Tag Archives: Native American

Thoughts on “There There” by Tommy Orange

This was the latest selection for the book club to which I belong. It’s a novel written by a Native American author that explores what it is like to be a Native American living in an urban environment. The book is set in Oakland, and follows the paths of multiple characters leading up to a big pow wow.

For me, the strength of this book is in the way Orange uses different voices and narrative styles for each of the characters’ stories. He does manage to give each one a unique voice, which is tough to pull off well, especially with the number of threads and stories that are woven together into the larger tale.

The structure of this book reminds me of a Quentin Tarantino film. There are all these story lines that wind together, bringing the characters together in unexpected ways. Maybe a better analogy would be that the story resembles a Native American dream catcher, with all the stories knotted together; and yet somehow the nightmare is not caught, but slips through, a symbol of how the American Dream just doesn’t exist for so many people of indigenous cultures.

While the title of the book seems conciliatory, it is actually a reference to a Gertrude Stein quote, about how the lives and places we knew from our pasts are no longer there.

“Do you know what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland?” Rob says.

Dene shakes his head no but actually he knows, actually googled quotes about Oakland when researching for his project. He knows exactly what the guy is about to say.

“There is no there there,” he says in a kind of a whisper, with this goofy openmouthed smile Dene wants to punch. Dene wants to tell him he’d looked up the quote in its original context, in her Everybody’s Autobiography, and found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.

(pp. 38 – 39)

I think of the various times and places of my past, and those are just snapshots in time. They no longer exist. On a recent trip back to a city where I had lived for over 20 years, it was almost unrecognizable from what I remembered. There were shadows of what once was, almost like a distant echo that sparks a nostalgic memory, but the place itself is gone, changed beyond recognition. I can only imagine that this feeling must be magnified 100 fold for Native Americans, who were displaced and stripped of their homes.

The book is unsettling, and might be disturbing for some readers. But it is worth reading. We should not avoid reading about topics because they make us uncomfortable.

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Thoughts on “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My daughter gave me this book as a gift, and I have to say, I loved it. She obviously knows me well.

Kimmerer is Native American and a Professor of Environmental Biology. So this book is essentially a weaving of environmental science writing and spiritually based storytelling. Science and spirituality used to inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum, but not anymore. The people who are at the forefront of each discipline are exploring the relationships between the two, and Kimmerer’s skill as a wordsmith makes this book a joy to read, even when she addresses painful issues, which are unavoidable when writing about environmental topics.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

(pp. 5 – 6)

We live in a society that is detached from the sources of that which we consume. As a result, we do not have to think about where everything comes from, and the true cost to our world in the mass production of commodities that are destined for landfills. But as Kimmerer points out, almost everything that we use, every item that finds its way into our homes, is made at the expense of another living entity.

Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the “waste stream” in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from the mailbox to the waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see it in the trees it once had been?

(p. 148)

There is a long section later in the book that is worth quoting. Kimmerer uses the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for our current state of mindless consumption.

No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices—addiction to alcohol, gambling, technology, and more—as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims—in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” The footprints are all around us, once you know what to look for.

(p. 306)

We all have important decisions to make, and every choice, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will have lasting consequences. We are indeed at a crossroads, and we no longer have the luxury of complacency. Every one of us has a responsibility, to begin the healing process and start undoing the damage that we have done as a collective species.

We do indeed stand at the crossroads. Scientific evidence tells us we are close to the tipping point of climate change, the end of fossil fuels, the beginning of resource depletion. Ecologists estimate we would need seven planets to sustain the lifeways we have created. And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace, have not brought us contentment. They have brought us the loss of our relatives in a great wave of extinction. Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a choice ahead, a crossroads.

(p. 368)

I strongly encourage you to read this book. It will inspire, outrage, and motivate you. Remember, everything that you do matters. Act accordingly.

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Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. 1955: Burning Season

I have to say that I enjoy stand-alone comics much more than ongoing arcs, since they are like a short story and instantly gratifying to read. And this one is an excellent short tale that worked for me on multiple levels.

Hellboy, the professor, and Susan arrive in Florida to investigate cases of spontaneous combustion, an unusual occurrence which I personally find fascinating in a morbid kind of way.

The notion of spontaneous human combustion dates back to the eighteenth century, but there are legends going back centuries with similar features. And while in medieval times such deaths were attributed to demonic influence, more recently some have come to believe that there is a medical cause.

