Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 21, 2009

A Pow Wow With Raven, Jesus and the Great Spirit

“Raven came. All the world was in darkness. The sky above was in darkness. The waters below were in darkness. Men and women lived in the dark and cold. Raven was sad for them. He said, ‘I will search for light.’  ”

– from Raven: A Trickster Tale From the Pacific Northwest, as told and illustrated by Gerald McDermott (Harcourt Brace & Co.)

In my menswork and other church work, I’ve gotten back recently to telling and using the American Indian mythic story Raven Brings the Light. It has many parallels to Christianity, especially the Nativity story about the birth of Jesus. Thus it has special significance at Christmas among Native American Christians in the Athabaskan tradition, from Oregon up into Canada, and on into Alaska ( I think… unless I’ve been misled, which is always possible, as lies and convenient fallacies abound in these mixed-up multicultural times).

I first heard the Raven folktale on tv, in the context of the early 1990s show Northern Exposure. Below is the version they staged on one of their Christmas shows. Thanks, YouTubers!

I didn’t watch Northern Exposure show very much when it was originally being aired, but discovered it soon after, in syndication. It soon became one of my all-time favorites though, one of the early “dramedies” –one hour long, no laugh track, occasionally taking on serious subjects. I liked Northern Exposure for the quality of the writing, for its whimsy with a purpose, and for the accessible way that it portrayed Indians’ role in the American (and Canadian) experience.

As for those of you, Native and European alike, who would get on my case for using the word “indian” above –instead of the more P.C. version “Native American”– well, go soak your head. You’re just naive Americans. Things change. Yeah, I know the difference. I know my history, too. And I do care. But if the highly political Russell Means and the American Indian Movement found the word good enough for them, then it’s good enough for me. For now. More important fights should take priority, and positivity will go a lot further than intellectual gibberish.

Take for example the upcoming 56th Annual Powwow, sponsored by the American Indian Center of Chicago. This is one of the bigger ones, on Nov. 7 and 8 at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Attening this event a few years ago was deeply moving for me, and yet I have not one ounce of Indian blood to brag about. I just want to understand the community. To be taught by them. And the thunderous sound of  those ten-foot drums, played loud and proud by committed members of an authentic community, still rings in my ears. If I let them, those drums (and the important conversations in-between) have the ritual power to change me — as much as any church service can, and probably more than any classroom ever could. They widen and deepen community, and strengthen the love between equally valuable citizens within various communities.

And yet, isn’t UIC a branch of the same state university that many self-serious people have criticized for using Chief Illiniwek as its mascot? So what’s up with that? Why would Chicago’s own Indian population have their event there? I suspect that the only people who argue ad nauseum about silly semantics are those who prefer arguing to actually DOING SOMETHING about the real problems today’s Indian (and other impoverished communities) still face. The local and regional participating organizations and Native Americans don’t seem to mind using the word indian, the so-called racist or inaccurate term. Or at least they don’t take themselves or the word or Chief Illiniwek too seriously. So why should I?

Maybe today’s American Indians are reclaiming and reinventing the word indian. In which case, more power to them. Especially when my cousin Tom’s mid-level engineering job (at Lucent?) was just this month shipped overseas to the REAL India — by a company more concerned with bottom lines than with its own employees and their families. Ah yes. Now I have seen the light. All bets are off in the ridiculous economy of present-day North America.

So steal the light back from the Sky Kings, Raven. We all need your help now. Not “by any means necessary”, as Malcolm X once said, but maybe it IS time to start becoming tricksters, maybe fight a little dirty, like the big boys in power ties have been doing for generations.

In the same way, this Italian American can reclaim and reinvent the words Dago, wop, or greaseball while still claiming my dignity and my rights and accepting my responsibilities. I really don’t mind if you use those so-called slurs. With me, anyway. Sticks and stones, as they say. Besides, I really do have oily skin. That only means I will have fewer wrinkles at age 50 than my counterparts of a more northern ancestry. So who has the last laugh now?

As long as you will eat with me at my table, and as long as you will respect and enlighten me like our beloved Raven and our beloved Jesus, and let me do the same for you, then call me whatever you want. We have more in common than we have differences. And we’re all stuck in the same mess of contradictions. Why claim otherwise?

So maybe I will see you in November at UIC, or at Evanston’s Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, or at some other event coming soon to a drum circle, health clinic or campfire near you. If I do, we’ll share a bit of  Indian frybread, pray together, and then dance dance dance!

Then we’ll get down to the real work, which is the hardest, but the most fun of all.

“Raven threw the sun high in the sky, and it stayed there. This is how Raven stole the sun

and gave it to all the people.”

ALL the people.


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