The Journey Begins at Chemawa
Salem, OR, May 16, 2009
Salem, OR, May 16, 2009
It was a nice beautiful warm day for the start of the Welbriety Forgiveness Journey at the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon. About 80 to 100 people attended, including a Circle of Wellbriety group from the nearby community of Eugene, Oregon. Theda New Breast carried in the Eagle staff, which was gifted to White Bison last year. We call that the Wellbriety Forgiveness Staff. There were three people from the Wellbriety Council of Elders present––Horace Axtell, Theda Newbreast, and Ozzie Williamson.
Three Generations at Chemawa: L to R, participant Maria Killsnight, daughter Kiarra Killsnight, and Don Coyhis, founder and president of White Bison, Inc
Theda spoke of standing up as a people and being majestic. She said that Grand Entry is the only time you will be blessed by that many eagle feathers. She said you grow when you cry and that we will never forget the little bodies who were in the boarding schools. We must acknowledge, stand up and be Native, she said. We need to dress like our ancestors and not like our oppressors. We need to show up with a clean heart––sober and with a spiritual effort.
Opening Ceremony at Chemawa Indian School. Theda Newbreast is at the left with the Wellbriety Forgiveness Staff, and Elder Horace Axtell is at the podium
Horace did the opening prayer. He spoke of joining the Wellbriety Movement and what that meant to him and what it still means. Horace told a story about how his father had left when he was born and he didn’t know why. Later in life he went up to his father and tried to speak with his father but he didn’t get acknowledged. Many years later he went and found his father because no one else would take care of him––he was ailing, getting old and drinking a lot. Horace found his father and made him an offer. He told his father that he would forgive him for not being a father if he came to live with him. His father said he would, but only if Horace would buy him a case of beer! It was an example that FORGIVENESS MEANS A LOT.
Jolene Felix Cooke spoke of her experience with forgiving the unforgiveable. She sang a beautiful song and the spirit moved through the crowd.
An Elder named Rosie spoke of her experiences at Chemawa. Rosie remembers riding a very long ways. She remembers not being able to go home because her parents were alcoholic. Her mother later died and she grew very angry. She never wet the bed until she got to the school. She recalls five matrons standing in line paddling her for wetting the bed. Rosie grew up with a lot of hatred, anger and fear. She then turned it onto her own children. She said it has only been since she learned to forgive through Christ that she has learned to love her kids. Rosie stated, “If you don’t forgive, it will make you sick.” She had a difficult time understanding the trauma. She shared with us that she had the inability to forgive due to lack of love.
Rick, Rosie’s son, spoke of significant things that happen in a person life. He spoke of his birth story. He spoke of almost not being his mother’s son. Rosie was sixteen years old when she had Ricky. Due to her trauma from the boarding school, she felt incapable of parenting. Rosie kept Ricky but he grew up confused without the understanding of the trauma his mother endured. The relationship Rosie had with her children is beginning to mend now that they have an understanding of the trauma. Ricky said that, “There is a power in forgiveness, but it doesn’t happen until you do it.”
John is a man who works at Chemawa. He shared with us that there were about 97 incidents last year of violence or substance-related issues as opposed to nearly 400 in previous years. John said, “Good things take place here now. The children here are not throwaway kids.” He said he is doing the best damn job he can because the children are our future.
Wellbriety Elder Ozzie Williamson speaks to the gathering at the Chemawa Indian School
There were approximately five staff members in the audience for the event. I believe there was a beginning for a lot of people to understand the historical trauma that the boarding schools had on our people.
After the closing ceremony of the day long presentation, we all gathered at the Chemawa cemetery for a memorial. It is unknown if the children had a proper burial. The children were not returned to their parents to be blessed by them. It is very sad to think of all of those children in that cemetery who were unable to return home to their parents and relatives.
Horace Axtell, our White Bison spiritual Elder, did the closing ceremony at the cemetery. Quite a few people attended the ceremony. The ceremony began as we walked along the outside of the cemetery and up through the center to what seemed to be the largest tree on the grounds. There were words spoken, songs sung, and prayers sent out. Our intent was to bring the spirits of those little innocent children home.
Traveling with the Wellbriety Journey for Forgiveness
The Wellbriety Journey for Forgiveness Gets Underway!
