Category Archives: spirituality

Endangered Species Vs Cultural Tradition

Our world is in trouble in a lot of ways and anyone, whether an individual or a government, who denies this is practicing the head in the sand technique. Overfishing has caused the closing of fisheries in numerous countries, caribou herds are threatened, whales are on the endangered list , rhinos and tigers and other large land mammals are in danger of extinction. The list of endangered or near extinct fauna is extensive. Not all are hunted by humans for food or trophyism but the ones that are hunted/farmed/fished for food run into more conflict.

There are the people who make their livelihoods/their jobs from hunting a particular land or marine animal. When they are told they can’t do this anymore they are rightfully upset, scared of a future that is uncertain at best. Then there are native peoples of the lands, whether they’re Native Americans/First Nations, Danes, Laplanders, or Fiji Islanders (to name a few), they all have centuries of traditions and customs.

In many pre-industrial societies, food was a focus of stability. Towns and cities were often built on fertile land near water sources. Herds of animals were domesticated or hunted near villages. Customs, rituals and spiritual rites took place around food and the creatures that sustained the life of a people. These were so ingrained that you cannot separate an animal from the ritual. Initiatory rites as well as rituals for sustenance and good hunting were common.

But time is time, and everything changes through time. The land shifts, erodes and buckles. Species ebb and flow with the changing seasons and shift in climates, and from natural disasters. Although a species can hunt another to extinction, especially if it’s transplanted from its natural habitat, it’s not common. Only homo sapiens have been so resilient, adaptive and creative to live anywhere and hunt what they need. In most ecosystems if the predator overhunts the prey, the predators flourish but then there is not enough prey and the predators die back, maintaining a natural balance.

Only the human species has been able to circumvent this natural balance, bringing technology to bear on the environment to the point of detriment for every living thing including people. And so we have species all over the world that are endangered, protected or becoming extinct and yes, there are many species becoming memories only. Then we have traditional cultures saying, “We have always done this. It’s part of our traditions. It’s you people who disturbed the balance, not us.”

Governments are trying to protect dwindling resources so there will be something to hunt in the future and have placed restrictions and moratoria on different species. Sometimes only a certain quota is allowed to be taken and then there is more conflict. As in the missing salmon this year on the Pacific coast. There was nothing to fish. If anyone, Native or other fisherman wanted to take the fish because it was their right, if would diminish a chance for that species to survive. And now we have Innu hunters shooting caribou in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The thing is, it is their right to do so and have some protection based on ancestral tradition. That’s fine, but conservation officials say that a particular type of caribou, the Red Wine, have moved in amongst the other more prolific herd. There is supposed to be less than 100 of the Red Wine caribou left and they’re protected. The interesting thing is that five years ago Grand Chief Penashue  said about hunters in the protected preserver, “The hunt in the Red Wine caribou range was not just an illegal protest, it was completely inconsistent with Innu values. … Putting a threatened caribou herd at further risk can never be justified on the basis of aboriginal rights.”

Yet today this same chief is supporting the hunting of the caribou because statistically fewer would be hit compared to the George River herd. Seems those ancestral Innu values have changed. So it’s only good to assert traditional rights when it suits you and because the ministry or the government aren’t working with you, it’s now all right to hunt endangered species?

What is not right is asserting traditional and cultural rights over species that are endangered. To do so is pure stupidity because there will be nothing to fight over or use in traditional ways in a very near future. This is the biggest problem when various cultures try to assert their rights because it’s always been done this way. And where do we draw the timeline if someone says, we’ve done it this way for a hundred years, a thousand years, or whatever. Just because one’s ancestors did it doesn’t mean we can continue to do it, whatever it may be. The world has changed and denying that does no good.

I support the right of people to keep their traditions (that’s all those unique cultures all over the world) but not at the expense of losing endangered species or in subjugating other people. Our ancestors did all sorts of things, including using outhouses, killing and beating people and eating foods we wouldn’t touch. They lived without central heating, they sewed everything by hand and only the richest (or the military) might have gone more than a hundred miles from their local village. Life was constant hard work. We cannot always say, because my people once did it I have the right to do it now. We have to be reasonable and holding a species as hostage to get your way is the same as saying well you won’t listen to me so I’ll just beat this kid until I get my way. They’re both innocent (caribou or child) and some healthy reasoning should come in to play as opposed to punishing/speeding the extinction of the species. In this case the Innu should be ashamed of themselves because even killing one more of an endangered herd lessens its chance for viability and recovery.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/labrador-innu-break-hunting-ban-kill-64-caribou/article1370834/

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Honoring the Dead: All Hallows

It is the end of October, Hallowe’en, All Hallows Evening or Samhain (pronounced sow-ain). In Celtic and early European traditions Samhain was the ending of the year, the harvest had been collected and the cold dark days began. Fears that the light wouldn’t return and that nocturnal and supernatural creatures came into the fore of most people’s thoughts. It was the time of the dead, when the veils between the worlds thinned. Those who had died the previous year crossed over and those who were dead could come through to haunt or visit their kin.

As Christianity worked its way through Europe the day came to be known as All Hallows Eve, and that which was hallow, meaning holy or to be revered, was honored. Christianity brought in All Saints Day, following on November 1st. Mexico combined their traditions into Dias de los Muertos, the day of the dead. Throughout many countries, but not necessarily at this date but often in this time of year, is the tradition of honoring the dead. Even Remembrance Day falls in the dark time (if placed on that date for different reason).

