On Going to Water: The Journal of Beginning Rain (2014):
Agana is a time traveler. She moves from a thousand years before Columbus into current time in an effort to shift how the great perpetrators of cruelty and inhumanity see themselves and what they’ve done. She cannot change history, for that is not in her power, but she may be able to change how those who form history perceive the world they shape. In this, she has a chance to alter how all people think about human beings on this planet, with the earth and with one another. “Going to Water” is a very old Cherokee ceremony of purification and rejuvenation, and in this novel one is asked to look honestly at perceptions and actions across a huge swath of time and place, in order to cleanse the mind and heart. In this meeting, there is a chance for fundamental change, the shift of a fundamental paradigm, and as Agana desires and works so hard for, to let the children know anything is possible in life. This story is an adventure, a dialogue with forces of creation and destruction, seduction and deceit, honesty and care. We meet Will Rogers and Adolf Hitler, and many other villains and allies intimately. It is the journal of a Cherokee woman with tremendous courage and determination to persevere in the face of all odds, one who carries a transcendent vision while struggling with everyday life. Where she succeeds and fails is determined by her clarity of focus, by her trust in culture and family, by the powerful responses to the emotional ride she takes on her journey, and by her enduring love.
On Going to Water: The Journal of Beginning Rain, A book review by Martin Rizzo
“This is the simple story. The longer tale is centuries old…”
Stan Rushworth, in his beautifully inspired Indigenous vision, challenges the epistemological foundations of our Western paradigm, demonstrating that there are multiple ways to interpret the world. Going to Water: The Journal of Beginning Rain interweaves past, present, and future through the time-travelling protagonist Agana (Beginning Rain), proposing an alternative to the hegemonic Western way of understanding our world – by offering one centered on Indigenous interpretations of categories such as land, time, spirit, kin, unity, responsibility, and connectivity.
“They’d forgotten their own histories, who they were and therefore who they must become again. I can see this now, how the killers were victims too, yet still killers.”
Agana journeys across time and space to converse and join with allies like Will Rogers, and to witness the dying moments of scoundrels like Propaganda Minister Goebbels, General Custer, and Colonel Chivington. Agana’s journal entries carry the reader on a journey that challenges our Western linear assumptions by tracing the impacts and intersections of colonial traumas as they continue to shape our world, drawing connections between the colonization of the Americas to today’s global corporate commodification.
The cultural assumption that time flows in one direction is contested, as Rushworth’s prose reminds us that history is alive, and that our actions in the present work to shape both past and future. Time is not a linear progression, but instead our present is intimately bound to both past and future.
Shifting these paradigms changes how we engage with our world; if every moment touches every other moment, we are left with a sense of obligation and responsibility to act in accord with both our descendents and our ancestors. The intersection between these cultural models, exemplified by the young Apache girl who speaks with the wind, only to be misdiagnosed as schizophrenic by the teacher who “knows” that the wind cannot speak, elucidates the harsh reality of conflicting world views experienced by descendents of our mixed-blood colonial heritage.
“…he needed to talk and see with another set of eyes to quell the confusing violence. He only needed to see himself and her, and to listen more deeply, to question rather than act.”
Going to Water offers a message of healing, one that charts its path not by hiding from the hard truths of our history, but by gazing steadfastly into the eyes of our own violent past. Agana leads us through this voyage, confronting historical figures across time and space. Agana does not offer forgiveness, but rather she helps them to see, to see the greater picture of historical context, a “seeing” that does not hide from demons and shadows. In this, Agana invites the reader to do the same – unlike the novel’s California Mission docent whose whitewashed stories constitute an erasure – a denial of historical traumas. Agana’s method argues that healing can happen only when these traumas are faced head on, until the genocide and theft of this land and silencing of its people is reckoned with.
“John Locke’s ideas would promote private property… his ideas were extraordinary and fresh to the English commoners, but they spelled death to us, who were owned by the land and free upon it.”
Agana’s journey reaffirms the survival and perseverance of contemporary Indigenous peoples, as she strives to connect to the Indigenous Diaspora spread across the globe, critically challenging the commonly accepted narrative of the “vanishing Indian.” As we meet a diversity of Indigenous peoples through the eyes of Agana, we see the crucial importance of land.
As Will Rogers, the Cherokee Kid himself, articulates to Agana, people who’ve lived on land for a long time have a different relationship to it and to each other. This enduring relation that is cultivated by living on the same stretch of land for generations, forges an intimacy that again prompts a sense of obligation. This obligation to respect and nurture is grounded in a spiritual and pragmatic connection, and is one that resonates with contemporary environmental movements.
“… the historian still does not think of how the indigenous man must feel about his very survival in this strange world, where somehow it’s all called real, this absence and erasure, and indigenous people are silently asked to swallow it and be still, and be silent themselves.”
Agana’s journal reads as an oral history – lessons found in the intersection of experiences across time and space. Agana travels beyond North America, known to her and many others as Turtle Island, connecting people across the Americas as well as visiting the Vatican, Nazi Germany, the jungles of Southeast Asia, and beyond. In doing so, she confronts the demons of greed and selfishness that have worked to disintegrate kinship networks in Indigenous peoples across the globe, pointing out how European tribes have endured a similar process of persecution. It is through this shared history that we all find ourselves in a world emphasizing divisions over connections.
“Division is destruction for us in every way. We have survived only because of our unity, even with all our differences, so don’t forget this truth. This is what they took from us. They even wrote down that they would do this, and what is worse than what they took, is what we gave away, and that’s the same thing we need now, our unity.”
Ultimately, Going to Water imparts lessons of unity, transformation and reconciliation . It is through a sense of unity, derived from notions of kinship and interrelation with the people and world around us, again prompting us to act with obligation and responsibility in looking out for each other, that Agana teaches us. By facing the shadows of our past, developing a sense of responsibility for the earth and those around us, we are able to cultivate compassion. Going to Water invites us to see our world through this new perspective, to travel across space and time in the steps of Agana as she seeks a way to comfort a world in turmoil.
Martin Rizzo is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at UC Santa Cruz, where he is currently working on his dissertation, “No Somos Animales”: Indigenous Diversity and Plurality in 19th Century Santa Cruz, California.