Thursday, November 27, 2014

A buried seed: Indian Quaker William Abel

It’s Thanksgiving, and later in the day family members will converge and we will feast and play and enjoy one another. But right now my thoughts go back to the stories of pilgrims and Indians*, and I’m reminded of someone I’ve become very thankful for. William Abel: Indian, Quaker, and the seed that was buried in Bolivian soil in 1919. Today the tree known as the Bolivian Evangelical Friends Church (INELA) acknowledges Abel as one of its founders, and people honor his name.
Part of our task in this project of researching and writing the history of the INELA is to dig up the facts and begin to separate them from the myths that surround this mysterious person. We’ve finally identified his tribal origins, and earlier this month we spent time on the San Pasqual Kumeyaay reservation near Escondido, California.
I had made telephone contact earlier, but was told that the group had declared a moratorium on visitors because of a pending court case, and that maybe next year they would open their tribal records to us. As our research in other archives took us to that area anyway, we decided to see if we could meet some people and just talk about William Abel and our project.
We drove around for a while, trying to locate the cultural center we knew was there, and finally ended up at the ceremonial round house. It was closed, but several men were working on a construction project, and we approached them. People are generally friendlier in person than on the phone, and we found that to be true in this case. While a bit wary at first, people gradually opened up to us.
Everyone we talked to was fascinated by the story of William Abel and became interested in helping us discover the truth about him. Although no one had ever heard of him, two people had knowledge of an early settler, Peter Abel, who had lived in the same small village, San Pasqual. Peter was killed the year that William was born, 1870. Although we haven’t yet discovered a firmer connection than the name, that’s a trail we will certainly follow.
The tribal archivist who met with us in the Land Development Office warmed up noticeably when she discovered that Abel, along with us, was a Quaker. “You have been kind and just to the Indians,” she informed us. I don’t know why I was surprised that she knew that, but it seems to have opened some doors to our investigation, and we’re delighted.
The following day, Hal called up an older woman who is known as the tribal historian, and they talked for a long time. She was fascinated by Abel’s story and asked for all the details of what we’ve discovered so far. By the end of the conversation, both Hal and this woman had slowly realized that they had something more than an interest in Abel in common. They acknowledged to each other that they are both followers of Jesus. Before they hung up, this old Indian keeper of the tribal memories blessed us and our project in the name of Jesus.
We followed-up our time there by sending digital copies of the documents people had requested (including US census records), and their replies were grateful and friendly. Our contacts with them will continue. Curiosity has been awakened, and they are in a better position than we are to research Abel’s beginnings.
We’re realizing that the story of William Abel is not meant only for the Quakers of Bolivia. It will be a gift to the San Pasqual Band of Kumeyaay Indians. He came from them and always owned his Indian identity, signing his letters to the California Quakers, “Your Indian brother, William Abel.” Throughout his time of service in the Philippines as well as Bolivia, he frequently expressed concern for “my own people.”
I’m grateful for William Abel and his life of dedication and sacrifice, grateful for the seed that was buried so far from his own home, grateful for the church that is flourishing because of it. I’m grateful for the San Pasqual Indians today and for the possibility of giving back to them one of their own: Indian and Quaker, William Abel.

*Although I’ve been trained to use the politically correct term, Native American, we’ve become aware that current day tribal peoples prefer the term Indian, and use it with pride. So I will, too.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

No face-painted, beer-drinking, brightly-garbed teachers around here!

Hal and I are just finishing up a two week research trip in Southern California that has taken us from university and yearly meeting archives to the cultural center of the Kumeyaay Indian tribe and the historical museum of the small town of Ramona. As usually happens on these excursions, the serendipitous finds (those having nothing to do with our actual research project) fascinate me.
During a break from searching through newspapers from the 1880s for information on Quaker Indian William Abel, I came across a contract for public school teachers in 1923. The contract was framed on the wall of the one-room school house. It pertained only to single lady teachers. These women were required to be examples of virtue and decorum. Here’s the text of the contract:

“This is an agreement between Miss Lottie…, teacher, and the Board of Education of the ….School, whereby Miss Lottie …agrees to teach in the …School for the period of eight months beginning September 1, 1923. The Board of Education agrees to pay Miss Lottie… the sum of seventy-five ($75.00) per month.

