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World Fantasy Con: Native American Spirits

Description:

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.


Thanks for the notes. I missed this panel (I missed most of the panels), but I'm very glad to hear the moderator spotted and called up Bruchac. Now I'm looking forward even more to reading his book.

Glad to be of help, and hi!

Thanks very much for this report.

Re: According to the Cherokee [*],...[*] 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.

The term he used there was likely Tsalagi.

I'm curious, in the section on Coyote, did anyone bring up any of the trickster/clown figures found in other nations -- Rabbit, Raven, Mudheads? They fill similar roles at times, but it often seems to me like Coyote is the only one who's gotten much outside attention.

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."

I am reminded of the final line of Sherman Alexie's The Sasquatch Poems:

When I asked the Indian elder, she said with a smile
"I don't know if I believe in Sasquatch, but he sure do stink."


If you're interested in contemporary ghost/supernatural tales from a specific tradition, for Seneca material I'd recommend Duce Bowen's books.

because otherwise the panel on Native American spirits would have had not a single Native American on it

This is the sound of my head meeting my desk, over and over.

...In the Great American Indian Novel, when it is finally written,
All of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.

Re: Coyote & other figures, no, but that was in response to a specific question about Coyote (that I didn't include in the report, because it was frankly kind of embarrassing).

Thanks for the rec, and I share the headdesking.

(no subject) - smillaraaq, 2007-11-06 02:50 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-06 02:54 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - smillaraaq, 2007-11-06 03:21 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I have to say that at the World Fantasy Con, it floors me that it didn't occur to anyone to invite a Native American to sit on the panel until the last moment.

wtf?



I KNOW.

I went through the con in a state of bafflement at much of the programming.

(no subject) - coffeeandink, 2007-11-06 04:10 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-06 04:23 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - delux_vivens, 2007-11-06 03:59 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Forgot to add...sorry, cold meds have left me pretty fuzzy-headed!

...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.

I'm guessing it's the last bit that you would've liked to see expanded on, since the information and knowledge caveats are pretty basic -- nobody likes to see things that are badly-researched and inaccurate, and those issues are particularly vexing when you're dealing with cultures that are subject to so much stereotyping. What he might have been aiming at, with the connection-and-permission angle, is something that's a persistent disconnect between Western and traditional native attitudes towards knowledge. The typical Western paradigm is that it is generally a good thing for knowledge to be more or less freely available -- in terms of formal education there may be prerequisites, tests that you have to meet before you can qualify for further formal instruction, but the basic information is still generally out there for anyone who cares to hunt it down on their own. If you want to go to med school, say, you have to meet all of that school's requirements -- but if you just want to informally read medical reference texts on your own for research, you're free to do so. There are native traditions, on the other hand, that are traditionally not circulated so openly, songs or stories or ceremonies that are only supposed to be transmitted in certain ways, used in certain circumstances. If the only research you've done is book research (especially if those books were written by outsiders), if you don't have a personal connection with traditional elders from the nation you're reading up on, then you don't have any way of knowing how accurate the material in the books is, and whether or not the material in the books is anything that was appropriate to be used in such a public fashion in the first place. That's the side where showing respect by seeking direct connections and permission to use traditional cultural material comes in; doing the initial research is only the first step.

Permission I got, but connection I could think of a couple of different things it could've been, so thanks for the clarification.

(no subject) - smillaraaq, 2007-11-06 02:30 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-06 02:35 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - smillaraaq, 2007-11-06 03:00 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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.

He also told a story about a meeting involving a number of tribes and some museum officials, talking about repatriation of bones, at which all but one of the tribes said they wanted the bones from their land back. One tribe, though (I think it may have been the Navaho, but I'm not sure), had a very strong tradition of disturbed spirits becoming mischevious, and said "No, no-- you keep them. Now that you've disturbed them, you can have them. Whatever you do, keep them far away from us."

Is that what it was? I must not have heard it properly. Thanks.

(no subject) - smillaraaq, 2007-11-06 02:46 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-06 02:48 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I have no relevant comment, but I love that usericon.

"Autumn Landscape is possibly my favorite visual thing ever. Each time I go to the Met I make a special trip just to admire it.

recommended reading.

So You Want to Write About American Indians? A Guide for Scholars, Writers and Students, an instructive book that discusses all aspects of writing and publishing, including how to find ideas and data for fiction, non-fiction and children's books, how to avoid the most common writing mistakes when writing about Natives, ethics in writing and researching, what to know before you sign a contract, finding inspiration, dealing with rejection, the publishing procedure, how to submit a manuscript to journal and book publishers, and much more. Winner of the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers' Research Book of the Year, and Arizona Writers' Association Honorable Mention.

http://unp.unl.edu/bookinfo/4620.html

Re: recommended reading.

Excellent, thank you for the information--I don't write myself but it's good to something to point people to regardless.

Re: recommended reading. - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-06 04:06 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Re: recommended reading. - swan_tower, 2007-11-06 04:56 pm (UTC)(Expand)
also, re: indigenous knowledge - delux_vivens, 2007-11-06 05:45 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(Deleted comment)
Glad you found it interesting!

Thanks for posting this, both as write-up and as forum for additional interesting comments....

Welcome!