Mark Charles reflects on the meaning of family
“Shi’masoni.” That is how I addressed her as I leaned over to place my necklace around her neck.
“My maternal grandmother.” When I left home for the Christian Community Development Association National Conference, I was not expecting to gain a grandmother. But God had other plans, and I think that, just maybe, the church is a little more reconciled because of it.
A year ago, at the previous CCDA conference, I had been invited to be a part of a panel of young leaders for a plenary session. On this panel, I had an opportunity to share with the entire conference some of my thoughts and reflections on issues of reconciliation between the broader country and Native North American communities. I shared that being Native American and living in this country feels like our peoples are an old grandmother who owns a very large house. It is a beautiful house with plenty of rooms and comfortable furniture. But, years ago, some people came into our house and locked us upstairs in the bedroom. Today our house is full of people. They are sitting on our furniture. They are eating our food. They are having a party in our house. They have even unlocked the door to our bedroom. But now, it is much later, and we are tired, old, weak and sick; so we can’t or don’t come out. But the part that is the most hurtful is that almost no one from this party ever comes upstairs to find us in the bedroom, sits down next to us on the bed, looks us in the eye, and simply says, “Thank you. Thank you for letting us be in your house.”
This year, in response to that sharing, CCDA founding member Wayne Gordon (Coach) explained that when he and his wife are invited into someone’s house, they frequently bring a gift to their host, and so he wanted to give gifts to Richard Twiss and me as unofficial representatives of our communities. Richard is Lakota/Sioux and I am Dine/Navajo. We both recently accepted invitations to join the CCDA Board of Directors, in part to help expand the association’s understanding of Native North American issues.
When I was told about Coach’s gift earlier in the day, I was honored by the idea but did not feel right accepting a gift without giving something in return. I had brought along a few CDs of one of our Navajo elders singing the scriptures in a contextualized and traditional way. I frequently give these CDs as gifts, but giving a CD alone, and in front of so many people did not feel like enough. Unfortunately, I did not have much else of significance along with me. I deeply appreciate the relationships I am building within the CCDA and wanted to give a gift that reflected the value I hold for those relationships.
The only other possible gift I could think of was my turquoise necklace. Navajo people are known throughout the world for our turquoise and silver jewelry, and a few years ago I had received a beautiful turquoise necklace from one of my relatives. I am very proud of this necklace and regularly wear it as a part of my regalia. Giving it away would be significant and it would deepen the meaning of this exchange for me. But the idea of giving away something so valuable and personal to me took a little getting used to. But the more I thought about it, the better I felt about it.
Giving the necklace as a gift felt good and appropriate, but something was still missing.
Navajo culture is matrilineal. Our identities come from our mother’s mother. It is the maternal grandmother who owns the property and makes the decisions for the family. The sheep belong to her. The hogan belongs to her. If you want to have a feast, you need her permission. One of the most enduring images I have in my mind is that of a very elderly grandmother walking out to the corral during butchering time. She moves slowly and even somewhat unevenly in her old age, but she also carries a huge knife. When she arrives she kneels down next to the sheep that her children and grandchildren have roped and tied up. And then quickly, expertly and forcefully she cuts the neck of the sheep and the preparations for the feast began.
Because of the role of the Grandmother in Navajo culture, whenever I want to honor a family or intentionally build new relationships within a community, I always try to get to know the grandmothers.
Vera Mae Perkins is the wife of the legendary John Perkins. John is a nationally known civil rights leader, Christian teacher and author. He is one of the founders of the CCDA and is well known and loved by its many members. Vera Mae is also loved and honored, but not such an upfront and public figure. She is John’s loving and supportive partner who, a few years ago, suffered a stroke. She has since lost much of her mobility as well as her eye sight. But every year she still attends the CCDA conference and, in her wheel chair, sits in the front row at the plenary sessions.
I now knew to whom I would give my necklace. It would have to go to Vera Mae. She was the Grandmother in the room. And giving it to her would express the deep gratitude I felt towards the relationships I was building in the CCDA.
But just giving the necklace to a Grandmother still did not feel like enough.
Shi’masoni (My Grandmother)
Last winter I attended a conference in New Zealand that was hosted by the Maori, the indigenous people of that island. Throughout this conference, we were literally welcomed like family as they shared their culture, language, music, traditions and food with us. They even used the language of family, often referring to us as brother, sister, auntie, uncle, etc. It was an incredible experience.
Towards the end of the two-week conference, I had an opportunity to publically express my gratitude to the Maori people for their hospitality. I shared with them my analogy of the Grandmother in the house and confessed that I did not know how the grandmother was supposed to respond but after experiencing their unconditional and open armed welcome, I now knew. The grandmother needed to respond with language of adoption when the guests in her house came upstairs to thank her.
By using language of adoption the grandmother would be able to establish her role as the host of the house, but also communicate that her guests were welcome and accepted. A relationship with boundaries, protocol and defined roles could be started.
When Coach invited Richard and me up front during the evening plenary session, I was deeply moved that he wanted to publically recognize us as his hosts and I gratefully received his gift. The conference also seemed to appreciate the significance of his gesture and applauded their approval. Richard and I each then returned the favor and presented some gifts to Coach and the CCDA. Again, it was a significant moment and people applauded their approval.
But God was not finished.
He had been prompting my heart all afternoon, so I kept the microphone and told people that I had another gift that I wanted to give. I went on to explain about the matrilineal aspects of Navajo culture and about the importance of our grandmothers as well as the significance of my necklace. I then told them that I wanted to honor Vera Mae as grandmother and give my necklace to her. So I removed it from my neck, walked off the stage and found her sitting in the first row. I hung the necklace around her neck, gave her a big hug and called her “shi’masoni.” “My maternal grandmother.”
I do not know how everyone responded because I was fully in the moment, appreciating my time with Vera Mae. But for the remainder of the conference I was approached by people expressing a deep gratitude for what had taken place. And I even heard various reports of the tears that flowed freely over the beauty of the event.
I was not trying to steal the spotlight from Coach. Nor was I attempting to overshadow his gift. Instead, I was using his humility and generosity to step into the role that his gift was acknowledging in me, the role of the host.
Over the years, many key people within the CCDA had reached out to me. John Liotti shared a cup of coffee with me in the Bay Area. Dave Clark met me in the Chicago airport to introduce himself and get to know me. Noel Castellanos traveled to the Southwest and spent some time with me and my family in our house on the Navajo Reservation. And John Perkins shared his breakfast table with me at a hotel in St. Louis. From day one, I had been intentionally invited into the circle of relationships known as the CCDA. And now, on this night, I was publicly thanked and acknowledged as one of the host people of this land.
I was being given the opportunity to define my role within this association, and for me, culturally, that had to go through Vera Mae. She could not just be known to me as John Perkins’s wife. Nor was it enough just to acknowledge her as a grandmother. She had to become my grandmother. And so I used the language of adoption. As I leaned over and hung my necklace around her neck, I called her shi’masoni’, my maternal grandmother.
And now that protocol has been followed and our roles are better defined, I feel excited to continue this journey of reconciliation.