And so it is, with this dark and cold time I have found I’ve been thinking about people who I’ve known who have died. Unfortunately the list gets longer but we keep them alive through memory and love.

There was John “Bear” Curtis, part Cherokee, 6’7″, an actor, known as being a grumpy bear, but lover of art, generous and spiritual. He was a pipe carrier, had completed the sundance, and created various crafts from amazingly detailed collages to sculptures, drums and rattles. Bear was, in size and personality, larger than life. His strong spirit kept him going for over a year, after the unhygienic procedures of the hospital infected him with C-Deficil. I honor Bear for having touched my life and given beauty to the world.

I remember Lydia Langstaff, a young writer, born with a congenital heart defect and not expected to make it past infancy. White-skinned, blue-veined, as delicate as porcelain, Lydia never complained that she could never fly or even take a flight of stairs. She wrote and persevered and finished a first draft of her novel before she died at 28 in her husband’s arms. I still have the draft of her novel, and cannot find husband or family, afraid to throw it out and not sure what to do with it many years later. I honor Lydia and it was she who taught to use each day as best you can, even if I don’t always fulfill that.

I remember Jay Herrington, a bright star, a beautiful man, a powerful priest. Intelligent and gifted, he made amazing crafts and was just beginning to find his pace. He was witty and funny and did an amazing drag queen, High Joan the Conqueror. He died in a vehicle malfunction and never woke from his injuries. I honor Jay for bringing light and reverence into my life.

I remember Gerry Stevens, opinionated, strong minded, honorable and loving life. He battled cancer quite well, living longer than most. Gerry was a compulsive gadget fiddler, taking things apart and putting them together, to see how they worked, to figure out new ways to make things. A thinker, he created and changed and stayed involved. Gerry died with his boots on, staying strong till the end and saying, if it’s not fun, don’t do it. I honor Gerry for teaching something about dying with grace.

I remember Geoffery MacLean, Mischka and Berek Ravensfury who all left too soon from disease, car accidents and mental anguish. None of them were perfect men, full of complex contradiction. But all of them were impassioned, caring about people. I honor these three for seeing that heart mattered most of all.

David Honigsberg I only met a couple times. He and his wife Alexandra were vibrant, intelligent, creative, alive. They struck me as two people who lived very rich lives and only enhanced the bright flame within each other. David died suddenly of a heart attack and I was shocked, thinking someone so alive could leave so suddenly. Jenna Felice was a young editor at Tor, a firebrand not afraid to state her opinion or grab at what she wanted. She was another bright star on her way to greater heights when she died from an asthma attack. It saddened me greatly to see such a flame extinguished so soon. I honor Jenna and David for their fire and fervor.

There are more, ones I knew well, or barely knew. There are those people I never knew at all. There is my cat Figment, who was unique, maybe as all cats and people are. Intelligent, skittish, loving, playful, mischievous, I still miss him. I honor him for the unconditional love and company he gave me for 14 years.

All those who touch us, great or small, young or old, furred or flesh become part of our lives. They may not be famous but they matter to others, are loved and love. Immortality happens in memory, in honoring those who have move through the path of our lives. This is the time that the veil thins, as those who have gone beyond pass through our memories. Honor your ancestors, your loved ones, your acquaintances for we are all part of the great whole.

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Movie Review: 9

Recovering from Thanksgiving meant that one day I did a lot of sleeping. I also went and saw the movie 9 playing in the local Dolphin Theatres, a 2-cinema venue that has no center section of seats but just right and left…oh, and no heat, but it’s cheaper and close. I had seen a trailer for this animation and Tim Burton’s name was involved so I thought it would be good. Of course, ole Tim hasn’t batted 100. I tried to watch James and the Giant Peach (have and love the book) but I just kept falling asleep. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an unfortunate timing with the child abuse lawsuits against Michael Jackson, and Sweeney Todd was just slow.

So Tim can get it and then miss. But one thing is for sure, his eccentric sense of imagery and pacing often add an otherworldliness to his films. Of course he does like to choose the quirky topics. So 9 is not the first animation that Burton has been involved with, though here he is only the producer along with Timur Bekmambetov. Shane Acker is the writer (screenplay by Pamela Pettler) and it is based on a short animation Oscar nominated in 2005.

The movie opens right away with a hand stitching together a puppet/mannequin. There are no credits, no film title (though there might have been and somehow I missed it in the subtlety). It just begins so the voices of each character aren’t really discernible as a particular actor. At the end you find out the voices of each doll being was played by well-known actors: Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Fred Tatasciore (the least known but then the character 8 is an overlarge, thuggish brute who speaks little). I wonder if  Hollywood’s penchant for using famous names in animations actually pays off. I could care less if the voice is Johnny Depp or Joe Blow as long as it suits the character.

So the movie opens with 9 being made and coming alive, a little stitched doll, with humanlike movement, intelligence and expression. He discovers a world destroyed by the vagaries of war and any human shown, the scientist who made him and a dead girl in a car, have no rot. In fact the humans have become inanimate, while the constructs have become animated. Those are really the only people in the film, whether dead or alive, except for some film flashbacks.

The cause of the “presumably” worldwide devastation was a war run by a dictator and a scientist’s wondrous invention that was taken from his control. That there is a close similarity to Hitler’s Third Reich and the inventions of J. Robert Oppenheimer (considered father of the atomic bomb) and the fears of Einstein is no coincidence. Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Vita back in his day: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Interestingly the actor who plays the scientist’s voice also has the name of Alan Oppenheimer.

