the way things are
We’re living in a place where many of the towns and cities, most of the rivers and natural features of the land have beautiful names which were given them by the original inhabitants. The names sing: Susquehanna, Piscataqua, Tehachapi, Nacog-doches, hear them sing. Massachusetts and Mississippi they sing. Michilimackinac sings of Nahma, of Washtenaw, of Minnesota. Each place sings of itself and of its neighbors near and far. Songs of Onondaga, Canandaigua and Saskat-chewan. The names are everywhere.
The land is under the street. We venture out beyond the influence of the city’s lights and walk the paths to where topography dips in sandy banks covered with pine needles to hold the water in silent reflectivity. Inverted stands of beech and jack pine signifyin’ on us standing here in the moist air, feeling all of time at once. And the wild orchids watch us watching. Lichens are abundant in the North, especially where pollutants haven’t gathered too densely. European names for earthly flora: Cladonia fimbriata is the lichen with little cauldrons on its slender stems. Sphagnum wulfianum, a worthy moss, grows in the bogs. This is a magical land. Any child knows that, ’til torture toys teach otherwise.
Back on Main Street in Ann Arbor, next door to the Sabor Latino restaurant (and within sight of the County Courthouse), we now have our own special heart-and-soul center for Indigenous Culture: Native Ways Gallery at 209 N. Main. This business is Native-owned and operated; by Varian Manning, a full-blooded Diné (Navaho) artist, and Cyndi Power-Manning. A medicine woman of the Cherokee lineage, her ancestry is half Eastern Band Cherokee, half Irish/English. Ann Arbor is very fortunate to have these people living and working among us.
Their quarterly newsletter, the Earth Dance News, describes a philosophy of well-centered ethics and provides a schedule of classes, workshops and performances which take place at the front of the store on a regular basis. Music is a vital element in the life of the place. A favorite at the Gallery is folk singer Jeanne Mackey, whose songs are variously moving, funny and thought-provoking. Her world view harmonizes nicely with the mission statement of the Gallery: Our mission is to preserve the Ways of our People by living them openly and sharing them with those of many Nations. We honor all those who journey with us in this goal, our friends, our family, our employees and each customer who walks through our door.
The Earth Dance News is full of traditional wisdom, the promise of fulfilling community events, and pragmatic insights regarding contemporary life and commerce. Volume 1, dating from their first month in business (December 2000), lists several ways to tell if the artifacts are authentic Native work. (The information was provided by the Indian Arts and Crafts Association). We are told that if the jewelry is silver, it should be marked "Sterling". Turquoise has a certain look and feel to it; most of the time it’s hardened with a clear sealant. One must learn to distinguish between this and an imitation turquoise made of turquoise dust and plastic.
Faked artifacts are big business; "If the design appears mechanically stamped and identical on every similar item, especially on the inside of the jewelry piece, it is likely machine-made." Other good advice: "If a large piece of jewelry is very inexpensive, it was probably made cheaply in another country." Be observant: "Look for the country of origin marked on the product, as mandated by law," and "Ask for a receipt that certifies the materials the product was made from and the tribal origin. If possible, get the name of the artist."
There is a Museum of Ojibwa Culture in St. Ignace, Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Next door, sharing a building with the Chamber of Commerce, is a small gift shop filled with Native artworks. These remarkable objects come from a small circle of artists whose work deserves a wider recognition. Recently it’s been said that the city of St. Ignace has little interest in supporting this extension of the Ojibway Museum, and indeed the shop is going to close this autumn and may not reappear. Communication links have been established, however, between certain members of that artistic community and the owners and operators of Ann Arbor’s own Native Ways Gallery. Hopefully these artworks will soon be available at least to inhabitants of and visitors to Washtenaw County.
Presently, what’s on display at Native Ways Gallery right here in town is exceptionally beautiful and full of meaning. Everything means something. There is a spirit in everything. Cyndi and Varian are two very kind and cosmically attuned individuals. Lots of times when we visit, Varian is fashioning something with his hands. Maybe he’s doing beadwork, or building a small tin and cedar tabernacle for a church. He built much of the interior of the store out of recycled lumber and other reclaimed materials. This fellow has been giving art to the world since he was a boy. He makes jewelry, creates murals, paints and draws beautifully, is adept with silk screens, and is probably the most gifted tattoo artist in this part of the country. As Cyndi wrote: "Varian has taught art to Native American teenagers in high schools out west to keep their culture alive. Now he has consented to teach here at the store for all of us interested in expressing our creativity."
Varian is a good friend to have, and we savor the wisdom of his outlooks and insights. He is very patient and happy to explain the proper significance and traditional uses of the atifacts at hand. The philosophy is refreshing. Part of the Diné lesson is to speak very honestly and not to mess with the way things are on the Earth. Be patient and reach an understanding of Why. The greatest gift is the gift of mutual trust and respect. I bring him a bag of unflavored simple cavendish, an offering of love and respect. Varian at this point just happens to be talking to a woman who is purchasing sweetgrass. "When you pull a plant from the ground, you ask it permission and you leave some tobacco there as an offering to the plant and to the Earth." Just then I hand him the tobacco. He grins, glancing at the woman, saying "see?" Varian unseals the pouch, dips fingers within, sniffs the leaves and nods his head. "Just straight-up tobacco," he says. It is clear that he respects the spirit of the plant.
