Posts in: ES200
Block 3 is spiraling to an end. It’s Week 4, and rather than being consumed by a rush of anxiety, I’m oddly calm. Week 4 and calm? What? A lot happened in this block–a lot of reading, a lot of talking, a lot of ceremonies, a lot of thinking, a lot of bizarre inexplainable emotional twisting–and I feel content, flushed with fresh understanding and friendship. While a great deal still has yet to surface–moments and concepts I’m not sure I’ll ever fully grasp but perhaps will after more time has passed–such passion and patience and intention from my classmates and Bruce went into the course, and, in result, it was so absurdly filled.
For my final project, I joined a fabulous group in recreating a sweat lodge to represent how the Lakota religious traditions are woven into the everyday, woven into a web of life. We demonstrated how unity and connectedness–Mitakuye Oyasin–is a crucial part of Lakota culture. To emphasis the point (and because we were a large number of minds splintering off in various directions), the group separated into specialities, threads: structure, tapestry, prayer bundles, words, and photos.
I was most drawn to words and how our class’s use of them on the course blog demonstrates the connections developed through ceremonies and our time at Pine Ridge. Out of curiosity I ran a word cloud application through the blog and pulled out our most frequently used words. While some words were expected (Pine, Ridge, ceremony, sweats), others were more striking (time, silence, living, unity, branches). While I hadn’t planned on really doing anything with the word cloud, I was inspired by the nature of the words—and by the idea that we as a community had all brought them forth together, used them, gave them strength—and struck by how, in a sense, these words connected us a class and to our moments with the Lakota at Pine Ridge. So, following the design of prayer bundles, I wrote out the larger clouds words onto paper scraps and wove them together on hemp, creating a vital thread of our web, as the words represent our unification as a class and with the Lakota. While we all had extremely unique and personal experiences in ceremony, we nonetheless intertwined, sharing words and thoughts and emotions. We gave the words their strength.
In addition to making the word thread, I also reread through the blog’s entries, ignoring titles and author names and treating it as a single entry. I pulled out the quotes that clicked with the class’s unified voice and eventually made a quote thread. This task took me longer than I anticipated, for as a community we developed a far deeper singular voice than I’d anticipated. In our writings, the class shared a beautiful a tremendous amount of hope and insight, a great sense of openness, of feeling a loss of words and sense of awe, and a respect for the Lakota way of life. Each sentence could be connected. As I worked on the threads, a warm calm built. It was a beautiful experience–rereading the class blogs–the entries wove together and became one. Though we all came from different places and are on entirely different paths and were participating in ceremonies with (and of) a culture absolutely abstract from our own, we brought our different aspects of life to the experience, came together, shared many words, and created a strong web. Like the idea of Mitakuye Oyasin, all my relations, the word and quote threads demonstrated how unity and connectedness play such a strong role in Lakota ceremony and culture.
We constructed the sweat lodge model on Loomis quad, Pike’s Peak studding the blue west. And though the various threads were built separately through out the weekend, this morning we, quite literally, wove it together and then presented our web of life–our sweat lodge–to the rest of the class.
The November morning was bright as the class circled around the lodge. A slight breeze rippled at the word and prayer flags, blew through the tapestry. As each of us group members explained our personal aspects of the project–the threads we wove into the web–the words that have distantly echoed all block swung clear. Though we all come from our own pasts, all are own our own roads, connection and unity still persists. Trevor Hall sings, So many rivers, but they all reach the sea, and just as the Lakota exemplified unity and openness to us–outsiders–as the course ends, and we drift away from the material, the Littleboy family, and our experiences, I propose that it’s key we remain connected to our unity–our unity with each other, with the course, with the Lakota, with Pine Ridge, with ourselves–and preserve the threads that wove through us the past three weeks.
As my classmate and new friend Jackie wrote: “…An adventure has a tangible ending, whereas a journey does not have a clear ending.” When I consider our course in such a way, it’s clear that the past block has been both an adventure (as CC proudly and accurately claims every block to be) and a journey. While, following a Woplia pipe ceremony and feast, the adventure concludes tomorrow, I feel the journey will continue. And it is this feeling, that feeds my present contentment.
Indigenous Religious Traditions is my second religion course. The first was World Religions, a survey course at my hometown’s community college with over fifty students and professor who was not a fan of discussion. The class consisted of static once-a-week three-hour lectures with an occasional video to save the professor’s aged voice. There were no written assignments, projects, or inquiry into the students’ experiences or opinions. We were graded primarily on the multiple choice quizzes given at the end of every class.
Needless to say, Indigenous Religious Traditions has been an incredibly different experience.
