Where Grandmother Walked
by Sarah Newcomb
Warmth poured off the wood-burning stove in the corner of the living room, which crackled with the sounds of wood shifting from within. The fragrant scents of coffee and fire mixed and filled the air. Just off the living room was a large picture window looking out onto the small island community of Metlakatla, Alaska. In the window hung suncatchers and crystal prisms, which caught the late-afternoon sun and sent rainbows of light dancing across the room. In front of the window was an oval dining table with two people sitting at it.
A seven-year-old girl with waist-length black hair was spooning kippered fish onto a large round cracker. After taking a bite she let her dark brown eyes wander to the pictures of children and family that covered the walls and trailed down a narrow hallway. When she looked at them, she liked to recall the names of her cousins, aunts, uncles, and anyone else she recognized. She found a few pictures of herself and felt the familiar happiness spread over her that came in knowing she belonged there. Her eyes wandered to the older woman sitting next to her. Short white hair curled against her grandmother’s head, and gentle eyes so dark they were almost black looked far away and lost in thought. The woman pursed her lower lip for a moment and then lifted her coffee mug to take a sip. She placed the mug back down on the table and wrapped her fingers around it, moving them slowly as if to soak in the heat.
The two stayed this way for some time, eating and enjoying the quiet. The girl was watching her grandmother when the older woman’s head turned, and their eyes met. Grandmother smiled and deep wrinkles rippled across her face. Reaching out she took one of the girl’s hands in her own and gently squeezed. The girl smiled in return, then lowered her eyes to where they held each other and wondered at how incredibly soft her grandma’s hands were. Grandma squeezed a second time before letting go, then returned her hands once more to her coffee mug.
The memory is so thick it feels like I can reach out and touch it, like a heavy mist which has fallen around me. It feels like home. Grandma had seemed eternal when I was a child, like she would live forever. Even now, years since she passed on, it is hard to believe she is gone. I remain perfectly still while holding on tight to the connection. I want to relive the memory just one more time, but I can already feel it slipping. I do not resist, but instead release my hold. I know it will come back to me; it always does. I feel it float away, but the gift Grandma left me remains. Some gifts are priceless, and the one that my grandmother gave to me was the experience of being unconditionally loved and accepted. I am left in awe of the impact of that love and how it has stayed with me throughout my life. It took a long time for me to even comprehend what I had been given.
Raised by Strangers
If I had understood my circumstances, I would have done things differently. Once I did understand what had happened to me the pain and regret were palpable. I began to mourn for my grandma, and the choices I would never be able to make. I wanted to tell her I was sorry for not visiting more and tell her what she meant to me. A child has no way of comprehending their very heritage being taken, let alone knowing to ask for help. Not even Grandma knew that I had been raised to reject a part of myself—the part of me that was her.
From the time I was born I was almost completely raised far away from my Tsimshian tribe. My mother had left the reservation early in her life and joined the Mormon Church, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My mother was the only one from our Tsimshian family to join the church. It was an interesting childhood, and I became accustomed to constant change. My father’s jobs moved us often and as a result we uprooted every few years to a new state. As a Native American I never quite fit in at school or church. I was treated kindly, but I was also treated as different. I would forever be an outsider. Eventually I learned to focus on the positive and began to enjoy the adventure of it all. Seeing new places, meeting new people, and experiencing various cultures became some of the best experiences while growing up.
In many ways the church helped me with all the changes. It was consistent and familiar everywhere we lived and became one of my favorite places to be. I loved the church basketball games, potlucks, and activities with other kids. I loved singing and looked forward to every Sunday, hoping my favorite songs would be chosen. Each time we moved and started over I knew that the church would be at our new home waiting for us. The church leaders taught me about God, the Bible, and the Book of Mormon. The church also taught me about my identity as a Native American.
“Sarah is a Lamanite,” the primary teacher paused to tell the class. I felt my protective smile slide into place, and I froze. Unsure of what to do I kept completely still while the other children’s eyes were studying me. I felt the weight of who I was as it pushed down on me not for the first time, Native American—Tsimshian of the First Nations, and I was a Lamanite.
During children’s music time we all sang about my Lamanite ancestors in a song called “Book of Mormon Stories.” I was surrounded by Anglo children as we would sing about how my people had been given the land in the Americas if they lived righteously. Our voices echoed around the room while children and teachers in unison raised one hand behind our heads in a fist with two fingers extended. This movement was meant to represent the feathers that Native Americans wore in their hair. I was connected to the Book of Mormon in a way none of my classmates were. In some ways I felt special because of that.
