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Ashes and Ghosts

I.  Anthropology 101: Revisited

Myth:   a noun (person, place, thing, or idea)

1. a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.

synonyms: folk tale, folk story, legend, tale, story, fable, saga, mythos, lore, folklore, mythology

2.  a widely held but false belief or idea.

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All human societies cling to their own individual belief systems, and from those foundations, rise their legends and myths and the heroes and monsters that populate them.  Whether we look to the Norse (with Thor and Odin, the All Father), or the Greeks (with Hercules, son of Zeus and a mortal human, slaying the Gorgon), or the Hebrews (with Moses guided by the Pillar of God), or the Mayans (with Hunab Ku once again throwing Camazotz into his cave of darkness), of the Christians (with Jesus walking on water), or with the Hopi (with their Kachina coming from the peaks of the holy mountain to live among the people in an ancient city), or to Americans (with Superman and Batman guiding a modern day host of Olympians)  –  all of them have empowered their own mythos.  Tolkien contrived the Lord of the Rings to function as a LIVING mythos, as he desperately felt, linguistically, that his homeland of Britain had been robbed of it’s deep past by the Norman invasion of 1066.  He succeeded. Stan Lee and Co did the same with Marvel, and Bob Kane and Co over at DC. We are surrounded, influenced, and motivated by myths. They live and breath and inspire all we do.  They fill the minds of our children with magic and inspiration as we teach them the stories of our ways.

II. Castles of Sameness

A problem arises however, when we stop to consider the definition of myth.  Beliefs form a perception, a lens through which to view and discern the world, and this formulates the backbone of that group’s reality and identity.  When we do hear the word myth, we have a tendency to define it under its second definition, as an idea that is lost in time, archaic, and ultimately not true as more than a story or a legend.

Why is this a problem? Because we are beings of wonder: gifted with intellect and the ability to rationalize the world of mystery surrounding us.  Our journeys through that great mystery, however, have divided us and set us against each other far more often than they have made us see that we are all travelers on the same mystical highway.  We surround ourselves with like-minded folks, live in communities with people that harmonize with our lives, and we begin to see the entirety of the universe through that one subjective experience.

What I am starting to learn the deeper I dig into these topics, is that there are far more similarities between our beliefs than not, and perhaps through education, fear and misunderstanding can be lessened.

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III. Understanding what you Know

As I was formulating my thoughts for this article, I posted a thought on Facebook about the line between spiritual/ sacred secrecy and cultural understanding.  Wade Crossman, a young man who was a star on my Speech & Debate team, and is now a teacher in the West Valley posted on my musing question:

“It makes me ponder the benefit of secrecy,” he wrote.  “Is it merely as a carrot to dangle in front of initiates? Is it a method of distinguishing elders? (Are those two things different?)  In our world today, I don’t know if there is much room for or interest in secrets. Even if something is supposed to be sacred, you have to educate the masses to help protect your sacred thing (as in the sentence, “The Keystone Pipeline is cutting through a sacred burial ground”) – keeping a sacred thing secret can’t protect it anymore.”

Another student, Brandon Woudenberg, another debater, who is now a lawyer standing up for rights and justice in courts of law, added to the discussion:
“The cut line usually comes in at a point where if a certain amount of information were made aware it doesn’t help you understand anything further substantively, it just allows you to disadvantage the process, or misconstrue it outside the control of its origin.”
Whoah! (Insert Keannu Reeves voice here!)  At one time I taught these kids something…. now, it is an example that everything comes back around.
Information and understanding are not necessarily synonymous, and this shows something that is very important in our ever changing world.  Are there really any secrets anymore?  What is really not available by asking Google the right questions?  Nothing.  You can find anything on the Internet from the recipe of a bomb to blow up a city block to the deep inner workings of a Masonic lodge.  What that wealth of information does not provide, is the context by which to understand and appreciate the knowledge that you unearth.

