on listening to elders and stories of stars

Stillness has returned to the desert night, after days of high winds and moments of pending rain. I am sitting here listening with my heart once more to Ernest Siva, Mrs. Anne Hamilton, and her daughter Rose Ann Hamilton​, who gave the keynote addresses at the Medicine Ways conference I attended yesterday. When I came home from that, I posted here, unable to find words for the deeper feelings I had. This night—and remembering their stories of stars and creation—brought the stillness needed for those deeper feelings to begin to emerge.

Mrs. Anne Hamilton, the last fully fluent speaker of Mountain Cahuilla, has for many years been teaching and helping young people to learn her language, and she continues this work to this very day alongside her daughter Rose Ann. The devotion and love involved in such a life’s work are beyond words, definitely beyond English words to convey. Mountain Cahuilla is so lovely and nuanced, and even just a few words of it bring a person to a different way of thinking about and being in the world. Hearing these two women speak to us was just—well, there are no good easy words for it. They shared a short animated film with a story of the Three Sisters in the night sky and Mrs. Annie speaking in Cahuilla and Adrian Salgado singing, and, while I cannot now remember the words, my heart stands still in the presence of them once more, hours later, when only the stars attend.

Their story walks alongside the words of Ernest Siva, who gave the blessing in Serrano and spoke of listening to his grandparents tell the stories of creation sometimes when sitting outside under the stars on the hot nights that come to this land. He spoke, too, of Dorothy Ramon and Katherine Siva Saubel, both of whom spent many years working to pass on their languages and cultural traditions (Serrano and Cahuilla, respectively) before walking on themselves, and of the work he and his wife June and others are doing at the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center. Their stories walk alongside the efforts of Bill and William Madrigal, Jr., Ray Huaute, Stanley Rodriguez, who spoke with us about their efforts teaching Cahuilla and Kumeyaay, especially. There was even a session on Lakota revitalization and a couple I missed (double schedulings). We laughed today and some of us cried, too (I surely did, and several times over), and I shall not soon forget any of it.

The greatest joy of my work now is in getting to learn from the efforts of these elders and tribal members: hearing the languages, trying to learn to listen better in them, is so healing, so helpful (so hard, sometimes, too, and humbling always!): English is simply not sufficient for the work the tribes have asked me to do on the Oasis of Maarra’. Not sufficient. Nor am I. But these people are far more than so, and I am so grateful to them for keeping their oral traditions and languages alive so they can be listened to, learned in, lived in. I am especially grateful to those who have been willing to talk with and work with me; without Ernest Siva, I would be lost where Serrano is concerned (for the book learning, from what Ernest calls Linguistic Times, quickly runs aground on orthographic persnicketies for me!). Without Dorothy Ramon’s book Wayta’ Yawa’ and Katherine Siva Saubel’s I’sill He’qwas Wa’xish: A Dried Coyote Tail, both done in collaboration with ethno-linguist Eric Elliott, my ability to even approach Serrano or Cahuilla would be greatly impoverished. (Although books have a tendency to make culture go dead and still, these volumes do such a good job of documenting the languages and traditions that the cadences and words fairly rise from/beyond the pages and shake a reader anyway!)

Tonight I am thinking in particular of these elders and these stories, and of Ernest Siva and Mrs. Anne Hamilton and her daughter Rose Ann, in particular, for the stars are echoing what they said. Sometimes the people who do all of this work go unmentioned. I was overjoyed to hear several of the teachers and speakers at other sessions during the conference crediting “Mrs. Annie” for helping to keep Mountain Cahuilla living for them and Ernest for keeping the music of both Serrano and Cahuilla—and music itself, in voice and flutes and other ways at the Center–so vibrant. How much richer the soul of this nation would be, were we to make it a priority of having us all learn to value the languages of the people who were here first! Languages are love in action; they kindle social connections amongst humanity and hold people close with the land, sun, skies, waters, and all beings. Each unique, irreplaceable. I wish every child in this nation had a chance to hear Ernest Siva’s blessing of our gathering today and Mrs. Annie Hamilton’s story of the three sisters, tonight and every night. How I wish that, for all our children.



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