Not only ripe with discussion, Indigenous Religious Traditions has been flooded with participational observation and (for some of us at least) a heavy dose of personal spiritual experience. Not only did we meet and observe the very people whose traditions we were studying (the Lakota), we experienced their traditions. We smoked sacred pipe in a circle, we blessed buffalo and prayed for the land, we trekked Bear Butte and stood where many have gone for their vision quests, we erected a tipi, we sat and sang and swayed in a sweat lodge, and we huddled into Mike Littleboy Jr.’s basement for a spark-filled Yuwipi. The course far surpassed the average read and discuss deal–for a week we were given the opportunity to experience our studies through the Lakotas’ feet.
But such a learning method seems to open itself up to controversy.
A friend and I went out for a dinner a few days after I returned to campus last weekend. She asked me about the field trip to Pine Ridge. I attempted to explain. I was only a few sentences in when she rolled her eyes. So typical of CC, she said, an entire course devoted to trying to be a Native American.
On some level, such a reaction is expected, for out of context it may seem that the course is a group of college kids “trying to be” a different culture, to adopt their rituals, to feed a romanticized ideal. Such an assumption though can’t be further from the truth. No one enrolled to “become” anything. I won’t speak for all twenty-six students, but I put my points on the course because of a genuine interest and concern: a longing to understand indigenous culture and their traditions, as well as see how such communities are existing the too-often discriminatory modern world. I recognized how heavily romanticized Native American culture is and how I had general assumptions based on being a 90s child in the bubble of Orange County and I wanted to smash such ideals. It should be clarified that there was never a point in the last three weeks of this course where I felt a culture, religion, or tradition being forced onto me, or where I felt that any student was trying to “be” a Native American. So, I’ll restate what I said to my friend again here, in case there’s any existing confusion: We were not trying to adopt the Lakota ways, we were (and are) trying to understand.
As Bruce so eloquently wrote in the syllabus:
“Studying indigenous cultures runs the dual risks of romanticism as one idealizes the value of native traditions and fatalism as one despairs over the overwhelming social stresses on indigenous communities. Genuine understanding avoids these dangers by situating learning in the concrete experience of real people living in actual communities and avoids the temptation of reducing living, breathing and complex human beings to abstract intellectual ideas or academic theoretical constructs.
In addition to the concerns of culture stealing, in a course as reliant on personal experience as this, there is also the risk of becoming too individually impacted/invested and thus crossing a line where one becomes too close to the experiences to adequately analyze ritual through an academic understanding. After a week at Pine Rige–a week of participating in ceremonies that did impact me and were perhaps a integral step of personal growth–I recognize the painfully tricky balance. Always an innately spiritual person, I participated in ceremonies open in heart and mind, but also consciously aware of my outsider status and my purpose for being there: to learn and understand. And yes, while I experienced several massively “spiritual events” last week, they were my own personal moments reliant on the history I subconsciously brought to Pine Ridge and not due to an attempt of conversion to the Lakota tradition–while they do offer great perspective that has fed my understanding of ritual, I don’t consider them truly a part of my academic studying. While the Lakota rituals played a key role in surfacing the feelings of spirituality, because I am who I am and came from where I did, because I was the “outsider” I was, I participated the rituals in my OWN way. It’d be impossible to do anything otherwise–impossible for anyone in the course to fully participate in a Lakota ceremony as a Lakota does.
And finally, to touch on the second part of the issue of personal experience in an academic context, would I have the understanding and respect for the Lakota culture and its traditions I now do had I not traveled with my course to the reservation? Could I have gained what I did from the mere contents of a page? Would I have ANY degree of comprehension of the Lakota ceremonies had I not participated in them myself? I kinda hit on this in my post last week, when I wrote about how you have to see and feel to understand the beauty of Pine Ridge. Likewise, this course has been a testament to the strength of personal experience paired with academic analysis in religious studies. While there is always a risk of becoming too close to your experience, if one can practice the proper distance, I believe the wisdom we gained from our first-hand experiences at Pine Ridge is far superior than the surface knowledge would have attained if we’d only read texts. After this block, I believe neither a purely academic approach nor a full reliance on personal experience can suffice alone to truly understand a religion: arguably a true academic powerhouse comes from interweaving the two. Contrasted against the text-reliant nature of my World Religions course, where the semester ended with a sense of only having dipped in my toes, in Indigenous Religious Traditions the readings fed the experiences and the experiences fed the readings. The block will end not only with a sense of expanded knowledge, but a stream of Lakota wisdom and respect.
And thus ends my version of a rant.
Well, we’re back from Pine Ridge and wow. I’m afraid the only words I have are pointless descriptors like “awesome, dude!” and profanity, and since I posted an intensely personal blog earlier I’ll leave most of the synthesis to one of the other bloggers. Also, I promised the buffalo dissection.
On Tuesday, we went to the place that runs the Lakota Tribe’s buffalo herd. They have 8 or 900 head of buffalo that are meticulously—and manually—tagged. Some are given or sold to people in the tribe for ceremonial or eating purposes, others are used for trophy hunts and revenue, and some are sent to the market to pay the leases of the land. The buffalo have tens of thousands of acres. We spoke to one of the ranchers, a vet, and a park ranger about the buffalo, and about the spiritual practices of the tribe and how they interweave their spiritual practices with the practical ones. The buffalo is a sacred animal, one that, in the past, provided meat, clothing, thread and rope, tools, blankets—in short, almost everything the Lakota traditionally used in their daily lives came from the buffalo, and because of that, the Lakota honor them.
