Who Mourns the Gepids?
The answer to the question in the title is "No one," but it will
take a while to get to the reasons. I thought about the Gepids as I drove through
the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico through incomparable scenery,
a lot of history, and often uncomfortable knowledge about the present, much
of it filtered through the novels of fellow Oklahomans, Tony Hillerman and Ron
Querry. Their books and other sources touch on problems of the contemporary
Navajo, but they are more noted for their celebration of the coherence of Navajo
culture and the sense of "hozho," of oneness with the beauty of the
world. This theme is attractive to many Anglos who buy into a nostalgia for
a culture they don’t know and who, as they learn more about Navajo-white relations,
may not only feel guilty about overrunning other cultures but come to believe
that these cultures are superior to our own. While this attitude is understandable,
does credit to the goodheartedness of those who hold it, and is to a degree
laudable, it is sometimes based on mistaken assumptions about or ignorance of
human beings and the process of human history. More important, it can be a way
of avoiding social and individual problems rather than dealing with them realistically.
Not that it is wrong to find Navajo country and its people attractive. The
landscape is spectacular, and the human scene looks exotic to anyone who has
not driven across other stretches of the American West. Scattered across the
valleys and up gradual slopes to the mountains are ranches and farms, some with
traditional hogans, some with modern, chiefly manufactured, housing, some with
both, some with hogans that have two stories or ells. Here and there, there
are small, dusty towns with wide streets, along which not many people move not
very quickly. Except for the vernacular architecture, it doesn’t look all that
different from west Texas.
Of course, it is different. The people here are darker and more heavily built
and have a different lilt to their speech. And along the highways trudge a few
pedestrians who don’t bother to put out thumbs to the passing cars. Here and
there a man or boy watches a pair of dogs herd sheep along or across the road.
The core of the culture – what attracts the attention of outsiders who romanticize
it – has not, despite missionaries of various sects, been fundamentally changed
by Christian or European influences.
But those influences have been and are profound. The U.S. government’s treatment
of the Navajo, as of other Indians, is not pretty to contemplate: expropriation
of land, deportation, fiddling with or outright breaking of treaties. Poverty
and alcoholism rates are high. Educators struggle to keep the Navajo language
alive, and there is a severe shortage of singers to conduct traditional ceremonies.
No Anglo with any vestige of conscience can look at all of this without feeling
guilty about what our people have done.
But we feel this way because we know what happened and is happening. And that
brings me back to the Gepids and the question in the title. Few people in the
U.S. or for that matter anywhere else ever heard of the Gepids or know that
they were one of the tribes overrun and then obliterated by the Magyar incursion
into the Carpathian Basin, much of which is now Hungary, a bit over a millennium
Even those who have heard of the Gepids don’t know much about them because,
if they had a written culture, the Magyar did not, and thus would have had no
means of recording and transmitting information in the unlikely event that they
would have been interested. Thus there is no cult of Gepid spirituality or attempt
to revive Gepid rituals or to uphold the Gepid way as superior to that of the
people who displaced it.
In modern times, however, the winners have taken care, though not always the
greatest care, to record information about the winning side, all the way from
preservation, in translation, of the Aztec codex through Joseph Conrad’s impressionistic
account of European incursions into the Congo in Heart of Darkness to
the latest self-styled white shaman’s version of Native American culture.
Moreover, many contemporary marginalized cultures have representatives able
to speak for them. Chinua Achebe, a leading African novelist, attacked Conrad
for presenting issues from the European perspective. N. Scott Momaday speaks
and writes eloquently about the culture of his forbears and other tribes. And
this process continues, as in Geary Hobson’s The Last of the Ofos, in
which the sole survivor of a Louisiana tribe recounts the conditions which he
has survived and, in the moving last chapter, speaks the language that only
he knows to the wind and swamp. Among my own ancestors and distant cousins,
Celts and Confederates have published whole libraries celebrating those ways
of living and of interpreting the world. Celebrating one’s heritage is not only
honorable but necessary.
Of course, these apologists frequently attempt not simply to record ways of
living but assert quite loudly their spiritual and aesthetic superiority to
those of victors who depended on brute technology or accident—stirrups in the
case of the Magyar; horses, steel, guns, and disease in the case of the Europeans
who came to the Americas. The sins of their fathers are conveniently thrown
in the memory hole—partly because people defeated thoroughly enough give themselves,
and frequently get, amnesty for actions which, had they been performed by Europeans,
would be roundly condemned.
