Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Welcome to Ohlone Territory - The Second Event of a Four Year Ceremonial Cycle

Few who live in the San Francisco Bay region know that more than 10,000 people from at least nine Ohlone tribes once flourished here. Or that they are applying for tribal recognition. Or that the largest living Ohlone tribe, with 2,000 members, migrated from Mission Dolores in 1834 and now lives in Pomona California. This tribe, the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel, supports a thriving Ohlone cultural life including a song and dance group and weekly sweat lodge healing ceremonies.
Very few public schools teach much, if anything, these days about the history of the bay's original inhabitants nor do they mention that descendants of these people continue to live, go to school, hold down jobs, and celebrate their heritage in many local communities...or why this story is ignored. Truth is, the actual story is one that can't be shared with small children – or the squeamish. It involves murder, mayhem, and massacres; not the sort of thing a “dominant culture” wants to confront full-on.

Welcome to Ohlone Territory was the second event of the four year ceremonial cycle that began April 15 and, along with the grand opening of the 100 percent off-the-grid Eco-Center, included a ceremony for healing the land at Heron's Head Park in the Bay View Hunter's Point district. In the future, site partner, Arc Ecology, will present a series of classes about the Ohlone ecology that shaped the Franciscan habitat for 10,000 years.

The history of this area is rich and complex. It includes a Department of the Navy shipyard that is now a Superfund site slowly being turned over The City for development. California Senate Bill 18 of 2005 stipulates that Ohlone tribal members whose names are listed with the Native American Heritage Commission are to be included in planning development of Hunters Point Shipyard. Yet, when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors amended their General Plan in 2006 to allow for this development no Ohlone representative was contacted. This, despite the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) stating that there are at least four, and probably five, Ohlone village sites within the development boundaries and another 16 within one-quarter mile.

Ann Marie Sayers is Tribal Chair of Costanoan Indian Canyon and the only Ohlone that has succeeded in obtaining title to her ancestors’ land. She said, “The sites affected by the development are extremely significant and are believed to be burial or ceremonial sites. In addition to protecting these sites, we also want to work with the local community to protect their health, the land and the fragile Bay marine environment.”

For some Ohlone attending the event this is the first time they have ever been on this small piece of land that juts into the bay. It is significant that, when those building the sweat lodge prepared to dig the earth to make the pit and to use that earth as an alter the groundsman was reluctant. He suggested the layer of clay with which the Navy capped its toxic contaminants may be breached. That the pit is six inches deep says much about how land has been remediated here...and how little protection there is for the health of humans and other creatures when development beckons. Although the Ohlone builders choose to go ahead with the sweat lodge, this incident encapsulates Ohlone concern: the fragmentation of our Earth, the contamination of what remains, and how to restore balance to the land and it's First People.

Thursday, April 15
The first night of the event begins with fire, fresh air, sea water, and a small group of people descended from those assumed by popular culture to have disappeared long ago.

Daniel and Russel, both Rumsen, drove together to Heron's Head from Santa Cruz. Sixteen minutes before sundown Daniel stopped his van at the entrance to the park. He laughed ruefully through the window and told co-organizer Neil Maclean waiting at the gate, “We made it! I wasn't sure we would when we were stuck in traffic an hour ago. ”
Their van is packed to the gills with gear for the next three days. Right now, though, it is sundown and Daniel must hurry to light the fire that will burn continuously until Sunday. 

Later, a small group sits around the fire on the spit that is the last remaining mud flat on the San Francisco side of the bay.  Daniel faces each of the four directions as he sings and his voice and those of his companions accompany the beat of his drum then swirl with the wind into the dark. Across the narrow estuary of Lash Lighter Basin, seagull chatter almost drowns out the hum of fork lifts in The City's successful Pier 94 recycling center.
It is appropriate that such elements come together in this way on this first night: a piece of land with spectacular views reclaimed for the local community from the Navy, a recycling center that diverts useable consumer goods from waste dumps, a solar generated Eco-Center, and people fired up for another,  more natural, more inclusive way of being.

Daniel tells the Rumsen Ohlone creation story:
An Ohlone man sits on the beach and watches the tide rise. All day long he'd had the feeling that something was different about this day, that something big was going to happen. An object floated toward him and he suspected this might be it. When it was close enough, he saw a feather and reached for it. He fell back as a huge eagle, symbol of his people, rose out of the water, spread its wings, and towered over him. Then the eagle handed him a small hummingbird and told him to take it as his wife. Dumbfounded,the man asked, “How can I take such a small creature as a wife?” 
The eagle said, “Find a flea or a tick on your body and give it to the hummingbird to eat.”
The man did so and, when the hummingbird ate, she turned into a beautiful woman whom he took as his wife. Their children began the Rumsen tribe.

