It's World Bank weekend, and I find myself with an ear infection, unable to participate in a protest at the home of World Bank director Paul Wolfowitz. I didn't know I was going to be up to join my friend John for a journey to Southern Maryland to join the Piscataway Indians for the Awakening of Mother Earth Ceremony. John hadn't sent me any details, the outdoor part of the ceremony looked to be canceled due to weather, and as I have mentioned, I didn't feel well.
At about 1 PM, I get a call from John on my girlfriend Genevieve's phone. He says he can have me picked up from the Springfield Metro at 4PM, joining John and day laborers from Woodbridge in a school bus headed to the social. The pain in my ear, finally relenting, I agree to go.
It's now 4:15, and I'm waiting outside the Springfield Metro in Virginia; a yellow bus that says "PAZ" on the front of it rolls up. John is there along with Rick, whom I had never met before, driving the bus. No one else is on the bus. John is apologetic and says that though he had flyered, though the weather was worse the past fall when at least 15 workers made the trip, that none had come. Upon hearing this, I felt sad for John, who figured that perhaps no one came because he was not able to have anyone help him communicate in Spanish.
We drive through the rain into parts of Maryland I had never been, heading down Indian Head Road toward southern Prince George's County. According to John, the road got its name because of a $20 bounty on the head of any Maryland Indian during the colony's attempt to eradicate Indians from Maryland. When bounty hunters claimed bringing heads was too hard for them, they asked if they might only bring the scalp. Since authorities wanted to make sure that the scalps came from Maryland Indians and not those further away, they allowed scalps on the condition that the blood was still fresh, that is, still red. John says that this is how the term "redskin" came to be known. Whether this is true, I couldn't say - this Web site claims otherwise. And, whatever the actual etymology of the word "redskin", it is quite true that there was a bounty on Indian heads and Indian scalps throughout the English colonies. As we're driving down Indian Head Road, looking at new development after new development, one cannot be too hung up on etymological fine points when the consequences of genocide are all around you.
Sitting in the bus with John is quite the learning experience, hearing not only about the Tayacs, the names taken by the Piscataway chiefs, but stories echo in my head related to the ceremony that was canceled. John explains about Chief Turkey Tayac and the controversy over the land that is now Piscataway National Park. A search online can find quite the debate, including this paper purporting to debunk the Tayac's genealogical heritage, claiming that they are frauds not only pretending to be genetic leaders of the Piscataway but also for claiming that they had some part in the land deeds that created Piscataway National Park. I'm not terribly interested in the merits of the dispute, not really interested in identifying the racial and genetic purity of the Indian, as though that's the definitional point of identity. What I understand from John is a longstanding dispute between the Tayacs, the National Park Service, and the Ferguson family, whom John identifies with others he calls environmentalist racists. In short, there has been a lot of drama over the site, especially as it relates to the burial of the Tayacs, drama that isn't with us on this day and this evening, as we prepare for a social at the Henry Ferguson Elementary.
John also talks about the plight of Nelson Esquino, whom I would soon meet. Nelson had just spent two months in Brownsville, Texas, detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in part over a traffic ticket and in part over an alleged felony several years back. Nelson has a green card, is considered a "legal" immigrant, and yet was still detained following a traffic violation for two months. John is very concerned about Nelson's fate and how to raise money for his costs.
We arrive at the school just as it's opening. I see a small group of people mostly setting up a pot luck supper inside the elementary school cafeteria. I don't know who anyone is. I see some speaking Spanish, others who were elderly caucasian, some speaking English who looked like they were indigenous, and some African Americans. In this room of racial diversity, I could see quickly that race was not the characteristic of belonging; no one there talks about who is Piscataway and who is not. Some, like the Esquino family, identify themselves as Salvadoran and indigenous. Margarito Esquino, whose mother has recently died, I recognized from his presence at the Columbus Day event that I had organized last October. That evening, Margarito, who is with Associacion Nacional Indigena Salvadorena (ANIS), spoke at some length about his experience in El Salvador. He created some controversy by speaking against the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), and another Salvadoran, Marco, contradicted him. In any event, Margarito had been a guest at the Columbus Day event of Gabrielle Tayac, the niece of Chief Billy Tayac, who spoke about Piscataway history in the DC area. His relationship with the Tayacs goes way back, and there was a clear friendship between the indigenous people related to Margarito and the Piscataways of the Tayac family. In this room of about 25 people, it would defy stereotypes.
Soon, I briefly met Chief Billy, who struck me instantly as a warm and kind man with a great sense of humor, a man who was less chief than he was one among many. I met his wife Shirley and his son Mark, who spent much of the evening busily working on his art. Some of Mark's art is in the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian.
