Friday, August 3, 2018

Indian Church

Longhouse at Wallowa Nez Perce Homeland
It’s called a “longhouse,” because long ago tipis were strung together to make a “long tent” of hides or tule mats that could accommodate a large number of people for living, and, eventually, for religious ceremonies. The ceremonies are often called “seven drums,” because there are most often seven hand drums and a bell at the west end of the room or space looking toward the east, where the view to the rising sun is open. Songs are sung in cycles of threes and sevens, the lead singer/drummer rotating with each song. Women are on the south side and men and boys on the north, and a dirt floor in the center is a place where dancers dance and celebrants moved to speak speak.

These ceremonies and the religious beliefs expressed in the long house have been honed over centuries by Indians of the Plateau tribes of the interior Northwest.

President Grant thought he could stifle corruption among those charged with administering Indian affairs by turning over reservation administration to the churches—a blow of course to traditional Indian religious practices and beliefs. And General Howard’s confrontation with and jailing of Toohoolhoolzote at Lapwai in the lead-up to the Nez Perce War was a marked religious confrontation—Howard wanted none of Toohooloolzote’s beliefs about sacredness of mother earth.

The drums, bells, and songs were harshly suppressed with the many efforts to assimilate Indians—make them White—from the end of the 1877 Nez Perce War until recent times. From the 1870s until 1934, certain “codes” and regulations that allowed Indian agents—many of them religious people—to remove drums and regalia and outlaw songs and dances in the drive towards assimilation. Boarding schools outlawed Indian languages, cut boys’ hair, and put Indians in standard institutional dress. And sometimes the children were outright kidnapped for these schools.

Assimilation might have seemed natural, even desirable to people fleeing other lands and coming to the New World for the chance at new life—my Norwegian grandfather banned that language from his house when he had learned enough English; assimilation was for then a gift. For Indians assimilation was a theft, taking away their lives even as they were sometimes allowed to stay on traditional lands.

Resilient Indians began having powwows on the Fourth of July—getting out their drums and regalia, letting religious and government officials think they were now “half-civilized.” An Indian elder told me recently that the Indian dance bands of the teens and 1920s and 1930s, who played pop dance music and wore traditional clothing and headdresses, had found another way to hang onto tradition and culture under the noses of assimilationists.

Loosening of restrictions on Indian religious practices began in 1934, with a first Indian religious freedom action by the Secretary of Interior, and was enshrined in federal legistlation with The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978—that is 19 and 78. As Alvin Josephy would say, until that time American Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Moslems, Buddhists and many others had religion; American Indians had “mumbo jumbo.”

These legal steps have also opened the way for language and culture programs, and, along with people of good will across racial and agency divides, have allowed Indians to gain and share spiritual beliefs, practices, and pride.

We have a long house now in Wallowa at the Wallowa Nez Perce Homeland. I say “we” because I am one of many—Indians from Nespelem, Umatilla, and Lapwai, and local Wallowa Countians—who formed this homeland organization years ago to provide a path and a place for the descendants of those displaced 140 years ago to return. There is a dance arbor at the Homeland—has been for many years, but now there is a long house, and on the Sunday of Tamkaliks, the annual powwow and friendship feast on the grounds, drummers and singers from Umatilla, Lapwai, and Nespelem drummed, sang, and prayed together.

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