"To encounter the sacred is to be alive at the deepest center of human existence. Sacred places are the truest definitions of the earth; they stand for the earth immediately and forever; they are its flags and shields. If you would know the earth for what it really is, learn it through its sacred places."
- N. Scott Momaday
Day 210 - Thursday, January 18, 1996 – Before we got onto the road for the day, Joe called us to circle up around the fire at Oak Grove Park for what he called an important message.
When we got settled, Joe told us that, from now until the end of our pilgrimage, the Harmony Warriors Circle will be in control of our walk.
If one of us wants something, or wants to do something, we must ask them. We will not be allowed to leave the base camp, even to go shopping for personal needs, or to make any phone calls whatsoever, without their permission. We are all explicitly forbidden from talking to anyone from the media.
If we want to be allowed to complete our pilgrimage by walking to the Western Gate, Joe said, then we have to cooperate with the restrictions that are being placed upon us. He said we could complain among ourselves, but that if we wanted to reach the sacred land that Hopi Grandfather Thomas Banyacya had pointed us toward, we had no choice.
Scott Kecken added more information. He said he had been asked to surrender the walk's phone pager to the Harmony Warriors. On the advice of Ned and Joe he did. Thus, our principal lines of communication with the outside world have been cut.
Then Joe mentioned that the Harmony Warriors regard us as a sacred group, carrying essential prayers and prophecy. Their intention, he said, is to protect us completely, to free us from all interference and responsibility so we can focus on our prayers.
But that's not how it feels to me, or to the other walkers. It feels as if we are not trusted, as if we are being controlled, as if we have been locked into a spiritual prison.
We never see Tom. We all share the sense, though, that he is lurking around the edges of our pilgrimage, directly influencing this group that calls itself Harmony Warriors. But we are not getting any direct information about that.
Despite egalitarian rhetoric, our walk began under patriarchal strictures as Tom led us out from the east. A lot changed over the months when almost all the walkers lost their capacity to respect Tom as our spiritual leader. That’s when he separated himself from our group; he has remained separate despite our repeated invitations to come and walk with us, not as leader, but as one of the group. Apparently, he will not settle for that.
Meanwhile, the paradigms of control and domination have reasserted themselves through other people and other circumstances, including our current interdiction by the Harmony Warriors.
I have to wonder whether we are undergoing some sort of mystical recapitulation of all the abuses that played out over the previous seven eras, or Seven Fires (ontology recapitulates phylogeny)? Perhaps we Sunbow walkers have had to go through all of the trials and obstacles again to help us recognize unmistakably that it is intolerable, and cannot be part of the new era, the Eighth Fire?
|Excelsior - With an escort from the Cuauhtémoc Aztec ceremonial dance troupe, the Sunbow 5 pilgrims walk on. At the front carrying the staffs, Sam Dunkley (l) and Jerome Gabriel (r). (Author photo)
We got out on the road and walked on further today, many of us chafing under the restrictions that have been imposed upon us. The Harmony Warriors do not really walk with us, but instead flank us, as if guarding us. We completed our steps and our prayers late in the afternoon close by the Rio Hondo at the original site of the San Gabriel Mission, now spoken of as Mission Vieja (Old Mission).
This is a site long recognized as sacred by the native people, but altogether unrecognizable in this era. Traffic zooms by. Around the site are several oil wells, sucked at by grasshopper-style pumps. In the river itself there is trash strewn all over the place -- beer cans, cigarette butts, tires, and wrappers from fast food joints.
San Gabriel Mission was founded in 1771, the fourth in a chain of 21 missions established by the Spanish.
|Bells - at San Gabriel Mission. (Photo by Timotale, courtesy of flckr.com)
On the 1.5 million acres of land granted to the mission by the Spanish colonial government, the Franciscan fathers directed the work of about 1,000 subjugated Gabrieleno people.
Laboring in indentured servitude, the natives cultivated vineyards, orchards, and crops, tended cattle, and processed leather, wool, and tallow for candles to increase the wealth of the church.
The European colonists claimed their intentions were to “civilize” the local people, but instead the native population declined precipitously, the people devastated by malnutrition, disease, and overwork under the harsh disciplinary regime.
Despite noble-sounding intentions, the missions eliminated natives with devastating efficiency. During the period of mission rule, from 1769 to 1834, the Franciscans baptized 53,600 natives and buried 37,000. The mortality rates of native people were so high that the Missions were constantly dependent upon new conversions to maintain the population of neophyte slaves.
