The healer lights the smudge stick until the bundle of dried sage catches fire and releases its fragrant scent. She fans the flames with a feather so that the smoke spreads. The healer proceeds clockwise around the room, waving the smudge stick until the space is cleansed. When she’s finished, a member of the tribal council takes the stage and introduces the opening of the casino’s new poker facilities.
My wife, who has some Indian blood and can’t step onto a reservation without someone asking if she’s a native, finds this amusing. She can identify different kinds of sage, knows the difference, for example, between white sage, woman sage and grandmother sage. Presently, a basket of smudge sticks she bound together from sage she gathered (not far from the reservation) sits under the altar we keep as a remembrance of friends and family members who have passed away. Her view is pragmatic. Cleansing is good spiritual practice, a way to release negative energy.
But when I tell my friends about the cleansing ceremony, they laugh at the hypocrisy of using an ancient native healing ceremony in the context of something as crass and commercial as a casino. It’s an unexpected collision of the sacred and the profane. The ultimate sell out. But as the smoke wafted over me that day, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
Native American writers are famously touchy on the subject of selling out. If a native writer celebrates her tribe’s stories, she’s selling out by making the tribe’s “secrets” accessible. Older generations of Indians criticize the stories and poems written by the younger generation. Either they reveal too much or they don’t say enough, the inference being the writers are out-of-touch and don’t know anything of lasting value. Disputes over whether the writer has enough Indian blood or grew up on a reservation, i.e. questions about their legitimacy as Indians, are common. A remark made in jest by a person of one tribe about a person in another can be blown out of proportion and lead to violent confrontations. There is seemingly no end to the ways a native writer can sell out.
It’s worse for writers outside the culture (like me). Putting one’s name on a book of native stories is to claim authorship of a shared tradition, a kind of appropriation to which natives are understandably sensitive. By writing about Indians from outside of the tribe’s ancestral framework, i.e. to discuss social issues like poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence, is to traffic in negative stereotypes, to willfully portray Indians in a poor light. Based on the actions of a few, they bring shame to all.
But when you compare the wealth that casinos bring in, for the good of the tribe as well as for individual tribal members, is it even possible for a native writer to sell out her culture with a modest book deal? One hundred Sherman Alexies wouldn’t earn as much in their lifetimes as a single successful casino makes in a year. In other words, is it possible to sell out a tribe for the price of a poem when the casinos are raking in money by the billions?
I asked an acquaintance of mine this question. He is a Navajo Indian who lives on the reservation. He has read a great deal of literature (native and otherwise), and is a formidable poker player who takes week-long trips to Las Vegas and holds his own at the poker tables. He answered in his elliptical way, by telling me the Navajo story of the gambler. “A dude is really into gambling” he writes in an e-mail, and loses all his valuables, then his land, then his family’s land. He keeps on losing until he’s gambled away all of the Navajo land, then all the sacred objects of the Navajo, and then the entire pantheon of Navajo deities until not a single trace of the Navajo is left.
He was reminded of this story, he tells me, the first time he went to Sky City Casino in New Mexico, and saw pottery symbols on the wall with a depiction of Indians making a corn offering. My friend concludes this story with the following: “Another one bites the dust.”
Some casinos dedicate a portion of their real estate to educate visitors about the land they are standing on and what the tribe went through to reach this point in their history. Some showcase statues, works of art that are heavy on symbolism, or even on-site museums.
The casino where I work isn’t one of them. The Faux Pueblo walls feature crude petro-glyphs that have nothing to do with the tribe, the region, or, I suspect, any human being who has been alive the last few thousand years.
Some of our symbols have been in place since forever, and no one really knows where they came from, though there’s a guy who claims he drew them (traced them out of a book?) long before anyone who could possibly refute this claim began working at the casino. No one believes him, of course. This is more an asshole being an asshole, than a case of Caucasian appropriation, but still. One thing is certain: they didn’t come from the tribe.
If given a choice between images germane to the tribe’s story, or the generic symbols we currently employ, I would prefer to present the real deal. I’d rather be a genuine sell-out, than provide guests with a cookie-cutter Disneyfied Indian casino experience. But these decisions aren’t mine to make, the culture isn’t mine to sell, and no one is asking me squat.
A last word on the uses of sage by Silver Wolf Walks Alone, from the pamphlet “Sacred Sage: How it Heals” (with my own editorial comments in parentheses):
Dead or gone energy is easily noticed in areas that have fluorescent lights (check) and little or no direct access to outdoor fresh air (check). This energy accumulates and causes ones (sic) own vibrations to slow down or weaken. When our vibration is not at an optimum level, illness is not far behind. Our sensitivity is decreased (check), our intuitive abilities are hampered (check).
Maybe the healer was on to something after all. It doesn’t take skill to work a slot machine, but the poker facilities may be the one place in the casino where increased sensitivity or hampered intuition can help or hinder a player. Though we often advertise ourselves as the locus of luck, for many guests the casino is the place where they make their worst decisions. Even if you don’t believe in luck, negative energy, or the healing properties of sage, one look at our guests will tell you the occasional cleansing couldn’t hurt.