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Juanita Centeno

Teaching The Children
By Terra Trevor

On a June morning I stood with Juanita Centeno. She was an integral part of Chumash cultural revival; a culture many people thought was lost forever. Born in 1918 and raised by her grandfather in the Indian way, she learned early that her calling and life’s course was to teach the traditional Chumash way. Materials were the ones Mother Earth provided. She made certain nothing was misused and care was taken to teach even the youngest child to take from the earth only what was needed.

We stood near the creek in a place lightly touched, almost rural, under a sky so clear it had no end. Juanita turned to me and said, “My cousin is teaching with me today. It’s time, and he is ready.”

Tables were set up near a sedimentary sand stonewall; the stone masonry brought by father Junipero Serra’s Franciscans. The beige-pink stone stood the same as it did a hundred years ago. It talked to you, told you its stories. You could feel it more than hear it.

On this day our project was to make the musical instrument called wansak', made from a partly split stick of elderberry wood.

Juanita’s skilled knowledge did not take the upper hand. You worked side by side with her as an equal. I watched her look each elderberry tree branch over carefully to make sure she got the right one to start with. Then she took a knife out of its sheath, and handed it to my eleven-year-old daughter.

It was a lot of work scraping the bark off, getting it all smooth and down to the same thickness. The smell and the taste of Elderberry worked itself into the palms of our hands. It took a long time to saw the tree branch down the middle, leaving a handle-sized piece at one end, just the way it ought to be. Things were going along fine, and then the branch began to split. Someone offered to finish the cut, but Juanita said, “No. The child must learn to do for herself.”

Awkwardly my daughter finished at a wider angle. As we gathered weekly I came to feel like a granddaughter to this wizened woman in the summer of 1992, the last summer of Juanita’s life.

Recently my daughter pulled the wansak' out of the box where our hand-made things are kept. 
My daughter is an adult now, and her skill with a sharpened knife is exact. Gingerly she slid her fingers across the smooth wood of the Elderberry. Then she slapped the wansak at her thigh and beat out a rhythm. The misguided cut sent out a snapping sound instead of the traditional hollow clap. There was a flicker of childhood past in her eyes, “Remember.” She said, "I cut this whole branch by myself.”



Juanita Centeno: The story of a Legend
My Grandma, Grandmother to All
By Robert Villalobos

I am blessed to have many historical documents relating to the history of my family and stating the origins of my heritage as one of the original families of California. My Grandmother, Juanita Centeno, left a legacy that will be remembered and respected for generations to come.

My Grandmother was a unique individual not just in spirit; she would do anything for someone she didn’t know, not because they needed the help but because it was the right thing to do. This was in essence of her statement or belief, “Do unto someone as you would have done onto you.” I remember as a young child seeing the display of a ceramic on her back doorframe. This monument stated “Don’t judge a person until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.” What an amazing impact a little tribute can make on young child. What is astonishing today is how I wonder how few of these accolades were around reservations back then, but most importantly how many people showcased them in the days before being Indian was accepted and valued. I may never know the story of how she obtained it but one thing I am certain of I know she lived it.

Although my Grandmother gave several interviews in her lifetime, she did not wish to be in newspapers or national magazines she was there to protect the origins and footsteps of our Elders. She did not only teach the culture she lived it. She and another Elder not only lived this life but also came to define it. I have witnessed articles in the area relating to teaching, and I wonder what it must have been like for the parents of non-native children to discuss this situation with their kids. Please remember this was a time not so long ago before political correctness was even a term. How, I wonder, how must it have felt when their child came home and discussed this culture which they may never have known about before Juanita’s classroom presentation? I am sure many were able to relate to the love of family, others unfortunately saw the ugly side of prejudice, because too many adults fear the unknown.

There are several personal stories I could tell which would help people to relate to a time or place, or maybe just fond memory. These stories will be told to future generations not from just my own experience but hopefully to all who were able to be a part of their great heritage our those who were able to experience a little from this exceptional woman. Today I challenge everyone not just to tell an experience but instead to recount the guidance of a unique individual. I was fortunate to live this life firsthand, tenfold. For many others I am sure there was a teacher, a counselor, or another mentor who taught you, and now it is your turn to pass it on.

