Anishinaabe Ojibwe writer and scholar Gerald Vizenor says he’s crossblood. Not mixed-blood like a lot of native texts: crossblood. When I heard him speak at University at Albany this winter, I wondered if that particular self-representation of his self-envisioning had anything to do with the way he appeared to oppose representation, which he represented as humorless and static, to vision, which he represented as teasing and fluid, emblified by Chagall. This binary was bugging me like an itching powder that skidded its irritating way into tender places.
My people are cross. Sanguinely speaking, there are two fairly ancient sources of Jews, though the term ancient is relative since five-figure-year-old lines are childlike compared to indigenous lineages. There are Jews whose line runs directly from African migrations, and there are indirect Jews from a line of Eastern European converts; I carry them both.
On the African side, it’s worth noting that the Yoruba and Hebrew languages have, I’ve been told, a sizeable overlap, and some of the arcane Judaic traditions carry African traditions: I remembered my Hungarian grandfather, Papa Sol, spiritually cleaning us with chickens swung in circles above our heads on the High Holidays, so when I was initiated into mysteries of Yoruba religious practices I was already familiar with bird squawks chirps and clucking as part of the devotional chorus.
In the 8th century a bunch of royal Khazars converted to Judaism. Like the Khakas, they were Turkic folks living in what we now call North Eastern Europe or Eurasia. So far I haven’t found written records that they met up, so I don’t know if any of Papa Sol’s folks ever got wind of how Khakas and other ancient Hungarians’ Eternal Blue Sky called Tengri and Fertile Mother Earth called Eje who conjoined in shamanic practices. Many years later, googling “Russian Shaman,” I discovered this image and was amazed by the echo of the Ojibwe wigiwam and drum. Her drum, could be, had once been painted and after repeated beating the images were deep in its skin, invisible as Tengri himself.
Supernatural is an unnatural term derived from the idea that there’s this body/spirit schism that’s an un-crossable chasm, and anyone who’s felt the spirit knows different; people work hard to cross and they do. For people like Vizenors’s admired Chagall and my late beloved, Larry-ban, crossing only registers as compassion for the foggy way its apparent difficulty obfuscates people’s possibilities.
The so-called supernatural is as natural as anything, and it can be and is represented, or that’s how I looked at it. Until our further conversations brought relief, I had thought that Vizenor just wasn’t willing to come out and call a shamanic shovel a shovel. Larry-ban had taught me all about this shovel thing when I haltingly confessed that I’m the embarrassed possessor of a P-H-D.
“Got two of those in my garage,” he said.
OK, post-hole diggers, I get it, I thought.
In case you never saw one, they’re binary shovels conjoined by a hinge. You pick a spot on your trajectory, stamp the blades into the ground, wiggle them around to loosen the earth and use the hinge to close the twin shovels over a nice plug of dirt that you remove to make room for a fencepost – a lot like doing research. Sure, I know what they are and I liked his analogy. Still, I only partly got it, and he saw that.
“They’re used to do the same job,” he added.
Then I got it, duh, a fence isn’t neutral and neither is a thesis: they’re wielded to build boundaries, concoct claims, formulate fences, terrorize territories: the same use, the same uselessness.
Chagall painted enduring embodied spirit, conjoining color stroke by stroke. Envisioning isn’t like post hole digging, but it is work and it does take time. After Larry-ban’s first wife died he’d spent six months beading sky blue regalia swimming with intertwining red flowers, yellow flowers, green leaves with rich black shadows. He preferred representing the visionary relationships between us all with little round beads to separating people with linear fences.
“Life is simple,” he said, “people make it hard.” He was a listener who absorbed every word and his response to difficulties was to gather community, showing us our oneness bead by bead.