My friend Norma, a dedicated activist and volunteer community radio broadcaster for her entire adult life, often went by such handles as Rebel and La Brava. Many people around northern California knew her well, sometimes for decades, without learning her last name, which she rarely used except for necessary legal purposes. Norma was heard on the airwaves of community radio stations including KPFA in Berkeley and KKUP in Cupertino from her days as a college student 30 years ago until just before her unexpected death in the last days of 2012. Norma, a lifelong wheelchair user, went into a sudden decline from what seemed to be manageable medical conditions, and her death was felt as a shocking loss to family, friends, and many activist communities. Norma just missed by days the onset of the Idle No More movement, which began in Canada as a public call for the rights of indigenous people. I have no doubt that Norma would have embraced Idle No More with her customary enthusiasm. Norma was a nearly lifelong committed activist; she identified as Native American, and was partly of Native American heritage by birth, adopted as by an Indonesian-Dutch family in the US along with her two sisters. As Idle No More becomes a pan-American, and perhaps soon a global, movement for the rights of indigenous people, I can’t help feeling that Norma is in the midst of it, scooting her wheelchair among throngs of Native people and their supporters of all colors, smiling her broad signature smile, looking out for the children in the crowd.
Radio, and the freedom from peering eyes and relative anonymity it offers its broadcasters, was in many ways the ideal medium for a woman who KPFA listeners knew only as La Brava, presenting news of Native rights to Friday night listeners on a Chicano-oriented program, La Onda Bajita, for over ten years. Norma was not only exceptionally brave; she was very content to be one more “brave,” so to speak, at a time when many activists, male and female, have a strong desire to be some kind of known “chief.” If Norma had an ethos, an epigram that could be her epitaph, it would be, “Please don’t look at me; look at what I’m trying to show you.” Norma disliked being photographed, though there are a few beautiful photos of her that persist, and she did not want her child photographed either, true to her Native roots that suspect that photography and fame steal a bit of a person’s soul. She went on the air to bring updates having to do with the survival of indigenous people, not to draw attention to herself as a radio personality. Face to face with people she liked and trusted, Norma had an often delightfully quirky personality and she could share details from her life with an almost childlike lack of inhibition. When a KPFA Latino/Latina -oriented programmer honored Norma on the airways a week after her death, Norma’s surname and that of her teenage son were reversed. At first I was ready to call in and make a gentle correction; then I realized that Norma would have smiled gently at, and perhaps preferred, one more mild confusion. A few months earlier, Norma had offered to put in a good word for me at the station when I was applying for an internship. I asked her correct last name and she said, “Oh that – at KPFA I’m Norma Onderas – Norma of La Onda.”
Norma was small and delicately built. She was a survivor in almost innumerable ways, including first the early childhood cancer that she defied many predictions to overcome. The surgery that removed the tumors from toddler Norma’s lower spine left her without the insulating layers of myelin that normally protects the nerves and allows electro-chemical messages to travel from nerves to muscles and back to the brain. She was unable to walk as a result, and often in spinal pain. Despite her disability and her small stature, Norma became, and remained, strong beyond measure, and too big to be defined by her disabilities, by her rainbow of ethnicities, by any political ideology or affiliation, by any of her talents or interests. Her beautiful feet were never able to bear her weight, and yet she walked in a spectrum of worlds that most of us can barely imagine.
Norma and I became friends under some of the most unlikely circumstances imaginable, in the early 1980s when, except for the occasional international pen pal, people met in person – or not at all. I was young, but the witty, involved young woman in the hand-push wheelchair was five years younger: a college student who had commuted from San Jose to Dixon, for this event. It was late October, and rainy with plenty of mud on the dirt roads where we were camped. We met on the rural campus of DQ University; a Native American studies college presided over then by Dennis Banks, the co-founder of the American Indian Movement. Governor Jerry Brown granted Banks asylum in California, and he and his family had moved enthusiastically into chairing the DQ scholastic and activist program.
