not enough to admire

It is not enough to admire the art of North American Indians; Western man must rediscover the spiritual sources of this art in himself. And until this is done, the power of the sacred will remain out of reach, and the anxiety of Western man living in time will continue to haunt his soul.
Jane Ash Poitras (Cree-Chipewyan)
in Plains Indian Drawings 1865-1935
ed. Janet Catherine Berlo
page 69
Black Hawk Dream or Vision of Himself Changed to a Destroyer or Riding a Buffalo Eagle (1880-81)
Black Hawk (Sans Arc Lakota)
Dream or Vision of Himself Changed to a Destroyer or Riding a Buffalo Eagle (1880-81)

 

Bear's Heart Troops Amassed Against a Cheyenne Village (1876-77)
Bear’s Heart (Cheyenne)
Troops Amassed Against a Cheyenne Village (1876-77)

 

Red Horse (Minneconjou Lakota Sioux, 1822-1907), Untitled from the Red Horse Pictographic Account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1881. Graphite, colored pencil, and ink. NAA MS 2367A_08569900. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution
Red Horse (Minneconjou Lakota Sioux, 1822-1907), Untitled from the Red Horse Pictographic Account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1881. Graphite, colored pencil, and ink. NAA MS 2367A_08569900. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

 

Julian Scott Ledger Artist B Twelve High-Ranking Kiowa Men (1880)
Julian Scott Ledger Artist B
Twelve High-Ranking Kiowa Men (1880)

following the trail

tensleep
Highway 16 in the Cloud Peak Wilderness

Point at Genesis all you like, but I don’t believe God created Wyoming for humans to live in. It is marvelous handiwork nonetheless! Aesthetically, from the comfort of a car with a full tank of gas, especially if it has heated seats and a good sound system, there’s no better road trip than across Highway 16 on the Cloud Peak Highway and through the Wind River Range.

Oregon Trail
the Oregon Trail just south of Casper, WY

The actual Oregon Trail is somewhat south of that route, through a broad river valley created by the North Platte and the Sweetwater, crossing the Continental Divide at South Pass. It’s an ancient Native American route between east and west, created by water, as all the best routes are, and it’s certainly more practical than the route Lewis and Clark took in the early 19th century!

southpasscity
South Pass City on 3 April 2016

Willow Creek is the the little stream that feeds the Gold Rush town of South Pass City. If this creek started six miles further west, that water would end up in the Colorado River heading southwest to grow lettuce in the Imperial Valley and water lawns in Los Angeles. If it were further north, it would eventually join the Columbia River and flow past Portland to the Pacific.

Willow Creek in South Pass City
Willow Creek in South Pass City

Instead, it joins the Sweetwater River, and then the North Platte at Alcova, WY, the Platte itself at Brady, NE, the Missouri at Nebraska City, the Mississippi at St. Louis, and then flows all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Sitting by the side of the creek this weekend, I imagined I could feel the gravitational pull towards the east and the south. This water is urging me to New Orleans, and I have to fight to imagine heading up and over the Continental Divide out to the West.

When I paddled through the Chain of Rocks six years ago, a real but vanishingly small percentage of the water I was flowing with came from Willow Creek in South Pass City.

That is a miraculous thing.

Willow Creek downstream flow
Willow Creek downstream flow

The scale of Wyoming is not human scale. England, that green and pleasant land, is human scale. Even Vermont is human scale, by comparison with Wyoming. Vermont is brutal in winter, certainly you can die of exposure or whatever, but there’s a sense that you as an individual human being can somehow find shelter, build a little nest in a ravine somewhere to protect yourself from the wind and snow and wild beasts. I do not feel that way in Wyoming. It is quite clear that I could die out here very easily. It is very beautiful, but it is not a green and pleasant land.

near Atlantic City, WY
near Atlantic City, WY

Perhaps when the buffalo were here, it felt different? Then there was a plentiful source of food, clothing, and even shelter just from that one animal, and small bands of humans could survive and even thrive by living on the wealth that the buffalo created for them.

But now the buffalo are gone. And the overriding feeling I am left with as an individual traveling alone in this landscape is exposure and vulnerability. Those feelings lead to awe, I have to say, when I think of a half million immigrants struggling across this landscape in wagons and handcarts. There’s something both terrible and thrilling about the ferocious fragility of human ambition: what were the desperate dreams of the people who embarked on this journey, what was so unbearable about the places and the situations they were escaping from?

The Oregon Trail at South Pass, WY
the Oregon Trail at South Pass, WY

Building the Bird Mound premieres Thursday

On Thursday 18 April, the Voices of Ascension under the direction of Dennis Keene will be premiering a new commission for chorus and organ called Building the Bird Mound. Click the photo for tickets and more information:

Building the Bird Mound was inspired by a visit I made to Poverty Point, a pre-historic mound complex in Northeast Louisiana, while traveling down the length of the Mississippi River by kayak and bicycle in the fall of 2009. Poverty Point, which was built sometime between 3500 and 1500 B.C. is structured as a series of long concentric half-circles that radiate from a center mound which is in the shape of a winged bird. When I stood in the center of the mound that November afternoon, I had a glimpse of something very powerful, a sense of being sheltered — held — in the body of this giant effigy bird, and close to the ghosts of all the people who had scrabbled in the dirt to pile up and carry soil, basket by basket, to build this sacred place. I knew then that I wanted to write a piece of music about this place and the people who built it, and Building the Bird Mound is the result of that afternoon’s inspiration.

the soul of the indian

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)

where the two roads meet

(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.”

native and christian

(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)

no place dedicated to solitude

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.