Monday, August 2, 2010

Tribes

by Robin Allan Jones

He stands with quiet dignity in his remarkable regalia, face painted white, almost like a mime’s, his clothing accoutered with claws and a lush abundance of feathers; here and there, regular ranks of small polka dots stud his garb, reminding me of a Japanese samurai warrior. His name is Mickey Mason, of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma. His voice has the gentle drawl of the wind over the Midwest prairie. It is a hot day at the Seafair Pow Wow, the air redolent with the scents of sweat and Navajo fry bread. We will come back to Mickey very shortly.

A pall of dust is kicked up by the wildly-costumed dancers. It sort of hangs there at about ankle height, and against the throb of the drums and whine of, to me, incomprehensible Indian songs, I am reminded of the incense that hangs in the ceiling of St. Paul’s on a Sunday service. I have heard somewhere, probably not here, that Native American dance is prayer with the body, and I can’t imagine engaging in that sort of dance on a day like this without it being some kind of delirious religious experience. Just watching it can get you halfway there. And I am caused to remember something I heard Melissa Skelton say some years ago, that what we do at St. Paul’s, the repetitive standing, crossing, bowing, the chanting, the courtly cadenced steps of the altar servers, is prayer with the body. Somehow, perhaps only in my imagination, we Episcopalians, we “frozen chosen,” share parallel patterns with these remarkable, astoundingly energetic people.

These days, within the bounds of U. S. federal law, Native Americans exist as members of a startling variety of tribes. To those who live amid the monumental structures of modern states and worldwide religions, tribalism has its appeal. It’s smaller, more personal. The half-Native-Alaskan fictional character Ed Chigliak once remarked on Northern Exposure that tribes make sense because it’s hard to have a personal connection with (insert the 1990 U. S. census figures here) people (obviously this isn’t an exact quote). But there is a dark side to tribalism: Street gangs are basically tribes. For all the Aquarian ideals, tribes are often violent, cut-throat, top-dog societies that exist primarily for the good of the leaders of that tribe and nothing else, very much like the petty kingdoms of early medieval Europe, only on a smaller scale and with not nearly as good a music.

But all along, we have had, within the bounds of U. S. federal law, a very positive kind of tribalism—with excellent music. You could, with some slight elbow-shoving of the imagination, say that I am a member of the Episcopalian Tribe, more particularly, the St. Paul’s, Seattle, band of the Episcopalian Tribe. We’re a small band; using the latest parish directory for a count, it looks like we number about 350. I have a personal relationship with many of my fellow tribe members; I am on a first-name basis with many of them. I am one of the ceremonial something-or-others in the tribe. I also seem to be the tribe’s playwright. Our tribe makes its living by hunting, fishing, gathering berries, and live theatre. Naw, I just made that last part up. Actually, by no stretch of the imagination, I and a couple of other tribe members who are responsible for creating comedy around here are the equivalent of the clowns in Navajo and Hopi societies. I won’t go into why we are the equivalent of that, for the very simple reason that I kinda like being in this tribe, and I’d like to not get run out of it, but it brings me back to Mickey Mason, standing patiently, the picture of stoicism, while people stand next him to have their pictures taken. He doesn’t charge them for the privilege, and he doesn’t lecture them on etiquette, being thoughtful, or on the dignity of Native Americans.

It turns out that that Mickey and some other Indians go to prisons and do Indian dances for the prisoners as an act of healing. Dance as healing. Kinda like our liturgy. I find this remarkable because I personally can’t look at an inmate without at least asking myself what he did to get himself incarcerated. But Mickey and the others see past all that—which, when you think about it, is rather what Jesus would do. Mickey says that the rig he wears is that of a sort of medicine man, and for as long as he wears it he cannot feel insulted in any way.

I have known Mickey Mason for only a few minutes, and I already think he’s one of the finest human beings I have ever met.

Robin Allan Jones is a tribal liturgical minister, and tribal comedic playwright. He’s also one of the tribe’s most insufferable wiseasses.

2 comments:

Mary Jane Francis said...

Robin... I don't do the techie stuff very well, so Alissa may have gotten what I wrote. Which [essentially] was: Thank you so much for this. It is a fabulous theological, sociological, cultural piece. And, from my standpoint... 'dead on'.
So, again, thanks.
Mary Jane Francis

Hannah said...

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