The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Sweat House vs. The Cross

This story is both disturbing and fascinating. It is about a group of Native Canadians, specifically the people of a Cree Village named Oujé-Bougoumou, who destroyed a sweat lodge built on the grounds of another person's home because they were worried about, in the words of one of the elders interviewed for the article, witchcraft entering the village.

Sweat lodges were a common part of the social and religious life of many Native American groups. In this case, the man who built this one did so because he took an interest in the religious beliefs and practices of his ancestors, and he wanted to share this with other members of his community. Was this a good idea? I haven't a clue. I can certainly understand the impulse, especially with some of the problems facing his community, to try to return to a past in which one believes (whether rightly or wrongly) that one's people were stronger. I have my doubts as to whether or not it would actually have the effect that he intended, but it seems like an understandable impulse.

It was destroyed because the elders and many people within the community are Christians - their parents, grandparents, and great-grand-parents having been converted by European missionaries - and they view this interest in past religious practices to be a return to a pagan past and, again as one elder called it, witchcraft.

The article portrays this as, in part, a generation-gap issue, with younger members of the community having an interest in earlier practices, and older members wanting them forgotten. But I have to wonder if it is really that simple. It is noted in the article that a petition to have the sweat house destroyed gathered 130 signatures, out of a town of 700. That's certainly a large number, but still a definite minority. OF the 530 who didn't sign it, how many were in favor of the sweat lodge? How many didn't care one way or another? How many were ineligible to sign because of age or some other social prohibition? How many never saw the petition? And how did this actually break down along age lines?

The article also portrays this as religious conflict, and this seems accurate, so far as it goes. Pentecostal Christianity is a powerful religious force among many rural communities in the Americas, and the Native Canadian communities are no exception. There are a few different forms or flavors of Pentecostalism, but many of them portray anything that is not Christian (and often, not specifically Pentecostal) as being literally satanic, the work of demons, and not to be tolerated - individual freedoms quite literally be damned. These are the same sorts of people who can reliably be expected to protest a palm reader getting a business license because they are afraid of the palm reader's magic.

The denial of earlier religious practices because of current religious beliefs is not unheard of in other parts of the world. For example: I have friends who work in Egypt, and they have told me that it is common to find that their excavators are extremely disrespectful of the human remains pulled from ancient graves. The ancient Egyptians were not Muslim, and so many of the modern Egyptians who work on archaeological sites view their ancestors as degenerate pagans and not worthy of respect.

But one issue that is not discussed in the article, but I suspect is in play, is that of power relations. Very often, religion becomes a part of the power structure, even when church and government are not formally tied together. Much of the screaming about the U.S. being "a Christian Nation" has little to do with theology or ecclesiastical views, and everything to do with one group feeling that it has the right to impose it's views, standards, and attitudes on others, whether they are members of the group or not. Likewise, the passage of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in my home state seems to have little to do with people believing that they are going to somehow do away with homosexuality than it does with people believing that they should have the right to deny rights to others based on absolutely arbitrary and nonsensical religious standards. Similar strains of argument can be found in right-wing political parties throughout Europe, and also in some political movements within Canada, New Zealand, and Australia (where they are considerably more muted than in the U.S. or Europe). In all of these places, the basic notion is the same: "you may not agree with us, we can live with that, but you had damn well better do everything to our weird and arbitrary standards, no matter how loopy, and not challenge use, no matter how reasonable you may be about it, because we have power here!" Any deviation from an arbitrarily-defined "norm" is shouted down, or even violently opposed, not because it actually poses a threat to individuals, but because people not sticking to the norm may eventually force legitimate questions of and changes to the power structure.

And so I wonder how much the fight over the sweat lodge in this community is based on religion, how much it is based on age, and how much it has to do with one group wanting to exert its power in order to ensure that it keeps it. These three things are, of course, not mutually exclusive. It is likely that all of them are in play. But as the third - power relations - is almost never explicitly stated (very few people want to admit that they are clinging to power for the sake of clinging to power), I have to wonder how much it plays a role here.

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