Breaking the silence

Well, its been awhile!

My year so far has been pretty busy with entering art work and having it accepted into three exhibitions in the US.   Completing and entering the work was the easy part.  The  challenge for me was to package, measure and weigh and then find a carrier to ship it over.  Practical tasks can flummox me!  I found a website called Parcel2Go.com which presents a range of options, shipping times and prices to choose from.

One of the shows was “Breaking the Silence: #MMIW #MeToo” in Tahlequah, Oklahoma,  in conjunction with Northeastern State University’s 47th annual Symposium on the American Indian to “Celebrate Indigenous Women.”

The exhibition aims to bridge and raise awareness about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Me Too movements.  Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women #MMIW is a mission among Indigenous groups across the United States and Canada to bring awareness and action to the disproportionate number of Native women who are victims of sexual violence and murder, usually perpetrated by non-Native men.   #MeToo is a movement founded in recent years to create conversations surrounding sexual assault and violence and help survivors heal from experiences.

I entered two pieces into Breaking the Silence.

My Grandmother’s Shoes tells the story about how her sexual sovereignty, the culture and the very land was taken from my Muscogee Grandmother.

My Grandmother’s Shoes, 25 x 40cm

 

My Grandmother’s Shoes

Born in Indian Territory
her land was pulled out from under her feet.
Her moccasins were taken away from her at Indian School.

Rootless, ungrounded, barefoot
She walked down dusty roads.
Looking for Home.

New roads ran between boom towns
and oil fields.
Slicing through stolen land and
carving out Oklahoma.

Boomer sooner

There were too many men
with too much get rich quick oil money
and too much time
on their hands.

A pretty barefoot Muscogee girl
She found a pair of cast off red satin shoes
at the side of the road.

Cracked and cheap, too small
They pinched her feet
but made her feel like
A honky tonk Queen.

Men in fast black Buicks
stopped and offered her a ride
to nowhere.

Once she got on that ride,
she could not get off.

She was spirited away.

– Melinda Schwakhofer,  2019

I am so proud and pleased that this work is being shown in Oklahoma.  This is where the story belongs.  People who are there, especially people of Native ancestry, will ‘get’ this work on the deep gut level that it has come from.   In fact, My Grandmother’s Shoes was purchased in the show.

Bloodlines uses many layers including maps; text; self-portrait; my Muscogee relations as shape shifters; newspaper headlines from the 1970s and historical images of Native women.   It tells of my adolescence when I was made to carry the story of my Muscogee Grandmother which was a story of sexual exploitation that had been handed down through generations.  It shows how the thread of abuse can be passed between generations,  and so can resilience and the will to survive.

Bloodlines, 2019

Bloodlines, 99.5 x 59.5 cm

I wrote down memories which I have carried for over 40 years.

Layers of memories, from our lifetimes and before our lifetimes, make up all of our stories. It is very powerful to tell them in any way we can – speaking, writing, making art work; and so profoundly healing for our stories to be deeply listened to and genuinely heard.

 

 

Six Towns Held by River Spirit

Dear Readers,
The last time we were on the Road to Oklahoma together was  November.  I’d been struggling to make the gorgets come out right and had decided to focus on another part of the journey. I set about finding the probable town(s) that my Great Great Great Grandfather Pahos Harjo had lived in prior to Removal to Indian Territory.

I ordered a print copy of the Creek census of 1832/1833, which has come to be called the Parsons and Abbott Roll, from Mountain Press.  It is the most comprehensive pre-Removal document, as it was the result of a village-to-village trek on the part of the census-takers, and contains the names of all the heads of households arranged by Creek towns.

By a treaty of March 24, 1832, the Creek Indians ceded to the United States all of their land east of the Mississippi River. Heads of families were entitled to tracts of land, which, if possible, were to include their improvements. In 1833 Benjamin S. Parsons and Thomas J. Abbott prepared a census of Creek Indian heads of families, which gave their names and the number of males, females, and slaves in each family. The entries were arranged by town and numbered; these numbers were used for identification in later records.

A big issue here is that Creek men were not the ‘heads of the family’, the women were.  But this is part of yet another story of patriarchal values being thrust upon Indigenous people.

All of this information is online, but I get fuddled when switching between multiple tabs, and it’s difficult to search through long lists on a screen.  I had a go about four years ago, but it is so much easier to look through sheets of paper.  Information on the internet, great resource that it is, has an ephemeral quality.

My print copy has been transcribed and typed, but here is a glimpse of the original handwritten document.

creek census image

I went through the lists of all of the Upper and Lower Creek towns to identify my Great Great Great Grandfather’s name – Pahos (Pow Hose or Par Hose) Harjo.   Another problem is that the Mvskoke language was not a written language, so there were approximations made when recording people’s names and place names.

