To the left of my writing desk at home, just in front of the window facing the bird feeders I blather on about so often during my efforts at writing poetry, is a low table that, for lack of any better name, I call an "altar." Most mornings I sit before it on a cushion and meditate for twenty minutes. These days it is light when I begin, usually around 5:30am, but before long it will still be dark at that hour. I enjoy the silence and the reflection but is it "doing anything" the way we expect meditation to? I don't think so. I remain tormented by my own emotional inadequacies in dealing with the realities of the world. I show up anyway. If nothing else I've gotten good at sitting on the ground with my legs crossed for extended periods of time and there is often real value in that. I've gotten good at being quiet.
The altar is cluttered with assorted bric-a-brac. There's a carved wooden box that contains the incense cones I burn in the Buddha statue burner thing, his face smoke-charred and blackened from close to two decades of use. There's an abalone shell with a little pouch of tobacco someone gave me, a few dried leaves, some stones and shells (also gifts), and a little medallion/pin thing that is the image of the Hermit from the gorgeous Brady Tarot deck.
There is an eagle feather wrapped in red cloth that came to me in a ceremony two years ago. If my room suddenly burst into flame I would hope to remember to grab it on my way out the door, cat and dogs tucked and biting and squirming under my arms.
What else? One of those cheap grocery store jar candle things depicting the Virgen de Guadalupe. A little statue of Yum Chenmo, another Goddess image. Then the animal representations: an elk made of metal, a little plastic black bear, a larger plastic coyote, and a little carved wooden horse. There is also a 4x6 framed picture of the Buddha surrounded by animals that I swiped from a magazine article about veganism. It is there to remind me how awful a person I remain for continuing to eat my friends via means soulless and cruel. I’m working on that too.
There is other stuff. A carved wooden spoon from the hands of a local maker (same one who made the horse) just because it feels sacred. Two beat-up old kitchen knives that belonged to my great grandmother. An embroidered patch that says ALASKA because I want to manifest leading a Freeflow workshop up there someday. I'm waiting on a patch for Big Bend National Park because I'm working on manifesting a similar trip there too.
Finally, there is a string of mala beads that I now also use when I meditate because of this from Barry Graham, a wonderful Scottish writer who is also a Zen Priest. He writes:
My friend Sister Petra is a Christian nun who also practices Zen Buddhism with our sangha. A few months ago she told me, “During the pandemic, I’ve been praying for everybody who’s sick, in body, mind, or spirit.”
I was moved by this, and it has continued to resonate with me. As I’m not a Christian, my view of prayer is probably different from Sister Petra’s (or maybe not), but I realised this prayer could easily be adapted into one that could be recited by anyone, of any faith or no faith.
So, most days now, using my mala, I chant, 108 times, May all who are sick, in body, mind, or spirit, be well.
Now most days I do the same chant, only silently, in my head. Christian-to-Buddhist-to … whatever I am.
(Barry happens to be the only person I know who, when saying he would leave the country if Trump was elected, actually did it; he returned to his native Scotland after being in the U.S. for at least two or three decades. I love people who walk the walk).
Most of these objects and practices can be said to have been appropriated from another culture; some certainly have been. The act of sitting on the cushion in Zen-inspired meditation in the first place. The prayer beads, the images of Buddha. Even the white-lighty hoo-ha of "manifesting" anything. Laugh all you want. I had a book catalog from Milkweed on my altar for a year before I got my publishing deal with them, so I'll continue to grab whatever juju I can where I can find it. How about vegetarianism or veganism? My people were buffalo hunters. We were also Catholics, not so much as converts (at least initially) but as a people interested in grabbing juju wherever we could find it. It’s a hard world. Always has been.
I don’t know if any of this stuff does anything at all, but it has become part of who I am.
I think of these ideas of spiritual appropriation today because of questions I've had from two different people over the last couple weeks. It's something I think about all the time. In both cases, these are non-Indigenous people essentially seeking spiritual instruction who have been turned away by tribal "elders" (or whatever you want to call them) because the people were not of the tribe. Here is an example of writing by my friend Molly, who I met in Crested Butte:
Closer to home I sat in front of seven Southern Ute elders and Tribal Council members on their reservation. An elder woman was speaking to the misconception she felt many anthropologists held that the Ute people traveled over the Bering Strait to eventually reside in the Southern Rockies and the Colorado Plateau.
“It’s not true,” she said, “our people emerged from a place in the ground not far from here.” She pointed to her left. “This is the birthing grounds of my ancestors. We emerged from this place.”
Around us were buff colored canyons and pinyon juniper studded mesas. The Mancos River. Ute Mountain. And the epicenter of vast networks of ancient cliff dwellers.
