Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thoughts on cultural interactions...

This weekend, I went to one day of the Living Earth Festival, held by the Smithsonian at the National Museum of the American Indian.

In the central atrium a man named Gregg Analla was performing. I'm usually bad at names, but I wasn't about to forget this guy. Long hair, about the color of steel, and a voice...well, let's just say he wasn't using a mike, and had no need for one. Clearly a very talented individual. He was singing traditional songs with the accompaniment of a skin-bound drum.

The place was packed with people listening to this wonderful music. Then...

Mr. Analla put down his drum, picked up an acoustic guitar and switched to rock.

Everybody left.

Okay, that's a slight exaggeration, I think about 8 or so people remained to listen, but the room emptied as soon as he switched.

Most people would probably dismiss this as coincidence. It was about lunch time. But it made me think. There has to be a chance that at least some of these people who chose to leave did so for one of two reasons:

1. I didn't come here to listen to rock music.
2. That old Indian guy can't *possibly* be a good rock singer.

Two is, of course, the openly insulting one, but I'm almost more concerned about one.

When the white man came to these shores, he came as a teacher, refusing to acknowledge that those already here had any knowledge he wanted except where to find the good grazing (or, further south, the gold). Because of that, atrocities were committed, cultures were destroyed...although disease played an equally important role.

Now, we are, as a society, convinced we are going down the road of ecological catastrophe. And somehow, the American Indian has become a symbol of a more sustainable life, of a culture that treads lightly on the Earth. We come to him now as students...

...and neither is right. Romanticizing the Indian and insisting that he is going to be our savior is *no more right* and *no more healthy* than setting out to civilize him. Instead, we have to approach other cultures as teachers and students, at the same time, acknowledging that both our knowledge may be of value to them and the converse.

An 'old Indian' singing rock is a symbol of both cultures coming together...and nobody wanted to see it. They wanted to see the 'noble primitive', the 'savior'.


(Gregg Analla's wonderful music can be found on iTunes under the bands Slaviour and Twothirtyseven).