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The Medium Is the Message:
A Phenomenological Analysis

Ritual undoubtedly refers to mythology, but the mythology is stated and reformulated, to a degree, by the ritual; that is, it is ritual—an expression that depends only in part upon words—that conveys the mythology to the participants and observers (and ultimately to the succeeding generations who will bear the culture into the future).

The modern world is dominated not only by print but also by words. We frequently make the mistake of assuming that if something cannot be well articulated, it does not exist, it is not valid, or it is at least unimportant. There is some logic to this in the modern world because modern society can only function properly if ideas are given an explicit form that is understandable to a very wide audience. This may include people with whom one does not frequently associate and who, then, are not accustomed to one's idiosyncratic way of speaking, or even people one may never meet. The sociolinguist Basil Bernstein made this point with his research when he noted that children who are brought up in families where an elaborated linguistic code (or way of speaking) is employed, as a rule, do much better in school and, later, in modern society, than do those from more traditional families. Traditional families, often associated with lower socioeconomic class in the Western world, communicate in many nonverbal ways, which often spring from traditional roles. Such families impart a restricted, less-explicit manner of speaking to their children.[15]

While such evidence explains the social advantage enjoyed by those with command of explicit verbal communication in the modern world, our bias in favor of words has now partially blinded us to the real impact of nonverbal communication. This is a point about which painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians, and even architects and mathematicians comment. It is lived experience, experience not limited to words, that conveys meaning, and shared experience that generates Durkheim's "sentiment." And this is how ritual makes its effect.

Fieldwork done by the "new ethnographers," a group that includes James Clifford and James Spradley, employs the tenets of "cognitive an-


thropology." In this approach, fieldwork is designed to reveal the "cognitive chart" employed by members of a given culture in making sense of, communicating about, and altering the world.[16] The focus here is on performance—the actual behavior involved—be it speech, ritual, or the creation of material culture. As Victor Turner explained in The Anthropology of Performance, Noam Chomsky, a linguist, was the first to identify the dichotomy between competence, the mastery of a system of rules and regularities underlying communication, and performance, or what actually occurs and is experienced.[17] We can only speculate about competence. Performance, on the other hand, is doubly informative, in that it indicates the underlying set of rules and regulations and, also, how these are employed—often to bring about change—in the real world. In emphasizing lived experience, performance theory may be seen to lie comfortably within the philosophical traditions of phenomenology, which concerns itself with such experience, and hermeneutics, which explores how meaning is made from experience.

All of this is in way of saying that ritual conveys mythology more surely than might be done by purely verbal means (if means could be purely verbal, which they cannot be). It is the performance of ritual in its entirety—words, behavior, timing, and so on—that conveys mythology in such a way as to reorder society along the lines suggested by that mythology. It does this by evoking Durkheim's "sentiment." Sentiment embeds a value and belief system in the group participating and observing a ritual—it wins the "hearts and minds" of this group as a reasoned, explicit statement of values and beliefs, a theology or philosophy, might never alone do.

Looking at the Sun Dance phenomenologically, we can clearly see several important components of Cheyenne mythology. The Sun Dance reenacts the creation of the world. It is a statement of Cheyenne ontology, a statement made in part by the construction of a "model" of the Cheyenne universe, a model that replicates the larger world. The center pole (or sun pole) is what Eliade termed the axis mundi, the symbolic center of the earth, and also the point at which heaven and earth meet. Whether a landform or a temple or pyramid, the axis mundi is the most sacred of locations because it provides access to the realm of the unchanging, the "real."

The Cheyenne rituals that involve the Sun Dance pole are similar to Siberian shamanistic rituals that make use of a central pole. The ancestors of the Cheyenne, the Algonquin, came to North America from Siberia, and many similarities between the religious beliefs and practices of the Cheyenne and Siberian groups have been recorded by historians and ethnographers over the past century or so. (Siberian shamanistic practices


are generally regarded by religious scholars to have developed before the Neolithic period.) These observations have been noted by Karl Schlesier and other scholars, yet no one, so far as I know, has mentioned the similarities in the ritual use of a central pole, or axis mundi, noted below.[18] The similarities provide clues to the ways in which behaviors associated with an important ritual migrate and are made freshly meaningful as a society evolves. These behaviors often seem only practical to modern observers—their meaning eludes the observers, and the rituals become fugitive.