She had a recommendation for the folks of European descent sitting in front of her, “Find your own mythological traditions in the places of your ancestry. Many of the ancient traditions are basically the same but you have to find your own.”
Find my own? Hmmm. What mythological culture should I seek?
The garbage and disrespect white anthropologists and historians direct toward tribal mythologies and culture is one thing, but this idea about "finding your own" is a statement I utterly disagree with, at least in this particular context. To me it is an issue of Native sovereignty, of preserving Indigenous people and culture, and returning to a more traditional way of living on this land.
Here's a personal anecdote. I spent last weekend in Choteau, Montana, attending the Mitchif Heritage Keepers festival. This is a Métis celebration featuring art, music, etc. that happens in Choteau because of the Métis community that existed in the Teton Canyon area not far from the town, dating back at least to 1860 and probably earlier. Their descendants are largely Little Shell people now too, and the greatest concentration of Little Shell members in the world is not far away in Great Falls.
At its height, there were maybe 75-100 people at the event on Saturday evening. Not that many, considering, but organizers were happy with the turnout. But the Great Falls LST contingent was barely represented at all. It's the same thing when we hold our quarterly meetings in Great Falls. It's typically the same 20-30 people who are there, all generally older than me. The powwow we have every summer is becoming more popular, but the last one I went to, the last one we had pre-Covid, all the volunteer work was being handled by fresh-faced kids with Mormon ID tags on because there aren't enough of our own people willing to help out.
There are plenty of reasons people don't show up, I get that. Many are even valid. But being an active member of your tribal community is more than being a keyboard warrior on fucking Facebook and arguing with everything the council does while not doing anything on your part on the ground to contribute positively. Even as I burn a lot of energy trying to represent my Little Shell family, my frustration often boils over and I just want to say to hell with it.
So when people come to us—and I do mean the tribal "us" that spans the continent—truly seeking to join us, who want to do the work? Who want to live on the land and connect to it the way so many Indigenous claim to want to and claim to be by default but are really just playing into stereotypes and don't care to do the work to re-connect themselves? I say we need to make a place for them.
My contention, which I've made before, is if Tribes want to be truly sovereign nations, we need to ditch all these notions of membership based on blood and race and all that garbage and come up with means to welcome people into our rolls who truly want to be there. People willing to do the work to learn our culture, our rituals, our history. It’s how we always did it. We always invited people into our tribes in a multitude of ways. It is the settler colonists who introduced this idea of race and blood and bullshit into how we create our communities. It is the “hybrid people” who poisoned us, who continue to poison us, and encourage us to poison ourselves.
This is the great Vine Deloria, Jr. writing in his essential God is Red: A Native View of Religion, (originally published in 1972) from the introduction to the 1994 edition:
Feeling that a sufficiently significant number of people are now alerted to the ecological meltdown that we face, in this revised edition of the book I have felt free to raise additional questions about our species and our ultimate fate. It seems to me that our history on earth is far different than what we have been taught to believe. I suggest in this revised edition that we have on this planet two kinds of people—natural peoples and the hybrid peoples. The natural peoples represent an ancient tradition that has always sought harmony with the environment. Hybrid peoples are the product of what I refer to in chapter 9 as ancient genetic engineering that irrevocably changed the way these people view our planet. I can think of no other good reason why the peoples from the Near East—the peoples from the Hebrew, Islamic, and Christian religious traditions—first adopted the trappings of civilization and then forced a peculiar view of the world on succeeding generations. The planet, in their view, is not our natural home and is, in fact, ours for total exploitation. We are today reaching the "nth" term in this sequence of exploitation and face ecological disasters of such complete planetary scope as to surpass our wildest imagination.
Ironic and crushing that this was written more than twenty-five years ago, a longer span of time than from where Deloria was writing between the first and second editions in the first place and hardly anything has changed, if at all. But the point I am getting at is this idea of "natural" and "hybrid" people.
It is one thing to buy into the practice of some New Age charlatan claiming to be a "Native American Elder" or something and hawking their garbage for money. I'd go so far as to suggest that anyone who claims on their own to be an "elder" at all is full of shit. Age generally has nothing to do with it either. Spiritually, the wisest, most powerful person in any room is the one you least suspect, especially when it comes to my experience among Indigenous people. I understand the need to protect the watering-down of our Indigenous culture by these clowns. But we don't make our traditions stronger by isolating ourselves from seekers who would be part of the solution. That thinking is also grounded in the soulless approach of the "hybrid" people. Here is Deloria again:
In traveling around the country I now see revivals of ancient ceremonies in many tribes as if the people had been warned of the catastrophes that await us. It is time for the people to gather and perform their old ceremonies and make a final effort to renew the earth and its peoples—hoofed, winged, and others. Because many of these ceremonies are performed on behalf of the earth, all humans, and the other forms of life, it seems incomprehensible that they would be prohibited. But the prohibitions and the failure of government to protect these traditions only highlights the nature of the conflict. Clearly the struggle is between a religious view of life and the secularization that science and industry have brought.
