, too, have become ancestors of this place.

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