- Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath: The Twinned Cosmos of Indigenous America by Barbara Alice Mann
IN THE PUBLISHING AND LITERARY WORLD, it is noticeable that Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath by Barbara Alice Mann (Seneca) is often categorized as a religious book or a book on religion. In many ways, this kind of misinterpretation of Native American beliefs and peoples illustrates the author's clear, concise detailing of such Eurocentric practices and behaviors, which have spanned centuries and resulted in widespread stereotyping and the persecution of Native peoples. Historically, in all too many cases, this propensity also ignited a murderous response by European invaders and settlers. Today, that may not always physically be the case, but it is still very problematic.
In my understanding, traditional Native Americans do not have religion, for they are not religious, as in the European perception, but simply lead a spiritual life. There is no compartmentalization or separation between belief and being, in daily life and everything that involves. In perusing the book's chapter titles, readers, whether Native or non-Native, should glean that the book is certainly about more than its mislabeled genre. Even if conceding that point in the broadest sense, that it is a book on Native American spirituality and religion, then it should be plural, for Native peoples are not homogeneous, and neither are their belief systems, cultures, traditions, and history, save the shared trauma of European invasion.
Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath is a collection of distinct Indigenous perceptions, stories, legends, and (some people might call them) myths, as in fiction, although these are histories and explanations orally passed down that are believed true or are rooted in truth. As the aphorism states, "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Yet this book is more than a systematic gathering of related information primarily on serpents and thunderbirds or sky and earth beings, none unique or forbidden because they are all available if you know where to look, and far more than a work detailing and then condemning European proclivities, past or present. It is correction by example of misattribution, mislabeling, and at times a "blow-by-blow" timeline of Western interference and biased disdain for actual Native wisdom and realities, which, conversely, other Europeans appropriated and erased. [End Page 248]
In the extended introduction, the author remarks on the fact that Native spirituality has been exploited and Native identities, appearances, and stereo typed traits have been commodified, restating what many of us know: that there is so much misinformation out there that some Natives have also come to believe and continue the incorrect explanations of traditional knowledge or belief. One major example: priests in particular lessened or omitted the role of women and those in differently gendered roles because of their patriarchal bias and prejudices, which unfortunately was incorporated into or influenced modern tribal councils and decision-making processes today. Other topics that are either less often known or entirely misattributed include cannibalism, scalp-taking, gigantism (giants), dwarfism (little people), and the Bering Strait theory.
The extensive bibliography and notes section are valuable, increasing the reuse and referencing aspect of the book, as Mann gathered and carefully recorded them in great detail. They are naturally about history but also sexuality, fashion and clothing, spiritual beliefs and ceremonies, and topics considered mysteries or unexplained by European Americans past and present. And the references are to the original documents, not only the second-person or even third-person sources widely used and circulated, even by Native scholars.
This latest work by Mann is a dense, in-depth look into different tribal beliefs and traditions that even some Natives may not know, especially intertribally, all strategically laced with a biting wit to drive home memorable points and object lessons. For most readers, although thoroughly engrossing due to its subject matter, the nature of the material can be so great that it is what I term "slow reading." By this I mean it is very thought-provoking, so much so that at times...