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Chapter 3 Nostalgia for Paradise
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Change: The "Pure Products of America Go Crazy"

We, as inhabitants of the modern world and especially as Anglo-Americans, cannot understand the Sun Dance unless we understand the role we ourselves have played creating it. I alluded to this phenomenon earlier, noting that Karl Schlesier has termed the Sun Dance an "anthropological invention."[23] In this sense, we—anthropologists being representatives of the modern world—were looking for and finding phenomena we assumed to be widespread. There is a strong tendency among moderns to look to traditional peoples for a primal and unchanging past: the paradise that existed before time and history. This "golden age" in the mythology of our culture (and perhaps all others) is associated with purity because it existed "before the Fall."

James Clifford, perhaps the foremost of the new ethnographers, has attempted to debunk the notion of cultural purity, But the idea of a pristine age is stubborn, and to even challenge the reality of it can be profoundly disorienting to some. Hence the line from a poem by William Carlos Williams, which Clifford quoted: "The pure products of America go crazy."[24] To illustrate this, Clifford took note of a vignette that seems so improbable to the modern American mind that it strikes one as surreal: that the English Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth Rock found waiting for them Squanto, a Patuxet Indian, just back from his visit to Europe. In fact, this incident occurred.

The crucial idea here is that we have segregated the idea of modern, European cultures from our conception of traditional cultures (sometimes called "primitive cultures" if they are without writing and cities) including native American ones. Such a clear-cut division does not exist, although it has pleased Western egos to cast the world in such a mold. Doing so has allowed modern societies to look at "primitive" ones as curiosities, fundamentally different in kind from their own and fit subjects for museums. The transfer of cultural "traits," and more important, of ways of looking at the world, has worked in all directions. Moreover, social mechanisms by which the world is constructed, such as ritual, are common to all societies but are less recognized in modern ones with their bias toward explicit, verbal statement. The real means by which culture operates cannot be understood until these facts are a part of an ethnographic tool kit.

As we have seen in the opening discussion of this chapter, the Sun


Dance itself is not a "pure product" of the New World as it existed before European arrival. It was formulated in reaction to dislocations precipitated by the advent of Europeans. The most persistent element of the ceremony, the medicine pole, was not strictly speaking a New World product either, having come from the tradition of Siberian shamanism. We look in vain here for the purity of an American Eden. What we might discern if we examine the Sun Dance ritual with care is an expression of our "modern" anxieties, which are really associated with manufacturing an identity within a high-grid, low-group, ego-centered society: how to reconcile the need to advance individually and to adapt to a rapidly changing environment while maintaining a necessary degree of group solidarity.

The Sun Dance embodied such concerns. The sixth warrior society, for example, danced with guns, thus legitimating the use of those weapons and the link established with the white man by the use of the guns. Sponsorship of the dance is another case in point. In prereservation days, such sponsorship was generally by a warrior who had survived a situation of great danger likely associated with a raid to acquire horses. Warriors gained prestige by counting coup, but also by owning horses. Horses were highly charged religious symbols and so possessed great medicine. Horses also served as a form of wealth for Cheyenne after they became traders, and remained their primary form of wealth until they became heavily involved with the fur trade, when other more portable forms of "currency"—buffalo robes in particular—gained popularity.[25]

Of course, when it became possible to amass wealth, individualism and an early form of capitalism took hold. By the early nineteenth century, the Cheyenne were undoubtedly preadapted to their role in the fur trade with the whites. This was so, in part, because of their experience in the ritual trade of the Plains, in which they were establishing a position as middlemen by virtue of their mobility and military prowess. But, also, they had developed the habit of thinking in somewhat quantitative terms: The more horses a man had, the greater not only his power (medicine) but his wealth.

