By Paul M. Lewis

The controversy over whether Junípero Serra ought to be made a saint is not particularly new. But it has gained traction of late because of Pope Francis’s declared intention to perform the canonization ceremony while visiting the United States this coming September. In a recent speech delivered in Rome, the pontiff is quoted as noting that Serra “ushered in a new springtime of evangelization in those immense territories, extending from Florida to California,” and that Father Serra defended “indigenous people against abuses by the colonizers.”

Questions of papal assertion aside, the basic issue really seems to be: Was Serra a saint, or was he a perpetrator of genocide, as he has more than once been accused of? To an extent, the answer depends on whether you believe he ought to be judged by 21st century standards, or solely by those of the 18th century. Most Christians of the time—Catholics in particular—believed it was their duty to spread the gospel and to convert heathens to the “true faith.” Any other belief system was seen not only as inferior to Christianity, but as false, evil, and outright diabolical. Pagans in particular—indigenous peoples—were especially in need of salvation. Those who died while still believing in the tenets of their religions were assured of going to hell for all eternity. Only baptized Catholics had any hope of getting into heaven. In addition, indigenous peoples were seen as children in need of a firm hand to guide them to Christian adulthood, a state in which they would then leave behind their old ways and recognize the superiority of European mores and culture.

In those years, it was a given that missionary work led to the greater good—spiritual, intellectual, cultural, even physical, emotional, and psychological—of those who were evangelized. It was seen as a way of raising people up from ignorance and allowing them to perceive the light.

That this light came at a huge price to indigenous peoples bothered the evangelizers not at all. So little value was placed on their religions, their languages, their whole cultures that Europeans never even considered that something irreplaceable was being lost. And if Indian lives had to be sacrificed in the process, well, those who died merely “went to heaven more quickly,” as the French Jesuit, Honoré Laval, who created a “settlement of God” among the Gambier islanders in the South Pacific a century and a half after Serra came to California, so arrogantly put it.

The question really ought to be, why should Serra not be judged in 21st century terms? After all, he is being held up today for special praise, as someone who should be emulated by those of us living in 2015, and in particular (or so the pope asserted) by Latinos. Why otherwise canonize him at all? And here’s an analogy to consider: Just as lawyers can cross-examine witnesses in a trial on a particular topic, if that topic has previously been brought up by the opposing side, so it seems fair to say that the style and content of missionary work done in the past can now legitimately be examined, since it has been raised by our contemporaries wishing to canonize Father Serra. If he is to be considered a role model for people today, it is also perfectly relevant to know how exactly he conducted himself in his life, so as to understand what about that life people should emulate. Seen from this point of view, however, Junípero Serra’s life appears to be less worthy of imitation.

Many modern Indians hold him up as a prime example of oppression (if not of genocide), and as someone who disrespected and denigrated their ancestral cultures. He’s seen as a perpetrator of acts of overwhelming arrogance, puffed-up pride, and conceit. Many even believe that most Amerindians would not have readily converted to Christianity, if it were not forced upon them by a hostile aggressor who came at them with far greater military and technological prowess. The image of peaceful Indians living in the shadow of the majestic California mission buildings, happily tilling the fields, or sitting and listening to benevolent brown-robed friars preaching to them about the Christ child is not just a fantasy, it amounts to a deliberate reimagining of history. There is little doubt that Indian labor was not offered freely, but extorted from them by force. It may be true, as some historians (and popes) claim, that Serra did protect Indian peoples from even worse treatment at the hands of colonial overlords. But the fact remains that the Catholic Church condoned and encouraged the expansion of European power in the New World (new to whom?), and that missionaries like Serra benefited from the military protection of these occupiers, who imposed their own will upon subjected native peoples.

The invasion of the Americas by Europeans was devastating and utterly catastrophic to the cultures, the religions, indeed, to the very lives of those people already living on this continent. Never mind that they had been here for a minimum of ten thousand years, that they had built very successful societies of their own, and that they were quite happy without the “guiding hand” of European paternalism. All this meant nothing to the invaders. Neither is anyone saying that the Indians of the time were perfect. They warred against each other, and sometimes they killed one another, just as every other human population did in any other part of the world. Some anthropologists even believe that ancestral Amerindians may have been responsible for the killing off of whole species of animals, such as mastodons, saber toothed tigers, and short-faced bears. In other words, they were full-fledged human beings, with all of the wonders and all of the flaws each of us has.

