folklorelei: (the siren)
[personal profile] folklorelei
prayer sticks

What are prayer sticks? A way of making a prayer manifest in physical form, an offering to the gods and spirits in hope they will please them and persuade them to grant your prayer.

There are many ways to make prayer sticks, many traditions, including fake ones. If you type prayer sticks into Google, you'll see what I mean. They aren't strictly an American Indian tradition, but exist in many forms in many cultures. The thing is: one tradition will have you plant them in the earth to soak up the earth's magic; another will tell you they must hang in trees and never touch the earth or the magic is void. I suspect the "truth" is more along the lines of "as you think, so shall it be."

The way I was taught is this: first, get yourself a stick. Now, some traditions say it has to be a stick gathered from a certain kind of tree (the kind of tree varying depending on who you're talking to), stripped of its bark and sanded; others say leave the bark on; still others say the stick itself is less important than the intent put into it. A piece of wooden dowling will do if you do not have a tree handy to harvest switches from. So, I got me some wooden dowling. Second, on the top part of the stick you paint or write your prayer in some kind of permanent medium. Next, you cover up the prayer with bright cloth or leather and bind it with string or leather thongs. I have a special piece of batik cloth which a soldier brought back from Vietnam for his mother. She gave it to my mother, who gave it to me. I use it for all my ceremonial art pieces. Then you decorate the cloth—with things of a more natural bent, not plastic. In my case, I used shells, bells, tile beads, shell buttons (some dyed blue, some natural), bone beads, ribbons, and feathers. Feathers are very, very important. Almost every tradition I've read of speaks of feathers. They help the prayer fly up to the gods, you see. After all this—in the way I was taught—you find a secluded place where you can plant your stick in the ground, somewhere where it's not likely to be disturbed because if someone touches it, the magic all goes away! You visit the stick every day at sunset or sunrise for ten days, and reiterate the prayer inked on it. After ten days it becomes just another decorated stick and you can pluck it from the ground again and do whatever you like with it. I placed mine on display in my room, and they have journeyed around with me now from place to place to place to place.

prayer sticks closeup

And no, I will not say what the prayers were for. I have a superstition of my own, that telling the prayer will make the magic all disappear. In fact, I'm only totally sure what one of those prayers was for (both were done many years ago). I also have a superstition about unwrapping the stick and peaking at the prayer. See above about magic disappearing. The one I'm sure of came true, so the stick did the trick. I suspect I know what the other one was, but I'm not entirely sure, and if it was what I think, then the gods found my prayer stick and me wanting. The prayer did not come true. No harm, no foul. Prayers sticks are about asking, not about receiving.

I did a lot of asking back in the day, back in that day.

I went through a phase where I wasn't writing—a long, agonizing time of writers' block that lasted nearly five years. I tried filling my creative urge with visual arts, mostly tactile stuff: basketmaking, sculpture, textiles, assemblages, etc. It did fill part of the hole inside me, but writing has always been my first love, and I still felt incomplete.

During this period, I became involved with a teacher who had studied American Indian spiritual craftwork with a number of different Indian teachers from different tribes. She herself was not Indian, she was a middle-class white girl like myself, but she had enormous respect for their culture, so some Indian teachers welcomed her in. She told me that not all Indians were thrilled by the thought of white girls learning their sacred arts, considering it cultural appropriation. Others, her teachers among them, thought it was okay, as long as the white girls or boys in question were respectful—and knew when to back off and not get in the faces of people who did object.

Since the sacred Indian art filled the hole in me better than anything else I was doing, I took this tacit blessing and ran with it. I threw myself into sacred art headlong and with great twerpiness. I blush now at my naïveté. I was hungry, I respected, I valued. I thought that was enough. It wasn't. It isn't.

I'm not going to say it is never all right for an artist from one tradition to borrow from another peoples' tradition because I do not believe that's true. Art is about exploration, synthesis, pushing at boundaries, overturning societal expectations, making people look at things in a new way. Artists must be free to do that exploration. It makes art stronger, it makes artists stronger, it makes the world stronger. But I do think that when you do art that doesn't spring from your own tradition—be it Western, Eastern, or whichever direction you prefer—it's important to know that it is a borrowing, not a becoming. You will always be looking at it from the outside, no matter how earnest and respectful you are. Some of those on the inside will resent that you are even making the attempt, and they have a right to feel that way, too.

I am sorry for that. I will probably continue to do my respectful borrowing. But not like in the old days. When I look at those prayer sticks now I see someone slavishly trying to become something she was not, rather than internalizing and adapting and making something of my own from it. I respect the magic of the prayer sticks, for it did transform me, even if it didn't grant my wishes. The process of trying to become and failing taught me many things that getting everything I wanted never could. The attempt, the ideation, the willing and thinking and striving—not the goal—are always the true magic in any magical system.

*Inspired by Xavier de Maistre's book of the same name, I will be journeying around my sitting room/writing room as the mood strikes me and reflecting on the larger life meanings of the things I find there. The things themselves are not important—they are just objects—but hopefully those remembrances and reflections will be of interest. Another irregular series that I will probably keep up with . . . irregularly.

Date: 2016-01-14 08:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I was in France when you posted this and so missed it.

I like what you say about art being about exploration, synthesis, etc. The internalization and the subsequent mash-up of personal with external is what leads to things that are new, exciting, and provocative (pushing people to look at things in a new way, as you said) because these new amalgams have pieces of YOU in them; and you, being a unique collection of inner and outer can never produce and share exactly like another. When we love others and want to know more about them--and learn more about ourselves in the process--this sharing and accepting is essential.

Date: 2016-01-14 10:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
And a bit of related reading that I just happened to be doing today:

"Because I have heard that for those who enter Fairy Land there is no going back. They must go on, and go through it." —R. Macdonald Robertson, Selected Highland Tales