Medicine Wheels and Sweetgrass

An Offering Pleasing to the Lord

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By Russell Yee
Jul 30, 2020 | 5 min read
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Merchants, semiliterate peasants, young brides, teenagers with concocted papers — my ancestors came eastward to these shores in the early decades of the 20th century. By then, Oakland had already accumulated enough wealth and industry to become a destination of hope and opportunity beckoning those across the Pacific. They mostly came from rural villages in southern China, where the same family names and dirt-poor way of life had been around seemingly forever. They landed here and restarted their lives in a fast-changing foreign city that had been established within living memory, filled with people from all over the world.

But this was an ancient place, too. Did my ancestors ever think of Oakland that way: as a place Native Americans once called their own? Perhaps they saw a wooden Indian in front of a cigar store, or a poster for a Wild West show, and somebody explained to them that those were the people who were here first. It would have fit the narrative they already knew from places like Hong Kong and Macau: white Europeans and now white Americans spreading across oceans and continents and having their way with what they found.

My grandparents tasted that expansive presumption in other ways, through exclusionary immigration laws, discriminatory wages and taxation, race restrictions on housing, and everyday prejudice. But they were economic migrants, here for what the Americans had built with such astonishing speed. Considered moral reflection or historical evaluation would have been quite the luxury.

I think about all this as I run 3-mile laps around Lake Merritt and witness a small culture war currently being waged there: a handful of medicine wheels, or sacred circles, painted white, red, black, and yellow here and there on the shoreline path, then painted out, and then repainted, again and again.

In my thousands of laps around the lake at all different hours, I have never actually seen any of the painting or painting-out going on. I wonder if the painter is a Native American neighbor, determined to keep this land and these waters connected to their people’s ancient identity and meanings (such wheels being variously understood as the four directions, seasons, stages of life, or ways of knowing). And is it Public Works dutifully painting them out? I smile and root for the medicine wheel painter every time.

Not so for the various graffiti taggers who plague various spots around the lake. When I can, I take it upon myself to clean their excreta from benches, railings, and light posts. Such utterly selfish, juvenile narcissism angers me. I want to scream at them and tell them to leave and never come back. Are they not thieves and vandals, taking something that belongs to everyone — unblemished public surfaces and spaces — and claiming it for their own selfish purposes?

Some other ways of marking space leave no visible trace at all. One night, as I rounded the path by the Rotary Nature Center, right by the totem pole there, I caught the smell of burning sweetgrass in the cool air. Running Lake Merritt means smelling pot fairly regularly and cigarettes now and then. But this was sweetgrass, smelling like a combination of incense and a campfire. I remembered the aroma from a Native American Christian gathering I took part in some years ago, entering through the smoke, blessed by the prayers being lifted up.

As I ran a little farther, the smell got stronger. Then, suddenly, I saw him — there, on a bicycle in the shadows, pedaling slowly, holding out a smoldering plait, perhaps making his way around the whole lake. I immediately wondered if he were also the painter. But then he was gone, into the night, like a ghost.

Where does this all leave me as the civic-minded, taxpaying citizen, here for the common good? Or am I just another layer of gray paint covering over indigenous life, another smear of human graffiti defacing stolen land?

Sure, my ancestors came here long after Spanish explorer Pedro Fages’ expeditions, the Peralta land grant from the King of Spain, President Polk’s victory in the Mexican-American War, and then the Carpentier-Adams-Moon American squatter/hustler trio, with all their various claims to the land that became Oakland. My ancestors came from a land of dirt floors and water buffaloes to a city of electric streetcars, colleges, textile mills, automobile factories, and America’s first high-rise city hall. Here, met by exploitation, indifference, curiosity, hatred, opportunity, and kindness, my family worked hard to earn our wages and diplomas, to buy our houses and tend our backyard gardens. And in doing so, we stand in a direct line of benefit from a stolen land.

And where does this leave me as a believer, whose family came to faith via the American majority-culture flavors of Christianity? How do I worship with a clear conscience on this land? How do I live at peace with myself as a native Californian in a later sense? How do I redeem my share of this debt to those who were here first? How am I to love my indigenous neighbors, too many of whom now live almost as refugees on their own land?

Here are the small steps I’ve started with to try to acknowledge and honor those who lived here first, to countenance my presence here and the claims I make to belong here. At my church, I insert a regular prayer for, as I put it, “the further healing of this land and the well-being of the indigenous peoples who first lived here.” I support Oakland’s pioneering “urban rez” Intertribal Friendship House community center. I recommend and assign Tommy Orange’s brilliant, shattering account of modern indigenous coming-of-age in his acclaimed 2018 debut novel, "There There". I help sponsor Rain Ministries’ First Nations Version Bible translation project. I force myself to learn about the vastly-more-harm-than-good legacy of so much of early California Christianity from the Missions era on. (No lasting Native Christian church or presence ever did emerge; meanwhile, the indigenous population was decimated by disease and displacement during the Spanish and Mexican periods, and then suffered outright genocide during the early American period.) I lead tours of the history gallery of our Oakland Museum of California, taking care to include Native perspectives and experiences. I do my part to promote cultural contextualization in Christian worship. (Would Jesus eat frybread? Yes!)

And I humbly ask: Whoever you are at Lake Merritt painting the medicine wheels, whoever you are offering sweetgrass prayers for this land we now share, please accept my words as a small token of gratitude for what my family has received here and as a small amends for what we have taken.

“Let your prayers rise like smoke to the Great Spirit, for he will see and answer you. Every step is a prayer, and as you dance upon the earth for the things you seek, the way will open before you. In the same way, as you search for the true ancient pathways, you will find them. Answers will come to the ones who ask, good things will be found by the ones who search for them, and the way will open before the ones who keep dancing their prayers.” (Matthew 7:7-8, First Nations Version, IVP forthcoming 2021)
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Russell Yee

Russell Yee is a third-generation Oakland resident who is grateful and humbled to live with his wife, Lisa, on Chochenyo Muwekma Ohlone land. When he’s not teaching seminary classes, he’s probably running at Lake Merritt or helping with something at New Hope Covenant Church.

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