Kinship & Community

By Jaclyn M. Roessel

Cornfield at Jemez Pueblo. Photo courtesy of Pueblo Action Alliance.

In late summer, I received a call I had been waiting on ever since the birth of my niece. My brother had connected to share the news that she had started her first moon cycle. He shared the details of the preparations his wife and he were making to hold her Kinaaldá, our Diné puberty ceremony. I listened intently, elated this was to take place. This four-day ceremony would be welcoming my dear niece into womanhood, and she would be working hard following protocols as she prepared to make one of the most important cakes of her life. As I said goodnight, I had the sobering realization that we were still in a pandemic, and I might not be able to offer my prayers in person.  

Since time immemorial, Indigenous communities have held the importance of relationality, kinship, and community. Relationality is to each other as humans, but, equally important, to the world around us. One of the common misconceptions about Indigenous communities is that in precolonial times we were siloed peoples. The reality is that we have always been in connection and communication with each other. From Chaco Canyon, the sacred home of the ancestral Puebloan peoples, extend trade routes still visible in aerial photos all the way to what is known today as Mexico. Evidence of this connectivity can be seen in corn impressed in the sandstone at the site as well as macaw parrot feathers found in the structures. Our intertribal relationships have sustained our traditions and innovations.

Today, connectivity to one another is central to many of the ways our communities are coping with the pandemic and building community power. There are various words in Indigenous languages that help impart this ideology. In Lakota, the poignant phrase Mitakuye Oyasin means “all my relations.” Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, and Lokata artist Cannupa Hanska Luger says, “Language was developed by relationship. It is me and air, me and the tree that is closest to me.” Luger and I connect over the phone, and as I listen to him expand, this cosmological view is clear: “Kinship and relationship is what most of the universe is made out of.” Luger’s multidisciplinary work spans space and time. His artistry is about connection: connection to the customary practices of Indigenous peoples, connection to the cosmos, and connection to the futurity of Indigenous survival and creative resilience. 

When we look at hardship and triumphs that have occurred across history, there is a common theme of coming together through a shared relationship. At times, this was because of the need to protect community and mobilize action. Relationality and kinship in Indigenous communities form our strength, nourishment, and sustenance.

The late Skokomish teacher Bruce Miller would talk of the wisdom of his community of “Tree People” and the way each individual helped cultivate wisdom and medicine to help the collective move toward health and growth. It was understood that every individual was given different knowledge because otherwise there would not be a reason to need each other. 

(Be)Longing, Cannupa Hanska Luger, 2019. Ceramic, steel, ribbon, fiber. Photo by Kate Russell Photography.

K’é is a Diné philosophy which instructs us that because we are Bilá ashląądíí, Five-Fingered People, we are related to each other—and accountable to one another. This philosophy of K’é mirrors the teachings of Black scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term, intersectionality. Intersectionality recognizes that an individual’s social and political identities (their race, ability, sexuality, and gender) form a unique experience of the world, and the privilege and discrimination we face in the world. 

Collectively, these principles can help us connect to our sacred responsibility to each other. They can also help us find nourishment in a global moment when we are being asked to rise to the challenge of sacrificing our access to the medicine of good company, belly laughs with friends, hugs that hold us, and shoulders to cry on. 

“While there is high stress during these times, there has also been beauty in witnessing collective community care. It has been the PEOPLE who have shown up by bringing forth what community defense can look like,” says Reyes Devore, community program director for the Pueblo Action Alliance (PAA) and a member of the Pueblo of Jemez. PAA is an organization that promotes cultural sustainability and community defense by addressing environmental and social impacts in Indigenous communities. Devore explains, “As a Pueblo-centric organization, who recognize our roles as descendants, we consider this as lifework to protect generations of peoples and traditional knowledge in our respective communities.” 

PAA shifted swiftly to providing mutual aid in the wake of COVID-19’s arrival in Pueblo homelands. The organization is a partner with Seeding Sovereignty in the Indigenous Impact Community Care Initiative. As part of this work, there has been tremendous support and allyship that has helped create support for our community members through the delivery of PPE and food care packages.

When I ask Devore how the concept of kinship relates to her work, she says, “I am more comfortable with using ‘communal sense of care’ or ‘being in community.’ I share this with no disrespect intended for the people and communities who uplift kinship, but in Jemez that particular word isn’t used often. . . . What I do find most nourishing in being with community and family is the great gratitude that sweeps through me when I am home in Jemez. It comes through the most when I am with my family, in ceremony, or with the land.”

While the physical isolation of the pandemic has been a tremendous challenge, this feeling of connectedness has been shared through Indigenous interwebs, providing respite for many. For Indigenous peoples, there are numerous posts on social media imparting reverence, rekindling relationships to their ancestral homelands, too. From hikes to planting gardens to prayers at sunrise, the power of place radiates from the posts. As Luger imparts, the images of people reconnecting and being in the natural world are powerful to take in, even on social media channels. Seeing this “is evidence of a collective reckoning with the toxicity of our current models, as they weren’t designed sustainably.” The pivot toward nature signals individuals share in social media feeds illustrates other possible ways we can be in relation with the world around us. 