What they were not, however, were children in need of guidance, heathens who had to be saved, or sub-humans who had to be shown how to become civilized people. The pope has the right to do as he wishes. He can make as many saints as he likes, and people can celebrate them if they want to. But Junípero Serra was a man of his times, and those times have changed—I am glad to say, for the better. He is now dead and buried, along with the values of the era he so well represented. We are no longer in need of sainted role models from bygone days when one race, one religion, forced its way, lording it over another. If Francis wants to give us a saint to model our lives on, why not instead find one who resonates better with the needs and the understanding of the time we live in? Someone, at very least, who can be seen as respecting, honoring, and celebrating the good, the positive, and the human in all of us?


By Paul

There’s been a brouhaha of late in tony Santa Barbara County, California, between the Chumash Nation and many of the locals. The Chumash want to build a bigger and better gambling casino, including more hotel space, for those who like to loll away the hours depositing money in electronic slot machines. The locals very much want things to remain the way they are, and fear that proposed changes will alter the nature of the area – more traffic, more outsiders (read, the hoi polloi?), less bucolic peace and quiet, which they pay a lot for. And, to be completely fair, I ought to add that there are no doubt other factors at work, as well, in terms of zoning laws, environmental regulations etc.

So, I’m not exactly taking sides on this one, since I admit to feeling very torn. First off, I’m not really much of a fan of gambling.   Sure, in a sense it’s like drinking alcohol, or any other thing that some consider to be a vice. If done in moderation, what harm can it really do? And while that’s true, it’s also the case that there are those who get hooked on it and ruin their lives, as well as the lives of those who love them. Personally, I can’t even stand going into a casino. Just the ping-ping noise of the machines sets my teeth on edge, and somehow I get this feeling of a vast aura of desperation. For me, it’s an uncomfortable place. On the other hand, it seems to be one of the only ways that Indians have ever been able to accumulate a degree of wealth in a society that has long considered them to be second and third class citizens. There’s definitely nothing glamorous or virtuous about being poor, so who can blame the Indians for latching onto a thing that works? The money gambling brings in can be used for education, healthcare, housing, and a whole host of other necessities that much of white society takes for granted, though not always all people of color.

Looking back at history, there’s no doubt that Indians have gotten the rawest of raw deals from Europeans, and later on from white Americans. In fact, as a measure of how invisible Indians are, most people don’t even think about or bother to educate themselves regarding what has happened over the years. In a short essay, I certainly won’t attempt to encapsulate the enormous, sad history of Indian-white interaction ever since that fateful day on Oct. 12, 1492, when Columbus “discovered” the so-called New World. Even the use of the term “discover” highlights the arrogance and high-handedness with which native populations have been treated. After all, the word means to find something new, something that no one had seen before, a place that was not known to exist. When, in fact, it was only the Europeans who didn’t know.   Depending on which anthropologist and which theory you believe, Indians have been in this hemisphere anywhere from between twelve and twenty thousand years.

Naturally, once word spread that the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria had landed everybody wanted to get in on the act. That meant that everyone wanted a piece of the giant pie that had been “discovered.” The indigenous population of Indians, so called because Columbus was so turned around he thought he’d somehow landed in India, counted for very little. They were, in fact, pretty much just in the way. And besides, they were pagan savages, so Europeans were duty-bound to convert them to the true religion and in so doing to civilize them.

The very briefest of historical sketches might help to set the stage for that day when Columbus and his men first set foot on Guanahani Island, and the whole world changed for those who lived there, as well as for all other native inhabitants of the Americas. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued what is called a Papal Bull (a kind of official “letters patent,” granting an office, a right, a title etc.) to the King of Portugal, allowing him to declare war against non-Christians throughout the world and sanctioning conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christians and their possessions. Later on, the King of Spain, who was not to be outdone, demanded one of his own, and got it. The Bull “inter Caetera” was issued in May of 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, granting Spain the right to conquer the lands Columbus had “found.” This included all rights over peoples so discovered, who were to be “subjugated and brought to the faith itself.” Pope Alexander went so far as to draw a line from the North Pole to the South Pole, stipulating that the Spanish Crown could take any lands to the west of this line of demarcation, unless, of course, such lands had already “come into the possession of any (other) Christian lords.” Indigenous peoples were considered the “lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors.”

