Anne Notations

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Words, smoke, purpose

Some two dozen of us settled into padded chairs at long tables in a tiered science classroom this morning, glancing about shyly, seeing who we recognized. We were university employees enjoying the annual "staff development day" program of lectures, presentations, and tours.

Near the blackboard in front, a traditional Native American solo pipe melody wafted from a CD player. A serene, sienna-skinned woman wearing a long gray-black braid and a patterned dress arranged objects and photographs on the table before us. "Please come in closer and draw together," she said pleasantly. "This is a gathering. We don't want to be separated."

Then she struck a match and lit a woody-looking scrap in her hand, placing it in a large quahog shell. A plume of smoke zigzagged toward the ceiling, and the woman held the shell aloft, waving it gently like a priest swinging a censer. A whiff of fragrant smoke enveloped us. "I am using white sage," the woman said in her serene alto, "but in New England my people would have burned balsam."

Thus began a transforming 80 minutes of connection. The presentation, entitled "A History Right in Your Own Backyard," had been described on the signup list as a glimpse of Native American culture in southern New England. As an Am Civ major who increasingly finds myself drawn to the social and cultural history of this country (as opposed to my earlier fixation on its literature), I looked forward to learning more about the people who had given names to landmarks of my personal environment: Mattapoisett. Sakonnet. Seekonk.

Donna Mitchell, our leader with the leather-laced braid and smoking quahog shell, is a Pocasset Wampanoag who lives in her ancestors' homestead on Watuppa Pond in Fall River. A poet, storyteller, and historian, she presents spoken-word histories and readings at schools and other institutions when she isn't working at her day job in Brown's Africana Studies department.

Donna invited each of us to introduce ourselves and reveal something not necessarily related to our work. Some talked about their ancestry, about Cherokee forebears and Mayflower connections. I described myself as a native New Englander who has been a stepmother, adoptive mother, biological mother "at age 41 – surprise!" (laughter), and now a grandmother to my stepdaughter's child; with a deep interest in family histories.

We learned about Donna's distinguished great-grandfather, Dr. William Perry, a native medicine man who studied Western medicine on his own and treated both Indians and whites. We listened to Donna's thoughts on spirituality, a driving force in her quest to unify the living descendants of America's aboriginal people and transmit their stories to the younger generations. "We are all worshiping the same energy – the Creator," she said. "Religion is just a name for where you fit."

Moving slowly and rhythmically, Donna chanted a poem:
The Journey: The Red Road

As you travel across the magnificence
of this earthly universe
Behold the splendor of all that is.
Look to the heavens
for it is there you will realize the
unlimited possibilities
of all your dreams.
Step boldly onto the earth’s blanket
beneath your feet
for it is there all of your
aspirations will take root.
Sit beneath the shady splendor
of a seasoned tree
for it is there you will learn
the secrets of enduring life’s many storms.
Lay upon the sands of any beach
and listen to the rhythm of the sea
for it is there you will understand life’s
balance of give and take.
Run fearlessly through a meadow
of tall sweet grass
for it is there you will know the depth of your spirit set free.
Climb the height of a mountain
and gaze over its edge
for it is there you will realize
how far you have come.
Seek the comfort of solitude
for it is there that you will know
the Great Spirit and You are One.

By Words in the Wind, aka Donna Edmonds Mitchell

Something about Donna's manner, her wise, unhurried voice and dramatic emphases, felt familiar to me. At the end of the program, she asked everyone to say something they would take away from our time together.

"When you spoke," I said when it was my turn, "I heard the voice of my maternal grandmother. Like you, she was a gifted storyteller and the keeper of our family's ancestral history. I am now the person in my matrilineal line who owns the photo albums going back to the German immigration to Missouri in the mid-1800s, and the family tree on both sides.

"You have helped me to see my mission and place in our family saga. I am a writer, a student of history, and the owner of the information. It adds up! I think it is time for me to complete and write our history for my children and grandchildren."

We all lingered past the official ending time, reluctant to leave a room that had felt briefly sacred and embracing, thanks to Donna's words, her shaman's manner, her warmth. No one wanted to break the peaceful spell.

Being the inheritor of my family's records, photographs, and genealogy sometimes feels burdensome – like when we pay the monthly rent on the small storage locker where we keep our records and memorabilia. I hope I can adopt some of Donna's graceful – and grateful – acceptance of the opportunity to be griot and conduit for my family's American saga.


  • Thanks for this lovely post, for the story of this day and for puttig yourself and your connection to the presentation into it, that was the piece that most touched me. My family history, like so many thigs, is something I cherish but dont have organized the way I wish I did. Our histories are sacred and the task of preserving and taking from them is too. Good luck in carrying with you the good feeling you took from this day and also in caring for your family history.

    By Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann, at Sat Jun 07, 10:24:00 PM EDT  

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