Claims for the superiority of marginalized cultures are sometimes honored by
defectors from the majority culture, the more sensitive or disgruntled heirs
of the victors, for several reasons. For one thing, the hearers are impressed
by the testimony of representatives of minority cultures. But many members of
the majority culture are reluctant to examine this testimony critically, making
the unconscious assumption that their status somehow gives their statements
the stamp of infallibility. And this is a subtle form of condescension.
These well-intentioned members of the majority have another reason for accepting
criticism of their society: they can see that what victory has produced is far
from perfect and coherent. On the other hand, a beleaguered minority group can
seem more tightly-knit and coherent than the culture from which the observer
comes. Even as a lapsed Catholic, though not Irish, I found the hair on the
back of my neck rising when I saw my first Orange Lodge. Those more deeply involved
with a minority culture can be unified by outside pressure, like various Indian
tribes who in previous centuries hated, despised, and made war on each other.
Someone who has never heard a Cherokee talk about Kiowas or vice versa, to take
one of many examples, might envy Indian unity in contrast to the divisions he
or she perceives in white society.
Less supportable, at least without critical examination of the testimony, is
the claim that what has been displaced or suppressed is superior to one’s own
culture. Still, it is easy to understand how some people are able to think so.
For one thing, a little knowledge can be consoling, and a lot of knowledge can
be disheartening. We know a great deal about our own society and, unless we
are experts, very little about others. Thus D. H. Lawrence could suppose in
the absence of any hard evidence that the Etruscans had a culture far more balanced
and harmonious than that of the vulgar, expansionist Romans who supplanted them
and, of course, of the far more vulgar and expansionist society in which he
lived. And, according to an anthropologist friend, many students enter her introductory
course with highly romantic views of any people who can be termed "primitive."
The Mayans were once considered to be gentle humanists superior to the Aztecs,
who had a highly developed civilization but also practiced human sacrifice,
because, thanks to a Spanish friar, we have known something about the Aztecs
for a long time. But until recently, when linguists like David Kelley were able
to translate Mayan glyphs, we knew very little about the Mayans. It turns out
that they skinned captives alive, among other things, and what they did when
a king died will make you grab your crotch protectively.
There is also selective use of evidence—or, perhaps, what Orwell called "doublethink.".
In Legends of the American Desert, Alex Shoumatoff has the "impression
that most Navajo, even progressives who live in the cities of the Southwest,
still live by the Navajo Way," which, he quotes a woman as defining as
"’being in harmony with everything—yourself, mainly, all the living things,
the air, Father sky, moon, and on and on." Wouldn’t it be pretty to think
so. But elsewhere Shoumatoff gives figures that suggest otherwise: "five
hundred intoxicated Indians freeze to death or are hit by cars in New Mexico
every year," and in broader terms, alcohol-related deaths, unemployment,
tuberculosis, suicide, and infant mortality rates are much higher than in the
rest of the population. Some of the problems are due to Anglo incursion or neglect,
and whatever their cause, they ought to be corrected as soon as possible. But
it does no good to insist that the traditional system is perfect or necessarily
superior to other ways of looking at life when it has so obviously failed to
deal with these issues.
A second reason for preferring other cultures to one’s own is the assumption
that, because the people are not like us in some ways, they must be totally
different. One example of this attitude can be seen in historical museums, where
spectators and even curators seem fascinated by the possibility that primitive
peoples created social structures and artifacts not wholly unrecognizable to
the people on the other side of the glass in the display case. But for the most
part observers tend to see so-called exotic peoples as wholly other and to regard
as pure and unmixed their motives and responses. This purity is hard to discover
in lived experience. Consider religious rituals. One might ask, though people
rarely do, whether even the most traditional Hopis or Navajos are so much different
from white Christians that they never have doubts about the efficacy of their
rituals or sigh at having to get up and perform a ceremony or show up because
it’s expected of them or enjoy shaking their booty or wish to be somewhere else?
Did all participants have equal faith and fervor? Did no one come for social
or aesthetic reasons?
My experience tells me otherwise. During my college years, when I was a practicing
Catholic, trying to observe not only the letter but the spirit of the law, I
spent weekday mornings one summer vacation singing Requiem Masses at the parish
church with two other college students. I can’t speak to their motives, but
mine were minimally spiritual. Ideally, the Masses were supposed to help spring
the departed from Purgatory. But my decision to get up very early, before going
to work, was primarily aesthetic rather than spiritual: I enjoyed singing, especially
this kind of music, and there were very few aesthetic outlets in small-town
Missouri in the early 1950s.
