I came to finding my voice through the pain and suffering of those I love most - how do I deal with that? What do I do with that knowledge? – author and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams
When writing about the California Missions became the focus of my scholarship and poetry, the question Terry Tempest Williams speaks of was precisely the dilemma I began to face.
My “successes” in life (tenured teaching position, house, car, children’s college funding, health care, publications) exist, in large part, due to the fact that I write about and research California Indian history and experiences. And most of those histories and experiences are not pleasant “legends” or warm, fuzzy memories. My stories are about deaths by horrible disease or murder, the fragmentation of family relationships, self-destructive responses to trauma, the abandonment of children, exile and homelessness, displacement, loss of language and culture—and more.
Is it any wonder that I am reluctant to claim any of my successes as such? That I am so careful to always look over my shoulder at what might be coming up behind me? That I dream about sleeping on a bed of bones carved with the words of another language? That I sometimes feel guilty for “profiting” from telling the stories of my ancestors in the missions? That I shrink from compliments about my writing? That this writing comes so hard, takes so much out of me that often I can’t function for days after a spell of deep writing?
At the same time, I realize that telling the stories never meant to survive colonization is also a kind of charge, a responsibility. I know that so much of this disturbing history has been purposely erased or made invisible by our political and educational systems. This history has been disappeared from the record to hide crimes, to aid and abet amnesia by the dominant culture. So, if we can recover and witness these crimes and also raise our families through this work, is that a sin?
The night I heard Terry Tempest William speak at my university a few years ago, her questions about “voice” resonated down to my bones. I came to find my voice through the pain and suffering of those I love most. “This is exactly what I do,” I thought to myself, “How do I deal with that?”
I went to bed that night thinking, it’s a responsibility. It’s a debt, this gift, and I must repay it by carrying the responsibility of giving voice to those who could not speak. Isn’t that the answer? Isn’t that the way to assuage my guilt at earning my living from the tortured cries of my beloved ancestors and relatives? To accept it as a charge, not a gift?
But I wasn’t satisfied. It felt—not wrong, but incomplete. Too easy. And not enough. I know that often in those liminal moments between wakefulness and sleeping, revelation slips in, so I asked (myself, the Universe, the Ancestors): but what more is it? And perhaps because Terry’s achingly honest vulnerability had created a receptivity and openness that hadn’t been there before, the response came back almost as if it had been waiting for me to ask:
It’s not that you’ve found your voice through the pain of others. It’s that their voices found you…and could speak their pain.
I opened my hand and put that thought inside it, closed my fist around the warmth of the truth, and slept.
When I woke up, I remembered a dream I’d had twenty years before. Early on in my adult writing life, when I was about thirty, soon after I wrote the poem “I Am Not a Witness,” I dreamt that I was part of a group of Indian people being used in an experiment. We were locked up in a dark, crowded space together. Huge wooden doors slammed shut, and we beat our fists against them, splintering the wood into our flesh, but unable to escape. No windows, no light: just wives, sisters, brothers, husbands, uncles, babies, toddlers, small children, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, in-laws—trapped—while the scientists watched from one-way windows in their white lab coats. In the dream, I knew we were inside a mission; the experiment was to see how much of what our ancestors had experienced was stored in the cells of our bodies. In the dream, I opened my mouth. A scream came out. A horrible, broken scream came out of my throat. But it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t my scream. It was someone else’s scream, the scream of an ancestor, coming out of my own throat.
When I awoke in the dark, damp with sweat and panic, I had not uttered a sound. But my throat hurt, scraped raw. My voice, when I tried to speak, was hoarse and dry, my vocal cords scratched and strained.
Not my voice. Her voice.
The voice of an Ancestor.
I don’t mean this in some new-age “channeling” explanation. I’m not sure how I mean it. But if time is, indeed, spiral and happening all around us all the time, then there must be places where people separated by chronology touch as the spiral curves inward. I know that my sister Louise is one of those people, one who dreams, who listens, and acts for the Ancestors in her work as tribal chair. She is the person people call when they uncover remains, the woman who claims those remains and holds them safely while she searches out safe places for reburial. She knows she is a conduit through which work gets done. My sister makes her own choices, but with the influence of all that she knows and, just as importantly, the influence of what she feels.
