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Friday Feature: Translating Futures, and Defending Them

It has been . . . a day. Usually I write these posts in the morning, but the last two days have required my attention elsewhere until late in the day, and we are both by now very glad that the weekend is here.

The day itself was mostly beautiful, cold and largely clear insofar as the sun shone most of the time, although we have had intermittent clouds here at home that were absent in town: soft, soothing, cooling, calming. And then, of course, the end-of-day temperature spike has left everything uncomfortably hot, although we will probably need to build a fire again tonight.

The extremes of temperature are common at this season, if harder to predict. Unpredictable, too, is the trickster wind rattling the leaves of the quaking aspens like so many jingling coins.

Alas, none of it will be enough to pay for what’s to come.

There has been “news,” these last two days, about our peoples having been present on this continent ten millennia longer than the colonizers have been insisting all these years. First, none of that is news to us, and second, we also know that the new number still understates the truth by an order of magnitude roughly equal to the length of human existence. Our ancestors have seen, collectively, all that could reasonably seen on this land mass, and so while the specifics of current catastrophes may be new, the fact of their occurrence is as old as time itself.

It’s a phenomenon that has increased exponentially, though, over the last half-millennium; colonialism has brought disaster to our doors simply by virtue of its own existence, never mind its goals and greed and endless pursuit of same. In that regard, the saying is perhaps true, that there is indeed nothing new under the sun, only the details of the mechanisms by which it occurs. It’s a sobering thought: It could, in fact, indicate a future bleak with occupation and destruction, but such takes fail to account for our inherent resilience and strength of heart and spirit.

It may be murky now, hard to conceive and harder still to understand, but we believe in the Indigenous futures of peoples and place, and we work for them daily: translating futures, and defending them.

Non-Native readers probably wonder what all this has to do with today’s featured work, a pastel of one of the most powerful Indigenous warriors and medicine men in the history of this land mass: Goyathłay, more commonly known now as Geronimo.

The answer is: only everything.

But before we get to that, let’s look at the work itself. From its description in the Other Artists:  Wall Art gallery here on the site:

Goyathlay (“One Who Yawns”) is perhaps the archetypal Indian warrior, a man of both great military acumen and great spiritual power and wholly devoted to his people. The rest of the world knows him as “Geronimo,” and his name has become cross-cultural shorthand for courage and heart. Here, he looks out quizzically from the frame, perhaps ready to yawn once more at yet another in the long string of deceptions and lies for which he ultimately gave his life, far from his people’s sacred lands.The texture and depth are astounding; each line in his aging, weathered face tells a story and evokes this famed warrior’s bravery and leadership. By Pemwah (Isleta Pueblo). The visible image is 14.5″ high by 22.25″ wide; the entire piece, including frame, is 22.25″ high by 30.25″ wide (dimensions approximate).

Pastel on Japanese kaba paper; rugged barn-wood frame
$525 + shipping, handling, and insurance
Requires special handling; extra shipping charges apply

I usually feature this work at this time of year for a very particular reason: Here, the last two days of the month are celebrated as the Feast of San Geronimo, the Christian saint that Spanish invaders appointed as the patron saint of the Pueblo. [Normally, I would post this next Friday, the Friday nearest the feast itself, but this year that day of the week has already moved us into October, and another medium will assume the focal place on that day.] Yes, that saint from half a world away and a wholly different culture and tradition shares a name with the powerful medicine man and warrior from the lands west and south of us, but unrealized by the colonizing forces who thought they were exercising control, they — and this place and its people — share something else, as well.

But first, the name. As I wrote here more than seven years ago:

His real name, give or take a diacritical mark or two and something lost in translation to the English alphabet, was Goyathlay. It’s a name that is deceptively mundane, and yet, particularly in the light of the historical record, oddly and picturesquely fitting: It means “One Who Yawns.”

Born a Bedonkohe Apache of the Net’na and Ndnhi bands of the Chiricahua, he reportedly entered the world in 1829, in the Gila River area of what is now known as New Mexico. He was not, initially, trained as, much less regarded by his people as, a “chief”; that status was hereditary, and he was born to a different family. Instead, he was trained for the role of medicine man, one he continued to fill even as his status changed and morphed into a hybrid of political leader (mislabeled by Europeans as “chief”), military strategist (warrior), and spiritual elder (medicine man).

He was regarded by his people — and by not a few of other area Indian nations, as well as colonial invaders – as having great supernatural power: It was said that he could walk without leaving footprints, and that he was invulnerable to bullets, claims no doubt encouraged, and no doubt believed by the soldiers and settlers against whom he led so many successful raids. It was said that he could see the future, and like prophets of many cultures, stories abound that he foresaw the possibility of what would be done to his people and to him personally, which would only have encouraged his resolve to fight in their defense. It was also said that he could hold back the dawn: that he could protect his people under cover of darkness by preventing the sun from rising. While I have yet to find any actual reports of night standing still, it was undoubtedly useful as a tool of wartime propaganda.

. . .

