Years ago when I was in my 20’s my family received a very cordial letter from a distant cousin who was living in Salt Lake City. She was Mormon and was researching our family’s genealogy and needed some help filling in gaps in our shared ancestry. My Dad answered her questions and sent just as cordial a response back.

My father’s sister, though, was furious. Absolutely livid, which is surprising because she was normally a placid, good-natured woman. She was angry with the letter and with my Dad for responding—not because my Aunt had any problem with that part of the family, but because of the reasons why my distant cousin wanted the information.

As I knew from previous experience living in Salt Lake City, Mormons pursue genealogical research because the Church mandates that members discover past ancestors in order to have them baptized in the church. Baptized, even though they are dead. I thought this practice was a bit unusual, but neither Dad nor I really cared that much; we both felt our Irish ancestors were sleeping too deeply from all that good whisky to worry about a few drops of water in the face. However, our flippant attitude just made my aunt angrier. How dare she, my Aunt stormed to my Dad, impose her religious viewpoints on our ancestors and on us?

When Dad later related her words to me, I thought this was a bit of the pot calling the kettle black. My Aunt was Jehovah’s Witness, and I don’t think there’s a one of us who hasn’t answered the tap at the door and found someone from the Jehovah’s Witness at the other side, hoping that they’ll find a live one.

My Dad and I talked about the situation, and his opinion was that though my Aunt’s church members might knock at doors, when the doors were shut in their faces they didn’t kick them down, sit on the people, and force them to convert. To my Aunt, this is what the Mormon’s post-mortem baptisms were – imposing a religious belief on people who aren’t given a choice whether to say yay or nay.

The thing with both my Aunt and distant cousin is that they both believed in their religions absolutely, surprising when you consider how many different religions there are in the world.

According to the Religious Tolerance web, the largest religious denomination is Christianity, with 33% of the world’s population. The second is Islam, with 20% of the population. What might be a surprise is that the third highest category are those people who have no formal belief – people who are agnostic, humanists, secularists, and so on. Fourth is Hinduism, with 13%, and fifth is Buddism, with 6%. Atheists follow closely at sixth place, with 4% of the population.

(Another site shows that the non-religious and the Hindu’s positions are reversed, but the counts are close to that of the first site.)

The non-religious group for the most part believes that the existence of a God, or Gods for that matter, can’t be proved or disproved. Unlike the theist, with an absolute belief in God or Gods, and unlike the atheist, with an absolute belief that God does not exist, the agnostic says, “Neither of you have proved your point. Until you do, I neither believe there is a God, nor disbelieve there is a God”.

The non-religious are joined by some of the other religions such as Shinto and, to some extent, Buddhism, in that if there is one thing they all share, it’s the lack of an absolute face of God. It’s not surprising, then, to know that it’s unlikely (Buddhist historical quirks aside) for a modern war to be initiated by any follower of the religion, based on the religion. How can you fight for or against something you can’t see clearly?

This is all heading, in a round about manner, to a posting that AKMA wrote today about his “Weblogs and Spiritual Context” session that he’ll have at BloggerCon. He was responding to my expressed qualms at the description, which read:

Not only do bloggers have souls, about which some of them talk more or less often, but religious organizations have —or might be well-served to start — blogs. This session will involve reflections on the ways that blogs share features of the spiritual autobiography, and ways that blogs bespeak spiritual dimensions of our personae; ways that blogs can clarify congregational identity, both for curious observers and for reflective members; and ways that deliberate weblogging can enrich the spiritual lives of both individuals and congregations.

AKMA was right in his response – it was the phrase “Not only do bloggers have souls…” that I found questionable. To this he says:

What I wrote troubled Shelley and some of her readers. Now, in retrospect, I can see how her discomfort coheres with the differences we discovered and explored a week or two ago. Likewise, though, my reasoning reflects my own part in the discussion. I hate to bother Shelley, but I think we’re operating with fundamentally divergent outlooks at this point.

Shelley sensed a Christian specificity to that description, and suggested that I more precisely call it ‘Weblogs and their Christian Context.’ I see something to that, and I’m not unwilling to stipulate my Christianity; still, the pivotal claim (according to Shelley’s comment) was that ‘Bloggers have souls,’ and that’s very far from being an exclusively Christian premise.

True, many religions have a variation of ’soul’ if by this we mean our essence existing as spirit beyond our corporeal body. However, it’s not AKMA’s belief that I’m questioning, because I know that he as Christian believes we all have souls – it is the absolute nature of the statement, “bloggers have souls”.