The second world war is in fact iconic and symbolic to anyone born in the 21st or 20th century, so it is only natural that it is the template for wars in any movies that aren’t specifically historical. The time is hard to tell because there are advanced technologies (the thinking Fabrication Machine that can build and create new machines) to old phonographs. I would presume the creators wanted to keep it iconic and timeless on purpose. The tale is one of daring and fear, of curiosity and power. 9 worsens the situation but then tries to right his wrongs, at great cost to everyone.

The characters all have male voices except for the bold and fearless 7, played by Jennifer Connelly, but it’s hard to discern a sex per se of dolls that are sewn and sexless. They have no way of reproduction and they have no genitalia. Yet there is definitely the hint of a friendship/love forming between 7 and 9. Which is probably what puzzles me most about this world. The scientist created them. They are the essence of humanity but they have no way of bringing more life to the world, or do they? The ending gives a hint of change.

The story itself is not really new in plot but presented refreshingly enough. 9 can assuage his guilt of the others losing their lives by redeeming their souls. As many tales are, it is a tale of redemption and of good or the just conquering evil. Overall, I found 9 well done; the animation and the textures of each fabric made doll, the shine of broken statues, the dinginess of bombed out buildings adds to the complexity of the scenes. Yes it still looks animated and the humans look least real of all but then it would have been hard to do otherwise.

Technology starts out as a bad thing here, which we often see in mediocre science fiction but it is presented fairly, showing the good aspects (the dolls) and that people, not science can warp machines. Though in truth the machines are imbued with a life and intelligence that makes them sinister and vindictive. The movie was enjoyable and tense at times in evading mechanized monsters. I’d give it a 7 out of 10.

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Bog People and Mummies

I’ve been fascinated with mummies since I was about nine. These husks of a former life, reamed, cleaned and packed were then embalmed, smeared with unguents, wrapped in yards of cotton and placed in several sarcophagi. They were sent well prepared into the next life with canopic jars for all the important organs, gold and jewels and food. What a amazing world. And some of those mummies, richer in death than you or I could be in life, continued to grow nails or hair.

Is it any wonder that these bodies, preserved for millennia, fostered a whole host of reanimated mummy movies? Disturb the grave, steal from the dead and they will come back to exact their curse upon your person. And they, like zombies, will be powerful, single-minded and unstoppable. There was a more romantic mummy in Anne Rice’s The Mummy but on whole they are unnatural forces of death or evil that try to destroy the powers of life.

It is that sense of disturbing the dead that spawned so many mummy movies, which is also the heart and soul of many belief systems. Most spiritual paths indicate that there is a transmigration of the soul at the time of death, that in fact we leave the corporeal vessel that can serve us no longer and that our ethereal, quintessential selves move on to another state of being. Whether that is heaven, reincarnation, or a great unknown depends on the belief.

So it is interesting that in all these belief systems, which of course have funerary customs for the dead, that there is sometimes more concern placed on the decaying corporeal remains than on the soul’s departing. Many people agree that the soul is what matters, that that person no longer inhabits the fleshy shell, so then why do we place so much emotion into something that no longer resembles the person we knew?

We see this over and over again, where someone was cremated but the family received the wrong ashes. That a nation’s people died maybe a century ago and for whatever reason the remains are in another country (or museum) and great efforts are made to get those people back. But it’s not a person any longer; what defines “person” is gone. It’s as if we all live a two-faced belief, one where we agree the soul is what matters and the other in which we cannot let the material aspects go, no matter whether they’re rotted, embalmed, ashes or missing.

Does the respect and superstition for the remnants of the dead extend only as long as there is someone who cares? Most likely, yes. It may be family or friends, or in some cases a nation asking for a great hero, artist or politician’s body to be returned. It might be an ancestral thing or something to do with spirituality. But how far back should such a re-appropriation of remains go? Should the primitive man found in an iceflow before there were nations be claimed by one? Should he be buried with dignity? Should he be used in research? Which religion presides over his burial (or cremation) when none existed when he was alive?

Sometimes such requests for very ancient remains have little to do with sentiment and emotion. Sometimes they are levers for politics whether to further a nation’s claim or to purport ongoing indiginities. (No one has said a thing about the two dried out husks that reside in the curio shop on the wharves of Seattle.) It’s hard to say what is right when you think of the millions (maybe billions) of dead over millions of years (yes, humans have been roaming the earth for a very long time). Not everyone is claimed or cared about and really, we’re talking about a husk of old flesh here. Don’t get me wrong. I live this conundrum too, believing that which made the person human and real dissipates at death.Yet I have a reliquary necklace with some ashes of a dead friend in it, even though I know that his soul does not reside there.

Which brings me from mummies to bog people. Bogs have a unique chemical balance that preserves organic materials far better than anything else. People who have died in bogs turn leathery, whereas most bodies will decay to just the bones. Even their fingerprints are noticeable, as well as the foods in their stomachs and intestines still being discernible. Clothing decays fast under most conditions but the bogs preserve fabrics indicating that these early peoples wore leather and woven wool. All of these things can tell us how people lived, what level their culture was at, what techniques they had and how they died.