When I did visit my tribe, I did not need to ask my grandma or Tsimshian elders about our culture or where we came from. At church I had been taught that my tribe did not have the full knowledge of our history, and they did not know that the Book of Mormon was a sacred lost record about our ancestors. I trusted the teachers, leaders, missionaries, and apostles when they spoke of who the Book of Mormon was about. Strangers knew more about my ancestry than my own people did. I was lucky, chosen even, for I would help bring redemption to my people.
The more I found out about my ancestors in the sacred scriptures the more disappointed I became in them. As a child I sang that my people were given the land if they lived righteously. As a teenager I finally understood that they had chosen to turn away from God and live unrighteously. As a result, God cursed them by completely abandoning them. I struggled with sadness as I imagined how unrighteous an entire cultural group must be for God to completely forsake them.
I was also taught that God then marked my ancestors with dark skin, as a sign of being a cursed people. The purpose of the dark skin was so the righteous people would know that they should not mix or marry with my people. I was taught that my ancestors became idle and mischievous, and that they were a scourge to the righteous people. I read that due to their bad choices they were unable to keep the land of promise, because God only promised it to them if they lived righteously. As a result of their unrighteousness God guided Christopher Columbus to the land and gave away the land of promise to those who deserved it more.
I was a Native American child being taught manifest destiny at church. I was taught the reason for Native American trauma, genocide, and loss of land was our ancestors’ own fault. If only my ancestors had been righteous, God would have protected our people and our lands. I desperately wished that they had been good people, because perhaps then Native American families and children would not have been harmed so terribly in our country.
The older I became the more challenging visits home to the reservation were. One year, when planning a trip to see Grandma, I became excited about being old enough to learn the traditional dancing. I was perhaps ten or eleven. I had been looking forward to learning, but my mother quickly discouraged me from this idea and told me that I should not join in the dancing. I accepted what I was told and put it out of my mind. These were incorrect traditions and a remnant of our people turning away from God. My life needed to stay grounded in the gospel as taught at our church.
During that summer visit I entered the longhouse. As I walked into the building the smell of cedar permeated the air. Wood carvings and masks were displayed in the entry room, and it felt as if the masks were greeting me as I passed them. A small group of children sat at a table with their heads bent together as they practiced their beading. I paused a moment to watch and wondered if I could teach myself to do what they had been taught. The beat of the drums increased, and I heard a woman’s singing join the rhythm. I followed the music and moved further into the building, entering the second and much larger room of the longhouse.
A wall to one side was lined with wood benches to sit on, and at the far end of the room stood a low stage. A man was on the stage playing a large box drum, and a woman was standing on the floor just in front of the stage singing in Sm’algyax—our first language. The people were dressed in exquisite traditional regalia. They wore dresses with button blankets wrapped around their shoulders. Mother-of-pearl buttons outlined the black and red fabric in the shapes of the clans—Eagle, Killer Whale, Raven, and Wolf. The dancers were moving in a large circle around the room. I felt my entire being stirring, as if the dancing and drums were calling to me. I ached to join them, but instead moved to a bench to observe. I knew I was not allowed to participate, but as I watched I wondered how something so obviously beautiful could be bad. Why did God think our traditional ways were so evil that He had to abandon us?
By this point in my life, I had become so accustomed to pushing down the distress within my torn identity that I was not conscious of it. Yet as the drums beat, and as the people danced and sang, I became mindful of the split within myself. I was in the only place I had ever truly belonged, but in that moment began to feel like an outsider among my own people for the very first time. No one was actively telling me I had to choose between being Tsimshian or Lamanite, but I knew in that moment I could not fully embrace both. In the coming years I would do what my parents and church leaders had taught me to do, and I choose to be a faithful follower to God and the Mormon Church. My mother often spoke of the importance of redemption for our people. I was a Lamanite, and with that came unique responsibilities.
For many years I was able to overlook the unease of that choice. However, once I became a mother everything changed. I was suddenly very aware of the subtle racism all around me at church, that before motherhood I had always ignored in order to cope. I withdrew, hurt by the rejections that had once rolled off me, and I worried for my children’s futures. I did not turn to my grandmother or my Tsimshian family for help because they were not Mormon. Instead, I turned even more towards the very thing that had fractured my identity—the church.