One of the most interesting aspects of this was talking about breeding the buffalo. Someone asked about artificial insemination, which is often used in cattle to conceive, as opposed to actual copulation. But the vet (who was an interesting man himself—he was a white guy, who had originally started studying a disease in cattle herds and eventually moved to bison. He’s the vet for several bison herds in the Midwest and is also continuing his and the park ranger shook their heads. “Nope,” the park ranger said. “We leave it up to the spirits.”
Clearly, it works. The herd is growing.
One of the things that’s been very cool about going to pine ridge is how integrated spirituality is in the daily lives of the people on the rez. Yes, reservations (and particularly Pine Ridge) are very poor, but they have running water and electricity and internet and drink Coke and wear hoodies and smoke Marlboros just like us. They live modern lifestyles, but the spiritual aspect of their lives has remained prevalent in a way that is very different than most Americans, even the ones raised in a Jewish or Christian household.
So we talked to the buffalo guys, and then we watched them herd some buffalo into a trailer to take to market. It was hard; apparently bison don’t like small, confined spaces. Who knew?
And then we noticed a big pile of something sort of gross looking in the distance. And since the truth is that no one at CC has actually grown up past the stage of “Oh, that looks weird! Let’s poke it with a stick!”, of course we had to go take a look.
Some gross pictures follow, if you’re squeamish.
The buffalo had died of natural causes, and they had taken the hide and the meat, but left the innards that aren’t used now. Two hundred years ago, almost every part of the buffalo would have been used.
Eventually, we got around to poking it. It didn’t smell, and some of the casing had hardened in the sun. It was a lot less gooey than I thought it was going to be. The conversation turned to field dressing, which I have done a couple of times with my dad, while hunting deer—though not enough to be competent in any way. This turned to dissection, guided by a biology major in the class on the pre-vet track. At this point I got sidetracked by a puddle of blood and went to go check that out.
When I stopped examining the slowly congealing blood, I looked up to find that my classmates Kristin (bio major), Sam, and Rob were returning from talking to some of the ranchers with a field dressing kit. The remains didn’t have any use, they said, and we were welcome to cut it open! We were all pretty shocked, but we definitely weren’t going to turn down this opportunity.
We got right to work on seeing what was inside. We cut open what we thought was a bloated area, but turned out to be a stomach full of grass. We found another stomach later.
And then we gave up and got our hands real dirty. Rob and I went to cut out the liver (the big brown wrinkly part). It was harder than it looked, but we were in fact successful:
Kristin and Sam got to work on the truly enormous heart, which we proceeded to find all the chambers and stick our fingers in them, and then cut it open.
It was actually amazing. This was kind of a spectacular gift to us, as a class, and not just because we got to get totally nasty. It was in many ways a really great bonding experience, it was fun, plain and simple, but it was also in many ways a perfect example of why the block plan is a system that really works as a teaching device. If I had been at a semester school taking a course on indigenous religious traditions, I would have never gotten the opportunity to go to Pine Ridge and speak with these people who protect the bison, a sacred animal. I would never have gotten to see how these people so effortlessly weave the sacred and the profane together in their daily lives. And, obviously, I would never have gotten to cut up a buffalo. I don’t mean for this to be an advertisement for the block plan or anything, but in this case, it allowed to me to dig deeply into the material and get my hands dirty (literally) in a way a semester system would not.
It sounds stupid now, but doing that, in the sun, with the wind blowing, the land and sky stretching out for miles and miles around us, Rob holding the liver up while I cut it away from the membrane below it—that was a spiritual experience for me, a truly powerful one. Like my classmates before me have said, I don’t think I have the words to describe how much it meant to me. Furthermore, it was a joyful experience, one I’ll cherish for a long time. Perhaps this is too simple a reflection for my first blog after returning from an experience that I think blew most of us away. But I’m a senior this year, surrounded by stresses and work and class and sports and the real world looming six months away, a world too full of sorrow and despair. This moment—this whole week—reminded me that I have to take joy in the little moments, like getting to the top of a mountain or cutting open a dead buffalo just to see what was inside.
dated Monday, November 5, 2012
Today we left campus for Pine Ridge! It was all very exciting and new—I’ve never been on a block that had an off campus trip before (I know, I know, I’m a senior and everything, but there was always just so much to do on campus). I didn’t get much sleep the night before, with packing and procrastinating, so I managed to pass out in the car for a couple of hours before taking over to drive in the middle of Wyoming, thus preventing any carsickness disasters.
