...Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life...
∞ Excerpted from the 23rd Psalm
For the denial of those words, I need look no further than my blood.
For the truth of those words, I need look no further than my blood.
I am Choctaw.
It has taken me years to breathe life into that short sentence:
Yet, this sentence has defined me more than I ever imagined. You see, my great grandmother, who was also Choctaw, raised my mother. Her influence in my life through my mother feels palpable, but until recently, also seemed inscrutable for reasons I will soon explain.
In any event, between 1831 and 1833 our people walked the first Trail of Tears. We were the first Natives to be forcibly removed from our lands. It was the price we paid to retain our sovereignty as a nation.
A CHRISTIAN NATION!
Because so much of Christian theology resonated with our own religious traditions, we quickly adopted Protestantism and began building churches. The Bible was translated into Choctaw; hymns were written in Choctaw; Choctaws began leading Christian worship services...
We were not forced to accept Jesus at the point of a gun, but evolved into a Christian nation as an expression of our own culture...
In the 1830s the Choctaw people were the first of many nations to be forced to take the Trail of Tears...Thousands of our people died...
On the long walk into exile, I had been told that our Christian faith sustained us. It spoke to us about survival through an Exodus and about God's love for the dispossessed. Like the African slaves who took our place on the land in the American South, we found Christianity to be the one thing to which we could cling when the times we endured were so harsh. ∞ The Four Vision Quests of Jesus by Choctaw Elder and Christian Bishop, Steven Charleston
When they drove us to our deaths and into exile, it was not as "heathens," but as fellow Christians, as friends betrayed.
That just felt worth noting because it takes a special kind of depravity to drive friends and kindred souls from their land for profit.
I don't know what my mother went through living in a Native home in Ft. Worth, Texas. I do know that she raised us white. She hid us away in our father's country club, high society world with scarcely a backward glance. Ironically, he, an Irishman who seemed to understand his place in those halls, despised much of that life. I think he joined just to spite them with his Irish presence. But my mother took to it like a fish to water. She hid herself away in ladies associations, with their forced smiles and pearl clutching, for most of my childhood.
In the summer, when her own skin turned a gorgeous, copper color, she made vague references to where we came from, pointing to her skin with a mixture of pride and secrecy. My aunt, on the other hand, pursued affiliation with the Choctaw Nation with a dogged determination that always ended in the same place. We couldn't find some document or other. We couldn't make it official.
I never knew my great grandmother and I wish I had!
My own mother was murdered when I was 24 years old, long before I understood the importance of this simple and utterly complex statement: I AM CHOCTAW.
I wrote these words about that horrifying, defining loss after my own daughter was born just a couple of years later:
I lack continuity,
Feel free floating,
Like the ground is gone,
Literally wiped out.
My poetry is often prophetic, laced with deeper truth and meaning I don't understand at the time.
Is this how my ancestors felt when they were forced to leave the dead where they fell? As the territory now known as Mississippi receded into the background and Oklahoma (in the Choctaw language, okla, people and humma, red) became their unknown, unknowable future.
Is this how they felt when they established Oklahoma as a sanctuary for the "red people?" How about as they established a new seat of government in a place they called "Tushka Homma" or "Red Warrior?"
It is how I felt the day we buried my mother even though I didn't yet understand that she was my only real, substantial, embodied link to my origins.
It is the way I have felt, inexplicably, my entire life, white skin, fancy education, and pearl-clutching country club ladies and all! Or maybe I should say, especially because of them.
The price of whiteness?
The loss of land, culture, and freedom: these are the facts of life for any Native American community. ∞ The Four Vision Quests of Jesus by Choctaw Elder and Christian Bishop, Steven Charleston
God how I felt this loss even if I could not name it. I scratched and clawed at my mother's mask of white perfection with a ferocity I am still not sure how she withstood. I wanted to snatch her white propriety from her. I was desperate to reveal something, anything that would make sense of the haunting loss I felt.
And then she was gone.
