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Breathing the ancestors.

We have come to bury our dead. It is still dark. The dirt road leading down to Abalone Cove is rutted, and we bounce and sway in our seats as the van slowly winds its way down to the rocky shore. The people waiting below in the mist are like apparitions of the ancestors we have come to return to the ocean. It is low tide, but the ghost-gray waves breaking along the dark shore leap high and wild, churning earth, rocks, and shells in their wake.

Christ has arrived before me, shaking salt water from his hair, walking among the men in the darkness. He has walked these shores before, thousands of years before the first Christian missionaries arrived here. It is an old covenant. I had forgotten about it until Jesus came into my life.

The ashes of the ancestors are close by. I cannot see them, but I know they are here. Several weeks before, I and other Native Americans from different tribal cultures had gone to the Arco Refinery in Carson, California to discuss the reburial of the 60 or more native people who had been found there.

We walked in silence among the skeletal remains, the anthropologist hired by Arco making sure that we noted the evidence of violence on skulls and limbs. We are not sure who the people were, though some Chumash artifacts were also found with the bodies. The Chumash are my father's people, caretakers for thousands of years of a vast area of this land we now call Southern California. What we do know is that something terrible took place there.

We have been called to Abalone Cove by the Tongva people, the most likely descendants of the ancestors. Because the remains of the ancestors were found on acknowledged Tongva land, it is proper that they have taken responsibility for the reburial. The Tongva decided to cremate the remains and return the ancestors to the ocean.

Awaiting the dawn

When the Catholic missionaries came to California, the Tongva were given the name Gabrieleno, for the Mission San Gabriel, just as my father's people were given the name Barbareno for the Mission Santa Barbara, our original names subjugated, lost--Diegeno, Luiseno, Gabrieleno, Ventureno, Barbareno, Purismeno, Obisbeno....

We are still veiled in darkness, but the ocean is silver-gray in Abalone Cove. Dawn is just beyond the cliffs. What is this sorrow I feel?

The night before my father died, I attended a women's sweat. The heat and steam inside the darkness of the sweat lodge seemed unbearable. I was in the womb of God, unable to be born. I could not take the suffering one minute longer, until the woman next to me, in pain from sitting on the hard earth, asked me to rub her back. "Jesus, mercy. Please help my father to have a good death."

The next day my father died with all his loved ones around him. A good death. Simple acts. And we are born.

Dawn has come to Abalone Cove. We are holding hands, dancing in a circle, a Friendship Dance some tribal cultures call it. We pray and dance to the Sunrise Song, to the Water Song, to the Rock Song. Sun-splashed ocean, dark cliffs, shadows, rocky shore move past me as if I were standing still and they were dancing in the round.

Circles, circles everywhere, from sun to galaxies, plants on the hill, animals scurrying to their homes, ocean life, every cell of our bodies, and sea birds flying overhead.

I cannot understand the words sung by the Western Shoshone elder, but I understand their meaning--it is a great unknowing, and it fills me with light. I know these old songs, I have sung them before, and I hum along, respectful, serious; inside, I am filled with joy, smiling.

Final journey

Some of the Tongva carry the ashes of the ancestors to the beach. The ashes--in small plastic bags from the crematorium, each containing the remains of a person--are placed on the sand. I wonder if the mother holding her baby was cremated with her child.

My sister, Susan, and I are honored to be chosen to help prepare the ancestors for their journey out to sea. We kneel on the beach and line two large boxes with cloth. My favorite sweat lodge towel is used to line one of the boxes. It is the same towel we draped over the steel bars of the rented hospital bed when my father was dying. A fine mist of ash rises as we empty the plastic bags. Susan and I glance at each other.

"We are breathing the ancestors," I say. "Yes," she says.

Chumash and Tongva men lift the ti'at, the traditional plank canoe of the Tongva, carrying her to the ocean's edge on their shoulders. Her name is Mo'omat 'Ahiko, "breath of the ocean," and she is draped in a garland of sage. The boxes holding the ancestors' ashes are covered in a beautiful purple cloth with black hibiscus blossoms printed on it. Susan has woven a wreath of sage for the ancestors, and it is placed on top of the purple cloth.

The Tongva carry the ashes to the ti'at, the rest of us walking in solemn procession behind them. Waves crash against the canoe, lifting her each time, tossing her against the rocks; she reminds me of a wild mustang, straining to be free of the hands that try to hold her down. The captain enters the canoe and directs the people to place the boxes in the center of the ti'at. As always, the ancestors are our ballast, the steadying point of our cultural journey.

The paddlers and several other men begin to push the ti'at further into the ocean, and she is bucking and heaving on the waves as the paddlers climb in and begin to paddle. Their long oars lift high into the air, circling down into the ocean and up again. They are beautiful to watch, and we pray earnestly for them to break beyond the pounding waves. Several of our men are still in the ocean, helping to push the ti'at into deeper water, and for a moment I am afraid she will not break free. "Jesus, mercy."

My brother John, who has followed the ti'at into the ocean, begins to sing the Dolphin Calling Song, praying for help for the paddlers. It is an old story: our people, walking across a rainbow bridge, some falling into the depths of the ocean, only to be saved, changed into dolphins. 'Alolk'oy! 'Alolk'oy! Dolphin! Dolphin! And the ti'at breaks free of the waves--Mo'omat 'Ahiko is out in the open sea, long oars rising and falling, and she is skimming over the water. We sing, we sing, and our tears mingle with our shouts of encouragement. Farewell, ancestors! Goodbye! Welcome home!

An ancient covenant

Tomorrow I will attend Mass. I will sit in the pew, and, like so many other Native American Catholics, I will be invisible--rarely acknowledged in the liturgy, left out of discussions on racism and reconciliation, my cultural and spiritual worldviews misunderstood, distorted, or denied. I am an anomaly. Sometimes I am like the Mo'omar 'Ahiko, tossed between deep ocean and rocky shore. It is a difficult place to be, but I know this: God is good, and he created the indigenous peoples of the Americas and spoke to them thousands of years before the colonial expansion of Christianity through European church structures.

"In the beginning was the Word"--in the beginning! Our unique cultural and spiritual worldviews are reflections of the logos of God working throughout creation and human history since the beginning of time. It is an ancient covenant.

Native Americans are often a disturbing reminder of this truth. Our very presence questions the Christian religions and how they were brought to the Americas. Perhaps this is one of the reasons some would prefer not to see us. Still, despite my struggles, my questions, I love the mystical heart of the church, the vision of Christ that I find there, the Mass. With the ancestors, they are my ballast, my steadying point as I head out for the deep.

And, when I walk up to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, I know he sees me.

By GEORGIANA VALOYCE-SANCHEZ, a Chumash and O'odham storyteller and writer. She teaches American Indian Studies at California State University-Long Beach.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Native Americans and Christianity
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
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