My D. Min thesis was never completed or submitted because my advisors could not understand it and, indeed, some of the elements were still not clear in my own mind, and a few were only beginning to develop in the larger culture. In 1982 some of the necessary components were missing. For instance, fMRI had not been invented.
The first element was the power of sense memories, which I had learned in acting classes from Alvina Krause. They call this “The Method.”
The second was Mircea Eliade’s understanding that introspectively one can “feel” the difference between sacred and profane, both in terms of locations (which are, after all, sense memories) and in terms of objects. (To me, sounds and smells can be sensory “objects.”).
The third was Robert Schrieter’s insistence that meaning and sacrality are immanent, welling up out of the lives of people, and cannot be taken from one context to another without changing their meaning unless their deep roots are understood. This was especially striking since Schreiter (CPPS) is a priest pondering the Substances of Communion.
A fourth is something recent: the physical evidence of how the brain works when it is operating in “sacred” mode. Different areas “light up” on monitoring equipment. Something really happens that is not imaginary, which assertion still doesn’t answer the unanswerable question of what the world is outside of our sensory engagement with it. People insist passionately on the reality of some things only they can see. We can prove that they are “seeing” something, but not reach what it is.
Another element is something I avoided but others do not: perception-altering drugs, most specifically LSD, peyote, and atahuasca. I am not qualified to say anything about them, but to some people these substances are “sacred objects” or the means to perceive “sacred objects”. These drugs, in their origins, tend to be used in ritual ways, often with a guide.
What I realized was that the sacredness of objects has many sources, only one of which is the identification of the specific physical “thing.” I will say that a sacred object is one which has the power to alter the consciousness of those who value it and use it in the context of their understanding. I’m not just talking drugs, but also holy objects. That is, the valorization is partly in the culture, partly in the experience of the individual, partly in the nature of the object, and partly in its ritualized use.
My thinking is much guided by my own experience in the Sixties as a Bundle Keeper, which was not something I initiated. Bob Scriver “had the dream” telling him to acquire a Sacred Thunder Pipe Bundle (see my biography of Bob, “Bronze Inside and Out,” for particulars), but he had it while sleeping up against me. I was entirely open to it but it didn’t mean to me what it meant to him.
Nor did it mean to Bob what it meant to the old-time circle of Bundle Keepers who maintained the ceremony below everyone’s radar, even local Blackfeet. And again it did not mean to those old-timers what it had meant to the earliest Bundle Keepers in the 18th century, nor did it mean what it means today to the genetic descendants of those old-timers. Each kind of Keeper had different assumptions and associations that were kindled by the experience of handling those normally hidden objects in ritually patterned ways.
Many people see the Bundle and its contents as valuable in themselves, but even a diamond only has ascribed human value. These wrapped-up birds and mammals, this elaborately decorated pipe stem, even the things one does in certain ways, emerge from life on the prairie at ground level -- a floor of trampled-down grass under the lodge, paths guided by landmarks or traces in the dust, foods drawn from the land either as roots dug up or grass made into buffalo by steady grazing. If a person doesn’t have that sensory context of meaning -- and I don’t mean driving by in a car or reading about it in a book -- then the object cannot be valorized in the old way.
A Bundle can be valorized as an object of veneration, the way the Catholic church treasures the bones of saints or splinters of the cross. That’s not the same thing. When modern grandchildren of the old-timers open their Bundles, much of their feeling of doing something sacred comes from their feelings about their grandparents and old memories of playing around the circle of singers while the ceremony was proceeding. Maybe their faces were painted, according to old band traditions by people they knew. The family bands are no longer in existence. The families themselves are diluted now, as fractionated as the land ownership.
An anthropologist can say, “Oh, this means this and that means that.” But it will be derived from thought or asking informants rather than a deep re-experiencing of sense memories. This is what people try to get at by saying a sacred object is “dead,” as though it were an animal. The question then is whether it can be “re-valorized” and of course it can. But it will be different, with a different value.
A strange phenomenon of the Sixties and Seventies was people who had no real connection to the Blackfeet place or lives, much less history, coming onto the reservation and wanting to participate in ceremonies. Partly it was old left-over Brit drive to explore and colonize as signs of privilege and enlightenment. Sometimes it was an earnest seeking for enlightenment. Most of the time it was a big nuisance.
I remember the first time a stoned hippie showed up dancing wildly at Indian Days, thrashing branches around in all directions. (They say gorillas do that to impress the others.) Then there was the market in sacred objects that soon developed, wrapping the original bundles in many more layers of “information” about what they were, what they were worth, what they meant, how rare they were, how privileged a person would be if they bought one.
Pretty soon there was a backlash -- this is part of the post-modern point of view that Cliffords doesn’t address because it was so new in the 1980’s -- that only Indians should own their sacred objects and the bones of their ancestors and eagle feathers. That only they should know the privileged information and write it up or talk about it for profit. It was a bit of a problem that most of the earliest information had been “collected” in terms of objects and written information by white men because Indians were an oral culture. And then there was the difficulty that storytelling per se is also patterned and assigned to specific times of the year or ceremonial circumstances. (Books can be opened anytime.) These new people wanted to “participate” by creating medicine wheels or re-arranging the existing ones. They wanted to go make dream beds and see if they could have a vision. Some of them began to create artifacts, esp. in Germany, working meticulously to be accurate and authentic until the only way to prove they were replicas was by carbon dating or genome analysis -- some kind of highly technical and expensive testing. To them it was the object that was important.
By now the question of which Native American objects are sacred is very much muddled and the politics -- to say nothing of the profits -- are so intense that one hardly dares mention the subject. The courts are hard-pressed to sort things out. People commit suicide. But I remain convinced of my original insights: that something sacred can be felt as sacred (almost like a radiation); that this feeling is visible in the brain if one is looking with an fMRI; that the holiness and meaning arises from the time/place and the ecology unfolding from it; and that it does not reside simply in the object, which is far too easy to commodify.