I can’t remember what native ceremony I was watching, was it a demonstration of an Apache rain dance or an Mohawk Tribal dance ceremony? Growing up in Cambridge, MA I saw a lot of these performances, remnants of ancient traditions that were supposed to build in us an appreciation for non-western culture. At least that was the intended effect, maybe our exposure would have had the desired effect if watching these performances were not so boring.
I sat in theatres and watched men in robes hopping in a circle while yelling some rhythm less tune made more insipid by being explained to us. I stood in parking lots by the tour bus stops watching men and women in headbands hopping to others men and women playing reed flutes before walking off to buy ice-cream. I always had the same feeling when it was all over, “That’s it? This is all these cultures could do over thousands of years? This is the extent of their accumulated wisdom?”
We sit in the warm safety of the theatre, or the performance hall, comfortable in the passivity of an audience and wait to be moved. Maybe we were primed by someone with an important title telling us how moving this presentation will be, a peek into “Non-Western Traditions.” Maybe these people with their important titles actually believed such ideas. Then we watch the performance, in all of its’ boring repetitiveness and un-slick non-professionalism, trying gamely to read great significance this act. When it’s all done, we get out of our seats and go to our comfortable homes. Protected from the harshness of nature we quickly forget about it.
Later if someone brings it up in conversation, we say that we once saw such a ritual on a stage once. Maybe we talk about the colorful costumes or how it was different, but we still treat that cultural artifact as an inconsequential curiosity, a museum relic for a driven society.
Ancient Celtic Folk Dances, Pagan fertility rituals, Native American Pow Wows and the like weren’t performance art pieces for a suburban crowd. These primal rituals where spiritual acts of people who lived intensely physical lives in a vast, untamed wilderness. Presenting such ceremonies on a sterile stage as performance art leeches their power until you have a bunch of people in weird looking costumes dancing out of rhythm to nearly atonal music. How could these crude displays compare to the grace of ballet or the beauty of great orchestra music or modern circus displays? Hell, how do these displays stand up to relatively more recent traditions like Russian step dancing or the acrobatics of Capoeira? Our well intentioned impulse to give all art forms a home; in the quiet halls of a museum, on a neat stage, or in the pages of a book has the paradoxical effect of stripping these art forms of their context until there’s no meaning.
If I played host for an ancient ceremony; The fire dance of pre-agricultural hunters, the shaman rituals of a desert tribe, the seasonal dances of people living in extremes of climate… If I were charged with protecting such a legacy, of introducing civilized people the mindset of ancient peoples, I wouldn’t put up a performance at a theatre with a sound system. I wouldn’t host such a performance on the sprung floors of a dance hall, I wouldn’t host it indoors.
We would wait until the sun had set and then meet some place far from the noise of the city; a clearing at the base of a hill, an anonymous field at the edge of the woods, maybe a desolate beach among abandoned fishing boats. You would have only the directions to the meeting spot, no plan for the evening and no guest list. There wouldn’t be any pre-meeting lessons in some posh dance studio to brush up on technique, we wouldn’t be serving coffee or a nice selection of organic foods. There wouldn’t be a sign-in sheet or a brochure to read when you got there.
All you would see is a crude sign. We would meet in empty location and wait. When everyone has gathered we would start walking to the secret location where the ceremony will be held.
First Rule: No talking.
No casual chit chat about what you all do for a living, no banal conversations about where you’re from or what the weather’s like this time of year. Our goal is to avoid everything from this experience that reminds you of your daily life back in the world.
Because your first words would establish the most superficial and meaningless details of your life. Details that will cloud every interaction you have for the rest of the night.
Because you won’t have anything important to talk about unless you bring up what you do in the modern world and our goal is to remove anything that would remind of your regular life.
Because we have to relearn how to just connect with each other without speaking, how to feel comfortable in the silent presence of a group. There is a story of an old Innuit Woman who would receive daily visits from her friend over a period of yers. This old woman, also Innuit, would sit in her house for the entire day, knitting, eating or sometimes staring out the window. They never exchanged a word during these visits. An anthropologist asked this woman why never spoke to her guest, the woman responded that they communicated all day.
Second Rule: No electronic devices of any kind, no maps.