“Miss Lottie…agrees:
1.   Not to get married. This contract becomes null and void immediately if the teacher marries.
2.   Not to keep company with men.
3.   To be home between the hours of 8:00 PM and 6:00 AM unless she is in attendance at a school function.
4.   Not to loiter downtown in ice cream parlors.
5.   Not to leave town at any time without the permission of the Chairman of the Board of Trustees.
6.   Not to smoke cigarettes. This contract becomes null and void immediately if the teacher is found smoking.
7.   Not to drink beer, wine, or whiskey. This contract becomes null and void immediately if the teacher is found drinking beer, wine, or whiskey.
8.   Not to ride in a carriage or automobile with any man except her brothers or father.
9.   Not to dress in bright colors.
10. Not to dye her hair.
11. To wear at least two petticoats.
12. Not to wear dresses more than two inches above the ankle.
13. To keep the schoolroom clean; to sweep the classroom floor at least once daily; to scrub the classroom floor once a week with hot water and soap; to clean the blackboards at least once daily; to start the fire at 7:00 AM so the room will be warm at 8:00 AM when the children arrive; to carry out the ashes at least once daily.
14. Not to use face powder, mascara, or paint the lips.”

It’s interesting to note there’s not one thing said about how or what this exemplary female is to teach the children. In fact, it gives no hint whatsoever there might be children in the vicinity.
Ramona is actually my hometown. I went to Ramona Elementary School in the 1940s and 50s, and I guess standards were more relaxed by then. My mom taught fourth grade, but she was married, so I guess it didn’t matter than she occasionally wore red. She kept company with my father. I don’t even know how many petticoats she wore.  
I wonder what the contracts for men were like.
Research is such fun.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Saying goodbye to Willy

Yesterday Hal and seven of his siblings, accompanied by spouses and several generations of offspring, gathered to say goodbye to father, grandpa, great-grandpa and friend, William C. Thomas. I usually called him Willy. The eight kids planned and presided, and a mix of family members made up the small orchestra and choir. It was definitely a home-grown memorial service.
It lasted longer than scheduled, appropriately enough, as Willy had little regard for the clock. In the time of open worship, many people stood up to talk about one of his characteristics or to share a specific memory. His granddaughter Anna, currently serving a short-term in Russia, sent an email about her last conversation with Grandpa. A little removed from reality, frequently the case in this past year, he looked out the window one afternoon and pointed to Grandma, sitting in the yard. He confided to Anna: “That woman doesn’t know it yet, but I intend to marry her.”
Anna laughed and informed him, “Grandpa, you’ve been married to her for 70 years.”
A look of incredulity passed over his face and he responded, “That can’t be possible! She doesn’t look old enough!”
As the family gathers now to eat together, reminisce, and reflect, we recall the hard times as well as the blessings. Bill/Willy/Dad/Grandpa was far from perfect. My own relationship with him seemed to be more a tug-of-war than anything else. I never felt he quite approved of me. So I pretty much kept my distance.
That all changed during the last months of his life. We put both Willy and Esther in a care home a little less than a year ago, after wrestling and agonizing and finally realizing that we were all too tired to continue caring for them in our homes (a task that fell mostly to two of Hal’s brothers). They needed continual care on a level we were not prepared to give. But the result was positive, and they both seemed to become more content under the routine of the home. Among us all, we were able to visit every day.
Over the course of these last months, a mutual sense of forgiveness and acceptance grew up between us. I can’t explain it, except as answer to prayer and the work of the Spirit of God. Willy seemed as happy to see me as I was to be with him. He didn’t want to let go of my hand. It was sweet, and the care-giving flowed both ways.
Willy lost touch with reality the last two weeks of his life, except for a 15 minute window while Hal was with him. We had just brought him back from an emergency trip to the hospital and had just placed him under hospice care. As Hal sat beside him, he saw reason and awareness in his father’s eyes. Hal explained all that was happening, told him about hospice, told him he would be going home very soon to meet Jesus. Willy thanked his son, assured him that we had made the right decision, and that he was ready. After saying that, his mind again drifted away. But what an incredible gift.
Thanks be to God. Willy’s home, free at last.