Volume 3, No. 6: May 21, 2006

On Telling Big Stories in Small Spaces

By Michael Bouman

For several years I have pondered the challenge of representing "my people."  We Americans offer this challenge routinely to visiting strangers from some other place on the globe.  We invite people from Islamic countries to give an informative lecture on Islam to an audience of people who may have formed an idea that their religion is a "national threat" of some kind.  I don't know how they do it.

I met a Muslim woman doctor from Egypt at a Rotary Club meeting one December in a suburb of St. Louis.  As Program Chairman, she had invited me to speak.  During introductory remarks to the club, she promoted a new U.S. postage stamp commemorating Ramadan.  I borrowed her sheet of stamps and began my own talk by making reference to the Arabic writing and the Islamic design on the stamp.  I said, "this is an image of US.  We live in neighborhoods where our neighbors may observe different religions than we do, may remember different political cultures.  I am glad to live in a nation that can accept difference and commemorate distinct systems of belief and hope within our national fabric."

The Egyptian Muslim woman doctor, fortunately for her, did not have to explain herself in the 15 minutes I was allotted, nor did I, a third-generation Midwest-derived, liberalnortheast-influenced, Christian-raised whiteguy horticulturist essayist executive singer. 

I wondered, "If by crazy chance, the Rotary club in Cairo, Egypt, invited me to speak to them for 15 minutes about my people, how would I do it?"  I would surely be influenced by what I imagined they imagined about "America." 

These nested efforts of imagination can be endless.  Should I defend against the supposition that we all believe in squandering natural resources while dictating human rights doctrines to everybody but ourselves?  Should I defend against the supposition that the mall is our church, that good will and gasoline are the things we most love to waste, and that we worship the god of pleasure?  Probably I should not defend against what I supposed. I should not build a speech on the theme of, "we're really not as bad as you've heard!"   I should assert in simple terms what makes America tick. 

At that point in my thought experiment I became so weary of imagining what I would say about America in Egypt in 15 minutes that I gave up the effort.

Something like that challenge was presented to Sandra Massey when I invited her to work with Greg Olson and Fred Fausz to find a way to introduce something as large and complex as a Sac and Fox "way of life" to people who were strangers to that way, couldn't imagine its existence, and might spend 15 minutes, at most, taking in the exhibit she would curate. 

We had to set some overall goals in order to get into such a deep subject as a "way of life."  We hoped to present information that would do more than show that the Sac and Fox people exist in the present and are not one-dimensional, "quaint" cut-outs locked in the historical past.  We hoped to present some kernel of information that could represent the huge collection of ideas and meanings that express the sacramental basis of the traditional Sac and Fox way of life.

If you turned the tables on this subject and made me (the Christian-raised whiteguy American) the exotic minority, and you asked me to explain my way of life to a majority culture who knew my people only through foggy, nostalgic stereotypes, what would I say to you?  I don't know if I would quote "all men are created equal" and begin with the Enlightenment, or if I would go back to Magna Carta for a theory of justice, or if I would go instead to a simple story that expresses a religious ideal in terms of everyday life. 

I would want you to see that I do live an everyday life, despite my deep, deep roots in ancient ideas and ceremonies, and despite my proximity to shopping cathedrals (malls), gas stations, and cathedrals of fantasy (casinos).  I would want you to know that my everyday life is branded by some quality you can't see in my environment or my habit of travel, dress, or leisure. 

Unlike the many museum portrayals of "pre-Contact" Indians (because they are "noble" only as "savages?"), I think I would not want to represent myself in terms of my Visigoth ancestors, if that's what they were, or my Druid-Celtic ancestors, or even in terms of desert-dwelling nomad Tribes of Israel, who are the ancestors of part of my religious tradition, nor in terms of everyday Greeks of two thousand years ago, whose religious heritage is curiously woven into my own.  This "exhibit on Michael-the-American" has so many complex roots in the ancient past!  There isn't even room for the sturdy farmers of East Friesland and their influences on me!

I think if I were trying to explain "my people" to strangers, I would begin with the "cosmology" or spiritual life that I bring to my inherited notions of right conduct in civil society in the United States.  Even that thread of identity is very thick and is woven of many strands, some not shared by other "Christian-raised whiteguy Americans."  Maybe this imaginary exhibit would have a single story, one that I think contains the kernel of truth about the cosmology I have absorbed, interpreted, and decided to try to live.  It is one of several stories I might tell, but since this exhibit is small, I only have room for one.  So my imaginary exhibit about "my people" will tell a story we know as "The Good Samaritan."  

