by Casandra Lopez
Issue Two: May 23, 2019
SHIRAAAW’AXNE (I SPEAK )
It is evident that if allowed to roam at pleasure, their early extinction is inevitable, and I am slow to believe that the Government, recognizing as it does, their possessory right to all the soil inhabited by them, would deny them the small portion of the vast country from which such extraordinary benefits are in process of receipt… I am likewise of the opinion that the establishment of schools among them at the present time would not subserve their interests; their present state of civilization and advancement being such as to preclude the possibility of their appreciating the benefits to be derived from such instruction.
EDWARD F. BEALE, May 11 1852
Superintendent Indian Affairs for California
In high school I could taste escape. Mother told me stories how she almost made it to college. A college nearly thirty minutes away, but that thirty minutes is not an easy distance. Not when poverty and an abusive home can do a number on a person, make them scared to jump or maybe they jump too soon or maybe their world closes in on them and their desires become singular. Mother wanted to leave her home at first chance and believed that an office job would suffice. Father desired a job where he could keep his hands clean, free from oil and dirt. My own desires were also singular and limited. I wanted to leave San Bernardino, wanted to leave a place of swaggering smooth–talking boys, chain-link fences and dry brush. In those early adolescent years, I felt like I was seeing the world through a pinhole. I would try to rotate the pinhole, but would only see the same image.
The only way I knew how to escape was to go to college. I didn’t think much further beyond that. I threw myself into my school work with both desperation and dedication. I applied to a high school outside of my zoned area that offered an international honors program. I’d taken additional classes during zero or seventh period and was involved in as many activities as possible while maintaining a high grade point average.
One day during my junior year I woke up sick. My head felt like it was about to roll off my body. On that day I was scheduled to take an important test for my international program. It didn’t occur to me to tell my parents or teachers how ill I was. It was simple: I must do what must be done.
Months later, one of my teachers gave me my scores. I didn’t do well on most of the tests. When she told me my score for my Spanish test, she tsks and shook her head in disappointment. She assumed, as others had, Spanish was a language spoken in my home or it was somehow genetically encoded in me because my last name is Spanish.
My escape was coming to an end like my mother’s. My face flushed. I felt small and brown, but not the right kind of brown. Not the kind that could be clearly labeled and categorized. Not the type to meet anyone’s expectations.
I said nothing. It seemed both too personal and complicated to unravel my family history right there in a classroom. How did I explain the irony of my father’s multi-tribal family speaking Spanish and my Mother’s Mexican uneasy relationship to the language because of disability and social pressure? It was a language of my paternal grandmother’s laugh at her kitchen table while she played poker and drank beer. A language my little grandfather used to speak to the neighbors, but not his grandchildren. It was a language that came out of his records. I didn’t understand—need to understand each word because I knew the songs were about having a great love, being heartbroken and leaving and desperately wanting someone to come back to you. How could she understand a language that felt so timid and confusing, but also familiar in my mouth? Back then the words colonization and assimilation were just words in a dictionary, barren of meaning. I didn’t know that like my parents who cultivated a garden of succulents during droughts that I could make meaning out of longing, create something beautiful out of remnants.
These days, I have the same feeling in my mouth when I attempt to learn a few words of Tongva. I encourage my throat warm to the language, for my mouth to form. I say shiraaw’axne so my Tongva ancestors will know I speak.
Considerable numbers of these Indians are also to be found on the outskirts of white settlements, as at Riverside, San Bernardino, or in the colonies of the San Gabriel Valley, where they live like gypsies in brush huts, here to-day, gone tomorrow, eking out a miserable existence by days’ work, the wages of which are too often spent for whisky in the village saloons. Travelers in Southern California, who have formed their impressions of the Mission Indians from these wretched wayside creatures, would be greatly surprised at the sight of some of the Indian villages in the mountain valleys, where, freer from the contaminating influence of the white race, are industrious, peaceable communities, and ask nothing at the hands of the United States Government now, except that it will protect them in their ownership of their lands, lands which, in many instances, have been in continuous occupation and cultivation by their ancestors for over one hundred years.
Report on The Conditions And Needs of The Mission Indians of California, Made by Special Agents Helen Jackson And Abbot Kinney
Colorado Springs, Colo., July 13, 1883
A woman tells me she’s a descendent of a famous Indian chief. She pulls up her shirt sleeve to show me a tattoo of a feather. She seems a little too eager to show me how her pink skin is marked by black ink. I have other friends who I don’t doubt when they mention their noted ancestors and I think of my own, how I have learned to say honuukvetam from a recording.
And what should be noted and remembered about my ancestors? The ones that were drunks or musicians or pious Indian Catholics. What if some were red light district women, hustlers, wanderers and even mentioning this rumor causes family members to move uncomfortably as if there were tiny pins pressed against their skin, as if our honuukvetam were not happy with our silence? Some of them worked two jobs or only wanted to work the land having no desire for the spectacular except the world they saw all around them. What should I say about my ancestors who were railroad workers, blacksmiths or ranchers living in Sahatapa, and were visited by relatives singing bird songs before they made their way to that somewhere else? I am learning about those that were healers and midwives, knew how to cure from the land, but they couldn’t heal the children away at boarding school.
Some died young and others lived long. Some lived their lives with nothing named after them, except their children and grandchildren. Then there were those that whatever was named after them has been long forgotten except by a few. What if they had many names or the history books have it all wrong? What about the prominent pioneer woman was actually a Tongva woman? What if my ancestors didn’t lead any revolts or rebellions, but each breath was still a resistance? How do we remember the one who was born under a walnut tree and came back from war decorated with medals and shell shocked? What if they cashed their California Indian Commission Claims check and wrote: NOT PAID IN FULL.
Casandra López is a California Indian (Cahuilla/Tongva/Luiseño) and Chicana writer who has received support from CantoMundo, Bread Loaf, and Tin House. She’s the author of the poetry collection, Brother Bullet and has been selected for residencies with the School of Advanced Research, Storyknife, Hedgebrook and Headlands Center for the Arts. Her memoir-in-progress, A Few Notes on Grief was granted a 2019 James W. Ray Venture Project Award. She’s a founding editor of As/ Us and teaches at Northwest Indian College.