Tag Archives: Native Americans

Where Nothing is Sacred

I have placed these two pictures together for a reason.

pipeline in sacred ground

Some people might look at these images with a sense of pride, taking from them a message that sacrifice and hard work are what make a nation great.

Others might find this particular juxtaposition somewhat uncomfortable.  There is, after all, a serene perfection in the image of Arlington National Cemetery that we in the West have come to expect in our monuments.  The mirrored layout of the two photos, however, might suggest that someone could tear into that hallowed ground, that the one image could somehow become the other.  And this corruption, this desecration of the sacred, should I hope, put us ill at ease.

And yet, we are even now gouging into the Earth, plowing a petroleum pipeline through sacred land in North Dakota, stripping away the dignity of the honored dead and despoiling the environment, all in the interest of the mighty dollar.  We are beating, gassing, and arresting the people who stand bravely in the path of this desecration.  We threaten them with guns and loose attack dogs on them.

And I wondered, just for a moment, how WE would react if the shoe were on the other foot.  What if it was something WE considered sacred that was being ruined in the interest of corporate greed.

And then I wondered if we, as a people, hold anything sacred at all.

And I am being very liberal with my use of the word “we” here because I don’t think any of us are clean from these particular sins.  If ‘you’ or ‘I’ am offended by these latest outrages against the heritage of our native peoples, we have benefited, willingly or no, from countless others.  It’s something we were born to, I’m afraid.

We are raised in it.

Or do we not still teach our children the old lie, that Christopher Columbus sailed out from Spain in the spirit of adventure and exploration?

Maybe we’ll tell them later that he actually sailed off looking for cash and prestige, and that when he failed in his quest to discover a new and more direct trade route with Asia, he settled instead on exploiting the unfortunate natives he encountered for their gold, and then selling them into sexual servitude and slavery.

The church didn’t like it.

They eventually jailed him for it.

But he still gets the bloody parade, doesn’t he.

We honor him, butcher that he was, and with good reason.  The impressions made by his boots on the shores of the ‘New World’ have never really faded, and for over five hundred years we have followed in his swaggering stride, sweeping across two continents in our hunger for the resources therein.

And the people who were already there?

We did what he did.  We slaughtered them, starved them, displaced them.

And when the folks back home became uncomfortable with the carnage, we displayed our great civility and generosity by writing and signing treaty after treaty, only to break them before the ink had time to dry.

What DO we hold sacred when no bond restrains us, neither word nor contract.

So what is the difference, really, between a rough circle of stones in a weed choked field in North Dakota, and that field of crisp white markers on a perfectly manicured lawn in Virginia?  Is it just that when WE hold something sacred, we throw money at it until it is suitably majestic.  Is that what makes it a holy place?  Or is it the bones of our fallen that lay in the dirt, that give the place its power over us?

Are we really so blind that we cannot, as a people, see the spirit in the land?

Or is it really just the money that we worship after all?

I’ve been following another story.

There is a proposed development project at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, a 420-acre resort complex, complete with hotels, restaurants, and upscale shopping on the canyon rim, and a tramway designed to carry tourists by the millions down to the canyon floor.  There at the sacred confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, if the plans go through, the rugged beauty of the canyon floor will “improved” by the addition of a restaurant, a river walk, and a several thousand seat amphitheater.

Welcome to America, where nothing is sacred, except for the dollar.

Columbus wins.

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There and Back Again

And here I was all set to write a nice little post about the Summer Solstice and some preliminary designs for a wood-carving project, when I allowed myself to become impossibly distracted and simply wandered off the trail.

Distractions happen.  Just lately, they seem happen a lot.

Sometimes, when they crop up, I am able to ignore them and force myself back onto the trail.  And then there are those times when I find that the place into which I have wandered is, for the moment at least, more interesting than my original destination.

This time the culprit was a post on one of the Pagan forums I follow on Facebook.

Ahh Facebook, we might have colonized the planet Mars by now, if not for thee!

