Of late I have been confronted by the question of what I am worth.
This has been happening at several levels, both literal and metaphorical. On the literal level: I had to call a university office so they could straighten out a mistake with my paycheck. It was easily fixed, thank goodness, but for a few hours it looked like my recent promotion was going to result in a pay decrease. Not a good feeling, to say the least.
Over the past few weeks I've been engaged in the process of being evaluated for a raise (half the faculty is eligible each year; this happens to be my year). And this comes at the end of being up for promotion for four years. It's another process that has definite bearing, in the end, on how much money I bring home every month for doing my job. But there's more to it than that.
Part of the process involves writing a report about myself that updates a university committee and the provost about my recent activities. Perhaps this is crass, but I always feel that when I write this report, I'm answering the committee's question: "what have you done for us lately?"
Writing this report is somewhat excruciating--at least for me, a person who was taught to be modest and humble whenever possible and who suspects that just about the time you start tooting your own horn, you're going to fall on your face. And get a horn imprint on your head.
So it's not a form of expression that comes natural to me. Add to that the various neuroses I've developed over the years (thanks I'm sure to an awkward teenagerhood, a mean pseudo-step-parent, and the horrors of graduate school). Stir all this up, add a publication record with a huge gap in it, and you've got a bit of a mess. It's definitely been an effort for me to develop a writing voice in that report that is simultaneously graceful, informative, and non-defensive while also arguing, in effect, that I am fabulous.
Then there's another thread of worth that I've been thinking about since visiting a pow-wow with some students a couple weekends ago. While there I ran into a couple I know who are Sun Dancers at the ceremony I go to in South Dakota, General and Ute Grant. (They live in North Carolina, so meeting them in Ohio was unexpected!) It turns out that General is a silversmith; one of the precious materials he works with is wampum.
You've probably heard of wampum; it was a bead material, usually white or purple, made from clam shells. Back in the dinosaur days when I was in school, I was taught that it was used among the tribes in New England as money. I have a small pair of earrings that I bought at a pow-wow a couple years ago, and when I wore them I would remind myself that I have worth, I have value, that as a human being I am intrinsically worthy.
But there's more to wampum than that. Belts made of wampum were used to seal treaties, as a kind of text to document the agreement and remind the two parties of their promise to each other. (Here is a discussion of a particular wampum belt that may have been used to seal Penn's treaty with the Delaware--scroll down for the image and the story of what happened to its match, kept by a native chief... Scroll down to pp. 6-7 of this excellent document for more about wampum from a Haudenosaunee point of view.)
Before European contact, wampum seems also to have been used to record significant stories and give the storyteller a physical representation of the event he or she would tell others, something like a Lakota winter count. (Here is a nice account of the various functions of wampum.)
There's a piece of contemporary art I read about in the National Museum of the American Indian magazine a couple years ago whose image and purpose has stayed with me: Alan Michelson's Third Bank of the River. The ginormous glass work--almost six feet tall and forty feet long!--evokes the image and feeling of the two-row wampum belt that was used in the 17th century. Installed at the border between Canada, the U.S., and the Haudenosaunee nation, the piece brings to mind issues of borders, agreements between nations, history, and land; I find it almost haunting. I'd like to see it in person someday. (I wish I could show you a photo of it in my blog, but I don't have permission. So instead I'll say go here and read this excellent article about it by Kate Morris, "Art on the River: Alan Michelson highlights border-crossing issues." There's also a description there of another of his river-centered works, Mespat, which I was lucky enough to see at the NMAI this past summer.)
Michelson's work, I think, is a beautiful example of how contemporary native artists use the forms of the past and adapt them, creating new pieces with new materials to say something important about current events and situations while also bringing the past--history and ancestors--into the conversation.
And in his craft of silversmithing, I think General is doing something similar. He uses shapes and settings that are modern, that you'd see at jewelry shows; but he also uses very old, traditional shapes (as seen above). I've seen a 19th-century photograph (in Women of the West, Luchetti & Olwell) of three generations of Nez Perce women who are all wearing earrings in this shape, made out of shell.
General taught me something new about wampum: that it was used all over the east coast, not just in the northeast. People of the nations in the south, including his ancestors the Cherokees, used it as well. His teaching about wampum is that it is used to signify, in part, the interconnectedness of all life, the idea that all of us in creation are connected with everyone and everything else. It's a kind of embodiment of the Lakota idea of Mitakuye Oyasin--all my relations.
I was so grateful to be reminded of this idea. And how fitting that that reminder came from someone I am connected with in far-away South Dakota, and that I saw him and his wife so unexpectedly. We had a beautiful conversation about the Sun Dance ceremony, and about the concept of worth, and how that feeling of worth has to come from within, never from without, and how that feeling derives from knowing we are a part of the creation, a gift of the Creator.
It was an apt reminder, received just at the right time.
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