It’s an eight or nine hour drive to Pine Ridge—we left at 7:45 and got there a little after four, so I suppose we made pretty good time, especially since we got caught in Denver traffic and stopped for a long-ish lunch in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. It was mostly pleasant, and kind of pretty in a sparse, almost bleak way. The generally sleepiness of Mondays and car trips meant a lot of the drive was pretty quiet, which afforded me some time to think. I’ve always found driving to be rather meditative, and this drive was particularly so. We drove on straight two-lane highways through sparse landscapes, the leaves mostly gone from the few trees and the bark grey from wind and weather. It was easy to get lost in my thoughts, which were going a million miles an hour in every direction.
First, I was excited. I was going on an off-campus field trip, one that other people who have taken IRT in the past have said is amazing. The first week of class only cemented that enthusiasm—as this class has gone on, I’ve felt more and more that it is going to be good for not only the academic in me, but also for myself as a spiritual being. It’s made me think a lot about my own traditions and beliefs, but it’s also made me reevaluate the traditions of others. And I don’t just mean indigenous religions, but of many of the religious traditions that I know. And while that thinking has been in many ways scholarly, it has led to a deeper contemplation of my own spiritual practices in a completely non-academic way. I have, for the past few years, thought I was very comfortable in my faith, but suddenly I was looking at it in a different way, and I began to wonder. Those feelings of unease became crystal clear in the ceremonies we did today, but I’ll touch on that later.
So I had a good feeling about my spiritual and educational growth. But at the same time, I was worried. There were so many of us, and so many things to plan, and so many things to be in the right place at the right time, and so many ways to screw it all up, and I worry about everything to the point of distraction.
And even more than that, I was scared. What if I was wrong about my growth as a spiritual person? What if I messed something up? What if I crashed the car and killed everyone? What if I got left behind? And, worst of all: what if I was somehow, by someone, deemed unworthy of the knowledge, academic or otherwise, I hoped to obtain?
Coming into Pine Ridge changed all that. We arrived just before (a painfully early) sunset, and spent some time exploring the Wounded Knee memorial site, which is in a cemetery. There we met Mike and did a small ceremony, and then ended up at one of his relative’s houses, celebrating a birthday party for a four-year-old. We followed that up with a brief visit to a wake, and then went to sweat.
There were lots of things going on tonight, in lots of different ways, and I could probably write several thousand words on it. But I’ve been rambling on for a while as it is, so I’ll just talk about two things.
At the wake, which was for a Korea veteran who died last Thursday (if I recall correctly, he was 81), Mike and several of his family members sang. The music was some of the most baldly mournful, beautiful sounds I’d ever heard. I didn’t know this man—I didn’t even know he’d existed until we arrived at the wake, but there was something so candid and lovely about the songs they sang, something that inspired empathy. Unbidden, I thought of the deaths of some of my older relatives, particularly my grandmother, while listening, I was stuck with the same feelings of grief I had felt then, as powerful as they had been in the moment. In that moment, listening to five men and one woman sing around the casket of a beloved relative, I grieved, though I had never known the person for whom I was grieving. That connection was powerful. Music has always been something that has driven me to emotion, but it is rare that I get so swept up in it as I did.
Then there was the sweat lodge, which was great, but I don’t want to talk about that. What I want to talk about is something Mike’s father, Big Mike, said at some point in the evening: he said something like, “You gotta have faith in what you do.”
It hit me like a frying pan over the head: I don’t.
Self-confidence is something I’ve always struggled with, but the realization wasn’t just that I didn’t have faith in what I did physically or said, or thought—I don’t have faith in the power of my beliefs, and maybe, even, in the beliefs themselves. I want to, but I don’t.
It was a shocking realization, and a painful one, and one I haven’t quite come to grips with yet, but it was a little like lancing a wound. It had to be done, and now that I know that, I feel better. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a long ways to go, but it’s a start. My prophecy was right: I have grown as a spiritual being on this trip, and even if nothing else happens for the next four days, I can come away with something to work towards. But I have a feeling that I have a lot more growing to do before I return to Colorado, and I look forward to it.
Next time, on Indigenous Religious Traditions’ blog: We have an impromptu buffalo dissection! Expect pictures.
See you then,
How do you reflect on a week of class that is truly imaginative, truly engaging, truly opening? Maybe it’s that I’m new to this whole blogging thing, or maybe it’s like what my classmate Heather says . . . that some things are just beyond words. Reflection is hard. But I’ll give it a shot.
First, the past week. Since the first day of class, there has only been more space to navigate. Since it seems best to focus on a single event rather than recapping the whole week, I’ll talk a little about our ceremony this past Thursday. We met with Celinda Kaelin, a local woman who is well versed in Indigenous issues and has spent lots of time with the Lakota people. The most striking and amazing part of the ceremony with her was going around as a class and “putting something into the circle”, in a sense. We shared our individual and collective gratitude, fears, excitement, worries, prayers, etc. After each person spoke, the rest of the circle voiced their approval and support – AHO, we said in unison. It reminded me so much of one of my favorite family traditions – going around the table at dinner and saying something good that happened that day, or something we were looking forward to in the coming week. I really think this sense of a circle, a circle that gains and grows and shares together, is beyond powerful. Through mere words, life can arise. Listening, sharing, supporting . . . it truly is a beautiful process.