Anyway, someone posted asking the group if it was okay for him to adapt Native American rituals to his practice because he feels called to spirits from that tradition, this, despite the fact that he has no Native ancestry to speak of.

“Well now, there’s a topic just ripe for debate, “ I thought to myself, “surely there will be plenty of folks who will speak up against the appropriation of First Nations beliefs, while others will urge respectful study of those traditions, and….,”

And I should have known better.

It’s not that kind of board.

“Do what you want.” — “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks!” — “Whatever makes you happy.” — “No one culture has more claim on a god just because they made them up.” — “Pick and choose whatever you want … instead of fighting it, consume it.”

CONSUME IT!

Because the gods are just boxes of breakfast cereal to be pulled down off the shelf on a whim.

Consumer Gods

So as I was about to turn my attention away from this consumer-culture imperialist love-fest, I began to notice something happening that struck me as quite odd.

The primary justification, provided by the majority of the people posting in the ‘Do what thou wilt’ column, was, “You may have been Native American in a past life, so just go with it.”

As I watched this theme appear again and again throughout the thread, I realized just how wickedly perfect this argument is in the hands of those who would prefer to duck any responsibility for their actions and beliefs.

“I’m a rebel.  I’ll do what I want, and I don’t care if you don’t like it.”

“Oh, and by the way, I was the concubine of Ramses III in a past life, and that’s totally why I’ve got that statue of Bast on my alter, and it’s not just because I thought it would look really cool sitting on my purple altar cloth.”

And who can argue with that?

You can’t very well prove that someone wasn’t formerly a priestess of Ishtar in ancient Uruk.  And if you like her statues, or her legend, or even just the sound of her name, who is to say that you are not recalling a past life memory creeping through into the present.

That, my friends, is the kind of circular logic I usually only encounter in conversations about the Bible.

But there are obvious problems with this line of…, thinking (heh, I almost said logic there).

Firstly, as I’ve already stated, the reincarnation argument abrogates responsibility for almost any form of cultural appropriation, and for that reason alone, it should be treated with the utmost skepticism.

If that were not enough, how about this…,

Whenever I have encountered people who believe in this sort of reincarnation, where you could have been anyone from any time or place, this has been coupled with a related belief that we live these lives for a reason, to learn certain lessons from our experiences there, which our souls require to reach a level of enlightenment.

And if that were true of our past lives, it must also be true of our present lives, which means we are, who we are, in the here and now, for a reason.

So why then should who we were in our past lives trump the realities of our present?

The journey, as I understand it, is intended to be a one-way affair, not there and back again.

But let’s say we just forget all of that, and really just focus on that past life.  But instead of using it as an excuse to do what we want in the here and now, what if we instead used this belief as an opportunity to truly empathize with the person we were?

Imagine yourself for just a moment, falling under the guns of the 7th Regiment at Wounded Knee.  As you go down, you die with the knowledge that your family falls with you.  Brothers and sisters, grandparents and toddlers alike, gunned down by men who will be given awards for your slaughter.

Now try to imagine how you might feel about the descendants of the people who gunned you down, raped your women, and stole your land, looting your most sacred rituals…, and then tell me again how your possible past life experience gives you the right to any damn thing.

Yeah, I don’t think so.

The gods are not commodities to be used by just anyone who comes along, and our ancestors, all of our ancestors, deserve better than to have their traditions plundered by those who would ignore ancient wisdom in favor of wishful thinking.

Let’s do the work people.

Let’s be willing to take responsibility in the here and now.

And let’s build upon the past, instead of trying to co-opt it.

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People of the Dawn

Wampanoag

In their own stories they had been there just shy of forever.  Their father’s fathers roamed those same woods, hunting for game and fishing along the riverbanks.  Their villages were dotted throughout lands both wild and cultivated, for they were a people who knew how to work with the land.

They knew that the “three sisters” (beans and squash from the twisting vine, and sacred maize, standing tall and golden in the sunlight) would grow best in fields that had gone unplanted in the previous season.  They would take fish from the river and, thanking them for their sacrifice, would lay them in small mounds as an offering and inducement to the spirits of the sisters.

