All photos courtesy of author
Stories that Ache, Stories that Haunt
Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it.
-Frantz Fanon from The Wretched of the Earth
I was talking to my sister about what remains. Beyond headstones, that is. It must be a feeling that we pass from one another to children that are in our clans and families.
My father’s father, Sewdass Mohabir, was probably murdered. Officials found his body bloated and half eaten by piranhas in the Courantyne River. My father wanted his ring so they cut the finger off of his corpse. My father lost this ring—quite possibly the biggest of his regrets in life.
My brother, sister, and I grew up in the shadow of this tale, always worried about protecting those things that were important, that somehow held the spirit of our ancestors, and were taught to always take care of them but to never speak the stories that would bring shame to our family. But how can we live and forget about this? It haunts us. We eat silence and are plagued by empty spaces. For me, to open myself to wholeness, I must see what’s around me, what earth says, what water says, what memories surface, and connect them in remembering and in writing.
Spending the summer traveling, I am currently in Seattle, Washington reading Tributaries by Laura Da’, a Shawnee poet who lives locally with her family. I am struck by the layers of history embedded in her poetry—as if her poetic landscape was actually the land itself; layered with stories on top of stories; Native stories erased by the louder white stories. Here is a link to her astounding debut collection of poems.
To begin with, she sets up her book as an indigenous person who has been displaced, living now in another nation’s space. But she speaks, and necessarily so. She writes in the opening poem “Earth Mover,”
I clamp down on the tributary’s gush,
lay claim to our place here. (Da’ 6)
Da’ indicates her endurance, her resistance to erasure is to claim a place—the tributary, a metaphor for both origin and original contribution by the poet to the archive of story. As a reader and a person who has had to deal with issues that are extremely different yet similar in their feeling of colonial rupture, I like how Da’ threatens the powers that colonized her ancestors through her writing. She will not be written by others, nor will she let her stories ghost into memory.
What does it mean to claim a space; to make an alliance with the land? Da’ is conscious of the history of the place she now resides in, and includes them in her consideration of self and space. She is haunted throughout the collection by Shawnee removal in 1830 and resettlement as well as the removal and attempted genocide of the S·dukʷalbixʷ (Snoqualmie) people where she currently lives. Of this haunting Da’ continues in the poem “Raven Talks Curriculum,”
At the museum, I was unhinged by old bounty signs
from the fur wars
offering the largest pile of gold for men’s scalps,
less for women,
a token amount for children and infants.
I traced my finger over the name Snoqualmie, unbelieving. (Da’ 8)
As a Native woman, Da’ relates to the history of erasure, of murder, of being targeted by the american government for extermination. She, a descendant of the forcibly removed, displaced, is able to see her own history reflected in the S·dukʷalbixʷ landscape.
I want to use her template for envisioning my own life in the united states as well as in Hawai‘i: I want to use my own writing to challenge, upset, and thwart colonial dominance that despite the moment of decolonization, I see my friends and family still endure rupture. But we are enduring on someone else’s space. I want to remember this in my writing. I want to ally with the earth.
All around is an archive. The land is an archive of stories. As I drove around Hawai‘i in the spring with my dear Jaan, Akta, we told each other stories. She of Mount Kailash—the dwelling place of her family deity, Shiva. I told her I descend from the moon, which is in Shiva’s hair, a link between her story and mine. But the mountain that juts from the sea is also Mokoli‘i, that little mo‘o whose tail Hi‘iaka threw into the sea. Our stories of self and place take on new inflection, colonialism, rupture, but not only of ours, but of the land, and of the Kanaka Maoli.
I am not the first to see this or to even mention the fact of land as archive. Indigenous people have been saying this and it’s now that I am seeing in on the continental united states. At Snoqualmie Falls, water rushes from the ledge and drops 286 feet. The People believed this to be the site of where Beaver brought trees and fire down to the earth. The People of this place are also called People of the Moon. I feel connected to this history as someone who is also connected to the moon in my own traditional reckoning. There is a layer here that compacts my emotional connection with place and history. A ghost rising from the mist of water cashing down on water. A mist. A spirit.
If you hike along the park, you will see Salish words inlayed in the cement.
This river is the S·dukʷalbixʷ place of creation. In 1898 it became a hydroelectric generating plant. The land confiscated by white settlers, the People evicted to diaspora. There is a trace of the archive inlaid in metal that shines in the sun if you care to look under your feet.
Far away in Arizona there is another story of people being erased from the land. In Oak Flat, Congress is selling Apache sacred land to a private Australian-British mining company despite sanctions put in place in 1955 that guaranteed their preservation from mining. 300 of The People have gathered in protest to protect their scared land; land sacred to their ancestors. They are going to drill a giant hole to excavate minerals without plans to refill it. 1500ft deep. Two miles in diameter. Filled with toxic contaminants.
