Of Wazhazhe Land and Language: The Ongoing Project of Ancestral Work
Chelsea T. Hicks on the Land Back Movement and Working Toward Rematriation
In January of 2022, I traveled to ancestral Wazhazhe land in Belle, Missouri, where an arts organization had invited me to do a residency while assisting in giving the land back to the Osage Nation.
The terms were such:
The owners would not leave their land;
The arts organization there would still double as a small ranch;
The administrators were not open to collaboration with Wazhazhe people on any of their operations or programming;
And the organization wanted me and any Wazhazhe artists I involved to instruct them in
the manner of giving the land back.
I spoke with Wazhazhe women, and we decided that it would be better to wait until the upcoming election cycle was over to return the land, so that no communication would be lost in a potential change of administration. The women I asked are ones who use the word “decolonial” and who prioritize life by moon cycles over the Roman calendar. We are Wazhazhe women who have begun a process of reforming ourselves, transforming our womanhood amidst norms of scarcity mindset amongst our people and a generational inheritance of dysfunction.
My own process of transforming began with the reception of my work in graduate workshops. When I first attended a creative writing master’s program, I was told, in short, that my characters represented an ongoing Indian problem. My women characters were too contradictory—both Christian and Native, tribal but living in diaspora, not cultural enough, and additionally, excessively vain, in denial, conservative, and mentally ill.
I first learned to write on the East Coast, at a top-rated public university with an excellent creative writing program. There, I formed my characterization. Did my characters affirm patriarchal notions of womanhood? If they did, then that was good. But in California, my writing came off as “critiquing patriarchy.” I was impressed, as though my renderings of women suggested what was wrong with men, proving that patriarchy made women go insane. My autobiographical characters continued to garner critiques, but my recursive sentences, emotionally reflective summary, scenic details, and ruminative pacing were praised. It was only the women who needed to change, and not just by a little.
My West Coast assimilation had me revising both my personality and beliefs. Tribal connection did not challenge my worldview; I was encouraged to do whatever my father told me, or in some cases, to listen to others peoples’ fathers speak on through the mouths of their daughters. I was encouraged to protect men.
When teachers critiqued me, they were also critiquing my tribe. My Southern Christian, colonized Native mind was not my friend, and the informed were eager to correct me. Teachers worried aloud to me about my blood quantum. Was I at least a quarter? In workshop, conversations highlighted cognitive dissonance: how could one ascribe to a faith which held that one’s own culture was pagan, and yet still be a Native person? Boarding school history did not matter; it was my responsibility to heal and reform myself, and white people wanted to help me.
In the end, I did lose my faith. Not in the classroom, but when a Christian in a band I was in told me that no one cared about the Osage language, and to stop writing in it. Other Christians like to speak on how Christ’s followers are fallible, and sinners; but I had never really felt that the ka^ of a leaf related to the Christ. Ideological gymnastics were taking up space in my life.
In turning against the world view with which I had been raised, I searched for ways to relate to my parents while also distancing myself from them. The word “healing” functions as a euphemism for the reorganization of concepts broadly to create new neural networks, and thus habits, thoughts, opinions, friends, and goals. It is a self-directed re-brainwashing.
As a child, my mother worked full-time and I worked at my father’s construction business, cleaning paint brushes with paint thinner and sweeping the floor under what seemed like a continual rain of sawdust. My father took pride in making me tough, though it didn’t make me tougher to inhale paint thinner and sawdust. My father was raised by an Osage single mother who attended Boarding School, and I thought of them when I read Terese Mailhot’s characterization of self-worth in Heart Berries.
Mailhot describes self-worth as a construction white people designed to give a false sense of separation from each other for the sake of identity capitalism. My father would agree. I was embarrassed that he wanted to be a writer and yet did not publish work, so I worked to become a writer in order to help him. When it became clear that the strange ideas I’d inherited from him were foiling my attempts to pursue the writing profession, I chose to transform. Ironically, my transformation left me without my obsessive fixation on my father and his needs and problems.
Reading and self-education were the first sight of my transformation. Besides Heart Berries, I read Louise Hay, Esmé Weijun Wang, Jean Gênet, astrology blogs, Brandon Hobson, Toni Jensen, Linda Hogan, and N. Scott Momaday. Some people I observed stopped their transformation when they were able to find what their prior dysfunctionality had prevented them from obtaining. For some, this was a man, or even stability. For me, it was publishable writing.
