This is the second of a three-part series of Savvy Saturday articles where I discuss attending a cultural event here in Lincoln, NE as if it took place in a fantasy world. To see my thoughts on the preparations and background of the “Gobi Gred” ceremony, see last week’s blog post.
Slightly sunburned and half-deaf, with a rasp in my throat from shouting for two hours, I nonetheless walked with a spring in my step and a grin on my face as I emerged from the sacred oval where the first Gobi Gred ceremony of the year had just concluded.
Though I had thought I was prepared for my first experience of this mystic ritual of tribal solidarity, the reality of being a part of a 91,185-member crowd intent on a single goal was more intense than I had ever imagined. Far more than merely observing the ceremony, the attendees of the Gobi Gred ritual participated in a range of minor and major ceremonial functions that not only influenced the outcome of the ceremony itself, but also helped create the solidarity that is at the heart of the Gobi Gred. As a first-time participant-observer, I was naturally unfamiliar with these functions; fortunately, the more-experienced attendees were quite welcoming, and helped me gain a basic understanding of the practice as well as the meaning behind the rituals of Gobi Gred.
For those of you who haven’t been able to attend in person the ceremony of Gobi Gred, I’ll describe in the following paragraphs its basic happenings and the people who attend it. In next week’s post, I’ll conclude by discussing the specific rituals in which the attendees participate that make the Gobi Gred ceremony the spectacular, inspiring, and solidarity-building ritual that it is.
At its heart, the Gobi Gred ceremony is a ritual battle fought by two trained bands of warriors. One of these warrior bands represents the people of the land of the Good Life; the other represents a different tribe or challenge that the natives have faced in their history. As is appropriate for a tribe of farmers, the totem of the natives of the land of the Good Life is the hardworking cornhusker. Made strong by his work in the sun, made determined by his need to feed his family, made patient and loyal and hardy and brave by the challenges of the changing seasons, of predators, and of the never-ending work of farming, the cornhusker is a symbol of which the natives of the land of the Good Life are proud.
Typical totems against which the ’huskers do battle are the many natural threats to farmers and crops: bears, jackrabbits, wildcats, gophers, and occasionally even the so-called “cowboys” whose nomadic style of ranching ruins fields by the acre. It is hoped by the people of the land of the Good Life that in every instance of the ceremony, their ’husker warriors will overcome the current personified challenge of life, thus assuring victory for their people against that foe for another year.
The method of battle in this ceremony is complex, and also ritualistic in its components. The goal is for the band of ’husker warriors to carry a metaphorical seed to a metaphorical field, where the seed can be planted so that it will grow. The more seeds which are brought to the fields, the more crops can be grown, and thus the more successful the ritual. The seed is represented by an oval ball, small enough to throw with one hand but large enough to be seen from a distance. The field is represented by a rectangular strip of land at one end of the sacred oval of the Gobi Gred ceremony. However, as the ceremony progresses, the enemies of the ’huskers also attempt to take this seed and use it themselves – bringing it to their rectangular strip of land on the other side of the sacred oval. The battle lasts for hours, and at the end, the band of warriors who has taken the most seeds to their field (or nest or den, as the metaphorical case may be) is victorious.
For this ritual to be completed successfully (that is, in the ’huskers’ favor), multiple groups of people must follow their assigned roles. The central group, of course, is the warriors themselves. These young men wear the colors of their people when they fight, and those who are part of the band of ’huskers are highly celebrated by the natives of the land of the Good Life. Cheers greet them when they emerge onto the field of battle, and their names and faces are known to many. Within the ’huskers’ warrior band, there are two types of fighters: offense, who fight to move the ball forward, and “blackshirts,” who fight defensively to keep their foes from gaining ground.
While both the offense and the blackshirts are valued members of the ’huskers, the blackshirts cultivate a tougher image: they are represented by a skull wearing the traditional ceremonial helmet of the Gobi Gred, placed above two crossed bones on a field of black. Instead of the festive, victorious music that is played throughout the sacred oval when the offense comes to fight, a dangerous, ominous rumble of sound marks the appearance of the blackshirts. These young men, one is led to believe, are a group of warriors who make their foes blanch at their appearance.
Other important groups present at the Gobi Gred festival include: rule-enforcers, musicians, dancers, healers, merchants, and attendees. The rule-enforcers are a small group of individuals, distinctly garbed bright yellow or in striped black and white. The first manage the crowds of attendees, ensuring that they are clothed appropriately, behave appropriately, and don’t bring any substances into the sacred oval which would profane its sacred ground. (Chief among these is alcohol.) The second group, however, is both revered and hated: they are those who ensure that the warriors follow the rules of the ceremony to the letter. Violations are punished with ritual penalties that make it more difficult for victory to be gained.