It remains for us to learn once again that we are a part of nature, not a transcendent species with no responsibilities to the natural world. As we face the twenty-first century, the next decade will be the testing ground for this proposition. We may well become one of the few species in this vast universe that has permanently ruined our home. Future explorers from other planets will walk this earthly wasteland and marvel at our stupidity and wonder why we could not accept the reality of our own finitude.
This long newsletter is my answer to my friends Hawk and Molly who asked me about this stuff. I’ve been thinking about it. I will always think about it.
It sounds grandiose, but I realized recently that in all my efforts as this growingly-radicalized old Indian dude trying to understand and hopefully raise questions about some kind of meaningful truth about the world, that I am not so much a Little Shell in service to the Little Shell, but I am trying to be a Little Shell in service to this beautiful world. I choked up a little writing those last three words: This Beautiful World. It is so beautiful! And I will encourage in any way I can anyone who wants to participate in being of service to it. I don't care who you are or where you came from or what color your skin is or what your ancestors did. It's who you are, how you own where you came from, and who you are trying to be, that matters. Otherwise Deloria's sad predictions will all come true. There’s so much work to do.
I want to share this Granta piece by Debra Gwartney about the final days of her husband, Barry Lopez. I've written of his death before. Gwartney's piece is crushing. Not just the details of Lopez's death, but the seeming desperation in his commitment to "the work" in his final days rather than to final moments with his loved-ones.
Funny that a guy with a newsletter with "Irritable" in the title fears the perception of being angry all the time. Of being surly, which I often admit to even though to hear it from other people really bums me out. Is that who I am, who I’ve become? I bristle, even when it’s in jest, and that’s a failing on my part not anyone else’s.
Is it somehow narcissistic to admit I am burning in anger all the time? Or to talk about it at all? Like I am seeking some kind of attention for it? Because I am. All the time. Angry, I mean, not seeking attention ... at least I don't think I seek attention for it. The “Irritable” part of this newsletter’s namesake is meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek but I’ve come to realize I’m the only one in on the joke.
I unexpectedly passed a friend on the street the other day. I had my head down to avoid such potential interaction with anyone but when she called my name from behind and I turned and saw who it was I was actually grateful because she is someone I love that I never see. When she asked how I was doing, as we do when we pass friends-we-never-see on the street, I started to respond, "Oh, fine...." as we also usually do, but then I hesitated and gave her the actual, "Oh, pretty fucked...." truth. It didn't make me feel any better but at least it was honest. We chatted a few moments. Agreed to meet in the future. It might even happen. But I’m always reminded at such times of this Wendell Berry poem:
I've been in a precipitous spiral for a couple months and I'm not sure how to arrest it so I'm just hanging on and hoping the seatbelts hold as I careen along. Anger and hurt and frustration and all of those feelings that make me react in ways totally antithetical to all the time I put in on that damn meditation cushion, but then I wonder how bad it would be without it.
This from the closing pages of A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib, helps:
When I talk about my personal divestment, I am not just talking about removing myself from spaces. That is a part of it for me now, but it's also the easiest part of it for me now, as someone more excited about my couch than any pit. I'm also talking about divesting from giving a scene my energy and, specifically, my rage. The withholding of rage is a powerful tool—one that I have found more useful than the withholding of love. It is rage that propels me most vigorously to the work of serving my people, and so I don't feel it useful to waste it in front of or in service of people I don't have an investment in.
I love this, and it is something to think about. He’s talking about punk rock and its often racist fandom but it resonates in how we spend our time and energy with our lives, and I’m pretty sure that is exactly his point. So what are the "scenes" I need to remove myself from in order to find some whiff of joy? Probably the one that presents the guy picking up a Black Lives Matter sticker and saying, "Shouldn't this say 'black guns matter' instead?" Fuck that guy. He doesn't deserve my rage, just my disdain. Let the people who know him bring him back to some level of humanity, that isn't my job. At least I don't think it is.
Regardless, I'd rather be angry for (most of) the reasons I am. It does get terribly lonely. But I'd rather be mad about this stuff than to waste an afternoon watching some sports event and getting angry because my team lost. Or spend an entire day playing video games and getting irate because I can't beat the end-of-level-boss. Or spend a weekend binge-watching some TV show only to realize it got progressively worse and at the end I'm mad because I gave up so many hours in service to it, and for what?
Hug someone today. Just not someone who doesn't like to be hugged. They will appreciate the lack as much as those who appreciate the contact.