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Identity: Genocide of the Mind

Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing, edited by MariJo Moore, is a collection of wonderful stories that describe the effects of an imposed (and all too often culturally insensitive) modernization on the cultural sensibilities of Native American Indians. Each narrative is compelling journey of mind, heart and spirit inpired by survival, resilience and the preservation of identity.

If we are to talk about the human side of learning, the struggles and achievements of other cultures are just as important, and perhaps even more important, as our own. It is through the lens of other cultures, especially those that we impose upon, that we gain insight into the good and evil that lies in our own...

A Confusion of Spirit

Today cities represent economic activity, the chance to enter the great race and achieve prosperity - at least the prosperity of the moment. Skyscrapers do reach for the heavens, as many architects have noted, but the are placed helter-skelter on the ground with no apparent design and an inability to reflect the glory of the greater cosmic scheme. Taken as a whole, cities reveal the confusion of spirit that is the hallmark of modern industrial man.... It is all so sterile.
- Vine Deloria, Jr. in Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing

As an undergraduate student majoring in music composition and arranging, I always had a sense that the Western musical forms and stylistic elements I was being taught, and had to exercise my musical creativity through, seemed to be more an act of analysis and immitation than finding my own voice. In other words, the essential act of creating music was, "placed helter-skelter on the ground." The more "Bach-like" I could compose an 3-Part Invention the better my grades were. Yet, even with great admiration for the music of Bach, I felt like an interloper in his world, not a composer in my own world. There seemed to me to be "no apparent design and an inability to reflect the glory of the greater cosmic scheme" in my voice. I was, in fact, a musical mechanist.

The phrase, "the chance to enter the great race and achieve prosperity" struck me as being particularly apt. The most hopeful and optimistic thing we can admit to ourselves is that we are culturally arrogant and insensitive. It is from here that a renewed sense of progress can be undertaken.

Preserving Heritage

In To Carry The Fire Home, Kathryn Lucci-Cooper offers a number of wonferdul insights into how she managed the troubled realities of preserving her Cherokee heritage while feeling the pull of the status quo:

I found myself competing in world of people who could not understand the language of my thoughts. A people controlled by material wealth and enslaved by issues of time. I was compelled to conform or fail. It was my first real failure.
- Kathryn Lucci-Cooper in Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing

One of the most powerful ideas that emerges from this essay is the clear distinction she draws between a culture that is inherently oral in nature and another that is essentially visual. There is a dramatic difference in an oral sensibility and a visual sensibility. An oral culture, in my opinion, is far more dynamic and mobile (this can be seen in many traditions of oral folk music), while a visual culture is largely static and monolithic.

Becoming an urban Indian woman meant movement from a traditional circle of elder women who easily defined themselves, into a new circle of women who seemed not to have a definitive place within their community. It also meant a diminishment of self so as to become indistinct from those who were participating in this modern academic environment.
- Kathryn Lucci-Cooper in Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing

The traditional circle is, in one fundamental way, defined and characterized by their participatory and inclusive oral tradition. The new tradition, in one fundamental way, is defined by their assimilating a tradition dominaated by the visual. It is not surprising that someone from outside our own culture can reach into it so easily and reveal the fragility of it.

Identity: The Diminishment of Self and the Cherished Anonymity

Compare the diminshment of self to:

For, after all, obliteration of individuality, the maximum integration of the individual into the hierarchy of the educators and scholars, has ever been one of our ruling principles. ...The hierarchic organization cherishes the ideal of anonymity, and comes very close to the realization of that ideal. - Hermann Hesse in The Glass Bead Game

This is an inside out perspective that unsurprisingly come to us from the Artist within our own culture. The Glass Bead Game is in many ways built on a deep sensibility and appreciation for an oral culture. The role of improvisation throughout this wonderful novel is clearly interdependent with the oral traditions, and through this lens is able to offer keen insight into the more mercurial aspects of education.

One of the more obvious signs of our own cultural arrogance is found in vision and innovation, especially when it comes to matters of sensibility. While these insights may have a newness to them, they are ultimately only new to ourselves. Vision and innovation are often denigrated by our own self-referential natures. In all probablity, there are likely to be people in other cultures that embraced our new ideas ages ago in deeper more authentic ways, and our insistence on marginalizing other cultures via assimilation and accomodation ultimately damages our own sensitivity and wonder.

I didn't know how to react to this first blow to my cultural identity. I had come from a home where a person's spoken word was not lightly challenged, an Indian home, where respect for all people was gifted to the young by those who were older and understood the circular nature of this gift. Yet, there I stood, in that long second-floor hallway, surrounded by classrooms and feeling very small for my full five feet two inches of height. I wasn't aware a reservation could define you. I had been taught tradition... ancestry... elders determined tribal identity
- Kathryn Lucci-Cooper in Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing

Standing in that hallway is the equivalent to awakening in a dark wood. In this case however, a keen sense of mythological connection and awareness was already present in Kathryn. But now she faces the terrible awakening of having her preence immersed in a foreign land (our society) that is not particularly welcoming to ideas other than its own. At this point, Kathryn is forced into the role of a spiritual warrior in order to preserve her identity and her spirit.

"I wasn't aware a reservation could define you." We too have placed our selves on our own reservation, yet what we a reserving or preserving is illusive and extrremely confused. Perhaps a great deal of our own cultural identity is, in fact, confusion itself. And in the example described, it is clear that Kathryn suffered from our ignorance. In not inviting, welcoming and embracing the deep value and opportunity of Kathryn's cultural beliefs we sell ourselves short in living a life worth living.

Learning: Embracing The Sensibility and Spirit of Another Culture

Cultural insensitivity is a deeply disturbing problem. Here, I do not refer to such obvious problems as the evil of racism, or our pathological desire to assimilate other cultures even though the language we use to describe our orientation to other cultures would attempt to make us believe otherwise. I do mean our inability to openly embrace the sensibility and spirit of other cultures. It is here that we learn new ways to think, to perceive, to imagine, to understand, to comprehend, to make meaning, to take action, to redefine goals, to engage in a life worth living. Yet, it seems, we go to great effort to offer some trite acknowledgement while marginalizing the possibilities for fundamental growth. The loss of our oral sensibility is a massive loss, but if we were to honestly embrace Kathryn's Cherokee culture, perhaps they could help us to begin reconnecting all the disolcated fragments of ourselves. I believe Cherokee culture has far more to offer us than we could offer in return.

Although the challenges that my children and I face today are seemingly more complex than those our ancestors faced, they are in fact not so very different after all. It is the same reconciliation of tradition self-identity. It is the same call to remembrance. It is the same need to ensure that the future generations are given the gifts so carefully guarded by those who came before us. It is the same care that must be given to the burning embers [i.e. - the soul] that will in the future be passed from breath to hand and ignite the Fire that will then be carried home.
- Kathryn Lucci-Cooper in Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing

Throughout this beautifully written essay, Kathryn maintains the stance of resilience. If we were to look at the nature of interaction here we would explore the collision between oral and visual cultures, the shock of having one's carefully developed sense of ancestory and conectedness being sudden transported to an environment of materialism and mechanization, the brilliance of her own learning process that is a precious act of resilience. And while the setting here is not nearly as horrifying as Viktor Frankl's, we can clearly see some of the immense challenges in preserving our cultural identity.

What comes to us via Kathryn's story is a critical narrative that reminds us that the imagination is the refuge of the soul. It is also a warning that our so-called modern understanding of learning is frought with peril.

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Chris Corrigan on Identity: Genocide of the Mind | 27.01.05 | Comment Permalink

Great entry...thanks Brian.

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