As the Boat Floats: A Tribal Missionary

Characters: Laverne and Raymond, Vertigo owners; Riviera, yoga teacher; Carmen, yoga student

Sipping coffee on the bow, I watched Laverne and her family, weighted down with food, drinks, and water sports paraphernalia, traverse the dock and unload the supplies onto Vertigo. “Good morning,” I shouted. “Need help?”

“I could use a cup of coffee,” she replied with frustration.

We sat at the table on the patio behind Vertigo while the girls suited up for swimming and Raymond, using an electric pump, inflated floats and a two-person raft. “What are you plans for today?” she asked.

“Are you up for yoga? Riviera, the teacher, has arranged a special session this morning. I bet the hour will be revitalizing as well as therapeutic,” I predicted.

“I’ve never tried yoga.”

“Not to worry. There is no pressure. I’m a novice too but the group accepted me. No comments at all. Come with me and see what you think. There are extra mats and other tools to help you feel comfortable.”

“Raymond wants to take the boat out but there’s no reason why I have to go. I’ve heard so much about the benefits of yoga and I’m intrigued to see if the hype is true.”

“Wear comfortable clothes and everyone goes barefoot during the class.”

“My kind of dress code.”

An hour later, as we entered the restaurant, Sam again bellowed playfully, “What will you have?”

“Do you have a morning happy hour?” I teased. Laverne looked at me with disbelief.

“I could. Depends on what you order,” he played along.

“I’ll think about it during yoga,” I promised. Laverne shook her head. “I’m kidding,” I whispered.

“Could have fooled me,” she responded, unsure if I was indeed joking.

Riviera immediately identified Laverne as a newcomer. “I’m happy that Marilyn invited you. Is there anything in particular you want to work on?”

“I suffer from vertigo,” she admitted, much to my surprise.

“I consider vertigo as a problem with balance. Bringing together breathing, relaxing thoughts, and simple poses often produces equilibrium that may be lost in the frantic pace of our society. You are entering a space that generates wholeness, becoming one with the environment.”

Laverne looked at me as if Riviera was speaking a foreign language. I shrugged, showed her the shelf with the extra mats, and surrendered to the corpse pose on my mat. She’s on her own now, I thought.

When all was quiet, Riviera set out her plan over the next hour. “As I explained yesterday, I need your help today to help me become empowered to accomplish my mission successfully. Because Laverne is new to the group, I ask her to understand that I am an advocate for my tribe, the Tonkawa Native Americans. It has been estimated that there are 826 of us left, making it urgent for me to achieve my goal.

“My mission is to revise my tribe’s history. Over the next 60 minutes, I intend to lead you in Sun Salutation B, which includes the Warrior I pose. This has special meaning to me because this posture builds inner strength and courage required of a warrior. As you may know, only men were warriors in the Native American tradition. But this is a new age. Native American women have come to appreciate that their inner strength and courage bolstered the men of the tribe. Over the years, our men have believed they were defeated by the white men who herded them onto reservations. That puts the burden of renewal of the Native American culture on the tribal women. My job is to redefine my tribe and erase the falsifications that have been built around our men’s behaviors in the past.

“Today’s program will be two-fold: first, we will perform Sun Salutation B two times, instead of four or five times, as an energizer to lift us up together as a group; secondly, I will present my interpretation of the actions of my tribe for which it was been condemned by whites and Native Americans alike. Then, I will ask for your opinions of my version, essentially rewriting history.”

In silence, we sat in the lotus position on our mats, speechless. Rage and desperation fueled Riviera’s voice, much different from the day before. We were weighed down by the immensity of the mission she hoped to accomplish and our role in verifying the effectiveness of her message. We were being called upon to melt away our biases through yoga and to emerge into a realm where one woman’s voice would be heard and appreciated.

As I looked around the room, the women were staring at the floor, overwhelmed with what was being asked of them. We had come light-heartedly for an hour of escape from the demands of our lives, only to be begged to use yoga as a means to assist our teacher in her role as messiah of her tribe.

After 30 minutes of yoga, there was fidgeting and unrest. A woman in the front row raised her hand. “Yes, Carmen, is there a problem?” asked Riviera.

“I don’t know if I can do what you are asking of us. Yours is a huge and important mission. Who are we to judge your attempt to alter your tribe’s story?”

“All I’m asking is to hear me out. Your perspective is objective. You have no stake in what I’m going to say. That’s what I need. My people argue. One side insists on forgetting; that it will cause trouble if I bring up the past. Another faction is militant about correcting the damages that antiquity has bestowed on my tribe. I want your opinions. I will be brief. It won’t take long. I want honesty. That’s the whole point of doing this.

“Let me begin at the beginning. My tribe lived in this area for thousands of years. The Spanish explorers came from the East in the late 1700’s bringing smallpox and wiping out half of the tribe. American settlers pushed West into the Great Plains, driving other Native American tribes into Texas, increasing competition for their reliance on bison. At the same time, Comanches, hostile and warring 20,000 strong, arrived in the West during the early 1800’s. The first Texas settlers began arriving in the 1830’s. My tribe was caught between the Comanches and the settlers but survived the best they could. The damage to the Tonkawa reputation occurred because of two witnesses’ accounts that described that the tribe ate the flesh of several Comanches that they killed in battle.

“Of course, cannibalism is abhorrent to all of us. I am not justifying the custom. But consider, before Christianity converted the Native Americans, they believed that eating what they killed passed on to the tribe the superior characteristics of the prey: speed in antelope; guile in mountain lions; camouflage in elk; concealment in deer; patience in turkeys. The elders of the tribe honored the superior fighting force of the Comanches and followed their age-old belief of ingesting the prey to assimilate their exceptional attributes. This repugnant custom lasted for a short period of time but the Tonkawa still carry the ghosts of their past.“

“I grew up in Austin. In fourth grade, I learned the history of Texas. The Indians were important. Never did I hear about cannibalism,” Carmen commented.

“You’re right. The education system protects children from the harshness of history. Google ‘Tonkawa’ and you will find the gruesome details. There needs to be a voice to put those grisly events in perspective. Yes, it happened, unfortunately. My tribe followed the dictates of the medicine man for a short period of time. The atrocities ended when a new medicine man took over. My mission is to proclaim the positive contributions of the Tonkawa to society.”

“I’ve driven through the Tonkawa Reservation in Oklahoma and have been impressed with their three casinos and their Native Lights Travel Plaza and Hotel. These are modern facilities that serve the community and offer entertainment for tourists. I doubt if any of the visitors know the history you are talking about,” Laverne volunteered.

“I agree. I believe your time and effort would be better spent talking about the casinos and the developments that have been carved out of the reservation. The past is the past and very painful for all of us, Native Americans as well as those who are ashamed and horrified by the mistreatment of the various tribes,” a woman next to me suggested.

“I hear you. Thanks for your comments. Our tribe is trying very hard to recreate our culture and invite visitors to learn and appreciate our ways,” Riviera explained. She seemed relieved rather than insulted.

“You mentioned on your brochure that you will teach us how to find our spirit guide. I am very interested in that. Will you lead a session about that?” I asked.

“Sure. I didn’t know if you would be open to the ways of the Native Americans. We meet our spirit guides at puberty, on our vision quest.”

“That is exactly the part of your culture that holds meaning to me,” I stated. The entire group shook their heads in agreement.

“Let’s do that then. I’m sorry I wasted your time with what I thought was my mission.”

“You asked for our opinions and we gave them to you. It was a learning experience of give-and-take that we all need to learn. Thanks for the opportunity.”

“Let’s meet again next week for yoga and getting in touch with your spirit guide.”

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