Raindance: Perception isn’t Reality, But it Does Make for a Damn Good Story

We all have that one CD, that one cassette tape, that one track that changed the way we see the world and how we react to certain words, sounds, and ideas. While my preferred music has varied through the years, I have enjoyed a wide variety of genres. In middle and high school, the angst-ridden tunes of Linkin Park and Thousand Foot Krutch were my jam, eventually giving way to the whining fiddle and strumming acoustic guitars of folk and bluegrass groups like Black Prairie, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Gaelic Storm. Still, there is another compilation that peaked my interest when I was a small boy growing up in the United States.

You might have heard of the Dan Gibson’s Solitudes series while looking for a relaxing CD to meditate to or just something to have as background music to create a chill ambiance. My first experiences with Solitude’s came in the form of a CD called Raindance: Impressions of a Native Land, composed by Dan Gibson and Howard Baer. The composition transitions through a landscape of birdsong, flute music, and canoe paddle splashes with vocals of Native American chants, songs, and prayers. Some of my favorite tracks are “Whitewater: Spirit of the People” and “Ganohonyohk (Thanksgiving)”. My family and I listened to this CD frequently when we first came to the states and it was my first impression of Native Americans and their “culture”.

The CD introduced many sounds that I hold near and dear to my heart: the whine of cicadas on a hot summer afternoon, the slurping slip of a canoe paddle into the blue water of a kettle pond, the songs of hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus), red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), and barred owls (Strix varia), along with the pounding of drums and chanting of voices. It is easily one of my favorite pieces of music and has provided me with plenty of moments of calm when I have felt stressed. It has also given me an appreciation for the sounds of nature, both as a backdrop to our region and as music on the landscape.

A white-throated sparrow peers out of a bush in mid-spring

As I grew up, the names of the Natives were everywhere, but it wasn’t until I started learning about the history of this nation (both the sanitized version you learn in history class and eventually, the rougher, harder-to-swallow truth of the matter) that you start noticing it. In the town of Sudbury, there is a Musketaquid Village and in the gift shop at Henry Ford’s Wayside Inn, you can purchase a mass-produced paperback copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. One of the streets I grew up on boasts a large glacial erratic with a concave depression on the top which local historians suggest was used as a spot to grind corn before European settlers arrived. Heck, the state I grew up (Massachusetts) takes its name from a tribe who resided here when the colonists arrived. I don’t know what the colonists might have thought when they first encountered the Natives, but their subsequent treatment of them has left an ugly mark on this country.

Now, I’m well aware of the commodification of Native American imagery in our capitalist economy and how their imagery has been used to harken back to a “golden era” of wilderness, of wildness, of open skies rolling over prairies for miles on end, while riding on wild mustangs across an untamed country. They have become part of the imagery of America and the mythology of the past, even though they still exist on their own terms whether we acknowledge it or not. Nonetheless, they’ve persisted. They’ve persisted despite our nation’s attempts to wipe them from the Earth through smallpox blankets, massacres, resettlement, and more recently, the belief that if you put them somewhere on the map in the middle of “nowhere”, you can will them out of consciousness.

Out of sight. Out of mind.

When you don’t have to think about how the Washington Redskins got their name or why the American Ornithologists Union Committee didn’t change the long-tailed duck’s (Clangula hyemalis) old name of “Oldsquaw” based on political correctness, but to conform with the use of the name “long-tailed duck” in other parts of the English-speaking world, you might wonder why some people get offended by what you might perceive as being words or descriptions of something you’ve always known it as being.

If we were to rename the bird again, I would vote for the Virginian nickname of “South-southerly” which imitates the beat of their laughing call and provides a flick of colloquial history to birders and nature lovers alike