In a Siberian ceremony, a master shaman (or "father shaman") initiated apprentices in a ritual that resembles the Sun Dance in some important ways. A strong birch stripped of its bark was set up in each apprentice's yurt on the day of their initiations, where it projected through the central smoke hole. The apprentice climbed to the top of the birch and shouted for the assistance of the gods. The birch thenceforth was left in the yurt to mark the apprentice as a shaman.

Then, as a party, the master shaman and his apprentices went in a procession to a place where many large birches had been prepared by stripping them and setting them into the ground. After sacrificing a goat to one of the birch poles, the master shaman climbed it and made nine notches in the top of its trunk. The initiate then climbed the birch and "disappeared," reappearing some time later with visions he had obtained from his visit to heaven. Nine birches in all were climbed which, like the nine cuts, symbolized the nine heavens.[19]

An obvious similarity, is that the Siberian and Cheyenne initiates (initiates to the status of shaman in the first case and to a more satisfying status in Cheyenne society in the second) sought ecstatically induced visions under the direction of an experienced holy man. Cheyenne initiates experienced visions that were personal but which linked them to the larger cultural agenda of their society.

Other similarities seem relevant to the Plains Indian practice of counting coup. As with any set of ethnographic similarities, the exact relationship is problematic given the lack of written accounts of the behaviors in question prior to European contact. While a common origin cannot be proven, the similarities suggest at the least a convergence of behaviors formulated from a related stock of meaningful ritual actions.

The counting coup behavior has puzzled many historians and archaeologists, as it puzzled contemporary observers. It appeared to them to be a sort of individualism gone amuck, to the overall detriment of the tribe. Counting coup usually involved touching an enemy (alive or dead) in battle. Doing this conferred great prestige on a warrior, even more prestige than


would be realized by killing an enemy or contributing to a military victory. Stories abound of young warriors who could not be restrained from their attempt to count coup and so ruined the battle strategy of their war party.

Counting coup also occurred in quite a different context, one suggesting the real meaning of the behavior. Coup was counted by the Cheyenne on the tree selected to be the Sun Dance pole—it was struck ritually. Far from symbolizing an enemy, however, the central pole was the most venerated of symbols associated with the Sun Dance.[20] It represented the axis mundi, as did the stripped birch trees in Siberia that were ritually struck nine times. Given that the ancestors of the Cheyenne came from Siberia and the well-documented similarities in the religions of the two groups, it is possible that the counting of coup by the Cheyenne on the Sun Dance pole is a survival of the striking of the birch poles in Siberia. In the Asian ritual, the nine notches made in the birches symbolized the nine heavens. The blows given to the Plains Indian medicine pole may also have symbolized this or something similar. Ethnographic observers, however, assumed that the behavior they saw at the medicine pole replicated the activity of ritually striking the enemy, the behavior called counting coup. It is highly unlikely that behavior associated with a more profane activity (by virtue of its occurring farther away from the most sacred locale, the axis mundi ) would be replicated at the most sacred of all sites, the axis mundi itself. Such a conclusion does not follow the logic of ritual as observed worldwide, which indicates that behavior reenacted at the most sacred locales becomes the model for all less-sacred activity (as the celestial provides the archetype for the organization of all earthly affairs).

The Sun Dance behavior of striking the axis mundi, then, may have provided the model for counting coup, not the other way around. Counting coup may be fugitive ritual. This explanation accommodates one of the more puzzling aspects of counting coup. In battle, the person who killed the enemy gained coup, but not as much as did the second person to strike a blow on the now dead body. While the blows inflicted by the first warrior may have achieved the practical result, the blow by the second sanctified that result; it was a purely ritual act. The ritual striking of the enemy restored balance and harmony to the universe, a balance that had been upset by the killing. It also restored the balance of a traditional society, a balance that had been upset by one of its members acting in a highly individualistic manner. The ritual was thus made to accommodate the individualism that had been transmitted to Plains Indian culture through its interaction with Anglo culture.

The symbolic material that was arranged around the pole in the medicine


lodge—vegetation, dried buffalo meat, the rawhide figure of a man—re-created, in miniature, the essential features of the Cheyenne world. It was a succinct expression of the relationship of the sacred to everyday life. Sacred power, which flows to the living things of the world, was especially concentrated in the buffalo (the importance of which to Plains society prior to the arrival of the Anglos cannot be overestimated—virtually all of the flesh of the animal was eaten, and from various parts of the animal came almost all of the clothing, tools, weapons, cooking utensils, and containers used by the Cheyenne), and this power was accessed by man through hunting and consuming the animal. Some ethnographic accounts also reported that tobacco was attached to the center pole (in more recent times, this has in some cases been cigarettes). Tobacco, as we shall see, played a major role in trade rituals with the Cheyenne, as well as with all other Plains tribes. It also refers to the shamanistic tradition, in that tobacco has been used for thousands of years among Native Americans, in both North and South America, to create a nicotine-induced ecstasy that provided visions.

