- Yuchi Ceremonial Life: Performance, Meaning, and Tradition in a Contemporary American Indian Community
With his book Yuchi Ceremonial Life, Jason Baird Jackson establishes himself as one of the foremost scholars in American Indian studies today. Providing far more than a case study of a single tribe, Jackson successfully provides a comparative analysis with other Woodlands tribes to contextualize Yuchi life historically, geographically, and culturally. Further, Jackson's nuanced handling of issues unique in their specific manifestation among the Yuchi but shared across Indian country make this book relevant for all scholars of American Indian culture.
The book's focus is the multiple dimensions of Yuchi ceremonial life, and Jackson presents [End Page 364] them in rich ethnographic detail. The portrait drawn is impressive for its clarity in describing such a complex subject. As a folklorist who has worn many hats during his fieldwork with the Yuchi, including helping the tribe secure federal recognition, Jackson is clear in his goal of articulating those elements of Yuchi ceremonial life that are unique. He thus argues for their recognition as a group that is distinct from the Creek, with whom they have been identified for over two hundred years. What is unique for them often is not any substantive differences in content or meaning from that of Creek, Shawnee, or other Woodlands cultures, but in how ceremonial life is "configured" there. For example, the Yuchi Soup Dance, Iroquois Dead Feast, and Shawnee Ghost Feast all share several overarching themes, including the assemblage of ancestors, divisions between male and female roles, and a mood of "dignified gaiety" (p. 258). However, these rites are performed in substantively different configurations. These configurations should not be dismissed as irrelevant, and Jackson provides ample evidence that they result in shifts of primary significance for ritual performance. In the example above, the focus for the Yuchi rests on the communally shared responsibility of the living for maintaining connection with the dead; other tribes' rites may focus on familial rather than communally shared responsibilities, or they may even shift focus more dramatically to the gendered exchange of food (pp. 258–71). Jackson's comparative work serves an important analytical purpose as well. Yuchi, Creek, Seminole, Loyal Shawnee, Absentee Shawnee, Quapaw, Ottawa, and Seneca-Cayuga who live in relative proximity to one another in eastern Oklahoma are expected to engage in intertribal reciprocity by participating in each others' ceremonies. Jackson's comparative work mirrors the intertribal knowledge of proficient ceremonialists in each of these tribes, although that knowledge is no doubt constructed according to different needs and paths of inquiry.
Despite the breadth of cultural data that he discusses, Jackson does an excellent job of explaining the relevance of the material to his specific study. Recurring themes of reciprocity; gender division; renewal; identity at the local, regional, tribal, intertribal and intratribal levels; and mythology rise to prominence. As Jackson acknowledges, the book veers toward an idealized account of ceremonial activity, stressing the potential for the construction of harmony, inter- and intratribal relations, and mutually beneficial reciprocal relations between living tribal members, dead ancestors, and the Creator. However, Jackson regularly reminds the reader of divergences between ideal and real culture, painting a refreshingly human portrait of the Yuchi. The portrait that he paints is one of a group of committed members avidly and aggressively utilizing technology and modern developments such as focus groups, video and audio taping, and workshops to maintain, revitalize, and create Yuchi culture as a relevant part of their lives—lives often dominated by the same economic and political pressures experienced by those in the majority culture.
One of the great pleasures of this book is the attention Jackson pays to the formal, functional, and performative elements of ceremonial oratory. Jackson helps reveal the patterns in oratory that resonate with themes repeated throughout the larger performance, such as ritual exegesis, distinctions between asking for aid and reciprocity, and...