Musicians play a variety of instruments from fifes to drums and horns. Their playing marks the progress of the ritual, as they perform several numbers at its beginning and at its mid-ceremony break, and also provide musical commentary as the ritual battle progresses. Two groups of musicians are always present at these rituals, one representing each band of warriors. Even as the ’huskers fight against their foes, the opposing groups of musicians play against each other, each attempting to outperform the other – often at the same time.
Several groups of dancers accompany each tribe’s musicians. Most are female, and all are highly trained to perform the ritual dances of the ceremony. These dances include synchronized kicks, turns, jumps, feats of gymnastics and flexibility, and the twirling of flags and batons, all of which is designed to be physically impressive and aesthetically pleasing. The ‘husker musicians and dancers are shown below:
Near the field of battle, healers in gray shirts watch for any injuries that occur to the warriors. Every time there is an injury, the ceremony stops, and all wait for the healers to rush to the field and escort the hurt warrior out of the battle. This is a concession to the fact that the ritual is performed with humans rather than their totemic counterparts: no attendee truly wishes harm on the young men who fight on the field below, even those who represent the ’huskers’ lifelong foes. In fact, applause breaks out among the attendees every time an injured warrior from either band gets to his feet to leave the battlefield, in appreciation of his sacrifice and bravery.
As pictured above, a raised oval of tiered benches rises around the battlefield, reaching nearly to the clouds. It holds over ninety thousand individuals when full – and on festival days, it is always full. Walkways and stairs crisscross the sections of benches, and along these, merchants come selling native foods and beverages. This is an important service offered by those who administer the Gobi Gred festival, as attendees may be sitting in the sacred oval of the ceremony for five hours or more at a time.
Among the attendees themselves, there are several sub-groups that can be identified. The first and largest group is those who are mature native attendees, loyal to the tribe of the Good Life. These typically wear the traditional scarlet and white, as a sign of their support for their people and the ’huskers. Other groups include:
– Children. Accompanied by their parents, these young devotees can be seen wearing miniature versions of ceremonial garb and copying what their elders do, being socialized into the proper ways and rituals of the people of the Good Life.
– Blackshirt Loyals. This intense group of attendees takes the ritual of the Gobi Gred very seriously. Instead of wearing scarlet, they wear shirts of primarily black (accented with tribal symbols in red and white) to show support for the blackshirts of the ’huskers.
– Students. It is a rule that the warriors of the Gobi Gred ceremony must be drawn from the male adolescents of the people of the Good Life who attend Yuenel, the center where tribal elders pass on their knowledge to the next generation. Those students at Yuenel who are not warriors of the Gobi Gred themselves are given special seats at the ceremony; in return for this privilege, they are expected to participate in the ceremony in numerous and diverse ways, as will be detailed next week.
– The Enemy. At every ceremony, a small contingent of individuals can be found who wish the ’huskers’ enemies to prevail in the Gobi Gred. These wear the colors of the band of warriors who challenge the ’huskers that week, and perform their own battle rituals as the ceremony progresses. They typically sit or stand together in a small corner of the sacred oval of the ceremony, and their voices are drowned out by the sea of noise that comes from the red-clad crowd all around them.
– Living Symbols. Usually a subset of the student attendees, certain individuals take it upon themselves to dress in a manner that will gain attention and show everyone – including the ’huskers themselves – their extreme desire to identify with the warriors. Some wear hats that look like corncobs, others paint their chests with tribal symbols, and others may adopt entire personas during the ritual. (For instance, one individual observed had painted his face to look like a skull while wearing the ceremonial dress of ’husker warriors, thus becoming a metaphorical blackshirt.) These efforts are typically rewarded by other attendees with approving words and gestures, and sometimes by the administrators of the Gobi Gred ceremony who display pictures of these living symbols on a large screen for all in attendance to see.
In sum, a wealth of noise and color, of action and waiting, of held breaths and cheers, await all who attend the Gobi Gred ceremony in person. From old men to infants, from graceful female dancers to brawny male warriors, all types can be found participating at the Gobi Gred. Next week, I’ll elaborate on what it is that the warriors and participants actually do at the ceremony. Until then, Go Huskers, and Gobi Gred!