Honestly, I thought I was reading some stray chapter from the New Agey Celestine Prophecy the other day. All the telltale blemishes were there: mystical experiences, wise native Americans, energy from within, persecution by white folks, a strange lack of factual material. But no, it was a long-form feature in the otherwise respectable Los Angeles Times. The topic was rain dancing, an attempt to relieve the years-long California drought.
The story was part of the Times' "Column One" series: prime journalism, best of show. But it was more like a study in politically correct, wide-eyed worshipfulness, right from the start:
The woman in line at the bank said she had already sold all her cattle and was now selling her land.
It was one too many tales of drought hardship for Laynee Reyna, also known as She Who Makes Things Happen — a name given to her by a shaman decades ago.
She felt a great spirit seize her. In the crowded bank lobby, the 79-year-old raised her arms.
Everyone in this town has got to come together and pray and dance for rain, and we've got to do it now," she said.
Teresa Lavagnino, depositing checks at a teller's window, rushed over.
"Can you do it? Can you make that happen?" she asked. "I can spread the word."
If you're a working journalist or if you're used to reading news in newspapers, you'll no doubt be asking questions already. Did the reporter witness that incident? How did she know Laynee Reyna felt a "great spirit"? And which shaman gave Reyna a name that sounds like a mashup of Suze Orman and Dances With Wolves?
You won't be terribly surprised to know that "She Who Makes Things Happen" is a former hippie, as is her ex-husband, "Chief Sonne." Reyna then brings in a native American consultant, Kanyon Sayers-Roods, for the lore to organize proper rain dances. Why her? Another hanging question.
With Sayers-Roods and her mother on hand, we can get to some serious rain dancing. They sew "traditional regalia," design a dance and add "a collection of words in the tribe's Mutson language." They rehearse three times, and hey, it drizzles.
Again: Was the reporter there?
If not, who told her that? And did she check the weather that day? I'm guessing "no," because she offers no attributions or hard dates.
She does mark Feb. 2 as a rainy day, but her reporting shows incredible credulity. "People felt their heartbeats match the pounding drums," she says, without saying how she divined this. She admires Sayers-Roods' "remarkably clear voice."
And she seriously quotes Laynee Reyna intoning: "We are they who are calling the rain. We are true to where we stand -- on our Mother Earth."
If your eyes aren't already rolling, the dancers also -- oh, just let the Times tell us:
The circle danced clockwise. And then counter-clockwise to make sure there wasn't too much rain and landslides.
Some women of an age who would favor Donna Summer added a disco touch. The children formed their own circle in the middle of the larger one.
Reyna passed out bottles of water. She told people to take a sip and spit it out as they danced. Spit it in the air. Spit it on the ground. "Water attracts water."
People were laughing. It turned into a spitting water fight. Penney the terrier did her part by licking children's faces.
At least the reporter had some proof of the last item: Next to the article is a photo of Reyna spitting a stream of water high in the air.
Oh, and get this. The dancers gather on Sunday mornings outside the 200-year-old Mission San Juan Bautista -- "which had been built to convert the heathens," the reporter feels the need to add -- and as Mass ends, Sonne Reyna invites the parishioners to join the dance.
Just try to imagine how the Times team would react if Christians formed a prayer group outside a synagogue during Shabbat, then invited Jews to "join the circle" and worship with them.
Want to criticize any of this? Better not. These people were persecuted. Sayers-Roods, you see, is descended from the Ohlone/Costanoan people, who settled Southern California 4,200 years ago. She still lives in Indian Canyon, where they "escaped the priests and soldiers."
Her mother, Ann-Marie Sayers, battled the federal government to claim her great-grandfather's land. Ten years ago, she led a yearlong project to record the stories of female Ohlone elders, many of whom had been taught to never publicly admit they were Indian. The older women said they remembered little of the culture, but sometimes they could recall parts of songs their grandmothers sang.
Now you know: They're just keeping their people's ways, trying to recover from centuries of oppression. Even if they just made up their song 'n' dance, they're still immune to skepticism. So are their white collaborators like Reyna.
Granted, many rituals look dumb to outsiders. Catholic priests swing smoking censers. Some Tibetan monks wear hats resembling yellow horse manes. Orthodox Jews pray with small leather boxes on their foreheads and right hands.
But does the Los Angeles Times reporter have to get so fawning as to relate as fact how someone "felt a great spirit seize her"? Or that two women are from a tribe more than 4,200 years old? Or that people "felt their heartbeats match the pounding drums"? Or that the direction of a dance will decide whether landslides happen? All of it flatly stated with no detachment or attribution?
It's not like the Times doesn't know how to treat unusual traditions. When Pentecostal preacher Jamie Coots of Kentucky died from one of the venomous snakes he handled, the newspaper struck just the right balance. It quoted his beliefs and the Bible verses on which he based them. It also told of his run-ins with the law and his loss of a finger from snakebite.
Nothing in the Column One story about rain dancers matches that sense of journalistic balance. Closest to it is a column by one of its editors. And even that item calls the story one of the week's "Great Reads":
It told how California’s drought has one town looking for relief through the ancient ritual of the rain dance. But even that story had moments of silliness, including a water-spitting ritual that became a kind of New Age water fight. Something in the movement of dance frees people, doesn’t it? ...
I thought of that concert when I read this quote in the rain dance story: “My mother told me that when ceremony and dancing end, the world ends. I believe that.”
I believe that too.
Nope, I take it back. That one was pretty fawning, too.