In essence, this document, and the legal reasoning found therein, was used for the next several centuries as a blueprint for how to deal with Indians. It has come to be referred to as “The Doctrine of Discovery.”   In the United States, it was the basis for a Supreme Court ruling handed down in 1823. In this ruling, Chief Justice John Marshall noted that Christian nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the Americas during the so-called Age of Discovery. As a result, all Indians living within those lands had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations.” Marshall specifically gave the U. S. government the right to occupy lands previously controlled by “the natives, who were heathens.”

The logical result of these legal documents can be seen in how Indians have been treated in this country. If their lands were not simply taken from them by force, if Indians were not killed off by smallpox or other European diseases against which they had no natural defenses, if their cultures and ways of life were not decimated by alcohol, then so-called treaties were made, which were largely legal conveniences that were never meant to be upheld, once it came time for white people to make their move. And all this was done in the name of civilizing and Christianizing them, a logical and legal throwback to the Papal Bull promulgated by Pope Alexander VI.

No apology has ever been forthcoming from the Catholic Church (or from the American government, for that matter) for these injustices done to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, no admission of wrong, no acknowledgement of pain or suffering or loss, no compensation, no acceptance of guilt, no mea culpa. This is a fact of history, a thing that most Indian peoples have simply learned to live with over the years. The best lands were taken from them and given to white settlers, and what was left was “reserved” for them. For many years, it was forbidden that their languages be spoken, their religious traditions were belittled and condemned, and their wonderfully varied cultural expressions denigrated and disparaged. They were put into servitude by Franciscan friars, and their children were forcibly taken from them and placed in boarding schools hundreds of miles away, where they could be taught to “behave like civilized white people.” While those left on the reservations came to know the meaning of poverty, want, and cultural dispossession.

So, fast forward to the 21st century, and we wonder whether or not the Chumash of Santa Barbara County, California, ought to be given permission to expand their gambling casino. Should the Chumash really take into consideration the rich people who live around them and their desire for peaceful country living? And what about the zoning and environmental regs? I still don’t claim to know the answer to all this, but if I were to try to put myself in the shoes of a member of the tribe, I guess I could imagine myself thinking, why shouldn’t it be my turn now? The Doctrine of Discovery, after all, did what it was intended to do. It “civilized” and Christianized the heathen Indians. So, why is everyone complaining now that those same Indians want to take advantage of an opportunity to make money? You know, just like those good, civilized, white Christian folks, who live in the beautiful country surrounding them, have always done?



By Paul

It was common practice among early Pueblo Indians, as well as many other indigenous peoples the world over, to “kill” a pot or other ritual object when it was no longer deemed to be part of the life of the family, clan, or larger community.  A hole would ritually be drilled through its base, and this “living being” would then be considered to have “died.”  From this we can deduce two things:  first, much more than plants and animals were (and still are) considered to be alive by many indigenous people, and two, objects created by and for people could take on a spiritual life of their own.

The issue, which may appear quaint or odd to so-called modern people, still in fact resonates today.  Just last week, for example, the French auction house Drouot sold off dozens of Native American objects, most of them belonging to the Hopi Tribe, in spite of the pleas and the lawsuit brought by both tribal elders and US government officials.  The 70 or so objects, mostly masks, that were auctioned off realized $1.2 million.  One mask alone, referred to as “Mother Crow” brought in over $200,000.  The objects had been “removed” from the Arizona reservation in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s.  How, why, or with whose permission, or lack thereof, is not clearly known.

Auctioneer Gilles Neret-Minet, as reported in an LA Times article dated Saturday, April 13, 2013, entitled “French Auction Defies Tribe,” said that he was “happy that French law had been respected.”  No mention was made of “Hopi law,” but we can surmise that the tribe was not as happy about the outcome of the matter as was Monsieur Neret-Minet.

