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Rituals of Binding and Rituals of Healing

Posted 09-08-2007 at 04:41 AM by Brimshack
Updated 09-08-2007 at 07:35 AM by Brimshack

Okay, so it's been a long damn time since I was serious about anything academic. Somewhere between the usual academic bullshit and all the politics of working on an Indian reservation, I let my bitterness overwhelm the fascination I once had for Native American history. The career prospects all but gone at this point.

I find myself occassionally trying to look back at stuff I once planned to include in a dissertation, publications, etc. I find myself trying to think what I had in mind, what secondary literature I was going to throw at it, what jargon I was going to impose on the whole thing, blah, blah, blah... Could I revive the projects? I dunno; I just don't think about those things anymore, and I don't miss it. What I do sometimes miss is the details of the subject itself. It's that occassional moment when you see something you never would have imagine, and it actually happened.

Case in point, the Navajo treaty of 1868. Just a little background. The treaty required double translation from English to Spanish and then to Diné Bizaad, because no-one present spoke both Navajo and English. It was negotiated in the summer of ...er, 1868, which is to say in the wake of the Doolittle report and a great deal of publicity about Sand Creek Massacre. It also comes after 4 years of internment at Bosque Redondo, a place deemed unfit for 500 Mescalero just before Carson rounded up 8,000 Navajo and sent them there. The internment was miserable for Navajos, and for the U.S. government, it was VERY expensive. By the time the negotiations came up, the Diné were leaving and the army wasn't really interested in stopping them.

So, in comes General Sherman to talk to Navajo leadership and try to make it all legal. He had a boiler plate treaty framework to tweak a little here and there and he really wanted to send the Navajo people to Oklahoma. Others had suggested making a second Indian country in the Southwest (one which would have put Utes and Navajos in the same location ...fucking brilliant! ...assholes!)

So, anyway, Sherman asks the Navajo people to appoint a leader to speak for them, and they unanimously select Barboncito (lots of stories about how that was done - some say by canvasing the clan matriarchs). But at any rate Barboncito is asked to explain why the Navajo people hadn't prospered at BR (well DUH!) and what they wanted the army to do.

What's really interesting about Barboncito's response is the cosmological themes at stake. He tells Sherman that in creation First Woman had declared that Diné were to live between four sacred mountains and four sacred rivers. Since BR was well to the east of both the easternmost mountain and the easternmost rive, that explained all the misfortunes. Snakes no longer warned before striking, medicines didn't work on the sick, etc. In essence, the land had rejected Barboncito and his people because they were not supposed to be there. It wasn't simply bad soil, draught, or even an infestation of the army worm.

The problem was cosmological. And until Navajos returned to the land where they were supposed to live, the could not prosper. Sure, you could always go into the details, but that wasn't the heart of the matter. Bottom line is that Navajos had to go back home (and NOT to Oklahoma).

Okay, this is all pretty mundane, but then something absolutely brilliant appears in the text. (I wonder if I even still have the quote anywhere on my computer. Back in a minute...)

(Nope, but thanks to the beauty of the internet, I found a copy. Heh, that wasn't possible, the last time I really looked at this stuff.)


Anyway, this is what Barboncito has to say to Sherman. It's his final remarks in the opening round of the negotiations.

"I am speaking for the whole tribe, for their animals from the horse to the dog, also the unborn, all that you have heard now is the truth and is the opinion of the whole tribe. It appears to me that the General commands the whole thing as a god. I hope therefore he will do all he can for the Indian, this hope goes in at my feet and out at my mouth. I am speaking to you (General Sherman) now as if I was speaking to a spirit and I wish you to tell me when you are going to take us to our own country."

What's fascinating about this is that it shows what the treaty means to Barboncito. The whole ritual of the document and so forth doesn't work the same when for him. He and Sherman aren't free to decide where the Navajo people will go, because First Woman already decided that (well that's a simplification, but he was probably dumbing it down for the bilagáana). The paper isn't half as important to Barboncito as it is to Sherman and so forth. Okay, so the notion that a treaty couldn't have meant the same thing to a nonliterate Indian as it did to U.S. officials is second rate wisdom you could get from a 3rd grader. What's interestig is here we actually get a sense of what Barboncito really thinks is happening. He isn't preparing for a ritual; much less negotiating an agrement to be consilidated in ritual (touching the pen). Barboncito is performing a ritual right in the middle of the treaty negotiations.