I identified about a dozen towns with something close to his name.  Six were in Upper Creek territory and about five were in Lower Creek territory.   The Upper Creeks, unlike the Lower Creeks, resisted colonization in every manner that they could and held as fast as they could to their traditional ways.  They supported traditional Muscogee leadership and culture, including the preservation of communal land for cultivation and hunting and opposed assimilation to the United States culture.   I have several good reasons for knowing that my ancestors are Upper Creeks.

First of all, I know that my ancestors settled first in Tuskegee Town soon after they arrived in Indian territory after they were Removed.  The emigrants tended to settle together and named the new towns in the West after the towns they left behind.   In our homelands, Taskigi was  located in the triangle formed by the convergence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers.  I found this information on the Dawes Roll (more on this another time).

Second, my Great Great Grandfather was named Tecumseh, after the great Shawnee leader who had encouraged the Upper Creeks to fight against the encroaching United States government into their territory.  In 1811, Tecumseh had begun a pan-Indian movement to throw the Americans out of Native American territories. This led to the Red Stick War in 1813 in which the Upper Creek Muscogee went to war against the Lower Creek Muscogee (who were allied with the white Americans).

Third, my Great Grandmother Malindy Phillips who  was born in Indian Territory in 1878 never learned to speak English, keeping fast to the old ways and retaining her Native language.

So I felt very confident when I identified six possible Upper Creek towns that my ancestors came from.  Still, sometimes I’m often afraid that it is all a mistake.  That I don’t have any connection to the Muscogee.  I think that this comes from the years of shame, secrecy, ambivalence and feeling ‘other and outcast’ about being ‘part-Indian’.  All of those feeling passed to me from my Dad, along with the fact of my Muscogee ancestry.

When I got the font, the font size, the color of ink and the paper just right, I printed off the six towns:  Clewalla,  Fish Pond, Hatchet Creek, Kialege, Oelarneby, Ottise.

Then I broke half in two.  The tears came.  It is true.  We were there and we had to leave it all behind.

I made an altar to hold all of this.

I placed the town names along with some shell squares onto a reproduction of a map from 1816 that the Mvskoke had taken to a treaty meeting.   I encircled them with the red thread of my River Spirit necklace.  I placed a black and a white feather, a paper clay mask and my Dad’s cremation disc on all four sides.  Then l lit a candle.

It hurts, I hurt.    I want to be mistaken so I don’t have to feel the loss.  Loss is too inadequate a word.  It is a tear, we have been torn.  Ripped open and ripped apart.  It hurts to rip it back open and it feels clean.  It feels quiet and still.  It can heal now.

It can heal now.

River Spirit holds the towns and the ancestors left behind and our journey.
River Spirit washes away the pain.
River Spirit cleanses the wound.

For my exhibition, I made a mixed media piece comprising all of these elements.

Six Towns Held by River Spirit, mixed media, 30 x 40cm

By the way, I did not use my River Spirit necklace in this piece.  We went for a walk in early February, along the river which flows just outside of Moretonhampstead.

I gathered several piece of river drifted wood and used one of them for Six Towns.

 

Grandmother’s House

I am so grateful for my current ‘topside’ world of intimacy with my beloved, Home, satisfactory work, some sound real-time friends, all of which are all so nurturing and healing to my Soul. Because I am in this place, I am able to go consciously into the dark places which need my attention and care and the light of my awareness. To witness that which I would rather not look at, if I’m honest. It’s hard work and I sometimes wonder, ‘Why do I do it?’ while knowing that I couldn’t possibly make the choice not to.

I feel close to my ancestors at this thin time of the year, especially the Muscogee. Drawing on their tremendous strength and also feeling the incredible weight of our history. Too much for any of them to deal with, so it has been passed down to me. It’s heavy, a huge burden, but one that I gratefully receive. Just as I gratefully receive the life they have passed to me. I said ‘No thank you’ to the legacy of domestic violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse, mental health issues which was passed to me. I don’t know why I have this consciousness and drive towards wholeness and health, but am grateful for that as well.

I had a very heavy art-making session today. I started making ‘My Grandmother’s House’ which is part of my mixed-media re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood. My tale is ‘Little Red Stick’ about a Muscogee girl who belongs to the Wolf Clan and it is set during the Removals & Trail of Tears in the 1830’s.

grandmother's house11

My Grandmother’s House, mixed media, work in progress.

There’s a lot in this about my personal coming of age story, my family of origin history and my Tribal history. It’s deep healing work for myself and for my ancestors and feels like a lot to carry sometimes.

grandmother's 3

In the studio

I’m also simultaneously making an accordion book which tells the tale of Little Red Stick’s journey through the woods to her grandmother’s house.

grandmother's 1

Little Red Stick, accordion book, paper, paint & pencil, work in progress.

I got to the part where she comes to the house, so I had to make it so I can find out what happens next.

grandmother's 2

The journey continues . . . . . . . . .. .