7 Questions for Barbara A. Mann

In our interview series, “Seven Questions,” we ask some very smart people about what inspires them and how their latest work enhances our understanding of the sacred in cultural life. For this segment, we solicited responses from Barbara A. Mann, author of Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath (Oxford University Press, 2016)

1. What sparked the idea for writing this book?

About twenty years ago, knowing that I was going into academia and that I could write well, my elders here in Ohio told me that, from there on out, my job for the people was to “set the record straight” regarding the Indians. I have taken that charge quite seriously, as one disregards the Old Folks at one’s peril. (“Old Folks” is our actual term for what anthropologists call “elders.” Those of us familiar with universities and scholars also call academia, “yakademia,” and should it become particularly pesky, “yakadementia.”) As a result, I have written thirteen books, twelve of which have been about Indian history and culture, as well as a couple hundred chapters and articles, all of it peer-reviewed before it is published. With my second book, Iroquoian Women (2000), whose chapter six is specifically on Iroquoian spirituality, I helped found the new field of Matriarchal Studies, along with German scholar, Dr. Heide Gottner-Abendroth, who has done tremendous work to establish the field. At the request of Oxford University Bibliographies, we co-authored and co-published a major bibliography, “Matriarchal Studies,” in 2015. Meantime, I found out that Iroquoian Women is on library lists of “most stolen” books. I am pretty proud of that! I suspect that my recently published Spirits will join Iroquoian Women on that list.

2. How would you define religion in relation to your work? Where do you see the sacred or sacred things in this book?

To the first question, I differentiate religion from spirituality. Religion proceeds from a structured organization with set precepts, financing, and a hierarchical directorate. Spirituality is a loosely structured set of precepts derived from personal and/or communally shared experiences. Although both religion and spirituality couch their notions in language that speaks to specific cultural expectations, which differ from ethnicity to ethnicity, spirituality eschews dogma, hierarchy, and finance. No one “joins” spirituality, as people “join” churches, temples, mosques, or other “houses of worship.” Furthermore, Turtle Island spirituality is entirely individualized. (Turtle Island is what Indians call North America.) No one is seen as having any lock on ethereal “truth.” Traditionally, no one dared to tell, let alone order, anyone else to believe this, that, or the other thing. We never fought or killed anyone over spiritual systems. Ever. Also, there is no “worship” involved. Despite what the anthros (what we called anthropologists) say, we have no “gods” and certainly do not “worship” the spirits. We respect their knowledge, which they are under no obligation to share with anyone, and any time we ask for particular knowledge—what does this root create when I boil it? How do I fly?—we ask the spirit that would logically know about it. We ask the plant, itself, or the air, itself, not some imaginary, overarching “Great Spirit” (another term that the anthros foisted on us, courtesy of “information” received from very poorly informed Christian missionaries). By the way, the nanosecond that any knowledge thus derived failed us, we abandoned it. People openly shamed the spirit for misinforming them.

To the second question, the entirety of Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath is about sacred things, told from a genuinely Indigenous standpoint based on genuine tradition, not the missionary-cum-anthro mangling that passes with most Euro-Americans as Real Injun Religion. Probably the most important thing the book does is explain the Twinned Cosmos, consisting of Blood, which relates to the earth through women, water, and their clans, and Breath, which relates to outer space (the blue atmosphere is seen as part of earth) through men, fire, and their spatiality. The halves are covalent, partners not competitors. The Twinship is not, therefore, a polarized or polarizing “Manichean Dichotomy,” as the few anthros who have ever looked at this try to insist. The Twins balance each other. Dichotomy comes out of monotheism, which cannot see two of anything without assuming that one must be the deadly enemy of the other.

3. Can you summarize the three key points you’d like the reader to walk away with when finished?

First, nothing in monotheism prepares anyone to understand anything in Indian spirituality. The base number of monotheism is One, whereas the base number of Indian spirituality is Two. These assumptions lead in very different directions. For instance, unconsciously, monotheists just assume that people have one life, one soul, one true love, one sexual orientation, one marriage, and so forth, whereas Indians just assume that people have multiple lives, multiple loves, multiple orientations, multiple marriages, and multiple spirits (not “souls,” a Christianization).