Oh, and about that name: It was during this period [of great personal tragedy at colonial hands and this warrior’s famous campaign of retribution, discussed at the link] that he became known by his modern appellation.  But how did Goyathlay get transformed into “Geronimo?”

Goyathlay and his warriors were famous among both Spanish (Mexican) and U.S. soldiers for their courage, daring, and strategic aggression. Word of his exploits traveled fast and far, as did word of his purported supernatural powers. As an enemy, he was respected, but also feared outright. During clashes in Mexico, where he and his warriors raided and harried the Mexican forces mercilessly, word of his arrival — or even of the possibility that he might be in the area — instilled such fear into the soldiers’ hearts that they invoked the name of their patron saint, Jerome — in Spanish, Geronimo (pronounced Hay-ROE-nee-moe, but with short, sharp vowels, unlike those found in English). It became a cry of terror, so the story goes, and it stuck: The Spanish evermore thought of him as Geronimo; the U.S. soldiers picked up the name, but, as was their wont, predictably mispronounced it Jer-AH-nih-moe; and Goyathlay himself no doubt both laughed and yawned at the thought that he was capable of striking such terror into the hearts of the invaders that they would accidentally reward him with the name of their patron saint. Today, it’s appropriated for everything from military actions to charging cries in children’s games.

So now you know how the subject of today’s featured work came by his colonial name. But what does that have to do with this Pueblo and its feast, named in Spanish for a saint that English would call Jerome? Subtextually, quite a lot. I wrote about that here, too, more than six years ago:

Most people probably don’t really grasp the particular significance of Saint Jerome, nor of the underlying reason that Spanish priests would have chosen him as the patron saint for this village.  Jerome, or, as the Spanish called him, San Geronimo, was the patron saint of librarians, encyclopedists, and, perhaps most significantly, translators.

It didn’t help the Spanish much. Like another Native icon upon whom the same name was bestowed by colonizers, the language here has remained steadfastly impervious to all real attempts at compilation and translation. More than a half-millennium later, it is still defiantly unwritten, even in the face of new attempts at linguistic incursion by new[er] evangelists bent on conversion of multiple kinds, including those who wish to impose their own religious and cultural practices from without, and those who wish to steal those of the people for themselves.

Words hold power; our peoples all across this continent have always known this. Here, those words are not for anyone but the people themselves.

It is ironic to me that Mexican soldiers in the service of the Spanish should have called upon Saint Jerome for deliverance from the Chiricahua leader whose defenses bedeviled them so. It’s how Goyathlay, better known to the rest of the world as Geronimo, perhaps the most feared of all Native leaders, was given the Catholic saint’s own name. . . .

. . .

Funny, that. An Apache medicine man turned fierce warrior, the last holdout, the one who harried colonizers from the lowliest settler all the way up to the American president himself and not a few from the imposed border to the south, a man whose real name referred to yawning, would eventually acquire the name of a bibliophilic monk from the other side of the world and, in a subversion of the entire colonial process, convert a bookish name based on words into a fearsome war cry, a symbol of military power and strategy and courage in battle, a prayer for salvation and relief from the self-defense of the oppressed.

. . .

In a week when we’ve been looking at indigenous concepts of the Four Sacred Directions, of Spirit reaching outward to embrace our world, reaching inward to bring that world on the four winds to the center of all that is, “Geronimo” becomes a reminder of the need for boundaries: of what we allow into our world, of what we allow to be carried out of it, whether words or worship, politics or people.

Sometimes, the most important direction is the one not visible to the outside world — the one that points inward, toward what it means to be true to one’s people, to tradition, to self. It’s what keeps our cultures from being lost in translation.

Those last two paragraphs are vitally important to our survival. There is a colonial tendency to assert that what our peoples “need” is access to all aspects of their own colonial-capitalist world, without ever once contemplating whether those aspects are killing even their own. Even more do they arrogate to themselves a nonexistent “right” to us, to our cultures and languages and identities and ways, a wholly proprietary and commodified relationship, whether money is involved or not.

Neither is true.

And now, with the whole world at a new tipping point (and already past several others), with disaster and disintegration, destruction and nothing less than death itself looming on all fronts, we have to choose carefully to draw those boundaries and make them strong. We have a near future of risk ahead with these increasingly cold weeks of fall and winter beyond them; a far greater collection of risks lie ahead as colonialism-driven climate change forces us to reap the whirlwind it spawned.

In our way, we are charged with leaving a good world — now, a better world — to our children’s children, for seven generations and beyond. It will require much of us. We are accustomed to translating the many languages of colonialism, literal ones and otherwise, into our own far older ways; accustomed, too, to adapting ourselves to circumstances and vice versa, the better to survive that which has always sought our extermination. Now, though, we must envision the multiple futures possible and find a way to create the healthiest, most harmonious among them, and it will require every bit of cultural literacy and knowledge at our disposal.

We are already late. The best time to start was more than five hundred years ago; as the saying goes, the next best time to start is today. Let this be a season of envisioning possibilities and bringing them to fruition, of translating futures, and defending them.

~ Aji








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