We begin with prayer; we would join in 3 prayer circles that evening. Though that may sound formal, most of the evening was informal. We heard Chief Billy, we heard from the Esquino's, there was a fundraising raffle to cover the costs of renting the cafeteria, and there was a fair amount of socializing and reminiscing.
As I sit there, I mostly listen. The act of listening is on my mind a lot, especially since my ear has been hurting so much, the left ear clogged entirely. Just before leaving, I had felt the first pop in several days allowing sound back into my ear. Even so, it was still clogged, and so going to listen wasn't simply an act of mental concentration, it was an act that was a bit of a physical challenge. To the left of me, conversation drifted from Spanish to English and sometimes in both languages at once. I was hearing about the change of migration patterns in Puerto Rico, from several steps to one of people moving instantly from the countryside to the big city and then into the mainland United States. They talked about the farm economy collapsing due to the lack of people anymore who knew how to do the work. On the other side of me was Mark Tayac talking about his craftwork and how long it was taking him to sew the design he was working on - so far 200 hours of work. I talked for awhile with Rick, in part about the experience and how much I was learning. We talked a little about John, who has worked tirelessly on many issues related to nuclearization, indigenous issues, immigration issues, and issues related to economic justice. He has been in the movement a long time and is inspired heavily by the Zapatistas. He has told me that he considers me to be in the spirit of the Zapatistas, and I find myself flattered that that's how he describes me to people like Billy Tayac. Of course, in my heart, I wonder if I'm not really living up to any label, no matter how flattering, that people apply to me.
Some of the things that happened defy my powers of description or defy my will to describe them. There was one intimate ceremony where we called for the health of a child that was about to be born. Another thing was shared that was quite private; however, I mention that to the extent that it was something that touched me and related to the pains and sorrows of my own life.
At 8 PM, we finally left back for home. I was again in the bus with Rick and John, asking questions and trying to understand the Tayacs and the Piscataway more, trying to put pieces of what I read with the controversies I was just now hearing about. I knew that the Piscataways were the original inhabitants of what is now Washington, D.C., having used the area around the Anacostia River as a trading area. I knew that they had mostly been wiped out by disease and by genocide. I also knew that they had not been recognized federally as a tribe, and I knew that there had been other bands of Piscataway that operated separately. John talked more about the controversy with the Fergusons and Chief Turkey Tayak, the involvement of Maryland politicians, the struggle to get the burial grounds inside Piscataway National Park recognized. Even now, writing this, I find myself learning, putting into perspective the research I am doing with my own sense of these sweet and wonderful people that I met this evening.
John confesses that one of the problems that the Tayacs face is that they are political radicals; they oppose casinos, they work on broader political issues, and have most obviously formed alliances with indigenous groups in other parts of the hemisphere. They have worked on prison issues and on nuclearization. As I hear this, I take comfort in it. I am curious about their relationship with the Smithsonian, though, an organization that has never been particularly friendly to indigenous concerns. Gabrielle used to work for the Smithsonian, and Mark's art is there in a permanent exhibition on Chesapeake Bay Indians. Little nuances like this interest me. I find the relationship between day laborers, immigrants, whether indigenous or otherwise, and the Piscataways to be especially interesting. While I was disappointed that some of the Woodbridge day laborers did not come, I did take heart that a relationship does exist.
The gathering was supposed to be a celebration of the awakening of Mother Earth; that was hard to get at entirely indoors. Even so, I felt the awakening, a sense that here was a place I was supposed to be at this time and this place - thankful that the pain in my ear subsided long enough for this to happen. Here, so many things I find myself caring about recently seemed to be coinciding, interest in indigenous issues, a critical stance toward the national parks (see for instance among many, this one I wrote not long ago on the "grizzly" truth of Yellowstone), and a keen sense of issues related to immigration, race, and class. I was thankful for a chance to meet and listen directly to indigenous people celebrating and preserving and expanding upon their heritage. I was thankful that John wanted me to meet Chief Billy and had spoken to him of me.
In June, I may have a chance to visit Leonard Peltier in prison. I am now giving that a lot of thought; I'm not sure it would have been a good idea until I had the kind of simple experience I had tonight. My own life has been one of searching for home and rarely finding it. In Washington, D.C., I feel like and probably am an outsider though I've lived here 7 years. In only rare places like Yellowstone has home seemed to be an applicable possibility, and yet I have not quite landed there. Here in the presence of the Piscataway, I also had the sense of home. I feel now that that should be part of me if I'm going to bring words of welcome to Leonard.
In any event, it's now 12:30 AM, and I've been given a lot to think and wonder about. And, that kind of awakening is always worth celebrating.