As the first shoots of corn, planted first, began to grow from these fertile mounds, beans and squash would be planted next, so that as the stalks of corn grew tall, the vines of the other sisters would climb and grow strong, blending their spirits and changing the soil for the better.

The people had lived this way for as long as any could remember, farming the land, gathering the wild fruits and nuts, fishing it’s rivers and coasts, and hunting it’s game.  And always, they were thankful, calling out in gratitude to the departing spirit of the fallen beast, blessing the land and the trees and the spirits that watched and cared for them from above or beyond.

These were the people who where called the Wampanoag, which in their own language, means ‘People of the Dawn’.

We do not know why they were called such.

Perhaps it was because their stories seemed to reach back to the dawn of time.  Or maybe, inhabiting the very edges of the Eastern seaboard as they did, they felt that their tribe, more than any other, was closest to the rising sun.

I wonder what it did to them, seeing a new people arrive on their shores as if from out of the dawn itself.

The truth is, we don’t really know that much about them.

By the time the passengers of the Mayflower began to disembark, they had already dwindled to a fraction of their numbers, killed off by disease – an early gift from their European visitors.  We know that they worked in cooperation with the settlers of the Plymouth Colony, and indeed are responsible for the survival of that colony through it’s second winter.  They taught the colonists how to hunt and grow native crops, and it seems likely that they attempted (with mixed success) to impart upon their new neighbors something of the ‘spirit of thanks’ with which they moved through their world.

The holiday which we celebrate today as Thanksgiving, is more likely a memory of traditional Wampanoag harvest celebrations, than anything organized by those ‘oh so famous’ Pilgrims.

So where now are the People of the Dawn?

A couple thousand of them still survive.  Christianized, of course, and with only scarce hints of their previous culture and history upon which to cling.  The last native speaker of their language died over 100 years ago.

Today the Wampanoag and their traditions have all but vanished from this land.

And still we give thanks.  Not moment by moment, of course, or even daily for the most part.  Today we seem to save it all up for but a single day.  We gather our families and friends.  We feast and make merry.  We are thankful to our loved ones and our god(s).  We even remember, however briefly, that none of these things would have come to pass, had not a dying people taken pity on their new neighbors and shown them how to survive in a world that was being stolen from them, bit by bit.

And then the next morning, as the light of the sun begins to break over the horizon in the east, it will find them gathered by the tens of thousands (or is it millions?) outside the stores.  The Black Friday shoppers will be waiting for the doors to open so that they may descend like locusts upon the goods therein, freely sacrificing personal dignity for the chance to save a few precious dollars on some tacky doorbuster.

There will be no ‘thankfulness’ to be found in that mob, only hunger, and greed, and the angry noise and stink of the crowd.

These are the new People of the Dawn, and I can find no sympathy for them.

Sleep in, if you can, on Friday.

Be thankful in the moment for all that you have and always mindful of the things you can live without.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Filed under Culture, Holidays, Modern Life, Traditions

By any other name…,

Columbus Day.

It sneaks up on me every year.

October has always been a busy month for me.  My work schedule typically begins to heat up around this time of the year, while at home there are countless preparations to make for the coming Samhain celebration.  At the same time there are Halloween costume details to fuss over, and social obligations, and what seem like a million other distractions, all competing for my time and attention.

And then, amidst all the noise, I hear someone mention ‘Columbus Day’ and for a moment there is confusion, both familiar and unexpected.

“Is THAT in October?!”

Is followed quickly by…,

“Why do people STILL celebrate that?”

Do people celebrate it?  I can’t say that I’ve ever heard people excitedly making plans for the holiday.  Here, in the U.S., the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the new world is something of a second-class holiday.  Sure, the mail doesn’t run and some people get the day off from work, but aside from that not much goes on.

Columbus Day Parade

Oh, except for the parades.

And school plays, no doubt, with a chorus of costumed little kids reciting, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…,”.

But why?

Why parades or plays or speeches or accolades of any kind for a man who was perhaps the worst explorer in history, and a fairly awful human being to boot?

