Listening to Native Americans: Making Peace with the Past for the Future http://www.op.org/DomCentral/library/native.htm John Barry Ryan is Professor of Religious Studies and a member of the Peace Studies faculty at Manhattan College. His research interests include liturgical studies and American Indian religions. ---------------------------------------------------------------------- It is a Native American tradition to introduce oneself before one speaks. In that spirit, I begin with some steps in my own journey of listening to Native Americans. I acknowledge at the outset that for most of my life I did not listen, maybe could not listen. But for a decade now, I have been attempting to listen to Native Americans. "Attempting" is the appropriate word because I am very much aware that I bring preconceptions, hardheadedness, and lack of attention to the conversation. Even worse, Native Americans have taught me that I carry a much heavier burden. I view the world from the conqueror's point of view, which informs everything I do. I knew this intellectually, but in listening to Native Americans I understand more concretely and in some detail what it means. I only dared propose a course on Native American Religions because I had researched Navajo prayer forms for two papers that I presented, one in 1985 at the annual meeting of the North American Academy of Liturgy and the other in 1991 at the biannual meeting of Societas Liturgica, an international ecumenical organization of liturgical scholars. My first paper, "Sacred Words: Navajo Prayer and the Eucharistic Prayer," was a study comparing and contrasting Navajo prayer forms with Christian Eucharistic Prayers. In the second paper, I discussed the Navajo Blessingway. Since it was oral, not written (scriptural), and accompanied a Native American Ritual, it was the obverse of the meeting's topic, the Bible and Christian Liturgy. My effort was to introduce, even if only into a tiny corner of this meeting on the Bible and Christian liturgy, its counterpart from the Native American tradition. I wanted to remind indirectly anyone who would listen that there was another world, still living, whose oral prayer was immense and whose ritual was effective. I wanted to include what was excluded by definition. My simple gesture was to ask scholars of Christian liturgy to take into account the very religion their own religious tradition sought to displace indeed to wipe out. In the same way, the sprawling city of Toronto, the meeting's venue, had covered up and made the first inhabitants of the area virtually disappear. As I came into greater contact with the Navajo and their chants or sings, a change began to take place in the way I viewed the Indians and related to them. Maybe the best way to say it is that, if I wanted them to become my teacher, I had to listen to them. In this way, my personal research emboldened me to start a seminar that would lead college students to undertake, in a parallel fashion, for other Native American traditions what I was doing for the Navajo. Out of this first course grew an elective course in Peace Studies and Religious Studies. My students opened me to a wide variety of Native American groups. Their papers on the Santee Sioux, the Hopi, the Omaha, the Haida and other Native American peoples were particularly instructive for me. In writing them, each student became knowledgeable about a single religious tradition and listened to fellow v students discuss their Native American group. This meant that Native American groups from different cultural areas were being discovered in their particularity, thereby breaking down the idea of some single Indian type. Before one can make peace with the Native Americans, one must first understand them in their separate identities with their own histories and traditions. LISTENING TO NATIVE AMERICAN AUTHORS In the movement from a seminar to an elective course, I realized how important it was that Native American voices and viewpoints were the principal ones that students heard. The challenge was to make visible what had been largely invisible although present all around us. The syllabus included general background introductions, Native American literature, rituals, issues, artistic creations, and documents of Indian relations with the United States. The literary voices we listen to are those of Scott Momaday (Kiowa) and Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo). Momaday's House Made of Dawn is an American classic, with wonderful descriptions of the natural beauty of the American Southwest.1 In telling the story of Abel, a young Indian in need of healing and restoration of spirit, Momaday showed the possibility of Indian religious traditions and the role these traditions play in Abel's healing from war, from contempt, from racism, and from the United States government's policy of social engineering. At the same time, virtually every page introduces the reader to the integration of religious forms into the everyday life of the Pueblo people. The entire first section of the book is an expression of Momaday's love of growing up Indian in the Southwest. His memories become palpable as he transmutes them into an extraordinarily rich prose. He does not invest the land with moral purpose. Instead he discovers the moral dimension of the land. Silko's Ceremony takes as its protagonist, Tayo, also a young Native American who returns from World War II.2 She makes extensive use of-Native American mythology, in effect telling her story on two registers, first in poetic mythological language and then in narrative prose. The healing of Tayo, of mixed ancestry, through Native American ritual gives the book its title, Ceremony. Tayo's journey to wholeness allows Silko to show the effects on Native Americans of alcoholism, dislocation, industrial exploitation of the land, loss of Indian self-esteem, and religious moralism. Like Momaday, Silko gives the victim voice. At the same time, her characters illustrate the spiritual power of the feminine to restore the broken to wholeness. These novels by Native American authors have led me to sample an even greater variety of Native American fiction, particularly those authors who have enjoyed commercial success, such as Michael Dorris (Modoc), Louise Erdrich (Chippewa), James Welch (Blackfoot and Gros Ventre), and authors found in such collections as Paula Gunn Allen's (Laguna