Over the years I withdrew more and more socially, which was not like me at all. Yet at the same time I was unaware of the real changes happening inside myself. Motherhood had awakened me in a way nothing else could have. I expected more for my children—from myself, from family, and from those who were considered leaders. During the early years of raising my children I decided that to protect them from the social discomforts I had experienced, all I needed to do was have more faith and actively seek God. If I could gain all the knowledge God would impart to me, I could pass it on to my children and strengthen them for their years ahead. My quest for knowledge was insatiable and I spent years reading all the official church materials I could get my hands on. I went into it thinking I already held the truth, and just wanted to be the best and most faithful Mormon mom I could be. Much of what I read surprised me, and I began measuring the wisdom of the things I was being taught at church against the wisdom of what my grandmother, aunts, and uncles had taught me.
At the end of this pursuit, I instead found myself leaving the church with my husband and four children in tow. Months of tears followed in which I attempted to cope with the changes to relationships with Mormon family and friends, and with the loss of the church culture I had loved and been raised in. Each day felt as if I was on autopilot. I understood my decision, but I could not fully wrap my mind around how much it all hurt.
One day, during that first summer after we had left the church, I lay down to rest. I could hear my children playing in the next room, and their sweet screams and giggles echoed through the house. While resting I was listening to a podcast when it suddenly hit me: I was not Lamanite. I was shocked by the implications of that one small fact. Unable to contain my surprise I jumped to my feet and started pacing. I cannot say why it took so long for me to realize this obvious detail, but once I did my entire world was rocked.
Questions raced through me with no answers. Why was I lied to about my ancestry? How could anyone do that to Native Americans? My ancestors did not cause their own genocide or lose the land of promise through evil choices. My ancestors did not turn away from God. My darker skin was not the result of a curse. With my heart pounding I walked out of my room, through the front door of the house, and stood in the sun. I was no longer afraid of my skin darkening, and I embraced the heat of its rays as tears streamed down my face. It was not my people who needed redemption, but those who had lied about Native American identity who did.
In the weeks that followed I struggled to process the weight of it all. I kept pacing through the house and yard day after day. My inability to sit still was laughably annoying to everyone, myself included. One day I walked past my old running shoes and decided I might as well embrace it. I slipped them on and fell out the door. The sounds of my feet hitting the pavement set a rhythm, and I kept my breathing measured against it. The ability to think things through seemed to loosen inside of me.
While I ran, I felt the vibrations of life as they rose up around me; the wind and sun against my skin, and the trees rustling in the breeze. Everything felt vibrant. Coming up to a park I moved off the pavement and ran with the soft grass and earth beneath my feet and relished feeling alive. It was during these moments of being completely alone while surrounded with life that I began to reflect and work through what had happened to me and the choices I had made. I also began to make plans and find direction. I had not spent time with my Tsimshian family as I should have. A few of them had already passed away, taking with them the opportunity for me to make amends for my mistakes. I could not let any more time pass and risk losing others that I loved.
Shy and unsure of myself, I reached out and called my uncle Bert who had always taken the time to stay in contact with me. His voice echoed support over the phone as I attempted to explain what had happened. As he spoke, I could hear Grandma’s wisdom being passed on and realized that he had made efforts to stay connected with me in some part because of her teachings. My bond with him had grown in the years since Grandma’s passing and I cherished him for all his efforts. Again, I was struck by another gift that I had not seen, and I was incredibly grateful he was not gone. I had time and would not waste it.
My heart sped up with each attempt I made to reconnect with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Uncle Bert’s encouraging words were always cheering me on in the back of my mind. Expressions of love from me were awkward, but I was determined to be genuine with my thoughts and feelings. Too much was at risk; I could not miss another opportunity. If anything happened to anyone, and I had not tried to let them know how much they meant to me, I would never forgive myself.
In the summer of 2019, my husband and I flew to Alaska with all four of our children to see the family. At ages thirteen, eleven, nine, and five, my children had already missed opportunities to grow up with their Tsimshian family, as I had never brought them home to the reservation. It was the most beautiful experience of my life. I watched the same people who were so kind to me as a child embrace my own children in a way that they had never experienced. Laughter and hugs replaced all the tears I had cried. Meals and family get-togethers filled homes night after night. Love had always been there waiting. It only took me finding the right direction to walk in.