For the execution of the journey to the to the Indies I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics or maps. It is simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied.

—Christopher Columbus

Yeah, I can see where he might have needed help from “on-high”, because it’s pretty clear that neither intelligence nor mathematics were used in planning his first voyage.  Columbus grossly underestimated the circumference of the Earth; so much so that if the Americas’ hadn’t been “in the way”, he and his crew would almost certainly have perished in the middle of the Atlantic.

What’s more, even after accidentally “discovering” the new world, he was always convinced that he had found a route to the East Indies.

There have been plenty of explorers and researchers who made critical mistakes in judgement and went on to learn from them, but not so the “Great Admiral of the Ocean.”

Landing of Columbus

Columbus is here not only to claim this land for Spain, but to prove that men have been looking heroic while wearing tights since long before Superman and Batman made the scene.

Now, his navigational and geographical follies aside, it might still be worth giving a historical nod to the man who opened up the “New World” for trade with the European powers.  Maybe, that is, if history did not also reveal him to be a tyrant and a murderer of the worst order.  His offenses against the natives were so extreme, that he was eventually arrested and sent home to Spain, in chains, stripped finally of his titles and ill-gotten wealth.

Oh what the hell, let’s throw him a parade anyway!

He discovered America after all.
(Nope – it was already populated, and anyway, the Vikings had stopped by in the 11th century.)

He proved that the Earth wasn’t flat.
(Nope – that had been fairly common knowledge since at least the 1st century.)

He set the tone for oppression and slave trade in the New World.
(Bingo – we have a winner – and what a fantastic legacy he left for us.)

So let’s fast forward about 500 years and see how things stand.

After more wars and massacres and broken treaties than anyone can safely count, it seems we have finally come to the point where we can show some genuine regret for the crimes of our ancestors.  We have grown up enough, as a culture, to take responsibility for the actions of our predecessors and to show the indigenous peoples of this continent the respect and compassion that they deserve.

Redskins Name Change

Or…., not.

It seems that institutionalized racism, as long as it’s all in good fun, is just too dearly held for some sports fans to part with.

“The ‘Washington Redskins’ sports franchise has been a ‘tradition’ for 80 years,” we are told.  “The name and image are,” I am assured, “a matter of pride, intended to honor to the warrior spirit of Native Americans.”

Really?***

I have to ask, why so much sound and fury at the prospect of another name?

They’ve changed their name before (they were formerly the Braves) and other teams have changed names more recently without such hue and cry.

Would the team be changed somehow?

Would they play the game differently?

Would they be diminished in some way?

Or would they be the same team with the same loyal fans, only without the mocking disregard of the cruel history behind their name.

And while we’re thinking about offensive names we might want to change…,

And what if we gave up Columbus Day?

Oh we could keep the date, and the parades, and the school plays, but change the name (as some have already done) to Indigenous People’s Day, or Native American Day.

We could turn a second-rate holiday on it’s ear, and make it a day worth celebrating.

Words have power, and the names we give things are the most powerful words of all.

We need not carry the crimes of the past forward with us into the present day.

The choice is sometimes as simple, as to call a thing, by any other name.

 

***ADDENDUM (November, 14th 2013): If you had read this post a day ago you would have seen that it included two photos (gleaned from HERE and HERE) of Redskin’s Fans dressed in a mockery of Native American costume.  Today I received a message from one of the ‘gents’ pictured who had this to say…,

“and calling me a portly guy is respectful too? how hypocritical of you. ban parodies! censorship is the way to go! rofl, your logic is beyond hilarious.”

Okay, so I’ll admit that using the word “portly” may have been uncalled for, but then again, I wasn’t really going for ‘respectful’ here.  And, try as I might, I still find that I am unable to muster ANY respect for someone who so clearly misses the point.

Where, exactly, is the parity between one white guy calling another “portly” and institutionalized bigotry?  One is disrespectful, yes, but the other is just obscene.

In any case, as ‘I’ am sensitive to the feelings of others when it comes to posting their images online without their consent, I have removed the “offending” photos from this post.

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