Why It Really Sucks to Be a Satere-Mawe Indian Boy
When I was living in Panama in 1995, broke and out of work, I went looking for a photography job. One of the places I stopped was the Smithsonian Institute’s tropical field office in the Canal Zone and found the head of the little photography department there. No, they weren’t looking for any photographers, thanks. But these are the real world Indiana Jones guys, very cool to talk to, so I hung around and failed to make an impression, but got to talk about cool Guy stuff. We got to talking about Panama and the work they did and he showed me a glossy photo he’d taken in Darien of a huge purplish ant with big jaws. “See that? Know what that is?” “No, sir.” “Hell, son, that’s a Bullet Ant. Now there’s a real piece of work.” “Oh, a Bullet Ant. Wow.” He lifted up his leg, peeled back his pants cuff and showed me an old scar about the diameter of a pencil eraser. “That’s where I got stung by that nasty sonovabitch. Know why they call it a Bullet Ant?” “No sir, I haven’t given it much thought.” He leaned in confidentially and said “It hurts so bad, it feels like getting shot with a low caliber bullet, that’s why. The pain? It lasts a day and a night. Oh, yeah. Think about that.”
According to Wikipedia, the Satere-Mawe tribe chooses its warriors by using these ants in an initiation rite by sewing about a dozen of them into a glove and making a young man wear it for 10 minutes by which time his whole arm is paralyzed for a couple of days and he may go into seizures. He has to do the glove thing 20 times without freaking out. I just thought getting a girl to go out with me in high school was tough.
The Satere-Mawe are a tribe. Initiation has always been about tribe. I’m sure this ritual with the ant glove isn’t simply about macho courage. It’s about commitment to an identity, as one of the warriors, the fierce and trusted guardians of the tribe. It means you’re committed to doing what you’re expected to do, even in a life threatening situation to defend the tribe. In others words, you can be trusted to be a stand up guy.
Another form of initiation is the apprenticeship, the novitiate, which is where I find myself when I’m sitting in the back of the Burger King with my elderly laptop and my story notes, resuscitating a sinking story for the fourth or fifth draft. I don’t see myself as a professional writer yet, because they’re still sticking that ant glove on me and it hurts every time. I’ve got a hell of a long way to go. It takes me a long time to write a story. Any story. The novella you see on the side bar - “The Color of the Moon”, hell, that took me ten years to get it right. College courses and writers workshops are nice if you’ve got the dough. But every writer, from Joyce Carol Oates on down to my wretched level pays their dues the same way, at the keyboard first, one word at a time. The written word is deceptively cruel. When you first get it down in the heat of inspiration, your scintillating prose, your impassioned dialogue makes you just fucking weep, because you’re just so goddamned good and someday the world will know you’re an artist and you’re as deep and sensitive as Saint eff-ing Francis. The next day when you read that stuff cold, it sounds like you spent two hours yesterday shoveling horseshit with a keyboard. You put on the glove and start again. The world of the apprentice writer is that you must always start again. The day you refuse the glove is when you stop kidding yourself and get a real job.
There is also the initiation of abandoning the person you once were and starting over. It might be a divorce or a change of career, or just getting sick of who you are and reinventing yourself. I think the best evidence of reincarnation for me, is the fact that I have already been so many different people in this one life. In my case when I left the religious life I had completely devoted myself to for twenty years – when I left my tribe – I suddenly found myself haunted day and night by the ghost of a young schoolgirl I had once known, until I could get her to talk to me.
But that’s a story for another time.