Belonging to the Black Crows, A Reservation Memoir
Prologue:I Met Selo Black Crow Because
_________I met Selo by happenstance
_________by collision course
_______________if I believed in that
_________even by Manifest Destiny
_______________if I believed in that
_______________I believe in them
_________because they simultaneously acknowledge
_________and deny the world’s web
______I met Selo because
I was born right into the middle of the Iroquois Confederacy, in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York, in a town
___between Skaneateles and Canandaigua
___between the Onondaga and Cattaraugus Reservations
___between Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake
so there must have been Indians all around, but I never met any.
It was the 20th Century, my father said, and all the Indians in the East were dead and gone. No Indian problem here. All that’s left is artifacts. Arrowheads.
But he was wrong.
In 1984 Selo and I would return to the Onondaga Reservation, not twenty miles from the Mack family farm, to walk across New York State demanding sanctuary for Dennis Banks, American Indian Movement leader.
As we marchers walked, we passed strange barns, tall high wooden structures with no windows — tobacco drying sheds, a marcher told me. I remembered seeing them that summer I rode around with Mrs. Bahn, the public health nurse who lived next door.
At ten I was thinking about becoming a doctor, so Mrs. Bahn took me with her as she made her rounds to the free clinics for migrant workers. When we passed those strange barns that weren’t built right, I felt as though we had entered another country.
Indeed, the cannery clinics for the dark-haired Mexicans who spoke Spanish seemed less foreign to me than those clinics with dark-haired children who spoke English.
I gave those children my dolls. I wasn’t saintly. I was glad to get rid of them, my beautiful dead dolls which weren’t nearly as interesting as live dogs.
So my father was wrong: when I was ten I had met some real live Indians.
I was born in Syracuse, named after the great Greek city in the Mediterranean, and grew up in Geneva, named after the lovely lake in Switzerland. Naming and claiming.
During the War for Independence in 1779 General Sullivan marched through the Mohawk Valley and burned the Iroquois villages in a great swath, clearing the way for settlers. Settlers proud of their Classical culture who claimed and renamed their wilderness
___Greece Athens Corinth Ilion Ithaca Troy Homer
___Rome Marcellus Romulus Cicero Ovid
___Carthage Naples Cairo Alexandria
___Jericho Jordan Babylon Mt. Sinai
Renamed the ashes to extinguish the memory of native villages, yet their names still echo
Allegheny, Amagansett, Canajoharie, Canistota, Canisteo, Chappaqua, Cheektowaga, Chittenango, Cocsakie, Delaware, Erie, Geneseo, Irondequoit, Katonah, Keuka, Lackawanna, Mahopec, Mamamroneck, Manhasset, Massapequa, Mohawk, Montauk, Nesconset, Nissquoque, Niagara, Nyack, Oneida, Oneonta, Ontario, Oswego, Patchogue, Peconic, Quoque, Ronkonkoma, Sagaponack, Salamanca, Saranac, Sauquiot, Setauket, Syosset, Ticonderoga, Utica, Wanakah, Wyandanca
My grown son living in New York State recently moved from Macedon to Palmyra, a distance of fourteen miles.
But to move the fourteen miles from Palymra to Ganondagen, now a Seneca archaeological site, is impossible. Or possible only as a voyager slipping between worlds and time.
Yet it is possible to travel the twenty-eight miles from the Mack Farm near Oaks Corners to the Onondaga Reservation, even though General Sullivan burned down the village over two hundred years ago, and the Iroquois Confederacy council fire was extinguished.
What remains is only four square miles, easy to miss. You could drive right through the reservation and not know you’d been there. But for the tobacco sheds. And the sacred fire. The Onondagas are keepers of the council fire, which burns again today for Indian Rights.
My town, Geneva, was built on the site of a massacre, the Seneca village of Kanadasaga. Kanadasaga overlaid by Geneva, but not totally extinguished. As a child I heard the name and rolled its syllables around on my tongue, ka-na-da-sa-ga. I loved going there, to my summer Girl Scout Camp.
Now a historic sign about the Kanadasaga Massacre stands by the Five Corners store, adjacent to the Cornell University Experiment Station. My father’s chemistry lab was built over burial mounds, where, waiting for our fathers to finish running their chemistry experiments, we “station brats” would play in the dirt and dig up arrowheads, play cowboys & Indians.
_________I met Selo because
I studied hard and went to Oberlin on scholarship, then Yale on scholarship, and after two children and Putting-Hubby-Through, I went to the University of Michigan on a Putting- Wife-Through scholarship, using $500 saved for babysitting while I took classes until the money ran out just before I finished my dissertation and taught at Illinois Institute of Technology and ran an engineering conference and edited the proceedings and gave speeches and got divorced – I wanted to get the kids and me out of Chicago it was too dangerous – and then I met an old friend in the elevator of the Sheraton Hotel who told me about a job at the University of Michigan which I got and we moved to Rainbow Way on Walnut Street which was around the corner from Mack Street where I thought I should be living, my last name being Mack.