Pueblo), Spiderwoman's Granddaughters,3 Alan Velie's The Lightening Within,4 and Clifford Trafzer's Earth Song, Sky Spirit.5 These collections contain some of the best in Native American creative writing. Additionally, the whole field of Native American writing is surveyed in Paula Gunn Allen's Studies in American Indian Literature 6 and A. LaVonne Brown Ruoffs American Indian Literatures.7 The autobiographical details on many Native American authors can be found in Growing Up Native American.8 Krupat and Swann's, I Tell You Now,9 and Laura Cortelli's Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak.10 Most recently, Brian Swann has edited an extraordinary collection of Native American literature in his anthology Coming to Light,11 a phrase from the Native American poet Linda Hogan (Chickasaw).12 Swann's general introduction, the introductions to the particular selections, and the selections themselves give an excellent presentation of Native American literature and some background for appreciating each entry. The anthology illustrates the collaboration of Indian and non-Indian in the preservation of the literature from all the Native American cultural areas in the United States. Through these authors, Native American Literature, almost invisible to me only a decade ago, has become fascinatingly familiar. These authors are a valuable resource not only in their treatment of Indian themes but also in their insight into the very experience of what it has meant to be an American in the twentieth century. LISTENING TO NATIVE AMERICAN RITUAL Native American ritual plays an important role in the assigned class readings. If students can get beyond the initial dislocating strangeness that Native American ritual provokes, they may be able to appreciate how such ritual deals with some realities that modern medical practice often ignores. I have in mind here the psyche of the patient and the connectedness of the patient with the larger community and its origins, inevitably religious. In the Navajo singer, for example, the doctor and the hospital chaplain are one. The point is that modern medicine is not all gain, and while the Navajo singer, like Frank Mitchell, resorts to it he does not neglect Navajo sings.13 In Native American Religions: Sources and Interpretations, Sam Gill has put together a collection of Native American rituals associated with the life cycle, the seasons, and moments of crisis.14 Students are introduced to such Native American rituals as the vision quest the sun dance, shamanic cures, Navajo sandpainting, and the peyote ceremony of the Native American Church. These rituals are communal, earthy, and experiential, with group involvement in rites that appeal to the senses. This contrasts strongly with an individualistic approach to overly intellectualized worship forms that leaves the participant alienated. Studying Native American ritual is a subversive practice that hopes to undermine individualism and, not the same thing, the experience of being disconnected from others and from society. LISTENING TO NATIVE AMERICAN VIDEOS Videos allow Native Americans to speak on a variety of topics and to present their own point of view on American history. Such video documentaries are highly subjective. They present well-founded alternative views often neglected by American education and popular culture. Among other topics, these videos discuss the suppression of the Native American religious traditions, the unjust taking of tribal lands, the educational social engineering of Indian children by Americans who saw themselves as friends of the Indians, and the achievements of the peoples who inhabited this land before Columbus set foot upon it. Fortunately, the younger generation of students in our schools are being introduced to the sad history of relations between the United States government and Native Americans through school materials such as a 1994-95 Scholastic/ NBC News video, with a segment on the Native Americans entitled, "A History of Mistrust." Turner Home Entertainment has a series on The Native Americans that presents the American Indian point of view without apology. LISTENING TO NATIVE AMERICAN ARTISTS To come into direct contact with Native American arts and crafts and Native American artists, students are required to visit the American Museum of Natural History and The George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), Smithsonian Institution. The NMAI is a unique seeing and listening post. The Museum, in Washington, D.C., will open a facility on the National Mall by the end of the decade. This planned national museum, established by an act of Congress in 1989, is dedicated to the preservation, study, and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of Native Americans. The Heye Center, which serves as an adjunct exhibition and educational facility is already in operation in the Alexander Hamilton Custom House in lower Manhattan. The Center perfectly illustrates the intention of the NMAI to work in collaboration with indigenous peoples to protect and foster native cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere. From the very beginnings of the Heye Center, Native Americans were prominent in deciding what to exhibit and how to exhibit it. The NMAI is to be a place of life, not a morgue for artifacts. It affirms the survival of Native American practices, shows reverence for the spiritual objects of tradition, and attempts to draw the visitor into the culture of Native Americans through the plastic and performing arts. In this way, the vanished Indian becomes very much present. Native Americans themselves invite the public into their circle. This contrasts remarkably with the older approach seen in the American Museum of Natural History. The Museum of Natural History presents exhibits on the Plains and Northeast and Southeast Indians, the Northwest Coast Indians, and the natives of the Arctic and Subarctic. The exhibits here are informational and almost detached from the spirit of the Native American even while a sound track plays Native American chants in the background. The viewer is separate from the objects exhibited and, despite all good intentions, the native voice seems to disappear behind the objectification of the assembled items in the exhibition. The presentation mutes the dialogue that the exhibits aim to stimulate. Only the most sensitive of listeners can discern their power. L