At the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, visitors learn about Native dance, art, history, and modern culture. It’s a two-floor archive and represents thousands of years of Native contributions to the Americas.
A recurring theme across the exhibits is colonial religions suppressing Native ceremony. Everywhere their boats took them, European colonizers repressed Natives’ ways of expressing their natural social and spiritual rhythms, and in some places suppression and repression continued for centuries.
For well over fifty years in the United States and Canada—and for centuries in Latin America—church and “civilizing” regulations discouraged and even outlawed many indigenous dances. Deeming the dances an obstacle to assimilation, federal governments prohibited Native societies from performing them.
It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that laws against ceremonial dances were fully reversed. Today many Native communities continue to preserve their dance traditions, some of which were underground for decades. A powerful impulse, dance is a universal form of expression that remains deeply meaningful in Native America—and integral to Native ceremonial life.”
I noticed this theme woven into anthropological accounts of dances across the Western Hemisphere: dances from Peru, Alaska, British Columbia, and the Great Plains dot the walls of a great, circular hall.
The Brazilian and Colombian Cubeo Oyné dance, for example, is part of a funereal ceremony that was “suppressed by missionaries in the 1940s.” As Janet Chernela explains it, the dance helps the community move “from grief and loss toward play and laughter.” And even that ceremony, a ceremony that promoted collective healing, was suppressed.
You can count on authoritarianism to suppress the natural and war with any creative expression that doesn’t easily yield to external control. Every piece of art, every moment of embodied joy, each free movement is a reason to dampen energy or translate it into more acceptable forms.
As I’m reflecting on the exhibits in the New York museum, I’m also reflecting on authoritarian religion’s ongoing drive to suppress and control human nature. We gain from playing with structure; and cities like New York depend on our willingness to build our lives on artificial rhythms and patterns.
But I left the museum today wondering about how much we lose in that process of disciplining the human. Which are the other cultures that don’t survive “civilizing” projects?