Denmark has some of the most interesting historical bogs where clothing and bodies have been found. As well, the Netherlands, England and other places in northern Europe have bogs that hold snippets of history. A few years ago (2004) the Glenbow Museum in Calgary exhibited “The Mysterious Bog People.” I had a chance to see it where the lighting was low, but bright enough on the bodies. There were displays of jewellery and tools and reconstructed fabric from the original finds. Also, there were reconstructions of the heads of some of the bodies. The exhibit talked about where they’d been found, when they had lived, how old they were and what had probably happened to each person.

As with most bog finds, many people died violent deaths, stabbed or strangled or possibly drowned. It may be that they were robbed or that they were sacrificed in various rituals. In most cases their lives were cut short in a brutal and sudden way. After I saw the exhibit and mentioned it to someone she asked if it was right because it didn’t show respect for the dead. I found this odd as I knew her belief was the same as many people’s, that the soul leaves the body and the body nourishes the earth in an endless cycle. So I said, in fact they had gained more respect than they had in death, lying in a bog. They died a brutal death and were forgotten. Here they were remembered and we learned something of who they might have been. And that the exhibit as a whole wasn’t a spectacle so much as educational and even reverent in treating the people of long ago.

It is an interesting conundrum we have in many aspects of our lives. We know that it is love and relationships that matter most. Yet we continually grab and procure more goods. Many of us believe the soul leaves the body and that part is the person, yet we hang on to the rotting remains. I’m not sure why we do this, if perhaps we need something tangible to trigger our memories and sentiments, but it is an intriguing aspect of human customs. And it is through funerary customs that anthropologists can chart when civilization began.

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Losing My Religion

My mother would probably have been raised Catholic, had her mother not died when she was four. Being of Italian parentage, it’s the default religion. I’m not even sure if my mother went to church regularly. Her stepmother wasn’t supportive and kept her and her sister outside till ten at night.

By the time I came along, third in the family with a six-year gap, my mother didn’t even bother getting me or my younger brother baptized. I seem to recall a few sessions in some church when I was young but I might have mixed that up with other things. I do know that when the teacher would ask us in class what we did in Sunday school I had a secret shame, because I did not go. I was different.

I did seem to have a spiritual bent because when I was about five my turtle died. I remember having a funeral, carrying the turtle in its little box down the steps in the back yard. A couple of little friends were lined up behind me. Then I buried the turtle against the side of the house but worried that it wasn’t protected. So I placed colored stones in a semicircle around its grave, butting up against the wall of the house.

Then my older brother turned Mormon from when he was around 16-18. (He got baptized twice because they slipped and dipped him a second time. We always joked that his soul needed extra cleansing.) My mother let us be taken to Mormon Sunday school, I think mostly to get us out of her hair for a couple of hours and give her a break. Strangely, I remember nothing of Sunday school so I don’t think we went for very long. My mother would roast the Mormon missionaries that were assigned the Anderson household, asking them why they had no black people in their inner temple (the one in Salt Lake City), why only the rich could go, etc. They must have drawn the short straw to see who would have to visit my mother.

My mother certainly didn’t attend church and she tended to read a lot of Edgar Cayce (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Cayce) books when I was young. I read or flipped through a few in my teens and Wiki says he was probably the forefather of the New Age movement. He does seem to be a kind of modern oracle who tried to ease people’s physical suffering.

As a teenager, I went with my mother to a few Spiritualist Church events. They sang hymns, which I didn’t like, but then would do palm or psychometry readings, or aura readings. A little bit of free fun. I was never convinced in what I was told though. I also felt no inclination to follow this path. I remember attending one friends communion around when I was 16. I felt intensely uncomfortable, being unfamiliar with churches and especially Catholic rites. After that I tended to avoid churches because I felt uncomfortable with them and unfamiliar in them.

I did continue to explore and think of spiritual and metaphysical matters throughout my teens. At one point my mother attended an experiment being done through the University of Calgary on psychic energy. In one room they had one of those bulbs that have the light sensitive vanes inside. The bulb was in a darkened room and in another room sat a person trying to move the vanes with psychic energy. I have no idea what the results of the experiment were, but my mother met several people intrigued with this aspect.

I would go with her to these meetings at one person’s house where we would try spoon bending, psychic impressions, psychometry, aura reading, etc. It wasn’t religious or spiritual, just exploring psychic phenomenon. There was one guy when we tried reading each other’s minds where it seemed he was trying to manipulate. Interestingly enough, on the drive home my mother had also got strange feelings about the guy.

Eventually the group dissipated, my mother stopped going and the group sort of reformed as a meditation group. I think we did start to get into some spiritual aspects as well. However, I left the group when it got down to Ouija board practice and asking the “spirits” and how to conduct day to day affairs. It got ridiculous and no one seemed to make a decision with their own brains, so off I went.

I moved to Vancouver, and continued my own explorations into spirituality but it didn’t involve churches at all. When I was 25 a young cat I had disappeared one night. I looked everywhere for her, put posters out, checked the SPCA. Nothing. So then I put out prayers, pleas, bargains, cajoling, threats to any deity that existed. And nothing.

At that point I gave up the last vestiges of being a Christian, and lost my religion. I also realized at that time that our North American culture is so permeated in Christian values that even if a person is agnostic they still are ruled by these values. It shapes our everyday affairs, how we conduct our marriages and families. It is in everything we do. At that point I claimed to no longer be even a token Christian and I also tossed out the belief that we’re guilty until proven innocent, as sits at the base of most Christian doctrines. Jesus didn’t die for my sins. He didn’t know me and in these tenets we’re all bad and flawed and tainted. I didn’t like being painted with guilt and so I wasn’t.