AKMA continued with some specifics about the term, soul:

Plato and Aristotle referred comfortably to people’s souls; at least some, if not many, flavors of Judaism accept the premise that people have souls. The concept is common in Islam. The ‘soul’ appears in the Upanishads, on at least a tentatively plausible reading —and I think I recall that even Buddhism preserves something akin to the notion of a ‘soul,’ even if it ultimately dispenses with that idea. Apart from atheists — about whom more in half a sec — I can’t bring to mind a tradition adherents of which would be likely to take offense at the axiom that ‘people have souls,’ especially if one allows for terminological refinement: You say ‘soul,’ but we call it ‘spirit’ (or ‘mind’ or some other tradition-specific term).

True, I use the word soul to describe a specific person’s mind, their uniqueness, but not soul as it would be used to represent a spirit in an afterlife. The context of the discussion I use the term in usually provides this refinement. From the rest of the description for AKMA’s session, there can be no doubt that he is referring to soul as it is defined within a spiritual context, so we’ll focus on that for this time.

AKMA continues, specifically addressing the atheists:

Atheists, or ‘brights,’ might well be nettled by my starting-point (although it would take a pretty thorough-going atheist to bridle at all the various ways the term ‘soul’ gets deployed, even in secular culture). But it’s going to be hard for me to say anything in public, especially anything pertinent to spirituality, without vexing atheists.

There might be a few people in addition to the atheists who are going to be nonplussed by the phrase “bloggers have souls”. It’s not that most would be uncomfortable with spirituality raised as it relates to weblogging – many would find this to be an enjoyable discussion. No, it’s the absoluteness of the statement, “bloggers have souls” that gives me pause.

My first reaction on reading this was to turn it around, and play out in my mind how people would feel if they read that I was giving a talk titled “Weblogging and Spiritual Context”, and began the description with, “Not only do bloggers have no souls…” I have a feeling that one or two people might protest, not because they don’t respect that I believe differently, but because of the absolute nature of the statement.*

I think of my Aunt, now long dead and whose soul has found whatever resting place it was going to find regardless of her belief or mine. I think of what her reaction would be if she read my words, “Bloggers have no souls”, though she would need reassurance that ‘blogger’ was not some new form of demon. “How dare you”, she’d begin, as she’d tear a strip from my hide for what she would perceive as my imposition of faith, or lack of soul, on her.

Absolutes. I have no problem saying, absolutely, “Bloggers write,” and “Bloggers read,” and “Bloggers have the capability of belief,” but Bloggers have (no) soul, no that one’s not one I can use with any surety, in any sense.

Still, I must remember my ancestors sleeping the sleep of the just dreaming of a dram of good whisky and a nice frolic (if that’s the way this soul thing should work out) and put this all into perspective. Neither AKMA nor myself are my Aunt, and both of us know that there are nuances and understanding, humor as well as flexibility, and above all, context when we speak. I can understand what AKMA is saying when he writes, “Bloggers have souls,” and I hope his session is hugely successful. Those who attend the conference and don’t attend the session are idiots. (Bloggers are idiots…)

*And as I was struggling to write this, I was pinged by Happy Tutor who wrote something to this effect.


O si yo

I hadn’t been to a powwow in years and decided to drive down to the Trail of Tears Pow Wow outside of Hopinksville, Kentucky yesterday.


The powwow stage was circular with hay bundles surrounding the area for the dancers, and behind them Singer tents and bleachers for non-participants. Tents selling foods and other goods were placed around the performance area, backs to the bleachers. When the slight breeze was just right, smoke from some of the cooking fires would fill the space left for the dancers and story tellers, like as not re-creating fairly authentic conditions. It was blazingly hot and I felt for the dancers in their regalia as they performed in set after set of Intertribal dances (dances open to all competitors and members of the audience, those who find themselves moved by the sounds of the drums and the singers.)

Powwows are descended from times when tribal members would gather for some reason such as a shaman conducting a ceremony for healing. The word powwow is from Powwaw, meaning shaman. Today, powwows bring together tribal members in dance and celebration, and is a way of interesting young tribal members in their heritage and history. In addition to dance competitions, most will feature discussions about tribal language and customs, as well as story tellers and musicians as well as demonstration of crafts.

The Trail of Tears Pow Wow is primarily a Cherokee event, and was originally held to celebrate the opening of the Trail of Tears Park in Kentucky. This park commemorates the forced march of Cherokees from their homeland in Georgia to a reservation in Oklahoma.

