It Just Don’t Smell Right Up in Here
I used to speak Navajo. Never well, but passable enough to get teased on the Res. I spent a lot of time on the Res. When I first decided to learn the language, it was for a variety of reasons but I had serious questions about how I’d be received. White, speaking Navajo. I finally screwed up my courage and asked some of my older Navajo friends if I’d be seen as co-opting the culture. They seemed stunned that I’d even ask that. Then they told me with great sorrow how delighted they were that I was learning it. Because the kids weren’t.
Brother Folse mentioned that I should write something about the masking tradition. I will at some point, but after watching this week’s episode again, I wanted to address the idea that perhaps our beloved, cranky Albert is in the early stages of dementia. I watched the scenes over and over and have to say that I read it completely differently.
In the early 90’s, many reservations were being overtaken by gangs. Out of that grew a Native American hip hop scene, uniquely their own, with lyrics that pointed out their reality. Folks like Robby Bee and the Boyz from the Rez did an album called Reservation of Education. (It’s listed under World Music on Amazon I believe. I looked it up to see if it was even still available and it is. Their song Pow Wow Girls has evidently been taken up by NA Grrl musicians as a title for themselves.) Another group, Without Rezervation, put out a hip hop album, Are You Ready for W.O.R. (1994) with titles like To the Sell Outs.
There are Native American rock bands like Indigenous, who have rightly earned a place in radio playlists, and Blackfire’s album One Nation Under, which sounds like a bit of rock/punk and death metal.
And there are the great traditionalists: The Blacklodge Singers (look for Crow Hop, it’s on YouTube) or the Porcupine Singers. And of course, the fabulous John Trudell, poet/activist/singer/actor, who’s been contributing sound for a long time in any way he deems fit.
For the elders, though, much of this is upsetting. Many of them want their traditions kept pure, passed down un-evolved, untouched by this century or the white man (or the black man for that matter.) They bemoan the fact that the kids are, in their view, overly assimilated thanks to computers, tv and video games, or on res’s with casino money coming in, blatant consumerism. By the same token, they realize that the younger kids can’t make a living without some assimilation and education. It’s a huge quandary for them, because what they see is that while the bigger world is necessary for their kids to get ahead, it also to their mind, diminishes their traditions or jettisons them entirely.
When Albert was standing in that recording studio saying, “It don’t even SMELL right up in here!” I could completely understand what he was saying. Take an old Native American singer, put HIM into a studio in New York, and it’s very possible he’d say the same thing. Where’s the sage and cedar? I can’t DO it here. This needs to be done in a kiva. For someone to say, “We’re musicians. We play notes. We can do that anywhere,” would strike that old guy as absurd. The music simply cannot be separated from the tradition from his point of view. And furthermore, it shouldn’t be.
My view of Albert’s responses in this episode struck me as a guy who’s lost just about everything to incompetence, greed, official bullshit, thieves and the storm itself. All he has left is his identity. His identity as an Indian. If he has that, and that’s intact, he can probably weather anything. Without it he will have completely lost his moorings. I just don’t know if he can articulate that. He is the Big Chief, he has some standing in the community. He has respect, if nothing else. He’s used to people listening to him. Hell, just one of his looks can cause people to rethink their position or do the right thing. In New York, mixing jazz with the tradition in a foreign country is frightening to him on so many levels. The culture, his Indian culture, in New York? No. He’s not seeing that. Will he be respected in New York? Will the tradition be respected? Is his entire identity being reduced to notes in a studio?
His son has come around to the tradition in his way, but it’s not Albert’s way, and that’s mortality hitting ya in the face. Not just his own, but possibly the old ways, the culture he is so totally self-identified with and by. I know many elderly Native Americans who are terrified that their grandchildren won’t know any of the songs, traditions, creation stories, or medicine ways. In fact, several years ago, I believe it was the Shawnee who were given back sacred objects that had been held at the Smithsonian for a very long time. They let the Smithsonian keep them because no one alive knew what to do with them anymore.
The trip to the museum, while certainly allowing Albert to jab Delmond in the ribs a bit, also made Albert wonder if one day his suit would be behind glass with no one making them like that anymore, no one singing the chants the old way, the right way. The tradition reduced to a 3 x 5 card in a hermetically sealed, air controlled display and a sparkly CD wrapped in cellophane.
He’s struggling with so much loss. It just don’t smell right up in here.
Where’s the kiva?