Romanticism Runs Rampant: Ancestors, Indigenous Peoples, ‘Natural’

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August 4, 2015 by Rua Lupa

Many feel that I have an odd stance on things. That is mostly because I question why we see things the way we do to try to understand how we’ve come to treat things the way we do. Often enough that leads to me sharing values, but going about them differently from others. That is why I often question my place in Paganism – as I’ve found myself here through affiliation rather than from self description. And don’t agree with a lot of things – and that is okay. I rather be surrounded by people who can openly disagree with me than be surrounded by people who meekly agree with everything everyone says – that sort of thing I find unhealthy. And that is what this is about – the things that I openly disagree with, and you are more than welcome to feel otherwise. And the reason why I bring it up is to encourage pondering why we see things the way we do, and you can come up with your own conclusions as to why it should continue the same way or if a change is needed.

One of the things I find myself disagreeing with is the view of Ancestors. I understand being in apt awe of our long heritage of what brings us here today and thinking of how we too would one day be part of that. But I honestly dislike the tendency to automatically attribute ancestors as worthy of respect. Some certainly are, but a great many I wouldn’t consider any less or more worthy of respect than the average living person today. That is because your living relatives are ultimately just as much like your past relatives, and do you get along with your living relatives enough to consider them worthy of great respect? Most likely not, with the odd exception of perhaps a few in every couple of families. A lot of my relatives I really don’t get along with and as I understand most people have similar experiences. On top of all this is the expectation that our ancestors would share a lot of our same values – they wouldn’t have. Having had an interest in history and fairly recently gotten even more involved by reenacting in the Society for Creative Anachronism, I’ve found that it is more likely that you wouldn’t get along with your ancestors than your living relatives. Primarily because our modern worldviews are simply so different, and essentially foreign, from our ancestor’s worldviews. Human history is chocked full of things that we would abhor today. Like the justifications for slavery, female relations as possessions, killing someone for giving an insult, and plainly killing people who disagree with you. Some of those views are still around today, but likely everyone reading this would be against them. Ancestors should receive as much scrutiny as we would give the living today, not instantly be seen as worthy of respect.

This brings me to the topic of Indigenous Peoples. One of the reasons ancestors tend to be seen as worthy of veneration is because all of our distant ancestors originally had lived more in-tune with their environment. But this doesn’t mean everything they did was worthy of veneration. Gender roles are a major component to indigenous peoples, and many of these roles are detrimental to the well being and freedom to those genders. It is a common concept that men are not permitted to do women’s work and women are not permitted to do men’s work. To most of us that is not something we’d like to be stuck with. Sure it may work for a number of people, and being raised within such a culture you’d think that that is the way things are and so wouldn’t think anything of it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. People should be able to choose what they want to do with their lives, so long as it doesn’t hurt another person. These gender roles imposed on their populace can vary from very mild segregation where its mostly just customary and breaking the custom still is socially frowned at with some social pressure to conform, but can ultimately break away from that, becoming a pariah in the community; to extreme segregation where a gender is seen as lesser than the other and thus not highly valued in their society and breaking from that social expectation results in murder. Some have used this to justify labeling Indigenous peoples as ‘primitive’. Such labels tend to speak more about the people who provide it than the people being labelled. It ultimately is up to the people themselves to decide what is a worthy way to live, as all ways of life are worthy options – so long as human rights are upheld, and I’d add the ecosystem’s integrity as well. Which brings me to the next issue relating to indigenous peoples.

It is common for people to believe that all indigenous peoples live harmoniously within their ecosystem – that is a myth. There are those that do and are very good at it, but there are also those that don’t. And to that I’ll explain with my own experiences, but to begin to explain that I need to begin with another romanticism.

Many people tend to see all Native Americans as the same group of people. They very much are not. There are hundreds of different groups that are collectively grouped as Native Americans. Each one can greatly differ from the other, and often do. Increasingly there has been a “Pan-Indian” trend partially in response to non-native people’s expectations, mostly as a way to be quickly recognized as being native (a lot of this recognitions stemming from media representations) and thus to be able to make a living based on those expectations. Such “Pan-Indian” things are Tipis, Dream Catchers, “Peace Pipes”, and massively feathered headdresses. These associations mostly arose from Wild West Shows that went from 1872 to about 1913, forming the public’s perceptions of what the indigenous peoples of North America were.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

