The box arrived on day three of my residency at the Vermont Studio Center, with my mother’s looping script and Oneida, WI, in the return address. I didn’t expect it, although perhaps I should have, what with my mother’s propensity for gift-giving and house-warming. She had been emailing several times a day once she realized my phone service had evaporated around Fairfax, but I hadn’t opened the emails yet. The year I turned nine my Easter basket had contained six pairs of silk panties rolled up inside the plastic eggs which were usually filled with small change, and which I opened in front of two of the neighborhood boys that year; so, I carried my mother’s package from the dining hall back toward my small studio, deciding to open it in private.
I had already begun to decorate the room allotted as studio space, filling the bookshelves, organizing supplies into the drawers of the desk, and pinning up photos of my family and travels. The surface of the desk was still bare, except for my laptop and the package. Once opened, I arranged its contents in a careful composition for a good Instagram.
A new cowboy hat, with knotted “turquoise” accents. A selection of jewelry—treasure necklaces and inlaid pieces from the southern tribes, and beaded square droplet earrings with loud pink butterfly motifs. A squashy foam buffalo, branded Oneida—casino-swag. An issue of Cowboys & Indians magazine (I could not tell if this was meant to be ironic). A set of handmade books printed at the Oneida print shop, and, a copy of my favorite Oneida folklore myth. On the inside cover, my Oneida name, written out by our Namegiver, Maria, in shaking script. But it is the abalone shell and the bag of sage that make me feel the most at home.
With these last items, I can smudge my studio. I breathe more deeply. I feel more rooted. The smudging ceremony is still somewhat new to me. We place the sage in an abalone shell and light it, blowing softly ‘til the flames catch and the smoke twists upward, and we waft the smoke over the area or person to be smudged so the bad spirits will be chased out. It is not a ceremony my family practiced much before we moved back to our reservation. But it has since become foundational, a comfort in the same manner as the crosses above my mother’s every doorway or the short, low white fence around a yard, effective because of faith and familiarity. We smudge a room to clear it of negative energies before habitation, we smudge a person to free them of negative thoughts, and smudging my studio would ensure any residual energies were cleared away and that my own artistic endeavors would begin on the right foot. That is what we believe. It touches me that my mother thought to include these items, as some acknowledgment, or perhaps manifestation, of the presence and importance of my culture in everyday life. Not just the myths and storybooks, the branded symbols, but the items needed to enact my culture, jewelry to display proudly the creativity of my people, and the abalone and sage for ritual. With this care package, my mother hasn’t just reminded me who I am, nor has she limited herself to “silly, fun things,” as she claims. My mother is at once acknowledging my identity and giving me tools to hang onto it. Within the package are keys to living Oneida.
One of the downsides to growing up away from our reservation is my lack of integration, and the markers of culture I missed out on as a child. I never attended Pow Wows in a jingle dress, so my mother was never patiently sewing on its last bells before a smoke dance competition. I did not grow up tasting frybread (but I will pull the car over immediately if I see it advertised on a hand-painted sign outside Gallup). I didn’t go to Turtle School or the Oneida Community College, and I have never met many Oneidas my age. My mother didn’t teach me my language, nor could she. So much of our culture is passed down from our families and particularly our mothers, and so much of who I am has been given to me by mine—yet I find gaps in my understanding, holes in my experiences, and spaces that are filled with other memories, the states and counties I lived in, the Girl Scout troops and after school latchkeys of each new city.
My upbringing was different. I am still learning the inside jokes. “Indian” still feels funny in my mouth, even as I hear my mother say it again and again, even as I see us all asserting our own identities, reminding ourselves as much as each other, that this is what we are, this is what little we have been given, this is what little we have been given and will hang onto with ferocity.
Our culture is a gift. A birthright, yes—transmitted by the hands of our mothers as they tape up cardboard boxes and write out our latest zip codes. I smudge my studio, and offer to smudge the studios of my fellows at the residency, who all accept, who all say how peaceful they feel, as I do, when the smoke curls up into the corners of the room.
I still hear my mother telling me, “You are Oneida. You are Oneida,” as I leave for school in the mornings, as I come home telling her about George Washington and the Indians at Valley Forge. “You are Oneida,” she says, when I complain that my skin is too dark, never knowing I would think back to that skin so longingly, say wistfully, when I was younger… “You are Oneida,” my mother says, when it starts—how much? You’re not really Indian—she says “No one can take it from you.”
And when I ask her, even us? Even the other Oneida? Even the Bureau of Indian Affairs? She says “No one, honey bunny, not even you.”
Kenzie Allen is a Zell Fellow at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and a descendant of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. Her poetry can be found (or is forthcoming) in Sonora Review, The Iowa Review, WordRiot, Apogee, Day One, and Drunken Boat, and she is the managing editor of the Anthropoid collective.