Leave your cellphones, PDAs, GPS navigators, pagers, I-pods, watches, heartbeat monitors, flashlights, crank powered radios behind. Actually, don’t even bring those devices in the first place. Don’t bring any cameras, this experience is only for those participate, you’re the only ones who will understand what will happen.
This hike may last twenty-minutes, it may last four-days. Without electronic connection to the greater the greater world, our Universe shrinks to our immediate surroundings; what we smell, what we hear, what we can see.
Ancient peoples walked through a landscape teaming with spirits. They endured the dark nights under the moon and the light from their fires. They found their way through the wild without maps or compass, relying on their knowledge of their land scape, they avoided danger through keen observation.
We would navigate by the light from torches and by using landmarks. There may not even be a path to follow, just a general direction to walk in.
The point is lose track of time. Before watches, people measured time in the passage of days and the change of seasons. We didn’t schedule activities, we just did them, and these activities took as long as they had to. Men would go on a hunt that lasted until they caught something, whole tribes would go on seasonal migrations that lasted until they arrived at new locations.
The point is to cut yourself off from the rest of the world, if only for one night. To feel as if you were truly and utterly on your own, and feel the immensity of the Universe bearing upon us.
The point is to realize how capable we all are. Even the seemingly helpless among us re-discover their own resourcefulness when forced to. Dependency is a learned trait that becomes a habit until we believe it to be inevitable. In the age of spirits, such attitudes were untenable.
Third Rule: No turning back, no opting out.
Once we start, you must complete the journey. Sometimes you have no option, you march because you have to. You march because you’re not yet where you’re supposed to be. This would not be a regular backpackers journey where leaders handhold you the entire way.
People devoting their daily effort to pure subsistence and shelter had no doubts, they entertained no fantastic dreams. Every meal was a victory, every successful birth was a celebration, every season without catastrophe was a gift from benevolent spirits. While we view nature as giving spirit, she is also a harsh mistress ever willing to extract her deadly toll on the unlucky and the weak.
Before we fooled ourselves into believing that every death as accountable for, we simply accepted it’s dark specter as an inherent aspect our intensively physical lives. People froze to death, starved, were attacked by predators, killed by rival groups. Children died in infancy, mothers died in childbirth, people caught mysterious diseases and grew weak as their bodies gave up. The mental weight of such loss weighed heavily on every waking moment of the living. The simple act of being gained importance with this weight bearing upon our souls.
Ancient Aboriginees never questioned their identity as Aboriginees or considered alternate identities because they knew of no other existence. Through the eyes of our religions, these people who believed in a spirit world and reincarnation were already in heaven, but a heaven that could morph into hell if their Gods were angered. Free from doubts about their way of life, ignorant of paths not taken, they focused on how best to live that life. Innuit hunters never questioned their choice to be hunters, nor did herders on the Himalayan Steppe question their existence in one of the harshest climates on the planet. They never considered alternate lifestyles, they never knew of any other way. They believed that their identity was inevitable.
We would reach the site of the dance, our secret location, a space open to the night sky where we would build a great fire… Then and only then would the ceremony, whatever it would ceremony it would be, would begin. Everything leading up to this point was merely preparation, a series of mind games to put us in the proper mindset to genuinely appreciate this ritual.
Fourth Rule: Everyone must participate.
Ancient rituals weren’t performance pieces for an anonymous audience, nor were these activities casual affairs. Navaho didn’t wake up late in the morning and go “Dude… Let’s go to rain dance.” Participating was part of your identity.
Around the fire we would dance until our lungs burn. We would dance and we would sing, even if we had no clue what the words meant. The ceremony would go on until we understood it as an attempt at a transcendental experience, a meaning beyond words, that would only make sense to those who have experienced it. The ceremony would last as long as it had to, until we would collapse and eat a great feast prepared around the protective glow of our fire. Now we would be allowed to speak, now we would have something to talk about, now we can really get to know each other.
Sitting there with full bellies, with the dark night stretching out like an endless void, cutoff from the civilized world we may come to truly understand another culture, if only for a night.
However, you would not come to understand it so if you stayed in the safety of a building, in the anonymity of a paying audience, in the artificial glow of an urban area. These ancient ceremonies only gain power when you try to see the world as ancient people’s did, to experience their fear of and awe of nature.