A wise woman once said, “Our new world is already germinating in the shell of the old. When the dying shell falls away, we will see fresh green shoots....”
What she did not say was that seeds are passed down  from the very old world too...What if indigenous renewal is the harbinger of new directions rooted in ancient traditions?

Friday April 17
After dinner a group gathers near the fire within which bake, since sundown yesterday, twenty four lava rocks about the size of cantaloupes. They will glisten red hot when they are removed and placed in the sweat lodge pit.
Willow saplings, bent and shaped into a half circle, form the sweat lodge; the circle completes under the earth. Three layers of heavy cloth lie over the wood frame and are held down with rocks at the base. Heavy fabric covers the entry way.
Upon the altar rests a package of tobacco, sage, two antlers to maneuver the hot rocks in the lodge, and a bear skull.
There is a symmetry to the alignment here: the lodge entrance, the pit, the altar, the fire, and the open space beyond face east. This sacred area is restricted to the fire-keeper and ceremony leaders. Anyone who needs to traverse the area must do so in a clock-wise fashion, no one but the fire keeper can cross the sacred zone between the altar and the fire, the view to the east space must remain open.

Tony Cerda, the Rumsen chief, welcomes the group, conducts the sweat lodge ceremony and leads the praise singing then each participant says a few words, throws tobacco into the flames, and passes, clockwise, around the fire.
This is not a stilted or authoritarian ceremony; an easy camaraderie flows within the rituals, no one grandstands. A large fluffy dog and his owner walk along the spit and the dog bounds into the ssacred area; it is welcome as a spirit visitor.
More people arrive after dinner. Iron Woman – her name is melodic in her native tongue – talks about her evolution toward the Sun Dance... and her participation in 16 of these grueling events that include
fasting, dancing, singing and drumming, and experiencing visions; often the dances culminate in hanging from skin pierced on the dancer's chest. Other Sun Dances join in sharing memories of their experiences. Steve recites his epic poem about Sun Dancing that includes the line, “if I did not dance I would be in jail or dead by now.” Overcome with Steve's words, Iron Woman sobs. Then she talks about being a mother watching her son dance: “it is difficult for us mothers to see our sons and know what they are going through.”
Steve invites those who will enter the sweat lodge to prepare. Tony leads the prayer and sings. Before participants enter the lodge each is smudged with sage – back and front, and under feet – then she or he bends and crawls into the dark dome. 
Two men rake a stone out of the fire, dust ash from it so that it does not contaminate the air within the lodge, and pass it to Steve inside who maneuvers it with antlers into the pit. With six stones placed, a splash of water over the rocks creates steam and the entry way is closed. Voices murmur within followed by singing.

...Other Voices
Michael and Cynthia drove here from Los Angeles. Michael is Rumsen Ohlone, Cynthia is from a Plains Indian tribe. Michael says, “Cynthia is my “wing man” which means she helps me when things get tough. I learn from Tony too, especially about patience. Yesterday, for example, we were supposed to practice drumming for this event. But one man arrived at our home high and drunk. He fell in the bathroom and threw up there; it was a mess. Children were watching this and I was so angry I wanted to throw him out. Instead, Tony talked very gently with this man and showed him so much compassion that I calmed down too. Now I feel I can manage my anger and experience it differently.”
Cynthia explains Michael's wing man reference. “The bear and eagle team up in the Bear Dance that replicates the bear awakening from hibernation in the spring or preparing for hibernation in the fall. The eagle, or wing man, uses its wing to clear dark or negative energy that the bear may accumulate during the dance. The eagle lightly brushes the bear with its wing then flies that energy away and releases it back to the mineral world.”

Henry is sixteen, the youngest of a family of four children; his father died when Henry was ten. The young man gives the impression that he is too shy to talk but he opens up readily when approached. He learned from fasting and a vision quest that he is a bear and, tomorrow night, he will participate in the Bear Dance. AJ is about the same age as Henry and, as an eagle, will be Henry's wing man during the dance. Tonight AJ is the fire-keeper and ensures the fire burns well and hot. Later, when AJ joins the group in the sweat lodge another young man takes over the fire-keeper's duties.