One obvious question all this raises is, when is an object considered a piece of art (an “object d’art”), and when is it considered something legitimately held sacred by people, and therefore removed from the world of market-based negotiations?  Would it be all right with Drouot, for example, or with the French Government, or with people in general to sell the Shroud of Turin as a piece of art, rather than holding it, as many believe, to be the sacred and inviolable image of Jesus, imprinted by Christ, Himself, on the way to Calvary?

Enlarging the question somewhat, we can ask ourselves what actually constitutes art, and what constitutes the sacred?  Is there, indeed, a difference between the two, and if so, what is that difference?  We could even extend the questioning to ask when is something merely decorative, and when is it thought of as “high art”?   Some museums have whole sections dedicated to the so-called “Decorative Arts,” which suggests that curators and art historians the world over do see a difference.  That essential difference, as many would maintain, seems to hinge on whether or not the object could have been considered “useful” in some way.  In other words, “high art” is not useful, at least not in the everyday sense of that term, and is instead considered as a thing apart from the quotidian.  And yet a priceless Greek amphora, let us say, marvelously preserved and beautifully painted (i.e. “decorated”), would probably not be considered to be merely “decorative art.” This is so, even though its original use was merely as a kind of vessel to hold wine or some other such commodity.  Can we conclude then that it might not be thought of as “merely decorative” because of the antiquity of the object, or its market value, or simply because people the world over perceive it to be a thing of surpassing beauty?

The walls separating these various categories, in other words, are not as clear-cut as they would at first seem.  Many anthropologists and students of world culture have noted that even the word “art” itself is not a term that exists in the lexicon of the majority of indigenous peoples.  That is to say, things are not made by them for the sole purpose of sitting on a shelf, or merely to be hung on a wall, but because they are organic participants in the spiritual and the psycho-social lives of the people.  In many traditional instances, masks were ritually “put to bed” after particular ceremonies in which they were worn, and during which the individual wearing the mask became one with the spiritual being it embodied.  There the masks remained until, in due course of time, the moment came for that spirit to again reappear and assist the tribe in some specific way.

It was only as societies became organized on a grander scale that objects were begun to be made by specialists, and eventually by “artists,” who later came to think of them as expressions of their own private and personal artistic vision.  But note even here the use of the word vision.  And does that not in some sense harken back to the ability to “see” into another world, another dimension, another reality, akin to but different from our normal world, and which can either help or hinder the life of the individual or the community?   As recently as the nineteenth century, for example, monastic painters creating Russian icons would never dream of signing their work.  That was because it was considered a sacred task, not a “personal expression,” and the “object” created was in some real sense the embodiment of the holy image it portrayed.  The same could be said regarding so-called religious art in virtually every culture of the world.

To the modern mind, art today is mostly about either the private and the personal, or the political.  And we do not claim that it represents, or certainly that it embodies, anything more than its creator meant.  That, and of course, any interpretation and speculation either on the part of art experts or of the public in general as to its meaning.   In most cases, though, that representation is not normally thought of as sacred.  Why?  Perhaps in part at least because we have lost the knowledge or the feel of the sacred in today’s world.  And it has been replaced by – might I even say reduced to? – the manifestation and the insight of a given individual about him or herself.

Even so, it is not at all unusual for people to think of contemporary artists as gifted in some special way, as possessing insights and perceptions that go beyond the ordinary.  Great art, as least as I understand it, both plunges to the depths and rises to the highest heavens.  It cuts through and helps us to experience a profundity of feeling that is beyond what any of us can normally experience or express in our everyday lives.  And I am not talking here only of the plastic arts, so called, such as painting or sculpture or even film, but of music, literature, theater and dance, as well.  The best of the best embodies something that it alone can express, and only in its unique way, which can then reach across the unspoken divide between its own vision, transferring itself into the hearts and minds and spirits of those viewing, or otherwise experiencing it.

And is this so very different from the great “Mother Crow” mask of the Hopi, ignominiously sold in a recent Paris auction?  In one sense, and perhaps taken to the extreme, could we not even say that no art ought ever to be sold, since it is (ideally) the embodiment of a particular vision of that which is beyond price.  Of course, we all know that this is not the modern world we live in, and that artists also must provide for their own living and make their way in the world.  I only mention this at all in order to highlight the fact that all true art is, or can in some sense be, sacred.

