Holding Integrity: A Lesson from Chief Arvol Looking Horse

by Chris LaFond

Arvol Looking Horse

photo by Balkowitsch, used under a Creative Commons license

On Saturday, I attended a workshop titled “Pipe Ceremony,” presented by Arvol Looking Horse, Lakota. Mr. Looking Horse talked about becoming a sacred bundle keeper when his grandmother died in her eighties, which was young for a bundle keeper. As a consequence of becoming a sacred bundle keeper, he began to live in ceremony all the time. He was told that he could not ever use a gun or weapon, he could not use foul language, could not run for political office, and he could not raise his hand to swear an oath to the U.S. flag.

What I find impressive about his presentation and his life is his willingness to take on a responsibility for his community that defines how he will live for the rest of his life. His role in his community is not merely the person who keeps the bundle or offers the pipe. His entire life is now a ritual.

Most modern pagan communities don’t have such a rigid differentiation of roles.  In fact, we often have a difficult time staying in ritual for more than an hour or so, even when there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.  Few of us live in the kind of tight-knit or geographically-centered communities that would allow for such a lifetime dedication. But the model might serve even for those of us who take on temporary roles within our own groups. If you are responsible for holding a particular piece for your community, perhaps you might try letting that role infuse your whole life, at least until you pass that role to another.  Instead of looking at your responsibilities as something that you do, maybe try to think of them as who you are.

EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions this week in Toronto!  You can find more updates here and on our Facebook page.  

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One thought on “Holding Integrity: A Lesson from Chief Arvol Looking Horse

  1. I think this is pretty powerful. I went to hear Francois Paulette (sample article about Chief Paulette) speak for a bit yesterday morning. He told the story of sitting in a community meeting as a draftsman, sketching and drawing a plan for a building that was needed, and getting a Telex: “Come Home. You are now chief [of your tribe]”. He put the paper in his pocket, finished his responsibility to the meeting, and went home to become chief. I realized that what he hadn’t said is that this must have meant that his dad or another close relative had died; and his people were prepared to put him into a role, sight unseen, without mourning time or break in tradition. It was a pretty amazing example of the trust that his band, and the Dene culture as a whole, has in their individual members and their sense of interpersonal responsibility.

    As far as “rigid differentiation of roles” in paganism goes, it seems to me that we’re not there yet in terms of either the definition of our community, or of our cultural way of life. Yet you and I have spoken about the tradition of lodges as it has informed but remained largely hidden, within the pagan tradition. And it seems to me that experimenting with a small number of defined ceremonial roles with lore to keep, ceremonial objects to hold, and credible responsibilities through the year, and handing those around to responsible and elected keepers and holders for a single year at a time, IS in keeping with what we have done so far, and with the way (some of) our traditions self-managed and survived from the time of Christian conversion in Europe up to relatively-recent times.

    There’s an interesting intersection of lore, credibility/trustworthiness, and sacred object in your own case, of course — as a Harper, you have mastered a particular body of knowledge, which is the Lore; you have credibility and trustworthiness, because you say you will play the harp at a given time and you do; and the harp itself inspires wonder and recognition of beauty in all who see it and hear it. Those seems to be the essential requirements of someone laying claim to the title of Harper. The question then becomes, “is there a requirement of essential limitation, too, such as not holding a gun or other weapon?” It’s worth considering how a pagan Harper is made, and whether this is something that they do, or that they are.

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