The protagonist’s visions also made historical sense: they provided some hope of survival in times of devastation for the Sioux.
The book contains much more than the visions of Black Moose and his explanations of the beliefs of his people. It is also a story of anthropological interest about a life of attachment to nature and the elements, of cultivating physical resistance to carry out hunting and combat. It includes accounts of warlike episodes, such as the first death in combat committed by Black Moose at the age of sixteen, and also the knowledge of western ways of life through his travels with the Buffalo Bill show.
Stimulated by various ethnographic documents, the art historian Aby Warburg undertook several expeditions to make contact with Native American tribes during 1895 and 1896. Thanks to the mediation of missionaries who maintained a lasting relationship with the natives, the German was able to witness dances rituals for the growth of corn or the arrival of the rains.
The main result was a conference that took place more than twenty years later and was published as a text against the will of its author: The Ritual of the Serpent. The conference drank from years of intellectual distillation of his experience, immortalized in fragmentary pages of memories and reflections on the trip. These folios have been meticulously collected and annotated by another art historian, the Italian Maurizio Ghelardi, under the title Memories of the trip to the territory of the Pueblo Indians in North America (Siruela).
Warburg used these experiences as documentation for his analyzes of art, which moved away from aestheticism and embraced ethnography, the psychology of peoples or religious comparatistics. The ceremonies and ornamentation of the Pueblo Indians served him to continue reflecting on the interrelationships between religion, rites, nature, and figurative and symbolic representations. The historian would delve into this later, but Ghelardi signs a fascinating and complex introduction that explains how the German continued to elaborate the ideas embodied in his travel notes.
Warburg’s intellectualized approach could have meant a human distance from the community that taught him its rites. Still, like Neihardt, he was aware of the barbarities committed by the colonizers: “Many years ago, they had deported the Apaches to the human zoo on the Indian reservations located on the border with Canada,” he wrote in his notes. In them, he also tells a delicious mythological and magical tale about the migration of a tribe to its settlement in Walpi (Arizona). Dozens of photographs taken during the historian’s travels serve as appendices to the texts.
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