In A Sacred Manner

P1070176The cold has settled in. The shadows lengthen as do the days. At the feeders the male house finches are beginning to show their mating colors.

Today is “Australia Day” in Australia. Like so many of our civic holidays here in North America, it is a difficult and complex event for Aboriginal people. This set me to thinking about recent conversations with friends.

We were hanging out, all of us of mixed European and Indian (Native American) ancestry. The conversation spun out in many directions before settling on resistance. It’s an old topic.

We are each more incorporated into the dominant culture than were our parents. None of us grew up anywhere close to The Res, although a couple of women spent time there as kids or teens. Others have established connections with their parents’ birth communities. We are well, even overly, educated. Some of us are Pan-Indian by default, others are more grounded in specific tribal traditions.

We share a love of the land and of the processes of nature. We also share a commitment to ceremony, small and large. We view the world as imbued with Presence, inviting prayer and gratitude. For us, the Earth is alive and breathtakingly, heartrendingly, beautiful. We believe the Holy Ones and ancestors walk with us, and we must do our best to live in a sacred manner.

Inevitably the conversation turns to acts of Resistance. For our grandparents,  and for some of our parents, living and raising another generation was the ultimate act of resistance. For some, assimilation, even forced, was an opportunity to resist and survive. I have a bumper sticker on my car that says, “We are still here.” It refers to Polio survivors but for me has many other dimensions.

The folks sitting around the table resist the pull of the dominant, materialistic, individualistic culture in myriad ways. Still, we acknowledge we are much more assimilated than our parents. This is bitter-sweet. We have gained mobility and relative security, even as we have lost community and traditions. Someone jokes, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated,” and we wonder who coined that Star Trek phrase attributed to the Borg.

Resistance occurs on many fronts. Some of us write and/or make art about our struggles and those of our loved ones and communities. We are part of a long line of Indian women and men who have been “bad’, talking about live as we live it rather than presenting the happy or hopeless images of Indian people so loved by dominant media. All of us are of mixed heritage and have our own concerns and challenges that arise from that, meaning we frequently trouble the waters on both sides of the divide. For those of us without tribal affiliation the situation is even more thorny. All this gives us grist for our work.

Others are more politically active, deeply engaged in any number of issues; there is a tidal wave of suffering that threatens to overwhelm Indian country. The women note that at the very top of the heap is violence against Indian women. They point out that in North America Indian women are by far the most likely to be raped, murdered, or disappeared, and the crimes against them are least likely to be investigated. Given, that for us, women are the center of the world, the source from whom all life comes, savagery against women threatens our very identity. Protecting girls and women has long been an act of resistance.

I wonder whether I am alone in my experience that when I blog about these things, my readers don’t respond, often don’t seem even to read the post. I ask the group about their experiences. It turns out I am the only one who blogs. Yet my experience echoes through the lives of the others in many ways. We decide the best Indians are, in the view of many in the dominant culture, the strong silent ones.  Maybe its just too painful to be reminded that the history of colonization is a road filled with immense suffering by Indigenous people.

Against my better judgement, a few days ago I tried to have this conversation with a group of shamans, on-line. They were talking about the use of the Term “Post-Tribal” to differentiate what they do from what we more tradition based types do. I pointed out that the term implies an end to tribal identities, the dream of many who would love to have us pass into history. It is a term of erasure. Predictably, I guess, the conversation went nowhere. That said, just opening the conversation was, for me, and act of resistance.

Words are vitally important, even sacred, to many Indigenous people for they create the world. Our parents and grandparents resisted assimilation by keeping alive, to the best of their ability, our customs, beliefs, and rituals, and by reminding us that words have great and sacred power.  They encouraged us to live good lives, firmly rooted in the holy.

I’m looking for a way to end this post and finding a conclusion elusive. Perhaps this mirrors the reality that these things we’ve been speaking of are ongoing. There is no way to tie them up; there is no conclusion. There is only the living day-to-day, the nurturing of the next generations,  and the wish to do so in a sacred manner.

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25 thoughts on “In A Sacred Manner

  1. I am not sure that your attempt to communicate to the on-line shamans group is completely fruitless. Ignorance and arrogance are rampant among neo-shamanists, but the first at least can only be remedied by speaking up. the second, by their growing up. The degree of immaturity among the obnoxious adolescents of post-tribal shamanism does appall me, but I have to hold the possibility of growth and transformation in mind…

      • Yes, the most vocal are often the least experienced…I have come to see that the restoration of shamanic continuity truly takes time and stories which makes it all the more important that elders make themselves and their experiences accessible. One of the great lessons I learned form my father is that one may well not see the results of their work in their own lifetime, but that does not lessen the profound effect and importance of living an authentic life on future generations.