In trying to figure out whether the events were caused by an unquiet spirit, the group considers the suffering of the Seminole tribe.

The Seminole themselves were driven out by U.S. troops, forced to embark on the ‘Trail of Tears’ to make room for white settlers.

Having lived in Florida, I was familiar with the Seminole and aspects of their history. But the comic also mentions another indigenous tribe, the Timucua.

The original inhabitants of the region, the Timucua, may have been the first North American indians to encounter Spanish explorers when Ponce de Leon arrived in 1513. But the Timucua were wiped out by disease brought by the explorers, their numbers reduced from hundreds of thousands to a bare handful by the nineteenth century.

One of the things I love about the Hellboy series is that the writers consistently draw upon obscure historical information, legends, and mythology. So since I had not heard of this tribe, I did a quick web search to validate the existence of the tribe.

The Timucua were a Native American people who lived in Northeast and North Central Florida and southeast Georgia. They were the largest indigenous group in that area and consisted of about 35 chiefdoms, many leading thousands of people. The various groups of Timucua spoke several dialects of the Timucua language. At the time of European contact, the territory occupied by speakers of Timucuan dialects occupied about 19,200 square miles (50,000 km2), and was home to between 50,000 and 200,000 Timucuans. It stretched from the Altamaha River and Cumberland Island in present-day Georgia as far south as Lake George in central Florida, and from the Atlantic Ocean west to the Aucilla River in the Florida Panhandle, though it reached the Gulf of Mexico at no more than a couple of points.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Spoiler Alert: I have to give away the ending to discuss the last thing, so stop here if you plan on reading the comic and do want the ending spoiled.

It is discovered that the cause of the spontaneous human combustion is the cumulative anguish of all the people who suffered in that area.

The flames were unable to consume you, Hellboy, but you couldn’t hope to overcome centuries of pain. You could only acknowledge it. Remember it.

For me, this was a very powerful and symbolic image. Pain and suffering is symbolically represented as a burning within an individual, or collectively within a group or culture. Eventually the pain and suffering rises to the surface resulting in violent outbursts. We often think we can fight this type of burning rage, but we cannot. Fighting it only increases the pain and stokes the flames of hatred and anger. It is only through acknowledgement, empathy, and compassion that we can begin the healing process.

One last thing I want to say about this comic: the writing and artwork are both amazing. Even if you are not a fan of the genre, you will undoubtedly be impressed by the brilliance of the creative team reflected in these pages. I highly recommend this to all readers.

Cheers!

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“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 07

This graphic series continues to impress me. A lot happens in this installment, and I could certainly write extensively about it, but will focus on the two aspects which stood out most prominently for me.

While Shadow is driving, he picks up a young woman named Sam who is hitchhiking. As they are driving, they get into an interesting discussion regarding Herodotus.

Shadow: It’s like he’s writing these histories, and they’re pretty good histories. Loads of weird little details. And then there are the stories with gods in them. Some guy is running back to report on the outcome of a battle and he’s running and running, and he sees Pan in a glade… and Pan says… “Tell them to build me a temple here.” So he says… “Okay.” … and runs the rest of the way back. And he reports the battle news, and then he says… “Oh, and by the way, Pan wants you to build him temple.” It’s really matter-of-fact, you know?

Sam: I read some book about brains, how five thousand years ago, the lobes of the brain fused, and before that people thought when the right lobe of the brain said anything, it was the voice of God. It’s just brains.

Shadow: I like my theory better.

Sam: What’s your theory?

Shadow: That back then people used to run into the gods from time to time.

I had read Herodotus back in college and remembering liking his histories. Probably something I should read again at some point. But what struck me the most about this section is how, in the past, people did have more interaction with their gods than they do today. I think it is because we have become more distracted by the trappings of our manufactured societies. We have replaced our old gods with new gods, gods of science, technology, commerce, and so forth. Which segues nicely into the next section I want to share.

In this scene, Shadow is watching television in a motel room, and a goddess manifests as Lucille Ball on the TV. She intimates to him that she is one of the new gods, who are the future.

Look at it like this, Shadow: we are the coming thing. We’re shopping malls, we’re online shopping. Your friends are crappy roadside attractions. We are now and tomorrow. Your friends are yesterday.

As I pondered this, I recalled sadly when my wife and I recently went to Cherokee. We went into some of the “Native American” gift shops, and they were all filled with manufactured garbage from China that was supposed to capture the power of what was once a mighty spiritual system. It was depressing. I could not find a single item that was actually made by a Native American craftsperson. I ended up buying only some locally roasted coffee.