IV.  Ownership of Myth – an Interview with Kody Dayish

kody
Kody Dayish – Director THE RED HOGAAN

And so, armed with a brain full of curiosity and a bag full of clothes, notebooks, and pens, I set out of the first research trip of my new writing project: a book of stories rooted in the indigenous legends and myths of the Native Peoples of Arizona.  The basics of my plan was to head for the Navajo Nation, looking for the splendor of solitude and the muse of landscapes and history as I ruminated on how to write culturally authentic stories that did not first, white-wash their Native roots, or second, tread too roughly on sacred reverence.  It is a delicate balance, especially when one considers the deep origins of myth and sacred secrecy involved with some of these cultures.

I had built a contact through social media with a young man named Kody Dayish out of Shiprock, New Mexico.  Kody had just completed shooting his film, The Red Hogaan: the first film about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker made entirely by a Navajo production team.

My interview with Kody was so important because it broached the topic of: if we do not own our secrets and treat them with dignity, then others will take them, and be far less reverent.  In this information age there are no secrets. There are spoilers galore for everything from film plots to the Illuminati.

So… isn’t true education more valuable than the fictions of thieves?

I set out, armed with this sense of purpose, not to exploit the Native legends, but to try to learn and soak up as much as I could about them, to try to allow my mind to live in that space where another People’s myths are allowed to be as real and true and valid as my own.

Kody told me about the logistical and cultural difficulties of making a film about one of the most taboo subjects in Navajo lore.  The superstitious nature and the true fear of the dark spiritual energy around the concept of skinwalkers goes deep into the past of Navajo culture.  The differences between Native tribes are in many ways profound, but they are not necessarily immediately visible to an outsider.  For instance, the Navajo, Hopi, and Apache, are all Apachean People, distant cousins with many commonalities in their history, but only the Navajo have a particular aversion to death.  Death is a very taboo topic in general among the Navajo.  This taboo is not rooted so much in fear, as it is a profound belief in the world of spirit, where all return, and when the names of the dead are mentioned it pulls their spirit back from its eternal journey, holding it too close to the world that came before and not allowing the soul to progress.

It was from within this community, that Kody started to approach various businesses and financiers to produce his film.  He told me it was immediately obvious that this film would be a hard one to lock down funding for, as many Navajo people, no matter how supportive of the arts they were, could not allow themselves to get that close to such a dark spiritual topic.  It is an example of “speak of the devil and he shall appear”, or “if one looks too deeply into the Abyss, the Abyss also looks into you”.  Kody told me that this deep superstition, this dark faith, also plagued casting.  His original goal was to cast the film entirely with Navajo actors, but this proved impossible, as so many prospective actors would not even continue with the process once they were made aware of the subject matter.

Kody Dayish and his production team persevered however, and skillfully wove a spiritual and cultural dialog around his project.  First, he chose to keep the film firmly rooted in stories past down from his own grandparents, instead of those which have arisen from pop culture.  This time frame focus on the skinwalker stories coming off the reservation pre-1980 would allow him to avoid the over sensationalizing of Hollywood, which takes place almost immediately once they sink their teeth into anything.  Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, he approached his Tribal elders and asked for their support on his project.

“We approached the elders with a sense of questioning what power lied in secrecy versus the power that lies in knowledge.  We wanted to be sure that our People knew we were not trying to misrepresent our culture or just make a scary movie; we wanted to make sure that they understood that their was a maturity there.  We understand that we are dealing with a living, very integral part, of the our spiritual system.”

During production, prayers and ceremonies were conducted regularly, and a major ceremony was held at the start and end of production to ward the project from the attention of evil spirits.  This was done out of respect, and request, by the tribe, and the tribal members of the production team and cast.

Because of modern access to information, nothing would be sacred for long: nothing would be off limits.  Therefore, in that reality, one is forced simply to answer one question: who would you rather have ownership of your beliefs?  With this Kody adapted the tagline for his film:

We have heard your stories – But this one is OURS.

VIEW THE TRAILER HERE

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Kody Dayish is a Navajo filmmaker and musician from Shiprock, New Mexico on the Navajo Nation.  He is well known through out the Nation for his work with public outreach and local filming and television/ video opportunities.  A young man who is motivated by a deep desire to “inspire our youth”, I look forward to working with Kody again as some of these projects come to fruition.  In the meantime – YOU CAN HELP !  The Red Hogaan has a very real chance of making it to one of the larger film festivals with a little positive word of mouth.

