25 September 2011


Colleen E Boyd and Coll Thrush (Eds.) Phantom Past, Indigenous Presence: Native Ghosts in North American Culture and History, University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

The academic community has been producing studies into witchcraft beliefs for the best part of 40 years, but is only just beginning to turn its attention to the themes of ghosts and hauntings. Perhaps because these accounts and beliefs are much more present in the general community than those surrounding witchcraft, this is a much more fraught enterprise.
The work edited by Boyd and Thrush is a collection of essays on various topics, centred around the theme of haunting as applied to First American communities. The term haunting here is clearly intended by different contributors in various ways, some more literal than others.

Perhaps the central theme of this book is the haunting presence in ‘spirit’ and material form of First American communities were they were supposed to have been exorcised generations ago. Popular culture has constructed a mythology whereby this haunting presence, often in terms of forgotten ‘Indian’ graveyard threatens the present.

There is here a sense that the forgotten shameful history of genocide and slavery on which much of North American society was built may return and extract its revenge. There is also less happily perhaps an assimilation of older European traditions of the places haunted by the faceless pagan dead (raths, barrows etc) have been superimposed on this new landscape.

The various essays survey different aspects of this haunting presence, involving surviving communities, beliefs, traditions, skeletal remains and artefacts, and notions of spirit of place. If there is a major lacuna it is that there is no treatment here of the return of First Americans as ‘spirit guides’ and the like, from the times of the Shaker communities through to modern spiritualism.

Colleen Boyd a Irish American who has married into First American family, her husband being the first member of his family to go to university "in a thousand years" to quote Neil Kinnock. She surveys their beliefs and compares them with those of her own Catholic Irish American culture.

The presence of the ancestors for many First American communities has both a comforting but also an unnerving quality which must be dealt with by specific rituals, otherwise the dead can make their presence felt. Colleen Boyd describes such experiences and the rituals to deal with them, in her account of the role of First American workers in an archaeological site and their ‘supernatural’ experiences. Her wider essay raises the questions of how academics should react to accounts of supernatural experiences, and this is a theme also taken up by Boyd and Thrush in their introduction and by Thrush in his essay ‘Haunting as Histories’, and by Cynthia Landrum in her account of shape shifters.

Reading some of these accounts, it seems as though in some ways it is easier for academics to talk about these sorts of experiences in the context of other, exotic cultures, rather than their own. What are sometimes presented here as rather culturally specific indigenous experiences are in fact universal human experiences, though cultures may have differing explanations and shape the external features of the experience.

Our night visitors are now less likely to be the apparitional figures of our neighbours, and more likely to be Grays with wrap-round eyes, but the core experience remains the same. Having a Deer Person with the legs of a Deer as a phantom hitchhiker as in a story recounted by Cynthia Landrum may be culturally specific but the experience of the phantom co-traveller is much more universal. The experiences of the First American workers on the archaeological site, might well if the interviews were carried out by a researcher as sympathetic and sensitive as Colleen Boyd, be from any group of those engaged in the recovery operation after 9/11.

This is clearly born out by Lisa Phillips and Allan K McDougall of strange experiences in a Scots family living at Baldoon Ontario in 1824. The European community attributed them to witchcraft, and First American community to the local equivalent of the fairies. In later renditions these became ‘ghosts’ and ‘wild Indians’ respectively. No doubt contemporary psychical researchers would attribute them to a poltergeist.

There several references to David Hufford and his notion of "traditions of unbelief", but much of what is complained of is simply academic neutralism. Saying that ‘The Sauk’ (to mention one of the communities noted in this study) ‘believe’ is no different than an anthropologist saying "Roman Catholics believe this" or that "Hassidic Jews believe that" or "physicists believe the other". This does not imply these beliefs are false, merely that to assert that they are true would mean that one was speaking as a Roman Catholic, Hassidic Jew or physicist rather than as an anthropologist. (My own doubt comes with the "the" in the “x” believe, because it involves a fair degree of homogenisation; try saying "the English believe" and you get the point.

I mentioned earlier that a lacuna in these essays is the absence of the treatment of First American's once largely defeated being ‘returned’ as spirit guides, often seen as primitive people, "close to the earth" and sources of spiritual wisdom. It is not just spiritualists who have been guilty of this kind of exoticism, one sees it in the reduction of what were once historically dynamic and culturally adaptive peoples, into ahistoric, homogenised and non-threatening ‘first peoples’, sources of spiritual wisdom. Denying the right of people to transform their lives and take part in the historical process is a denial of part of their humanity which should be guarded against.

There can be worse dangers. When activists denounce western science and academic archaeology as voodoo science, and their academic supporters urge a separation between ‘western rationalist’ ways of knowing and ‘indigenous’ ways of knowing though blood and instinct, there is a kind of primitivism being invoked which has a racist quality. Perhaps contemporary Americans of all kinds are becoming too remote from Europe and its tragic history to know where this sort of thing leads. Substitute ‘Jewish’ for ‘western/academic’ and ‘Germanic’ or ‘Aryan’ for ‘Indigenous’ and you get your answer. -- Peter Rogerson

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