One hundred years after the start of the mission system, the population of native human beings had dropped from an estimated 310,000 to about 50,000. By the start of the 20th century, only a few thousand were left.
|Mission cemetery - The gate to the cemetery at the re-located San Gabriel Mission. (Photo by Kalavinka, courtesy of flckr.com)
All of us—walkers, Harmony Warriors, and elders—formed a circle at the site of Mission Vieja. Today it is nothing more than a scruffy plot of grass and a commemorative plaque that mentions the Franciscans and the soldiers, but makes no mention whatsoever of native people, even though the arduous task of building and maintaining the missions was done mainly by natives: clearing land, pulling tree stumps, hacking prying up boulders, digging wells and ditches, establishing brush dams across rivers, and so forth.
Grandfather Manuel Rocha prayed first. Then Grandmother Vera, the traditional chief, told us the story of the mission as it had come down to her in the oral tradition from her parents and grandparents.
As she began talking, a crow flew over our circle. Then a second crow. Then more. The crows kept coming while she spoke, flying over and near our circle at Mission Vieja by the Rio Hondo. The crows began to come by the dozens, and then by the hundreds.
Grandmother Vera told us that, even though she lives only a few minutes away from this place, she had never been to this site at Mission Vieja in all her long life because it stirred too many painful memories for her and other Gabrielenos.
She had never wanted to come here until she meditated on our Sunbow 5 Walk, and how she might create a meaningful meeting place. Then it came to her in vision: meet with us at Mission Vieja, the place of a thousand sorrows for her family and her people. She had never been to this place herself and came only when she was moved by vision to lead our walk here today.
She said that it had been 200 years since her people had come to this place by the Rio Hondo. For them it is not a reminder of the romanticized glory of the missions, but a reminder of dehumanization, suffering, and sorrow. Thus, she said, this day with us marked a historic turning point: the first time the Shoshone-Gabrieleno returned in prayer to the site of the ill-fated Mission Vieja.
Traffic on the roadways came streaming by with ceaseless rumbling ferocity, the cars and trucks often drowning out the words of Grandfather and Grandmother.
|The sky filled with crows - The bird sacred to her people, while traditional chief Vera Rocha spoke to us. (Photo by icathing, courtesy of flckr.com)
Grandmother Vera told us that when the Spaniards came into this region, this site was where they wanted to build the fourth of the 21 Missions that they eventually imposed on California. The native people of the region, the Tongva-Shoshone, said to them, ‘don’t build here by the river. Don’t build it in this place because it is sacred, and Great Spirit will become sad and shed tears when the land is disrupted.
But the Spaniards, said, essentially, ‘what do you know; you are ignorant savages.’ They paid no heed to the advice of the Tongva spiritual elders, and built the mission anyway. Soon came rain and floods, and washed the mission away. The San Gabriel Mission was rebuilt, then redestroyed by nature—despite a second round of explicit advice from the spiritual elders of the region—before it was finally moved to a wiser location in 1776.
As Grandmother continued her story, crows kept flying. Hundreds upon hundreds of crows came, streaming overhead from the west toward the east.
Weeping profusely, Grandmother mentioned that in her tradition crows are their sacred bird. They are regarded as a sign of good fortune, for they always knew where the food was. In olden times the people would follow crows to the food.
Grandmother Vera told us that she had never seen so many crows in her life, and that she knew in her soul that they were representing the souls of the thousands of her ancestors who had died in the missions from mistreatment and malnutrition. Feeling the depth of the beauty, and the ancestral poignancy of it, we wept with her.
|Sunbow - or Whirling Rainbow, the sky sign that guides our epic pilgrimage. (Photo by Gail Youmans).
She took our Sunbow eagle staff in hand and prayed with it. She offered a blessing to us, and thanked us again for the effort that we have made as Sunbow 5 walkers in crossing the country making the sacrifice.
Grandmother spoke also about the suffering of her parents and grandparents as all the Shoshone people were corralled into the mission and pressed into work building the mission for the Spanish.
She told also of how, eventually when the missions became untenable, the native people were abandoned with no land whatsoever—not even a postage stamp of land in the Los Angeles region that had been their ancestral homeland for untold generations.
And yet, Grandmother Vera told us, the original people are still there in Los Angeles, living in scattered places, and gathering for monthly meetings.
The ceremony was historic and profoundly moving, for the traditional chief of the Tongva-Shoshone people to return for the first time ever to the site of this tragic mission location. We prayed for everyone: the natives, the padres, the soldiers, everyone and everything, according to our instructions.
As our ceremony ended, the onrushing river of crows diminished, then ceased. Finally, as we disbanded to return to our base camp at Hahamonga (Oak Grove Park) in Pasadena, one last crow flew over our heads to punctuate the end with a sharp wig-wag of her wide wings.
Copyright 2007 by Steven McFadden
Read Day 211 -- Odyssey of the 8th Fire