One of the greatest blessings that the United States could receive in the near future would be to have her industries halted, her business discontinued, her people speechless, a great pause in her world of affairs created…. We should be hushed and silent, and we should have the opportunity to learn what other people think.
“Other People Think”, the prizewinning speech by John Cage, age 16, at the 1928 Southern California Oratorical Contest (at the Hollywood Bowl(!))
quoted by Alex Ross in “Searching for Silence” in The New Yorker, 4 October 2010, page 54
Here are a collection of quotations from The Soul of the Indian, by Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa) [Dakota Sioux], published 1911.
Charles Alexander Eastman was the grandson of Seth Eastman, the painter who worked with Schoolcraft. He graduated from Dartmouth, worked as a physician, and was a founder of the Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls.
I think this book should be far better-known than it is.
The first missionaries, good men imbued with the narrowness of their age, branded us as pagans and devil-worshipers, and demanded of us that we abjure our false gods before bowing the knee at their sacred altar. (from Foreword)
The worship of the “Great Mystery” was silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking.
(from Chapter I: The Great Mystery)
All who have lived much out of doors know that there is a magnetic and nervous force that accumulates in solitude and that is quickly dissipated by life in a crowd.
(from Chapter I: The Great Mystery)
It is my personal belief, after thirty-five years’ experience of it, that there is no such thing as “Christian civilization.” I believe that Christianity and modern civilization are opposed and irreconcilable, and that the spirit of Christianity and of our ancient religion is essentially the same.
(from Chapter I: The Great Mystery)
The moment that man conceived of a perfect body, supple, symmetrical, graceful, and enduring—in that moment he had laid the foundation of a moral life! No man can hope to maintain such a temple of the spirit beyond the period of adolescence, unless he is able to curb his indulgence in the pleasures of the senses. Upon this truth the Indian built a rigid system of physical training, a social and moral code that was the law of his life.
(from Chapter III: Ceremonial and Symbolic Worship)
The truly brave man, we contend, yields neither to fear nor anger, desire nor agony; he is at all times master of himself; his courage rises to the heights of chivalry, patriotism, and real heroism.
(from Chapter IV: Barbarism and the Moral Code)
The attitude of the Indian toward death, the test and background of life, is entirely consistent with his character and philosophy. Death has no terrors for him; he meets it with simplicity and perfect calm, seeking only an honorable end as his last gift to his family and descendants. Therefore he courts death in battle; on the other hand, he would regard it as disgraceful to be killed in a private quarrel. If one be dying at home, it is customary to carry his bed out of doors as the end approaches, that his spirit may pass under the open sky.
(from Chapter VI: On the Borderlands of Spirits)
I cannot pretend to explain them, but I know that our people possessed remarkable powers of concentration and abstraction, and I sometimes fancy that such nearness to nature as I have described keeps the spirit sensitive to impressions not commonly felt, and in touch with the unseen powers.
(from Chapter VI: On the Borderlands of Spirits)
(my notes on Where The Two Roads Meet, by Christopher Vecsey)
The demise of Indians as obstacles to American expansion made them objects of commiseration to romantics and other sympathizers. (p. 96)
[The current term for the Catholic Church’s attempts to missionize is inculturation, the idea being inculturation good, syncretism bad…]
“If inculturation is the evangelists’ systematic and conscientious effort to translate the universal message of the gospel into the religious categories of the target society, then syncretism is the inverse process by which those who have been evangelised try to retain vestiges of their own religion, not so much in opposition to the Christians as in reclothing the accepted tokens of Christianity in the appropriate aboriginal religious forms.” Manuel M. Marzal The Indian Face of God in Latin America, quoted in Vecsey, Two Roads (p. 143)
I am MUCH more interested in syncretism than inculturation. it seems to me that inculturation is simply the next step in colonialism: deciding for the other what of their own traditions can be worked into the replacement religion. The syncretism of AfricanAmerican, Haitian, Cuban Christianity is its power and richness, and that power teaches me and deepens my faith, not as a member of any of those cultures, but as a way of opening up the multiple mysteries of the Gospel.