Like much of my religious tradition, this story exemplifies a universal code of right attitude, and it is typical in assigning the ideal behavior to a person who the hearer of the story would think the least likely actor in a tale of virtue.  It places the "heart of gold" inside a nobody, an alien, a piece of trash.

My imaginary exhibit about Christian-raised whiteguy Americans would use a story to explain the idea of seeing not just the humanity of the other guy, but godly energy in the other guy.  In a small, introductory exhibit, I don't think I would choose to tell any of the myths or legends that have also been handed down in a packaged way by my religious and civic culture. 

I might try though; all people created equal....inalienable rights.  These are powerful beacons through the fog of time and the tyrannies of the majority.  Church and State intersect in the doctrine of human rights.  The right of the human being to respect and care, simply because of being human, is the foundation of the Good Samaritan story and it is the foundation of our civic human rights doctrine.   

My civic identity seems like a garment I never wear without my religious identity.  "I" simply do not exist apart from my most important meanings.  I suspect "you" are that way, too.  We can learn to respect and know that about each other without going so far as to try to convert each other or each other's children to our views; or so I say.  You may not say that.  Our differences add richness to our experience as citizens and require no small amount of effort to bridge the waters that become troubled from time to time.

When some quantity of meanings are shared, there arises a "we" and a "We The People."  That is what has interested me so about working with Sandra Massey on her daunting assignment of introducing "my people" in a short space.

At some point during many, many hours of conversations with Sandra Massey about the Sac and Fox, I realized that "her people" are not distinguished from "my people," as I thought they were, by a way of life in which sacred ideas infuse everyday behavior.  Nor are "her people" distinguished by a connection with ancient peoples and beliefs.  "My people" have that, too. 

When I participate in any sacrament at my church, I am ritualizing a very old meaning and bringing that meaning into my present.  I am not entering the past or an antiquated way of thinking about people and deities.  A church is not a historical society, an attic full of stuff that's of no use any more.  I don't say "old words" there because they are antique and therefore "charming."  When I say them, I form a meaning and intent for them in my present. 

A ritual is a bridge connecting me to the ancestors behind me and the "communion of saints"who are not just out ahead of my earthly existence, but all around me in the present.  My religious journey has broken up the arrow of time and warped it around on itself into something ever-in-the-present that I can only hope you understand when I call it "eternity."  I am not waiting for entry into "eternity;" I am already in it.  That is my cosmology today.  I don't expect or hope that you'll adopt it.  I just want to make it available to your intelligence, because we are part of "We."

The more I learned about Sandra Massey's way of life, the more parallels I saw with my own heritage and way of life.  Which is to say, there is a sense of "we" that is not just related to our shared citizenship and participation in mainstream U.S. culture.  There is a "we" that is related to finding a sightline through that veil of mystification and nostalgia that seems to attach to mainstream notions of Native American people.

One day I asked Sandra about her sacramental use of tobacco as an offering.  She and Greg Olson and I talked about possibly making a single plant the focus of the Sac and Fox exhibit, using it as an illustration of a system of meanings that is larger than one plant.  Sandra then told us something else, involving cedar smoke, and we asked about that.  An hour passed and we got well into another.  Sandra thought of sharing a Sac and Fox story with us.  Like "The Good Samaritan," it's a story that explains a central attitude of an entire way of life.  Greg and I were spellbound.  It was a story that led toward other kinds of knowledge.  It opened wide doors.

You will see this story -- the product of a tribal oral history by Francis (Chibe) Scott and Grover Foster, edited by Sandra Massey and her mother, Henrietta Massey -- in the Sac and Fox exhibit.  The story is beautiful; Greg's design and use of colors is beautiful; the photographs are evocative not only of a love of the homeland, but of all creatures and things within it.  It is truly a labor of love. 

The Sac and Fox are not distinguished by the capacity for reverence.  But their reverence, and its roots in stories, is distinguished from mine, which is why we make the effort to break through to the knowledge layer that lies beyond the stereotypes.  That's why we work at understanding our neighbor's fabric of heritage and belief.  It's where "nation-building" has to start, right here, between you and me.