Coming Together

Coming Together

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February 28, 2012

I was just reading a casual exchange between some British and Portuguese bloggers, and they mentioned how every town and village in their respective countries has citizen’s advice centres, where for free people can get help in dealing with government agencies, utilities providers, landlords, and other aspects of life. All done by volunteers with special expertise, this civil society institution seems to fit well with what I’ve been yammering about here.

They were surprised that I had to ask them what an advice center was. Working together, or in Irish, meitheal, is something rarely seen in the US. We compete rather than cooperate. We consume rather than create. We exclude rather than include others.

Some of us, though, realize this is not something that can long continue. Indeed, things are rapidly falling apart. For myself, finding inspiration and guidance among the peoples indigenous to this continent, as well as in the sacred traditions of indigenous diaspora, is both a challenge and obligation. In these reflections, I hope what you find here will help you in making a connection to something authentic and engaging.

Disheartening as our absence of communal relations is in America, it does help to explain our persistent affection toward institutions, as well as our attachment to their recognition and acknowledgment in validating our self-worth–indeed, in bestowing on us the right to exist. Unhealthy as this institutionalized relationship is for us, both individually and socially, it is understandable; institutions–for better or for worse–are presently the only enduring loci of collective memories for our rootless society, disconnected from the land and lives that surround us. Until we construct more functional alternatives, institutions–despite their repeated betrayals and systematic exploitation of every aspect of our daily lives–will maintain their grasp on our lonely psyches in this perverted exchange for a sense of belonging.

If communication in its myriad forms of expression is what comprises a culture, then the particular architecture or design of communicating is what determines that culture’s level of human consciousness. An emphasis on beauty in art, song, dance, and storytelling will produce a very different consciousness than one inclined toward ugliness. It almost seems trite to say so, but when one’s primary input is from mass media, it’s hard to imagine a beautiful mind.

I have often marveled at writers who could create beautiful stories from adversity–powerful works of art exhibiting the dignity of creativity under duress. I have also often wondered if guardians of this sacred space, those who protect it from wrathful oblivion, can ever fully enter it without the sense of an outsider observing from a nearby plateau. I suspect the protectors would do well to accept their fate, taking satisfaction in the space created for art, and knowing the artists and their work. As a guardian, I can see the beauty in the choreography and narrative of creating this space, yet fail to see how to express this other than in the acts of doing so. Some are more gifted than I.

As Carlos Fuentes notes in A New Time for Mexico, “Exclusionary modernity, drawn from Western models, banishes all that it does not understand. Inclusive modernity understands, especially after the Chiapas rebellion, that there are many ways of being “modern,” of being contemporaneous with one’s own values.” Yet, the patterns and relationships that emerge from collaborations in protecting sacred space reflect a harmonious arrangement of vital if not visible dimensions. Depending on awareness, this visibility of the symbiotic relation between useful art and its protectors can be preserved in archival creations often unimagined outside sacred societies. Communicating this story is not easy.

As Maya Lin once remarked, “It is sometimes good to understand what’s been lost, what is irrecoverable, what is valuable to us and what we would like to repair.”

One of my colleague’s students asked if I found my indigenous associates to have a different philosophical perspective. I responded by noting that their cosmology and epistemology was in sharp contrast with dominant society views, and mentioned an interview with Richard Atleo they might find helpful. Making a connection with philosophies indigenous to the landscape we inhabit could be exciting to students and others feeling adrift in the modern world.

Looking at methods of curating social knowledge over long time frames gives one a sense of adaptation and evolution of such things as morality — processes that apply to the European diaspora as well as Native Americans. This is perhaps a way of introducing non-indigenous Americans to researching sacred dimensions of their own ancient cultures that have much in common with American Indians.

After centuries of diaspora and displacement, identities are increasingly complex. For those whose tribal identity has been extinguished — as in most Europeans of North America — what’s left of this essential human function is often a confused mixing of inherent cultures, combined with a vague and transitory identification with place. For settler societies, states, provinces, regions, and watersheds provide a shallow-rooted attachment to landscape and sometimes historical notions of belonging, but circumstances outside our control can easily diminish these bonds. The synthetic modern cultures that have replaced ancient, more holistic ones are thus poor substitutes for the integrated social systems that once nurtured all humanity.

Finding meaningful and purposeful alternatives outside this systematized social support has been attempted many times, but absent the political autonomy required to pursue a more coherent agenda, most gains are never institutionalized. Resistance to the prevention or destruction of a holistic identity, without an appreciation of what has been lost, is usually futile. Understanding tribal systems and the history of cultural development helps.

In the words of Bernadette Devlin, “To gain that which is worth having, it may be necessary to lose everything else.”

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