This development was accelerated by the presence of Bent's Old Fort. Grinnell recounted one of the Cheyenne stories that includes elements pertinent to this idea in By Cheyenne Campfires .[26] Here he described a horse-stealing expedition mounted against the Kiowa in about 1839. The Cheyenne party stopped by Bent's Old Fort to get provisions, which William Bent provided on credit. The leaders of the expedition vouched for the younger members and told Bent the families to which these individuals belonged, so that if the young members were killed, their fami-


lies could be held responsible for the debt. Thus Bent revealed his role as a crucial participant in the economy of raiding and looting, an economy already developed. In acting as a sort of banker, he facilitated this development. This economy collapsed with the movement of the Cheyenne to reservations. By then, however, other forms of wealth had developed. Such forms were available not only to warriors; both men and women could amass these new forms of wealth and, so, could sponsor the Sun Dance. Of overriding interest here is not that the basis for the economy had changed, but that the nature of the culture had been altered by this experience in the direction of capitalism, modernity, and individualism. The Sun Dance ritual could accommodate and, so, validate and perpetuate this change in ideology.

The most striking feature of the Sun Dance, ritual self-torture, is also the one that displays most clearly the orientation toward individualism. As noted previously, the personal vision quest was artfully woven into the fabric of cultural beliefs. Nonetheless, there is no mistaking the fact that the questors assumed center stage in the drama of the ritual and derived great personal prestige from their role. The Sun Dance balanced the urgent desire on the part of young warriors for personal recognition with the needs of the society in a way that can also be seen in the Cheyenne social institution of the contraries. The contraries, or Crazy Dogs, acted in overtly antisocial ways. These included riding their horses backward, dressing backward, washing with dirt, drying with water, and flaunting social mores and conventions. In battle, they acted with complete disregard for their personal safety. They would charge alone into the enemy camp or tie themselves to a stake when the enemy charged. Many died in doing so, but those who survived were rewarded with the highest prestige in Cheyenne society. Self-destructive behavior that could have been destructive to Cheyenne society was channeled into behavior that enhanced the common good. The Sun Dance ritual showed the way this could be done. It transformed aggression and nihilism into behavior meaningful to the individual and valuable to the society.

It is likely that Clifford Geertz would see in the behavior of the contraries, as well as that associated with the Sun Dance, Jeremy Bentham's idea of "deep play,"[27] play for which stakes are so high that it makes no sense from a utilitarian standpoint. Bentham used as an example gambling for very high stakes. If a man has enough to survive, his argument went, winning a great deal of money produces less pleasure than losing a great deal of money would produce in suffering. Geertz said that such behavior cannot be understood at all if it is linked closely to rational processes.


Using the Balinese as an example, he argued that humans engage in deep play because it is so meaningful. In fact, the "deeper" it is, the more meaning it has:

It is in large part because the marginal disutility of the loss is so great at the higher levels of betting that to engage in such betting is to lay one's public self, allusively and metaphorically, through the medium of one's cock, on the line. And though to a Benthamite this might seem merely to increase the irrationality of the enterprise that much further, to the Balinese what it mainly increases is the meaningfulness of it all, and as (to follow Weber rather than Bentham) the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence, that access of significance more than compensates for the economic costs involved. (my emphasis)[28]

The arguments in this book support Geertz's major contention, that "the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence." The remarkable fact is that survival itself may be forfeited in the urgent quest for meaning. The young Cheyenne warrior, faced with the urgent necessity to establish a viable social identity, often felt that he had no recourse but to put his very life on the line in order to obtain it. I suggest that desperate moves became more prevalent as opportunities for social recognition for junior members of this society dwindled. The development of more unambiguous and more portable forms of wealth made it possible for older, more established warriors to amass wealth. Using this wealth, they then monopolized the means by which further wealth and prestige might be obtained.

