Native American Expressive Culture
The Native American tradition can be seen as an evolving cultural tradition that encompasses countless expressions of creativity, from many varied cultures and expressions of culture. Native American cultural expression has been at various times subverted and reformed. During the 19th century and into the 20th century there was a large movement to force assimilation of Native Americans, in white English speaking culture.
Allison, and Vining 193) the circumstances of this change were developed as a series of boarding schools, where children were taken from their homes and subjected to English only learning environments, where they were barred from speaking in their native languages and barred for the most part from participating in Native American cultural expressions.
Spack 120) This period had two and possibly more effects on the culture, one an entire generation of Native American children were exposed to white society and culture and forced to assimilate and two their elders at home as well as the children themselves were became the subject of a sort of cultural martyrdom that created within them the desire to rebuild and relearn the ways of their ancestors. This backlash to forced assimilation demonstrates the historical precedence for the revival and re-conceptualization of Native American culture, in many of the 500 sovereign nations that constitute the rich Native American landscape of the United States.
Einhorn 6) the thematic recurrence of individual and collective “vision” will be explored through this work, as it recurs continually in the Native American tradition of creativity and across media of expression.
Holding on to the old ways and the old stories of heritage was exceedingly difficult during the period of forced assimilation and many would argue that much tradition and culture was lost. Indians from this point forward (late 19th century) have been to some degree at the mercy of the dominant culture and have had to become dichotomous individuals, expressing cultural creativity in various ways as well as attempting to build a new sense of self, culturally.
Scheckel) Some Indian nations retained their oral traditions and handed down the seeds of this information to the later generations through its traditional forms, while others lost much and had to regain such information through arduous searching and development. What has evolved is a Native American tradition expressed in many varied ways, including horizontally, in the traditional folkloric style, the vertical model in the form of print materials and even films, and in a conglomeration of creative outlet mediated horizontal, utilizing global digital communication, i.e. The internet. Against significant odds the many variety of nations have developed a manner of transmitting culture through any or all of these means, and through individual and group creativity. Each nation has made attempts to rekindle the expression of their cultures. This work will provide a brief exploration of how Indian nations have attempted to maintain these traditions, in these three venues.
Individual Indians seek to define who they are through culture in varied ways, and are frequently challenged by distance. The revival of culture is centered around reservation life. Reservations schools attempt to transmit the traditions of the past, along with language through native reservation schools that teach language through a bilingual system or through submersion programs and yet many Native Americans live far from home and family, as a result of the pressures of modernization and the fact that economic and higher education opportunities are limited on many reservations. To many Indians it is a challenge to meet the goals of a highly connected social network of family and nation as distance creates change that challenges their ability to meld their historical culture with the white culture they frequently live within. Yet, it is also clear that individual definitions of self are strongly associated with family and cultural connections and traditions. It is for this reason that Native American creativity is expressed in novel ways through many avenues and medias as well as the reason why individual and collective vision become a constant recurring theme in many of these interpretations.
One of the most moving of expressions of the changes that have been undertaken by the Indian nations of America is the work, Black Elk Speaks. Though Black Elk Speaks, can be identified with print material and can therefore be lumped into the vertical model of expression, the intentions of the ghost writer, and interviewer was to create a print record of an oral tradition and therefore for the purpose of this work, Black Elk Speaks will be viewed as an expression of horizontal creativity. Neihardt interviews are truthful and he as a transcriber more than a contributor gives light to the narrative oral tradition of the Native American experience. The author with only limited interjection, (mainly footnote explanation) allows the Native speakers to utilize their own style of speech and explanation that though it later became a product of print assimilated the oral tradition almost completely through these waving stories of triumph and tragedy. The thematic resurgence of Black Elk’s vision quest and subsequent later visions is foundational to the message of the stories as well as to the oral tradition, as culture is transmitted through the retelling of stories and the assimilation of individual and group vision of coming events. The translation of these visions is essential to the individual’s ability to rebuild tradition and understand change.
A as I stood there looking, a vision broke out of the shouting blackness torn with fire, and I saw the two men who had come to me first in my great vision. [likely his vision quest] They came head first like arrows slanting earthward from a long flight; and when they neared the ground, I could see a dust rising there and out of the dust the heads of dogs were peeping. Then suddenly I saw that the dust was the swarm of many-colored butterflies hovering all around and over the dogs. By now the two men were riding sorrel horses, streaked with black lightning, and they charged with bows and arrows down upon the dogs, while the thunder beings cheered for them with roaring voices. Then suddenly the butterflies changed, and were storm-driven swallows, swooping and whirling in a great cloud behind the charging riders. The first of these now plunged upon a dog’s head and arose with it hanging bloody on his arrow point, while the whole west roared with cheering. The second did the same; and the black west flashed and cheered again. Then as the two arose together, I saw that the dogs’ heads had changed to the heads of Wasichus; and as I saw, the vision went out and the storm was close upon me, terrible to see and roaring.