A socially engaged artist, Luger has adjusted his artistic practice to this time of sheltering at home. He now holds “footwear optional” artist
talks on Zoom. “The way we have to engage with each other now is more ethereal,” Luger says. In his view, the technology is helping us become “social engineers building bridges between each other”—and in the process creating new relationships. 

When our ancestors spoke our languages into existence, there was no need for words like Zoom or computer. The ingenuity to transmute our belief in the power of kinship, community, and relationship to digital communications is a testament to the futurity of our cultures. Evident on many social media feeds today is the way our interconnectedness to one another is still the traditional medicine we long for most. From posts sharing friendship missed and flashbacks to the last gathering with friends over good food, there is a deep longing for the connection to each other. 

As we adjust to fewer hours of daylight, many Native communities begin a transition from the close of harvest season to the preparing for winter. Even these practices are ones being shared on social media channels. Many friends, whether in urban settings or home on the reservation, have used this time of being at home to plant with loved ones. Devore notes that this year “has pushed many to plant as Pueblo communities have been on lockdown due to the pandemic. Jemez has always been a community of farmers, but it has never looked more beautiful to see the crops flourish.”

The arrival of crops is a signal for the commercial indicators of the American observance of Thanksgiving to appear. Tropes from this historical farce pervade fall decorations, from Pilgrim hats to the turkeys made from the cutouts of fingers that cover fridges and dining tables. And yet, at its core, the season is about the act of “giving thanks.” 

As Indigenous peoples, our practices center acts of reciprocity for bounty and blessing. Most communities and nations mark this harvest period with prayers, ceremonies, and numerous expressions of gratitude. “Pueblo and [other] Indigenous peoples have always had a reciprocal relationship with the land and for each other. Colonialism continuously encroaches on that, but each time we plant seeds,” says Devore, “we are giving back to maintain connection to ancestors and the land.”

This year, our call-in should be about the way our year has been sustained by numerous essential workers, including farmers and farm workers, who have been on the frontlines of this pandemic. Luger proposes a semantic adjustment to the term “giving thanks” as a way to “extend thanks to the people who made that offer and provided that offer. In the end, the season’s importance is much greater than the tropes.”

This year, our call-in should be about the way our year has been sustained by numerous essential workers, including farmers and farm workers, who have been on the frontlines of this pandemic. Luger proposes a semantic adjustment to the term “giving thanks” as a way to “extend thanks to the people who made that offer and provided that offer. In the end, the season’s importance is much greater than the tropes.”

For Indigenous, Black, and communities of color, this harvest season will also be filled with grief for the loved ones sick and lost due to this pandemic. The impact endured by our communities and nations during this COVID-19 pandemic is directly proportionate to the depths at which racism, settler colonialism, invisibility, and police brutality have also ravaged our relations. What we are finding in this global pandemic and movement for Black lives and racial justice is a rekindling and remembering of the power of our connection to each other, not only in revolution and resistance but also with the ways we fight toward collective liberation. 

“I have a great amount of gratitude for the ancestors before me who fought to protect this land for us. Their resistance to colonizers has allowed us to be nourished through harvest time. Beyond that, we have also been given the responsibility to carry out these ways of life and cultural sustainability. This communal care does not center the false narrative carried out by Thankstaking,” shares Devore. 

It is through this community care and relationship to each other that Indigenous communities are breaking cycles, redistributing resources and aid to help each other through an uncertain period of hardship. What is incredible to see is the process of practicing relationality or “the space between space” as Luger describes it. In this space between the creation of art, farming, and caring for community, Indigenous peoples are finding it possible to experience home, land, joy, and rest. 

Devore notes time with her son as a moment of significance. “I have a deep love for music; it provides different types of care for our emotions. It has pulled me through during this time of uncertainty. . . . Bryant and I appreciate long drives and jamming to music, so that has been one of safest ways to be outside and enjoying time with each other.” 

It is also time for others to invite stillness. As a prolific artist, this pivot within the pandemic for Luger has meant being able to find nourishment with his immediate community. Getting to “live into” what he has worked so hard to create with his partner, two boys, and dog. 

Due to personal health concerns and travel restrictions living in a Native community on lockdown, I made the decision not to attend my niece’s Kinaaldá. Over the course of the four-day ceremony, I prayed in the morning. I thought of her making her runs at dawn and noon. I eagerly awaited video updates and texts from my parents. Once the ceremony ended, I had a socially distanced meeting with my dad. He had driven four hours to meet me to deliver a piece of my niece’s ceremonial cake. 

This ałkaan is a coarse cornmeal cake that is baked in the ground overnight. My niece’s cake was about three feet in diameter and six inches deep. There are many protocols a young woman has to follow as part of the ceremony, and we believe her adherence and spirit impact the way the cake is baked and tastes. Once baked, the young woman is told to give all of her cake away, never tasting it. This act of generosity is what I think of when I think of community care. This is how I came to know my relationship to others in the world as a young woman. It was through my own ceremony that I lived into the value of K’é. It is through generosity and giving that we are taught to care for each other. 

With excitement, I broke off a piece of the cake my dad shared, and instantly I could see the beautiful life my niece would lead, simply because her cake tasted good. 

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