      • I would like to know more about your father and godfather, and your life’s journey. There are clearly some deep stories there. Perhaps we might all remind one another that we cannot know the full impact of our lives on others. Perhaps that would ease some of the suffering we feel when the world seems hopeless.

      • My blog is a way for me to talk about my life journey. I don’t mention my godfather’s name or tribe publicly out of respect and concern as the blow-back from both native and non-native individuals from mentioning cross-cultural relationships can be devastating. My father was an advocate of what is now called bi-culturalism long before the term was coined. His point that we are not faced with an either or choice but with the long-term struggle of how to integrate our many experiences and ancestors is as relevant now as it ever was. In that I find hope.

  2. It is difficult for people to talk about things that remind them of ways that are lost, and time that cannot be recaptured. Some people who are dying of cancer told me that many of their friends stopped coming around to see them, because they didn’t know what to say and it was simply to painful to deal with the impending loss. So the one who is dying often feels abandoned and alone.
    We are born without attachment to material things–but most of us are assimilated into the material world before we are even aware of what is happening. And then, if we don’t examine the situation and wake up, we spend the rest of our lives desperately trying to protect and hold onto things we cannot keep.
    However (and this is a bright light), once it is realized that that this type of lifestyle is a waste of time, resistance is no longer necessary because the pull towards the materialistic life completely fades away.

    • Mary, I think there are many forms of resistance. I am thinking of my Tibetan Buddhist friends who resist the annihilation of their county and teachings. I am remembering friends whose great-great grandparents risked everything to make and light Shabbat candles. In the end things will unfold a they will. One can only do what one can; beyond that one must trust.

      We are born with attachments to people and places, rather than things. Too often things wear away at the truly human.

    • Mary, I was thinking last night about your comments. PTSD becomes worse when we resist knowing about and facing trauma. Addressing trauma is a form of resistance to the dominating agenda of the abuser. So there is a paradox.

      One of the issues for me as a mixed blood is knowing that we Indians make up only about 3% of the U.S. population. That means that the pressure to assimilate and give up our age old cultures is immense and unrelenting. I find many of us try to walk a line between resistance and acceptance, between Indian and European cultures. This is indeed a demanding dance. Yet, resistance, acceptance, and the capacity to hold our complex cultural heritage are all needed now.

      • I was diagnosed with PTSD in 1991 because of an abusive relationship (that I stayed with way too long). Being raised Catholic, I was taught that it was my responsibility to make things work, no matter what. After many years, I finally realized that this belief was literally killing me.
        I have now put signs around my house to remind me that I’m OK. I survived–“tranquility,” “Love,” “Harmony,” “Joy.” Over the doorway to the dining room, I hung a little plaque that says “Count Your Blessings.”
        Not facing a past trauma makes PTSD worse, it’s true.
        But addressing the trauma over and over again didn’t help much either. Remembering just made me fearful and anxious all over again.
        I kept asking why and there simply is no answer to that question. There is no way to change what has already happened. It’s like repeatedly watching an old movie, hoping that somehow it will make more sense and the ending will be different.
        Ultimately, I picked up my soul, brushed it off, and moved forward as best I could. We may have to adapt to the world as it is in order to survive, but no one can take who we are inside. No one. The things in the visible world come and go…but what cannot be seen is unchanging. That is where the true power lies.

      • Mary,
        Your words, “Ultimately, I picked up my soul, brushed it off, and moved forward as best I could. We may have to adapt to the world as it is in order to survive, but no one can take who we are inside. No one. The things in the visible world come and go…but what cannot be seen is unchanging. That is where the true power lies,” are exactly what we mean by resistance. Keeping one’s soul is of the greatest importance.

        PTSD often results in a sense that one has lost one’s soul. I believe that the task with PTSD is to face the trauma, make some sense of it, and as soon as one is ready, move on. Unresolved PTSD stops one from moving on. Complex PTSD is particularly challenging in this way. (Meditation can be a powerful ally in addressing PTSD). I am glad you found healing.

        As always, thank you.

  3. I am of European descent and find this post beautifully written and very informative. I am currently reading the book Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko and your post is a wonderful supplement to helping me understand the issues beneath the story. I also have a photo I have been wanting to post that relates to your post and to the book. When I do, can I link your post in mine?