In that same poem, I wrote these words:
I never really knew you,
Not the real you,
Not the one that existed before.
I knew the you that emerged late,
The one that tore me apart,
This personality that obscured.
But not the real you...
...I never knew you, but I sensed you,
...Now I live in your shadow,
But an illusion!
Can’t touch it,
Can’t really see it,
Only the lack of you in it...
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...
I am sobbing now as I write, deep, earth shattering, world rending sobs.
Because now I can name it. I am naming it to you: Okla Humma.
Maybe I have been naming it all along without knowing it?
Many years ago (8 years before I read the words "Okla Humma" or "Tushka Homma," I wrote a book. In that book I talked of Passionate Warriors born into The World of the Red Sun Morning. I crafted an image of a new life, a life so radically different from any life I had ever known. This life would be fashioned by these Red Warriors, alive with life force, bursting with purpose, balanced in gender roles, healed of the traumatic system (that authored the Trails of Tears) in which we live and its impacts. I thought I was inventing something new. I thought it was a place in my soul I would have to build from scratch.
As it turns out, this Red Warrior and this Red Sun make up an identity that I carry in my blood. I am the RED SUN, The Passionate Warrior, bursting through, shattering the glass pane of the morning.
This truth is something that existed, free-standing, sovereign, mighty, and unassailable long before the Trail of Tears.
Did my mother know? Had anyone ever bothered to tell her of the regal truth she carried in her blood?
Will my own daughter ever see past her white skin and her blue eyes to the deeper realities that run through her veins?
Some part of me trembles at the thought of acknowledging that this reality exists in me. Another thrills to the call.
I didn't grow up in the Choctaw Nation. I have not suffered the horrors of racism in the same way my grandfather and his mother did, or that my own mother did, for that matter. She successfully hid me away from the hatred by hiding me right in its heart.
I began this article with a question burning in my soul that I had to answer. In the Bible, the scriptures point over and over again to the shelter of God, of Great Spirit. The church is overflowing with references to Great Spirit making what someone meant for evil into good. The 23rd Psalm alludes to this before the passage I quoted at the beginning of this story.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yet I need only look to my own blood to know that this sheltering did not happen for my people; for those driven cruelly into exile. It did not happen for my own mother, who at the time believed wholeheartedly in that sheltering. She believed so much, that she had long forgotten the seeming perfection of the country club. After my father died, she acted out against the tiara of perfection she had worn until then and began hosting ex-convicts in her home for prayer meetings.
Where was GOD? Where was Great Spirit? Where was the promise of shelter and of turning what was meant for evil into good?
The only answer I can come up with is that our souls cannot be restored unless we take the risk and give them to God. Likewise, nothing meant for evil will ever be made good except in us. We have to accept the promise with every last breath we breathe. We have to let it work its way into our bones no matter how often it seems evil wins in the moment.
I know only one other thing:
More than ten years ago, Great Spirit raised in me a hunger for a world I never knew existed. God placed in my heart the hunger to destroy oppression and its impacts within humanity and to unleash a new, RED WORLD, a RED DAWN that bears a striking resemblance to what my people had before the Trail of Tears, and seemingly still have on the lands they inhabit in Oklahoma, their sanctuary for the RED PEOPLE.
In order to follow that hunger, I left behind money. I left behind security. I submitted myself wholeheartedly to embodying this new RED WAY, this Passion Path. As it turns out, it has led me to all the answers about what was hidden behind my mother's mask of perfection and my own mask of suffering and inconsolable sorrow:
Our human potential yearning to live as our people once did.
In my book, I described it like this:
What we are bringing forth is ourselves, our human potential, and the divine gifts that will allow us to make our contribution to The World of the Red Sun Morning. The moment we rise into The World of the Red Sun Morning, we break the glass. We shatter the pane of the morning, and with it, the Domination System. ∞ Coming Alive!
