Detaching from the Past

Recently brought to my attention was a display of two photographs in the National Museum of the American Indian in the United States. These documented a piece of performance art by a Native American called James Luna who lay in a Victorian display case as if he were dead, the piece challenging the way in which museums present the past. Clearly the situation for Native Americans is very different from that which Pagans are addressing in Britain, but there are threads of similarity.

These photos were taken at the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington DC, May 2007.

“Is my identity an artefact, frozen in the past?”

The artist James Luna (Luiseo) lay motionless in a 19th century museum display case. Labels commented on the scars on his body. Nearby cases contained Luna’s family photographs, Luiseo medicine objects, and other personal items, laid out like early anthropological displays of arrowheads, pottery shards and tools.

“This work of performance art, entitled The Artifact Piece, was first shown in 1987 at the Museum of Man in San Diego.? In it, Luna subverts the practice of regarding Native Americans as objects or artifacts.? By placing his living body on display, he criticises museums that display Native cultures as dead or solely part of the past.”

As an animist, my religion has provided me with a perspective on time that I continually find to be out of synch with nonPagan understanding. Time, like so much in nature, is experienced by the animist as a circle. We stand within that circle, and around us is the temporal horizon, in just the same way as is the horizon of the landscape. Where the hills and trees, or buildings, meet the skies in that softly blurred boundary, so do the ancestors stand, our stories and theirs creating that hum of life, guiding us as to what is cacophony, what is harmony.

While scientific thinkers proudly speak of the perception of linear time as a human quality, one that sets us above the other animals of our environment, this notion seems wholly flawed to me. As Druidry teaches me the language of nature, it seems increasingly evident that Western society’s tendency to make the past and future distinct simply separates us from all that has happened or may happen. As a result, we are detached from the past, leaving us hankering after something we have lost or walking away from responsibilities we have taken on. Equally, losing touch with the flow of life, we grab at the future, losing our footing, clinging on. Psychotherapy may regress us to traumas of the past, business management skills may project us into the future, yet these techniques are entirely unnecessary if that determined act of separation has not occurred.

Memory and potential feel valueless in practical terms if we are unable to sit within them. Yet in the circle, without the linearity of ‘civilized’ thinking, the stories remain with us, the winds and currents moving around and within us, the world ever-changing.

All this is our heritage. Deeply rooted in it, through both mud and blood, this is what nourishes us.

James Luna expressed this beautifully in his piece of performance art here, silently shrieking his disgust at the way in which his people have been and continue to be treated. Yet at the same time his piece seemed to whisper, singing the songs of his people, as I sit in burial grounds of mine, in old stone circles and upon the ridge and furrow of the pastures, in bewilderment by the busy roads and on the floors of museums beside sealed plastic cases, singing the songs of the dead and of the land, feeling the fabric of nature sometimes stretched too tight.

The past is not behind us. It is not something that can be preserved in a display case and, analytically deconstructed, judged at a safe distance. To do so is to determine it as dead, gone, over, no longer of use; cleaned up, its now limited value must be carefully explained. And to do this to our ancestors is to defile our heritage, disconnecting us from that which nourishes a healthy integrated society.

The past is all around, beneath our feet and our fingertips. The breath we breathe is that of our ancestors.

Emma Restall Orr – June 2007