a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
“There are jaguars along that border.” I was speaking with Arno, my Mexican friend, who had worked productively and lived peaceably without costing any jobs in the United States for many years. “You build a wall and you block them off from critical habitat and they are lost to their ancestral homelands,” I said. It was my indigenous heritage talking. “We called them panthers in Monascane and they inhabited the woods and hollows from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes to be enshrined as mascots in Pittsburg and State College as well as Charlotte and Jacksonville. In Monascane, they had the power to shapeshift into an old hag and to make the terrifying cry of a wounded woman. Like Saint Peter, one such creature judged all who came to the nether world to determine their final destination in delight or misery with their cries piercing the tender eardrums of the damned. They inhabited the Iroquoian mythology, who knew them in their stories too. Affirmed in sacred mythic narratives, the tribe was known as the Cat People or Erie. Likewise, with its terrifying cry, the panther was an avenging force in Cherokee mythology.”
We were sitting in a café in Yakima, Washington. It was my second season fighting wildfires with the Forest Service, and Arno was a colleague, so we had drifted to things that mattered to us and began sharing stories. Outside the window, there were barren dry hills – grasslands that gave me mind of the southern border, and I had heard of these jaguars in my studies across the mountains through the rich deep evergreen forests and into Seattle at U-dub (University of Washington).
“Prominent among the Cherokee,” I continued, “Kanati, the lucky hunter, sent his ‘bad boys,’ who had spoiled the hunt and also killed their mother Selu – corn goddessa – into a swamp where panthers stalked their prey, saying, ‘There are persons in those woods who will teach you, go there and find them.’ The bad boys approached the swamp and came upon these spirits – nature persons – jaguars – from the side so that they were not seen; however, the panthers cried in their terrifyingly painful voices so that the boys ran shuddering away leaving the swamp without revenge of Kanati and Selu. The Creator gave the panther the power to see in the dark, to telescope into the land of the dead and to avenge the wrong doings of bad boys. Ever since, the boys have symbolized that which is bad or evil in human behavior. Hence, in an indigenous union, we all wanted the panther back inhabiting our ancient domains with its spirit powers, magic, and mythic force. Speaking of corn, as in Selu, it is the gift that feeds the world today and it came from across that border before Europeans began stealing North America. Let there be jaguars along that border, free to gift North America with spirit power, magic and mythic force.”
“The wall will block them and close off their recovery forever,” I said. “We want them back, like the wolf in the north returned with its power to aid and assist our Pikuni-Blackfeet friends; they say, ‘the gun that shoots a wolf will never shoot straight again.’ ”
“All my relations,” declared my friend. “There can be no wall if we are to have our relations returned to us.”
Jay Hansford C. Vest is Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. A Native American, he is an enrolled member of the federally recognized Monacan Indian Nation and he is also a direct descendant of 17th century Pamunkey leader Opechancanough, who arrested Captain John Smith as a murder suspect in 1607.