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A note from Aji:  The diary begins below the jump.  The first part is by Wings, in memory of his father. As with the diary memorializing Wings's brother, I've merely transcribed his own words and posted them here, in a place where I felt people would honor and appreciate his memories of his father. The second part is my own, and consists of my own memories of a man I was privileged to know only relatively briefly, but who I nonetheless loved very much.


A special welcome to anyone who is new to The Grieving Room.  We meet every Monday evening.  Whether your loss is recent or many years ago, whether you have lost a person or a pet, or even if the person you are "mourning" is still alive ("pre-grief" can be a very lonely and confusing time) you can come to this diary and process your grieving in whatever way works for you.  Share whatever you need to share.  We can't solve each other's problems, but we can be a sounding board and a place of connection.


By Wings


As of about 4:30 this morning, it has been four years since the man I called Dhaa'maa ("Dad") went to Spirit.

I miss him every single day.

The name on his birth certificate was Louis Bernal. Around here, the non-Indians always called him Louie.  I don't think he really liked it, but he got used to it and eventually used the name "Louie," too. I never liked it. To me, it was a sign of disrespect of a man whose life and spirit were large and profound and honorable.

His traditional name was Yellow Flute.

To me, Dad was always the model of what an Indian man should be. He was a traditional through and through, yet he was able to walk successfully in the white man's world his whole life.  

He was born at home in 1916, in one of the ancient traditional houses in the village, and was raised in the old way, initiated into the kiva at puberty. As a young man, he went off to serve this country in World War II, despite the fact that he wasn't allowed to vote or really even considered a "real American." He was stationed mostly stateside, and spent quite a while in Chicago. He also was assigned to the kitchens, and became a very good cook in the process.

When he came home, he and my mother married. I have a photo of my mother from the 1940s, hair done like a movie star of that time and wearing a tailored suit, sitting on the grass in the front yard of the house, legs folded alongside her body, waiting for him to come home. She was beautiful, he was handsome - even with his Army regulation-length crewcut, and even in old black and white photos, it's easy to see why they fell in love with each other.

Initially, they lived in one of the village houses, all of which are hundreds of years old (some, more than a thousand). I was born in one of them myself. In the meantime, Dad was busy building a larger home for his rapidly growing family on a shaded plot of land along Deer Creek Road. It's really more of a dirt track, one-lane and rutted, running from the outer edge of the old village westward. But the spot was beautiful, with large shade trees and plenty of room for kids to run and play. And he built the house himself, of our traditional adobe. and finished off the interior himself, as well.  Inside the living room, the floor is still the old wide planks of dark wood, and there are wooden support pillars running from floor to ceiling, hand-carved in the traditional spiral design, that he made entirely with his own two hands.

When I was a little boy, we all moved permanently to the new home, although we still used the old family village house for ceremonial reasons.  He and Mom raised eight children (and eventually, numerous grandchildren) in that home, and it was a beautiful place - and beautiful way - to grow up.

I suppose by today's standards - even by those of the white world at the time - a lot of people probably would have thought of us as "poor." If so, we kids didn't know it.  We were made to work, and work hard, but Dad worked hard his entire life to ensure that we never went without. He provided for us so completely that we were never without food, or shelter, or any physical need. He taught us boys to hunt and fish, and put us to work every summer on our lands up toward what's now the ski valley (and where we now live), growing and tending the crops. Sometimes the whole family would go out in a horse-drawn wagon to work in the fields; other times, it would be just Roy and me. We built arbors for shade, and we'd sleep under the night sky.

For many years, Dad worked for Ernie Blake, the white man who in the 1950s founded Taos Ski Valley, the local ski resort. Dad and Ernie considered each other friends, and he would proudly show visitors the photo that hung on the wall of his living room of the two of them grinning at each other. Ernie's gone now, too - well before Dad, who always missed him.