What I feel as I write about the Missions is this: a door opens inside me, a door like one of those between hotel rooms, with locks on each side. I must unlock my side. Someone—the Ancestor wishing to speak—must unlock her side. We must both stand, willingly, in that threshold. We must allow ourselves to feel.
Athabascan scholar Dian Million writes in Therapeutic Nations that “feelings are theory, important projections about what is happening in our lives. They are also culturally mediated knowledges, never solely individual.” Million argues that the necessity of acknowledging and accessing the information behind feelings is crucial; this is what leads to informed action. Thus, although many of us have been taught to see emotions as reactions to an outside force, making the subject passive and disempowered, Million argues that the reality of a “felt experience” (as opposed to an experience which we purposely numb ourselves against feeling) results in agency, the casting off of numbness and paralysis, and the re-taking of control or purpose in one’s life.
Not surprisingly, Million adds that one way to use felt theory to our advantage as Indigenous people is story. Story, she writes, “has always been practical, strategic, and restorative. Story is Indigenous theory … Indigenous narratives are also most often emotionally powered.” In order to take action against injustice, Million adds, we must allow the experience of pain to be “historicized and taken into account in the public record” in order to begin the process of putting an alternative truth forward in ways that do not perpetuate mythologies of victimhood. At the same time, we must also treat an account of pain with respect for the information it contains.
The stories I tell with this voice that is both mine and the voices of others are my attempt to enter the true histories of California Indians into the public record—and not the romantic, happy-Indians-in-the-field-overseen-by-the-gentle-civilizing-Padre histories, but Indigenous testimonies of enslavement, great loss, personal struggle, and, yes, pain. Because those histories contain information that it is crucial for us to know, understand, and use to take action now.
In September 2015, Junipero Serra was canonized by Pope Francis not three hours from where I now write. Many California Indians took part in protesting this act of disrespect and denial for our Ancestors’ suffering. I was part of a small group of people who worked together, giving interviews, writing press releases, and attempting to give the true history behind Serra a voice. My position as an academic gave me some status, but it was my poetry about the missions that really drew attention to my existence—it was my voicing of pain in a respectful and honest way that gave me whatever authority I had in order to become a thorn in the side of those pro-canonization organizers. And although the canonization went through anyway, although Pope Francis did not even deign to comment on our careful research or writings, we did defend our Ancestors, and honor them, through our activism. What Dian Million speaks of as “felt theory” became, for us, real-life practice. We could not have done that work if we had not allowed ourselves to feel the pain of missionization or the pain of its aftermath. I understood that writing from the pain of my Ancestors and those I love the most is “practical, strategic, and restorative.”
Am I constructing a “story” that lets me off the hook of survivor’s guilt? Perhaps. But what I like about the dovetailing of my post-Tempest revelation and Dian Million’s work is not that it somehow removes the responsibility of bearing witness for my Ancestors, because it does not—I owe my very existence to their tenacity, their willingness to be Bad Indians rather than Dead Indians. What I like is seeing that the Ancestors are undefeated after all: not dead and silent in the ground, under pavement, in museums. Not trapped in eternal suffering, either: not victims whose identities have been crushed under the weight of pain. No. What I like about opening that door to felt knowledge is this: understanding that the Ancestors are alive and kicking—kicking that door down, insisting on telling their stories, still bearing witness. They don’t need my help. If anything, I am the needy one! I am in dire need of their wisdom, their direction, their experience.
What I like is that the Ancestors share their stories, still tell me how to live, allow me to write it down.
What I like is that the Ancestors are still teaching us that survival isn’t about anesthetizing ourselves against pain, but accepting felt experience as a wise and necessary teacher.
 “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and History.” Dian Million, Wicazo Sa Review, Volume 24, Number 2, Fall 2009, pp. 53-76. (61)
 Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights. Dian Million, U of Arizona Press, 2013. (72)
 "Intense Dreaming: Theories, Narratives and our Search For Home." Dian Million, The American Indian Quarterly, Volume 35, Number 3, Summer 2011, pp. 313-333. (322)