Building Commitment Through Ceremony

Nov 15th, 1996 | By | Category: 8-3: Ceremony, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Pictured at a ceremony at Navajo Community College are Phil Coyle (Department of Defense), Dennis Fisher (Lawrence Livermore), Roger Werne (Lawrence Livermore), Laurence Gishey (NCC), Peggy Scott (NCC), and Medicine Man Wilson Aronilth. Photo by Don Gonzalez of LLNL.

The idea of this issue on “Ceremony” sprang from a story Robert and Ruth Roessel told me about the birth of Navajo Community College. College founders were having trouble convincing Congress in the late 1960s to help fund the nation’s first tribal college. U.S. Rep. Wayne Aspinall (R-Colo.) was chairman of the interior and insular affairs committee, a very influential man, not known for his friendliness to Indian issues. After an unsatisfactory visit in Washington, D.C., Ruth Roessel (Navajo) impulsively decided to invite the congressman to the college dedication in Arizona. “This is something our children need. You come out and see for yourself and make your decision afterwards,” she said.

To symbolically break ground at the dedication, they used a Navajo digging stick, a very holy type of stick. Everyone placed their hands on the stick, and to Robert’s chagrin, the Honorable Aspinall’s hands happened to be at the bottom of the stick, closest to the clinging, desert dust. During the lengthy prayer, the dignitaries continued to stoop over the digging stick while Robert Roessel cringed, thinking, “We’ve lost it now.”

Afterward, however, Aspinall said, “I’ve been to churches all over the world, and I’ve never found the power that I felt in that digging stick.” Aspinall opened doors that eventually led to the passage of the legislation, the Roessels say.

Despite the power of the story, I have never written about it before. During more than 20 years of covering American Indian issues, I avoided mentioning ceremonies or the fact that every Indian meeting opened with a prayer. I come from a European tradition in which we separate church from state, prayer from business. As an Anglo journalist, I didn’t want to intrude in private matters, and I certainly didn’t want to be perceived as a New Age, wannabe Indian. Staying within intellectual, political territory was safer than venturing into the spiritual or emotional realm.

Gradually I have come to realize that my reluctance was a disservice to my readers. Often I was leaving out the part of the subject that mattered the most. Seeking out stories about ceremonies, I learned how tribal colleges and Native groups have built commitment, cemented relationships, eased the strain of bicultural education, and strengthened students’ identity. While many tribal ceremonies continue to be private affairs where outsiders are not invited, others are planned to involve guests.

When Kurt Russo came back from the Nguillatun ceremony in Chile last fall, he felt unexpectedly depressed. As alluded to in his article in this issue, he had shared the deeply moving, life-changing experience with 2,000 indigenous people, all committed to protecting the land and future of the Pehuenche people. Returning to his home on the Lummi Reservation in northern Washington state, his life–full of friends and gratifying work–suddenly felt empty. When he called others who had participated in the ceremony, they felt the same, undescribable way.

They yearned for the level of spiritual communication most had experienced only once in their lifetimes, at the Nguillatun in October 1996. The sadness passed, but the solidarity remained. Russo believes it will make a difference. He fought beside the Lummi in another, ultimately successful, David and Goliath-type battle. “We had no hope, but we had a prayer.”

Steve Grey is a Navajo engineer who directs the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory liaison office at Navajo Community College in Shiprock, New Mexico. He has used ceremonies several times that recognize and affirm the two cultures: on the one hand, the scientific, governmental culture with its focus upon written documentation, delineated goals, and structured lines of authority; on the other, the Navajo culture with its emphasis on harmony, beauty, religion, and feasting.

For example, Navajo Community College invited several of the top managers of the laboratory to visit the campus at Tsaile, Arizona, for a week in 1990. Instead of crowding around a desk to sign their memorandum of agreement, they all gathered in the 8-sided, log hogan on campus. With the scent of cedar smoke in the air, men and women in business suits and plastic name tags sat cross-legged on the floor and bowed their heads as Navajo Medicine Man Wilson Aronilth sang and prayed for them. Then they ate a traditional meal of mutton stew and frybread together.

Grey finds chief executive officers and managers–including  former Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Hazel O’Leary–receptive to the ceremonies. The power of the events rests upon the shoulders of the Navajo medicine men and upon thousands of prayers and songs they have learned through long apprenticeships. Each has the equivalent of several PhDs, according to NCC President Dr. Tommy Lewis. The DOE guests gain insights into the Navajo beliefs about Navajos’ relationship with the earth and all living things. They leave emotionally committed to increasing the number of Navajo students in technical fields.

Other tribal colleges also have adapted old traditions to meet the modern needs of their students and faculty. Leech Lake Tribal College President Larry Aitken wanted to help Student Senate officers feel the importance of their responsibilities. After research with Anishinabe elders in the Minnesota community, he adapted a traditional sanctioning ceremony to honor the students. Each year, the college invites the community to the inauguration, which includes a pipe ceremony, an honor song by the tribal college drum group, a feast, and the swearing in by Aitken.

At Dull Knife Memorial College in Montana, Northern Cheyenne medicine people periodically conduct a Calling Back Ceremony. Traditionally, when a family member died, the grieving relatives would withdraw from community events for a year, cut their hair, and avoid washing it, according to Judith Davis of Dull Knife. If it were a close relative, they might burn the tepee with all their possessions. At the modern Calling Back Ceremony, the medicine person symbolically combs the grieving person’s hair with a prayer fan and gives him or her a basket with fabric, food, and perhaps a blanket.

If the students were attending a mainstream institution, they might feel compelled to choose between fulfilling their academic versus their tribal obligations. At Dull Knife, the ceremony helps them reconcile their traditional and modern lives.

Ceremonies are an essential part of tribal identity. Elders from various tribes have said that the continued existence of the world itself relies upon their prayers. Ceremonies emphasize kinship with clan or band, with both future generations and ancestors, with plants and animals. As a member of Yanomami tribe of the Brazilian Amazon told Russo’s delegation, “In our forest there lives a spirit. We go to the spirit, and it speaks to us.” For tribal college students, ceremonies provide a sense of belonging, of knowing where they come from, of being different and special.

Invited guests feel included, part of something much bigger than themselves. They gain an understanding of the value system underlying tribal institutions. They are exposed, many of them for the first time, to the many incongruities of bicultural living that American Indians experience everyday, conflicts that contribute to Indian students’ drop out rate from mainstream institutions.

As Russo sensed upon his return from the Nguillatun, modern life offers few opportunities for meaningful ceremonies with significance beyond the material world, ceremonies that connect us to something larger than ourselves. There was a time before the Industrial Revolution when Western cultures took time for ceremonies. Now it is rare in our busy, secular world. Some of us seek instant spiritual gratification. Recently we read of “virtual Jerusalem” where the devout send their prayers via e-mail to be placed in the Western Wall, thus saving the time that a pilgrimage requires.

Native ceremonies require time and timeless traditions. The Nguillatun ceremony took three full days, building ties that cannot be replicated by fax or e-mail.

Education was once used by non-Indians to assimilate young Native people into the mainstream culture. Now tribally chartered colleges can prepare their students for being successful in both worlds–the world of academics and the world where ceremony plays an integral role.

For further reading, see the Fall 1994 issue of Tribal College Journal on “Spirituality.” For more information about the partnership with Lawrence Livermore and other national labs, contact Steve Grey at (505) 368-5120 or see the April 1992 issue of Graduating Engineer (Encino, Calif.).

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