I became agnostic at that point, and believed in nothing (refused to believe in anything) for three years. After that the journey of discovery continued and does to this day, but that’s a tale for another time.

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Book Review: The Word of God

You might think this is a religious book and in a way it is. The Word of God, or Holy Writ Rewritten, by Thomas Disch, (Tachyon Publications, San Francisco, 2008) was written not so much as a refutation to other religions, but, as Disch puts it, to establish himself as a deity. He begins his book discussing that the only way to talk to many religions, especially the fundamental ones, is to argue on their own level and point out that he too is a god and what his religion looks like.

It is witty, scathing, funny, illuminating. In part this is an autobiography of Disch’s life, but as a pastiche, not as a whole. It is part philosophy and condemnation of many conservative religions, especially Christianity. Disch was raised a Catholic and was publicly gay and since this is his “holy writ” it of course talks of religion in many guises quite a bit.

The book is also a collection of some poems and short stories, interspersed to give examples of birth, afterlife, reincarnation and judgment: “The New Me,” “Room Service,” “The Second Coming of the Christ,” “A Man of Mystery” “A Ranch House on the Styx,” “The School for Traitors,” “On the Road” and “Deus Ex Machina” almost all string together (some continuations of the same story) and of course all do touch on religion and the events that came together to create Thomas Disch. He was the illegitimate child of Thomas Mann, the prolific German writer and Nobel prize winner, though you will not find this listed in either Disch’s or Mann’s Wiki entry (and his father is missing altogether in his entry).

Many of these stories have Philip K. Dick in them, as a sort of antiChrist and in hell. It’s hard to tell from this if Disch had always hated Dick (since he wrote a poetic eulogy for Dick, which is in the book) or if he only came to despise Dick’s right-wing, bigoted, perhaps drug-induced opinions later, when Dick reported Disch to the FBI as a subversive. What the outcome of Dick’s confabulations were is unclear.

Thomas Disch was known to the SF community and was nominated numerous times for awards (and won some), but he also wrote a great deal of poetry, criticisms and other works, and had earlier aspirations in architecture. The book starts out in the present, around Christmas of 2005 when he began to write it, and he finishes on February 2nd, his birthday. Disch lived with his long time partner, Charles Naylor who died in 2005. Disch himself suffered from several illnesses and had a string of personal setbacks, besides being depressed by his partner’s death.

He took his life in July, 2008, just months before Word of God was published. It is somewhat ironic to read his words in this book that proclaims his deity and see where he was at and where life took him to. This is not his last book as I believe a posthumous work will be published this year. I enjoyed Word of God and it gave me a new look at Disch, his mind and his life. I had read his works, On Wings of Song and The Priest which was pretty scathing to the Catholic church while at the same time being deftly written enough for you to care for the very corrupt priest.

And if nothing else, I’m very curious as to what went on between Philip K. Dick, a great experimenter of drugs, married five times, and Thomas Disch, an openly gay man, all those years ago. They were both brilliant writers and characters in their own ways. Here’s to the god Disch and his ascension to his own heaven. Word of God, definitely worth a read, informative and entertaining throughout.

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The Power of the Swastika

There is hardly anyone who doesn’t know what a swastika is, and, because 20th century Nazism understands the stigmatization of that symbol as it relates to hatred and racism. There are those who still support and believe in that particular symbolism, and are often called nationalist or neo-Nazi. The symbol is now so abhorred that Germany has outlawed it (along with a few other countries) and cringes as a nation every time it is seen. Games or other products in Germany can in no way display the swastika. They are a nation carrying great shame from Hitler’s crimes of the past.

So when someone of Western culture uses the sign, it is suspect ,and the person will be taken to be a neo-Nazi or white supremacist/nationalist as a woman in Winnipeg was seen to be. When her daughter inscribed a swastika on her arm, went to school and the teacher scrubbed it off, the mother decided to re-inscribe it the next day and send her daughter to school. Which resulted in social services taking away the two children. The couple began the fight to get their children back, citing freedom of political views.

As the case is beginning today, the mother, now separated from her partner, has softened her tone. Earlier interviews showed she was adamant about her beliefs and that the removal of her children had strengthened them. On CBC’s “The Current,” the woman stated that if she needed to change her beliefs to get her children back, she would. Perhaps her lawyers finally coached her that adamantly voicing her belief in her political beliefs damaged her chances of ever getting her children .

She also stated that she wasn’t a racist and believed only in white pride and going back to her Norse (she might have said Nordic) roots. That the swastika symbolized peace and love. But she also said she didn’t believe in interracial marriage. Umm, that’s racist or at least bigoted. Maybe not the big racism (you know, beating people and destroying their property) but it is still racist, as in you’re okay but I won’t mix with you because of the color of your skin.

Is there any truth to her claims of the swastika going back to her Norse roots? Yes. In fact, the swastika is pretty much a symbol once used universally throughout the world, just as the Greek key design was likewise used in Celtic lands and Mexico (and elsewhere I’m sure). There are conjectures of how and why the sign arose, from basket weaving designs to religious symbols, but the swastika and variations thereof is very old. It dates to neolithic and Bronze Age times. Some of the groups that used the swastika in one form or another were: Celtic, Germanic, Native American, Navajo, Hopi, Japanese, Baltic, Etruscan, Finnish, Hungarian, Polish, Tibetan, Indian, and Slavic. The meanings have varied but it could symbolize the sun, man, god, fire, majesty, power, good luck, wandering, etc.

