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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1488

First published: Tucson, Ariz.: Chax Press, 1999

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Genre: Poetry

Subgenre: Lyric poetry

Core issues: African Americans; conversion; imperialism; Jesus Christ; Native Americans

Overview

Helen Diane Hall was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to a mother of English-German descent and a father of Cherokee heritage. She married Dwane Glancy in 1964, the same year she received her B.A. from the University of Missouri. The couple had two children, David (b. 1964) and Jennifer (b. 1967), but the marriage was unhappy and ended in divorce in 1983. Glancy completed an M.F.A. from the prestigious creative writing program at the University of Iowa in 1988. In 1992, she became a professor at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Glancy’s creative output is varied and prolific. In addition to poetry collections such as (Ado)ration, she has published novels, essay and short-story collections, plays, scripts, and literary criticism. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as an American Book Award.

(Ado)ration is Glancy’s most sustained interrogation of Native American and Christian spiritualities. The collection moves from an initial presentation of these spiritualities as a dichotomy to a new and richer hybrid or “syncretic” spirituality (literally “syn” meaning with or together and “cret” meaning creed or beliefs). This syncretic belief system is developed through a series of historical, personal, and metaphysical encounters.

Glancy’s poetry defamiliarizes Christianity—not through a demonization of the conquerors and their religion, but through a struggle of faiths as seen from the Native American perspective that takes place across time, between cultures, and within the narrator. Particular Christian tenets that seem incomprehensible from the Native American perspective at the opening of the collection are recontextualized at later moments in the collection, showing how the narrator individually and Native Americans collectively are constantly struggling to understand and to re-create Christianity in a form that combines Old and New World perspectives.

One of the most striking ways in which Glancy reworks Christian tradition through Native sensibilities is in a series of poems that correspond to passages in the Old Testament. (Ado)ration opens with an epigraph taken from Genesis 27:5-19, the tale of Jacob and Esau. This passage, when perceived through Native American eyes, is a trickster story in which Rebekkah fixes a venison stew for her husband and teaches her favored son to behave like a skinwalker by wearing animal skins to change his identity. The opening poem of the collection further contextualizes the Genesis tale. “You Know Them by Their Stealing” recognizes that the Europeans came to the New World already prepared to take whatever they wanted, a thievery excused

by the God who brought them(who had an eye like a suck holefor what he wanted).

After all, the narrator reflects, if they could steal from their own brother, they could take from anyone. Initially, then (Ado)ration presents Christianity as a conqueror’s religion, one that condones and even promotes the theft of Native American lands and the destruction of Native American society.

Later in the collection, Glancy returns to the Jacob and Esau story in “They Came with a Bible.” In this dramatic monologue about Christian missionaries and nineteenth century covered-wagon trains, Native Americans sit at a campground and talk about how the Christian Bible approves of theft, such as Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright and Israel entering Canaan. They watch the wagons going by and recognize that each wagon, covered in white canvas like an angel’s wing, represents the death of Native American culture. The poem ends with a startling juxtaposition that goes to the heart of the contrast between Native and Christian spiritualities: the Christian’s “sacred ground was a building,” but the Native Americans understood that all the earth was holy and that a man could worship anywhere and talk to the ancestors, the spirits, the animals, and even to the conquistadors who first “tore the flesh,/ drank the blood.”

The final poem of the collection, “Stolen Blessing,” returns one last time to the Jacob and Esau story. The poem’s title alludes directly to the Genesis tale, which this poem recasts in the form of a lyrical meditation of a struggle between the “ancestral claim” and “the insert of new matter.” This very pull and tug between the past and the present is the heart of a syncretic religious experience. As (Ado)ration suggests, a syncretic form of faith is not complacent but rather a continual and active process that continues through all life.

(Ado)ration’s most powerful evocation of how the internal conflict between Native and European sensibilities leads to a religious conversion is “Well You Push Your Mind Along the Road.” This poem presents the encounters of the opposing religious systems as Hegelian moments in which the tangible tribal religion confronts its antithesis, an intangible eclipse that is called God, and this collision creates a new being: “you lift your voice and say praise to you nothing and nothing begins to hear . . . nothing becomes something.” The argument between the self and the other, the tangible and the intangible, becomes an act of self-creation and the creation of a syncretic religious experience.

Christian Themes

(Ado)ration highlights several key differences between Christian and Native religions. One of Glancy’s major preoccupations as a poet is how the visible relates to the invisible; she suggests that tribal peoples have special knowledge of the tangible world in contrast to the European emphasis on the intangible and the metaphysical. In “Ledger Book Drawing,” for example, Glancy muses over an old Native American drawing of an Indian riding into battle: The artist draws the brave riding sidesaddle because he does not understand how to draw a leg on the other, invisible side of the horse. Glancy uses the ledger book artist to exemplify how the Native religious experience does not grasp the invisible. She later uses a poem about a conquistador riding a horse to exemplify how the Europeans do not respect the material world. In “You Know the Indian,” Glancy reimagines the Indian’s first view of a white conquistador on a horse. He seems to be a six-legged creature who can dismember himself. Glancy suggests that this violent separation of human from animal is emblematic of the European world and the “binary trail” of conflicting cultural and religious perspectives that Native Americans were ever forced to walk after the encounter.

Glancy suggests that a second, essential difference between Christian and Native traditions is in how each tradition approaches religious scripture and myth as authoritative and fixed or as fluid and infinitely variable. The history of Christianity has been marked by bloody, violent conflicts over determining whose version of Scripture or whose religious practices are the “true” ones. By contrast, in Native American spiritual systems, the idea of constant change is essential. A written and fixed text is the opposite of authoritative, for ceremonies and religious stories must be constantly told and retold, and each reimagining of a mythic tale or a spiritual narrative adapts old traditions to new understandings. If a ceremonial text cannot be reimagined, then it is a dead text and no longer provides spiritual healing. Not surprisingly, Glancy’s religious poetry features images of journeys, travels, and transformations: a road trip across the Plains states taken by the narrator, Jesus as a street tough riding a Harley-Davidson, an Indian drawing a man riding a horse, a cross that is compared to a travois, a mind that is pushed along a road, the Cherokee Trail of Tears, the tracking of footprints, and Jesus giving a sermon from a rocking boat. As the titular poem “(Ado)ration” notes, the Native convert to Christianity can adapt to a new religion, for a spiritual sensibility that believes in the power of transformation can accept the “Spirit-world moving the boundaries of its yard chairs.” But when the Christian faith insists on the Eurocentric and racist belief that the Great Spirit is “white as a sky on Sunday,” it loses all validity.

Sources for Further Study

  • Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. A foundational work in the study of Native American spirituality and women’s writing.
  • Glancy, Diane, and Mark Nowak, eds. Visit Teepee Town: Native Writings After the Detours. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1999. An anthology of postmodern writings; the preface and introduction are manifestos elucidating the editors’ belief that subversive oral traditions are essential to Native American “survivance.”
  • Rochon, Glenn. “Glancy’s ’Well You Push Your Mind Along the Road.’” Explicator 61, no. 1 (Fall, 2002): 59-61. A lucid, close reading of Glancy’s poem identifying how she uses a dialectic to present the religious transformation of a self.
  • Ruwe, Donelle. “Introduction.” In Dancing at the Altar: American Indian Literature and Spirituality, edited by Donelle Ruwe. Special issue of Religion and Literature 26, no. 1 (1994): 1-7. A useful overview of Native American spirituality and literary criticism.

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Themes