Contrary to the myth of Indian as nomadic hunter/gatherer, Cherokees were farmers and ranchers who lived in Georgia and who had assimilated many of the white ways, including women wearing gowns and the development of their own written vocabulary. They lived in peace with the newcomers to the land, but when rumors of gold arose about the Cherokee held lands, the US Government attempted to coerce the People out of their homes.

Rather than don war paint and ride horses in defiance, the Cherokee donned suits, hired lawyers, and sued – petitioning to be considered a sovereign nation and thus out of jurisdictional control of the federal government. They won the suit and the government was momentarily blocked. To be removed from their lands, the Cherokee would have to vote to agree to the proposed treaty, something most had no interest in.


Also contrary to myth, Indian tribes were not all small villages with a strong tribal leader who held sway over all the people. The Cherokee nation was large and there was disagreement among the various tribal leaders as to control of the People as a whole. Principal Chief John Ross fought the removal of the Cherokee people from their lands, but another leader (Major Ridge) of a small, dissident band of Cherokee agreed to the Treaty and that was enough for the Federal Government. The treaty was quickly ratified and the People were forced from their homes, many with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

An estimated 17,000 Cherokee were forced to traverse four separate trails (one by water) to a new home in Oklahoma. Over 4000 died along the way leading the Cherokee to name the event Nunna daul Tsuny or “The Trail Where They Cried”.

A passerby who witnessed the exodus of the Cherokee wrote:

When I past the last detachment of those suffering exiles and thought that my native countrymen had thus expelled them from their native soil and their much loved homes, and that too in this inclement season of the year in all their suffering, I turned from the sight with feelings which language cannot express and wept like childhood then.

I originally heard about the Trail of Tears from my first husband, who is part Cherokee. When I met him, at the age of 16, he’d just returned from a tour of duty in South Korea, adrift in his newfound freedom from military life. He was black haired but blue eyed, lighter skinned but with the strong bone structure that characterizes so many artistic interpretations of how an Indian is supposed to look. If most of us think of Jesus with long, wavy golden/brown curly locks and white skin due to the early artwork from Germany, the same could be said of our mental image of the “noble savage”, based on early artwork from the 1800’s.


Steve was not brought up with awareness of his Cherokee ancestry as he and his older brother were adopted at an early age by a childless white couple. The two, along with a younger sister, were offered up for adoption when his blood father died and his mother could not afford to raise all of her children.

The story was that Steve’s father had left for the Seattle area for work and his mother followed in a car with all the children, towing a trailer with their household goods. Along the way, she received word that her husband died and she suddenly found herself stranded, far from her people and with little money. To ensure that her children had the best opportunity to survive, she gave half up for adoption – three stayed, three left.

It wasn’t until he was in the military that Steve began to explore his roots, a popular past time in those days. His interest only increased when, not long after he and I were married, his oldest sister contacted us as part of an effort to find the missing members of the family. It was then we heard about Steve’s family, his father and his early death; and his mother, Rose, who had died years before.


I always wondered if Steve’s mother was named Rose because it was a common name at the time, or if she was named after the Cherokee Rose, the state flower of Georgia. It was said that during the Trail of Tears march that the tears of mothers crying for their dying children were so great, that the chiefs prayed for a sign to lift their spirits up, to help them survive. The Cherokee Rose was taken for this sign.

Most mothers would grieve for the death of a child, but the Cherokee, along with most Native American people, have an unusually high regard for their young. This was demonstrated, again and again, at the Pow Wow on Saturday. One dance I’d never seen before was a birthday dance given by a grandfather celebrating his grandson’s first birthday. He held the baby in his arms and the baby’s immediate family surrounded them as they began a sideways, slow dance around the performance area. Preceding them was a man holding a hat in which to collect tokens or small amounts of money, given in celebration of the child.

As people would drop tokens in, they would traverse the growing line following the family, shaking hands of each member of the line as they passed before attaching themselves to the end. By the time the dance was finished, the line formed almost a full circle around the area.


As much as I love the dancing, I love the storytelling more, especially when the storyteller intersperses bits of native language and culture with the tale. Saturday’s Storyteller was very good and told the tale of Spider and Beaver’s Daughter, as well as the story of Raven. He also had a sacred Pipe with him, and spent some time describing each component of the pipe and telling how it was originally a gift from the Creator.

Not all Storytellers are given the responsibility of being Pipe Bearers for their people, so it was a bonus to hear from someone who was both, though the surroundings were not conducive to storytelling. It was unbearably hot in the bleachers, and the predominately white crowd was restless and tended to chat among themselves when the dancing stopped.