  1.  WATCH THE TRAILER

  2. WATCH IT AGAIN

  3. FORWARD IT

  4. 1000 views is a milestone for an #indie film.

My journey North through Navajo land was to simply be in these landscapes, discover local spins on legends, and find myself walking the same areas as a people much more ancient that I.  I am telling a Navajo story as part of my next collection.  It will take on the concept of skinwalkers, but I wanted my work to have a sense of connection to the land about it.  I want the story to feel like it is from within the mythos…. not about the mythos.

My journey led me to a strip of area completely dripping in this history.  It is a stretch following a canyon from Hovenweep National Monument, through Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, and eventually curling beneath the shadow of Sleeping Ute Mountain before emptying out into Cortez, Colorado.  Just south, the high desert stretches and Shiprock rises off the horizon. The locals in the Four Corners area know it as Skinwalker Alley.

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There is small byway that connects Aneth, Utah and Cortez, Colorado.  This road takes you along the ancient highway between Hovenweep Pueblo and the Mesa Verde.  Hundreds of years ago this was an area controlled by the southern Paiute, who revered the mountain as a sacred place,a place where Gaia herself slept, and would one day rise like a titan to defend the People.  Scattered all around the Sleeping Ute Woman are the ruins of a lost civilization, feared as places of dark spirit by the Navajo to the south.  In Navajo legend, the path of a skinwalker is one of dark magic, which takes a once spiritual person on a journey along the Witchery Way.  One allows their soul to be consumed with powers of dark spirit it exchange for power.  The Navajo see the Skinwalker as a lost shaman, an unholy witch, a being of vengeance, a person who has looked too deeply into the world of dark spirit, and followed a very evil road.

Nowadays this road will take you past breathtaking scenery.  It will take you past Battle Rock, where ironically no battle was fought, but a mass suicide took place.  It will take you by lost caves and twisting red canyons, where even the locals today do not like to drive after dark and the high school kids still have rites of passage designed to test your metal.  People have seen strange things here.  Unexplainable noises.  Strange messages left in bones dropped down chimneys.  Men running into bottleneck canyons and only a coyote or a crow ever coming out.  There are some that swear they have taken shots at Coyote Jack, a local boogeyman/ skinwalker who it is said can’t be killed.

I rode through, and I stopped to take my pictures.  I felt a massive depth and weight of history.  It is a place of twisty roads, long drop offs, no guard rails, and a deeply superstitious past.  I never felt scared, or in a place I ought not be, but… I didn’t drive through at night either.

Reader beware.

V. Cultural Priorities

Further to the south, another people have a completely different historical connection to the Ancient Ones (the term Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning ancient ones or ancient enemy.  This meaning in and of itself shows a massive difference culturally between these two tribes: one revers its ancient past while the other fears and despises it).  Hopi land is not necessarily a place anybody would ever go, unless it was their destination.  It is a small circle of land completely encapsulated by the Navajo Nation.  Simply this geography is fascinating, when one knows some of the indigenous history of the area.

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I arrived at First Mesa, looking over the modern Hopi town of Polacca by mid morning.  My friend, and fellow rider, Jason and I had left his place in Winslow, Arizona on our bikes and followed Highway 87 North into Hopi Land.  Here the 87 ends and one either travels west on Highway 264 to Tuba City or east towards Canyon de Chelley.  In other words, unless one is specifically traveling to the Hopi Mesas, there are much faster ways to get to your destination.  The result?

Isolation.  Independence.  A complete sense of removal from the modern world. I have never felt more like I was on a distinctly different sovereign country than on ancestral Hopi land.  It does not even feel right calling it a reservation, as the Hopi never signed a treaty with the United States government and were never relocated.  They have lived here – and only here – for at least 600 years.  This is the only place their culture, both physical and spiritual, exists in the entire world.  If you leave these hallowed and ancient cities on the mesas – you may as well have blasted off to outer space.