But while working in the outside world fed our bodies, Dad never looked to that world to feed our spirits. In that respect, he was a traditional through and through, and he made sure that we all received the spiritual education we needed from our own ways.  He practiced our kiva tradition (in more recent years, he held the status of elder). He also practiced the "Tipi Way," serving as a Road Man in the Native American Church. He would travel as needed to conduct "peyote meetings" for people in the area. There's a photo hanging on the wall of the gallery of Dad and his famous brother, my Uncle Paul Bernal (who was a leader in getting Blue Lake returned to us), both with traditional blankets over their shoulders in front of a tipi entrance, with myself at about age four and one of my siblings standing between them. He and Uncle Paul were both young, and strong, and beautiful, and they radiated power - good power, the kind that evokes Spirit.

There's a story he used to tell of his time as a Road Man. It dates back to my very, very early childhood. In the Tipi Way, peyote is used as a sacrament, for lack of a better way of putting it. Now, it's a lot harder to come by naturally, and people who still practice that way grow it. But back then, people would go out into the desert and harvest it. Sometimes, my father would travel long distances to find peyote for use in meetings.  

One time, Dad and several other men decided to drive down to Mexico, where peyote was still much more plentiful in its natural habitat. They went with some Mexican men who knew where the spot was and had offered to help them dig it up. But when they got there, there was no peyote. They knew they had the right spot, and they looked all around, trying to find it, but all they could see was dirt and rocks. It was clear that no one had gotten there first and dug it up, because the earth was not disturbed, but the peyote wasn't there. Periodically, one of the men would see something in the distance that looked like peyote, but by the time they reached it, there was nothing there. This happened several times. Their hosts couldn't understand how it could have disappeared, as though the earth itself had swallowed it.

The drive back home would be hundreds of miles, so they had to make camp for the night. Back then, this was a big trip, and and expensive one - one that people couldn't make often. It would have been terrible if the whole trip turned out to be a waste. So my father recited his traditional prayers, asking Spirit for help in finding the peyote. The next morning, in all the places where they had looked the previous day, the peyote appeared, as if out of the earth. They were able to harvest what they needed for upcoming meetings, and left the rest to Mother Earth.

He always said that the peyote was hiding from them, until they appreciated it enough for it to show itself. It's a lesson that has stuck with me my whole life - about a lot of things.

There's another photo of me with Dad that holds memories. It's packed away now, but it's one of my favorites.  He had a beautiful old Ford pick-up - I think it was a '49. He attached a deer skull to the grill, one with a full rack of antlers. The photo is of him standing in front of the truck, one foot up on the bumper. I was about five, and my late sister Cynthia a year or two younger; we were both climbing on the hood.  Whoever took the photo caught me looking at the camera through the antlers. The shot reminds me of all the happy times we had together. Of course, being kids, we didn't think of those times as happy, or as anything else, particularly. Our experiences just were, and we lived them day to day, without realizing how much would be lost down the road.

In the years to come, I would go to school in town, where I would learn to speak English on a regular basis. My brother Roy and I were initiated into the kiva together in the same year. I was a runner, and often won our traditional footraces. In junior high and high school I did what most of the local white and Hispanic boys did: I played football and basketball, and ran track. I also had a paper route. Life went on in its combination of rhythms: partly to the traditional drum, partly to the beat of the outside white culture.

And then I was stolen away.

My parents thought they were doing it for the right reasons. Mormon missionaries were common around here at that time, trying to convert Indians. They would offer parents money and the promise of a better life (a "white" life) for their children if only they would send their children away to live with Mormon families.

I had an opportunity to attend the Institute for American Indian Arts and pursue my dream of being an artist. It was the thing I most wanted in the world. My father was a self-taught silversmith, as was his father before him, and I wanted to continue the tradition. Instead, I and one of my younger sisters were stolen from our family and our culture, sent to live with and work among strangers. I finished high school up in Utah, living with a Mormon family and being forced to practice their religion. I hated it. I still hate it. It's not something I like to talk much about, but it was a terrible experience. I couldn't wait to get home, but that took a few years. And while I eventually did realize my dream of carrying on the artistic tradition of my fathers and grandfathers, I still mourn the lost opportunity to study our peoples' arts in a formal way.