Varian exudes practical advice. If you purchase Frybread Mix, he’ll tell you just exactly the right way to prepare it. I usually just cop out and make griddle cakes with it. But Varian likes to do things the way he knows is right for him and his family. He also has a habit of blessing the space in the store with the smoke from burning sage and cedar. Cyndi observes that sage is a male energy, and cedar is informed by the sacred feminine. Varian has a healthy respect for Woman, and this is one reason his own power is so well grounded.
He listens to very uplifting music and talks with everyone who visits. One afternoon he beats a wide-width shallow drum, beautifully patterned. We feel the sound waves pulsing through the air and up through the floor. Goes right through ya, I say. Varian says that if you just let yourself go into the drum you can find all of these different sounds. Different tones from different portions of the skin of it, differing as he strikes it with all kinds of Various motions. Drums are very special people.
Now he is smudging the air again with the good sage smoke, not so much to cleanse as to clarify one’s purpose and presence in the world. When we smudge the air we are being responsible for all of the negative energies that we generate during the course of each day. This simple knowledge gives power back to the people so that they may be more self-reliant. It is good to have healers. It is also great to know the plant spirits and to learn to work with them. To dissipate some of these clouds of bring-down energy, our own or the emanations of other folks. (This is an interpretation of Varian’s words arrived at by myself and my soul mate Lindsay Forbes). The Native Ways Gallery is full of blessings. There’s the blessings of the materials from which the things are made, blessings of the artists themselves, and the fact that these two bless all of the merchandise as it comes into their store.
Cyndi speaks in a soft voice almost like the sound of wind over fresh water. She quietly explains how she sees her little family as part of a circle in time and space, calling up the image of a stone creating ripples in a pond. None of her ripples or the ripples of her loved ones would be the same without the ripples of others with whom she shares the blessings of life. "We are so rooted at home," she says. "We are teaching Arianna about life with how we run the store." How different this seems from the conventions of retail business. But this is a woman who once conducted a soul retrieval for the likes of me.
Aspects of the soul were invited back, and they did return. The ritual was very simple and seemed to be based mainly in Love. We embraced and I walked through the afternoon feeling, well, like more of me, closer to all of me walking. Years ago some drunken punk punched me out in the schoolyard for no reason, tore out some of my hair. I was only twelve. The violence was incomprehensible to me, and still is. Part of the essence of me left that day. Cyndi welcomed him back. It’s me who’s changing. Cyndi encourages.
So me and my self sat on the front porch listening to Thomas Buckner sing composer Jon Gibson’s setting of passages from the Brazilian portion of Charles Darwin’s Beagle Voyage notebooks. (The twelve-year-old soul enjoyed this immensely, as he used to try and read Darwin back then in 1969.) The words mingled beautifully with the afternoon air: "...within the recesses of the forest a universal stillness appears to reign. If my mind tries to follow the flight of a gaudy butterfly, it is arrested by a strange tree of fruit. If watching an insect, one forgets it in the strange flower it is crawling over...no one can stand these solitudes unmoved and not feel that there is more to [us] than mere breath. The mind is a chaos of delight out of which a world of future and more quiet pleasure will arise."
LITANY OF MATERIALS IN THE NATIVE WAYS GALLERY
here i sing of dolomite, of antler and turquoise, jet and serpentine
see how they’ve used the taqua nut, O mother of pearl, marble
alabaster, abalone and spiny oyster’s shell
sing now of great snail, fishrock, lapidolite
rainbow calcite and fossilized ivory
agate from the northern water, sterling silver
calabash, pipestone calanite, tiger’s eye and coral
crystal, clay and garnet
this is the song of amethyst, of rose quartz
rhodochrosite, lapis lazuli, antler of the great moose
baltic amber, carnelian, aquamarine
snowflake obsidian, aventurine
malachite, onyx and pearls
the earth has fossils for us, and gold
see copper, brass, bones, glass, bells and teeth
now redwood, basswood
sing the spirits of the loom:
spirits of plants, of wool and of people
sing the dyes the plants provide:
bark of red juniper and gambel oak
onion skin red and brown
sage brush and navaho tea
brigham tea and berries
from the holly sing the dyes
everything is precious here
precious as straw
precious the sweetgrass
precious sage and tabac
turtle shell, beads, feathers, cotton and wax
precious lavender, cedar, sage
all threads and strings, precious
precious mirrors, framed drawings
and paintings precious
sacred sculpted female forms
sacred gifts from the great mother
who’s given it all to us
for us to share
this is the song of great gifts
from the earth
all in the gallery to be met
make time for quiet observation
visit with good people
love and respect
arwulf august 2001
Signed Elements ©