The glass pane came from a quote in a story written by the former leader of the Indigenous, Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Mexico, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. It was a metaphor for exile. Marcos mused in the words of the literary character, Durito, a beetle of the Lacandón Jungle (in the Zapatista territories of the Mexican Southeast):
Will you always be behind the glass pane?...Will you always be on the other side of my over here, and will I always be on this side of your over there?
Until I breathe my dying breath, I will answer this question for us all: NO.
We will find our way back to one another. And if God, if Great Spirit, can take the RED LONGING in my heart and make some good of the evil the conquerors brought to my people by making me, their descendant, a pane breaker, I think they would approve. I think my great grandmother would approve!
May Tushka Homma live on in me via my ancestor's spirit of defiance and determination. It courses through my veins today! As long as I live and breathe, there is hope. As long as any of us live and breathe, there is hope. But I will carry the specific hope of my ancestors who prayed along the Trail of Tears for deliverance. I will let those prayers mark me and raise me up for the battle ahead; the battle to be reborn into a new world that looks very old indeed.
I will be one of the many, fierce and brightly burning filaments of hope walking in the valley of the shadow of death reclaiming lost souls, acting as the hands and feet of Great Spirit making good on the promise to turn what was meant for evil into good. I will raise up illuminated armies of hope in Great Spirit's name.
Here I am Great Spirit, send me. I will go in your name, as your warrior, one of your people. What the conquerors meant for evil, I invite you to make good in me. I don't envision you will call me to shamanism as I am not a medicine woman authorized by any Native nation. I don't imagine you will call me to hand out Spirit animals or lead the masses on expensive vision quests with feathers and sage. I don't need to take on what people imagine are Native spiritual traits.
I imagine you will call me, as you always have, to the ordinary, to the transformation of anguish into hope and potential.
After the Choctaw Nation established its seat of government. It did something else very RED indeed. It built schools for boys and for girls.
For Choctaws, learning is as sacred as praying. Religious minds that are closed are signs of a faith that is no longer living. Spiritualities that refuse to entertain new questions are museums, not schools. Only as long as we keep thinking, asking, exploring do we remain a vital community of faith. Therefore, my Choctaw ancestors built schools as a way to reassert their national and spiritual identity. ∞ The Medicine Wheel by Choctaw Elder and Christian Bishop, Steven Charleston
Nearly 10 years ago, I established The Passion Path® and it has since become a place for people to unlearn the ways of trauma, both systemic and personal, so that they might go on to bring their dreams alive as one of the many innovative and vital solutions this world so desperately needs in order to enter The World of the Red Sun Morning anew. This is the very same world my ancestors already inhabited. I call upon them now to teach me its ways and to send me a mentor in flesh and blood for I have walked alone too long.
I call upon Great Spirit to continue revealing this Passion Path to me and to make it a vital community of faith in the Choctaw way.
Identity is not personal, it is communal...The only important affirmation any of us needs to make in a spatial context is 'I am one of the People'. I am a human being...But...What you think, what you imagine, what you dream, what you envision, what you believe: the sky is the limit for you to discover, claim and express your identity...You are one of the People, and always will be, but you are a unique Person, a seeker of dreams and a keeper of the visions.
∞ The Medicine Wheel by Choctaw Elder and Christian Bishop, Steven Charleston
I AM! YOU ARE!
Great Spirit, now I also ask you to fulfill the next lines of the 23rd Psalm for me and for my family and for this world so desperately in need of deliverance from the very same system that tried to destroy the Choctaw Nation and so many others:
Prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies.
Anoint our heads with oil.
Fill our cups until they run over.
Let goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives.
Open the door so that we might dwell in your house forever.
I humbly dedicate this story to Steven Charleston, whom I have never met, but whose words have been a bridge to my true identity and my belonging. As long as I live, I will never forget the power of words to save a life because his reached in and found me in the heart of the valley of the shadow of (Coronavirus) death and restored my exiled soul. He gave me a place among the People, and therefore, an identity that is communal and foundational to all I am to become now.
I humbly re-dedicate my life to this work, this Passion Path to which Great Spirit has called me.
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