One of the great ironies, not to say discourtesies, of the story of the sale of the Hopi masks is that tribal tradition never even allowed photos to be taken of them.  Again, it should be emphasized that, at least by the Hopi, these are not considered “art.”  They were never meant to be objects hung on a wall and admired; they are the embodiment of otherworldly beings, who have come to us in order to help in some specific way.  The LA Times article itself, in fact, even references that these masks were to be kept out of public view, and that it was considered “sacrilegious even for pictures of the objects to be shown.”  And yet – and yet – there at the top of the article, proudly displayed, if I may say so, are four photos of the very masks themselves!  What are we to make of this?  Is it merely an example of ignorance, or of arrogance or even provocation, or of some subtle, but deliberate, kind of editorial statement on the part of the paper about what art ought to be?

One way or another, the more general question remains, whether art is a private and personal expression of the individual who creates it, and who can therefore sell it, or otherwise dispose of it, since it belongs to that creator her or himself.  Or is it an unspeakable and ineffable representation of a higher order that both permeates and transcends the day-to-day reality we live in?  Is it, in other words, sacred or profane, decorative or of a higher order, societally or self referential, or is it revelatory of some unexplained and unexplainable metaphysical/spiritual essence?  Or, yet again, some highly idiosyncratic, mysterious and mystical combination of any and all of the above?

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the answer depends on what you think of yourself, of the world you live in, and of what you believe exists, or does not exist, beyond the boundaries of the everyday sphere we normally think of as home.


By Paul

I have been reading recently about the myths and legends of the Blackfeet Peoples of Northern Montana and Southern Alberta.  Their stories are not too unlike those of other plains’ peoples, the Crow, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho, especially centering around a reverence for the sky gods.  It’s not hard to see why these people would be so reverential toward the sky.  If you visit these parts of the country, vast horizons extend unobstructed for seemingly endless miles.  And it is not for nothing that even today Montana is called Big Sky Country. 

I am not a trained anthropologist, or even an historian, and so make no claims at being an expert.  As such, my interests are very much those of a layman.  Still, for a long time now I have taken every opportunity to learn and read about traditional American Indian religion and spirituality.  I know, for example, that all of the Plans’ Peoples held ceremonials honoring the Sun, with special festivities occurring each summer in the form of what is commonly referred to today as the Sun Dance.  However, for the Blackfeet at least, dancing is probably the least important part of the ceremony, which lasts for several days, and even the early Europeans who visited and witnessed what was going on called it the Medicine Lodge, rather than the Sun Dance.  The term medicine was not used in the sense that we use it today, that is, as having reference to physical healing through pills and doctors and hospitals.  Instead, medicine was the term early Europeans used to make reference to things which were beyond the ken of everyday life experience, and which in Indian cosmology meant spiritual power.  The Blackfeet themselves call the ceremonial “O-Kan,” a term which seems to have lost its meaning in the mists of history.  However, it appears to be related to other words which connect to the concept of “vision sleep,” a kind of power-dreaming whereby gifted or chosen individuals make contact with spiritual entities that are far beyond the experience of most of us in the ordinary course of our daily lives.  Or, another way of thinking about it is that these visions were ways of enlightening a person’s life, infusing the transcendent into the imminent, and making even everyday acts into something sacred.

Virtually all American Indian cultures understood this in one form or another, and still do, even though many modern Indians also profess a belief in one or another of the various forms of Christianity (depending on which missionaries forced their ways into the history of the people).  I won’t attempt here even the briefest recap of the sad and shameful history of how Europeans, and later on Americans, lied to, stole from, and decimated Indian peoples and their cultures, their religions, their languages, and their ways of life.  That story is too well known.  My interest for the moment is more in what the results have been for all of us, Indians and non-Indians alike.

