Friday, March 27, 2009

I Saw Myself Today in Full Bloom


[Another in Eberle's Women's Art is Women's Work follows. Eberle mentions the Thunder Mountain Native American monument near Imlay, NV; the fourth photo in this post was taken there, by Eberle I believe. In case you haven't checked out the recent post about that—complete with slideshow backed by one of Eberle's solo piano pieces—you can do so here]

Sarah Winnemucca (ca. 1841–
1891), writer, teacher, and political activist, spent most of her life working to alter the injustice that Native Americans, & her own people the Paiutes in particular, were suffering through government policies of the times. She went on speaking tours across the country to raise consciousness about sanctioned violence against Native Americans and to gain support for her efforts to reform the reservation system. During one of these trips she met Mary and Elizabeth Peabody (friends of the Alcott family and of Lydia Child) in Boston. The Peabody sisters helped Sarah put her lecture materials into manuscript form and obtain a copyright for Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, published in 1883. Sarah kept pressuring officials in Washington and successfully obtained promises of reform from the government— promises that were never kept. Her book records historic events during her lifetime, her childhood memories, and her career of political activism—as well as the outspokenness that angered many. Addressing a government agent who took action to overturn an order from the Secretary of the Interior allowing the Paiutes interned at Yakima to return to Malheur she says:

Mr. Wilbur, you forget that you are a Christian when you talk so to me. You have not got the first part of a
Christian principle about you, or you would leave everything and see that my poor, broken-hearted people get home… I say, Mr. Wilbur, everybody in Yakima City knows what you are doing, and hell is full of just such Christians as you are.

After returning to Nevada, where she was born, Sarah started a school for Native American children intended to promote the indigenous lifestyle and language. The infamous Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 (requiring native children to attend English-speaking boarding schools) sounded the death-knell for this project. A statue honoring Sarah of Winnemucca stands at the monument created by Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder in the 1970s near Imlay, Nevada.

When Sarah was told that orders had been received to give her people one week before being forcibly relocated to the Yakima Reservation, she records her response in her book:

I have never seen a president in my life and I want to know whether he is made of wood or rock, for I cannot for once think that he can be a human being. No human being would do such a thing as that,—send people across a fearful mountain in midwinter.

I was told not to say anyth
ing till three days before starting. Every night I imagined I could see the thing called President. He had long ears, he had big eyes and long legs, and a head like a bull-frog or something like that. I could not think of anything that could be so inhuman as to do such a thing,—send people across mountains with snow so deep.

From Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims by Sarah Winnemucca (born Thocmentony, Paiute: Shell Flo
wer):

Many years ago, when my people were happier than they are now, they used to celebrate the Festival of Flowers in the spring. I have been to three of them only in the course of my life. Oh, with what eagerness we girls used to watch every spring for the time when we could meet with our hearts' delight, the young men, whom in civilized life you call beaux. We would all go in company to see if the flowers we were named for were yet in bloom, for almost all the girls are named for flowers. We talked about them in our wigwams, as if we were the flowers, saying, "Oh, I saw myself to-day in full bloom!" We would talk all the evening in this way in our families with such delight, and such beautiful thoughts of the happy day when we should meet with those who admired us and would help us to sing our flower-songs which we made up as we sang. But we were always sorry for those that were not named after some flower, because we knew they could not join in the flower-songs like ourselves, who were named for flowers of all kinds.

At last one evening came a beautiful voice, which made every girl's heart throb with happiness. It was the chief, and every one h
ushed to hear what he said to-day.

"My dear daughters, we are told that you have seen yourselves in the hills and in t
he valleys, in full bloom. Five days from to-day your festival day will come. I know every young man's heart stops beating while I am talking. I know how it was with me many years ago. I used to wish the Flower Festival would come every day. Dear young men and young women, you are saying, 'Why put it off five days?' But you all know that is our rule. It gives you time to think, and to show your sweetheart your flower."

All the girls who have flower-names dance along together, and those who have not go togethe
r also. Our fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers make a place for us where we can dance. Each one gathers the flower she is named for, and then all weave them into wreaths and crowns and scarfs, and dress up in them.

Some girls are named for rocks and are called rock-girls, and they find some pretty rocks which they carry; e
ach one such a rock as she is named for, or whatever she is named for. If she cannot, she can take a branch of sage-brush, or a bunch of rye-grass, which have no flower.

They all go marching along, each girl in turn singing of herself; but she is not a girl any more, – she is a flower singing. She sings of herself, and her sweetheart, dancing along by her side, helps her sing the song she makes.


I will repeat what we say of ourselves. "I, Sarah Winnemucca, am a shell-flower, such as I wear on my dress. My name is Thocmetony. I am so beautiful! Who will come and dance with me while I am so beautiful? Oh, come and be happy with me! I shall be beautiful while the earth lasts. Somebody will always admire me; and who will come and be happy with me in the Spirit-land? I shall be beautiful forever there. Yes, I shall be more beautiful than my shell-flower, my Thocmetony! Then, come, oh come, and dance and be happy with me!" The young men sing with us as they dance beside us.

11 comments:

  1. I adore the notion of a flower name or a rock name. Lovely post. I felt my Native American DNA tingling!

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  2. Whenever I read about the injustices done to the indigenous Americans I invariably am reminded of the Cowboy and Indian films so popular in my boyhood, and how they were presented to us and how we just accepted that portrayal. So sad.

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  3. That was wonderful! I have often called my daughter Peony. I will have to show her herself in full bloom later this spring! The metaphor of glimpsing yourself in bloom will stay with me awhile!

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  4. I went back to see the Thunder Mountain slide show. I couldn't tell whether I was responding to the monument itself, the photography, the music - or the combination. In any event, I found the presentation very touching. You have added a Don't Miss This! to our next trip south.

    Also,thank you to Eberle for chipping away at my ignorance with respect to the pioneering efforts of women like Sarah Winnemucca.

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  5. Hi Dave, Chris & Sandra--

    Dave: That's true, & there's still a lot of struggle going on-- a lot of folks don't know about the ongoing issues in the west US involving water rights, salmon habitat & other wildlife habitat that remain as contentitious between the tribes & the Anglo governments.

    Chris: I agree-- that is a really beautiful metaphor-- glad you enjoyed this.

    Sandra: Glad you took a look at Thunder Mt-- yes, it is worth seeing. Eberle does appreciate everyone's support of her writing here.

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  6. SW's description of the Festival of Flowers really brings the past to life. I don't think I'll forget it in a hurry.

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  7. Hi Dominic:

    That is an evocative passage, for certain.

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  8. Another interesting story...thanks Eberle. Until recently on your post, John, I didn't know the history of that town over the mountain I hear mentioned now and then in N. CA.....Winnemucca.

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  9. Was it an Urban-Myth? I remember reading once that when the old "Cowboys&Indians" movies were shown Native Americans in the audience would cheer when an "Indian" was shot of his horse..knowing that the "Indian" was a white bloke really!!!!

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  10. Hi Linda & Tony:

    Linda: Winnemucca is a fascinating spot (to me at least); really "in the middle of nowhere" in the high desert. It's irresistable to me as someone who's drawn to the quirky old western towns.

    Tony: Don't know if that's true, but of course until fairly recently, you're right-- Native Americans in movies were portaryed by white folk.

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