Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Spirit Villages

Watching the timber recover from logging, farming, grazing, drought, storms and time, I’ve come to trust the resilience of the land. With humans or without us, the earth will survive. Gaia takes care of her own.

Reading Ronald D. Parks’ meticulous and compassionate book, The Darkest Period: The Kanza Indians and Their Last Homeland, 1846-1873, I’ve begun to see some hope for humans. Like other indigenous peoples, the Kaw were driven to the brink of annihilation. European settlers attempted to destroy their culture, their livelihood, their history, their spirituality and even their language. They were driven from their lands, reduced to poverty, reviled for following their traditions, forced to attend punitive schools and regarded as less than human. In the words of Chief Allegawaho, they were driven from place to place “like a flock of Turkeys.”

Yet they survive. In Oklahoma, Kaw City flourishes. The Kanza tribe sponsors events, maintains a museum, provides health care and offers language instruction. The last full-blood Kaw tribe member died in 2000, but mixed-blood Kanzas continue the dances and celebrate the old ways. The last speaker of the Kaw language was Robert Rankin, a linguistics professor who grew up in Georgia. His Kanza dictionary and tribal teaching materials are helping to revitalize the ancient tongue. Former enemies of the Kaw have allied with them to preserve and revive indigenous cultures. A recent land purchase near Council Grove brings the Kaw back to Kansas at last.

The Kanza farmed the Kaw Valley for eight generations. In the winter they hunted deer and raccoons in the woods to the northeast. In the summer they went west to hunt bison. The women farmed; the men hunted. They planted sunflowers to mark the graves of their loved ones. After they were removed to progressively smaller reservations, and eventually from the state, they still returned to visit their old lands. Even after death, their spirits returned to their Kaw Valley homes.

The timber does not look the same as it did before the railroad loggers came through, cutting oak, hickory and walnut. Each time a storm takes down an old tree, the forest changes. New clearings open. Young saplings fill in the gaps. Trails detour around fallen logs. The deer had almost vanished when I first came here; now they pose a hazard on the roads every autumn. Foxes have moved into town, hunting rodents at dawn and dusk, singing under suburban windows.

The stolen Shunganunga Boulder
Spirit villages ensoul the Kaw Valley. Sunflowers bloom along the roads every summer. River trails lead hikers through unnamed half-blood lands. Farm tours showcase growers of healthy produce. The huge quartzite stone where the Kanza offered prayers, ripped from its original resting place, stands at a city intersection, marked with the names of European settlers. The glacier that brought it south resculpted the land long before living memory. The land always meets change with adaptation. We can survive if we remain resilient. We can survive if we offer reverence to life. Spirit villages nourish us, teaching us to eat well, to care for the land, to remember those who loved the earth before we were born to walk it. The Kaw still dwell here. Gaia takes care of her own.

The Kaw Valley