Eventually, it took wealth to sponsor a Sun Dance. This alteration in the way the Sun Dance was organized marked a turning point in Cheyenne culture; it set the pattern for other, key social transactions. Perhaps most importantly, in order to mount a raiding expedition, as numerous ethnographers have reported, it was necessary, to have the prestige to attract able warriors to the raiding party. In later years this required wealth with which to equip them and to purchase the sacred objects and ceremonies that would ensure the venture's success.[29]

The Sun Dance displays, according to the terminology utilized by Victor Turner, at least two liminal facets. Rituals occur, said Turner, at limens, or "thresholds.[30] These are points of change, crisis, or danger in the lives of individuals or cultures. All rituals are, in one way or another, "rites of passage," which involve three phases: separation, marginality or liminality , and finally, return . Note that all three must be by definition collective events, because they refer to the separation of ritual participants from the balance


of the group (which represents the whole of human society), the symbolic placing of these participants in an ahistorical state. This is the primordial state that exists before the beginning or after the end of time, the sacred state away from the normal concerns of work, food, and sleep, and one that is thus marginal or liminal to the rest of the group. The culmination is the return of the participants to a place in society, but one that has been altered by the ritual. The two facets of liminality in the Sun Dance are that the chief participants of the Sun Dance are separated by their presence in the medicine lodge from the rest of the tribe and that the vision questors are further separated by their ordeal, from the medicine lodge participants as well as the rest of the tribe. The questors become those most imbued with the sacred by virtue of the ritual.

The societal threshold to be crossed by the efforts of the participants in the medicine lodge is the one brought about by the summer solstice, when the day stops lengthening and begins to become shorter. The Cheyenne could determine the time of the summer solstice with the "medicine wheel." Rituals at the summer solstice are ubiquitous throughout the world and include those practiced by Neolithic peoples in Europe (circa 4700-2000 B.C. ) with the aid of their henges (larger in mass, but functioning in much the same way as the Cheyenne medicine wheel), ceremonies at ancient Mesoamerican, near Eastern, and Asian temples, the burning of witches on midsummer night's eve in medieval Europe, and the lighting of bonfires and burning of witch dolls today in northern Europe on midsummer night's eve, usually accompanied by night-long celebrations. The fireworks that are so much a part of Fourth of July celebrations in the United States are, most likely, survivals of solstice rituals. Fireworks are utilized in many places in the world at liminal occasions to frighten away the demons that always threaten at such times of uncertainty (one well known example is the Chinese New Year).

Such transitional moments are also sometimes linked to personal transitions brought about by change in status, usually by virtue of age, or by personal crisis. The Mescalero Apache, to cite just one Plains group, perform the rituals used to initiate girls into tribal membership and womanhood on the nights near the summer solstice. As the ethnographer Claire Farrer noted:

The girls enter into their ceremony as unformed as was the universe before Creator initiated order. While each girl becomes a physiological woman upon initial menstruation, she becomes a fully social woman and one who understands she is truly "the mother of a people" as she participates in, or even watches, the full cycle of the ceremonial[31]


Likewise, the Sun Dance, also held near the summer solstice, is an initiation of sorts. The occasion for liminality here is not physiological change, it is a growing psychological disturbance among the questors prior to their decision to undergo the ordeal. It may be described as a sense of meaninglessness, or anomie, and may well be associated with the difficulties which grew ever more daunting to the young man attempting to establish a viable social identity. The questor, if successful, returns to the realm of primordial chaos in order to receive his vision and emerges "reborn" as a man with a purpose. This reveals the more individualistic cast of rites of initiation, which are ubiquitous among traditional people.

In the Sun Dance, the initiation is combined with a healing ritual, such as that practiced, to cite just one example out of very many, during a Navajo sing. Here, primordial chaos is also evoked, and then harmony and balance is reinstituted through proper behavior (ritual singing, the assembly of kin), and the ailing person is thereby restored to "wholeness." The Sun Dance ritual as it evolved may be seen in this light as an attempt to restore wholeness to an individual split off from a traditional culture, which heretofore had been sufficient to provide a viable identity to the person. As we shall see, there are similarities between "traditional" Cheyenne and "modern" American conditions of alienation and the use of ritualistic behavior to attempt to correct that alienation.

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Chapter 3 Nostalgia for Paradise
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