The theme of the vision is one of great fear, interspersed with an understanding of the events that would transpire in, from and around the prophetic man. Vision in many ways is a thematic representation that transcends all media, as the vision of the individual is the manner in which many Native American’s interpret tradition and change. Throughout the work there is a clear sense that vision, drive Black Elk to action and interpretation and his remembrance of it brings him clarity, as he is involved in the everyday and spiritual events of his life.
Then he tied my hair up to look like bear’s ears, and put some eagle feathers on my head. While he was doing this, I thought of my vision, and suddenly I seemed to be lifted clear off the ground; and while I was that way, I knew more things than I could tell, and I felt sure something terrible was going to happen in a short time. I was frightened. The other boys were painted all red and had real bear’s ears on their heads. Hairy Chin, who wore a real bear skin with the head on it, began to sing a song that went like this:
At the doorway the sacred herbs are rejoicing.” And while he sang, two girls came in and stood one on either side of the wounded man; one had a cup of water and one some kind of a herb. I tried to see if the cup had all the sky in it, as it was in my vision, but I could not see it. They gave the cup and the herb to Rattling Hawk while Hairy Chin was singing. Then they gave him a red cane, and right away he stood up with it. The girls then started out of the tepee, and the wounded man followed, leaning on the sacred red stick; and we boys, who were the little bears, had to jump around him and make growling noises toward the man. And when we did this, you could see something like feathers of all colors coming out of our mouths.
Black Elk, recounting his boyhood as well as the monumental fights he was involved with, occurring between nations as well as between his own people and white soldiers and settlers are peppered with remembrances of vision reinterpreted through current context. Black Elk utilizes his visions to create understanding of nearly all things he is later exposed to. The discussion in closing will further illuminate his utilization of vision, to ask for help for his people in a time of crisis.
To discuss the vertical model of artistic communication it is difficult to narrow the filed to just one example, as Native American literature, and to a lesser degree film have become somewhat prolific as genres. Two authors who build upon this tradition are Scott Momaday and Alexie Sherman as they are significant and prolific writers of Indian tradition. Each has written and published several works, including a variety of genres, that all attempt to translate the oral traditions of their nations into a written form that contains the expression of the oral tradition.
In Alexie Sherman’s collection of short stories, the Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven he offers a suggestion about the nature of reservation life, and the necessity of the expression of imagination. His equation is; ” Survival = Anger x Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation.” (150) for Sherman and many other Indians the expression of imagination is done through variant writing that frequently challenges traditional English genres, melding in and out between poetry and prose, as well as frequently peppering phrases with oral tradition statements.
Wilson 34) Writing has therefore created a symbolic outlet for the traditional oral expressions of culture and many Native Americans seek to write the stories of their people, not only for the purpose of translating such vision to the broader culture but to rebuild a lasting tradition of vision and assimilation.
In their all but indispensable interview for the Bloomsbury Review conducted in the fall of 1993, John and Carl Bellante questioned Sherman Alexie about that equation, and he responded: “Exactly what my attitude toward life is” (p. 15). When the Bellantes asked what “precisely” about white culture so angered him, Alexie answered, “Pretty much everything patriarchal…. We’ve resisted assimilation in many ways, but I know we’ve assimilated into sexism and misogyny…. Women are the creators. We get into trouble when we try to deny that.”
The value of this particular statement is significant in that anger and patriarchal systems of dominance are constant theme in Indian fiction and discussion, regarding white culture and how to meld the two cultures in a single individual, without losing sight of Indian heritage.
Sherman also brings to mind a discussion of assimilation, a concept which was forced upon many Indians of his and previous generations, and to some degree still is today, as opportunity is limited on reservations and leaving, to live in a white world is one of the only alternatives to achieve success in or outside of the respective nation of origin. An additional aspect of assimilation is the variance of culture within reservations, as many tribes were regionally grouped, or moved great distances to share space with other nations, whose traditions they learned and lived with as a dichotomous source of pride or conflict. Additionally, the blending of these cultures as well as the necessary overgeneralization of native beliefs, (as they constitute 500 independent and sovereign nations) can lead one to the idea that modern Indians are a homogenous group all believing the same things and responding to change in the same ways and this is not the case at all.
Perhaps more than any other Native writer, Alexie is aware of the power of the media. He understands it is the new battlefield. Alexie’s sophisticated internalization of films and television in these poems reveals the critical and cultural vision that would eventually push him to turn the written narratives of the Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven into the visual narrative Smoke Signals.