The reality is these Wild West Shows were having depictions mostly based on the Plains Peoples (not having anything to do the hundreds of other peoples) and greatly exaggerated those cultural features just for show appeal. The feathered war bonnet (headdress) itself is a direct result of that – strictly a plains people’s cultural item and was greatly exaggerated by adding enormous amounts of feathers (which is frankly greatly disrespectful to the eagle and the amount of honor that is associated with the eagle feather. The Eagle Feather is not something to take lightly). In pre-European settlement contact, a large headdress wouldn’t have been a common sight. Tipis are also strictly a plain’s people’s thing, and a Peace Pipe is a very specific pipe – not one that is used for all ceremonial purposes (there is a whole variety of pipes for different purposes with different kinds and uses depending on the indigenous culture).

Dream Catchers

Dream Catchers

Non-Native Dream Catcher

Non-Traditional, Non-Native Dream Catcher

Dream Catchers originated with the Anishinaabe and were adopted by neighboring nations, being used as protective charms for infants (Very much like crib mobiles for our children with the addition of protection over their dreams and its deeper cultural meanings). There is a lot of dispute over the dream catcher’s use because as its been adopted, it has been greatly altered from its original form. Making it a misnomer to continue calling it a dream catcher in reference to its original form and purpose when it clearly isn’t one anymore. It would make more sense to call it a non-traditional Dream Catcher, or a Web Weave decoration inspired by the dream catcher – but it isn’t the Anishinaabe’s Dream Catcher, so it shouldn’t claim to be one.

Since the Wild West Shows the indigenous peoples were able to reclaim their heritage and culture and started a different kind of “Pan-Indian” show called a Pow-Wow. All over North American in summer will be Pow-Wows where the host peoples get to express their cultural identity with pride.

As a side note, when you see a blanket with items laid out on it, do not assume its a market stall. It is most likely a sacred bundle that is dear to the person sitting behind it. So please have some respect and don’t step over it or touch anything on it. Many also find it rude to query on the significance of those items – its that personal. A respectful way to go about it is to ask if it is okay to ask about the items and go from there as some love to share the story of their bundle – being an opportunity to share their culture. Photographs are also considered disrespectful in many scenarios depending on the Pow-Wow and the participants. So always ask if it is okay to touch something or take a photo first. A good guideline for photos is to ask the Master of Ceremonies if photos are permitted at that event and of what. People in regalia should be asked in a person by person basis (again, don’t touch).

But it wasn’t that long ago that Pow-Wows were not permitted by the governments, and children being taken from their families to be put in residential schools (Canada) or boarding schools (USA) to assimilate them into American & Canadian culture.

Photograph of students from Fort Albany Residential School reading in class overseen by a nun c 1945. From the Edmund Metatawabin collection at the University of Algoma.

Photograph of students from Fort Albany Residential School reading in class overseen by a nun c 1945. From the Edmund Metatawabin collection at the University of Algoma.

These children were severely abused and many had died there. The last Canadian federally operated residential school was closed in 1996. The USA still has a few off-reservation boarding schools. As a result, much of their indigenous cultures have been lost. The Pow-Wows are thus a kind of revival of their culture. Many express the sense of it being a statement of, “We are here, you have not destroyed us.” Sadly, human rights abuses of indigenous peoples all over the world are still rampant.

Cesar Chavez Student Center Building

What has resulted is a mix bag of things. Some good, others not so good. The good mostly is that people are free to express their culture and beliefs now. There is still a lot of bad, especially when it comes to land rights and the trauma that has been left behind. I would like to talk about one of the bad things that have happened. There are aspects of ‘Western’ culture that is hurting the people and the land. A sizable portion of that is purely one material – petroleum. There has been increasing news with regards to Indigenous Rights and petroleum, having to do with stopping the pipe lines from the Tar Sands,

and the people who have been left with a polluted home by the Tar Sands.

Their rights are being abused still and they need all the support they can get. The flip side of petroleum is its proliferation in our cultural goods to the point that it is poisoning the very ceremonies that are trying to be revived. It is seen at every ceremony I’ve gone to. Feasts with plastic single use cups, plates and utensils, along with the packaging of the store bought food; Tobacco bundles that are wrapped in petroleum based fibers (Also called Synthetic fibers, such as Nylon, Modacrylic, Acrylic, Olefin, Polyester, Rayon, and Spandex) that are left behind at fasts, and put into the sacred fires to burn, creating a toxic carcinogenic fume that the fire keepers breathe in and become nauseous from; And from the garbage brought in and left behind at the ceremonial grounds, creating a day or more’s work for those who organized the ceremony – just to clean up after their own people. Not to mention the Native American owned oil and gas companies creating a rift between those who want to protect the land, and those who want to exploit it. The indigenous peoples of North America are not unanimously invested in the well being of the earth, nor are their cultures all about that.

