Fear of the Other

Two things: I’ve been reading about and materials by American Indians lately, and I learned about Stephen Graham Jones through a video of him reading one of his stories.  I was immediately hooked.  It seems to me that those of us who’ve gone through trauma—either personally or ethnically—are disproportionately represented among those who like horror.  I’m not suggesting a simple equation, but simply noticing a trend.  Jones has been winning awards as a horror writer and I was anxious to get started.  Night of the Mannequins didn’t disappoint.  Jones is a member of the Blackfeet nation and, according to the author bio, a real slasher fan.  This story isn’t really a slasher but it is an exploration of what happens when an idea takes over someone’s life.

More about growing up in Texas than being First Nations, it follows a group of teens who find an abandoned mannequin and a practical joke that goes terribly wrong.  It’s a story will a real feel for what it means to grow up beneath the middle class.  The realities for those who do are somehow quite different than from those who can take some measure of financial security for granted.  It also makes a good setting for horror stories as the protagonist tries to figure out what’s going on without the aid of authorities and adults.  It makes for a compelling read.  Jones’ no-nonsense style draws you in and it doesn’t let you go.

The book is fairly recent and I don’t want to give too much away.  I do often think about how a writer’s personal experience leads to the books s/he writes.  The horror genre is wide-ranging and can be deep and intelligent.  Despite its brief extent, there’s a lot of depth here.  The straightforward writing style gives the book verisimilitude.  You could see this actually happening.  Monsters, after all, are frequently in our minds.  That doesn’t make them any less real.  Mannequins tend to inhabit the uncanny valley—they’re human and yet, at the same time they’re not.  There are aspects of growing up in “white” culture that must suggest the same to those who’ve been and who continue to be, oppressed by that culture.  There is a real fear to being controlled by others whose intentions, it must be clear by now, are to make themselves rich.  The world is a richer place, however, for having books by Stephen Graham Jones in it.  I’ll be coming back for more.


Freedom of Religion

One of the highly touted liberties in the United States is freedom of religion.  It’s easy to believe this is true when you can walk down any “Church Street” in many mid-size towns and go shopping for a theology that fits your outlook.  What remains hidden here, however, is that the freedom is largely restricted to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition.  (Yes, I know “Judeo-Christian is a disputed category, but it classifies several belief systems that share a basis in the Bible.)  For religions that don’t necessarily agree with the premises of the biblical religions the story is quite different.  That’s because, at least in part, our culture is based on the Bible and its limited worldview.  Colonists, convinced by centuries of Christian hegemony, had assumed the rightness of the Christian outlook.  The indigenous religions they encountered were, from their point of view, heathen.

The word “heathen” covers basically the same territory as “pagan.”  Both mean a religion outside Christianity (and, grudgingly, Judaism).  I’ve recently read that the etymology of heathen goes back to those who live in the heath, or country dwellers.  Although this etymology is uncertain, it does make a great deal of sense.  Christianity became an urban religion fairly early on.  Not only that, it shook hands with empire and became the basis for capitalism.  So much so that the two are now teased apart only with great difficulty.  This also means that indigenous religions have never really had a place at the table.  Especially when they challenged the dictates of the capitalistic outlook.

American Indian religion is closely tied to the land.  As Vine Deloria made abundantly clear in God Is Red, any religion committed to ideas outside those of Christianity will lose when the two come into contact.  One of the reasons is that secular science is based on a Christian worldview.  Indians believe in sacred land.  Since “objective” science is based on the Christian doctrines of creation, there can be no holy land apart from “the holy land.”  At its very root the basic ideas of other religions are dismissed and therefore treated as if they aren’t religions at all.  The Supreme Court continues to make decisions that violate the free practice of Indian religion.  The recent fiasco with the Trump administration should show just how dangerous such thinking is.  Like it or not, religious liberty means you have (for the time being) the right to be the brand of Christian you wish.  Beyond that freedom has a very different meaning.