  4. Hi Michael

    We always try to spend Australia Day out in the bush, and being in the bush is never complete without talking about how Aboriginal people lived prior to whitefellas settling here. We had a good day. And although some people are critical, I love that a young, strong Aboriginal man, Adam Goodes, has been named Australian of the Year.

    Our Elders used to talk up ‘resistance’ and it just got everyone angry, whitefellas and blackfellas. I remember sitting at a smoking ceremony and welcome to Country about four/five years ago, where all peoples were invited, and feeling ashamed of my white heritage even though I have Aboriginal heritage from both my mother and father, because the Elder speaking was so resistant. He reeled off all of the injustices wrought upon his people by whitefellas. It was a welcome to Country but it didn’t feel very welcoming.

    I know that you are gentle folk and your resistance would be thoughtful, but resistance can imply anger.

    Since that most unfortunate ceremony, I have been to many other ceremonies, often conducted by the same Elder, and these days it’s all about ‘reconciliation’. What a difference it has made. The talk is much more inclusive and kind. The Elders talk about wanting to share the culture with all peoples. They talk about a positive future rather than a desolate past. The young people now have more confidence and pride in their heritage and more kids are identifying as Aboriginal instead of feeling ashamed and hiding it.

    I think that what was happening in the past was that Aboriginal people were saying that they needed whitefellas to think about reconciliation, but weren’t working on the same thing themselves. I felt very uncomfortable attending events, like I had to explain why I was there. Now it is much more open and friendly. Yes, this means that Aboriginal people have to be the strong ones and show the way. They do because they are a minority (2% of the population) and the majority is going to remain blissfully ignorant unless they hear something that sparks their interest. Aboriginal people are extremely strong, they have survived untold hardship, and their culture remains (the oldest living culture in the world, 50,000 years strong).

    I was talking years ago that we need to teach all young Australians about Aboriginal Language and culture, and finally it is starting to happen with pilot programmes in local schools this year. I firmly believe that some of the problems created by modern culture can be solved by Indigenous values. How can there be understanding and reconciliation if a cultural group shut themselves off from mainstream culture? I don’t know who brought about the changes within the Aboriginal community but s/he is a visionary and it is working. I love attending ceremonies now because they are so uplifting and inspiring.

    I’m so pleased to see the change happening slowly in my lifetime, and for the benefit of my own children. Only one of my kids claims his heritage (youngest boy), one is on the fence (middle boy), and my eldest boy is not really interested.

    much love

    • Thank you for this wonderfully thoughtful and personal comment! Yes, things have changed slowly, although in the U.S. and Canada there seems to be an escalation of violence against Indigenous people at many levels. Perhaps part of the problem in the U.S. is that Indians make up only about 3% of the population. It is very difficult to have Indian and/or mixed race points of view, let alone language, taught in schools.

      Reconciliation is powerful and necessary. Yet it is difficult to reconcile while the violence continues and escalates. That said, you are right that anger can be just as destructive. Reconciliation can also become another code word for assimilation. Very challenging waters, these.

      I love ceremony where people from many walks or live and ethnicities come together to honor the ancestors and the old ways. That is a profound sort of gathering that moves beyond reconciliation to something else.

      • I have just looked up the census stats for our Indigenous people. We are now at 3% of the population too. About 40% of the Aboriginal population is under 15 years of age, due to the fact that Aboriginal people die young from preventable illness. Aboriginal people’s life expectancy is about 20 years lower than the rest of the population.

      • I thought you were a larger percentage than that. It is difficult. We, too, as we spoke about earlier, have a very low life expectancy. Heartbreaking all around. Still, we are, you and many others, still here!

  5. Pingback: Can This Photo Speak? | A New Day

  6. I am speaking for myself, but have a hunch I am speaking for others as well… readers do not respond because your thoughts cause pause and silence is the only response. You make us think, deeply. The response, then, is an internal shift. It comes with new perspective, perhaps even new actions and personal change, not words… and thank you.

    • Thank you. I grew up in a silent house. Sometimes silence seems like rejection or even danger. Sometimes I get caught up in my own anxiety and fear around quiet. The issue of silence is also poignant in historical perspective – the dominant culture often ignores Indigenous people. Everything gets stirred together in a big pot. Then I am reminded, by you and others, that there is conversation and connection, and I feel a bit embarrassed and a good deal of relief.

  7. When you speak of “resistance,” Michael, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to close a reflection than the one you have used here. “There is only the living day-to-day, the nurturing of the next generations, and the wish to do so in a sacred manner.”

    (BTW, I also experience the relative silence of those who read posts about Native Americans.)

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