Little Light of Mine

“Aunty Jean, can you pray for my Dad? He was sent to the hole again.” “Mom, can you pray for my cats? They keep peeing in my bed; she hates that we moved.” “Can you have your mom pray for me as I go into this final nursing exam? Please let me graduate.” “Aunty Jean, can you pray for my Rez car’s radiator, calipers, rotators, and headlight? Pray, I can afford this.” “Mom, can you pray for my IUD removal Friday?” “Aunty, can you pray for Stella? She’s on her way to the vet and ate something wrong.” “Jeanne, can you pray for my interview for the tribal accounting position?” “Pray a quick one for me. Hey, pray they don’t pee test me this week, my parole is up in August, and only I smoked a little.” My meeting place, our center, has been my mother, where my Ojibwe traditions encounter contemporary Western society. The way I learned to write has been from her prayers and her stories to the Creator. I tease she is a degree of holiness, a close connector, a liaison to a higher power. She’d tell us stories of when she was little. She’d sing in the woods behind the Zeba trailer park. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” as if that was further confirming she was a saint. Saints were always singing.

Her Ojibwe traditional knowledge is most prominent, but I see subtle hints of the colonizer she adapted as her form of reclamation. I wonder what my people called prayers or messages to the Creator before Columbus.

As I witness the act, the ritual, and the modern-day ceremony of her prayer, she creates her resistance between her blended worlds. Maybe the first prayers were just stories, talking out loud, speaking internally with closed eyes, or to our cousins around a fire. We had to share. Our voices were power. Similarly, I’ll close my eyes and tease the great author, Tommy Orange, as he reads my manuscript, justifying—this is why I write in too much exposition.

Just praying. Communication was essential to life and even dependent on survival, hence why are we still praying and telling stories? If the prayer is urgent and of high importance, my mom goes into action, “Yes, niece, I’ll make sure to pray a complete prayer right away.” I usually don’t ask my mom for her prayers unless I really need one. This one was a big one, the complete prayer. “Mom, can you do a complete prayer so I graduate?” But no matter big or small, the ritual is the same. Even for prayers to find her keys or where I put my W2s instead of us physically looking for them. We sit there stressing, and she’s signing the damn cross, touching her forehead. “Why,” I’d mumble and roll my eyes at the father, son, and holy ghost. But she is right in her silence, probably reciting Smudge Mary. She needs some grace and Our Creator, Who Art in the Spirit World. She is writing. She is telling our stories first. Fine, go ahead, mom, sign the cross. I leave her to her ceremony.

Because they do work. The prayers work every time, each and every one. We find the keys, we can do our taxes on the last day to file, we get out of solitary confinement, we have clean sheets because our cats become comfortable in their new environments, we pass tests and graduate, our cars get fixed, well one part, at least to drive. We heal, our pets heal, and thankfully our parole officers skip the drug test that week. My cousins, sisters, family, and now community believes her magic too. Her magic is the manifestation. She’s listening. Her magic is hearing as healing. We trust her with our stories and know she carries them “in a good way.” We aren’t even Christian, well, not anymore; we are ex-Christians. We walked out like we were cheated on one-too-many times, and hearing the priest try to condemn “the blasphemy of the gays” was the last straw. Thank you, mother, for taking two seven and eight-year-old girls out of that toxic environment. But the traditions of vocalizing hope, our needs, and asking for help have been there in our blood, passed from my mother’s mother—a legacy of strong women—reservations built from the shared unity of our mother’s blood, trauma, resilience, and prayers.

The ritual starts again. My mother introduces herself. Nindizhinikaaz Namid Migizi. My name is Dancing Eagle. Nindonjibaa Baraga. I am from Baraga. Mikinaak Nindoodem. My clan is Turtle. She signs the cross extra fast, giggling knowing I’m probably watching somewhere. She continues sharing her courage with me to do the same. She offers her asemaa, tobacco, usually from her fresh pack of Seneca’s, the cheaper tribal cigs because Marlboro Reds are too expensive. She closes her eyes holding them shut with the same tension as she holds the tiny grains of the whitewashed tobacco. But she acts on the call of prayer, the need to tell our stories which is always critical and dire. She introduces herself, connects to the land, and connects to her role and the community. I give her my patience, no distractions. I see her mumble the thoughts, the wishes, the needs of my people. I can even hear her inner voice ending each phrase “in a good way” so the Creator doesn’t accidentally misinterpret her words. I give her her space as she mends those around me, a little light of ours. Thank you for teaching me the foundation of writing. Thank you for raising me on powerful prayers and beautiful healing stories.

Tashina Emery is a student at Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College.

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