The swastika can be a variant of the sun wheel or sun cross  (a cross in a circle), which is older than the Christian cross and can represent the four directions. It is also very prevalent throughout Hindu and Buddhist culture to this day and figures largely in Chinese, Tibetan, Indian and Japanese culture. Items have sometimes been shipped to Western countries with these symbols on them (which may mean vegetarian or be a good luck symbol), which has caused considerable consternation and protest at the cultural misunderstandings.

So, in essence, anyone in our culture knows what the historical connotations are and should you want to exhibit pride in your skin color there are probably many better ways to do it, unless in fact you are racist and believe white is better. This woman (who can’t be named for protection of her children’s identities) doesn’t really get my sympathy. But maybe her song is changing.

The thing I always find amusing was that Hitler picked a symbol used for centuries by many races of color. That it was also Germanic probably helped but this indicates his ignorance of the great scope of symbols and culture. He also wanted a pure “Aryan nation” (and I believe this woman may have been a member of the Aryan Guard). What Hitler didn’t know was that India would have been considered an Aryan nation because the way anthropologists interpret Aryan is through the root language. It’s linguistics not racial types. And really, people in India are of the Caucasian race (people of the Caucasus region) to begin with. Bet that would have had Hitler spinning like a top. I wonder what the modern Aryan nations and neo-Nazis and others who want “Aryan” supremacy think of that and I wonder if this woman would marry a Hindu from India, since basically he would just be a very tanned Caucasian.

But maybe the next time this woman sends her kids to school (if she ever gets them back, and whether social services can intervene in political views is another matter) maybe she’ll have a higher wattage bulb turned on and realize the swastika has negative symbolism in Western culture. Unless she proves she’s Buddhist or Hindu she’ll have to keep her views secret and raise her children to be happy, peace loving racists.

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The Rock of Cashel, Ireland

From  my fall 2007 trip to Ireland.
It’s a long way to Tipperary but if you go to Cashel, then you have in fact made it. Cashel (with the accent on the first syllable) was a lovely town (I’ve now officially lost track of the days). It’s small, a mix of medieval and modern and winds slowly up to the mound where the Rock of Cashel is. The castle was built at the highest point. It’s suffered some weather damage over the years from wind (parts blown down, such as the high cross and some crenellations) and rain. The castle is a sprawling place, containing several buildings, and cold. It was a windy enough day there but we could see from all sides, overlooking the town.
I didn’t do as well a job of editing these photos so there are a lot of pictures of fresco details and pillars.

The oldest part of Cashel is more than a thousand years old. We did the site tour , which had a very entertaining guy who gave great insights into the place’s very long history. Viewing over the cemetery, the distant hills show a dip. The tale goes that one day the devil was walking along, in a foul mood and took a big bite out of the hills. That dip is called the Devil’s Bite and when the devil spit out the chomp he took, it made the Rock of Cashel.
 
The oldest part was probably the tower as these are evident in all of the oldest monasteries (as lookouts for the Vikings). Then there was a smallish chapel, made I believe of limestone as that is the composition of the mount as well. The walls and ceiling had been painted in frescoes. Some of the design is still visible with red, blue, yellow and white colors. That was amazing to see, and religious figures and diapering designs were still discernible. This chapel was also unique in its crookedness. When looking through the arched entry it was obvious that it wasn’t in the center of that wall, nor was the arch geometrically even. I bet it was built by unskilled monks and laborers with no architect or only directions passed down the line from one guy to another.
 
There are the little sculpted heads there were also on the Dysert O’Dea doorway. The remains of a broken stone casket was inside. The front has and Urnes style beast on it, which helps date this part of Cashel to 900-1000 CE. Urnes style resembles the famous carved stave churches of Norway, indicating the influence of the time.
 
Ireland is working hard to preserve its heritage and history. Many of the castles are owned by county or country tourism. It’s a long and expensive process but there was evidence of work on Cashel, especially in spots that needed to preserve the building’s integrity.

Brian Boru, and his grandson were some of the early Munster kings that ruled from here. But his grandson gave the castle over to the Bishop of Limerick. This began the long ecclesiastical history of the castle. There was an enclosed museum, which had some religious artifacts, pennannular brooches, and stonework that had been moved in to preserve them.

Another chapel (I don’t know the actual religious names for these different buildings) was redone with a wooden roof (no nails) and plant made pigments painted on the gothic arches and angels that decorated the room. Most castles and churches had wooden roofs as the technique for making the corbelled (or other) stone roofs was complicated and put a lot of weight on the walls. Throughout these buildings there are many square holes in the walls. These are post holes, for floors and stairs. It makes one realize how drafty these stone places would have been.

The town itself was fairly small and we were hardpressed to find a place to eat that night, but ate at the Town Hall, a higher end and very good restaurant. It is so named because it is in the old town hall. We’d had a drink in one of local pub earlier and many of the pubs in this area of Ireland have little hearths and some that burn coal still. We spent several hours at Cashel and then moved on to Limerick.

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Traveling in India: Memories of Meghalaya

When I went to India, I was poor. I saved up every penny, including sitting on the street corner and selling used books and ornaments (you could still do that in the West End at that point). My friends lent me the money for the plane ticket, which I paid back over the next year.