An anthopologist uses the phrase “imperialist nostalgia” to describe the new evangelism of the contemporary Church. [Kozak, David. “Ecumenical Indianism: Kateri and the Invented Tradition”] Anthropologist Michael Angrosino says “there is an underlying assumption that inculturation is something that the Vatican, out of a sense of noblesse oblige, is in a position to grant; it is calling people to the truth and only uses cultural forms to induce people to heed that calling.”
(my notes on Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada, a collection of essays edited by James Treat)
The Christian church is made up of creatures on a planet that revolves around a small sun, in a small galaxy that is only a small part of the cosmos. As our knowledge of our creation grows and as our search for meaning expands, can we really continue to believe that the truth that forms the basis for our faith is exclusive or that God has chosen to reveal truth only to Christians? At the same time, does the realization of other truths have to mean that the rich history, tradition, and faith in the truth of Jesus Christ is any less vital? I do not think so.
We must begin to discover the vast, mutual ethical basis of religious experience and begin carving out theology with peoples of different faiths. We must begin to share our faith, not as a tool of conversion, but as a means of mutual spiritual growth in which learning becomes as important as teaching. We must begin to share in spiritual understandings, spiritual expressions, and even spiritual beliefs, not to convert, but to grow in understanding. We are compelled to do this not only out of self-interest (to strengthen our faith) but that in this sharing, we along with others may grow in our understanding of God’s purpose for creation.
from Indian Spirituality, Another Vision, by James L. West (Baptist Cheyenne)
in Treat, Native and Christian (p. 36)
the idea of three Testaments: the Hebrew Scriptures, Native American Tradition, and the New Testament, that there are perhaps multiple “Old Testaments” that can assume a similar role for Christianity as the Hebrew Scriptures… articulated by Steve Charleston (Episcopal Choctaw) in “The Old Testament of Native America”
the idea that the Native Americans are the Canaanites to the Israelite/Europeans, the indigenous people who must convert or be destroyed, who are the original inhabitants of the promised land, proposed by Robert Allen Warrior (Osage, Methodist) Response from William Baldridge (Cherokee, Baptist) tells the story of the Canaanite women who comes to Jesus to beg for healing for her child, who dares to say “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Baldridge says: “What happens next is a miracle: The Son of Yahweh is set free. The son of the god of Canaanite oppression repents. Jesus not only changes his mind, he changes his heart. He sees her as a human being and answers her as such. “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly… and so, I believe, were the wounds of bitterness in the Canaanite woman.”
There is real concern among the reservation traditions of the impact and meaning of spreading the tribal teaching to anyone who has a spiritual or emotional need. The belief has always been that the Great Spirit and/or the high spirits are also watching others and they will provide the proper religious insights and knowledge to others. Therefore it behooves Indians to obey the teachings of their own traditions and hold them close. If they were meant for other people, the other people would have them. Such thinking has prevented most tribes from engaging in religious imperialism, and the humility underlying this attitude is admirable. (Vine Deloria, Jr. Yankton Sioux historian)
from Chief Seattle’s 1855 speech:
1. Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry God lest you forget.
2. The red man could never comprehend nor remember it.
3. Our religion is the tradition of our ancestors,
4. the dreams of our old men, given to them in the solemn hours of the night by the great spirit and the visions of our leaders, and it is written in the hearts of our people.
5. Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb; they wander far away beyond the stars and are soon forgotten and never return.
6. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being.
7. They always love its winding rivers, its great mountains, and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely-hearted living and often return to visit, guide, and comfort them.
8. We will ponder your proposition, and when we decide we will tell you.
9. But should we accept it, I here and now make this the first condition that we will not be denied the privilege, without molestation, of visiting at will the graves where we have buried our ancestors, and our friends, and our children.
10. Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe.
11. Even the rocks which seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the lives of my people.
12. And when the last red man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among the white man shall have become a myth these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe;
13. and when your children’s children shall think themselves alone in the fields, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.
14. At night when the streets of your cities and villages will be silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land.