The film is the story of two Native Americans from an Indian reservation in Idaho, one the son of an alcoholic father and the other an old man who wishes to give this son (Sherman) a more native and fundamental view of his father, as they travel to Phoenix Arizona to retrieve the mans ashes, following his death. The vision throughout the film is of remembrances of both the modern young man and his older companion. The film dissects the conflicts of the old and new generations both facing extinction on a reservation that continually calls them home but offers them no benefit of potential “success” by white standards. To be a Native American at heart one must have visions of the past and the future, and yet the modern interpretations of the life of Sherman’s now dead father bring to mind a challenge that is responsible for both triumph and tragedy. (“Smoke Signals (1998)” NP) the work is a constant juxtaposition between the old and the new, and the young man’s rejection and embrace of the visions he is opened to as he and his companion travel. There is a clear sense that the internal quest of the young man is to figure out which side to stand on, white culture and the demand for opportunity, along with the preconceived notions of identity (regarding his father or the Native ideals of family, respect and individual vision), that is being brought to him by his companion. The older and one would presume wiser man is demanding from Sherman an accounting of the real nature of his father, through Native American vision and respect rather than the devastated outward expression that was forced on him by the circumstances of his life, by alcohol, economic depravity and social degradation.
Skye 117) the old man wants Sherman to judge his father not for his bad deeds, his alcoholism and desertion of the family but through visions more traditional to perception and identity in his own cultural tradition. Sherman, through this process learns to love and respect his father in a completely different light, though problems are not resolved and the reservation is still a constant symbol of disparity the internal identity of this belated “vision quest” changes Sherman and allows him to move forward with anew sense of insight and respect for culture and family interspersed with modern comedy and challenges but solid and welcoming nonetheless. Sherman must seek a vision quest that builds on the tradition of his culture, assimilates the challenges of his modern life and explains what he previously identified as bad, about his home and his father into a more congruent idea of respect and failure, created by the challenges of assimilation and exposure to differing ideas of success and failure.
Alexie Momaday also expresses the nature of change and vision as well as the nature of assimilation, in his works, the most explicative of which is the Way to Rainy Mountain which is described as:
blending, in many ways of the two cultures, that clearly expresses the desire to retain tradition and reiterate its importance to the next generation. The work is describes as “a blending of personal recollections with Kiowa legends and history, [that] illustrates the power of the Kiowa storytelling tradition and the continuum between the traditional and contemporary Native relationship to place.”
Wilson discusses the manner in which the creation story of the Kiowas is reiterated to bring to mind the oral tradition, in its retelling. Each original Kiowa was born from a hollow log, and as soon as the log was blocked by a woman heavy with child the Kiowa stopped being born, of the earth, and this is why they are so few.
Wilson 33) (Momaday 16) Momaday’s works symbolize the traditions of Native American collective vision, though it speaks specifically of the Kiowa creation story, and there are other creation stories associated with other Nations, the work expresses the idea that the development of collective culture through the repetition of what likely began as an individual vision, and its interpretation into an accepted source of collective belief in the creation of a unique and common people.
A very interesting representation of the vision of the Native American culture, can be seen in a very modern venue. The definitive site, describes the tradition of a masculine “Vision Quest” and again trans- mutates the American Tradition into a format that can be easily understood by the average internet surfer. Here is the dialogue of the website, entitled “Native American Life Living Art: Native American Shields”
Dependant on the Tribe, males at various times of their lives, went on what could be called Vision Quests. There were many reasons for these quests but the common thread is where the male went either to obtain his “spiritual name” as opposed to the name given him by his people, to seek out his “spiritual guides” or both. While within some Tribes there was certain ceremonies that including what today is termed self-mutilation, the common thread again, was fasting alone, even to the point of not drinking water, at some isolated spot. The more common time period for this was three days. The intended goal could come either via actual “visions” or perhaps even the physical advent say, of a particularly bright “shooting star” or a group of them; many and varied are the things that could very possibly come into play with regard to this Vision Quest.
When the Quest came to an end, the person took a Gift to the Tribe’s Holy Man, or Medicine Man if you prefer, but NOT Shaman. The word Shaman comes from peoples located in the now known area of Siberia, as does the practice of Shamanism. You try to call a Traditional Native American a Shaman and his “practices” Shamanism, and you are very likely to find yourself in varying degress of trouble!
At any rate, many times, what was gained via the Quest and the interpretation of it by the Holy Man, was then transferred to the person’s shield, as well as many times symbolized on the sides/walls of his tipis.