I was gone for two months and the first month was in the state of Meghalaya. There are seven autonomous states in northeastern India. They are: Assam, Meghalaya, Arunchal Pradesh, Mizoram (known for eating dog), Nagaland (known for eating these giant spiders I saw), Manipur. Meghalaya’s capital is Shillong, where I stayed but we did travel around some.

Hanocia, my friend from Meghalaya who had lived in Vancouver for years, was of an old family. There are last names, which denote some aspect of nobility or lineage that has carried on for generations. There are three major groups in Meghalaya; the Khasis, Garo and Jaintia with the Khasis being the largest. They are a rare thing in the world, a matrilineal society. Few cultures follow matriarchal culture and fewer matrilineal. Hanocia was the only daughter of a youngest daughter.

Instead of the oldest son of the oldest son it is the youngest daughter who traditionally inherits the family lands, partly because she will be around longest to take care of the aging parents. She also would oversee the family lands and riches. Children take their mothers’ last names and a divorced man moves back into the home of his mother. Clan leaders tend to be male but voted in by the women of the clan. Women handle the money a lot and men hunt. The Siyiem, equivalent to a king in their traditional society, will not see his son inherit but the son of his sister. The position does not have as much weight as it once did and Hanocia said one Siyiem lay in state, after he died, in the royal estates for a very long time because no one would take up the job, and he could not be buried until there was a successor.

The Khasis are a Himalayan hill tribe, traditional hunters with the bow and arrow. I saw the equivalent of horse races one day when we went out to a field where archery butts (stacks of sticks or reeds tied in an upright cylinder were set about a field. Then many men would kneel and shoot as many arrows as possible within a set time. I believe they then counted how many arrows were closest to the center (demarcated by lines or string) and the person who had bet closest to that number would win. Although the Indian government tried to discourage gambling, this was a very popular form for the Khasis.

They are a diminutive people, with the average height of women being under 5’4″ and men around 5’5″. There were a few taller people but often mixed with other blood and at 5’4″ myself, I towered above many of the people. Although many Khasis are now Christian, their traditional religious beliefs are animist. They believe there is a spirit in most things and we visited a scared grove of trees.

I was there in late October and November and was lucky enough to attend the seasonal festival. It ran three days and clan chieftains came from all over to meet. There was a dance that did not necessarily have prescribed steps and reminded me partly of Native American dances. In the sun, three Khasi women, sisters of the Siyiem I believe, danced very slowly, either holding parasols or someone holding one over their head (lighter skin is a sign of nobility). The women were done in the Khasis robes, (a nongkrem–this might actually be the name of a place and I’m misremembering), like a silk sari but folded in such a way to be pinned in a sheath over each shoulder. A longer sleeved top was worn beneath and on their heads stood tall and elaborate headdresses made of gold. Many Khasi women wear a gold necklace with a large ruby in it. In a circle around these dancing women men would dance running and moving quickly. It’s been a while so I don’t quite remember the details.

The animist Khasis also hold the rooster as a sacred animal as they believe that it conveys their messages back and forth to U Blei Ka Blei. U denotes masculine and Ka, feminine (spellings could be off a bit, so if I remember correctly it translates as “the god” or “he god she god”). At this festival there were men who did chicken divination, wringing the necks of the birds and using their fingers to pry the bodies open and remove the entrails. I’m not sure if the bodies were first cut or if they were actually pried apart.

I also went to a night festival that few women frequent but there was no rule against it. It took place in a building made completely of wood; even pegs and joins were of wood. Within was a fire and a tall pole. The men would get up and dance near or around the pole and high pitched pipes were played. I’m not sure what the purpose was and think that in some cases they were reluctant to tell me. It was probably something to do with fertility but I’m just guessing. I was also in some discomfort because I’d eaten some sort of preserved bamboo shoot and the preservative was causing a bad reaction (there was also no toilet on site so it was a bit of a conundrum).

I will write more on the Khasis of Meghalaya, but although Wiki says that permits were not needed by foreigners past 1955 this is not true. I went in 1989 and I had to get a permit. I was one of three white people that I saw, one other being Hanocia’s husband and one being a school child. I’m sure there were a few others but people tended to stare because tall white people were a rarity. Meghalaya is culturally protected, meaning that only Garo and Khasis can own land. They are not Hindu and in fact, eat beef quite regularly, which is cheaper than chicken. I believe that now permits are no longer needed though they may be for some of the neighboring states, which are also self-autonomous.

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Musings From Tibet III

It seems I somehow didn’t publish post II on Friday. So today I’m doing parts II and III. This was first posted August 15, 2007. This is the last part of Angela’s email on Tibet. Unfortunately I don’t have her pictures to post with this.

There are many arts that come out of Tibetan monasteries, some of which I have pictures of here. Some of my pictures are from Rekong which is actually thought of as the art capitol of Amdo (this upper region of Tibet), possibly even of all Tibet. Mostly they are famous for their thangka painting, which unfortunately I didn’t get to photograph, I only have pictures of the buildings and stupas there, but they are pretty amazing, intricately painted and carved, etc. From Labrang monastery I again have many pictures of the buildings, but I also have some pictures of cham dancing, and the butter sculptures which are both really fascinating art forms. The cham dancing is done by the monks, and it portrays stories of great events in the history of Buddhism. Sometimes it’s the lives of the great masters, or sometimes the bringing of scriptures from India, mythical tales, etc.