Second, the only way to understand Indian spirituality is on its own terms. This means that the cultures giving birth to it are the only and ultimate authority on it, and we are under no obligation to share, any more than the spirits are. Intrusive and often rude demands by Westerners for us to spill the beans forthwith are typically met with misdirection. For instance, when the earliest Jesuit missionaries here tried to compile an Iroquoian dictionary, the people (who had no term for the very alien ideas of “God” or “heaven” or “commandment,” etc.) purposely gave them very ribald terms. The Jesuits only found out what they had really been saying after they had been “preaching” these words for some time. Indians love a straight-faced joke, so the people would attend the church services just to hear the idiotic sermons that resulted. They never cracked a smile while listening, but they all fell over laughing on their way home. Unfortunately, anthros came at Indians in the same way as the Jesuits, but the humor then backfired on the Indians as a lot of nonsense was solemnly written down and, worse, subsequently cited as the straight dope on Injun Lore.

Third, humanity is not the obsessive focus of the system. All spirits are equal, with everything a fractal of Blood/Breath. By the way, contrary to a meme enjoying wide distribution in the American public space, everyone, not just LGBTQ people, has two spirits, unless s/he happens to be Siouxan, in which case, s/he has four. (The Blood spirit comes through one’s mother, and the Breath spirit, through one’s father.) The two or four count does not include the personality of this life, which in shorthand is “the Name.” The Name dissolves at death—for the Iroquois, the Brain Sucker extracts and keeps the brain, so that Name cannot animate again, while the spirits of Blood and Breath return to their respective spheres. The job of the Name is to coordinate the agendas of the two, indwelling spirits during that Name’s lifetime, for Blood and Breath have their own goals with this Name’s life (we have multiple, simultaneous reincarnation). Their goals are not necessarily cooperating or compatible. Dreams (Blood) and visions (Breath) are the Name’s primary sources of information in that regard. The Name finds its spirit guide during the entity’s puberty fast.

4. Who were intellectual models or inspirations for you as you wrote this book?

There were none, because no one else has ever presented this before in any developed way. You know, until 1978 when the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Carter, it was against federal law for Indians to practice, pass on, or even talk about their spiritual beliefs. Even after 1978, individual states began passing laws limiting Indian religious freedom, requiring the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to quell the mess. So much for the First Amendment, even though Indians were declared U.S. citizens by a 1924 law—which Indians highly resented and resisted, by the way. Unilaterally declaring all Indians to be U.S. citizens was equivalent to a summary declaration that all Canadians living in Canada are U.S. citizens. Canadians have their own nation, thank you.

This religious oppression was further complicated by the federal system called “Indian boarding school.” Under it, the U.S. forcibly removed Indian children, starting around age four, from their parents, often paying scofflaws to abduct the children, to throw them into these kid prisons located a thousand miles from their homes. Children usually did not see their parents again till they were grown—assuming the children lived that long. Many of them died of malnutrition, extreme physical and sexual abuse, and just plain misery, so that the “schools” had cemeteries. The “education,” by unqualified “teachers,” never exceeded the fifth-grade level. The primary, written purpose of these concentration camps was to “christianize [sic] and civilize” the kids, who were savagely beaten for speaking their home languages or trying in any way to practice their own spiritual systems, assuming they were old enough at capture to have learned their birth systems.

Paula Gunn Allen and I had been kicking the idea of doing a book on real Indigenous spirituality since 2004, and I already had put together chapter four of Native Americans, Archaeologists, and the Mounds (2003), outlining the Cosmic Twinship. (Chapters two and six of Iroquoian Women delved into the Twinship, too.) Paula was supposed to have collaborated with me on Spirits whose research we knew would require Herculean effort, but she unfortunately died before we could start. That left me to research and write it alone, a daunting prospect that held me at bay for another five years, or so.

The only books that had any real information were Paula’s Sacred Hoop (1986), and some of the excellent work by George S. Tinker of the Illif School of Theology, especially his Missionary Conquest (1993). These works walk near, but then around the Twinship of, Indian spirituality. Before then, there was George Eastman’s Soul of the Indian (1911), which but slyly talked of the Twinship (as I discuss in Spirits), because, remember, it was still against the law for Indians to talk about Indian spirituality. Vine Deloria, Jr., did bravely publish God Is Red (1972, rev. ed., 1994), but notice the non-Indigenous “Soul” and “God” going on in Eastman and Deloria. None of these Indigenous authors traced the full schemata of the Twinship, although all of them addressed portions of it. Paula knew that; so did I, which was why we wanted to do a full book on it.

