In the Cauldron

I’ve been reading Keith Carlson‘s The Power of Place, The Problem of Time: Aboriginal Identity and Historical Consciousness In the Cauldron of Colonialism. Delicious!

Carlson’s thesis is that Native peoples utilize place as a focus for Self and tribal/clan identity. Place functions as a vast cauldron in which history, personal experience, spirituality, and the trials of colonialism mix. He contends, I believe correctly, that one cannot truly understand Indigenous identities without accounting for the effects of that cauldron, including Aboriginal resistance to the colonial agenda.

There is a temptation in the media, and I imagine, in the everyday lives of non-Natives, to both imagine Natives as Noble Savages of a bygone era, and to ignore the ongoing colonial experience of Aboriginal people. Even so, lately, the Internet has been awash with colonial, and neo-colonial, assaults against Native lands and identities, almost entirely reported by Aboriginal people and our allies. Yet, many of the most unsettling and disruptive insults are of the everyday variety. Let me recount one such colonial encounter I had recently.

Sunday evening Jennie and I attended a 9-11 memorial service at the Unitarian Universalist church in Burlington. The service was thoughtful and borrowed from many faith traditions, as is the want of Unitarians. The music was provided by a European looking woman in Native dress, who played Native American Inspired tunes on Native instruments and sang Native inspired songs. The thrust of her performances, and the service in general, was the human desire for peace.

As I sat in my chosen pew I thought about the complexities of  the service unfolding before me. But before I speak to this, I need to digress.  Saturday, as part of a local arts celebration,  Jennie and I had conducted a brief ceremony of remembrance for those effected by 9-11. The ceremony, as is true of most of our public ceremonies, was definitely pan-tribal, and reflected no specific tribal context. This is due in large part to the fact that although I probably have enough “blood quantum” to rate as a “Real Indian,” (For a discussion of the absurdities and politics of this see The Voice of the Indigenous)  ) I have no tribal identity or affiliation. My work reflects the teachings of my teachers, and is therefore diverse and without specific context. In large part, it reflects the mixing and displacements inherent in the cauldron of colonialism, as well as inter-tribal resistance to those displacements.  It also, paradoxically and inevitably, mimics the very practices it attempts to challenge.

Let me return to Sunday’s service. Much of the music, and several of the readings, were drawn from First Nations sources. Yet the readings lost some of their meaning when taken out of tribally specific contexts. Additionally, while much was made of 9-11 and the subsequent wars and political events, nothing was said about the ongoing attacks on First Nations lands and culture, let alone the recent jailings and murders of First Nations people protesting those assaults. By failing to contextualize the readings and music, the problems associated with ongoing colonial activities were erased. While 9-11 and related events deeply effected Native peoples throughout North America, the fact that those events occurred within the context of ongoing programs of terror and genocide against Aboriginal people was also ignored.

After the service I asked the musician who her people were. She replied that she was mostly of the British Isles. Apparently, she had assumed a Native identity out of affinity with Native values and culture. She also added that she had been told she was Native in a prior lifetime. Both of these positions are defensible from a Pan-Native perspective. What becomes problematic is the musician’s failure to acknowledge her own ethnicity and persona. Also problematic in both the behavior of the musician and selection of the readings was the absence of any contextualizing of Native culture and belief in specific landscapes, as reflective of historical experiences of genocide,  or as acts of  resistance to ongoing colonialist agendas. (For some of the best web-based writing about the problem of appropriation visit Native Appropriations.)  I have attended services at this congregation for many years, intermittently, and have had a few conversations with various ministers and others regarding these issues, largely without tangible results.

As I sat and contemplated I found myself increasingly distraught. I suppose I could have addressed the gathered congregants (there was an open mike period) with my concerns. However, the intent of those preparing the program was kind and good. They had worked toward this day for many months. I could not bring myself to speak. Instead,  Jennie listened to my conflicted rant all the way home.

Today, having achieved some small distance in time and emotion, I am reminded the content, and experience of, the cauldron is murky and complex.  Out of that cauldron comes profound change, both positive and negative. From the cauldron come the ever evolving identities of Aboriginal people everywhere, as well as the identities of non-Natives. Colonialism continues. We are all in that cauldron, all of us, Native or not.

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