Looking to the Stars

American Indian culture fascinates me.  As my usual readers know, so does the unusual.  A few years back I read Ardy Sixkiller Clarke’s Encounters with Star People.  Clarke is an American Indian who holds a Ph.D. and had several years of university teaching and administration to her credit.  She has degrees in psychology and education.  In other words, she’s credible.  Being American Indian she’s also aware of the cultural belief in star people.  Those of European descent, often expressing their self-supposed superiority, deny such things exist.  Interestingly the mainstream media seems to have taken an interest in the subject of UFOs lately, and that is also the phenomenon that Clarke investigates in her books.  Her follow-up More Encounters with Star People: Urban American Indians Tell Their Stories is another compelling glimpse into a different way of looking at the world.

The book consists of contextualized interviews with people of American Indian ancestry, and, as Clarke points out, with nothing to gain by telling their stories.  They don’t want their names or locations to be revealed.  They don’t want money.  Many of them don’t even want to be mentioned in a book.  These stories will take you into very strange places.  Places without the filters most of Anglo culture puts before anything that might hint at the paranormal.  I’m intrigued by the nearly universal (outside a narrow European outlook) belief that the world is not as it seems.  Because European-based cultures developed the most sophisticated weaponry and an economic system that takes no prisoners, its view, by default is considered the accurate one.  Time may tell on that.

I read quite frequently about indigenous cultures.  Often widely separated and not in any direct contact, such groups often drew very similar conclusions about the world.  These views are actually shared by those of European stock, but only when carefully labeled as fiction: fantasy, science fiction, speculative stories of any sort.  All of these are widely consumed.  They are also safely considered “not real.”  I’ve been rewatching The X-Files over the past several months.  Its success and its continuing fan base show that as long as we can agree that we’re watching something not true, we enjoy monsters and aliens.  And besides, Halloween wasn’t that long ago.  Still, I wonder if we’re missing out on things we might learn if we’d be willing to consider what the original inhabitants of this continent have believed.  It would take us to some strange places, but we might just emerge wiser.


True Natives

StarPeopleI have long been fascinated by American Indian folklore. In fact, the first book I read this year was a set of Indian tales. Just this week I finished a most unusual book by Ardy Sixkiller Clarke entitled Encounters with Star People: Untold Stories of American Indians. Clarke, who is herself Indian, taught at Montana State University and collected stories from various tribes concerning Star People. Mainstream western science has already made up its mind that Homo sapiens are the most advanced species ever to grace this universe, and so any discussion of visiting non-terrestrials is off the table. What Clarke shows us, however, is that just because there’s no such thing doesn’t mean that all worldviews agree on that point. In many interviews with indigenous peoples of the Americas, belief in Star People emerges as perfectly normal. As does not talking about it because white people will ridicule and belittle anything that doesn’t fit into their limited cosmos of technology and money.

Reading these stories felt like absorbing wisdom from those who observe nature more carefully than those of us of European stock are inclined to do. With eyes pressed to microscopes and telescopes, it is sometimes possible to miss the big picture. We crowd into cities and have no idea how to live under the stars. We can’t even see the stars most of the time. Have we lost our ability to wonder?

Purely from an academic point of view, I wonder why aliens can’t be taken seriously. I try to think of other topics that are simply laughed out of discussion before examining the evidence. To me it seems that human pride is at stake in this case. We are a very proud species, enamored of our own accomplishments. If we can’t reach the stars, nobody else can. This to me is troubling. Aliens, after all, don’t fall into the category of “supernatural” unless we mythologize them into yesteryear’s angels. If they are real, they are as natural as we are. They would have a technology that we haven’t replicated yet, and anyone who doubts interstellar flight should consider the impossibility of carrying a computer around in your pocket or on your wrist only thirty years ago. No, if there are Star People, they are natural. Whether or not they might exist is simply a matter of belief.