Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Umeda Vegetation and Topography

Gell works out the Umeda thought world very carefully but I’ll spare you most of the semiotics, fascinating as it is.

But one must accept the principle that people think in terms of topography as well as objects. For instance, the “left” or “right” in politics, a color “wheel,” a food “pyramid” -- where spatial relationships are moved from the concrete to abstract ideas, becoming ordering principles. Writing teachers demonstrate thought mapping, like “webbing” where one puts the concepts in circles and then makes the proper connections or spin-offs with lines. There’s a whole cartography and topography like Venn Diagrams, the Johari Window, or even the three-level Christian world stacking heaven on top of earth on top of hell. This is the way the brain keeps things sorted -- it seems to be in all cultures and essentially human. It appears to be enhanced by walking on different terrains, through different spaces to develop more ways to deploy ideas.

But what is sorted and how it is laid out in “idea solitaire,” concepts must be experienced, not just in the culture but to the person. To the Umeda, what counts is the house: Men claim the middle and women sit on the verandahs around the periphery. The boy, in his idyllic early years on his father’s shoulders, is occupying an anatomical place with the same name as the rafters of the house.

When a boy is born, his mother plants for him a coconut palm on the edge of the village so the houses are surrounded by a circle of coconut palms, each tree associated with an individual. They are very valuable. When one man, maddened by sexual jealousy, assaulted his own palm tree, it was a kind of suicide and the villagers were prepared to use deadly force to stop him.

Out in the jungle is a different kind of tree which has a flower/fruit structure that hangs down, looking just like a woman’s grass skirt. One set of the little complex of villages is said to be descended from people who came out of the coconut palm -- out of the coconut itself. The others come from this other palm like a woman. They are the source of wives for the palm tree people -- and also sorcery! As it happens, this palm like a woman has leaves that are mildly narcotic and chewing them is habitual, the way smoking used to be for us. Comforting, relaxing. I used to have a minister who referred to a competent woman as “the source of all good things,” but of course -- as the Buddhists know -- desire is the source of rage and resentment.

In our culture when men on the battlefield are in mortal suffering, they call out for their mothers. When a Umeda is in peril and pain, he cries out for his father. Mothers, the unfailing source of sago, are taken for granted. It is fathers whom the boys remember so vividly from their “imprinting” years when they rode on their father’s shoulders and received tidbits and praise, only to be rejected and pushed away when the next child arrives. It is fathers who shape their picture of the world, not the women who are accessible everywhere.

Alongside the coconut palm ring around the village is a secondary set of a slightly smaller and simpler palm, less valuable. To Gell, this tree seemed to have taken on the aura of a “little brother.” Little brothers, the dethroners, are not happily regarded but who can do without them?

Gardens exist out in the bush and that is where both sex and birth take place, but very quietly, almost secretly. That’s where the “married” people dwell, but it is a place of work. It’s also a place where wild pigs are not welcome, though tame ones are tolerated in the village as carrion and excrement eaters. Wild pigs are occasionally hunted by men or trapped by women, who then enjoy them hugely as a source of protein. But they must be fenced “out” of the garden unless they are being penned and then they are fenced “in” -- there are two separate words for the two separate kinds of fences. The two concepts of what is included by a periphery or excluded by a periphery become roots for words about other abstract things or metaphorically related things. And far, far, deep, deep in the jungle is the cassowary -- solitary, wild, terrible, dangerous, huge -- think of the size of the drumsticks! A cassowary is free and independent of community. An ultimate male -- no more of the hard work of sago pounding.

Gell felt these pre-verbal concepts were crucial to understanding what the Umeda were up to in their liturgies. They always thought in pairs, reciprocal dyads, and they always thought in edge versus “included.” Also, they were positively Freudian about “innies” and “outies” so that protuberances or danglers had word-overlaps with penises and holes with vulva words. A constant theme was the ambivalent relationship between brothers.

I have a workbook about English word roots that I started to use in the classroom in Heart Butte. (“Origins” by Sandra R. Robinson with LIndsay McAuliffe, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1989) Each word root is one of those deep concepts. For instance, bhel (to swell) is the origin of balloon, ball, belly, bowl, bulge, boulder, bulky, billow, bold... etc. Using the principles of the Blackfeet Immersion School run by Piegan Institute, we acted out bulging and billowing and rolling around like balls. Then we told the story of Napi pursued by bounder erratics, which abound on the prairie here because of the glaciers.

When the Umeda enact a ceremony, they are sometimes at this level, except they go all the way with masks and dances to fit the concepts. They decorate themselves with paint and try to mystify the children and women to make everything more powerful and sacred. All the while what just seems bizarre to outsiders has visceral, dream-like meaning to the person performing. These are liturgies not meant to be merely watched but meant for participation both to confirm and to challenge the world that is their lot -- a very hard one.

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