Saturday, September 12, 2015


The Thunder Pipe transferred to Bob Scriver.
It has disappeared.

People who share a life that is well-defined by beliefs and experience come together.  They begin their ceremony in the anthropologically defined act of crossing a threshold (limen), either actual or symbolic.  Performing some act of unison (singing, making a gesture like genuflecting) that joins them into sympathy that eliminates rivalry, worry, anger.  In this liminal time and space acts of sharing and insight are performed.  (Listening to music or speech, kneeling for prayer)  Then there is a time of putting away.  In the end, crossing that threshold in the other direction, the people return to their ordinary lives.

If the act is Christian communion (as above), the ceremony includes singing, reading, praying, and the sharing of bread and wine in memory of Jesus, the central cult figure.  In the background is the hope of eternal life or sometimes relief in this one.

Opening a Medicine Pipe Bundle

If the act is Blackfeet Thunder Pipe Bundle Opening, the ceremony includes unwrapping the contents of the Bundle, including the three-foot long calumet with an attached fan of eagle tailfeathers, singing, dancing, praying, and sharing of sarvisberry soup, the last of the previous year’s gathering, in hopes of a crop as good or better this coming year.  In the background is the hope of escaping lightning strikes and prairie fires.  Also, a wish for harmony and fittingness with the land, escape from enemies.

There are little mini-versions of these ceremonies.  Christians may open secular deliberations with prayer by a “holy man” or a lay representative of a Abramic tradition.  In the old days Blackfeet might open a discussion when older men sit in a circle and pass around a pipe for smoking.  Those who wish to convene a deliberation are expected to provide enough tobacco to go around the circle -- the one pipe (much shorter than the ceremonial calumet) being passed around and refilled as needed --three or four times, quite like elders in Afghanistan going around their circle with three cups of tea each.  High level business meetings might open with two martinis before an expensive meal.  Family meals, esp. the ones on major occasions, begin by saying grace.  Candles have been lit.  Human patterns echo each other, marking their importance with valued substances.

Bringing branches

Longmire is back.  The plots turn on a fancy casino.  In the office is a wall mural of tribal men on horseback carrying branches like flags -- a long branch with a bunch of leaves at the end.  They are participants in a Sun Lodge ceremony, a sacred ceremony.  Some would say it should not be photographed nor posted in a casino, but gambling (stick game) is an important element of understanding the world for indigenous people.  It competes with notions of causing one’s own bad luck or with ideas about witchcraft and how other people can cause you to have misfortunes.  In the Christian world this sort of thinking about why bad things happen are connected to Satan (a flipped over version of Christianity) and angels.  For all the Abramists (Xian, Jewish and Islam) people are at the mercy of an all-knowing, all-powerful humanoid theos, which provides clues in the form of a book.

To start a comparison of what the general public calls “religion,” we must choose a dimension of a very complex and pervasive system of understanding that varies from one population to another, usually according to what succeeds in that ecology.  It guides the actions of the whole population through the cycle of the seasons.  Theology is a near-mathematical version of how to please the theos, God.  The version may vary from the Golden Rule of Jesus to the “process theology” of physicists, which is not much help in daily life but is infinitely ponderable for people who approach religion that abstract way, which is a bit of a luxury.

Beaver Bundle: kept by a virtuous couple

Theology applied to the Plains Indian understanding of the world can only end up in distortion and oppression because their system is not mathematical nor is it focused on staying alive either on earth or in heaven.  I mean, death is seen as a natural part of life, not a disaster.

The ceremonial aspect of what we call “religion” is very strong because it unifies the people who have an interest in staying together, identifying themselves with the group.  On the prairie one needs community is order to survive, and the community needs the committed participation of individuals in order to continue to exist.  In some of the Abramic traditions, the individual can depart from the group.  At least in our times we are preoccupied with the fortunes of an individual person moving across ecologies, or following the Campbell hero cycle away from home and then returning.  One could joke that Jesus has become Marco Polo.  One could quip that the ceremonial worship circle has become the bazaar, the marketplace, where the sacred is bought and sold and all cultures are reduced to bargaining.

Circle of smokers

So the material culture of Native Americans is made into artifacts for sale and prestige, which the People object to as mocking their importance as holiness.  But they don’t realize that this is an important dimension of Abramic ceremonies, this buying and selling of everything, even skeletons and body parts.  Objectification is an important dimension of the mathematical and technical culture that is so entwined with Xian ideas that one can bargain one’s way into heaven and out of hell.  One can pursue “eternal” life this way, so that for people who have money or strategies for using insurance, total dedication to one’s health can eclipse any of Jesus’ ideas.  He was not afraid to die and we are told that God the Father wanted that death, too.  It was a bargain.


“Magic” is a sub-theme of religion anywhere, from the “cheap grace” of outward compliance with virtue to the self-torture of Sun Dance suspension from piercings.  Everybody loves a short cut, a bargain.  So the nature-related mysticism of indigenous communities is often seen as “pagan,” ineffective, but the institutional authority-controlled theologically endorsed ideas are represented as absolute.  Only the “scientific” establishment and institutions have now become persuasive enough to challenge the Abramic theological systems.  Those who feel that the evidence shows that God is indeed dead, if not just a bit of poetry anyway, also see that science is “owned” by an elite.  They turn to what they think are tolerant and inclusive autochthonous ceremonies that make them feel a lot better.  They want magic.

Meanwhile, the old-time restoration of order and relationship gets lost in the rush to emplace alchemic ideas of the right kind of rattle, the right secret song, the proper length of the pipe stem.  All those technologies of the Holy keep individuals from belonging to any community except the crowd around the sales table.  

It turns out that no one can capture the wind nor be the wind, but we can feel it.  Experience of the world itself is what counts, the sensory information that forms human existence, whether it is about wine or athuahasca, whether it is about our personal selves or our community.

Sold at a NYCity auction for thousands of dollars.
Quills -- not beads.  Possibly human scalps.

1 comment:

aad de gids said...

people will always need rituals even in our postmodern/posthuman societies.
the more so,where the violence and entertainment are mixed and brought to us
via "screenisms" like videoclips,cut to our short attentionspans. a hungarian bus with
near 80 dead and decomposing fugitives,incessant either,chemical,subground coal or
abberant seasonal fires with smokey damages,post-ebola- and post-HIV-syndromes.
Mary enlargens this dimension of rituality and the need for the overnatural solution with a comparative but rather more modern,globally diverse treatise about several ritualistic ceremonies and their surprisingly analogon. here we really have her new
way of looking at this world without too much scepsis but neither with naiveté.
these myriads of blogs are refreshingly clarifications on the world that surrounds as suffuses us. the internet links montana with holland. it is fabulous.