The Indian House in Ann Arbor was on Mack Street around the corner, but I didn’t know it at the time, never having gotten any further on Mack Street than examining the street sign to see if I could lift it, and I didn’t know that Selo wouldn’t stay there because those Indians were Chippewas who called the Sioux snakes, didn’t know he wanted to stay at the Ann Arbor Peace House, which was Rainbow Way, my house around the corner, one of two adjacent houses on Walnut Street that formed the Quaker commune I’d started.
I was teaching English 497 at the Engineering College of the University of Michigan, and instead of using Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as my colleagues did, I renamed my writing course “Finding Your Own Personal Voice and Vision” and used Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions as an alternative world-view closer at hand (but one I personally knew nothing about). Lame Deer being John Fire from Corn Creek, South Dakota — Selo’s uncle.
After going through grad school in two years, I never wanted to read another book never wanted to
anything again, I just wanted outdoors, seventy-two days of freedom in twenty-three national parks, Nature to renew me, save me from my Ph.D. – Pile Higher & Deeper –self.
Nevertheless on day sixty-five in Navaholand at a traditional trading post I tried to buy a book of legends written in Navaho, but they had only a bilingual reader in Lakota and English illustrated by Andrew Long Soldier, which I bought instead and kept through several moves on an obscure shelf in the dining room. Andrew Long Soldier from Hisle, South Dakota — Selo’s cousin.
Two of his relatives, two books pulling Selo to Rainbow Way, to me.
__________________If I believed that.
I knew nothing about Indians. Artifacts, yes. Eskimo soapstone sculpture, exquisite Navaho Yeibeichi vegetable dye rugs, Anasazi black Pueblo pots.
Things just came into my hands and I loved them and brought them home.
Books, yes. Black Elk Speaks, Breaking the Mayan Code, Technicians of the Sacred.
Poetry, yes. I copied out The Rainbow Way Chant (in English, of course) for the motto of my communal house to walk the path of beauty. The chant, transformed into a round we sang in Peace Choir:
_______________Now I walk in beauty
_______________beauty goes before me
_______________beauty goes behind me
_______________beauty all around me
Very beautiful, but I hadn’t discovered that around the corner were some real Indians.
_________I met Selo because
Danny Kleinman, the first New York intellectual I met at college, wouldn’t marry me and take me to Hashomer Hatzieir to learn to live on a kibbutz in Israel.
It made sense, the kibbutz and moshav, collective and family dwellings intermixed in a self-sufficient commune. But I didn’t learn Hebrew and didn’t go to Israel. I investigated Christian communes instead.
First I visited the Bruderhof in Rifton, New York, founded by a German-speaking sect that lived communally and made beautifully-turned wooden chairs, tables, and bowls. I loved to work with wood. I could do that, I thought. But I learned that men did the woodwork, women did the laundry.
In the laundry I saw racks of plain long gray dresses, one size-fits-all, and a row of little white starched caps. I couldn’t see myself in one. The Bruderhof was too communal, too plain, too fundamental and too patriarchal. Yet I loved their folksongs and hymns, the family warmth, the sense of security.
I visited the Mennonite communal house on Chicago’s North Side, and the Quaker Action collectives in Chicago and Philadelphia. I never got to visit Twin Oaks, B. F. Skinner’s experimental community near Washington, DC, but I read about it in Walden II.
By the 60’s when innumerable hippie communes flowered, I was conventionally married and had two babies. Drug heavens, artists’ collectives or lesbian farms weren’t for me. I gave up on gurus, never got to ashrams in India, but I never gave up the communal vision.
Later, after my marriage failed, I started my own Quaker commune in Chicago. It was more like a boarding house filled with kids and friends, a loose temporary family.
I needed to pay the mortgage and my friends needed a cheap place to stay while finishing grad school. We filled the big rambling house with laughter and went sailing together on Lake Michigan.
When I moved to Ann Arbor, I chose to live communally again, buying two houses next door to each other: Rainbow Way. The small house became the early-to-rise- early-to-bed family center shared by a couple, my three kids and me. The big house where we ate our evening meal together became the late-to-rise-late-to-bed student center shared by singles.
Rainbow Way, along with a Word of God charismatic Christian commune four houses down, fit right into the Walnut Street block club, which shared a lawnmower and the care of a community park across the street.
Yet I found Ann Arbor to be a giant candy store, while I was hungry for a loaf of bread. I sought a way out of materialism, of having rather than doing or being as a way of life.
The mania for collectibles. Having a collection. Having a complete collection. And with it the object-hunger that corrodes the soul.
I sought a way out of dialectical materialism as well as a way out of capitalism. I craved the ideal community. Jesus’ way. A simpler way. But I couldn’t get beyond the “no dishwashers” phase.
I yearned for true simplicity yet couldn’t imagine it. The more I simplified, the more complex the daily chores became, and the more deprived my family felt, following an asceticism which simplified the fun right out of life.
_________At last I met Selo because
in mid-life I was attacked and beaten by an unknown assailant, came close to death, my throat not slit because
I was wearing love beads
_______________I did believe that then
______________________________not my time yet.
I was spared, and after I recovered from paranoia, I began to breathe again.
All became clear – nothing else mattered at all — the university professorship, the Mies van der Rohe office, my luxurious Tudor house — nothing mattered at all but precious life, my three children, and love.