Monday, June 23, 2008

It was kind of a shock to come home last night and find myself deleted from the internet. It was the result of changing email addresses which meant I never got the notice that my subscription to blogtoolkit was running out. Since all of my data was erased, I decided I would switch servers to blogspot and essentially start over. It's going to take me awhile to get the hang of this program, so bear with me. I guess I'm not too surprised that I would get home from attending a Sundance only to find out my blog would have a new beginning. That's essentially what Sundance is about--new beginnings.

This particular Sundance is celebrated for returning military veterans. Natives have traditionally been represented in the military in numbers which far surpass their representation in the general population, and the Souix know as much about treating PTSD as the Veterans hospitals do. This year they did a "Washing of the Hands" ceremony for an Iraqui vet who was having PTSD issues. This ceremony essentially recognizes the fact that it is really the tribe who sends their men and women off to war, and it is the tribe's responsibility to acknowledge that by accepting the pain and guilt of the returning warriors on themselves. It's a very powerful and symbolic ceremony. The washing of the warriors hands is always done by the women of the tribe in recognition of the fact the warrior was acting on behalf of them and their children.

The ceremony does not downplay the spiritual damage war inflicts on the participants, and makes no distinction between combatant military roles and noncombatant military roles. All are equally culpable and all are equally spiritually damaged even if the actual experiences are vastly different.

In the old days, warriors were not allowed into the main camp until they had undergone a sort of spiritual debriefing and this particular ceremony had been performed. It was considered spiritually damaging to shed the blood of others even in a good cause, and until the warriors had been purified they could not bring their energy into the camp. The movie scenes with whooping, jubilant, warriors returning in triumph to their camps is all movie fiction. Combatants returned to a camp which was isolated from the main camp and concentrated on purifying their spirits. In general war was not celebrated by plains tribes the way we have been conditioned to believe.

The young Iraqui vet spoke very eloquently about his isolation and loneliness while in Iraq and how different military culture was from tribal culture. I got the sense he expected a kind of 'band of brothers' engaged in a noble venture, and found something else entirely. He freely admitted that when he came back he drank himself into oblivion, abused his wife and family, and generally went into an intoxicated state of denial. He decided at some point to return to the spiritual path and danced all four days of this Sundance, piercing on three separate occasions. His tears at the end of the Washing of the Hands ceremony were shared by all kinds of other folks, dancers and spectators, and most especially by the elder Viet Nam vets. The elder Viet Nam vets were the ones who initially found the courage to admit that PTSD was not a function of weakness but a consequence of combat participation. These were the men who revived the Washing of the Hands ceremony. These are the men who understood that combat experience is just as devastating to those left behind and returned to, as it is the combatants themselves. These are men of true courage and wisdom and they have made it a point to give returning Iraqi vets and their families the support and encouragement they themselves did not find on their return.

Catholicism, and Christianity in general could take a real lesson from the Washing of the Hands ceremony. Essentially this is a symbolic act in which the community accepts the fact that they have as much blood on their hands as the warriors do on theirs. It is a fundamental truth that everyone is a participant in war, and everyone should accept the consequences of the decision to go to war. It's not the soldiers alone who are the 'baby killers', it's all of us. While this ceremony seems to bring real healing for the combatants, it also is a very sobering reminder to the rest of us about where our culpability lies and how fruitless and harmful it is for us to scapegoat our warriors as we essentially did with Viet Nam vets.

During the ceremony I tried to picture GW and Cheney out the in the Sundance circle washing the hands of returning vets with their tears. It proved to be an impossible task.

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