And how much more beautiful that I get to share this with a class! Not just people to commiserate about work with, but friends to listen to and share with. After ceremony, we went around and talked about our experiences. Eloquence, feelings, and love came out. A heartbeat. To conclude the ceremony, we hugged each other. Not just I’ll wrap my hand around you and pretend to embrace hugs, but real and genuine squeezes of appreciation.
It’s pretty crazy to think that a week ago right now I was hadn’t started this class, hadn’t met these people. Now, we are doing ceremony together, studying together, going to parties together . . . in just six days.
I think I may look at this post in another week and laugh. Because tomorrow, we embark on the adventure that is certain to create even more intense bonding experiences. We are headed up to Pine Ridge, South Dakota to a Lakota Indian Reservation. We will be there till Friday. Expectations are running wild; vibes are certainly positive. Today, sitting in dance rehearsal, I focued my attention on having a powerful and meaningful experience. I haven’t prayed in years, but this feels like the closest I’ve gotten. And it felt so natural. We will be experiencing sweat lodges, meeting people, touring the reservation, and I’m sure doing other things that will be pretty fascinating.
Talking to my parents tonight, we reflected on how cool it is that I get to have experiences like these. What an education I’m receiving. What an education that I’m navigating. See you in a week, my friends. Mitakuye Oyasin!
There are some experiences words cannot adequately capture.
As a creative writing major, avid journaler, book addict, and general word-devotee, I write the following with great lament: words too often fail me.
Take this afternoon for instance. Under the guidance of Lakota Mother Celinda Kaelin, our class observed and participated in our first Pipe Ceremony in Shove’s nook. Gathered within the stone walls–our bare feet on the cool floor, sage smoke cleansing the circle, listening to the wrenching yet inspiring story of Celinda’s journey to the Red Road–there was so much to take in, so much to feel, how can one ever begin to explain? Time’s passing was only evident by the movement of rosy setting sunlight on the chapel floor and, later, by the numbness of my feet and legs as they fell asleep.
We shared our truths. We listened. We acknowledged. We completed the ceremony, sweet smoke swirling–purifying, healing? And then we hugged. Hands grasped in thanks, we each had the opportunity to embrace one another individually in gratitude and, for me at least, a degree of love. And there is so much I’m feeling, so much I’m thinking, I wish I had the gift to properly share–to give justice to what I observed through the construction of simple language. So overwhelmed by the experience, by its complexity, I’m at a loss for words.
But such loss is not new to me. This past summer in London, overwhelmed by the seemingly endless incredible sights and pulsing urban culture, I expressed a similar frustration:
“In a city, in London, the brain clicks clicks clicks, twitching like a manic to get every new sight in the head. Imprinted. You don’t want to lose it. Those sights, those words—the gaze is as precious as a mother’s hand. You long to stick every face onto the walls of your head so that you never forget. This is not Colorado Springs. That is not Pikes Peak. This is London and the Eye and Big Ben and a fresh new corner to take in with every bend.
But I’m only human. Yesterday is hours away and I’ve let too many images and words slip from my brain. Those words. I need my words. If I could find the words to create the scene I’d be able to recreate the memory—this is true, right?”
I feel silly quoting myself–not to mention quoting a blog not even five months old–but the connection is worth making, as I now so desperately long to cling to every emotion and thought, ever sight witnessed, I experienced in today’s ceremony. Sitting in our cleansed circle, the unity and compassion I felt for my new classmates–my new friends–was so strong, so absurd, it felt as though the smoke was a thread weaving us together, bounding us as family in an indescribable, near incomprehensible way. And I have so many words, so many details I want to save–treasure–for another day, memories I would loathe to see fade, and yet, I’m not sure if words–language–in this situation can paint the day in the color and detail it deserves.
I think the complexity of what I’m feeling is evident in the nature of my rocky, rambling sentences. Apologies if my thought stream is difficult to follow. I suppose, we can make sense of this together.
Religion (or whatever label you choose for it) is tricky. Personal. Complex. Often controversial. To add to such difficulty, I’m in a 100-level course focusing on a group of indigenous people whose beliefs I can’t even begin to claim to understand, while attempting to balance the role of academic observation with my own personal experiences. It should go without saying that is a rather difficult topic to be musing about on my college’s very public website. So let me preface my “conclusion” with the insentience that I’m not claiming any right or wrong or whatever way. I’m purely sharing my experience and thoughts as an active observer of the indigenous ritual.
So again, as I wrote in Tuesday’s entry, I don’t know the hows or the whys, don’t understand the full nature of the Lakota Pipe Ceremony, but I do know that there was great spirit, great love, and great community in that room today. I’m confident that I was not the only one of the group who felt great warmth and connection as we broke the circle with our hugs: that a number of us felt an overwhelming sense of calm and trust. I guess I don’t need expressive words right now, for maybe the details aren’t essential, for what I gained from today is actually rather simple.
