By Kevin VanWanseele
My grandfather, Edward R. Brown, has died. It was the cancer that finally got him. He was a very loving man who showed it by helping others.
When I was young, I remember Grandpa was very stern. I didn’t like to stay over at his house much. The first memory of my Grandpa that I have is of him getting mad at my brother and I for playing inside the house. “Go outside or I’ll spank you!” is one of the first things I remember Grandpa telling me. So we would go outside.
I lived down the street from him, maybe a half mile away. I used to ride my big wheel down the dirt roads of the reservation next to the highway that rarely had cars on it. Sometimes my mom would let me ride my big wheel to Grandpa’s. I passed small one-story homes, oak trees and old beat up cars that never seemed to move.
After my grandma Eleanor died, Grandpa got quiet. He stopped yelling at
my cousins and I for wrestling in the living room. He spent most of his
time outdoors in his shed, building model airplanes. He told me he
developed anxiety after Grandma passed.
When my Grandpa was young, he lived on a ranch in Descanso, CA. The
reservations were large but far apart. Once a year his family would
attend “fiestas”. These fiestas were like big barbeques and rodeos. A
designated reservation would sponsor it, meaning they’d provide gifts,
food and entertainment. It was at one of these fiestas that Grandpa met
I asked Grandpa if they ever danced in “traditional” costume-the kind
you see at pow-wows. “That’s a new thing,” he told me. “That’s
something we never did.”
He told me he used to speak Tipai with his family. But, he didn’t want
his children to be marginalized in a white society, so he didn’t teach
it to them. Grandpa grew up in a time before being Indian was “cool”.
He worked long days in the field, picking whatever needed picking. And
later worked for the government as a civil engineer. He rode in the
back of buses, worked hard, and minded his family.
Some people ask me if I practice “traditional” ceremony. “Yes,” I tell them. “I try and go to church as much as I can.”
My grandfather went to church every Sunday. He prayed the rosary, a
long collection of prayers, every day. My people, the Kumeyaay, once
lived in the valleys of San Diego living off the fish and game provided
by the San Diego River. The Missionaries were the ones who came in and
Christianized us. Sometimes I blame the missionaries for wiping out the
“traditional” culture. But it’s hard to blame a group of people who
aren’t alive anymore.
To me, our customs and traditions come from my Catholic family. I
remember Sunday brunches after church, opening presents after Midnight
Mass, and Thanksgiving dinner at my godmother’s house. Because “Native
American” is a living, changing culture, I feel our family is defining
what it means to be “traditional.” We are creating new traditions.
My grandfather didn’t sing Bird. He didn’t speak to us in Tipai. He
didn’t dress in feathers and war paint. He didn’t drink. He was a
Native American, a Tipai Indian who loved God, his family, and himself
in that order. Some of our family have learned to speak Tipai or sing
bird. It’s more of a hobby for them, and not so much a way of life.
Grandpa used to pick up hitchhikers, feed them, and even give them
money. "Never know if that’s Jesus," he would say. If someone’s car was
stalled on the side of the road, he stopped, popped the hood, and fixed
it. Many times people would offer money, but he always refused to receive anything for his services.
Sometimes people ask me what it means to be Native. I don’t know. It is
something that you feel. You can have a card that tells you your
status. You can speak the language. You can even dress in war paint and
feathers and round dance the night away. But, Indians have a different
way of looking at the world. They cherish family. They have a great
willingness to laugh, to love without repayment, and endure pain.
The day my Grandpa died, I attended a San Diego Padres baseball game in
my reservation’s private skybox. It was paid for by the casino we own.
I had flown in from New York that week as soon as I was told that
Grandpa’s cancer had spread. I spent as much time as I could just being
with him. “Hey Kev,” were the last words he spoke to me.
I sat in the skybox taking a break from my grandfather dying. I noticed
how much my reservation’s casino had given to San Diego. “Sponsored by
Barona” was plastered all over the stadium. My Grandfather served on a
board in the 1970’s which started the reservation’s first foray into
modern economic sovereignty. I have much to thank him for. San Diego,
has much to thank him for.
I returned to the Rez and ate dinner with my brother’s family. The
world was quiet. The air was calm. We got a call that Grandpa had died.
I remember the family that came to say goodbye to him. Indians from all
the local reservations came to pay their respects. Most of them
introduced themselves to me, “I’m your cousin,” they said.
That night, after I drove home, I saw a white owl nested by my
brother’s house. It was grandpa’s owl. I didn’t realize that until
later, when my godmother told me Grandpa would dream about owls.
I’ve learned when someone dies you take some of their strength. My
grandfather wanted me to continue learning what life had to teach. He
gave me his gift of quiet strength. He gave me his blood.
A week later, was the final burial. The Indian way is to wait three
days to burn the person’s belongings in a big pit. The night before the
burial, the family gathers to recite the Rosary and say our goodbyes. I
pieced together a video of Grandpa telling what he wanted for his
children and grandchildren based on footage I shot of him for a
documentary. The next day we put him in the ground.
A new tradition during Kumeyaay burials, is to sing Bird when an Indian
person dies. Grandpa was from the old way. He wanted a simple wooden
casket and singers to recite the old songs sung in Mexican like they
used to do on the ranches. He told us in the old days, people only sung
Bird if the man was a Birdsinger. So we didn’t sing Bird. We put him in
a simple wooden box, sung the old songs, and cried.
I don’t know what it is like to be a “traditional” Indian. I only know
what my relatives have taught me-compassion, openness, dedication to
family, and faith. When I think of my grandfather, it is hard not to
think about the day when I will pass. When that day comes I want to be
sure that I have helped all that need help, loved all who needed love,
or as Grandpa would say:
I shall pass through this world but once. Any good that I can do or
kindness that I can show another human being, let me do it now and not
defer it. For, I shall not pass this way again.
Rest in Peace Grandpa.
May God Bless You…