Brain Drain, Atheism, and Syncretism

Firstly, just for general information, here is a link to a page that provides other links to all the different official tribal websites (Abenaki - Wounded Knee).

Also an interesting (mostly politically driven) community blog: Native American Netroots

In our class we have studied Native American music and, through two documentaries and a few readings, we have gained an understanding of the sub-cultures and traditions that are present within the Native American culture as a whole. While we were talking about Native American life a few things struck me and I wanted to explore the items further in our "Wild Card/Cool Stuff" Blog. The topics I will address in this entry are the following: "brain drain" from Native American reservations, the scope of atheism in Native American culture as it relates to music, and a fun tid bit on syncretism.

Brain Drain
While studying the background information, the figure that 70-80% of Native Americans stayed on a reservation stood out to me. I immediately drew a connection between the reservations and a kibbutz (a self sustaining, Jewish community). Though the creation of both reservations and kibbutzeem are contrast each other completely, the idea of a community based upon ethnicity or cultural heritage is similar. I'd imagine the pressure to remain on a reservation is immense due to the need and desire to maintain the Native American identity and tradition. However, I wondered how much of a "brain drain" the reservations had seen- especially with the younger generations.

Through my search I found a good summary by Darryll Hall on Native Americans and the issues they have faced as a demographic group and the issues they face today. (Also, he has some great references to all of the Bills that have been passed as they relate to Native American rights.)
According to Hall the three main challenges that face the Native American community today are within the following categories: (1) Religious and spiritual expression (2) Economic (3) Education.

This proposal led me to consider the economic and educational sector in the reservations as it relates to "brain drain" and I found Patrick Borunda's, an Executive Director of A Native American's Business Network, remarks stating:

The absence of a small business sector poses a significant barrier to economic development on Indian reservations, rancherias and in Alaska Native villages. The most obvious losses are of owners' and employees' incomes. This is a major factor in holding median household incomes on reservations well below the medians for their states. Low income prevents building assets necessary to become creditworthy in mainstream financial terms. Less apparent but equally far reaching is leakage of earned income ordinarily stemmed by small, consumer-oriented businesses. This loss short-circuits the multiplier effect and dissipates the fruits of the communities' limited assets. Those few young Native Americans able to acquire higher education were drawn by opportunities off reservation, resulting in a ”brain drain”. Small businesses are a necessary ingredient of a stable economy for Indian reservation communities and their rural neighbors.
Although Borunda's remarks were made in 1998, the reservations are still facing the same economic and educational challenges. Just one year ago from the 22nd of this month Emily Alpert wrote an article describing the challenges one Native American community is facing. The article is predominantly about American Indian communities on the outskirts of San Diego, the arising casino culture, and the decline in education. Here is a short excerpt (since I am including far too many links to hold your interest):
“A few MAs or Ph.Ds can make a big difference,” Frank said. “But the big catch-22 for the tribes is building capacity.” Tribes are suffering a brain drain, Frank said. It’s especially dire as tribes demand more and more skilled laborers to handle the booming casinos, their needs, and the revenue they produce. “As soon as you train folks, they take jobs elsewhere,” off the reservation."
Aetheism and Music in the Native American Culture
Secondly, I am interested in the spiritual component of Native American music. Both documentaries we watched and all of the accounts we read in the class emphasize the spiritual, if not religious, meaning behind most of the music. The class also explored the idea of music having a certain function and, more specifically within Native American tradition, special healing powers as well. All of this led me to question whether or not Native American culture had room for open atheism. First, I must clarify that I am not speaking in absolutes at all. However, I am speaking to a general cultural idea.

Of course we all know that there are atheists in any culture. I am in no way hinting that there are not Native American atheists. However, it was quite hard to find anything online specifically about atheism, Native Americans, and their music. (I did find a dating site for Native American atheists and a group that had two members for Native American atheists on an atheist website.) I was hoping to find some controversial blog or discussion talking about being a Native American atheist who still felt a spiritual connection with the music but was shunned by the community- or something like that.

Anyways, having researched the various Native American religions (very briefly) and having known many self-proclaimed atheists myself I see much room in the Native American tradition for spiritual atheists and people who are agnostic. Also, I am a firm believer that both religious and secular music can be deeply moving regardless of the religion, or lack thereof, to which a person subscribes.

However, I was hoping to find more of a cultural study. I never actually questioned the quality of the music's meaning, rather I was struck by the deep spiritual connection between the music and tradition. Therefore, I wondered if there was any controversy surrounding the Native American community, atheism and, more specifically, their music.

1 : the combination of different forms of belief or practice
2 : the fusion of two or more originally different inflectional forms

One small tidbit (I won't go on about this since the post is far too long already)-
We talked about syncretism in class and we watched Robert Mirabal as an example. He takes traditional Native American song and dance and adds a techno/pop/rock feel to it with back up singers, rock band instruments, and (cheesy) lighting. In class we watched an excerpt of The Dance.

This reminded me of some bellydancing research I was doing while I was choreographing a piece. I found, in a bellydancing competition, a famous Russian bellydancer, Maria Shashkova, who puts some traditional Middle Eastern dance moves (and a lot of "fusion" dance) to a contemporary rap song (Laffy Taffy). Here is her video Laffy Taffy v. Shik Shak Shok.

And just to redeem her from that dance I will include her video Zena. (She actually is a dynamic entertainer and she has a signature move that includes a complete drop to the ground backwards. It's amazing. At least watch Zena long enough to see that move!)


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