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The Evergreens, the Iroquois, and appropriation
A meditation on the amalgamation of spiritual traditions and cultural influences that have influenced and inspired me throughout my human evolution.
The YMCA was involved in a good amount of my childhood adventure. I remember wearing a headdress and earning feathers in the Y Indian Guides. It was a place for father and son to bond. The program began in the 1920s with St. Louis YMCA Director Harold S. Keltner and his guide, Joe Friday, an Ojibwe Indian. In speaking with his friend, Keitner saw the wisdom in the Native American family traditions, and formed the organization in response.
When I was a bit older my parents sent me and my sister to YMCA Summer Camps in Upstate NY. The first was a day camp called Camp Iroquois in Manlius, NY. When I got older I spent stretches of my summer at an overnight camp called Camp Tousey, north of Syracuse near Alexandria Bay. At both camps we were divided into “tribes” named after the Five Nations, comprising the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. I didn’t understand where the names came from, or what genocide was, or how the use of the Native names by white people in the United States was problematic. I was a child, and it was the seventies.
When it came time to play cowboys and Indians, I always wanted to be the Indian. I thought the Native Americans were so much cooler, with bows and arrows, beautiful headdresses and long hair, all the other tropes that I was presented with at that age. I was moved by the famous commercial of the “crying Indian” paddling his canoe through a polluted river to stand by the roadside as white people throw litter out of their car. I have been an environmentalist ever since, even if the source material was problematic. When my father watched football my favorite team was the Washington Redskins, because of their logo and Native American branding.
As with all of youth, I am working to let go. I am not a football fan, but I am glad the Redskins changed their name. It is good to know that the Y Indian Guides are now Adventure Guides, and that we are waking up as a culture to all of the harms we have caused, and continue to cause, and how words have meaning and can be tools of oppression. The white European settlers committed a genocide, and that kind of karma sticks around for a long time even if it is perfectly acknowledged and we try to do make amends. But we are human, and perfect is not what we do.
Every time we remember we rewrite our own history.
My father sent me a letter last year, telling me that Camp Iroquois was changing its name to Camp Evergreen. He asked me if I remembered going there to plant evergreen trees. I do remember, now that he mentioned it.
I am not sure which memories are true. It is the human condition to mis-perceive, and therefore mis-remembering is a given. Every time we remember we re-write our own story. I think that there were some seedlings planted in my head by all of the Indian lore, as flawed and culturally insensitive as it was.
I went on to appropriate a bit of Korean culture when I studied Tae Kwon Do, which led me to appropriate the wisdom of Buddhism, and then to appropriate yoga philosophy from the Indian culture. I have sat with shamans from Latin America, and I have sung with indigenous people in Mexico. Looking at my life, it seems most of my spiritual beliefs are from somewhere else, and the Christianity my ancestors gave me finds no fertile ground in my heart, much to my mother’s dismay.
Should I be a Christian because I was born in Syracuse? Or do I get to decide my own spiritual path, because I am human?
My spiritual name, Pashupa, is of course not the one I was given by my parents. It came into my life when I was younger and more naive, but also from a pure place, and now it is part of me. When I speak to myself, it is the name I use.
I have seen what I have seen and done what I have done. I live serving to respect all beings and asking for forgiveness where I have caused harm.
But the memories are there. The feelings of closeness with my father forged in Y Indian Guides are ones that I have worked all my life to regain, after the trials and tribulations of my adolescence pried us apart.
It is the diversity of this world that I love. I love of the ones who treat the Earth with kindness, the ones who understand the depth of the interconnectedness that runs through animal, rock and plant. I don’t know how to bow to spirit without thinking of the four directions, the sacredness of water, or the connection I have to Agni, Hindu god of fire.
I would not teach wisdom to another in the same ways that I gained it, but I am grateful for the teachings. Some traditions would say that this all happens the only way it can happen. The world is an amalgamation of traditions that have been flowing together peacefully and forcing themselves onto one another violently since we were monkeys living in the trees. Or maybe since we were single celled life looking for ways to double up.
Life is complex, and we either live in flow with paradox, or suffer by trying to force the world to fit into our worldview.
There is something evergreen in the truth, and all the rest eventually falls away. I long for a world where all sacred traditions are held with reverence and shared with gratitude, and where we all learn from one another with curious compassion. May it be so.