The shield, as could be expected, was a very important item to the Native American, because not only of the obvious physical protection, but also because of the Spiritual Protection it provided. Because of the latter, shields did not disappear from the cultural identity of the Native American as it did the European, where the shield aside from physical protection, provided familial linkage and/or identity of the bearer and was judged quit inadequate with the advent of weapons using gunpowder.
So, while many of the shields were not used as actual physical protection, they were by many carried with them, attached in some way upon their animals or, were put in places/poles of Honor, to the East of the warrior’s lodge. Thus, it spiritual protection was still maintained. (NP)
The text translates the ideals of a sacred quest for identity, into a simplified vision of the tradition of the vision quest, and its physical representation, i.e. The shield of the man which he carried with him from place to place and displayed in a significant symbolic and artistic manner. This is clearly a simplified version of the vision quest process and speaks of only minimal aspects, that of coarse must differ significantly across nations. Yet the theme of vision is intact, and responsive to social and cultural change and adaptation.
The value of understanding the diversity and collective of the Indian culture is paramount to understanding the way in which modern Indians have resisted losing their native cultures. The language issue is addressed in nearly every Indian education system through a bilingual or submersion technique. Reservations also serve as a center for the expression of ceremonies, dances, beliefs and customs. Each reservation calls its members home at various times throughout the year and many nations also meet at various regional and national gatherings to express their varied cultures and continue to be active political movers for positive change in the representation of Indian culture, in the dominant culture. Indian literature, as well as technology utilized by Indians to stay connected, such as internet websites are a good source of information about how these many cultures have changed over the years. (Hall 14)
In the close of the work Black Elk Speaks the now old man, medicine man Black Elk, of the Sioux nation performs a ceremony, he performed as a young man in which he stood on the crest of a mountain and spoke to the grandfathers of the four winds, asking them to save his people from the trouble that has befallen them. The moment was prophetic, as the old man had been able to conjure a bit of rain during an extreme drought, a message from the ancestors that they had heard his call to help his people.
Neihardt 271-274) the message of the ceremony is clear in that he has asked the Six Grandfathers to let his people live, and they have heard his call. For many native people this sentiment is a beginning, a revival of culture that will reinvigorate their people, and continue to allow them to define themselves as Indian (of whatever nation), a distinct people with a rich culture and social tradition through resistance, turmoil and growth.
Retaining old ways and the old stories of heritage was exceedingly difficult during the forced assimilation, but has also been difficult since then and many would argue that much tradition and culture was lost. Indians from the late 19th century forward have been to some degree at the mercy of the dominant culture and have had to become dichotomous individuals, expressing cultural creativity in various ways as well as attempting to build a new sense of self, culturally. Many do this through creative expression of a constant theme, “vision.” Some Indian nations retained oral traditions and were able to hand them down to the later generations through its traditional forms, while others lost much and had to regain such information through arduous searching and development and of coarse through new expression of creativity. What has evolved is a Native American tradition expressed in many varied ways, including horizontally, in the traditional folkloric style, the vertical model in the form of print materials and even films, and in a conglomeration of creative outlet mediated horizontal, utilizing global digital communication, i.e. The internet.
Allison, Sherry R., and Christine Begay Vining. “Native American Culture and Language.” Bilingual Review (1999): 193.
Bluestein, Gene. Poplore: Folk and Pop in American Culture. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.
Churchill, Ward. Acts of Rebellion: The Ward Churchill Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Einhorn, Lois J. “Introduction.” The Native American Oral Tradition: Voices of the Spirit and Soul. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2000. 1-10.
Hall, Mcclellan. “Mentoring the Natural Way: Native American Approaches to Education.” Reclaiming Children and Youth 16.1 (2007): 14.
Hollarh, Patrice E.M. The Old Lady Trill, the Victory Yell: The Power of Women in Native American Literature. New York: Routledge, 2004.
McFarland, Ron. “Another Kind of Violence: Sherman Alexie’s Poems.” American Indian Quarterly 21.2 (1998): 251-264.
Native American Life Living Art: Native American Shields http://www.snowwowl.com/naartshields.html
Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska press, 1988.
Rader, Dean. “Word as Weapon: Visual Culture and Contemporary American Indian Poetry.” MELUS 27.3 (2002): 147.
Scheckel, Susan. The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Skye, Warren. “E.L.D.E.R.S. Gathering for Native American Youth: Continuing Native American Traditions and Curbing Substance Abuse in Native American Youth.” Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare 29.1 (2002): 117.
Smoke Signals (1998)” DVD Review at Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/6305428417
Spack, Ruth. America’s Second Tongue: American Indian Education and the Ownership of English, 1860-1900. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
Wilson, Norma C. The Nature of Native American Poetry. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.
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