September 21, 2006

White boy does animal dances

Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelsen – A Review by Beverly SlapinTouching Spirit Bear is fatally flawed by Mikaelsen’s inexcusable playing around with Tlingit culture, cosmology and ritual; and his abysmal lack of understanding of traditional banishment. It is obvious that what he doesn’t know, he invents. Edwin, the Tlingit elder, instructs Cole to: jump into the icy cold water and stay there as long as possible; pick up a heavy rock (called the “ancestor rock”) and carry it to the top of a hill; push the rock (now called the “anger rock”) back down the hill; watch for animals and dance around the fire to impersonate the animal he sees (called the “bear dance,” “bird dance,” “mouse dance,” etc.); announce what he’s learned about the characteristics of that animal from his dance; and finally, carve that animal on his own personal “totem pole.”

This is all garbage. The purpose of banishment is to isolate a person so that, in solitude, he can think deeply about his life and relations, and prepare to rejoin his community. When someone is banished, he is left to learn on his own whatever is to be learned. It is not about white boys “playing Indian.” It is not about teaching white boys the rituals of another culture. And most especially, it is not about carrying rocks up a hill and performing a bunch of stupid cross-cultural animal impersonation dances.

4 comments:

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR notwithstanding, few people ever mention that there is one organization that teaches "Indian" ways and rarely is held up to any such scrutiny. The Boy Scouts of America has whole volumes of 'Indian history and culture' that are used to teach the scouts, and still offers achievement badges and honors for how well such matters are learned. In the late 1960s, here in Anadarko, a handsome young white man came several years to the American Indian Expo held each August, to enter the World Champion War Dance competitions. He had a beautiful and authentic set of dancing regalia and actually was quite accomplished in his dancing. He performed well enough to place all the way into the finals but never was to be allowed to win because he was not a Native. He was interviewed by local TV reporters and revealed that he was an Eagle Scout from Ohio who had taken his scouting books to heart and then studied the craft of Plains war dancing at many powwows. Unabashedly he stated that he even wanted to be an Indian.
Then it was learned where his costuming originated and he found himself barred from competition completely. From the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the FBI had raided Native communities and reservations and even pawn shops in Native areas, looking for and finding and seizing Native worship items and implements, clothing and regalia, that contained feathers and body parts from birds and other animals deemed to be protected and endangered. It mattered little that many of the items were hundreds of years old and in fact were tribal treasures that were sacred as well as valuable. Noises were made that the possessors were liable for fines and imprisonment for having such illegal things, but no one ever was brought up on charges. This occurred in many states.
Some of the FBI's cache of seized properties went to the Smithsonian and various other museums. But a substantial amount of those were donated to the Boy Scouts of America, so that their members could learn and practice 'Indian arts and ceremonies' with authentic materials.
The Eagle Scout's costume, therefore, contained real eagle feathers and genuine beadworked belts, roach headpiece, headband, breastplate, bellbands and mocassins, all derived from the raids of the FBI. He wept when he was told he was banned and he never came back to Anadarko again. There were rumors that he had been seen in later years at Crow Fair and other Native celebrations in other states.
This is why, in my story, "The Last Quest," my Native character John Tallowhands is forbidden to speak his own language at the government school in Oklahoma. But when government dignitaries come to see the school, Tallowhands quickly is demanded to perform the few dances and ceremonies from his Northwest tribe for the visitors. In most extents, Native people must perform for 'the dominant society', but they have been prohibited and prevented by that same society from practicing many of their surviving cultural elements for themselves.
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Well, it happened again, but having learned what is the problem from Rob, I will use this post to kick my original into the comment string. Here goes!
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Grabblefratch! It didn't work!
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

I plan to post something on the Indian roots of the Boy Scouts someday. It's on my long list of things to do.