. . . poetry from La Brava:
DQU sits on US government land no longer used by the US Army. Activists from all over California, especially the northern half of our state, had been called in when DQU was advised of a possible eviction from the property by US marshals. The entourage that assembled in response included the DQU faculty and students, mostly Native Americans themselves, and their eclectic supporters: Japanese Buddhist monks, male and female, from the Nipponzan Myohoji tradition within Nichiren Buddhism, elders of various Native nations, students from nearby UC Davis, human rights activists, and a sizable contingent from the Bay Area’s Livermore Action Group, who were basking in the glory of their well-attended actions including civil disobedience at the gates of the nation’s major nuclear design facility, and who were eager to show their commitment by extending their brand of direct action to solidarity with these Native people.
There were several wheelchair users among the attendees, including a older, non-Native woman with curly hair who was accompanied by her service animal, a large, puppy-clipped Standard Poodle named Mister Bojangles, who was adorable though unfortunately prone to gas.
And then there was Norma, young and sparkling, pushing herself in a wheelchair with her own hands, who had neither a regular caregiver-attendant nor a service animal though she seemed surrounded by friends. whose backpack identified her by her favorite handle in that decade: “Rebel.” She had an easy laugh that was pleasantly and clearly audible across the room, excellent diction and a soothing voice, longish, mostly straight fine hair that was a dark-medium brown close in shade to mine, and an open, intelligent, mobile face with green eyes well set off by the beautiful medium-tan skin tone. She was apparently socially comfortable here, and though she was clearly identified as Native American and happy among “her people,” she also defied easy categorization.
On our first night there, during which we were preparing for the possibilities of arrest by federal marshals and ending with a song circle, I overheard Norma chatting in fluent German with a mandolin-playing young man named Guenther, a German-American law student who was part of the Livermore Action Group contingent. With my minimal recollection of college German, I heard her tell Guenther that she had been to Switzerland as well as to Germany, and that she was majoring in German language and literature, and minoring in French. Norma had a pleasant singing voice and she played wooden flute along with the improvised music and sharing.
As it turned out, the eviction by the US government marshals was called off by the next morning, Dennis Banks made the announcement that there would be no arrests, and that all those who had been willing to support the school were welcome to stay as guests, that the ceremonial grounds would be open with sweat lodges available throughout the next several days, and that we would have a “potluck of thanks” with the donated food for the blockade that had not been necessary.
Norma was among those who stayed for the weekend, as did I. I got to know her better the next day, when she was taking her stretch out of her wheelchair by supporting herself with her hands on a mess hall table.
She called me over. “Hi, could I get a favor from you?”
I was happy to oblige, assuming this sparkly, disabled woman needed me to reach for something or arrange some item for her. I asked, “Sure; what do you need?”
Norma’s green eyes twinkled. ”How about if you sit down in this wheelchair and I whisper a bunch of stuff I hear all the time in your ear?”
I seated myself on the cushions of her chair as Norma, supported by one arm resting on the nearby table, leaned toward me and repeated phrases such as “You have such a pretty face; too bad you’re crippled!” and “Keep smiling, you’re doing great!” and “Do you have any feeling below the waist? How do you go to the bathroom; do you use a catheter?” and “Have you ever had a boyfriend? Can you have sex? Do you have orgasms? Are you lesbian?” and “Who is responsible for you?” The mock tirade, accompanied by a twinkly-eyed grin, continued for several minutes and I could only respond by saying, more than once, some variation on, “Oh my god, do strangers really walk up to you and say THAT?”
When she was done, Norma gave me a hug, reminded me to stand up straight (I have a mild congenital scoliosis that sometimes affects my posture) and said in a tone of happy mischief and relief, “Thank you; I feel SO much better for that!” as she retook her seat in the chair.
Norma went on to tell me more about the presumptions she had been dealing with for her entire life: the time she was in a YMCA warm pool with her parents and sisters and international visitors were making remarks abut “the little crippled girl” in French, Dutch, and German around her, not knowing that hers was a multilingual, multicultural family and that the intelligent and linguistically gifted child in front of them could understand, and about being placed in special education “orthopedic classes” with children who had serious mental as well as physical disabilities, and being told. “Oh, we all have special needs and we are here to HELP one another!” in a patronizing tone when she complained that the school work was far too easy and that she wanted good books to read, not silly beginning-reader worksheets and counting blocks.
