Dr. Dawg


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sweat lodge.jpg

For those who think that the word “culture” applies to something pure and “authentic,” I found this account of the destruction of a sweat lodge in the Cree village of Oujé-Bougoumou, Quebec, wonderfully destabilizing. There’s a little anthropology lesson here for us all.

Briefly, a Cree man named Redfern Mianscum built a sweat lodge in a friend’s backyard. The younger generation in the village were becoming interested in traditional Native healing and spiritual practices.

Whoops! Wrong tradition:

A petition demanding its removal was started by opponents, who eventually collected about 130 signatures. Then the band council passed a resolution ordering it dismantled, invoking the Cree nation’s right to self-determination.

“The community was founded by Christian faith and values of our elders and past leadership,” the resolution reads. “The members of the Cree Nation of Oujé-Bougoumou hereby declare that the sweat lodge along with any form of native spirituality practices and events such as pow-wows, rain dances, etc., do not conform with the traditional values and teachings of our elders.” [emphasis added]

A mob turned up to reinforce the message, trashing the structure. “The place where people gather” is now a place where “traditions,” always reinvented and re-purposed, are brought into open conflict in a perhaps surprising inversion.

“I wanted to help my people, especially youth,” Mr. Mianscum said. “I wanted them to know what native spirituality is. It makes people strong, and gives them a sense of their identity. We’ve lost so much.”

The key word here is “identity.” On closer inspection, that concept simply melts away. If Native tradition is now Christian, while revived Native spiritual practices are considered by a Cree village to be an unwelcome imposition, “identity” seems rather protean, to put it mildly.

Just to add to that churning mix, an Anglican priest has written to the band council in support of the sweat lodge. The divisiveness has caused him considerable concern:

“I’m deeply saddened by this,” he said over the phone from his parish. With the problems facing the community, “people have to be united and working together and respecting one another’s differences. … If everyone was working together, they wouldn’t be tearing down sweat lodges.”

The fact is that differing values, beliefs, metaphors, memories, historical and religious accounts, have all come together like a smorgasbord, haphazardly and contingently. There is no fixed “identity” to be recovered, and obviously no fixed “tradition.” People just take what they require, making the choices they will.

“There’s no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher once famously said, and most of us on the left winced—although, in a strictly anti-essentialist sense, she was right. I find myself in the anthropological camp that holds that there’s no such thing as “culture,” except in the generic sense. And the foregoing, it seems to me, is really all of the evidence we need.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on June 18, 2011 11:06 AM.

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