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by Laura del Fuego
In the film, ISHI, THE LAST YAHI, by anthropologist Kroeber, Ishi wandered out of the Northern California hills where he had hidden for forty years, all his life, from white men who were hunting Indians like wild game. In 1911 he left the steep craggy cliffs as the last survivor of the Yahi where he, and the dwindling members of his tribe, had lived sequestered in the rough inhospitable terrain of the Sierra Nevada mountains, until all were systematically murdered by white settlers, often paid fifty cents a piece for their and their childrens scalps.
Some sources say that there were more Indians on the California land before the white man came than any other state. At the turn of the 20th century the U.S. government had paid over a million dollars to the settlers for the proof of dead Indians. Now archeologists from our countries' top colleges travel to the land of the last Yahi, ostensibly to better understand the ancient tribe and how they survived this hostile life. I believe these scholars come more to study the land in search of their own lost souls, their lost common spirituality. They come from the wasteland of modern America to recapture the lost essence, the essence of the reverence for life that the so called modern world has murdered off in its quest for power and dominance. But it is gone, completely vanished along with the ancient tribes... Vanished forever from this landscape of power lines, freeways, traffic choked towns lined with fast food chains, car washes, drive up banks, parking lots, smog and the nuclear family unit.
So they send their educated teams, probably spending as much government money as they originally spent to kill off the tribes, hoping to find something...anything to take them back to that place that no longer is.
In the film ISHI, THE LAST YAHI, the mystery is not uncovered. We do not understand. Some vital piece is missing. Something holy and unnameable. This is the power of the film. It brings to our attention the void vaguely felt somewhere deep in our psyches. now we can only sit in a dark theatre, cut off, in the middle of urban America and watch in our solitary vinyl seats, alone with our minute consciousness, attempting futily to grasp, to absorb somehow, this indigenous man who lived close to the earth, lived in balance with the animals, plants and water ways. But we watch like mutants incomprehensibly, locked into our heads as we have been educated to do. It is ours to view for an hour or more.
Have you noticed lately how many Native American 'Indian" movies are being made? I believe that ISHI is the best of them. There is no sweeping landscape, no dramatic musical composition, no fighting warring heros white or black, no techno tricks, no space ships crashing through the quasar-only the shots of Ishi blown up on the screen. This Native American if you can even call him that. This man from Turtle Island, the mystical land of the human being. Afterwards we sit stunned because there's nothing we can do to go further into that world. Nothing we can do to recapture, to change that which is lost.
John LaValle, (Santee, Sioux), attorney from the Center for the Spirit in Oakland, says that the Native Americans, the original inhabitants of this land mass called North America, are still being murdered in a thousand ways every day. This very minute they face spiritual annihilation of their traditional ways, one of the last vestiges of their human dignity, the desecration of their symbols and ceremonies both in the courts and in some "New Age" communities. Even their burial grounds have been desecrated, raided, dug up, remains taken to museums, put on display for the curious to see much like in a zoo or an aquarium. (Where it seems most Americans want to see what they call "wild life" locked in cages, performing in circuses and parks.) As in the movies they can, for a few brief moments gaze through glass walls to only dream what people were like that lived in balance with the earth. But as in the film, we are left mindless and empty with no real understanding because real understanding is a viseral, physical, wholistic knowledge, not a voyeuristic perversion.
Modern Americans are voyeurs with our obsession for television, videos, spectator sports and pornography, the billion dollar market. Everything we do is evaluated with a price tag.
There are people, well meaning perhaps but ignorant, who think they can obliterate the past, deny it. For some, the weak at heart, the spiritually bankrupt cannot face this past, this holocaust. Look squarely at it for what it is; monstrous, inhuman, inconceivable. But today some white Americans reap the benefits of that past, make profits off it. For example, there are people who use Native American symbols and copy their traditional ceremonies, trivializing them using the same propaganda and techniques we have all grown accustomed to from advertising corporations, slick airbrushed images, hazy and mysterious, romantic versions of Indians long past, long dead, all murdered. We do this to numb ourselves from the truth. Like embalming a corpse to make it palatable. We do it with prettily packaged cards, cute trinkets, nostalgic paintings, calenders and landscapes of times gone by. Flat, sentimental cliches. Television and corporate America have taught us well. We romantize so we can forget our own vapid lives, our violent pasts, forget the real Native Americans who are this very day living on reservations, (i.e. concentration camps) locked into a bleak and hopeless landscape. Those who resist this way of life are political prisoners like Leonard Peltier. Native people who live every day with the fact of the continued genocide of their race, their people. While some New Agers parade around doing Indian ceremonies and rituals in their pristine rural environs (dead Indian ground), most of them educated, middle or upper middle class, some of these European whites go so far as to pretend to be Native Americans. To me that would be the same as if the descendants of the Nazis decided to use Jewish traditions and ceremonies. Can you imagine a descendant of a Nazi saying, "I really love these little Jewish bells! I like the trippy ceremonies. I think I'll wear my hair long, grow a braided beard and one of those flat black hats like a rabbi. We can light candles on the menorah. Wow! Groovie! We can make flyers and pass them around, charge people to come to Hanukah. We can organize trips to Dachau, Auswitch and Warsaw, dig up the bones of the corpses, dissect them, put them in museums. Charge the curious to see them."
And still some ask, "What's wrong with using Indian ceremonies? You're overreacting" they say. "Too fundamentalist. This is a free country" Free to whom may I ask? Free to be white middle class consumers. Free to be consumers, period!. These people are like snake oil hawkers and carnival barkers. If a person took it upon himself to dress like a Catholic priest, wear the collar and give out communion wafers--what then? He would be ridiculing and insulting millions of Catholics all over the world. He might be jailed as an imposter, called a quack or even institutionalized as a psychotic. Yet people go around calling themselves Indian shamans and medicine men as it it were a Halloween party.
Medicine men and shamans have very little real meaning whatsoever beyond their own tribes and communities. They are CHOSEN by their own people. And must, just as priests or rabbis go through an extensive, arduous training process by their own cultural standards.They are there to serve their people, their tribe or community. They are not like Hollywood celebrities with privilege and money and prestige. Those who roam around are suspect and must prove their willingness to serve.
These flashy charlatans, like master cultists, appeal to the spiritually bankrupt, who have no physical relationship with the earth or sense of identity or community. They think they can buy and sell spirituality. But they are mistaken. It is time to take off the masks. Stop and contemplate that spiritual void. Look back at the past, feel the loss, accept the consequences. To acknowledge that emptyness, that grief is almost too much to bear. But it can be done if one choses to face it for what it is. To not do so is to court disaster. To cut ourselves off from our own vital roots to become that which we have vowed in our liberal hearts to despise.
To the victors belong the spoils. What we have here are the spoils. No, not even the real spoils. Those are on the reservations, in the prisons and madhouses. But the synthetic spoils, manufactured by white middle class Americans, escaping the past. To the modern victors belong the synthetic spoils and their own spiritual cannibalism.
(Laura del Fuego is a published writer. Her novel, MARAVILLA, is an autobiographical account of growing up in East. L.A. She currently lives in Freestone)
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