Sebastian Junger—You missed something else

Dear Mr. Junger,

I went to a funeral mass for a friend last week. As I listened to the priests—one from Africa, the other from South America, and bathed in Catholic ritual with the large extended family and members of the local congregation, it occurred to me that you missed something else in your interesting analysis of PTSD and our tribal nature in your recent book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

You argued that most of the men and women coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan who claim PTSD have not experienced combat, and that what they are really experiencing is a homecoming reaction. You say that they have lived for a time in a highly interdependent military culture in which small groups of people have jobs, meaning, and each other.  They serve together in foreign lands—and then return to the competitive, individualistic, wealth driven scene at home.

I said last week that I agreed with much of your argument, but criticized you for lumping all New World Indians into one—“a native population that had barely changed, technologically, in 15,000 years”(quoting from your text)—“ignoring the diversity of economies and cultures, the growth and spread of agriculture, and the rise and fall of civilizations over millennia.” (my response)

To that indictment, I now add your omission of the importance of “ritual.”

When I returned from the funeral, I said to a friend that the Catholics do a good job with ritual. “Catholics and the Marine Corps,” he replied. And Indians, I would add.

Over centuries, Protestantism has gradually erased and eroded ritual in Christianity—favoring “does” and “don’ts” over tradition and accommodation. The attitude was prominent in 19th century missionary work in the West, where clergy worried about white fur traders and settlers intermarrying with Indians. The Methodists outlawed them; Presbyterians grudgingly accepted. The ritualistic and tradition-bound Catholics, on the other hand, were more accommodating, and, valuing the institution of marriage, trained clergy in eastern Canada and sent them West to minister to and marry mixed families.

Unfortunately, these stories are often lost, as the standard historical narrative is not strong on mixed bloods and their place in the settlement of the West.

The long-term history of history is ignoring Indian roles, and the history of Indian-White relations is of course largely about forced assimilation. Indian lands and migration patterns were divided and shattered by Indian removal and the creation of reservations. At the conclusion of the Civil War, President Grant turned the reservations over to the churches, which intensified the war on Indian cultures. The Dawes Act of 1887 demanded that Indians take up farmsteads, and Indian boarding schools demanded that they cut hair, lose language, and dress white. In the 1950s, the Eisenhower Administration pushed one more time, with “Termination Policy,” to put Indian lands and culture behind us.

Not all Indians complied, of course. Some hid regalia, elders spoke among themselves, and names of people and sacred places were passed down quietly. And, gradually, beginning in the 60s, Indian voices were raised, old treaties examined, fisheries regained, language programs begun, and regalia taken out of closets. Indian art celebrating the past and present began to flourish. Land—reservation land, culture, and ritual are saving them from complete assimilation.

Although not all tribes are healthy or wealthy, there is a fine National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington D.C.; there are tribal, state historical, and regional museums which celebrate Indian culture. And there are proud Indian writers, artists, and Indian drummers and dancers who perform at powwows across the country.

And here, Mr. Junger, is where your veterans come in. At every powwow that I have attended, veterans are honored. At the local dances in the Wallowa Country of the Nez Perce, veterans—white, Indian, Black, Filipino, all—are honored in a grand entry with songs and dances and in a ceremony in which each veteran steps up and announces his or her branch of the military and dates and theaters of service. There is a drum roll for each vet. And when an eagle feather inadvertently falls from headdress to the floor during a dance, all stops; a veteran must pick it up with special ceremony.

(Why, you ask, are Indians eager to celebrate their service at all? Because, as Indians say, “We are fighting for ‘our’ country.”)

From sign up through boot camp and into service, soldiers and marines comport to ritual—ceremonies of completion and good conduct; medals for places and battles served; advancement of rank and station; changing of leadership, etc. Throughout, they are shoulder to shoulder with peers and cohorts.

Indian veterans who have ties to their reservations come home to ritual, but any veteran in reaching distance of a powwow can get a little bit of what’s been missing.

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