Granted there are groups that are very much focused on these issues and walk the talk.

But Native peoples are much more complex than this persistent romanticism of being one culture that is ‘One With Nature’. Which brings me to the last set of issues – Perspectives of Nature in general.

Have you ever watched a nature video that had the eagle call into the sky, or bears roaring at each other? Well, the reality is that those footage’s were never captured that way – those sounds are voice overs. The call you normally hear in films of an Eagle, is actually a Red-tailed Hawk call.

Because an actual Bald Eagle call was thought to not be majestic enough for film. Bald Eagle calls sound more like whistles and nothing like a screech. (watch at the 34th second)

And the roaring bears? Bears don’t really roar, like, at all. They make a whole range of sounds, but roars? Not so much. The voiceover you normally hear in movies is actually a lion roar. Watch the video below to hear how bears really talk.

Lemmings pushed-off cliff in the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness

Lemmings pushed-off cliff in the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness

Media has portrayed Nature in all sorts of fictitious ways that have influenced how we see it. A prime example is lemmings jumping off of cliffs. If you haven’t heard of it before its based on an old Disney documentary that was trying to film Lemmings jumping off of cliffs because it was commonly understood that they do that when their populations got too big. But they weren’t able to capture any of that while they were there so they collected lemmings from elsewhere and then threw them off the cliff themselves, strategically filming it so that it looked like they were jumping of their own volition. It wasn’t until much later was it found that lemmings jumping off cliffs were a myth. So be wary of false nature films. The only ones I can comfortably recommend are those done by David Attenborough. Not only do they have integrity, but cover most every creature that can be covered when it comes to wildlife. But media has left its mark and will continue to as it is a very compelling way to share information.

Other such ways it has shared falsehoods is with natural medicinal cures, thinking that because its from Nature it must be good right? Very Wrong. Just to clear things up, all medicine is from Nature, then it gets refined for potency toward a specific ingredient for treatment to avoid undesired side effects of the other ingredients. If it hasn’t gone through rigorous peer reviewed testing, then you are ultimately taking a risk based on something that is only a claim. Sadly, many people have died based on the “Natural Cure” claim. Reality is that All good AND harmful substances are from Nature. Some of the most poisonous substances in the world (such as ricin, cyanide, arsenic, hemlock, snake venoms and mercury) are all entirely “natural”, not having been human altered from its raw form. The key is to rigorously test them to determine whether or not it is good for our health.

The same thing goes for “natural foods”. Especially those that are dubbed “super foods” that can “detox” you or “prevent cancer with antioxidants”. These detox and cancer preventing healthfood things are myths. “Detox” is a medicinal term that has been co-opted and corrupted by a greenwashing healthfood industry, creating a non-existent condition in order to convince you to buy their stuff to treat it. The reality is that “detox” in its actual medicinal use refers to treating for immediately life threatening dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol, or poisons, like heavy metals. Also known as purging an overdose. Again, there are plenty of natural things in their raw forms that are extremely deadly to humans in small doses. But absolutely everything in Nature can be toxic enough to kill you. This is called LD50 (Lethal Dosage of 50%) – essentially the point when a substance kills half the members of a tested population after a specified test duration. Even plain water can be deadly toxic in high enough doses. And I’m not talking about drowning in it, drinking it. Both the “detox” and “cancer prevention” claims are just that – claims. There is no peer reviewed study that confirms any of these claims.

“Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.” (Tim Minchin, Storm). As all medicine should be looked at with scrutiny because “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (Carl Sagan).

My point to all this can be summed up by a wonderful founding set of words, “Nullius in Verba” which translates to “Take nobody’s word for it.” The motto for the Royal Society whom explain it thus, “It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.” The Royal Society having been one of the major supporters of the then new Scientific Method. So, to all of you reading this. Question everything, even what I have written, and find out for yourself whether or not any claim is actually true. Even though it may sound right, especially if it appeals to your position. It doesn’t help anybody to unwittingly promote things that are in actuality falsehoods, and often damages a position that is otherwise a fine one to hold.

In the end, Take nobody’s word for it.

 

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