I am distressed by the historical inaccuracies in Sy Safransky’s “This Land Is Your Land” [May 1995].
Navajos were not, as Safransky states, grazing sheep on high mesas before the white men came. Sheep — like horses — came to their land with the Spanish in 1540. Neither were the Navajos building homes, making pottery, weaving baskets, or growing wheat. Weaving and metalworking were learned from the Spanish and the Mexicans. Pottery was not important for the Navajos, but it was for the Pueblo Indians. And wheat, too, came over from Europe with both the Spanish and British.
Before white men came, the Navajos were a warlike, nomadic people. To state otherwise is to fall into the trap that Sherman Alexie warned Safransky about: promoting “the romantic myth of the spiritual Indian,” who was noble and perfect before the white man arrived. Such fantasies do none of us any good.
A lot of what Safransky says in his essay, however, is pertinent and interesting. As a Southwesterner, I blush to think that someone conned him into paying good money to spend a night on a hogan floor. It’s a little like Tom Sawyer and the whitewash.
Sy Safransky responds:
Thanks to Blythe Brennan for setting the record straight. I should have distinguished between the arrival of Spanish settlers in the sixteenth century and of U.S. settlers three hundred years later — by which time the highly adaptable Navajos had borrowed much from Spanish and Pueblo Indian cultures, and were busy tending their flocks, peach orchards, and farms. Of course, this didn’t prevent the U.S. Army from rounding up the Navajos and sending them into exile. When Brennan calls the Navajos “warlike,” I wonder: compared to whom?
I was incensed by “This Land Is Your Land.” It angered the part of me that is sick to death of tourists. Although I am Caucasian, I was raised on an Indian reservation. I read Safransky’s essay while on one of my frequent trips home to visit my parents.
Safransky writes, “It is easy to feel like an intruder here.” He and his wife are intruders. He eloquently describes the Navajos’ signs of discomfort at their presence, but also his own lack of respect for that discomfort. A tremendous sense of entitlement came through in the essay. He might as well have said, “We paid your price. You have no right to withhold the ingredients of the tea and the food from us.”
As a white person from an Indian reservation, I am used to carrying the burden of guilt and shame for this country’s history. Occasionally I feel that burden is imposed on me by an Indian, but this is rare. I have the knowledge to write an essay about the genocide committed against the native people of this country. I prefer, however, to let Native Americans write that story. Anything else feels to me like further theft of their culture.
I admire Andy Yale’s compassion [“Global Depression,” May 1995], and there is much in what he writes that is true. But it’s a conceit among smart, sensitive, romantic, left-leaning, self-aware people — and I count myself as one — to picture our present era as a unique descent into hell.
Life for the vast majority of human beings in past centuries was utter misery. There was no hot-and-cold indoor plumbing, no nice, clean, sanitary toilets. Half of all children died before they were twenty. Women regularly died in childbirth. Before the Victorian cleanliness movement, people were covered with lice and filled with parasites. In the average Colonial home, people were too busy surviving to worry about such trivialities as sanitation.
Suburban malls filled with junk are inextricably linked to the surplus that allowed the computer I am writing this on to be invented, produced, and sold to me. I must recognize that I have not built bridges, or invented trains, or put in sewage lines or electric wires — I wouldn’t know how. I can’t even build a chair to sit on. I don’t deny the miseries of our time, but it’s important to keep things in perspective.
I enjoyed the May issue’s Correspondence section as much as I did its articles. I read with amusement, and confronted my own sense of vegetarian superiority as Chris Middings seriously objected to your description of subscriptions as “the meat on the bone . . . of a healthy magazine.” I read with sadness and new awareness as Martha Friend pointed out the scant number of female authors in The Sun. (The May issue contained eight contributions by men and only three by women.)
The intelligence, individualism, and creativity expressed in your publication are reflected and enhanced by your readers.
From time to time your women readers are upset because, they believe, women’s views are not sufficiently represented in The Sun. Most recently, Martha Friend speculated that your editors “don’t really consider women as having anything profound to say.”
It is true that more than half of the writings and photographs you publish are by men. But I would not second-guess the editors’ choices, for I don’t know the female-to-male ratio of submissions, or the quality of the ones rejected.
Instead of a simple head count, we should consider whether the women’s works in The Sun accurately represent women’s lives, voices, and perspectives, whether they capture subtleties that men, by reason of their different gender and rearing, cannot grasp; or whether the authors or editors appear to have falsified women’s experiences in order to make the works more acceptable to male readers — and whether the men’s works tend to ignore or belittle the lives of women.
On both counts I find The Sun quite satisfactory. My life as a woman and the lives of women much different from me are illuminated in the magazine’s pages, and my insatiable curiosity about what it’s really like to be a man is fed by the men’s writings, which I find untainted by animosity or ridicule against women.
But let’s not dismiss Friend’s concern. The all-male editorial staff and the unequal ratio of men’s works to women’s constitute an imbalance that editor Sy Safransky might want to keep in mind.
Whether he will want or be able to do anything about it is a different matter.
Twice in the past few months I have seen letters from readers asking, “Where are the voices of women?” Curious, I paged through a few back issues and looked for women’s names, but I ended up rereading some of my favorite stories and poetry and lost track.
The words in The Sun come from hearts, minds, and souls. I fail to see what genitalia have to do with it.
Must we always check to see if an author is male or female? I love women, my sisters, the givers of life. I love men, our lovers, fathers, sons, and brothers. Let’s celebrate our quiet glimpses into all our flawed, outrageous humanity!
Please don’t start keeping count of the gender of your contributors. It might compromise your ability to publish the consistently interesting work we love.
I highly value The Sun despite the occasional article, essay, or story that explores yet another alley in the Citadel of Victimology. Your best offerings are your interviews and essays critiquing Big Medicine, Big Science, and the other hierophantic orders that govern our lives in the West and too often go unchallenged.
Maybe I’m not deep enough — or wide enough, or broad enough — but I sometimes think that anything sufficiently weird, with its words arranged in a peculiar pattern on the page, will eventually wind up in your magazine as a poem.
Looking through a very old issue of The Sun [July 1976], I was happy to read Sy’s article on interviewing Swami Muktananda and discover that the swami gave him the heebie-jeebies, too.
About fifteen years ago, I traveled to Muktananda’s ashram with three hundred other devotees. With its pastel green, pink, and blue buildings, it looked rather like Disneyland. I was put to work taking pebbles and insects out of pans of rice, and sweeping leaves from the paths. It did teach me patience.
For me the ashram had a peculiar, unreal atmosphere: the peacock feathers, the little mirrors everywhere, the bleak gardens with plaster statues of Jesus and Mary. I had the feeling that Muktananda’s followers were a closed circle, and that they had the ability to look right through me as if I didn’t exist.
At one of the assemblies, we were allowed to put our questions for Muktananda in a box. His assistant, a beautiful young woman who later succeeded him, took them out and translated them. Most of them were about blue lights and strange visions.
Then she read my question: “Does Baba Muktananda think that [EST founder] Werner Erhard is an enlightened being?” To my surprise, Muktananda practically leapt from his seat in rage. He screamed, and the woman translated: “Whoever asked this question is a bad person and no friend of Werner’s. They should leave the ashram.”
I didn’t have the courage to stand up and announce that the question was mine.
I read The Sun from back to front, always finding a Sunbeam that smacks of truth or tickles a rib . . . and at least one inscription for my headstone.
The absence of advertising is a blessed relief. All my other subscriptions are falling by the wayside. The Sun is the ambivalence, the paradox, the oxymoron, the horrible perfection of life.