We know that poverty, lack of educational opportunity, joblessness, and alcoholism are all appallingly endemic on many reservations.  Even so, some Indians escape the cycle and go on to excel in any number of areas of modern life.  It is not all sadness and despair, although there is plenty of that to go around, too.   But in the historical process of so-called assimilation, one of the things which has been most unfortunately lost, as I see it, is that very world view which so many Indian peoples had (and some still have), and which most non-Indians have little or no understanding of.  What I am talking about is the “medicine power” of traditional Indian religions to profoundly connect with and deeply appreciate the natural world around us.  Such religious experience is able to perceive the power of Spirit in all of nature, not just the Sun and his Night-Light wife (i.e. the moon) and their Morning Star son, as in the old Blackfeet legend, but in everything.  This includes animals and insects of every conceivable kind, as well as all of the “standing peoples” such as trees and other plants, and even those things which most of us today might consider inanimate, rivers and streams and lakes and waterfalls, rocks and mountains, the very earth itself.  In my experience, Christianity has entirely lost this ability, if in fact it ever had it.  

I sometimes find myself wondering what America, both North and South, would be like today, if the Europeans hadn’t been so aggressive and so able and willing to wield the power of their new-found technology.  How would American Indian societies have evolved?  Surely, they would have grown and developed in their own unique ways as their histories unfolded, if left undecimated and unobstructed by European aggression.  They would have developed their own kinds of technologies, and they would have changed and evolved in ways which are hard for us now to even imagine.  Would they, for example, have kept that connectivity with the natural world which was the hallmark of so many of their traditional world views?  It goes without saying that this is now nothing but speculation.  Still, my own fantasy, or maybe it’s just my hope, is that they would have found some un-Europeanized way of evolving into the world of the 21st century, which would have honored, or at least not destroyed, so much of the natural world, as we modern Euro-Americans have done. 

On a related topic, I read in another place, too, not long ago that one of the curious, or disastrous, things (depending on your point of view) about human evolution is that it all happened with such lightening speed.  By way of contrast, the various species of ants, that other great social creature, evolved slowly over multiple millions of years.  As such, other species evolved along with the ants, and were able to find ways of coping with the immense strength they displayed, given their ability to organize and to get uncountable numbers of individuals to act as a single unit.  It was for this reason that ants never took over entire ecosystems, precisely because others found ways of defending themselves, and eventually of living in a kind of balanced harmony with them and their unique power.  Not so for human beings.  Only some 250, 000 years ago we were still climbing in trees and doing what we could to escape ground-based predators.  Then, about that time, we began to think about evolving into what we have become today.  But 250,000 years is the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms; less than that in geological ways of thinking.  Imagine, then, the surprise and alarm of all the other species of life on earth when these “very smart monkeys” (as Stephen Hawking has called us) began rapidly taking everything over.  Now, today, there are seven billion of us and counting, and we have infiltrated every conceivable corner of the planet, no matter how remote or inhospitable. 

Would Indians have done a better job of it, had they been able to make a go of things on their own in North and South America, minus the meddling and the decimation of European powers?  Unfortunately, we will never know the answer to that question.   What we do know, and I don’t see how anyone can question this, is that generally speaking we modern humans of the 21st century haven’t done such a bang up job of it.  Yes, of course, there are a lot of things we have done are right, including advances in modern medicine, and the ever-increasing ability of more and more peoples of the globe to choose their own governments.  Still, billions live in poverty, and we continue to make babies at a rate which the world ultimately cannot possibly sustain.  In the meantime, we are destroying the very planet on which we live, with all of its beauty, mystery, and power.  And yet our religions urge us to make yet more babies, merely because someone in a book compiled long ago told an ancient herding people that it was best to increase and multiply.  It may have made sense to them at that time, but who can argue that it makes any real sense for us today?

Humans are smart, but not always wise.  We are inquisitive, but not always respectful.  We are strong, but do not always know how to use and temper the strength that we have.  I suppose it’s possible that Indians might have messed things up royally, as well, had they been given half a chance.  After all, not so long ago the Aztecs were using obsidian knives to rip the still beating hearts out of captured enemies as a sacrifice to the gods, all because these same gods required blood in order to renew and replenish the earth.  Surely, that does not bode well for any people.  But then the Europeans, too, and soon the Americans, were enslaving whole other groups of people, not to appease the gods, but in order to slake their thirst for power and their insatiable greed for “things.”  Neither does this bode particularly well for a people. 