This was the first visit I had made in which my grandma was not alive, and I felt the impact of her absence. I had known it would be hard to not have Grandma there, so it did not surprise me when I struggled with that reality. For Grandma I had planned ahead and had packed my running shoes; the same shoes I had run hundreds of miles in to find my way back to her. I wanted to feel beneath my feet the land where my grandmother had once walked.
The morning of July 4th was cool, clear, and beautiful. My uncle Archie dropped me off at the meeting place for the women’s distance race. He wished me luck and smiled his big smile as he drove away. I shifted back and forth on my feet, fidgety as I stretched. To calm myself I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds around me. The other runners were chatting; they all seemed to know each other. Someone made a joke and the group burst into laughter for a moment. I heard a few cars drive past and in the following quiet could hear ravens cawing in the distance. Everyone started moving and I opened my eyes to see that a large van had pulled up and the runners were climbing in. I followed and found a seat, then we rode a few miles out of town.
The van stopped in a parking lot by a small lake to let out the women runners. The driver got out with a stopwatch and started us off quickly. I started running, only glancing back to see the van pull away as it left to drop the men further out of town for their longer race. I felt my nerves ease some as I set my warm-up pace. I wanted to just enjoy the run and be in the moment as much as possible.
The most beautiful smell in the world is that of the Alaskan rainforest—clean, damp, and blending with the sea air. I welcomed it in and felt the cool crispness fill my lungs. On the left side of the road was Yellow Hill, a massive hill with stunning large yellow rocks that climb to 540 feet. One of my favorite memories is hiking it with family during childhood visits. I looked and saw that the narrow wood boardwalks which lined the trails had been kept up and miles more had been added around the base disappearing into the trees. I was running just behind the woman in the lead when she picked up her pace and pulled my attention away from the scenery. I sped up and stayed just a few feet behind her. It was a little faster than I was used to, but I hoped I could keep up.
It was not long before my body protested at the pace she had set, and I considered slowing down. I was unsure if I could keep up for the full two miles, but quickly decided to ignore the protest and pushed it out of my mind, my competitive side getting the better of me. I wanted to do my best, especially for my kids, so I challenged myself to at the very least keep up with her.
To motivate myself I focused my mind on the reason I was running. My thoughts turned to my grandmother, and I began whispering to her. I was surprised at how talking to Grandma while I ran felt like the most natural thing in the world. I told her I was sorry it had taken me so long, but that I was finally home. I told her I missed her.
About a mile in I evaluated my pace as I gained on the other runner. At one point, when I was side by side with her, she looked over at me and told me I was fast. I smiled as big as I could and said thanks while measuring my breath to appear unfatigued. It always amused me how much running is a mental game. I continued pretending that I was not dying inside to psych out the other runner. I had planned on doing my best, not thinking I could win, but suddenly wondered if perhaps I could. Maybe I could win it for Grandma. I almost regretted that thought because once that idea got in my head, I had no other choice than to try. I kept my breathing as even as possible and focused on the form of my gait. Soon after, the other runner started to slow down a bit and I took that opportunity to speed up. With a huge grin on my face, I ran as fast as I could go.
More than once I felt my body screaming to stop. It had been years since I had felt that kind of burn, and I wondered how long I could keep up such a pace. But every single time I faltered I chose to talk to Grandma instead and ignore the discomfort. Over halfway through the race I saw some children playing and riding bikes, and they stopped to watch me as I ran by. I reached the town and passed a small convenience store and houses which lined the street. My eyes caught some movement and I looked up at eagles flying high and circling over the trees. The beautiful life within the community had not changed in all the years I had been gone.
I could feel my legs beginning to slow down, yet I had no idea how close the other runner was. I never looked back. Instead, I tried to recall all the memories I had with Grandma and family growing up. Picking berries, going on walks, having a crab bake on the beach, and all the joy of being with everyone floated through my mind. I continued to whisper to Grandma about so many things I cannot remember them all. I felt warmth and energy spreading over me each time I spoke to her—it felt like unconditional love had surrounded me just as it had when I was a child. I sped up to a sprint when I turned onto the last stretch, sensing her joy, and crossed the finish line first.
“Where Grandmother Walked” has been published in a book titled: Blossom As The Cliffrose: Mormon Legacies and the Beckoning Wild. Edited by Karin Anderson and Danielle Beazer Dubrasky. The book contains essays from various Mormon experiences and relation to land, and is an absolutely beautiful compilations of voices. It can be found at Torrey House Press.