Today we have travelled 170 miles (a mere jaunt in the eyes of the locals) to the Isabella Reservation outside of Mount Pleasant, MI, to see the Annual Pow-Wow of the Saginaw Chippewa Nation.
My knowledge of Native American culture was largely based on John Wayne movies, and have previously only come close to real native Americans when the Canadian Native American Orangmen used to turn up for the Twelfth Parade in Belfast occasionally. I always found it odd that we essentially exported both Orangism and genocide to the Native Americans when our Scots Irish forebearers became the standard bearers of westward expansion! But there they would be in full regalia... Buckskin suit, feather head-dress and collarette.
Today however, couldn't have been further from the Twelfth if you had tried... with the exception of the unending beating of drums, with dance after dance in the searing heat and elaborate costume, putting to shame even the most exhibitionist drum major in a flute band at home.
Yet there were obvious tensions throughout the day... The event clearly depended on tourists to make it viable, yet there were severe restrictions on photography, and even when the announcer said that we could take photographs some individuals objected.
Also the parade was headed by veterans from the US military, who were honoured in the ceremonies, but the opening speaker made it clear that while they honoured the veterans and prayed for those still serving, they did not support the currrent war... And all around the campground were contrasting symbols... some lauding the US military, others seeing it as an instrument of oppression.
Then, in talking to others there are other tensions, including the huge reliance of tribal reservations all across the US on Casino Complexes as a way to generate revenue. The Saginaw Chippewa have theirs right beside the camp-ground at Isabella Reservation, the Soaring Eagle Casino, with carpets all the way from Navan I am assured. While this brings in huge amounts of revenue, there are many within the tribe who feel that the whole casino phenomenon is at odds with their traditional lifestyle and teachings.
Then there are Native Americans who are Christians, indeed there is a United Methodist Church on the reservation, just beside the site of the pow wow. But again there are tensions there as to how much of traditional practice and beliefs, including their drumming and their understanding of the Great Spirit pervading all of Creation, can be absorbed within Christian practice.
I suppose St Paddy and those who followed him had similar debates with the local Irish converts 1600 years ago... and we still haven't got the balance right yet.
How much should we as Christians absorb into church life and sanctify (eg. Eostre, Midwinter Festivities) and how much should we shun (eg. Human sacrifice... though I'm not to sure we made the right decision on that one... It would certainly pull in the crowds).
Today the battle for Northern Irish Protestantism is not fought over the above (although we still haven't got Halloween really sorted out), but epitomised by similar issues to those faced by Native Americans in dealing with their Casinos and drums... though with us it is how we relate to Lottery Funding and wider Orange culture.
Maybe we should invite those Native American Orangemen back to Belfast to show us how to sort it all out! Turn the Twelfth into a Pow-Wow in Barnett's Demesne, and teach the church how to relate to a hurting and radically changing community.


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