The Wellbriety Journey for Forgiveness started its long journey eastward at the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon on May 17th, 2009. It was a warm sunny day––a good omen. The day began with the ceremonial entry of the Wellbriety Forgiveness Staff and the Sacred 100 Eagle Feather Hoop. Elders, men and women, veterans and young people all helped in this most sacred of ceremonies. Theda New Breast, one of the healers carrying the Forgiveness staff, became very emotional. She felt all around her the spirits of those who had been here before as the Hoop was brought into the gymnasium. The Wellbriety Forgiveness Staff she carried was given to White Bison at their annual conference held in Minneapolis last year.
Elder Horace Axtell and Don Coyhis at the Chemawa Event
Opening remarks were by the staff of Chemawa Indian School. There had been a graduation for 56 students the day before. All the staff who spoke had attended Chemawa and they spoke fondly about what the school meant to them. One of the staff described a vision she had when she was at the cemetery and saw a hoop overlooking the graves. She knew this event taking place today was meant to happen and that she would be part of the Journey.
The drum sang several songs and there was a small child present who was only eight weeks old who had been crying. But she stopped as soon as the drum began. Such is the peaceful calm that the heartbeat of our nation brings. The drum group was from the Lummi Tribe and they had driven down to participate in this event.
After some brief introductions, Don Coyhis, founder and president of White Bison Inc., gave an overview of the previous Hoop journeys and laid the foundation for this Journey, which was to focus on Forgiveness. There are four gifts that the Hoop brings to the people. They are Hope, Unity, Healing, and the Power to Forgive the Unforgivable. While the focus of this cross-country event is on the legacy of the boarding school experience, historical trauma as it has impacted Native Americans in a larger context is the overall theme of this Journey.
Don stated that our people had endured much but that we are very resilient people who have stood the test of time. Epidemics, the oppression of the government, racism, various abuses, both emotional and physical, religious intolerance, the loss of our land and the loss of our culture–especially the language–were all cited as some of the examples of what our people have suffered.
Horace Axtell, one of our most respected Elders who has been involved in all the Hoop journeys since 1999, talked about forgiveness from his own experience with his father. He described how he wanted to have a better relationship with his father who was an active alcoholic. His father had left him at an early age and he had limited contact with him. He went to his father and said that he would forgive him if his father let him take care of him for the rest of his life. His dad said yes and he took him home. His father continued to stray and Horace would have to go find him and bring him back home. Then one day, Horace came home and his father was all dressed up and wanted to go to church. Horace took him there and waited outside for him. His father finally came out and said he had a religious experience. He stopped drinking that day and Horace never had to go looking for him again. Horace said we have to learn how to forgive the unforgivable––and part of that involves acceptance.
Entry of the Memorial group into the Chemawa Cemetery
In the afternoon, participants had an opportunity to share their experiences about how the boarding school syndrome had impacted their lives. Some had never attended boarding school but their parents and grandmothers had. They were still affected in many ways, such as being the target of indirect anger, a lack of intimacy with others, and an inability to express their feelings. The don’t trust, don’t feel and don’t share your secrets with others threesome were also cited as some of the learned oppression.
A mother, her sister, and her son came up from northern California to share how intergenerational trauma had been passed down in their family. This journey was an awakening for them. The son was committed to having his mother and his aunt present for the start of the healing journey. They touched the spirit of all of us who were there, as did all who shared that afternoon. The mother had attended Chemawa and she shared how it had been a very painful experience for her. She described how it had affected her relationship with her son.
The closing ceremony allowed everyone there to take some tobacco and to pray around the Hoop. Don instructed people to ask for the courage to forgive the unforgivable in their lives. The Lummi drum group sang songs during this very moving part. Afterwards, people took pictures and exchanged contact information. New friends were made and old acquaintances reconnected. After this we went to the cemetery.
Elders and others at the Memorial Ceremony at the Chemawa Indian School cemetery
The cemetery for the school is located several miles from the current school, very close to Interstate 5. The graves were marked but there are no headstones. The ages of those buried in these graves range from six to eighteen. Some go back to the 1890’s. During the 1890’s, fifty per-cent of the children sent to boarding schools died in the first year.
There are some very large trees within the cemetery providing shade. The drum group sang some songs. Prayers were given for those who were there, as well as for others who had endured great hardships at Chemawa and at other boarding schools. At the end, Don spoke about how the thoughts and prayers of all who attended will be carried on each leg of the journey and on to the end of the Hoop Journey in Washington, D.C. He said that this would be a transformative healing experience for all of Indian country.
One of the goals of the Journey is to ask the United States government to apologize for the boarding school trauma that the U.S. government inflicted upon our people. Those present felt very confident this would occur. Several participants stated during the day that we, as a people, will never become who the Creator wants us to be until we learn how to forgive the unforgivable.
Mitakuye Oyasin (For all our relations)