15. The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people for the dead are not powerless.
16. Dead — did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.
Here are a few excerpts from A. J. Liebling’s marvelous profile, The Earl of Louisiana, which I highly recommend reading if you have any interest in Louisiana, politics, racism, or fabulous writing… WOW!
When the new Charity Hospital was built here, some Negro politicians came to Huey and said it was a shame there were no Negro nurses, when more than half the patients were colored. Huey said he’d fix it for them, but they wouldn’t like his method. He went around to visit the hospital and pretended to be surprised when he found white nurses waiting on colored men. He blew high as a buzzard can fly, saying it wasn’t fit for white women to be so humiliated. It was the most racist talk you ever heard, but the result was he got the white nurses out and the colored nurses in, and they’ve had the jobs ever since. (reporter Tom Sancton, quoted in A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana, 1960)
“After all this over, he’ll [Rainach, Long’s primary opponent] probably go up there to Summerfield, get up on his front porch, take off his shoes, wash his feet, look at the moon, and get close to God.” Then the old man, changing pace, shouted in Rainach’s direction, “And when you do, you got to recognize that niggers is human beings!” (A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana, 1960)
The Deep South has gone on for a hundred visible years since the Civil War bemoaning the twenty-five years of its own total history that preceded. In this submerged fifth of its past, according to the legend, great “floating palaces” went up the majestic rivers (since sullied forever by Yankees washing their feet in them) to thriving cities (like the Alick of 1854). Short-order aristocrats, rich from cotton made on new land by prime Negroes, built the great houses, and elegance busted out all over.
From the beginning of the rush for cotton lands, in the 1830s, to the beginning of the War, in 1861, was a span shorter than separates us from the administrations of Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Walker. This included the Caliban beginnings, the making of the money, the achievement of elegance, and the historic split-second left for the elegance to harden–like a quick cake icing. This knockabout-comedy turn in history has furnished forth the brooding squashy ancestral memories of a hundred Faulknerian heroes, echt and ersatz.
It is as if, in 2029, the whole nation should blame all intervening misfortunes on the stock-market crash of 1929, and think of the few years of money-making — for atypical people — that preceded 1929 as a thousand-year Reich of Stutz Bearcats for Everybody. I opened my mind to my friend when we got on the road again, and he, since he was from New Orleans, took no offense. In New Orleans a planter was always a figure of fun, a pigeon to pluck.
“The South doesn’t believe the story,” he said, “except when it seems useful to pretend to believe it. That’s why I can’t read Faulkner. And one of the bonds between Earl Long and his audiences is that he doesn’t believe it, and they don’t believe it, and it’s a kind of private joke between them, like two kids in Sunday School that don’t believe in God.” (A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana, 1960)
In its passion for politics, the Gret Stet of Loosiana, as southern Louisianians refer to it, resembles most closely the Arab republic of Lebanon, but in its economy it is closer akin to the Arab sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. The Gret Stet floats on oil, like a drunkard’s teeth on whiskey. (A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana, 1960)
The Mediterraneans who settled the shores of the interrupted sea scurried across the gap between the Azores and Puerto Rico like a woman crossing a drafty hall in a sheer nightgown to get to a warm bed with a man in it. (A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana, 1960)
“Fellas like Faubus and Rainach and Leander Perez and da rest of da White Citizens and Southern Gentlemen in dis state want to go back behind Lincoln,” he said. “And between us, gentlemen, as we sit here among ourselves,” he said, arresting a chunk of fried steak in mid-air and leaning forward to give his statement more impetus, “we got to admit dat Lincoln was a fine man and dat he was right.”
Then, as he turned back to the steak, skewering it against a piece of ham before swallowing both, he caught my look of astonishment and cried, too late, “But don’t quote me on dat!” (p.138)
“The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much,” wrote Eudora in The Optimist’s Daughter. Perhaps the implication is that the same mystery applies to places as well as people.
My visits to Rodney with Chris and Mary in the last six months are as far distant from Eudora’s visits to Rodney in the 30s and 40s as hers are from the Civil War.