The main clue is the notion of a hope going in at Barboncito's feet and coming out of his mouth. That makes no sense unless you've ever been in a ceremonial hogan. That's a VERY common ceremonial schema. Blessings consistently start at the feet and move to the top of the head up and out or they proceed up to and out of the mouth. Witchraft goes the opposite direction, ending in the ground. So, when Barboncito says he is speaking to Sherman as if he were speaking to a god (holy person would have been a closer rendition), Barboncito ABSOLUTELY MEANS IT. He is literally praying to Sherman, and he is doing it exactly as he would in a ceremony, from his feet upward to Sherman.

It's also worth keeping in mind that someone can stand in for someone else in a healing ritual. And it's worth knowing that healing rituals almost always involve a sort of ritual reconstruction of the world around the patient. Sacred events are described in song, always located in the landscape, often referring to mountains around the Diné Bikeyah. (They're colour coded, btw, which means if you can't follow anything else, you can recognize where the story is when the color terms change, which they always do in sequence - very good to know if you need the song cycle to end so you can visit the outhouse during coffee break. ...okay, they're at yellow, just one more.)

And of course, finally, in what sense would Sherman command the whole thing as a god? Barboncito isn't stupid. The man was absolutely freaking brilliant; and not at all given to worshiping random white people, even if they did wear a pretty uniform. No, he means it in one very specific sense, Sherman has the capacity to do just what First Woman had done according to Barboncito, which is to say PUT NAVAJOS WHERE THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO GO. If Sherman signs off and everyone gets to go back home, then this is absolutely the equivalent of putting the Navajo world back together for them, just as had been done in creation, just as was - is - regularly done in healing rituals. For Sherman to give the okay to return was in essence a sort of cosmogenic moment, and that much at least was worthy of a prayer, even if Sherman himself was just a guy.

So, of course it makes sense for Barboncito to approach it this way. For the moment at least, Sherman holds power comparable to the most sacred beings in his universe. Standing in for his people, just as he might for a healing ceremony, Barboncito wasn't so much negotiating an agreement with people and performing a ritual necessary for healing. It's an improvised ritual, and probably not one to be taken too literally (natives aren't necessarily fundamentalists), but the themes are there.

And the best part is when it's done, it really is done as far as Barboncito is concerned. He doesn't ask Sherman if he will please send everyone home at the end of all this, he asks Sherman WHEN he is going to send them all home.

And why not, Barboncito had done performed the ritual as he should have. How could Sherman have done otherwise? From this point foreword the real ritual was over, and touching the pen would be a matter of humoring the crazy bilagáanas.

The treaty exists somewhere, yes, but that document was hardly the important part of the matter to Barboncito and his people. No, the reason they were going home was related in the paragraph I quoted above. That's what really got them home.
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Total Comments 6


  1. Old Comment
    Dingfod's Avatar
    Ahéhee', teacher man.
    Posted 09-09-2007 at 06:24 AM by Dingfod Dingfod is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Brimshack's Avatar
    Posted 09-09-2007 at 07:47 AM by Brimshack Brimshack is offline
  3. Old Comment
    livius drusus's Avatar
    That's absolutely fascinating, Brim. Do you think you might look into any other similar issues now that the intarweb is so packed with data?
    Posted 09-09-2007 at 05:39 PM by livius drusus livius drusus is offline
  4. Old Comment
    viscousmemories's Avatar
    Posted 09-24-2007 at 06:23 PM by viscousmemories viscousmemories is offline
  5. Old Comment
    Brimshack's Avatar
    Been thinking about it, but the truth is I don't know. I really don't.

    I actually have a fantastic library of Navajo materials myself, though I'm selling a lot of it off lately. Why the fuck do I have 13 bookshelves full of goddam books!?! Well not anymore, that's for damn sure. Anyway, I've either got to get back and try to finish up my old degree or forget aboutt it forever. That's part of what I was thinking about when I wrote this.
    Posted 09-25-2007 at 02:37 AM by Brimshack Brimshack is offline
  6. Old Comment
    Kyuss Apollo's Avatar
    I vote that you finish up your degree, for what that's worth. You have amassed a lot of great information and have obviously put no small effort into organizing it into something coherent and in my estimation, eminently fascinating. I am somewhat familiar with the the long slow arc of academic research...it gnaws at my very being even as I now speak and some days I wonder if the energy I already have put into it would ever bear up under a cost-benefit analysis. It probably wouldn't, but some of that is also just the learning curve and at times barking up the wrong trees. Other times I wince as I know, predictably, the happy historian who will take my ideas and smash them to earth like so much rotten plaster. "HA HA!" they'll say, "SMASH!" But you what? Too fucking bad if they don't like it. They can go read Harry Potter or Arthur Schlesinger* and damn well bugger off.

    *No likenesses of Arthur Schlesinger were harmed in the posting to this blog.
    Posted 09-25-2007 at 03:55 AM by Kyuss Apollo Kyuss Apollo is offline

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