Archive for the ‘Secret’ Category

The sound–like sleet upon a roof

draws me outside to see

a great flock of European Starlings

filling the surrounding fall trees.

surrounding me.




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An anthropologist friend asked me the following question:

“I’m teaching Indians of North America this year. One of my students (Anglo) objected to another student’s presentation, because she showed a film clip of a Crow elder, which also included a clip from the sun dance (re-created). He says the sun dance should never be shown. What is your opinion?”

This causes me to ask myself some questions:
“What is the nature of something sacred?”, and
“What is the nature of something secret?”
“Are the two intertwined, or can they be exclusive?”
“What is the nature of the request about the keeping of the sacred and/or secret?”
“How far does one go in respecting the wishes of an institution/organization or individual if they are not a part of it?”

Let me give you a clear-cut example from my own life first. It’s religious but it has bearing on Red Lakers and the example in question which I will get to. Then we can travel through waters that are a little more murky.

I’m Mormon. I’ve been to the temple. I’ve had my endowments, call them ceremonies, rituals, a sacrament, or whatever. They are sacred to me and they are supposed to be secret.

Addressing the secret part, I would say, as a member, I’m admonished in public church (where non-members can participate) on Sunday that because I should hold them sacred, that I shouldn’t speak about their content other than in general context outside of the temple. So publicly I can say that I go to something called an “Endowment” and in it I learn things and I make promises. However, what I wouldn’t speak of outside of the temple is what specific things I learned and the wording of the promises I make.

Now, what you probably already know is that if one doesn’t respect my and the Mormon church’s desire to keep these things secret. You can go online and see for yourself exactly what is there. Why? Because people who were disaffected/left the church or who deliberately weaseled their way to the point where they could participate in the endowment so they could secretly record it, made their own choice to ridicule what I and the church consider sacred and secret. I haven’t been to these sites but I would suppose that they present the information in a way that is neither respectful nor unbiased.

Ok. I can feel myself getting a little worked up here. This brings me to another point of the nature of the Sacred.

How do you know when something is sacred to you? I believe, simply put, it’s when you have strong good feelings about something Good. (Yes that capital G was deliberate.) Weep at the death of a loved one? That’s sacred. Get so choked up that you can’t talk about something? That’s sacred. Motivated to do something good because of something that happened to you? That’s sacred. Cry at a tearjerker? Maybe a little less so; but still, it’s sacred.

Let me speak a little about the sacred and secret in a certain case. The one where you get so choked up about something that you can’t talk about it. That has happened to me a few times about things both wonderful and sorrowful, but the sorrowful time I can use as an example happened a long time ago at my dad’s funeral so I can talk about it now.

For me, my relationship with him was intensely conflicted. So when he died, it hit me hard…really hard. When mom asked me to speak during the funeral—(Being an Elder in my church at the time—I usually had some words to say.) I couldn’t. I was so distraught that I could barely shake my head “no”. Sometimes something is a secret because you are too emotionally wrought, it is too hard, too painful, or too wonderful, to talk about, and when you revisit it, those same feelings arise again. Those feelings arising again are what keep some things a secret. You simply aren’t able to bring it forth.

This is different from those things that are secret because a person or organization wants to maintain power, or control, or keep their works of light from scorn, or–on the other hand–keep their works in darkness.

Conversely, the anger or irritation you feel when someone violates what you unknowingly hold sacred is a good indication that it is sacred as well. A pedophile steals the virtue of a child. A rapist destroys the virtue/innocence of your virgin daughter. Someone tortures a pet. Your home is vandalized or burglarized. Your spouse/mate cheats on you; sacred, sacred, sacred. Talk emotionally about something that has meaning for you and you get a cold flat stare or a negative head shake. That’s when you know you are “casting your pearls before swine”. Perhaps, you’re only a little irritated or chagrined you were teased for crying at the tearjerker; a little less so, but still sacred!

Now let’s muddy the waters. Let’s talk about the Mide’wiwin at the turn of the previous century. There are some good reference materials on the Mide’wiwin of that time. They are:

The Mide’wiwin or Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibway” By Walter James Hoffman.
Chippewa Customs. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 86 (1929), 204 pp. By Frances Densmore
Chippewa Music. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 45 (1910), 216 pp. By Frances Densmore
Chippewa Music II. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 53 (1913), 341 pp. Music, illus. By Frances Densmore
Origin Scrolls of the Southern Midewiwin, by Selwyn Dewdney. (Not available to be read online.)

I’m providing these references because Hoffman and Densmore were respectful and the representatives from a number of different reservations they spoke to at the time believed the sharing of information would benefit everyone—especially their people—and it has and does! You can read most of these references online.
I believe these Mide’wiwin-of-old from a number of different reservations shared the information because they didn’t want it to get lost. However, that may be different from the feelings of the people who are in the Midewiwin now, but I don’t know.

The old Mide’ had different reasons for sharing what they did. Since they were the gatekeepers it was their prerogative to share. Now that what they said, sang and have shown are a matter of public record, the consequences are long lasting.

Now I’ll try and partially answer the question posed about your classroom situation. I think the student who voiced the objection may suffer from what I would call the Fundamental Indian Attribution Error (Caveat–when applicable). That error is that just because someone or some organization is American Indian; that the rules are all the same for all Indians everywhere.

There are over four hundred American Indian Tribes and Bands in the United States alone. Each one is responsible for its internal workings. In addition, within each one, the government and organizations within each Indian government are responsible for what happens to their constituents. Therefore they are all going to be different in some way. Many of these tribes do not agree with each other. Heck, people in each tribe don’t agree with each other, and within each tribe you will find bands that don’t agree, and people in each band who don’t agree, and people in each family who don’t agree, etc.

Some might hold that the ceremonial information itself is secret. You’ll find others that disagree. I think Indians practice a kind of detente about this. If you disagree with someone about something, you move away, or you keep quiet and express your opinions about it (and them) among your own, or in private. In the “old days”, it kept you from getting killed or beat up. (There is still some of that to consider at present in some places) but I believe it’s more important to talk about cultural things publicly today because factors which influence fraction of tribal cultural institutions are increasing.

The rest of my answer is this. My understanding is that a number of people in different tribes practice the Sun Dance. The gatekeepers of this ceremonial practice for each tribe are responsible for how much of their ceremony is public. That’s as far as their authority goes. While I think display of an actual ceremony would be incontinent, a recreation would be acceptable. This is because you are sharing the information about the ceremony in such a way in your classroom venue, that you are not exposing the actual participants and what they hold sacred, to the possibility of ridicule; and you are doing it by permission or instigation of these particular gatekeepers via audio-visual material they’ve created about their particular ceremony which frees you from the obligation of keeping it secret in your classroom.

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