Native American Spirits.
How are they different from transplanted European ghosts?
Linda Donohue, Lawrence Connolly (m), Laura Ann Hill, Adam Niswander
Joseph Bruchac (bio) was added when the moderator spotted him in the front row and asked him to join them, which is a damn good thing because otherwise the panel on Native American spirits would have had not a single Native American on it. (Donohue grew up near a reservation, and Niswander did a great deal of research for a series of novels; I missed the biographies of the other panelists in boggling about the panel composition.)
I mostly only wrote down what Bruchac said, so this is not a complete report. These notes are based on what I was able to take down on a portable keyboard/PDA combo; I've done some cleaning up of them, but if an article or verb is missing still, that's why.
Bruchac had two prefatory comments:
- most people of native descent refer to themselves as American Indian, rather than Native American which is a term created by outsiders.
- In response to a comment from Niswander that he took a lot of flack for writing about American Indian topics: his position, & that of many writers who are American Indian, is that they have no objection to non-American Indians writing about the topics, as long as they have: information, knowledge, connection, and in some cases permission. Unfortunately he didn't expand on this.
As far as the panel topic: all languages differ in the way they describe this, but all things have spirits and power. Words do too and are very much alive: "if you were to sing a buffalo song, a buffalo may well appear" (this is a quote but unfortunately I didn't write down of what). There is a very powerful connection between words & spirit.
There is a sacred spring in the area, with a very strong spirit of healing, so much so that for 50 miles around there was no warfare until the arrival of Europeans.
When a bear dies, it is said that it "drops a bag of meat wrapped in skin, and then the bear continues on." So if one kills a bear & doesn't treat spirit properly, the spirit may make you ill. According to the Cherokee [*], deer spirits can cause rheumatism in disrespectful hunters' hands.
[*] He gave names for all the tribes in their own languages, but I wasn't able to transcribe them and I'm not sure which one he gave here.
Humans have four spirits: 1) all living things (? I think, the kind that is in all); 2) an original spirit that makes each person unique; 3) a reincarnated spirit, which may include the spirit/memory/knowledge of someone who lived before; and 4) one that is often little-understood, "the bone spirit". This is very powerful and one reason why they say don't disturb graves: the spirit can become mischievous or deadly. A friend of his made a joke when talking about repatriation with reference to the American Indian Musem: you keep them, we don't want them back, they're not happy! [ETA: see comments for correction.] So when people talk about American Indian ghosts, they're often referring to #4.
There's a tradition in some tribes: if someone is killed untimely and their spirit is restless, gather their bones and put them inside a wigwam, start to drop a tree onto it, and call out "danger, hurry, get out!"—and the people will pop out enfleshed & alive again. (In some stories, many people have been killed, and they're in such hurry to get out that they get some bits mixed up. At the performance, he said that this is the origin story for physical disabilities, which are considered just the way you're made.)
He said that Amerian Indian spirits are often connected to a very specific purpose or lesson, just as traditional stories both educate & entertain. For instance, when he visited the Onondaga reservation, the clan mother took him to a place with a ghost because the story is being forgotten: the Bone Woman lures men who've been disrespecting women to a particular quarry, and turns her face toward them in moonlight—AHH! There is a very deep connection between all things, a balance, and often stories work in that direction.
Someone else asked about ghosts being bound to things. He said that among the Navaho, if someone dies in a house, no-one can ever live in again, because the spirit may be tied to that place. Also in many tribes in the West, there can be ghost sickness from proximity.
When he was doing repatriation work, some of the bones were in a Tupperware container, which weighed maybe 3 pounds, but only women could carry it! Until they began singing a song to honor it. So American Indian spirits can be responsive in way that European ghosts may not often be. For instance, many ghosts in Saratoga Springs are on a loop and aren't going anywhere.
Someone in the audience said something about in Tucson, the local tribe believes that if you're born in the valley, you don't leave (I did not hear this well, so if anyone can elaborate/correct, that would be great). Bruchac responded that feelings of place are very strong in tribal people all through the world (e.g., Australia). A friend's uncle went to Vietnam, and his mother went to the spruce tree that was planted with his umbilical cord when he was born and camped out by that tree. At one point the tree developed fungus & ooze on the side, and she knew he was wounded.
A panelist compared the generally inimical natural of European ghosts to the generally helpful nature of American Indian spirits. Bruchac said that they do have some really, really scary stories! Monster stories teach us that life is inherently dangerous.
In response to an audience comment about Loki and Coyote, Bruchac said that they are very different ideas. Loki is a god at war with other gods, who creates the destructive principle; Coyote is not by nature malicious—remember there are 100 tribal groups in America alone, plus those in Mexico, and they all have their own language, which is often translated with European-derived preconceptions layered on top. Coyote is tremendous appetities—physical, sexual, spiritual—so in some ways is a human stand-in (I think). Hearing the language makes such a difference, because specific words have many-layered connotations. Niswander remarked that Coyote seems to embody a kind of leavening of humor, which is missing with Loki.
Audience member: have to remember that people were dealing with real thing too—literal coyotes or fire (which cooked food and burned down your house). Tellers of stories about Coyote or Loki were always being called back to the real thing, which influenced story. And if that gets lost, the characters are just the author's puppets or zombies.
Bruchac: the real coyote is really much like that; a friend is a professional animal tracker, and tracked a coyote that seemed to be really upset at being tracked: so it circled back to camp, pulled out all the cooking pots, and urinated on them!
Donohue: also coyotes vary depending on the environment, desert or forest.
Audience member: are there hauntings where a curse is on a place and that results in people dying, rather than the other way around?
Another audience member: Bell Witch, a haunted place in TN.
Bruchac: there are places all around the continent that are thought by native people to be places of sickness or death. Some of them are places where uranium was found, or where an earthquake spirit was said to live—and half a town established by later settlers slid into the ocean, or in California where fire & wind spirits mean that no native people live there during windy season. In NY, there are lots of stories about houses, such as Beardsley Manor, not far from Utica, on the site of a colonial fort that burnt down, which was on the site of a native burial ground: it's a transported Irish castle, the entire family died out, and several of their ghosts haunt the place.
Audience member to Bruchac: are monsters a type of spirits, and what about wendigo? Response: there are several terms for wendigo (and I didn't get any of them). But often monsters generally, and wendigo specifically, are humans that lose humanity—wendigo because of vast hunger, greed, selfishness. Then there are also elemental beings, some of which may be rememberance of creatures that were on this continent. Then there are things that are totally unexplainable but just there, "we know they're there, and we do our best to avoid being affected by them."
Finally, Bruchac has an ongoing project of collecting ghost stories from reservations, and plans to do a collection and talk about how they come from communities & relate to them.