Tuesday, November 03, 2009


The crux of the matter is that for the American autochthonous people, everything was sacred: land, people, animals, plants. But some hundreds of years ago, in order to keep the peace when science began to depart from religion, the Europeans invented the idea of the “secular” and divided life into two realms: the sacred and the profane or ordinary. This was good in a way because it let science go ahead and learn without some cleric hanging over their shoulders, telling them what they couldn’t think, but it was also bad because it meant that things became just “things” and could be used without thinking about morality. One wonders what would have happened if the “New World” had been “discovered” by the Chinese instead of the Europeans.

Too late now. We’ve struggled for more than half a millennium to reconcile the “split” world with the “whole” world of Indians. Government officials admit the sacredness of one place and the locals immediately come up with another. The officials say, “Not EVERYTHING can be sacred! You need boundaries! Buildings, categories, what’s in and what’s out. The system of protecting designated sacred things won’t work unless you know which is which. So, now which of these material culture objects is sacred?” The real answer is all of them.

Mircea Eliade
used the word “valorized” to mean not just sacred but also intensely meaningful: full of symbolism and energy. One hybrid way of thinking about sacred things might be to distinguish between the potentially sacred and the “valorized” or energized. By their very nature, these objects are imbued with special value for their creators and users but have conflicting value for “outsiders,” from the Indian people who have converted to Christianity and been taught to despise and destroy anything “heathen” or “Satanic” to the whites who fancy that the magical efficacy of other people’s sacred objects have actual magic powers that they can co-opt. To some of today’s people, the iconography of the Catholic church probably has more energy, but there is also a natural tendency and deliberate attempt to conflate the two worlds, Christian and traditional, into some new synergy.

In the Southwest and Northwest there are ceremonials that are like theatre, so flamboyant and impressive. People wear masks and interact with the onlookers. Other things are secret, which makes everyone want to see them even more. Artifacts from such events would be in high demand. Kachina dolls carry a little of that glamor.

Northern prairie ceremonials, mostly based on “Bundles,” which are just what the word says, containing objects both humble (the hide of some small animal wrapped in calico with only its head sticking out) and spectacular (a Thunder Pipe which is a yard-long brass-tacked pipestem with the entire tail of an eagle attached in a hanging fan, along with clusters of brass falconry bells, ribbons, ermine skins, and some kind of colorful bird like a parrot or rooster. The value of such objects depend on whether the collector is looking for decoration or for scientific understanding of the symbolism, but there is also an element of faddishness. In the Sixties no one paid much attention to Bundles, but after a roving anthropologist began to talk them up, they were suddenly worth thousands of dollars, high prestige items.

In the old days these items had two components: the actual physical artifact and the songs and protocols that were associated with them. This particular anthropologist (who had no academic credentials) knew this and often managed to get the object “transferred” to him, meaning that he was ceremonially initiated and entitled to use the ritual that went with the object. If that were not done, the recipient basically had acquired a computer with no program, an appliance but no electricity. The anthro was also smart enough to know that the rituals were a “value-added” feature that drove the price higher. Among the believers, however, the transfer came with certain obligations and curtailments and not observing them meant that the value leaked out of the whole complex. The anthro suffered from "unluck."

These Bundles and associated or parallel objects have been highly controversial, even if for decades they had been stored unused. Contemporary tribal people have acquired them and renewed the ceremonies as best they can, but the original lives of the People are so different that there is question about what the re-enactments can mean. There’s no problem among Indians about whether one religion is privileged over another, but there is a problem among psychological philosophers about what natural objects can mean to a people separated from their life close to the land. Rather than an upwelling of emotion and meaning, the ceremony can become a performance in honor of the past and even a demonstration of status. (Not that that those can’t be emotionally powerful.) Somehow the materials that are left with the tribe or restored to the tribe have migrated from the hands of those closest to the old ways into the possession of those with the most resources, the new middle class Indians. Most white people know nothing about such objects, don’t understand the examples in museums and are innocent of the tribal dynamics under the surface, but politicians quickly recognize the power of the issue.

Whites do collect items from their own religion: rooms of crucifixes, triptychs, statues, vestments, altar accessories, Buddhist bells, Hindu statues. Having the idea of the “secular” at hand, they are able to “de-commission” and “de-sacralize” churches, Communion silver, and so on. Some whites trying to sell Native American sacred objects will use that strategy to say that a Bundle or coup stick is “dead.” Therefore it can be sold. Going in the other direction, tribal people can demand that museums resurrect objects that have been hanging in glass cases for many years, thus ripping pieces out of valuable collections. Curators who balk can be “cursed.” Confrontations can get pretty disorderly. Feelings run high.

Converting the sacred to the monetary is a human characteristic, including both white and red people. The difference is that Old-Timey indigenous people are not likely to have cash reserves and may be forced by poverty into withdrawing their piety from artifacts so as to survive. There are plenty of brokers for all sorts of artifacts, including the holy ones, among the tribal peoples themselves. Likewise, there are fakers who have learned to invent convincing tales that make ordinary items seem exciting. And always there is the political issue of “demanding respect.”

The ceremony that comes to mind on the Indian side is “stick game.” On the white side one thinks of “poker.” Religion always has a charlatan dimension as well as a heartfelt and truly faithful side. Artifacts are not exempt from that.

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