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The X-Files: Year Zero – Issue #3 (Trickster Archetype)

XFiles_YearZero_03

This mini-series is getting very good. I was enjoying it from the beginning, but now it is really fleshing out and becoming a complex and engaging tale, complete with all the supernatural mystery that I love about the X-Files.

This issue continues the parallel storyline with agents Mulder and Scully investigating Mr. Zero in the present and Special Agent Bing Ellinson and Special Employee Millie Ohio investigating Mr. Xero in 1946. Both pairs of agents discover something about this mysterious being—that he appears to be an incarnation of the trickster. Upon overhearing Ellinson and Ohio’s conversation regarding Xero, Ish, a Native American youth, says: “He sounds like the one my people call Raven—a trickster who is helpful at times, hurtful at others.”

The trickster is an archetypal deity that appears throughout mythology.

The trickster deity breaks the rules of the gods or nature, sometimes maliciously (for example, Loki) but usually with ultimately positive effects (though the trickster’s initial intentions may have been either positive or negative). Often, the bending/breaking of rules takes the form of tricks (e.g. Eris) or thievery. Tricksters can be cunning or foolish or both; they are often funny even when considered sacred or performing important cultural tasks. An example of this is the sacred Iktomi, whose role is to play tricks and games and by doing so raises awareness and acts as an equalizer.

In many cultures, (as may be seen in Greek, Norse, or Slavic folktales, along with Native American/First Nations lore), the trickster and the culture hero are often combined. To illustrate: Prometheus, in Greek mythology, stole fire from the gods to give to humans. He is more of a culture hero than a trickster. In many Native American and First Nations mythologies, the coyote (Southwestern United States) or raven (Pacific Northwest and Russian Far East) stole fire from the gods (stars, moon, and/or sun) and are more tricksters than culture heroes. This is primarily because of other stories involving these spirits: Prometheus was a titan, whereas the Coyote spirit and Raven spirit are usually seen as jokesters and pranksters. Examples of Tricksters in the world mythologies are given by Hansen (2001), who lists Mercurius in Roman mythology, Hermes in Greek mythology, Eshu in Yoruba mythology and Wakdjunga in Winnebago mythology as examples of the Trickster archetype. Hansen makes the observation that the Trickster is nearly always a male figure.

(Source: Wikipedia)

As Mulder and Scully begin to figure out that the mysterious Xero/Zero is the trickster, they have a great discussion about the nature of the trickster and why he appears at the times he does, and also about the manner in which he manifests.

Scully: It seems in each instance Xero made an unexpected appearance that helped the agents… excuse me—agent and special employee… solve the case. He was training them. But why?

Mulder: The world was changing, Scully. Even the phenomena were changing. Suddenly there were rumors of aliens and atomic mutations in addition to ghosts and goblins. But no matter how real the consequences, to Xero it was all just a game.

Scully: And he wanted to make sure there was someone else who could play.

Mulder: I think Ish was right—we’re dealing with a trickster. Xero presented himself in terms that people from the 40s would understand—a being from another world… but there are patterns and peculiarities to his appearances that have shown up throughout human history. Two hundred years ago he would have been considered a mischievous or maleficent faerie or elf like Rumpelstiltskin. Two thousand years ago he would have been called a demon.

The trickster is one of my favorite mythological archetypes. I was enjoying this comic before, but now I am really psyched about it. I cannot wait to see how the two stories play out. Check back for my review on the next issue once it is released.

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Black Science: Issue #2

BlackScience_02This issue is a solid continuation of the first issue. The inter-dimensional travelers find themselves caught in the middle of a war between a European army that possesses WWI weaponry and an army of futuristic Native Americans. It is quite a surreal situation.

I find the writing and storyline to be the strong points. I like how flashbacks are incorporated to strengthen the background story. It works well with as part of the whole alternate-reality premise. The artwork is also good, but my one critique is that the faces could use more work. It seems like there are two expressions which every character shares, and the facial structure is so similar between characters that I had to rely on the text to identify who was who. But as someone who cannot draw a decent stickman, I can’t judge too harshly.

The issue ends with the sense that the Techno-Native American tribe will send a shaman to assist the travelers. That has my interest piqued for the next installment. Native American mysticism has always fascinated me, so I am curious to see how it will be addressed. Until then…

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