I followed the signs through the twisty little town, barely able to keep my eyes from the ancient ruins towering 300 feet above me on the ledge of the cliff face.  It is stunning, to actually be there, looking up.  It is easy to see why the Hopi were never conquered by the Spanish, by the Navajo, by the whites – they lived in ancient skyscrapers by comparison, out of reach of any temporal enemies but within constant sight of the distant San Fransisco Peaks: the sacred homeland of their Gods – the Katsinim (Kachinas).

Next to the Pollaca Post Office is a tourism office.  I would recommend calling first, and making an appointment.  The Hopi have many ceremonies throughout the year, and these ceremonies are at all times and on various days.  The Mesa is closed during ceremonies as they are closed to the public.  The images I provided above are mostly from visits to First and Second Mesa circa 1910 and 1912.  These are not ceremonies or images you would be able to access now.

I paid my entrance fee to enter the ancient village of Walpi at the tourism office, a fee of $20, and this may seem steep, but I assure you.  This place is Sacred in a very real way to the Hopi, and the tribe keep a security guard on the mesa at all times to protect against theft and vandalism.  Unfortunately, we do not live in a time when most of our fellow humans can be trusted to do the right thing without being forced.  Twenty dollars is a small price to pay for the hospitality and cultural benefit we are able to receive by being allowed to actually see and experience this place in our Arizona history.

Most of the visit was what you would expect.  You must not take photos, so your cell phones are off, and as you walk through the ancient homes, all of which are in different stages of renovation because this is a LIVING PUEBLO.  Our guide, as I toured Walpi with a Frenchman named Gregory – super cool dude by the way – took us by her own home, a small pueblo on the North face of the cliff.  “This is mine,” she said.  “I inherited it from my grandmother, as Hopi culture is maternal, power being handed down from Mother to Daughter.”  Her eyes were reverent, and it is impossible to overstate the sense of spiritual connection one has here.  I cannot image lighting fires among the ceremonial ashes of my ancestors fires, dancing in the footprints of my ancestors steps, and sleeping among the ghosts and spirits of my entire ancestral past.  Every single day.  It would be like living in a different dimension of spirit that I simply do not have the cultural history to begin to understand.

When we moved around the tip of the Mesa, looking out to the west and seeing the snow covered San Francisco Peaks and imagining a spiritual pathway, not unlike Bifrost Bridge in Asgard, that allowed the Kachinas to make their yearly pilgrimage to live among the People.  It was here that we came to the pueblo sitting on the ledge at the extreme southern tip of the mesa.  Here our guide’s eyes got a bit darker, “This home had to be vacated, as its owners converted to Christianity.”  It was almost like it pained her a bit to say the word, and I got a very real sense that losing a community member, when your numbers are already so small – must seem like no small thing to the Hopi.

My guide was a wonderful and beautiful Hopi woman.  She was proud, and fierce, and I was struck very much by her strength of spirit.  Towards the end of the tour she shared a story with me, which will become the backbone of my own short story centered around the Hopi.  “Many people think that our children are not good at school”, she started.  “But they are.  We have good schools, and our children earn scholarships.  Many of them try to go to NAU (Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff), but they end up leaving, dropping out, and coming home.  This is not because they cannot do the work, or that they are not smart enough, but it is a matter that they simply cannot be at peace that far away from the spiritual ceremonies they know are taking place.  Someone must always be here.  Each owner must open their doors and windows.”

The Hopi are a people of spirit.  And that spirit lives and breathes and moves through them in just as real of a way as the spirit of your own deity moves through you.  That is the point.  That is why myth matters.  These matters of the spirit….. in most cultures…. matter more than anything else.

VI.  Us &Them

In my time researching and outlining this new project: between looking into various legends of the tribes and settling in on which ones I wanted to focus on, my travels on the Internet had taken me to a blog called the Native Skeptic.  The blog is written by an Apache named Noah Nez, from Whiteriver, AZ, whom I had friend requested some weeks previously.  Returning to the Facebook question from earlier, Noah also weighed in with his perspective,

“I am not sure how much knowing the beliefs behind the Black Snake {Ceremony} and Standing Rock would help others to sympathize. To me, Native American religions are not respected as religions like the other major ones.”

