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The Flint and Light of Respect

Ragni Larsen-Orta
On Dignity (July 2023)
Inward Light

This is a testimony to the value and differences of Quaker and Indigenous ways of respect as I know them. Quaker testimonies were taught to me through words and light. Indigenous teachings were relayed with the spark of truth and few, if any, words. I find it difficult to use words to describe the latter, but I will try because I was asked to do so.

I was born fifteen miles north of the border between Mexico and California. At six months of age, my family moved back to Northern California, where I was raised in a working class, half-Mexican-American neighborhood in unincorporated Santa Clara Valley. I was also raised Quaker, my father a member of the Palo Alto Meeting. I was very much a “Western Friend.” My mother and father had come from Massachusetts and New York City, respectively, yet I was growing up in a community imbued with spirit that included Indigenous nurturance and multicultural acceptance of many kinds.

My parents were instrumental with others in forming a neighborhood improvement organization that supported monthly gatherings, youth activities, and what we now call conflict resolution. Fundamentally, I was shielded from the idea of Anglo superiority until middle school, and I was strong enough by then to be a rather powerful ally with others whenever it reared its ugly head. By middle school, I was also proactively organizing activities for inclusion, with my mother being my greatest ally. Her commitment to acceptance did not need to be voiced because of her actions. 

For readers who are not native to the West, we have a regional history with multicultural strengths. Most of California’s collision with European hierarchy and greed didn’t occur until the 1800s. The American West did not go through the colonial onslaught and enslavement of the 1600s and 1700s that the East Coast and East Coast Quakerism experienced. This is not to say that deadly racism didn’t arrive with its roots in early Spanish missionary conquest, nor that it didn’t arrive brutally and regularly take hold in West Coast hierarchies stemming from colonization under the Doctrine of Christian Discovery of Turtle Island. However, it is to say that in the West, we have a history of mixed-race political power structures that still provide nuance and alternatives, including major Asian-Pacific Islander and African-American contributions across centuries.

My first outside employment was at about age nine, cutting apricots in fruit drying sheds because agricultural labor was exempt from child labor protections. Before the region became “Silicon Valley,” Santa Clara Valley was known for its fruit trees. I used to joke that I grew up in Silicon Valley before the implants. As a child, I admired the migrant women who could fill door-sized trays with tiny orange mounds in minutes when it took me hours. Although I admired their skill, I was oblivious to their need to work fast for survival. My siblings and I were cutting fruit for summer money. Our Anglo-Germanic-Norwegian father was supporting us by teaching at San José State College, economically privileged by formal education. 

Unlike the migrant workers, our multicultural, lower-middle-class community included Mexican/Chicano neighbors who had permanent housing and year-round employment, like owning the corner market, working in canneries, and laboring in blue collar trades. They spoke English as well as Spanish, and their kids attended the same school every day. Our Japanese neighbors worked in the flower industry. Many people in our 300-house development worked two jobs, others were underemployed. Our mother was one of the few mothers who had time and resources to volunteer, both formally and informally in many ways, some Quaker.

I grew up knowing without any doubt that there is that of God in everyone. This is the Quaker foundation of a lifelong Equality leading. The Indigenous basis of my leading has also become clear over time. My maternal grandmother was from the Sekonnet tribe, and she trusted Quakers because of their relatively respectful treatment of her people. She didn’t leave the Wampanoag homelands, but the boarding school removal forced her away from most of her Indigenous elders. The “praying Indian village” that had existed in Little Compton, Rhode Island, since 1676 disappeared about the same time as the first fourteen-year-olds were rounded up and shipped to Carlisle Indian School, in 1906.

I grew up not knowing most of this history Our family spent West Coast summers on a thousand-acre cattle ranch, where my father ran the pumps to provide water to the lower acres. Here, our mother showed us how to graze on edible plants, to whittle wood and turn corn husks into dolls, and to provide salt for both the burros and ourselves for hydration. She connected us to the land and to responsibility to all our relations without many words. She had grown up the child of dairy farm workers, her father a farmhand and her mother a cook.

“Respect” resided in our home, from the tiny cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains, to the two-bedroom house in Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, to the house we moved to in Washington, DC, when I was a teenager. This home enabled us to house six elder and disabled Black visitors from the deep South in 1968. They had come to Capitol Mall with the Poor People’s Campaign, but couldn’t reasonably stay in the muddy encampment. My parents had responded to the American Friends Service Committee’s request for hospitality, and our family gained so much in return. I remember an elder from Georgia saying that my mother was “almost Black,” which we knew was deeply respectful. It was also validation of something I already knew: that my mother and I were of Indigenous descent.

Four years earlier, when I was ten, my grandmother had revealed to me the constant flame of Native American ancestry inside me. She abruptly stopped me before my family walked out her door in New Bedford, MA, to visit Plimoth Patuxet (then still called Plimoth Plantation). Her direct look seared into me the truth of her brief statement that we are descended from the people who met the Mayflower. I remember looking curiously at the Wampanoag people that day and identifying with them. The “Indigenous re-enactments” reflected ways I’d been raised: quietly, firmly, and evenly. I’ll never know why my grandmother singled me out that day. I will always be grateful that she did.

I’ve learned that my grandmother’s Nation made it through 225 years of forced Christianization, but the Sekonnet tribe in which she was raised didn’t survive the Boarding School Era. At age fourteen, she suddenly found herself in an unnamed school that was so abusive that she heated metal chains in a fire and dragged them across a wooden floor in indisputable anger, before fleeing across the state line. Before she died at age 92, I asked her to tell me about the past, but she simply shook her head no. Fortunately, twenty years earlier, she had made me keeper of a fire that I now credit with keeping me alive. She had not given me a query; instead, she had simply given me her spark of truth and silence. 

Today, I rely on Indigenous self-respect to shore up my Quaker beliefs. And I am strengthened by Native American guidance from Black, Latino, Choctaw, and Pueblo elders that I have received throughout my life. Without that guidance, I could not be handling today what are ongoing hate crimes against me, which have been willfully ignored by law enforcement for the past eighteen years. I would not still be able to stand for healing justice, including the healing of our shared land. I ask the Great Spirit multiple times every day for both the words and the silence that I need to live in a good way. Indigenous and other oppressed people know it is futile to scream bloody murder and necessary to persevere with respect where respect is received. When it is not received, the ancestors remind us to stand tall in silence.  ~~~

Ragni Larsen-Orta is a member of Strawberry Creek Monthly Meeting (SCMM), where she serves on the Power, Privilege, and Race Subcommittee of Worship and Ministry, and as Representative from SCMM to Pacific Yearly Meeting, which she has preferred to call PazYM since FGC affiliation gave rise to the need to take on a new acronym. Ragni serves on the Unity with Nature Committee in PazYM. She identifies as a Friend of Indigenous descent because she has been forced to fight for her physical survival since 2005, instead of documenting what she believes to be her eligibility for enrollment in a governmentally-recognized tribe for reconnection with her maternal grandmother’s people. Ragni (pronounced with a silent “g”) asks all readers to understand that she speaks only from her personal experience and does not speak on behalf of Indigenous people. She identifies as “one” Friend and part Hispanic.

Indigenous peoples Indian Boarding Schools

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