I’ve just gone through and added some excerpts from the Welty story At the Landing to a small set of selected images.
To explore more photos of Rodney and the surrounding river country, please go here.
Somehow I thought of this poem in connection with the Archives of Exile project and Richard’s comment on my post yesterday. I don’t really know the poetry of Pessoa, and a quick bit of research turns up the fact that he wrote under a series of names — heteronyms, he called them — each of which had his own way of seeing the word and writing poetry. This is how Pessoa describes Caeiro, the writer of the poem below:
He sees things with the eyes only, not with the mind. He does not let any thoughts arise when he looks at a flower… the only thing a stone tells him is that it has nothing at all to tell him… this way of looking at a stone may be described as the totally unpoetic way of looking at it. The stupendous fact about Caeiro is that out of this sentiment, or rather, absence of sentiment, he makes poetry. (quoted in Wikipedia)
Rather the flight of the bird passing and leaving no trace
Than creatures passing, leaving tracks on the ground.
The bird goes by and forgets, which is as it should be.
The creature, no longer there, and so, perfectly useless,
Shows it was there — also perfectly useless.
Remembering betrays Nature,
Because yesterday’s Nature is not nature.
What’s past is nothing and remembering is not seeing.
Fly, bird, fly away; teach me to disappear.
Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa) Portugal
in Poems of Fernando Pessoa
I guess the point we are circling around is the way in which yesterday’s nature can’t be nature, or shall we say “natural”, but is culture. The wisteria in Rodney is historical, not natural, even though it is quite obviously a flowering vine blooming out of the ground in the spring. Does recognizing the wisteria as a human trace prevent me from fully seeing it, as I think I’m understanding Caeiro’s poem to say? Do Welty’s passionate things really endure in ways we can feel even when we are ignorant of the details? Or does everything simultaneously disappear and endure in some almost mystical way that is what we are feeling when we visit a ghost town or walk through ruins? And how much of this is sentimentality or nostalgia, and what of it is the essential, authentic, and totally real bond that ties humans together across life and death and time and distance?
Eudora Welty documented Rodney in her 1930s photographs for the WPA, in several of her early stories, and in her 1944 photo-essay, Some Notes on River Country. Here are a few excerpts from her writing that apply directly to Rodney, and also to the Archives of Exile project I’m working on with Richard Steadman-Jones.
A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out. It flares up, it smolders for a time, it is fanned or smothered by circumstance, but its being is intact, forever fluttering within it, the result of some original ignition. Sometimes it gives out glory, sometimes its little light must be sought out to be seen, small and tender as a candle flame, but as certain.
I have never seen, in this small section of old Mississippi River country and its little chain of lost towns between Vicksburg and Natchez, anything so mundane as ghosts, but I have felt many times there a sense of place as powerful as if it were visible and walking and could touch me.
Perhaps it is the sense of place that gives us the belief that passionate things, in some essence, endure. Whatever is significant and whatever is tragic in its story live as long as the place does, though they are unseen, and the new life will be built upon these things — regardless of commerce and the way of rivers and roads, and other vagrancies.
from the story At the Landing:
Whenever she thought that Floyd was in the world, that his life lived and had this night and day, it was like discovery once more and again fresh to her, and if it was night and she lay stretched on her bed looking out at the dark, a great radiant energy spread intent upon her whole body and fastened her heart beneath its breath, and she would wonder almost aloud, “Ought I to sleep?” For it was love that might always be coming, and she must watch for it this time and clasp it back while it clasped, and while it held her never let it go.
Then the radiance touched at her heart and her brain, moving within her. Maybe some day she could become bright and shining all at once, as though at the very touch of another with herself. But now she was like a house with all its rooms dark from the beginning, and someone would have to go slowly from room to room, slowly and darkly, leaving each one lighted behind, before going to the next. It was not caution or distrust that was in herself, it was only a sense of journey, of something that might happen. She herself did not know what might lie ahead, she had never seen herself. She looked outward with the sense of rightful space and time within her, which must be traversed before she could be known at all. And what she would reveal in the end was not herself, but the way of the traveler.