I believe spirituality (another tricky word) can be manifested in an innumerable amount ways, but perhaps what matters most (especially in the context of an academic course) is that I listen and devote myself into the role of an active observer. We all have our own beliefs, our own religions and rituals, but nonetheless, there is still so much that can be gained, so much that can be learned, if we (ie. my class and myself) open ourselves and allow our hearts to experience the stories of other traditions. And so, as I journey north with Bruce and the rest of the group to Pine Ridge and participate in even deeper ceremonies and rituals of the Lakota people, I hope to continue my intention of listening: being aware not only of what I’m feeling (for I have no doubts my heavy emotions will only progress), but also of what I’m witnessing and how it connects with the overwhelming picture of religious studies, how it tells the story of the Lakota.
And hey, what do you know. I found some words to explain my day. Somehow I always do.
A new block, a new course, and, in one day, a new month.
Last time I blogged it was from a hostel in London, during the middle of a sticky hot July, in honor of Shakespeare. Now I’m back on campus. Back in the cocoon of dear Colorado College, where most of the vibrant autumn foliage has already fallen in respect to the recent first snow. I’m home, at my desk, facing west–facing the snow dusted Pikes Peak, facing (though a 1000 miles away) California, my childhood, my memories. Sitting at my desk in my historic house of a home for the year, I face all that I consider sacred (the west). And, here, now, I can pause and appreciate that I’m embarking on my next block journey: Indigenous Religious Traditions.
Sorry. I might be a bit cheesy the next three weeks. I’m excited. I’m passionate. If you’re a CC student, then you’re familiar with the point system we’re enforced to navigate come registration season. And let’s just say I gambled heavily for this course. Let’s just say I went with an odd number in the high, high, high range. I wasn’t taking any risks: though unlike the majority of my peers I hadn’t heard a word about other students’ experiences in past runs (a winter start transfer, I was in a sort of naive shadow), I knew from the moment I saw the course listing that, if there was any class I needed to take my 2012-2013 year, Indigenous Religious Traditions was it. Silly to say maybe, but it felt so absurdly essential for my career at CC.
Some high expectations, right?
And yet, I have no doubt that the next three weeks will not disappoint. We’re only on day two and already I feel rawer, more aware, centered. Is it too soon to say that? I don’t know. Maybe it is, but regardless I’m only writing my truth. Perhaps it’s my personal tangled relationship with religion, or maybe my innate connection to land, or even having spent so much time in places with great indigenous spiritual history… but the topic of indigenous people, the issues, the traditions, their stories and their truths, well, it speaks to me so deeply.
Today, following an invigorating (yet somehow quiet–seemingly a great sense of respect already exists with our seminar room) discussion, Bruce–fabulous College Chaplain and our course professor–led us to Shove Chapel: arguably the center, the core, of our campus. And while I’d love to connect the mini field trip across campus to our day’s reading, use some critical logistics, my internal experience is what my fingers are yearning to type towards, and so… I will.
We all know Shove. We all have our own moments associated with Shove. We see it every day, pass it every day. We attend celebrations, inaugurations, readings, symposiums, even fashion and drag shows within its high, reverent limestone walls. But today, this morning, was the first time I’d ever really paused and considered the chapel and its impact on not only myself, but the community of CC as a whole. Stepping into its doors, blinking blinking, a chill, coming into the dimmed candle lit entry, the threshold, so somber in contrast to the young, bright Colorado afternoon, I paused, we paused. Outside I’d been antsy. I was hungry and my caffeine was draining and my to do list for after class was longer than comprehensible. But inside, right there, my mind was, in some sense, dimmed: calm. I thought of Jung’s theory of individuation–how we must face our shadow to individuate, to become our highest self. It seems only fitting then that the entrance to Shove, a chapel, a place considered sacred, forces one into a shadow of some regards.
As we moved deeper, we paused and thought and spoke of our reactions, the emotions evoked, discussed its magnificence, its acceptance of all beliefs and traditions, its stained glass windows portraying stories of both academia and religion, its history and (in my opinion) its rebirth (following Bruce’s arrival to campus)–all of which absolutely deserves a blog of its own—and eventually climbed the narrow tall tower. Today was my first time following the chilled curving steps, my first time standing on the roof of Shove Chapel, so high, standing on what one might consider the peak of campus, facing the beloved peak of Colorado Springs. And I thought of the notion of “sacred”. In his article “Giving Voice to Place”, Belden C. Lane offered three models: ontological, cultural, and phenomenological. Is a place sacred by its own accord? Is its sacredness placed upon it through ritual activity–a manifestation of cultural devotion? Or are all the aspects essential, is a sacred place threaded by the whole story (cultural, land, etc)? I mean, how do you define what is sacred (Mircea Eliade would argue it is the opposite of the profane)? Does one mind, one perception, have the sway to make something sacred, or does it require centuries of communal devotion?
I don’t know. I don’t know the how or the why behind what makes a place sacred, nor do I believe knowing its development is necessary. The mystery–the endless discussion–is inescapable. What I do know though is that standing on the top of Shove Chapel, all the westside of Colorado Springs–our campus, our home–sprawled out before me, with Pikes Peak high and bright, an arrow shooting to the sky, I recognized that, for me, the Front Range is sacred. For whatever reason, since the day I first landed in Colorado Springs in 2006 at the silly age of fourteen, I’ve been utterly connected to Pike’s and the land blooming before it. It’s my compass: the beacon that always returns me to stability–reminding me of my true self, my intentions and dreams–for the last seven years. One glance at those mountains and I am calm and centered: filled with hope. And, so, regardless of the hows and the whys and whether or not a collective conscious has fed my devotion, for me, this land is sacred and I’m thankful for the wander up Shove’s tower, for the reminder of its essentiality in my life.
Only on Day 2 of Indigenous Religious Traditions and already feeling rather fleshed open. Obviously it goes without saying that I’m quite enthused for the next three weeks.
The first day of class. Remember how you used to get those dreams that you would forget to wear your clothes to school? I get those sort of dreams before a block starts. Except instead of wearing no clothes, it’s usually me forgetting to wake up or not being able to find my classroom. A junior in college and still scared of the first day? Yep.
First days at CC are always interesting. The rhythm of the block plan is like an intense musical composition. You begin a class, the tempo rises, more instruments are added, sounds reverberate off every wall, there is a sudden crescendo, and then . . . a little peace and quiet. In other words, you have a lot going on and it culminates in a slightly crazy fourth week. But block break always makes it worth it. This past block break was one of the best I’ve had since coming to CC. I went to Zion National Park in southern Utah with three of my best friends. We hiked two of the coolest hikes I have ever done, including Angel’s Landing. Yeah, I definitely saw the angels.
My friends and I kept commenting to each other about how crazy it was that we were on top of one of most beautiful places in the world on a Friday. Most other college students were sitting in class, and there we were, 702 miles from CC, experiencing life. To cap it off, we all went skydiving over the park the last day. Needless to say, I think block breaks are pretty much the greatest invention ever.
I started Indigenous Religious Traditions today. I think I put about 40 points on the class, I wanted it that bad. Friends who have taken it say it is one of the best classes they have taken at CC. More importantly, they feel profoundly changed by the class. I hope I get the chance to experience something like what they are talking about.
At CC, people say that one class’s material covers about a week’s worth of material at another college. I wasn’t sure about that until today. We met in the morning, did the awkward introductions, and reviewed the syllabus (which actually looks pretty amazing). We broke at around 10:30, and I had the chance to attend the First Monday event which featured CC debating against the Air Force academy regarding the upcoming election. Pretty interesting stuff, and pretty awesome to see the theater packed to capacity. Afterwards, I had my first reading assignment for the class, which was an article entitled “What We Want To Be Called”. It dealt with the differing labels Indigenous People have, and which they prefer.
The class met again at 1:15. We had a lively discussion about the article, and I could immediately tell that the class dynamic is going to be great. One of the coolest parts of class was when my professor – the Chaplain of the college – drew a map of America and had us fill in any Indigenous tribes we knew. I could name two: Pueblo, because it’s just an hour south of here, and Pechanga, because I used to drive past the casino near Palm Springs, CA. About thirty or so tribes went onto the board. Then, we pulled up an actual map of all the tribes in America. About 300 more came up.
Not only was this a stunning realization of the lack of knowledge I have in this area, but it also seems to be something of a paradigm for CC academics. You come in with a preconceived idea of what a class will be like. You say, “Yeah, indigenous religious traditions, I know the story of Columbus and all that.” Then you get into class and realize there’s more than you could ever even begin to imagine about the subject. There are entire sections of the library devoted to the subject. There are experts just a few miles away. There is so much more to the map than you ever could have expected.
Knowledge is not something that is gained, it is something that is explored. You must navigate your way through it, find what speaks to you and run with it.
A junior in college and still navigating? Yep. I hope it never stops.
We wrapped up our class this Friday which was very confusing because usually blocks end on Wednesdays. The end of the block was thankfully pretty relaxed compared to how some blocks end, our final assignment was to come up with a constitution for the whiteness studies club on campus and on Friday we discussed as a class what our purposes, objectives and other ideas were for our club. Not everything is set in stone but the club’s name is going to be Critical Whiteness At Colorado College (CWACC, so we can be known as the CWACC-ers (crackers!)). I find this name very clever and keep an eye out on campus for us next semester!
This class has been so important for our school and I really do hope it continues to be taught because I know all the people in our class have benefitted from it and many others will too. And I hope for anyone who has been reading these blogs of mine you too have been inspired to learn more about whiteness and privilege. If you are interested in some readings I have included the books we have read throughout this course at the bottom of the blog.