That is all he had to say, but that idea being expressed from a Native American was one I simply had to know more about.Needless to say, Noah and I had a ton load of things to talk about, but our dialog centered around two basic ideas.  The first was that just looking at recent news articles would prove the disconnect that takes place with most Americans when discussing spiritual matters.  Noah give me two examples: the Dakota Pipeline and The Jewish Headstones.

“Whether or not more education about the Sioux would have changed the Dakota Access Pipeline issue, ” Noah said, “doesn’t really matter.  All one has to see is that even after people found out they were going through an ancient burial ground with dead bodies, they didn’t see it the same as if we were going through the Veterans Cemetery.  Simply put it is just obvious that the beliefs of Native Americans do not matter as much.”

That is very simple, but he is not wrong.  We would not even begin to entertain the notion of going through our national cemeteries, regardless of the amount of education that had or had not taken place.

“This fact is painfully obvious, when the Trump administration, plagued with allegations of inciting racial divides, sent VP Pence to help clean up the Jewish Cemetery that was vandalized.  No such government action was done for the Sioux…. unless you count military action against them.”

Again, it is hard to argue with Noah’s examples.

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The second issue causing this lack of spiritual understanding specifically with Native religions lies in their ability to have coexisting beliefs and coexisting spiritual and temporal ceremonies.  Noah again gave me two examples.  The first is of a Native family that has converted to Christianity.  “That family may very much believe in their new Christian beliefs, but that does not mean they stop practicing their traditional ones.  These belief systems coexist.”  His second example was about the actual ceremonial dances, as many tribes have a sport version and a ceremonial one. I asked him about the reverence perceived by others if these sacred prayer rituals were seen more as entertainment events, to which Noah responded, “Many of these are performing artists, competing in Native Dance at competitions.  In that context they are not actually profaning the purpose of the dances, but the significance of that difference would usually be lost on a largely Anglo audience.”

VII.  Sacred Duty

In the end, I packed up from my Father’s place in Cortez, Co and set my sights on home.  I descended from the high plateaus and as I approached I-40 south of Ganado, AZ, and began the only 45 minutes of my entire trip that was on an Interstate, I found myself thinking, perhaps more so than I ever had before that I was leaving one Nation and entering another.  When I started out on this idea, and I was expressing my ideas with my friend Royce Gildersleeve, who has a PhD in Native American History, he told me to tread carefully.  This article begins to show the process of why cultural education matters, and Royce was correct.

The purpose of this project is not to steal a People’s stories, but to craft new stories that draw readers back to a  People.

Keep the Greasy Side Down.

Next… The Ghost Rider Interview with NEW CHUMS !!!!

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5 Comments on “Ashes and Ghosts

  1. Well done. I appreciate that you acknowledge the nuances of the different tribal belief systems and drive the point home that Native American religions and culture are not a monolith. We don’t all do rain dances, wear war bonnets, and believe the same things. I like the historical comparisons to old and new myths, and how you start by defining what a myth is, to be clear at the start. I often use modern myths like comic books because they serve a similar purpose and reflect our culture too. I am glad you shared my nerd and comic book enthusiasm. I often find more similarities than differences amongst tribes if I look long enough. From the Maori tribes of New Zealand to the First Nations people of Canada, I see the same themes and worldviews that are fundamentally close to my own. Even though I have a more scienctific perspective of my place in the universe, it doesn’t diminish the connection and ability to relate to other people culturally. I am happy with how our conversation went and how you incorporated what we talked about here. I think you did a great job representing all the parts authentically and respectively.

    • The Red Hogaan is complete, but it is being held for a major push for the film festivals. Sundance. Cannes. My piece “Quest of Vision” focuses specifically on Kody, look for it in the next week or so. [Hoping to drop article on May 7 or 8.] Thank you for commenting!

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