I was listening to a story on NPR this morning about Native American artifacts that have been uncovered due to the hurricanes in Florida. They were talking to an archaeologist who was so excited to have access to these items now. Trees were blown over and when the root balls came up and the dirt around was exposed there were thousands of pieces to explore. It had been used as a trash dump site by the tribe that had the land back in 700 AD. She was talking about taking as much as they could to research and display. The whole time I was listening to her my face was doing that *my face thing* we discussed earlier. I was afraid they were just going to leave the story at "Excited Archaeological Discovery!" Now I should have known better, it was NPR after all, they did talk to local tribes' members about how horrified they were that this was happening. Their belief is that if you disturb these items it will harm the rest of the spirits attached to them. You leave the dead and their things where they were buried. Let the dead rest.
The archaeologist, of course, did not hold to this belief. The research, the understanding of an ancient culture, the missing pieces of what was on this land before the Natives were driven out by disease and "progress" that was important. The members of the Tribes feel disrespected. They are telling her how to understand their culture, and that is to let the things be reburied.
It made me start thinking about two different things, the first being is there a more disrespected religion (or technically group of religions since each tribe varies somewhat) than Native American religions? If Christians today faced the actual disrespect that Native Americans face they would freak out. It's not "People don't say Merry Christmas!" It's "People are digging up our graveyards and putting things on display." It's "people are wearing our religious garments as drunk fest items." It's "people are building on our holy sites." And the complete dismissal of those beliefs as superstition, or ancient history is amazing.
And the other part is that a lot of people don't know anyone who practices any form of Native American beliefs. I come from a place where the culture is this mix of places and peoples and it became this really unique mash up. When the Spaniards tried to settle the area that is New Mexico they brought their religion, as they did everywhere, and tried to convert the Natives to their beliefs. It was met with varying rates of success. Now when I say convert you might have the image in your head of a nice Mormon kid or Jehovah's Witness on your porch asking you if you want to discuss their truth. Imagine that Mormon kid or Jehovah's Witness slicing open the throats of a few of your neighbors when they decided not to convert and then coming to your door and it's a closer version.
And it wasn't just the Spaniards and their bloody conversions there were times they would set up a church and small settlement and then move on only to come back and discover that the Natives had decided not to convert after all and all of the priest were gone and the villagers were either missing or "gone Native" as well. Conversion or non-conversion by blood was the standard.
But what also happened is that the Catholicism that did stick became mixed with the Native beliefs. There is a difference in the churches where I come from than the ones back east. There was a blending of cultures even in conversion. I grew up in a protestant house but even with that there were more somewhat supernatural aspects to faith than there would be in a protestant house in the Bible Belt. Enough of my friends believed in Saints and Dia de Los Muertos and Shamans and the like that it was mixed in to my growing up. (Saints are Catholic from the Spanish influence, Dia de los Muertos is Mexican traditions and Shamans are Native American)
And part of that is because my parent's faith has a very open door policy to it. By that I mean the living are in one room and the dead in another but sometimes the door between the rooms isn't shut so tightly. They believe strongly (and it's a tenant of most if not all Christian faiths) that the dead go on living, just in a different way. For them it's heaven. Though they can be around you at times. Sort of a just visiting clause. And you honored your dead, and spoke of them as though they were still around. In a way.
For instance my father died right before Father's Day. On that Sunday my oldest brother said it was nice that Dad was going to spend the day with his three children he had not been able to before. That it was Marsha's, Marcia's and Mark's turn now. And how nice that was. The thought of it brought him great comfort. When my mother dies she wants her ashes and my father's ashes spread on the east side of the mountain. When Dad died she had dreams of seeing his silhouette on the top of the mountain standing with three other silhouettes. She took that to mean Dad was with their three children they lost, waiting for her. It's comforting to her.
And that religious belief had to have been so important for them when they lost three children. Believing that though it hurt to lose them, they were not gone forever, they would be reunited after death? That probably kept them sane while they dealt with every parent's worst nightmare, three different times.
But growing up what it meant is that my two older sisters who died right after they born and my older brother who died when he was 6 were still talked about in my house. They all died decades before I was ever born but even with that they were part of my family and I always felt closest to Mark. My mother used to tell me that we looked alike. I would scour his baby pictures trying to see the resemblance. Because I don't look like my other siblings. I look like my mother and they resemble my father. So the thought that Mark and I would have looked alike was great. It meant I wasn't really from the milk man after all!
And even though I don't believe what they all believe about heaven, that feeling of the door between the living and dead being kept open is a part of my basic sense of life. You see it in my fiction. A lot of what I write doesn't have a clear delineation between the living and the dead. They interact pretty consistently. My actual belief is that when someone is gone they are gone but my creative take is that they are still around. Though, I guess it's not entirely accurate for me to say I think they are gone. I think what remains is what lives on with you. I still have my father with me, for instance.
While the rest of my family waits to be reunited with him after death I keep him alive in my thoughts. And in a way I have a firmer hold on him now than I did when he was alive. Because he's frozen in space and time now. He's not still changing. I have his essence, in a way. I have the parts that he gave to me. His beliefs about life that formed me. And I access those all the time. Brent and I will hear something or see something and comment about how much Dad would have liked that, or hated it. We do the same with his father. What we have from them is what they left to us.
With our mothers what we have is constantly changing. Because they are still living and to live is to change. My mother is quite a bit older than his and so we have the random nature of 85 year old woman to add to the mix. My mother is brilliant and funny and kind. She is also bossy and critical and snippy. The mix changes depending on the phone call that day. When I was growing up the good parts were pretty much the most prevalent, though the other was always there as well. (Sound familiar to any who has dealt with GD and BD?) As she has aged there are days where the more pleasant aspects are tucked away a little tighter. So you don't know what you are going to get. With the memories of my father I know what I am getting. So that's what I mean by having a firmer hold on him now.
So back to the NPR story. We have an archaeologist who wants to display these artifacts to show the world the missing pieces in our country's history. We have descendants of these tribes saying that they don't want it to happen because it is disrespectful to their religious beliefs. Where do you come down on this? Does the need for education overrule the religious beliefs? Would your opinion change if it were a Christian settlement being excavated? And would that change be because it's not part of that religion to tie objects to the spirits of those that used them? Is it a lack of understanding of different faiths that is really the issue? Or do you think the level of respect given to each religion is uneven? Should the dead be able to rest or should we say it's superstition and nonsense?
Or, and this is what I believe, should she be worried about how tightly that door is shut?