The Attack on a Native American Blessing

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 13, 2011 — 126 Comments

Yesterday, a memorial service was held in Tucson, Arizona for those killed and injured in the horrific shooting this past Saturday. While President Obama’s speech was almost universally praised for its heartfelt honoring of those involved, and “elevating the political debate,” other aspects of the evening were not received as warmly. Most notably, there’s been a wave of criticism regarding the opening invocation by Dr. Carlos Gonzales, a Pascua Yaqui Indian and associate professor at the University of Arizona, College of Medicine.

Some critiques of Gonzales’ traditional blessing were mostly puzzled and relatively mild, like Fox News anchor Brit Hume, who described the invocation as “peculiar,” and setting a strange tone for the rest of the memorial.

Certainly the mood in that auditorium suggested that the sense of mournfulness that you might have expected and sobriety you might have expected was not to be found tonight. And of course, I think, the whole thing is attributable in part to the remarkable opening blessing that was delivered by, what was his name, Carlos Gonzales, who by the time it was over with, he had blessed the reptiles of the sea, and he had prayed to the four doors of the building, and while I’m sure that all has an honorable tradition with his people, with it was most peculiar.

However, pundits like Michelle Malkin and Power Line’s Paul Meringoff were far more harsh. Using adjectives like “babbles,” “rambling,” and “ugly.”

Native American gives rambling speech while holding a feather. His remarks are frequently interrupted by whoops and cheers. He gives a shout-out to his son serving in Afghanistan. Brags about his ethnic Mexican background. Babbles about two-legged and four-legged creatures and the feminine energy that comes from Mother Earth. Mercy.”Michelle Malkin

As for the “ugly,” I’m afraid I must cite the opening “prayer” by Native American Carlos Gonzales. It was apparently was some sort of Yaqui Indian tribal thing, with lots of references to “the creator” but no mention of God. […] In any event, the invocation could have used more God, less Mexico, and less Carlos Gonzales.”Paul Meringoff

Mark Tapscott at the Washtington Examiner went even further than Malkin and Meringoff, calling the invocation a “stark statement of pantheistic paganism,” that was “a blatant violation of separation of church and state” that sent “a message of exclusion to the many.” Sadly, this mean-spirited and ignorant commentary didn’t stop with a few big names.

“In fact, a whole weird vibe was set at the very beginning of the memorial with pseudo-Native American medicine man Carlos Gonzales. He began the off kilter scene with his pseudo-blessing of rocks and trees, northern doors, and — well, whatever he was blessing, anyway. His self-referential promotion was also quite off-putting.”

Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today wonders if you were “annoyed” or in “agreement” with the blessing given by Gonzales, while pointing out the rationale for his inclusion in the program.

“Gonzales was a fitting choice for several reasons, says Patty Talahongva, who is Hopi and past president of the Native American Journalists Association. The tribal reservation is in the district of gravely injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. And he’s a symbol of Arizona’s diversity — part of the university president Robert Shelton’s ongoing campaign to bring all streams of thought, culture and tradition into the campuses. (Hence the title “Together we thrive” on the funeral programs).”

Talahongva expands on this in an essay for Youth Radio.

“So tonight it comes down to words from an aboriginal man, from a race of people who have consistently helped this nation in times of strife. Arizona is home to the Navajo and Hopi Code Talkers who are credited with creating codes in their traditional languages which were never broken by the enemy during World War II. They helped save countless American lives. Quite often the words and voice of the American Indian/Alaska Native is lost in America, their indigenous homeland, but tonight the country will hear from a man who clearly represents America and her rich diversity… Words matter. Words can sometimes save lives. And when words are spoken in prayer, in a positive way, they can surely do more good than harm.”

What’s troubling about this wave of criticism towards Dr. Carlos Gonzales is that it shows how little tolerance there is in some corners for any expression of religion that isn’t Christian or some flavor of ceremonial deism. Even during a memorial that many felt was uniting and uplifting, the wave of scare quotes, snide remarks, and insults against indigenous religions couldn’t be held back. This is the same impulse that led to the disruption of Rajan Zed’s Senante invocation, the ignorance and arrogance that only comes from almost total religious and cultural power and privilege. These hectoring voices darkly reinforce the attitudes that continually place Arizona’s recreation over the sacred land of its indigenous peoples. They are a sour note in what was, on the whole, a moment where our country, in all its diversity, came together.

ADDENDUM: Power Line’s Paul Meringoff has issued an apology:

“In a post last night, I criticized the use of a Yaqui prayer as the invocation to the memorial service in Tucson. In doing so, I failed to give the prayer the respect it deserves. Although I did not intend this as a slight to the religion or to the Yaqui tribe, it can clearly be interpreted as one. For this, I sincerely apologize to my readers, to the Yaqui tribe, to all tribal leaders and Indian people, and, specifically, to Carlos Gonzales who delivered the prayer. I regret my poor choice of words, and I have removed the post.”

It seems that being disrespectful can be bad for business.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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