The butter sculptures are incredibly intricate and colorful, in this case mostly of great Buddhist masters such as Tsongkaba (founder of the Gelukpa sect), Shakyamuni Buddha, etc., also lots of flowers, and other ritual shapes. The amazing thing about these is that they really are constructed from butter (in case you couldn’t guess that from the name). They make these once a year just before Losar, then keep them throughout the year.

Speaking of butter, food in general seems to be a central theme in Tibetan culture, more so than most other places I’ve seen. The second you enter a house you are offered (practically forced) tea, and bread or whatever other food is sitting around. To refuse is not rude, but it is not really accepted. No matter how full you are, it’s near impossible to get by without at least drinking a cup of tea. This became an entire art form for me, and a very difficult one at that – the art of refusing food. But another thing that I noticed was the fact that whenever I was taking pictures, having food around was essential. If I took a picture of a single person, they usually needed to have a full cup of tea in their hand, and at least a bowl overflowing with bread in front. When I was taking pictures of Jinpa and Gonpu’s (Shedhe’s cousins) homes, they made sure that they moved the bowls of food around so that they were in the picture. After all, if I brought pictures of their homes back to India and there was no food around, they might get worried that their families didn’t have enough to eat. Food heaping is an art for them as it isn’t enough to just fill a bowl with fruit or bread, it has to be heaping so high that it looks ready to collapse if you so much as speak next to it. But alas, after years of practice, it is actually very stable.

You will notice that in the pictures, most of the women wear long strings of red beads around their necks. These are traditional for nomad women, especially in Amdo. They are made out of red coral which is becoming more and more rare in Tibet, and I was surprised to find out that each bead costs between 100-400 Chinese yuen (there are about 7.7 yuen to one US dollar right now). As there are often a hundred or two of these beads on a necklace, the price is often similar to buying a house. This is the way that women literally wear their wealth around their necks as a status symbol. Gold is also very popular, though I recently found out from one of my friends here that gold is a new thing, probably brought in by the Chinese. Apparently at least in some places 10 years ago people only had silver but now gold has become the big thing. Obviously its much more expensive, so again a status symbol. I’m not sure when this came in, as Shedhe values gold much more than silver (we argue about that often as I don’t particularly like gold, but he doesn’t like silver, he thinks it looks cheap) and he’s been here for around 7 years, but one of my friends here said that in her village (which is only a few hours from Labrang) she never even saw gold and she’s been here for around 12 years. Fashion amongst the nomads is very important, and they use it as an opportunity to display their wealth. I was also intrigued to find out that each different village, even if they are only an hour apart from each other have their own distinct fashion. To my eyes it mostly looked the same, but everywhere I went people were telling me that I looked just like a Senko nomad (Senko being the place where Shedhe’s family is from) even when they had no idea who I was staying with. Not only the style of sewing the clothes was different from village to village, but also the way that you tie the chupa/tsarer is different. I not only learned to tie mine from mother, but the ones that I wore were also hers, thus why people recognized the area I was living in. Four hours away, in the town of Rekong the chupas looked very different, even to my untrained eyes.

I was amazed just how different Tibet was from Dharamshala. Being in India I thought that I was learning a lot about Tibet, and though I was, it was nothing compared to actually being there. I could go on for hours about Dharamshala and how/why the people there have changed, but that is an entirely different paper.

The thing that I noticed most about Tibet was just how Chinese it had become, and how much it will continue to do so. In Tibet, I had to be careful to even mention the Dalai Lama, and certainly did not dare to utter the words “Free Tibet.” But while in Dharamshala, I went to many protests for Tibetan freedom, and lived in a city of people who every day fight for it with every fiber of their being and live every day of their lives for the news that they and their families are free at last. After so much of that, I started to believe that it was a possibility. How could it be possible that so many people around the world were fighting for something so noble, and have it not come to fruition? It just didn’t seem possible.

I remember walking home from teaching one day in Tibet, seeing all the Chinese signs painted on walls, the kids in Chinese clothes, all the modern technology and the food wrappers strewn on the side of the street. I started thinking about it, and realized that no matter how much I did not want to admit it, I think Tibet will never really be free from its Chinese colonizer. Though Tibetans work hard to preserve their culture, it is dying out with every new generation, becoming more and more Chinese practically by the minute. China has invested a lot into making Tibet what it is; they just built a new railroad all the way to Lhasa, have set up a huge tourist industry, recently discovered some sort of large ore or iron deposit and have made a lot of money out of the natural resources there. China is an incredibly powerful country, so powerful that nobody in the world, including the US, will stand up to them. To them, there is no reason to give up Tibet, but there is lots of reason to keep it. Upon this realization a very strong sense of grief flew through me, and as I walked into our home to see this old conservative nomad family that I loved so dearly, I nearly wept for the loss that they have to endure every day. Not only have they lost their son Shedhe to exile, but every day they have to watch the destruction of their culture and religion, and live in terrible fear of the people who have surrounded them. I’ve heard stories of the things his parents had to endure after the Chinese occupation (they were relatively young when it happened, but the brutality lasted for a long time), and I see the physical scars and deformities from it on their bodies. I see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. Though conditions there are much better now than they were for a long time after the Chinese first came in, it is still a daily struggle. Already they live in a climate which itself makes living difficult, but now they are prisoners in their own lands.

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