Whose Myth? Native American Perspectives on Cultural Policy

Suzanne Benally

I would like to begin with a passage from the book Ceremony by the American Indian author Leslie Silko:

Ceremonies. I will tell you something about stories," he said. "They are just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They're all we have, you see. All we have to fight off illness and death. You don't have anything if you don't have the stories. Their evil is mighty, but it can't stand up to our stories. So they try to destroy the stories, but the stories cannot be confused or forgotten. They would like that. They would be happy because we would be defenseless then." He rubs his belly. "I keep it in here," he said. "Here, put your hand on it. See? It is moving. There is life here for the people and in the belly of this story, the rituals and the ceremonies are still growing. Thought Woman is sitting in her room and whatever she thinks about appears. She thought of her sister and together they created the universe, this world and four more below. Thought Woman inspired named things and as she named them, they appeared. She is sitting in her room now, thinking of a story. I'm telling you the story she is thinking, what she said. The only cure I know is a good ceremony. That's what she said.

Our ceremonies are still growing, things are changing. Like Thought Woman, who thinks and names things and is weaver of the world, we are shaping the world through our discussions of cultural policymaking. My remarks focus on Aboriginal Indigenous people and their role in shaping cultural policy.

For many tribes, our existence began here in the West. The land gave birth to us; she is our mother. All around us are mountains, our relations, our aunts and uncles. Our creation stories are here in this place. When I was growing up, I was told two things. "Get up early in the morning to greet the sun so that grandfather may recognize you as his grandchild." And "Stand and look all around you, trace the landscape; this is who you are. You are at the center." This relationship with the land is a very different one from the relationship that European-Americans know, see, feel, hear, or express nostalgia for.

Indigenous people incorporate many symbolic expressions reflecting the cultural constructs of their lives (e.g., mother earth, corn mother). These expressions reflect common understandings and shared foundations for traditional and cultural ways of life. Beyond these metaphors are the philosophical infrastructure and fields of tribal knowledge that lie at the heart of American Indian epistemologies. For instance, mother earth embodies the understanding of the whole earth as a living, breathing, and knowing entity who nourishes and provides for every living thing through her own life processes. These myths and the variety of myths related to other symbolic complexities present the nature-centered orientation of Indigenous thought. Rightful orientation to the natural world is the primary message and intent.

A majority of tribes recognizes seven sacred or elemental directions. Through deep understanding and expression of the meanings of their orientation, Indians have intimately defined their place in the universe. By perceiving themselves in the middle of these directions, they orient themselves to a multi-dimensional field of knowledge and the phenomena of their physical, spiritual, and creative worlds. Extending the environmental orientation inherent in these sacred directions creates elemental, yet highly integrated, kinds of knowledge and thought. These orienting foundations of spiritual ecology include the environmental, the mythic, the artistic-visionary, and the effective/communal. This is a cultural process reflected in all life and in all cultural practices, including the arts. This kind of integrated meaning of the collective cultural, psychological, and ecological viability of a people should inform cultural policymaking.

The concept that "we have a right to exist" stems from a world view and spiritual way of being with the land and cosmos. It is not a concept congruent with the conquest of the West, historically or currently. If "we have the right to exist" were a concept embodied in cultural policymaking, then the four sacred mountains from which I come would not be deemed a national sacrifice area.

So how do we as Indigenous Indian people fit in this discussion of cultural policy? Perhaps as we reflect on culture and cultural policymaking, we should begin by recognizing, acknowledging, and addressing the socioeconomic and political realities of all people (inclusiveness ) — White, Latino, American Indian, Asian American, African American, and many of the immigrant groups (recent and past) who shape and define culture, especially of the West. The West is not a romanticized West, it is not your myth, it is a real living spirit embodying all things. How does this get reflected?

In policymaking, diverse representation and diverse perspectives should be at the center of the dialogue. There should be an inherent understanding of the complexity of this country and how the American consciousness has been shaped with regard to land, people, and culture. That this shaping of the American consciousness has been a distorted process is shown by the powerful negative narrative of the American Indian people used to justify conquest and cultural genocide. When the dialogue on cultural policy is inclusive rather than exclusive, the discussion can begin to explore alternative world views, behaviors, and practices. These practices may not be familiar or comfortable. They may reflect time differently.

Again, I return to the question of how we fit in when our world view is different. For Indigenous people, life is art; there is no separation in an integrated world view. When I think about cultural art within my community, I can name numerous examples from daily life. I think of the chapter meetings where people gather every Sunday to discuss the community's concerns. Old people, young people, everybody speaks; no one debates, but everyone has a voice around an issue. I think of open markets where people congregate at a particular spot to set up pick-up trucks with crops in the back. People stop, talk with each other in commonplace but integral community interaction.

I think of our traditional games that are held in the winter. I think of the song and dance fests that are held on Friday evenings. People dress in traditional clothing and sport wonderful turquoise and silver jewelry and come to the community center to sing and dance. I think of senior centers where our elders are artists and share their weaving, jewelry-making, and story-telling. I think of our spiritual ceremonies and our healing ceremonies, which are very much communal activities.

I think about activities such as farming, where people come together to help each other harvest crops or cut hay. I think about a very important way of life to us as Navajo people, and that is our sheep. I think of sheep-herding and sheep dips, of shearing and processing wool, which eventually becomes weaving into rugs. The whole process is cultural art. So for American Indian people, to participate in any dialogue about cultural policy is a stretch from the realities of their lives — where everyday activities are a cultural process — to sitting at a table like this and discussing policy.

Community life and values are reflected in everyday life and activities. How do we capture this and support it in cultural policymaking? Other questions arise as well. How do we honor the past so that time collapses, and past, present, and future are one? We tend to think only of the here and now and our immediate needs. How do we honor time so that we understand our present and possible future? How do we capture and understand change in cultural policymaking? How do we reflect the continuity yet change of cultural life? A case in point comes from the Hopi reservation where young people are using rap to tell their own stories. How should cultural policy serve the purpose of enabling communities (all communities, communities of color, Indigenous communities) to interpret, reflect openly, and make statements about their lives?

Remember, we are weavers of a world that takes shape in forums such as this one. It is our challenge to freely cross the borders that separate us; to embody stories and art as a way of conferring identify, forming connections, and acknowledging ties with the past, to engage change and the youth who drive change; and to see our cultural policymaking as a ceremony — a creative if not curative act.

Suzanne Benally is a consultant in multicultural education, research, and policy development. She is also a visual artist, teaches American Indian Studies at the University of Denver, was co-producer of a documentary film, Grandfather Sky, and is a member of the Navajo Nation and the Santa Clara Tewa.

Quoted passage: Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (New York: Viking Press, 1977), 2-3.