But life moves on, and I went about mine the way most young people probably do. With the exception of four years in the early 1980s, after coming home from Utah, I never lived anywhere else. I never wanted to. But we were all busy with our lives, and I only saw Dad periodically, even though he lived only a few miles away.

Then, in August, 2008, he was rushed to the hospital. He'd had incidents before - illnesses, falls, things that are normal occurrences for a still-active man of 92. In fact, about five hours before he was admitted to the hospital, we'd passed him on the highway going the other direction. We were on our way home from the gallery; he was driving home after checking up on his lands up by where we live. He still made regular rounds to make sure everything was being taken care of properly. By then, he was so short that we could barely see his head above the steering wheel, but we honked and waved at each other.

After that hospitalization, he was never the same again. A lot of that was due to how he was treated (or not treated) in the hospital. Roy had the same problem during his final illness. But he was in and out of the hospital and another interim-care facility for weeks. We bought a hospital bed and a lot of other equipment, lined up a visiting nurse from the Indian Health Service, and made other arrangements.  

Aji and I visited him almost daily while he was in both places, and then for months helped with food, visits, and other care after he came back home. Aji cooked dinner for him twice a week, and we took it over to him: healthy foods, homemade soups and stews, posole, homemade tortillas. Once in a while, we'd pick up his favorite fast-food meal: a burger and fries from Wendy's. I'd sit with him for hours talking about our lives - and hearing the old stories again and again, like the story about the peyote hiding from him. Aji would massage his knees and feet, and put medicine on the wounds from the IVs and the bedsores. He would not let anyone, including the doctor and the visiting nurse, remove his dressings or use anything but the snake medicine she made him. One day, my sister said came home and surprised him, and he hastily shoved something underneath his blanket. She came closer and saw that his face was shiny and demanded to know what he'd been doing. He wouldn't tell her, so she looked under the blanket, and found the (mostly empty now) jar of snake medicine. She asked him what he was doing, and he said, "This medicine is so wonderful, I'm using it to get rid of my wrinkles!" He loved Aji's medicine, he loved her cooking, and he loved her. She could get him to take his breathing treatments and other medications when no one else could. She never presumed, but always treated him with the utmost respect; she always called him Mr. Bernal, or Nizise. He called her Daughter.

Around Thanksgiving that year, he contracted an infection. It was just a bug, and we all had it. But his immune system couldn't handle it. I watched him slowly deteriorate over the next three weeks. When I came home on the night of December 16th, I knew he might not last through the night. He was tired, and I think he just wanted to be with Marie, my mother. About 4:35 on the morning of December 17th, the phone rang; it was my little sister, telling me that he had gone to Spirit peacefully in his sleep.

Sometimes, I feel his presence on this land where our family has lived since time immemorial. I can feel him watching as I now do the tasks he spent his life doing. Once in a while, Aji will tell me she feels him, too. He doesn't appear very often; I know he's where our ancestors are, and with my mother, and he's happy and at peace. But he comes back when he thinks he's needed.

Three weeks after Dad went to Spirit, we had to go up to the ski valley to meet someone. When we got there, we ran into one of his former coworkers, a guy I grew up with and have known my whole life. He had worked with my father for decades. and knew him well. As we exchanged greetings, he said to me, "Hey, I saw your Dad last week." Aji and I exchanged a look, but didn't say anything.  He went on, "Yeah, it was weird. He was by himself, walking up the side of the mountain over there. I was kinda surprised to see him here, and I yelled, 'Hey, Louie! What's up?' He turned around and looked at me, but he didn't say anything; then he turned back and kept walking up the mountain."