At a certain point in the consecration of the medicine lodge, tobacco smoke from a sacred pipe was offered to the medicine pole. The bowl of the pipe was made of a soft red stone, called catlinite by Euro-Americans, and was often carved into figures that referred to mythological entities. True catlinite could be procured only in the Timber Mountains of southwestern Minnesota, the ancestral home of the Cheyenne and other Plains tribes. By the nineteenth century, the homeland had undoubtedly assumed mythological status. Long trips were taken to acquire the distinctive red stone. Fig. 7 shows the offering of the smoke to the medicine pole in a photograph that was possibly taken by Cheyenne ethnographer James Mooney in about 1903. The gesture shown is similar to that made toward participants in fictive kinship rituals, including the trading rituals that establish fictive kinship relationships (described in chapter 5).

The altar, by reason of proximity, was only a slightly less sacred locale than the pole itself. Here, other symbols of the Cheyenne world were arrayed in a particular way. The strips of earth that represent the four cardinal directions and the sun spoke to the importance that all cultures place in being properly oriented in the world. Clifford Geertz, among other ethnographers, commented about this, giving as an example that the word for "not knowing which way north is" among the Balinese connotes profound confusion of the sort which the Balinese fear almost pathologically. Such is the urgency. of being physically oriented in a traditional society, where virtually all landforms are embedded within the mythological basis for the culture's belief and value system.


Figure 7.
Offering smoke to the medicine pole at a Cheyenne Sun Dance,
circa 1903. (Photograph possibly by James Mooney; courtesy
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.)

The importance of orientation is especially visible in the Chinese practice of geomancy. Geomancy survives even in modem Hong Kong, where huge sums are paid to geomancers to align new buildings according to lines of force that exist only within mythology. The belief that disaster will befall any building not correctly aligned is quite real, however. Similarly, the


aborigines of Australia are able to find their way with precision from one side of their continent to the other by following "songlines" while on walkabout. The aborigines sing their creation myths, which tell the origin of the landforms they encounter, linking each with a mythological creature. The aboriginal perspective, however, is that they are "singing" the landforms into being once more, re-creating the world as they go. Therefore, their walkabouts are essential to the continuation of the world.

The intimate knowledge of the environment that such a belief system promotes does possess functional value. The Pintupi Aborigines of Gibson Desert in Australia, for example, range over a wide area yet can find their way to small resource points that appear only at certain times of the year. These include specific locations where the mungilpa seed plant grows in great proliferation after rains, or where wild yams ripen.[21] There are also social implications to intimate knowledge of the environment. To the Pintupi, travel to resource points through and by means of topological reference points called ngurra, "named places" created by the ancestors, makes of traveling companions "one countrymen," even if they are from different homelands.[22] But the urgency associated with "getting one's bearings," individually and culturally, cannot be fully understood in terms of function alone. It is simply a prerequisite to making sense of the world in all ways, of making life even in its day-to-day aspects meaningful.

The altar, again, represented the earth, and so the strips of sod placed the earth in its proper relation to the heavens (the lodge itself) and the means of access to the heavens, the axis mundi. The produce of the earth, the buffalo represented by the skull and the useful plant life such as cottonwood and plum bushes, were sacralized through their contact with the earth, which was made sacred through the axis mundi. Dancers moved in and out of the sacred space, expressing physically man's sojourn on earth and the temporality of his association with it.

The basic orientation established by the medicine lodge extended to the camp as a whole. The camp was arranged in a circle, reflecting the Cheyenne belief that everything living is circular (the human body, the sun, the tepee, the camp circle), while everything dead or that brings about death is angular (weapons especially, such as the tomahawk and spear). When a clan or warrior society was in disgrace, the tepees of the members were not allowed within the camp circle. To be outside of the circle, after all, was to be outside the realm of the living, and to be deprived of the essential source of life. Usually, however, the outcasts camped nearby, and if proper reparations were made and proper conduct was followed, they were allowed after a time back within the circle.


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