David is Anglo and learns from Native Americans and others about how to honor our Earth. He describes the sequence of ceremonial events in a manner peculiar to his culture – as a linear process with set, measurable steps – yet corrects himself now and again with a brief nod to cultural difference: “Each group honors Mother Earth slightly differently... I'm not sure how this group will conduct its ceremonies...let's see how things develop....”

Saturday April 17
The mood around the fire in the late afternoon is easy. After the ceremonial circle to welcome guests breaks up, Tony shares a joke.
A snail describes to a judge a collision he witnessed between two tortoises. “I could see the two tortoises were on a collision course as they came down the path. They couldn't see one another but I could see  a head-on in the making...”
The judge asks, “And what happened?”
The snail replies, “I don't know. It happened too fast!”

As more people arrive and cluster around the lodge, the earlier small group intimacy gives way to an air of anticipation: the evening's community sweat followed by the dancers'-only sweat, singing, Acorn and Bear Dancing; after the dance the bears will sweat once more before the lodge is dismantled. 

The dancing takes place  in a location some distance from the sweat lodge and delineated by a circle of trimmed grass edged with four flags. Burning logs carried in a brazier from the lodge fire wait in the center of the circle while the dancers prepare. Observes and supporters stand in a circle chanting to the beat of a slow drum while paint is applied to the dancers: black and white streaks on back and chest, arms, chin, and cheeks.
Then a line of singing dancers enters the dance arena at the eastern entryway and spirals around the fire. After several Acorn Dances honoring the tribe's women, Tony invites everyone to join the dance and Steve describes the moves. The circle expands to include all participants then shrinks and grows, shrinks and grows as it weaves in and out and upon itself.
Meanwhile, beyond the dance zone, two Bears prepare: a stretch of a foreleg here, the tying of a ribbon there to ensure the bear head does not move during the dance, a shared joke followed by low laughter.
Then the Acorn Dance is over and four men takes turns around the fire to prepare the space for the bears: each presents a prayer and a handful of sage into the fire. Finally, groaning and roaring, the bears shuffle in and circle to the beat of the drum. Dim firelight plays over fur, deep black, brown, and gold.
Here we are, in the dark, on a spit of reclaimed land around which birds call and a cool wind penetrates jackets while damp ground works its way through boots and shoes. Out there, on the hillside that is Bay View Hunter's Point, behind the defunct power station put out of business by local community pressure, occasional gunshots ring out and echo over the inlets. The bears dance on and on...

Sunday April 18
The lodge is gone. The circle of cantaloupe stones, cold now, stacks in the exposed fire pit. An empty turquoise pack of tobacco lies on the altar in front of the once proud fire. Wind from the east wafts smoke into the faces of those on the western arc of the circle of people around the dying fire that has not been fed since last night's final sweat ceremony. Each person in turn says a few words of thanks; some simply say, “To my ancestors.” One woman expresses her feelings of deep pride and gratefulness that so many young people participate in these ceremonies: “This truly honors our ancestors and gives hope for our Ohlone future.”
The circle breaks. Someone says, “Show time, dancers!”
Those who will perform the public dance at the grand opening of Eco-Center – they already wear ceremonial dress – slowly walk to that venue. Those who remain pack their gear, chat quietly, or say their goodbyes.

Soon the area is empty of people. What remains are a series of circles: green grass defines the area covered by the sweat lodge, brown grass surrounds it, trampled down by the days' activities; the circular pit with a pyramid of stones; the empty altar in front of the fire, another circle created by  celebrants walking, clockwise, around it. The open space beyond is clear and sunny. Birds wheel overhead or forage at the shore.

EcoCenter opens
A long line of visitors waits to tour the interior of EcoCenter, learn about the water use and storage system – only rainwater collected into huge metal tanks is used here – and climb the temporary ladder up to the roof to view the native plant sod roof and admire the view.

Tony Cerda leads a series of Acorn Dances for the public opening of the EcoCenter. Participants and observers that attended last night's Bear Dance might feel exposed in the bright morning sunshine. At the same time, the subtle nuances of the dances can't be missed as are in the enveloping dark. One dancer twitches his feathers as he backs into the circle then swings around to face the center, the angle of another dancer's head and shoulders, so birdlike, brings tears to the eyes. There is gusto and verve to the dances even as some young women dancers project an air of shyness, perhaps even reluctance.

Chief Tony Cerda ends the session with a loud call to recognize this tradition: “When someone tells you that there are no Ohlone left, you tell them not only do they live but that you saw then dance here today!”

No comments: