A fetish, sorrow, and the wisdom of Chief Standing Bear

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In recent days I’ve found myself pulling a couple of quotes from some legendary native American Chiefs…Standing Bear and Chief Seattle. There are countless Chiefs whose words I deeply respect…be it those well known names such a Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, or even local favorite Sequoyah. I respect these men, their wisdom, their struggles just as I respect the presidents of our own American past.

My blog is not political nor is it one for hot button topics—I can’t tell others how to live as I’m just trying as best I can to keep things “in the middle of the road” for my own family. You may surmise that I tend to be very conservative in my beliefs as my life’s code is based on the belief in a risen savior….an omnipotent God whose Grace is the reason for my very existence. Believe me, I’m old enough to have made enough mistakes and disasters…I can’t go through this life, as tough and as hard as it can often be, without clinging to that saving Grace—for me, without that Grace–its healing and forgiving power–I wouldn’t be here…but there I go digressing.

I preface this little piece today with the above paragraph because there is something in our American drama that has plagued my heart for many years. To some it may sound like tree hugging liberal mumbo jumbo, to others it may sound like a hidden agenda—it is, however, simply stated, the disgust of the treatment of our Native American brothers and sisters throughout the history of this country.

In 1971 the movie Billy Jack made its debut. Due to an initial poor performance at the box office, it was re-released in 1973—that being the time I made my way to the cinema to see the movie. It was the story about a “half breed” former Vietnam vet who comes back to the reservation…kind of a precursor to Walking Tall and Rambo but with the reality of real life drama on and off the Reservation. The movie is set during a time when Indians and whites are not getting along (my question is have they ever??) The movie sparked in me that “do the right thing” mentality. I was a young teen, impressionable and easily riled up to fight for a just cause—the treatment of Native Americans seemed to be it….

But as life would have it–my fight and die mentality ebbed and flowed into all sorts of areas over those growing years. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1980’s, when I picked up Dee Brown’s book, ‘Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee’ written in 1970, that those old feelings of injustice began rising up, once again, in my veins. I couldn’t even finish the book. I couldn’t get out of the first chapter! When I read how Christopher Columbus and his men, when first coming to this land, “presented” gifts to the Indians and as to how those “gifts” were blankets infested with the smallpox virus—- I came unglued!

The indians had no immunity to the diseases of the Europeans—smallpox infested blankets, an ancient precursor to chemical warfare, were meant to decimate the tribes…….and these native “americans” thought they were simply welcoming “visitors”—these visitors who came with the intent of finding gold and claiming new land for a Queen and her rising empire…there was no “visiting” in the plan—it was the conquer and claim mentality.

I can’t read about General Custer and the decimation of the buffalo….the “starve them out mentality”…send a species into near extinction in order to “bend a people into submission……my blood pressure is rising just as I type this……

I know, many would argue that many of the Indians were bad—they scalped and murdered countless innocent men, woman and children. You’re right, I agree. There were bad indian tribes and ruthlessness in Native America just as there was and is in “settled” America…..I don’t have any answers to people’s behaviors but we certainly did not help matters by initially trying to wipe them out….didn’t give us the best reputation when our calling card was “here’s a blanket of death”.

I find it almost funny when we all start the debate about immigration—if the truth be told….we are all immigrants—only the Native American Indians are just that, native, and I don’t think they are being yielded to or looked to for any in-put into any of the latest discussion on immigration. But don’t get me wrong–illegal is indeed that.. illegal—so go about things legally and I’m golden…digressing….

On my many adventures I always try to find something to bring back as a reminder of where I’ve been—not some kitchie “Made in China” trinket nor some tee shirt claiming “I climbed”, “I ate”, “I saw”, “I did”……I want something real—that helps to best capture the usual awe and wonder I discover while I’m visiting where ever it is I may be visiting.

When I travel out west, that “something special” is usually a fetish. Being an art teacher I have a real affinity for such as they represent the talents of a person who can carve and capture the personality of, in this case, an animal all within a small stone—as a fetish is just that, a small carving of, most often, an animal out of stone.

These are things that are most typical of the Zuni and Hopi Indians but native American Eskimos are also known to carve fetishes. They are small and are used in various areas of tribal life. It is believed they are indeed of a spiritual nature—the spirit of the animal residing within. When purchasing a fetish it is believed that the fetish picks the buyer, not the buyer picking out a fetish—I have several bears, a rabbit, a raven, known as the trickster, a beaver, which is so up my ally as I always sang the praises of beavers to my students as the most industrious animals in the animal kingdom—good work ethic you know…., and a badger—my personality—tenacious…..

I respect these items because they have a place of honor in the lives of a particular group of people…just as I hope non Christians can respect a cross as it is dear to our worship, just as I can honor a star of David as that is so intrinsic to another group of people….plus, to me, a fetish is also a small beautiful piece of art…..

And then there are those timeless wise words which are left to us all as small gifts intended to enlighten allowing us all to ponder and treasure—those words coming from wizened men who had lived long hard lives—who had great respect for the world around them as it is from that very world from which they drew their strength and very being.

Last year PBS had a special docudrama based on an 1877 legal proceeding against Standing Bear and his people. Standing Bear was chief of the Ponca Nation of Nebraska. They, like all Native American tribes, had been rounded up and forced to a reservation–which most likely was not on or anywhere near their ancestral lands. The Ponca Nation had been relocated in malaria ripened land hundreds of miles away having not been allowed to take anything with them, having to walk on foot the entire journey.

The gist of the story is about Chief Standing Bear’s intent on making an illegal journey back “home” to honor his dying son’s desire of being buried on their sacred homeland. He and his group are intercepted by the Government and are interred. In order to make the Government understand the importance of why he was “breaking” the law and to disrupt the quick decision just to send these people back to the new destitute reservation, Standing Bear, who spoke no english, went to court. It is said that Standing Bear was an eloquent spokesman despite the language barrier and that he won the respect of his captors.

It was Standing Bear who had to prove to the United States Government that an indian was indeed a human being who was also destined to the same inalienable rights guaranteed to all living human beings. He had to connivence a judge that just because he was an indian, a man of a different shade skin tone, he was still a human, as he (and all Indians) was not considered to be a person. Incredulous!!

“My hand is not the same color as yours. If I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you too will feel pain. The blood that flows will be the same color. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

I am including a link to the PBS site with the story and a lovely video. It is this life drama, a father wanting to simply bury his son on the land that had been theirs for hundreds of years, that lead to the acknowledgement by our Government that they, the Indians, are actually human–people….

http://www.pbs.org/program/standing-bears-footsteps/

It is amazing to me that we Americans are not very versed on our Native American History–it is as if it just doesn’t count to our history……maybe some of our states do a better job in sharing their state’s Indian history more so than others. Some of the poorest areas in this country are on the reservations…alcoholism runs rampant as does unemployment. Not a proud life for a once proud people.

The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
Black Elk – Oglala Sioux

5 comments on “A fetish, sorrow, and the wisdom of Chief Standing Bear

  1. Val says:

    I was born in Colorado. I lived in New Mexico (a place where much of my heart may be buried even now). Before God slammed EVERY door, my planned course of study was history with an emphasis on American Indian Studies. I am not unhappy with my current course of study…well, eventual course of study anyway, but I don’t love my previous love less.

    There can never be fetishes in my world, however.

    I think I own three copies of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Standing Bear is one of my favorite historical figures of this era. His family sent him voluntarily to boarding school, he was that weird byproduct having a foot in both cultures but belonging in neither. You should find his books, they are amazingly readable and insightful. Black Elk Speaks is a book that changed my life in profound ways. The A&E series “The Real West” is very good — Dee Brown was a featured commentator in many episodes. The PBS American Experience series “We Shall Remain” is also incredibly well done and worth-watching.

    I have so much to say…I feel like you just wandered into my sand box!

    • Happy being in the sandbox if you’re up for guests 🙂 Please know the fetishes have no spiritual significance for me as the cross of the Crucified Christ is my only sacred image…but I have an appreciation for them and what they have represented to a people…I believe today many are more for the artistic end of things as they are signed and collectors do seek those specific names—I’m just the art teacher who has used them in lessons on sculpting and carving and cultural differences of sacred images…..
      I’m happy you read the post as it is the type of post not many will be interested in…too wordy, too boring, too historical, too personal, too….on and on…I just really think Native Americans have gotten a bum deal—-but we can argue the same for others as well…..

      • Val says:

        Most of my academic life has been spent arguing just that.

        I am not flip to “just art” with respect to the religious iconography of other faith traditions — not that you are, but some people don’t even bother to care to notice. I’m big on repatriation. If I walked into a pastor’s office or home with religious iconography from other VERY non-Christian traditions, our relationship would be closed at that point. I am very mindful of this and what I symbolically put out there to the world.

  2. Val says:

    But am now wondering if there were two different Standing Bears. Both were amazing, but my fuzzy brain now has wires crossed.

  3. nor am I, but respect is big with me—I can respect anyone’s faith–I may know the one true God but that doesn’t mean I am disrespectful to a star of David, a fetish, an Islamic prayer rug, a chotki, a rosary…..If you ever read my post way back when on What is an Icon, you will know that…and no, I’m not an art for art’s sake type teacher…there are limits, responsibilities and guidelines to aesthetics and to the production of Art—some don’t believe that but I certainly do—I always wanted to expose my kids to the fact that so much art is based around religion—ours, theirs, others….it has always been a catalyst for man to want to make something as a tribute to his/her faith and to his/ her God/god….I can appreciate that and respect that….fanaticism does not respect that….no matter whose fanaticism you’re talking about—ours, theirs, others….
    Creativity is indeed a gift from God, just as intellect, musical abilities, as are spoken and written words…..My art is all centered around my faith—which some who view it will appreciate but others not so much because it is “religious” and Christian religious at that, but that’s okay with me because I don’t do it but for God as I’ve always wanted to be able to give back to Him something beautiful through what gifts He has given me……….

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