So to sign off I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts. White is a race and there are consequences of being white but with whiteness comes privilege and although that should not cause guilt and make one hate his or her whiteness it is something they should be aware of. Tim Wise says that in order for there to be an underprivileged there must be an overprivileged but this word is not in the dictionary. So turn this guilt or feeling of privilege into something productive, recognize your whiteness or the whiteness around you and raise awareness that this does exist and that it is important for us to all see. When we are silent and never confront racism we are saying either that it does not exist (which is not true) or that we do not care (which I hope that is not true). So speak up when you need to, pick your battles but do not go on being silent. Thanks for reading!
If you’re interested here are the texts we read in this class:
Whiteness an Introduction by Steve Garner
Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
Between Barack and a Hard Place by Tim Wise
On both Friday last week and Monday of this week the Critical Whiteness Studies class had two guests help lead a discussion. On Friday Krystal Grint a Training Specialist for the El Paso County Department of Human Services came to discuss how to talk about racial issues with people who are resistant. This was helpful for us for many reasons. Throughout this class we have created a safe space for everyone to talk about their experience. With the exception of Heidi, myself and one other Asian American girl our class of fourteen we are all “white” which means many white kids are talking about being white. This conversation is one that we have decided is super important because many white Americans don’t think about the fact they are white or what exactly that means and entails. That is what we are trying to tear down in this class, the wall that separates many whites from their racial identity. Because of this we are, as a class, trying to start a white club on campus. The title of this club is still to be determined but will most likely not be called white club. This will create a space for the white students on campus to get together and talk about their racial identity, I know that this is something that many people will laugh at or call the KKK but obviously this is something we are taking seriously and are prepared for (this is clearly not a group prepetuating white supremacy either). This will be a space for anyone to talk about white heritage, whether they know their own heritage or not this will be the place to ask questions and deconstruct whiteness as a whole. More details are to come on this topic but Grint was there to help us learn how to deal with opposition in a useful way. With this club we want start a discussion and educate others, not to impose our believes on anyone or take anyone down, we honestly believe it is important for everyone to have a safe space to talk about what role race plays in their lives and that yes, white is a race as well.
Grint had us come up with strategies, tools and efforts to having a respectful conversation with anyone on any topic that we may not see eye to eye with. Some of the most important ones for me were:
Not acting purely on emotions
Asking them questions to understand their views
Really listening to the answers they give you
Suspending your own judgment
Communicating accurately what you are trying to say
With these ideas in mind we were able to have a pretty passionate discussion between the differences of showing respect and having respect to get your point across. If one of the students from this class were trying to have a conversation with a KKK member we would know not to shout in their face wildly about how stupid we think they are and try to voice our opinions on them because nothing would be accomplished, trying to fight fire with fire. However we don’t actually have to respect their beliefs and values we just have to be able to hear them out (no matter how much that may hurt) and then calmly tell our side to the story. Maybe in the end we would get nowhere with them still but we also might make them question their beliefs and with the facts that we can give allow them to then do what they will with that. And that is what our club will be trying to accomplish as well. Not everyone is going to appreciate this club and there may even be some opposition but we know what the point is and we all stand behind it so as long as we can skillfully and respectfully have these conversations with our opposition we will be our minds successful.
Grint also had us do an interesting exercise where we all have bowls that represented our circle of people. There were other bowls in front of us with all different color beads, white, black, yellow, red, brown, and then she asked us questions about people in our lives and based on the question we picked the color bead that represents that person. The first question was the color of the last person we dated other examples were the author of the last book we read, our best friend, our hairdresser, our neighbor to the left of us, etc. At the end we all looked at our bowls and were able to see on a very small-scale the group of people who we surround ourselves by, most likely unconsciously. It was a fun activity and one I suggest you look into (attached is the picture of my bowl and some other strategies we came up with).
On Monday Dr.Stephany Spaulding the Assistant Professor of Women’s and Ethnic Studies and University of Colorado-Colorado Springs came in to continue this conversation about our white club. She has a focus in white masculinity and was able to help us with further understanding our reasons behind the club. Throughout class we have talked about white privilege and how many people are affected by it but what we talked about that has rarely come up in my studies before is about how white privilege negatively affects whites. How could this be you ask? Well it is complicated but think about this, white trash, hill-billy’s, etc. These are all terms we call people who we do not see fit in our dominate white society, we teach our boys to grow up strong and smart and to go to the right schools, study the right things and then take over the family business. What about those people who don’t want to or can’t do those things? What then? The current perceptions of what it means to be white hurts everyone and hopefully this club will help us talk about what else whiteness means in a constructive way.
That is enough for now but there is more to come on our formation of this club and I really hope that you’ll at least check it out. Thanks again to Krystal Grint and Dr.Stephany Spaulding for taking the time to talk with us!