Every day as we get older we leave behind something, but what many forget to realize is the delight of our childhood in its innocence. My Grandmother not only knew this but also was able to transcend children of every race to what it must have been like when she was a child. She did this by appealing to all the senses. Children were able to see, hear, touch, smell and taste items they may have never seen before and her presentation table was a unique experience. There were no winners or losers because I will never know who received more enjoyment from this interaction the children or my Grandmother.

There are many articles written about great figureheads and those that were pioneers in the equality of individuals. Juanita was a true pioneer, she taught in school classrooms because it was a chance to enrich lives. There have always been perceptions about Native Americans and this issue still remains today. If you were to ask children in schools today their perception of an Indian, I am sure they would raise their hand to their mouth and make a whooping sound similar to early perception in television and movies. Adults and children alike still due this today at football games of the Florida State Seminoles or Atlanta Braves baseball games and do “The Tomahawk Chop” with some type of whooping sound. My Grandmother made sure that the children around her were able to learn while in her presence and become one with her. They would then take the lessons learned home to family. She didn’t care about fame or press clippings, her mission was to teach. It was up to us to gain knowledge from her lessons.

There were no boundaries when she was a child. She would look up to the stars at night and know the stories of her ancestors and a freedom that we might never know. How lucky were we to experience just a minor part of her love for this world and her heritage. I am certain a lesson for all is no matter our age we never stop learning especially from our children, but most importantly our actions today will have a profound effect on not just our children but future generations.

My Grandmother was a great trickster, but she always did this in a positive way. There are times I still laugh at today of how my Grandmother would make the excuse that she was going into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee and the next thing I knew she would come out with a plate of beads of different colors and ask me to separate them. It took me well until my adult years to realize she didn't just get a cup of coffee she went to separate some vials of beads and put them on a plate for me to separate. In my task of separating the beads I learned patience, perseverance, and most importantly those intimate moments with family that a holiday cannot express.

I will tell a story my Grandmother told me and I have passed on to my children and it is the story of the Hawk. When I was a young child around the age of ten I would sometimes take trips with my Grandmother and as we were driving she would point out a hawk many of which are seen greatly on the Central Coast. I would always fall for this trick as she did it to me and I would look up at the hawk, she would then point out to me that “the Hawk was laughing at me.” I would just smile but would also train my eyes to try my hardest to see the expression on the face of this majestic creature. My Grandmother would then again tell me “he is laughing at you” and I would say “no he is not.” She would smile and sometimes laugh because she got a reaction. I would strain my eyes harder to try and see if the hawk was truly laughing at me as my Grandmother said, unfortunately I was never able to witness this act. When I would finally give up in despair she would impart on me her great wisdom and as she sometimes did and this would be in a question. “Do you know why the hawk is laughing at you?” I would always say “no Grandmother” and I would see the smile appear and then she would state. “He is laughing at you because you can not fly.” I remember being upset as a child because I could not fly like the Hawk. Then we would both look at each other and laugh and enjoy the moment we created.

I may not be able to fly like a Hawk but I still to this day I am able to see the beauty of his flight. Most importantly the lesson she was teaching that we are one with nature. I am grateful that I am able to look at something so pure as the flight of a hawk and see beauty of this creature how he is at one with wind currents and a gracefulness that I would have never known had it not been for this amazing “Grandmother to All.”

Copyright © November 2009 Robert Villalobos and Terra Trevor. All rights reserved.


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River, Blood, And Corn

Promoting Community, Strengthening Cultures with storytelling, poetry and prose, so that the link continues from person to person, from one community to another, from one generation to the next. Included in our themes are the Elders whose lives informed, instructed, shaped and changed ours. A variety of writers, age groups, backgrounds, communities and viewpoints are presented.


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—Leon Shenandoah
(1915-1996) Leader of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy

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