I asked him if he was sure about when he say my dad. He was; he narrowed the date range down to within a week to ten days earlier. We looked at each other again, and I turned to the guy, and I said, "You're really lucky to have seen him. Because my dad died three weeks ago." The guy turned white as a sheet. He couldn't believe what I was telling him. I told him not to worry about it, that that mountainside was a place that was important to Dad, that Dad must have felt he needed to be there, and I had no doubt that he was telling the truth about having seen him. I also told him that he was lucky to have been given this gift - to have been around to see my father as he was making his way home.

For myself, I'm grateful to have had the gift of those last months. Dad and I had our difficulties our whole lives, and had he not become ill, we might not have reconnected the way we did. And it happened when I was at an age where I could really appreciate it, and him, and everything he taught me about life, about being a man, about being Indian, about being of our family and our heritage and our traditions.

And I miss him every day.

I love you, Dad. Ta'a.


By Aji

My part of this will be very short. Wings has already said most of what needs to be said, even about my small role in his father's life. But I can't post this without adding a note to express my honor of, and love for, this man.

My relationship with my own father was difficult, to put it mildly. I was his caregiver, but for us, there was too much water under the bridge. I was never able to feel really close to him - hadn't since childhood, really.

Wings's father was of roughly the same age cohort as my own dad, and they shared backgrounds similar in so many ways. And I have no illusions that, had I been his blood, our relationship would have been freighted with much more baggage - much of it, as with my own father, a product of the vast gulf in experience between our respective generations. But as it was, I was an outsider who knew him only through the lens of Wings's stories about him and my own contemporary experiences with him - and that freed me to love him as a respected and honored elder who was so generous of spirit that he took me into the circle of his own family.

As Wings said above, I never called him Louis. It certainly would never have occurred to me to call him Louie, as everyone else did, which I agree always seemed disrespectful in the extreme. In my own family history, we have plenty of experience with the dominant culture having changed our names, and with using nicknames as a way of diminishing our identity, or our status. So initially, it was impossible for me to conceive of calling him anything but Mr. Bernal, simply out of respect.

One of the proudest days of my life was the evening he first called me Daughter. And then I sometimes called him by the title of respect in my language, Nizise (which means "father-in-law," and also means certain "cross-uncle" relations).

He always seemed happy to see me; I was certainly always happy to see him. I loved the fact that he would allow me to cook for him. I'm not sure whether he was always being honest, or merely polite, about loving my cooking, but I do know that he loved my tortillas. I make them the old-fashioned way, with lard instead of shortening, which is what gives them their traditional flavor. The first time he tried one, he did a double-take, and said to me: "These are made the real way, with lard!" and patted me on the knee. So I made them for him whenever he wanted some. [Wings has always said that my tortillas and frybread taste just like his mother's, and there's really no greater compliment from a traditional Indian man.]

It was a privilege to sit at his feet and listen to the old stories. I was honored that he trusted me enough to use my own people's traditional medicine, that he would let me rub his painful knees and massage his feet, that he would occasionally sneak a piece of candy and share one with me.

When he was waiting to come home from the interim facility, we arrived for a visit, and I was wearing a necklace that Wings had given me: a carved jasper thunderbird on a silk thong ("Thunderbird" being an alternate translation of my traditional name). To Nizise, it looked like a Water Bird from the Tipi Way. I immediately took it off and handed it to him so he could hold it; he cradled it tenderly in his hands, stroking it, saying that it was beautiful. When he handed it back to me, I put the thong over his head. He was so touched that his eyes filled with tears; my own eyes overflowed. But it clearly was meant to be his. And he would not suffer it to be far from his neck or his hands. He was buried with it, a gift for which I will always be profoundly grateful.

As I age, I increasingly appreciate the old ways and what tradition has to teach us. I am likewise profoundly grateful that Spirit saw fit to give me the gift of knowing, however briefly, this great and honorable man, this wise elder, this father figure.

I also love you, Nizise. Chi miigwech.

Originally posted to Aji on Mon Dec 17, 2012 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by The Grieving Room, Native American Netroots, Street Prophets , and Invisible People.

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