The Corner

The Tucson Memorial Blessing, Explained

Wednesday’s memorial service at the University of Arizona in Tucson has faced a lot of criticism, particularly from the right. Many commentators noted the raucous attitude of many in attendance (there was much more cheering than one might expect at so solemn an event) and the T-shirts that were handed out (for which the university itself has admitted responsibility).

Perhaps the most-remarked-upon aspect of the proceeding was the American Indian blessing given by Carlos Gonzales, an associate professor of the university’s Family and Community Medicine department. Gonzales, after introducing himself in detail — he is of Mexican and Yaqui Indian descent, and grew up on the south side of Tucson — said a prayer that Brit Hume found “bizarre” and “strange,” that a Power Line blogger called “ugly,” and that Michelle Malkin summarized thus:

Native American gives rambling speech while holding a feather. His remarks are frequently interrupted by whoops and cheers. He gives a shout-out to his son serving in Afghanistan. Brags about his ethnic Mexican background. Babbles about two-legged and four-legged creatures and the feminine energy that comes from Mother Earth.

Mercy.

When I spoke with Gonzales last night, he wasn’t surprised that some were confused. “People who have not lived in the Native American world probably had no idea what I was doing,” he said. The prayer, he explained, is a way of honoring the seven sacred directions, which include the four cardinal directions, the sky, the earth, and finally the center, which is where the Creator exists.

But why did he spend so much time talking about himself? “A traditional blessing is done in several components,” he said. “First, the people hearing it need to know who you are and your heritage — your clan, your subclan if you have one, who you are.” Next, the audience needs to be informed that the person delivering the blessing has been given permission by his elders to do so. Only then is the blessing given.

“I think some people were mistaken that I should give a blessing on behalf of the individuals who were injured or died,” he said. “But it was a blessing for everyone involved in this remembrance, this memorial.”

I also asked him if he thought an American Indian blessing was an odd choice for the event — at a public memorial service, one might expect a non-denominational prayer, or at least one that the audience would find familiar. He explained that he was asked by school officials, and that according to traditional ceremonial principles, someone who does blessings is not supposed to refuse when asked.

“It was probably done so that people could get a flavor of Arizona, which has 23 tribes,” he said. “The university waned to demonstrate to the world the reality of growing up in Arizona, which is rather unique.”

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