Norma, as Nina Serrano noted a week after Norma’s death in a radio tribute, had a knack for getting herself “where she needed to be” despite her disabilities, and that rainy weekend at a muddy DQU where I made Norma’s acquaintance included the trek to the ceremonial grounds where traditional sweat lodges were held by native Elders. Building the outdoor wood fires, heating the rocks, and otherwise preparing the sweats that would be open throughout the weekend there often happened “on Indian time” especially in the rain. I found myself sitting on a log and waiting with an eclectic group of men and women that included Norma, who would crawl from her wheelchair, wrapped in a bath towel, to enter the canvas and tarpaulin lodge door and to sit and pray “for the people” in a group as the hot rocks were brought in by shovel from the fire.
Norma asked me for one more small favor as we waited: she wanted me to hold her towel while she wiggled out of her underwear, and to follow her and rick the towel as necessary as she crawled to the low opening in the lodge, so that she didn’t expose her uncovered bottom to the coed group at the ceremonial grounds. There is a protocol for joining sweats at DQ: the sweat lodge is a church, and the ceremonies are a church service, as it was explained to me, and they are not attended naked, just as they are not attended by menstruating women because “their power is too strong.”
A friend, who is herself a college instructor and activist, asked me what Norma had been studying when I met her 30 years ago. I said, “Foreign language,” and then I corrected myself – for Norma, there were no “foreign” languages, only languages she had not learned yet. In addition to English, Dutch, German, and French, I know that she studied Spanish, Arabic, and some Native languages, and probably more. A few months ago, when I came to her small cottage in Berkeley to share fresh vegetables, tofu and fruit (Norma was following a vegan diet to see if it would help her recurrent tumors shrink and improve her general health) , it was a warm summer day and Norma admired the simple block-printed, indigo-dyed shift I was wearing. “That’s a great dress; from my country – it’s Indonesian!” she exclaimed and she asked if she could borrow it to wear for a video interview she was giving, talking about women of color who have worked with their own depression. Norma could not use her physical feet to walk, but she had a metaphoric foot in many cultures – European, Native American, and Southeast Asian. It was not in Norma’s makeup to deny any of her heritage, nor to be defined or limited in expression by any one aspect of it, nor by her abilities or disabilities.
Norma lived gracefully with many challenges. She became a single parent in her mid-thirties, giving birth to and raising a son who would ride on her wheelchair in her lap as she moved around Berkeley or wherever she traveled. She advocated tirelessly for him in the schools, where as a Native American child he often felt isolated. She took in other children as an official-unofficial foster parent when they were having difficulties with school or their families, and spoke of how she had lost attendants who were “afraid of teenage boys of color,” such as her Native American son and the Latino boys who were the friends who often lived with them. Like many people with disabilities who depend on attendant care to do tasks around the house, Norma found that not every attendant was trustworthy or honest. There were times Norma needed to seek restraining orders against people who had abused her or her child.
Norma’s losses sometimes must have seemed overwhelming, but Norma persevered, always working more for The People as she understood them, far more than for herself. Norma spoke little, except to her friends about the difficulties in her life, and even there she kept much to herself. Norma was often in pain from her exposed nerves, and she worked hard at finding ways to reduce or eliminate the use of opioid pain medication and their side effects. She studied traditional healing, understood its limitations as well as the limitations of conventional medical care, and hoped for the best. A few years back, Norma was engaged to be married to a loving man who was shot, randomly as far as we know, on the street. She had her private battles with depression. She loved her family of origin, but there were ways that they could never understand Norma and the choices she made about how she would live and how she would view herself.
And in the end, Norma was unquestionably La Brava, the anonymous one who spoke up for others and effaced herself. The people who worked with her at KPFA remember her as wise, kindly, calm, and thoughtful as well as incisively intelligent. It was not in Norma to use the airwaves to establish herself as any kind of expert or galvanizing personality; she was on the air, or doing backstage production work, to bring news and perspective from The People to The People. Norma Rebel, La Brava, I salute you, and in my mind you are always there, sharing vegetables and gossip in the kitchen, and sitting beside me in a muddy sweat lodge where we all crawl close to the ground to pray for the people.
Judith Gips is a community activist, schoolteacher, author, and single parent in Berkeley, California. A member of KPFA’s Community Advisory Board, she has a lengthy history with nonprofit radio and the Pacifica network.