But at least I believed. A friend, son of a Texas Baptist minister, has lost
his faith but not his taste for hymns, and he meets regularly with a group to
perform "shape note" music, originally religious and now purely recreational.
And many people seem to go to church because they can get out of the house,
meet people, and engage in a different kind of ritual, like Shriners riding
tiny motorcycles in parades.
It’s possible, of course, that people we regard as exotic are really different
from you and me. It’s highly improbable that we can know. Outsiders like Tony
Hillerman can imagine what it’s like to be a Navajo in his mystery stories set
on the reservation. Still, he hedges his bets by concentrating on Joe Leaphorn
and Jim Chee, who have been to Anglo universities. And in any case, his novels
deal with solving problems—whodunnit—rather than with presenting problems, like
alcoholism and alienation from the old ways, in their full complexity. The very
nature of genre fiction distances the reader from these issues. This, by the
way, does not make them bad books, but as Hillerman says, "My readers are
buying a mystery, not a tome of anthropology….the name of the game is telling
stories; no educational digressions allowed." [Tony Hillerman and Ernie
Bulow, Talking Mysteries: A Conversation with Tony Hillerman (Albuquerque:
University of New Mexico Press, 1991), p. 39.]
Nevertheless, Hillerman, like every sensitive student of another culture, performs
a valuable service in making readers more aware of the problems of a culture
obviously under attack. And no one in the majority should regret attempts to
preserve knowledge about other beliefs and ways of life. But no outsider, no
matter how well-intentioned, should be allowed to forget Heisenberg’s Uncertainty
Principle: one cannot study a phenomenon without somehow affecting it. Like
ecotourism, which has much the same effect on an environment as the supposedly
more vulgar kind, contact with other cultures affects them. To put it another
way: consider the Prime Directive in the original "Star Trek." If
Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise had observed it, at least half of the episodes
could never have existed.
But many people who sentimentalize extinct or suppressed cultures do so less
out of love for them than out of distaste for their own. Susan Smith Nash, who
has worked with and translated indigenous writers, sees this process as becoming
"a sort of commodification of history that works because it scandalized
certain behaviors (thus fetishizing them and titillating the audience), and
it makes history (or the construction of it) an artifice to be retooled each
season so that it’s a fashion statement as well. Sentimentalizing is a kind
of sales pitch—what’s being sold? The thrill of voyeuristically contemplating
atrocities? A way to appear enlightened?" Or, as a Navajo put it to Shoumatoff,
"You Americans are looking for instant religious satisfaction, like instant
mashed potatoes." In other words, like Lawrence with the Etruscans, the
Other provides convenient and all too easy weapons with which to attack the
ways of their parents, literal or figurative, in the dominant culture.
But in cooler and more logical terms, it seems unwise to regard the ways of
other cultures as necessarily superior. Take the film "Koyaanisqatsi,"
the title a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance," which indicts
America’s rampant urbanism and mindless embracing of technology. That is a valid
point – but to make it Godfrey Reggio used a number of advanced technological
resources, and the review for the internet’s Apollo web-site concludes that
"To get the full effect on video, you’ll need a big screen, an excellent
sound system, and the audio turned up good and high." Another on-line reviewer,
Vladimir Zelevinsky was left "with the feeling of elation and triumph.
The sheer complexity of the urban activity and power and variety of humanity
on display is enough to make one proud to be a part of these extravagant species
This was a more eloquent version of my reaction to the film, and it leads to
a broader issue: don’t be too quick to despise the familiar. There is plenty
wrong with modern American civilization and with Catholicism. But there is also
a great deal to celebrate, for the traditions and rituals of both are rich and
complex. And there is plenty wrong with colonialism, which Joseph Conrad’s Marlow
defines as "the taking it away from those who have a different complexion
or slightly flatter noses than ourselves." As he says, it’s not a pretty
But it is a common one. Human beings are opportunistic. Those to whom we did
it almost certainly did it to someone else. My Celtic ancestors moved, or sometimes
were moved, through Europe until they ran against the Atlantic Ocean. The Navajos
and Apaches moved from western Canada to the American Southwest, where they
harassed and, when possible, despoiled the Pueblo and other neighboring tribes,
who helped in Kit Carson’s campaign against them. The Apaches were forced farther
south and west by the incursion of the Comanches. In the anthropologist’s version,
American Indians came from Asia. If one insists on tribal origin stories, the
Navajos came up from a lower world to this one, specially created for them.
