Finally, an update. I thought I would blog today about what I’ve been doing over the past few weeks. Two weeks ago, I drove out to Natchez Mississippi to meet my girlfriend Jen Auterson and her family for the annual Natchez National Powwow. Her family is and has always been heavily involved in Native American culture, and they regularly attend powwows and war dances throughout the year. The first one I ever went to was a war dance in West, Texas last May. I’ve since been to 3 other powwows, including the one I just saw in Natchez.
This all seems to be part of a new-ish movement of re-discovering, re-claiming and preserving Native American culture. It’s all pretty interesting, and also can be pretty strange to an outside observer – I’ll explain this more in a minute.
The best part of this movement is the re-discovering of the culture. Most of the traditions, beliefs, rituals and culture of the Native Americans was lost (more accurately, destroyed) by the end of the 19th century. The tribes were scattered, relocated to reservations, and more importantly, were forbidden to practice their traditions, observe their religions, or even to speak their own language in some cases. Many were sent to christian schools to be taught how to live in “civilized” society. As a result, much of the history behind, well, everything they did is totally gone – even to Native Americans alive today. You ask someone, “Why do they do this dance this way?” or, “Why is this ceremony the way it is?” The only answer you get is, “Because this is how it’s done.” That’s literally the only answer that can be given, because the history is gone.
The strange part, at least for me, happened right away at the first dance I attended. The first thing you’ll probably say to yourself is, “Where are all the Indians??” The war dance I attended in West, Texas was, I’d say, at least 96% white people. So what you normally see are all these white people, in full Indian dress. Some of the outfits are incredibly outlandish, and impressive. The interesting thing here is, the movement is being created not by Native Americans, but by white people. Many of these people are not just hobbyists, but full on scholar’s, like Jen’s dad, Earl Fenner. He has collected probably one of the largest collections of Native American music anywhere, and is regularly visited by anthropologists and ethno-musicologists seeking his council. He’s also an accomplished silversmith, and creates silver pieces for traditional Indian dress. Jen’s mom, Faith Fenner is an accomplished tailor, and creates full suits with lavish bead work and a whole bunch of other really complicated looking things that I don’t know the terminology for. And that’s what I find so admirable about the whole thing – it’s not just a hobby for these people – they live it.
As an outside observer, I’m still struggling to understand many aspects of it though. One thing that I flat out don’t get at all is the interjection of Christianity into the ceremony. There’s actually something called the Native American Church, which combines Native American ritual and tradition with Christianity. One of the reasons I don’t understand this is the fact that Christianity played a huge part in the destruction of the Native Americans, their history and traditions, but at the same time I guess you could say that white people did too, and they are spearheading this whole movement, so, yeah. It’s interesting because when you deal with white people taking back native American culture, you run into some hard questions. On the one hand, the fact that they are reviving and preserving the culture is a great thing – but on the other hand, these are essentially the descendants of the same culture that destroyed yours. I guess in the end, you can’t really look at it all in that way. They probably view it as, what happened in the past happened – there’s nothing that can be done about it now other than trying to revive it. In any case, for an outsider like me, it’s a pretty fascinating thing to see.
Natchez itself is just awesome. It was one of the major cotton producing cities of the South, and it was virtually untouched during the civil war. This means that there are tons of major historical buildings, plantation mansions, etc all over the town. So for history buffs, this town rocks. We actually visited a very large plantation mansion that had an interesting history in itself. During its heyday, it housed something like 800 slaves. The structure was hexagonal, with 4 or 5 stories, and a huge dome on the top, patterned after the Taj Mahal. It was on a huge acreage with giant live oak trees, slave quarters, etc. The tour guides were women dressed in 19th century clothes, and the whole thing looked like it would have looked (sans slaves) in the 1850’s.
After Natchez, we (myself, Jen, and her kids, Paiden and Zac) drove back here to my tiny little apartment in Ft. Worth, and just hung around the city for a week. The biggest thing that happened was I proposed to Jen, so she is now my fiance! We don;t have a date yet, but I’ll post on here when we do. So, when my lease runs out here in June, I’ll be moving back up to Indiana to be with her and the kids. I actually asked her on April Fool’s day, but didn’t realize that until later – oops – lol.
Anyway, now that I’m back home and things have settled down, I’ll be once again posting more to the blog, and starting on my new song cycle for baritone David Small and violinist Brian Lewis.