When I moved to Oklahoma for a job at a tribal school, I encountered a different way of viewing the world, accessible through studying our language, Wazhazhe ie. It took me twelve years of serious engagement with every best practice I heard of the writing life to make publishable work, but this language would have solved my world view problem. But I am an Indigenous woman in America, and I have been told repeatedly that the way this country formed me historically is not good enough. We are not taught Wazhazhe ie in school, and this is our land. There is something gravely wrong with this situation.
Wazhazhe people have a need to reimagine ourselves, but on a governmental level, we’ve only just adjusted to our 2006 Constitution, which is meant to reflect both syncretization of the Western world we live in and what we think is best to govern ourselves in the ongoing conditions of colonization now.
The arts organization told me their land repatriation was not connected to any of the arts organization’s activities, or even their occupancy of the land. I did not want to help them. I wanted the chief to help us. The settlers would remain on the land until death, and they had told me so to my face. I was angry. Alone in my studio, I tore up a document they’d asked me to read and to endorse as a Wazhazhe woman artist. I screamed and wept.
Later, I asked the arts administrator if he knew of his ancestors. He said that had never heard of any of them, and instead considered himself to be from Egypt in his “past lives.” The spiritual sidestepping of his ancestral connection was problematic; his disconnection absolved him of responsibility to his mother land, and by extension, to my own as an earth keeper. I could do little but witness his guilt.
When a person rejects a Christian framework but replaces it with appropriation, one is still functionally inside the legacy of Christianity’s westward expansion, and does nothing to protect the land. Although the contemporary culture has dissociated itself from its origins, our origins remain, in the exact conditions in which they were abandoned. The Land back administrator was able to make so-called separations between deeply connected things such as his arts organization named after our tribe, and the land on which it sat.
“The land and the organization … they’re not related,” he’d said.
This was a man who claimed to hear my own ancestors speaking to him day in and day out, and who said they shot arrows at him whenever he entered or exited a house on this land.
He felt the enmity between our ancestors. So did I.
In Earth Keeper, N. Scott Momaday writes that a pioneer woman and her ancestors experience “belonging” on this earth. I asked my students at the Institute of American Indian Arts to vote, as though on a committee, on whether settler people should stay or go (if Natives had a choice). After discussion, we agreed that we did not believe European people would ever leave, and if they became earth keepers, it would be possible for us to collaborate. We thought, if more Native people go into leadership, like Deb Haaland has, then our views will gain real credence.
Every morning, I sit cross-legged on a pillow by the cracked window and imagine the sides of my body turning two opposite colors, one red, and the other blue, to represent balance between earth and sky, and the way that I contain both body and spirit. Every person has this duality within them, but many people are invested in a sense of victimhood. We forget our motherland. Among my ancestors are European people, and as a mixed Indigenous person, I am forced into leadership.
Before my European ancestors were in England, as Normans, they were in Northern France. Although I have no current place there, I do believe that I have a responsibility to this land, even if I have not yet ascertained how. Part of my spirit rests in that land, and my responsibility to it also lies in its waters. My time on Wazhazhe land is only a part of my total rematriation.I don’t like any erasure of ancestral work, but I understand that the land itself may support this work better than any book, ideology, or education.
On my mother and her mother’s side, my ancestors are from New Orleans. They are “mulatto” according to the census, which is generally defined as an erasure-based mix of Indigenous, African and European ancestry. My mother did not acknowledge her matrilineal lineage, but immersed herself so wholly in her faith that, to me, it seemed like an addiction: it provided a false solution, and prevented her from having to transform. The concept of sanctification seemed like absolution to me, and the delay of a so-called perfection into eternity. I looked for matrilineal reconnection but it seemed a betrayal of my mother and her mother.
I do not consider any person separate from the responsibility of our own generational trauma; rematriating to the lands from which we first came; honoring as well as mourning the actions of ancestors; and resolving our part in conflicts. Without these four actions, we lose connection. I prefer to maximize connection, in the way of Rainer Maria Rilke, who writes, “Everything that makes more of you than you have ever been, even if your best hours, is right.” Sometimes this means syncretization, or the blending of Indigenous and Western culture, as N. Scott Momaday has advocated with the building of metaphorical bridges between our worlds.
When it comes to the Land Back movement, how will our pragmatism play out in keeping the earth? Our Indigenous tenure is more legitimate than that of settlers, but if we choose to work together with those make earth keepers of themselves, will we be able to protect this land? I am inspired by a radical Black farmer who told me that it’s not one’s identity, it’s what one believes. I don’t like any erasure of ancestral work, but I understand that the land itself may support this work better than any book, ideology, or education. Though I did not call the chief, I stay in conversation with ancestral water. The river absorbs my rage.
A Calm & Normal Heart by Chelsea T. Hicks is available now via Unnamed Press.