That, and the Navajos’ name for themselves, Dineh, The People, sounds a little
like Manifest Destiny. Or consider the case of the Kennewick Man, whose remains,
nine millennia old and not indisputably Mongoloid, were discovered in Washington
state. Scientists wanted to test the DNA; Indian groups maintained that this
was intrusive and that, since he was discovered on their land, he must be Indian.
In any case, they argued, they had always been here, so he had to be one of
their ancestors. There is every reason to respect native culture and traditions,
but imagine what the response would be to similar claims by white Christian
fundamentalists, including the Kansas textbook board which removed textbooks
which so much as mention evolution.
But the Indian claim points to a serious question: which people can be called
indigenous? While I was drafting this essay, I heard a talk by a learned and
earnest young Osage scholar who listed a number of indigenous peoples in the
Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and Africa. With the exception of the Lapps
– and perhaps the Basques, they might argue – Europe apparently has no indigenous
peoples. But the term really means that no one knows when they got where they
I raise this issue not to quibble and certainly not to justify regarding any
other culture as inferior or to excuse some or even most of the actions of those
who moved in, including EuroAmericans. Nor to make my fellow Americans feel
triumphant: our turn will come.
When it does, those of us who survive may take whatever consolation is possible
in the sight of the disaffected heirs of our conquerors appropriating the outward
and visible signs of our culture. Perhaps really avant-garde youth will wear
three-piece suits; drink Chivas Regal; dine at ethnic restaurants serving meat
loaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans boiled limp; listen to Lawrence Welk
and Neil Diamond; and attend re-creations of tent revivals. They may even hire
us as gurus and tour guides.
In the meantime, it might be well to follow the advice of the strongest character
in Frank Chin’s novel Donald Duk to a boy who hates being Chinese: "History
is war, not sport." And like Donald Duk, you have to learn about your history
in order to celebrate and defend it. And about others’ histories in order to
understand and respect rather than to sentimentalize them.
We also have to deal with internal critics who attempt to deconstruct American
history and institutions. Some of this is necessary: the George Washington cherry
tree type of history persists in the minds of many Americans, including those
who infest the editorial page of the largest newspaper in my state. All we can
say to these criticisms is "Yes."
And then "but." The young Osage scholar speaks of a responsibility
to his own past, his own family, his own history. We have the same responsibility,
made more difficult by the greater burden of knowledge and the even greater
burden of success. It can be tempting, as Geary Hobson points out in "The
Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism," to
shirk this burden and try to become a reverse image of what blacks, Indians,
and Asians call oreos, apples, bananas – white only on the outside, red, black,
or yellow on the inside. This kind of distortion makes the imitator ludicrous
in the eyes of the people being imitated. As Hobson says, people like this need
"to restore themselves to their own houses – by learning and accepting
their own history and culture."
That doesn’t mean that any of us can afford to ignore, let alone despise, other
cultures. The Osage hasn’t cut himself off from white language and culture;
Frank Chin knows about Westerns and flamenco; Ralph Ellison knew about Hemingway
and Malraux and a whole lot else; and Hobson, a Quapaw-Cherokee-Chickasaw, teaches
Faulkner. But none of them wants to be an imitation white man, and it would
be equally mistaken for whites to try to be Navajos or blacks or anything else
but what we are. And what we are is in part a heritage, a family, and a history,
and none of us can escape these, or should try. As King Duk says in Chin’s novel,
"You gotta keep the history yourself or lose it forever….That’s the mandate
of heaven." Shoumatoff quotes the Navajo phrase about "becoming real"—getting
rid of false values and seeing the true nature of things. All of us need, Chin
would agree, to take responsibility for what we have become and will become.
Perhaps Shoumatoff should consider more directly that there are ways, besides
the Navajo way, of doing so. Owen Wister, often a little too obsessed with his
white heritage and values, nevertheless has a point when his Virginian insists
that there is only one kind of goodness and that he tries to follow it. "And
when I meet it," he adds, "I respect it." And so should every
Asian-American, African-American, Navajo, and anyone else who hopes to become
real—by whatever name it is called and whatever process it is attained.
This article was originally published in Southwest Review, vol. 86,
no. 1, 2001.