Walking for Grief, Healing and Truth

Cars whiz by on a dusty thoroughfare in a small California town. I stand in a circle of 8 people. Patti Dunton, a Salinan woman, walks around us and sings in Hokan, her native language. She explains that this song, the Bear Dance Song, offers protection and strength to those who hear it. I can’t help but think how apt this song is for those in the circle right now.

I have come here- Mission San Miguel Arcangel in San Miguel, California- to join Caroline Ward Holland and her son Kagen Holland on the Walk for the Ancestors. The two, both of Tataviam decent, which is a tribe that once flourished in present day southern California, are walking to all of California’s 21 Missions to mourn the egregious violence and destruction that happened to Native peoples at them.

The walk is in response to the Pope’s recent canonization of Junipero Serra. Serra was the Franciscan monk who colonized California and brought Catholicism to its Native people. While the Catholic Church celebrates this conversion, in came at a nasty price.

Historians agree that Serra forced native peoples to abandon their culture, enslaved them and sometimes worked or beat them to death. Tens of thousands of natives died at his hands and were often buried in unmarked graves. Carolina and Kagen have found shackles and bones at various Missions.

When the Pope announced he was granting Sainthood to Serra, native communities across California were devastated. “In light of the canonization, I didn’t know what to do”, explained Caroline. “I felt helpless, and like I was being completely disrespected. And that, not only did our ancestors pay a heavy price for being colonized, but it’s happening to them again by the Pope deciding to canonize Junipero Serra.”

Caroline transformed her grief into action. Originally, she and her son were just going to walk from their ancestor’s village- which is now the parking lot at Six Flags Magic Mountain- to the San Fernando Mission, but their inspiration quickly grew.  “We decided to walk for all the ancestors because hundreds of thousands of people died at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Three weeks later, and we were on the road.”

On Sept. 8, they began their journey at Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, the furthest north of the Missions, and have been walking south, covering anywhere from 10 to 30 miles a day on foot and by bike, and camping or staying at people’s houses along the way. During colonization, the missionaries started in the south and pushed north, so Caroline and Kagen are moving in the opposite direction as a gesture of pushing back.

They are walking with a fierce political message- calling for the missions to be learning centers to educate school children and the public about the genocide that occurred there, calling for businesses on Native land to pay honorarium taxes to local tribes, and for people to contact their local officials to find out what they are doing for local tribes.

And, perhaps, most of all, their message is about truth-telling. ““It’s easy to walk and tell people what went on when you’re telling the truth. (…). This walk is about the truth.”

But at the same time, they weave the spiritual with the political. “We are walking for our ancestors, to let them know we understand their suffering and we respect them.”

Caroline and Kagen shared stories of seeing signs of their ancestors in creatures they encounter, and a wrong turn that led them to a crystal. They are now carrying the stone and, at each Mission, hold a circle led by local tribal elders where people hold the stone and share from their hearts. “All these people are putting their stories into the stone. When we get to San Diego, that stone will have all of our stories in it”, explained Caroline.

And as I listen to the devastation in the stories they carry, it seems they have no choice but to weave the political and the spiritual. Before entering each Mission, the gather facts and figures about what happened there. They share stories of hundreds and in some cases thousands of natives that died and are buried in unmarked graves at each site.

At Mission Solano, there was a list of names of the 800 natives who died and are buried there. They read each name aloud in a long and heartbreaking litany of the dead. When Caroline asked where they were buried, the woman working pointed to the parking lot. As they walk from Mission to Mission, acknowledging the truth of what happened, it seems the two have undertaken a 650-mile, two month long grief ritual.

Each Mission offers grief but also the opportunity for healing that grief. “(At each Mission) we talk about what we need to do for healing. (Each Mission) is a session for healing”, said Caroline.

And it’s not just the cultural trauma of the natives they are touching; along the way, the two have stood in circles with many non-Native allies. “A lot of people who are not indigenous and who are in solidarity with us, I know (their) hearts are breaking because they can’t believe their ancestors were horrible murderers. (…) That’s cultural trauma on the other side.”

Caroline and Kagen seem to stand at the unique fulcrum between despair and hope, teetering between both extremes. What they are doing extends far beyond themselves as they walk the 650 miles to California’s mission, touching local tribes, speaking truth, inspiring action and touching their ancestors.

They two are like weavers, traveling from Mission to Mission, touching in to and stitching together with threads of connection the tribal peoples of California and non-Native allies into a beautiful patchwork quilt of solidarity and truth. And, when they arrive at the final Mission in San Diego, neither Caroline and Kagen nor the thousands that they touched along the way will be the same.

“When we get to San Diego, (we won’t be) the Fernandeno band of Indians, the Ohlone band of Indians, we will be the California band of Indians.”

To learn more about the Walk for the Ancestors, or to get involved, visit www.walkfortheancestors.org or Like them on Facebook.

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