When you don’t have to think about several hundred cultures having been systematically wiped off the map or sequestered to the point of being mythologized, you can see why incidents of racism and mockery of native peoples have increased. Some examples include the recent controversies about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Native American ancestry and the racist responses of some Republicans during a spat between Elizabeth Warren’s staffers and Scott Brown’s staffers as well as from the words coming from President Trump’s loud mouth. Even more recent controversies involving police brutality at Standing Rock and the confrontation between Covington Catholic high school student, Nick Sandmann and Native American activist, Nathan Phillips have rocketed the awareness of Native American fights for rights, visibility, and a seat at the table; a seat that far too often hasn’t been available unless convenient to the invaders from across the ocean.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve taken an interest in learning more about human cultures and how different cultures share similarities with one another. As a species, we are a diverse bunch who have taken on immense challenges to improve the habitats where we live, domesticated animals and plants for our use and cultivation, invented stories about gods, heroes, demons, struggles, triumphs, and the gift of life on this planet. We have done terrible things too. We have murdered and brutalized those we perceive as being weaker than us and taken much from the land, skies, and water. White Europeans have definitely done their fair share of this and hiding behind the idea that our culture is superior because everyone who isn’t part of that identity are savages or vermin is racist garbage that should have been razed to the ground when the fascists were beaten in WWII.

Unfortunately, like our favorite comic book anarchist V, always says, “Beneath this mask, there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask, there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.”

If we are to come to terms with how people perceive their world, we need start building solidarity with one another. We are a very divided country we are told and this is true. We treat our political affiliations like football teams, screaming when they miss a penalty and guffawing when they eliminate the other team. While we are all human, we need to focus on what we share in common and build from there. We all want to feel safe, but free to pursue what we want from this world. We all want to believe in something even when others might not understand or want to understand. We all have something to protect, be it ourselves, our friends and families, our homes and livelihoods, our environment and regions, our cultures, our very existence as a species on this planet.

I know I’ve come along a long way from praising a New Age CD featuring Native American influences to a realization that the institutions of this country are actively screwing those who weren’t quite “white”, as it were, and finally ended my rant about the nature of the human condition. I’m still learning as I go and while I would like this blog to focus on nature, I cannot deny the history of the lands that I have lived on. I have lived and worked in places where the names of tribes and of the places that they formerly resided still hang on even as they have vanished. Cochituate, Musketaquid, Kennebec, Quinnipiac, Saco, Onondaga, Seneca, Neuse, Hatteras, Pamlico, Ocracoke, Pisacataqua, Merrimack. There are so many and now so few are known. How do we do them justice now?

A red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena) cruises Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, NY in 2016

I’ve been listening to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and the story has been building towards a final climax between the Gods of the Old World (like Odin, Anansi, and Anubis) and the “Gods” of the New World (like the Internet, globalization, and freeways). A major theme I keep hearing about is how the old Gods have lost their power and presence as they came to America, becoming shades of their former selves. Ideas and perceptions about mythological and religious figures from all over the world twist and conform, blend and melt away, always evolving as long as someone out there believes in a version of them. How does this relate to our relationship as a nation of immigrants and as invaders to the Native Americans who inhabit this continent?

While I haven’t finished the book, I have been thinking about the perceptions of a given character. I just finished a chapter featuring the embodiment of Easter, whose original name is Eostre, goddess of the dawn and how she believes that those that worship on the holiday still pay her patronage. Odin (or Mr. Wednesday, as he is referred to in the novel) challenges her on this assertion and remarks about how people have forgotten the original meaning of her name and have modernized their interpretations of the holiday to fit into their own beliefs. As ardent racist and presidential adviser to two successful Republican campaigns, Lee Atwater put it:

“Perception is reality.”

If we perceive that the Natives are a figment of the past, why do we need to focus on them now? Why does it matter?

As you’ve noticed, I am a big fan of quotations, so I’ll throw one more in for good measure. George Santayana, the renowned Italian philosopher and essayist once said:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We need to understand our past to protect the future and promote better policies going forward. We should study the harshness of the past; a past that we feel should be swept away when it seems inconsiderate of our heroic narratives. Such a view damns us to a purgatory of half-truths and incomplete tales. As I walk this earth, I will do better to learn the history of the place I live in, about the peoples that lived there before me, and to foster and support efforts to spread awareness about issues that run rampant through Native communities today. When we to come together in solidarity, we need to equity for all, not just those who we feel are more “equal”.

If you’re looking for something that will give you a good starting point on how to parse our complicated relationship with Native America and the subsequent whitewashing of history, I would recommend listening to the “Seeing White” series from Scene on Radio and pay extra attention to episode 35 which is entitled Little War on the Prairie.

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