Here’s a link to read more about this horrific betrayal:
A harrowing fact is the connection between the mining operation and Rio Tinto who are responsible from the Grasberg mine in West Papua. Again there is a threat that seeks to strip the earth of resources in a way that erases people. Don’t deny complicity. The computer that I am using to write this is made from the rare minerals that they mine.
I find myself wondering, what of The People’s sacred places and things? I may be haunted by a lost ring, disposed of land and space in a different way, my people dependent on a globalized, neoliberal economy, and addicted to rum, but to be erased from the land altogether? To have the layers of history up-earthed and removed to line more white pockets, to have the space in history—both present and past—be filled in with toxic chemicals and industrial byproducts? To continue to resettle Natives for American gain? To erase The Peo—
For me writing about these situations is the way I bear witness and the way that I make subconscious links between my own place and the place around me. To ally you must have empathy, to place yourself in a different context and not be overly concerned if you are being represented enough, but to engage with the communities around you. For me, to write is to begin to heal.
To read about the way that we chose to use our words and our writings to connect these issues of resistance and endurance to West Papuan struggle, follow this link:
Sometimes shadows loom large and obfuscate histories. Sometimes dependency on wickedness and complicity keep me from acting outside of merely talking about it. I’ve signed petitions. I also use my own skill set to keep the conversation around the genocide of Native Peoples in the forefront of my living in occupied and colonized indigenous space.
Privilege means being able to read this and other articles, sigh, and feel badly. Privilege is using the suffering of others as a fucking writing prompt.
Privilege is not being haunted by genocide.
When I started to study Hindi my extended family laughed at me. This is English country, speak English. A phrase that still haunts me. It seeks to delegitimize this deep sadness I’ve eaten. It wants to cover the past with earth and plant apples on top of the mound. But it’s filled with toxic waste. What can grow out of me if I deny my own history and the histories around me? Sometimes just speaking up can help to heal this chasm within. I speak best when I write.
Before my Aji died, she secretly gave my mother her engagement ring that had my Aja’s initials etched on it. She did this so that my mother would give it to me. She was fifteen when he placed it on her finger, already the father of two. Aji’s mother disapproved of this union. Aji did not learn to read and write—her parents never saw fit to have her educated by christians.
My own father had to convert, to take a christian name to get an education. He had become so used to erasing himself he quoted Byron and Shakespeare and forgot Kabir and Faiz. My Aji was only able to speak to one other person in all of her languages, an alien in her own family. When I wear her ring about my neck I yoke myself to this history of erasure, of forgetting our language, of being “granted” land by the British who forcibly removed indigenous people from their land—the Akawaio, Arekuna, Patamona, Waiwai, Makushi and Wapishana—of migration being the only constant in my history. When I write, I do so to connect myself with this past. I write to remember, haunted by the terror of forgetting.
There’s something about knowing the trauma that haunts my family that makes me more compassionate, more able to relate to analogous and similar situations of being forcibly removed, of migration, of forced diaspora.
And what of this haunting? Where is it from? Where does it lead?
These stories about people struggling and surviving to rise up against erasure should sound familiar. On the island of Hawai‘i the DLNR threatens to erase the Kanaka Maoli. According to governor Ige’s restriction of access, people are not allowed to camp on their mountain, which means The People are being kept from their own sacred space, which means America is flexing its right to indigenous land, which means terra nullius never ended, which means US occupation will not rest until it decimates memory of the Kanaka Maoli, which means now more than ever we are seeing The People rise up to refuse this continued erasure.
Which also means, as a University of Hawai‘i student, I am complicit in the continuing genocidal practices of american empire.
A protector, Pua Case is quoted as saying on KHON TV, “We are not standing against anyone or anything. We stand for the mauna.” Here Case stands on her mountain, on layers of stories and history, proclaiming that she exists and that she will not be silenced. Here I am standing too and speaking of erasures, but also of this same kind of endurance—the refusal to let go, to let the colonizer completely mangle my history.
Since Kanaka Maoli history is tied to the land as an archive, as a body, the digging of this telescope is the threat of erasure—mining the Kanaka body for settler and occupational benefit. For the Apache as well, their bodies are being threatened, their bodies of history and story continue to be upended by American colonization, the colonial need to twist The People’s history into never having been.
I wear Aji’s ring as more than a fetish. I feel her behind me guiding my writing when I wear it. I can hear her voice:
sarve bhavantu sukhinaha
sarve santu niramayaha
sarve bhadrani pashyantu
I open myself to this haunting—to my history of erasure—to write and to heal; to remember and to transform; to sympathize and to ally; to resist and to endure.