Our all-too-rapid evolution has been equally miraculous and disastrous, both for ourselves and for the world around us.  Will we be able to overcome what my friend and co-blog author, Kevin, calls our technological adolescence?  That very much remains to be seen. 

For the moment, at least, there are still many things we can learn from the Blackfeet, and from many peoples, which could make a difference.  But that will depend on whether or not we are able to overcome our immense hubris and our absolute surety that we are always right.  How humans ever got that trait is something of a mystery to me, but I guess it must have somehow been evolutionarily useful.  Let is hope we can overcome the limitations of that very evolution, or maybe it’s more like evolving even more quickly than we have in the past, in order to become a species that is both smarter and more humble.  If we don’t, may the Sun, the Moon, and all the gods help us, and may we – and the earth – be spared the consequences of our own foolishness, and the pride that comes before the fall.


Dear Kevin,

I loved the letter you wrote about your recent weekend combination of ArtWalk and “Connect the Dots” event, designed to help raise people’s consciousness about global warming and its effects on life on earth.  It’s a very serious topic — what could be more serious? — but at the same time, if it is only approached from the point of view of super-seriousness, then people are easily turned off.  It is, in fact, by definition almost an overwhelming topic, one that’s both crushing and devastating. 

All that to say I thought your were right to inject a “clown person” into the mix.  The whole idea of clowns is, in fact, an interesting topic in itself.  It makes me think, for example, of the many ways that traditional American Indians incorporated clowns into some of their most sacred ceremonials.  I think that when non-Indians first saw this they were shocked and put off, even a little appalled.  The Western idea of the sacred seems to have no room for any kind of levity in it.  Which is odd, isn’t it?  I mean, who says that God has no sense of humor?  Anyway, I was surprised myself, I have to admit, when I first came to understand that clowns were an integral part of some of the most sacred AmerIndian ceremonials.  I wondered for a while why that might be.  Finally, it began to dawn on me that there were lots of reasons, and no doubt I only understand some of them. 

One of the things that occurred to me has to do with what I think of just as a lightening of the mood.  The “sacred” sounds awfully serious, and I suppose in a way it is.  Some people even find it frightening, especially when dance and masks are involved, and the playing of the drum, that mimicking of the heartbeat in all of us.  But people feel a bit of a load taken from their shoulders when the clowns arrive and they start making fun of everything — of themselves, of the people standing around watching, and even of the very ceremonials they’re part of.  They seem to have this ability to speak to people at some very basic, almost pre-cognitive level, and to say that it’s alright, it’s a good thing, to laugh in the face of that which is most serious, in the face of danger, maybe even in the face of death itself.  This, in turn, reminds me too of your wonderful painting “Leonard Says That Some Things in Life Are Serious, But Everything Is Funny,” which you included a photo of attached to your letter.

One of the other roles that clowns take on in some of these ceremonials is to, in a sense, turn things upside down.  If the ceremony takes place in the summer, they might appear in full winter gear; and if it’s freezing out, they’ll dance around in very little clothing, complaining to everyone around about how hot it is.  It always seemed to me that this has something to do with realizing that our expectations about how things are, or how they should be, are so often not necessarily the case.  In other words, for example, you can pray to all the gods for an answer about some question or problem, and you will get an answer, but that answer may be very different from what you thought it would or should be.  It’s a way of getting out of our head and into some other place that is open to the unexpected and the magical.  It’s a way of saying: “Surprise me!  I want to laugh and to wonder.  I want to be amazed!” 

Your clown persona incorporated all of these things, I think, and a bunch more that I’m not clever enough to understand.  But it seemed to me that you played the “adult-child” in order to contribute to the opening of  people’s hearts (not just their minds) in a way that was funny and enjoyable.  I saw people laughing in the photos, and it’s good to laugh.  Even when things are serious.  Especially when things are serious.

So, congratulations to “Pretty Pretty Snowflake” on his clowning about matters that matter. In the realm of ritual and mythology, you come from a long, long line of such clown people.  As Leonard wisely said to us many years ago, somethings really are very serious, but in the end everything’s pretty damed funny.