5. What was the most difficult thing about writing the book? Did you encounter any unexpected problems or challenges?

The research was the most difficult, of course. Most of the material is moldering away in library basements, sometimes misfiled. When I was lucky, I found something at Google Books, Archive.org, or hiding somewhere on-line, at least in part. When I was unlucky, I was crawling on my hands and knees through basement archives, choking on the dust and squinting in the dark. I had already published some work on the Twinship, as mentioned above in my answer to Question 4, so I did already have some citations of things I knew I wanted to pull back up, but I still had to order it through the university library and then twiddle my thumbs till it came in. Sometimes, I received a notice that the work no longer existed or could not be found. Next, I knew what the framework of the Twinship was, of course, but I still had to “prove” it to the standards of Western scholarship. One of the worst aspects of yakademia when it is being yakadementia is that Europeans, preferably Christian and male, are given an automatic pass as The Experts, whereas Indians are still, if quietly, regarded as The Savages. Thus, Indians must start by proving their IQ, dressing to “white” standards, and never, ever questioning The Experts as they cavort about their natural habitat. The whole book does nothing, if not interrogate Western scholarship. However, because almost everything I publish heavily challenges Western scholarship, people will not be surprised that this book is consistent with that stance, although the fact that I use casual language might irritate them. (One publisher’s reader informed the editor that I was a “snot.” My husband asked whether he could get that in writing.) Actually, what I had feared might be the biggest obstacle, finding a publisher for such a unique piece, was not that hard. Although the first couple I tried ran screaming from the project, the Oxford University Press grabbed it the moment its religion editor got a look at my proposal. I have never had such a quick acceptance.

6. What’s the most unexpected response, critical or positive, that you’ve gotten about the book?

I had to laugh when one religious scholar emailed me that Spirits both “invigorated” and “frustrated” him. The Indians who have taken the trouble to email me have all been positive, with some almost ecstatic. I’m still a little scared to look at any academic reviews of the book, though because, sometimes, card-carrying members of the Hate Barbara Mann Club (HBMC) can yield reviewers who are just plain mean by way of demonstrating how unimpeachably brilliant they are as opposed to how unaccountably stupid I am. Once, a reviewer said of one of my books, that “fans of Barbara Mann” would love it, whereas others would, uh, have issues with it (yaka-speak for go apoplectic). At that, I thought, “I have fans?” However, I know from an Oxford statement, which I recently received, that the book is selling pretty well. (By the way, “selling well” means a much smaller volume for an academic press than for a trade press.)

7. With this book done, what’s up next for you?

I’m presently preparing a book proposal for President by Massacre, my next book. It looks at the importance of a candidate’s credentials as a pro-Slavery Indian-hater for ascending to the presidency. (“Indian-hater” was an actual and proudly assumed descriptor in the nineteenth century.) To illustrate my thesis, I use the specific examples of Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor, going through their high-profile massacres of Indians in their pursuit of “fresh” land and the slaves to work it. Incidentally, contrary to popular rumor, Indians were just as likely to wind up in slavery as Africans. Usually, my African-American colleagues and students can name their Indian ancestor/s and tell me which group any were from, typically but not always eastern (Choctaw, Narragansett, Creek, Lenape, Cherokee, etc.). This was due to the forced “breeding” of slaves, especially after the slave trade was cut off by Congress with its Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves (1807), as allowed by Article I of the U.S. Constitution. The intention of the section and the embargo was to force slavery to die with the then-current “stock” of slaves. Not to be thus thwarted, however, the Planters developed their delightful “breeding” program, which typically involved chaining “choice” men and women together until, eventually, the woman became pregnant. Because American history has been heavily sanitized for public consumption, few people outside of practicing historians and their students know of these unsavory facts, and many of the students are too busy checking their messages to catch this section, as it flies by. Hopefully, I can push enough buttons with this book to get their attention. I’m sure I’ll be denounced by the HBMC for writing this book, as well as for my other pieces.

Also, I’m the North American member of a group composed of four international scholars (Philip Dwyer, Nigel Penn, Lyndall Ryan, and me) working on a grant-funded project through the Australian Research Council. In casual conversation, we four are calling it “the massacre project,” although its formal designation is multisyllabic. At our joint Rockefeller fellowship in Bellagio, Italy, over November of 2014, we drafted up our forthcoming book, The Dark Side of Empire, which looks at the massacres of Indigenous peoples between 1780 and 1820 in Australia, South Africa, eastern Europe, and the U.S. We are looking for the common features of massacre by British- and French-derived people in pursuit of empire. Part of our contention is that the U.S. was empire-building as much as ever England or, in South Africa, the Netherlands were, while we saw no reason to pretend that Europe could not also be colonized as well as Australia, Africa, or North America. What was Napoleon doing, if not colonizing? He certainly massacred enough Lithuanians! We are in the final stages of tweaking our manuscript (Philip is smoothing our various sections into “one voice,” an amazing amount of work), before we offer it to publishers.