SPIRIT OF THE NATIVE AMERICAN INDIANS
The Custodians, Caretakers and Sustainers
of Planet Earth
This website purports to be a study of the culture, society and
religion of the Native American Indian.
'Native American' and 'American Indian' are used interchangeably in this article
to designate the people (and now their descendants) living in the Americas or the
New World before the 'conquest of paradise' 1492. Although there was considerable
cultural differences in the North, Central and South American regions, there are also
enough broad cultural similarities (macro culture) that are in complete contrast to
the correspondingly broad cultural similarities of the European sub-cultures or nations.
So this essay also purports to be a comparative study of the two macro cultures, with
the starting assertion that the Native American cultures are not easily understood by
Western systems and values, and appear to be enigmatic or even paradoxical in most
of their social, cultural aspects, not merely at first glance, but even after thorough study,
which makes the exercise a difficult but rewarding one. It is this peculiarity that the
person exploring the culture must always keep in mind and adequately deal with at
every step, otherwise the whole exercise will turn out to be frustrating and leading
to false or negative conclusions or dead ends whence there is nothing to learn.
seem an enigma to most other Americans. The images portrayed
in the movies, whether of noble red man or bloodthirsty savage, recall the stereotypes
of western history. Newspaper stories dealing with oil wells, uranium mines, land
claims, and the occupation of public buildings and reservation hamlets almost seem
to speak of another group altogether and it is difficult to connect the two perceptions
of Indians in any single and comprehensible reality........American Indians,
American Justice, by Vine Deloria, Jr.,
There is no claim being made here of following any scientific methodology or having
any anthropological authority, This work has nothing to do with academia, but is only
meant for the explorative individual with an open mind who has no axe to grind,
nor any point to prove or disprove for or against any race, nation, tribe, academic
discipline, scientific precision, religion, or carrying any such or similar burden.
In short, this essay is meant for the free individual.
INDEX OF CHAPTERS
2. Intuitive Understanding in the Thought
& The aesthetic and ethical in actions
3. A State Of War : The Concept of A Warrior
The Art Of Conflict Management
5. Society And Culture
6. American Indian And Western Culture -
A Comparative Analysis
Appendix: The Reel Indian - About American Indians in movies.
CHAPTER 1 :
Let me start with a caveat:
that whatever is presented here is a broad characterization of culture,
and it must always be kept in mind that these characteristics do not apply to all individuals
in a culture. In any society or culture, there will always be individuals that have natures and
behaviors that does not fit into the broad behavior pattern of that culture, whether it is American
Indian culture or European, Western culture, or Eastern cultures. In all societies, there will be good
individuals and bad individuals in an overall sense, and in each individual there will be good
habits or behavior patterns and also bad habits. What matters most is how society and culture
influence, inculcate or encourage good habits in their individual members and how it
handles or manages bad habits of individuals so as not to infect the whole of society
with such habits.
Therefore, when I compare cultures, I look for those behavioral aspects and
promote good individuals and good habits and systems or management techniques
that limit the damage to the whole of society by bad individuals and their actions.
essence of Deep Ecology is to ask deeper questions...
We ask which society, which education, which form of
religion is beneficial for all life on the planet as a whole."
A thing is
right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and
beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told
much that is not true. Only his own best deeds, only the worst deeds
of the Indians, has the white man told. I am telling you true! I will die,
you will die! This story will be for the people who come after us. For
them to see and know what was done here. (Yellow Wolf: His Own Story,
by Lucullus McWhorter )
So that I do not appear too general or vague about what I call good habits versus bad habits, I feel
I need to clarify certain key features that distinguish good from bad. The first key feature that makes
any action good is that which enhances, or at the very least protects the natural rights of other
human beings in particular and in a broader sense other living creatures. In general, good actions
enhance the moral consciousness in other human beings, even if they are in adversarial
relation to oneself.
good actions promote harmony and balance. Good actions even in conflict are
that lead to an outcome which enhances knowledge and learning in a broader sense about human
nature and purpose, and individual empowerment or creativity in a specific sense. Bad actions set
an example for others to emulate by removing the inhibitions that our moral consciousness
sets up to prevent wrong doing. By seeing that bad actions are benefiting the doer, we
lower our inhibitions because we too want to keep up with the material benefits that come
from bad acts and wrong actions.
It is a fact that cannot be denied: the wickedness of others becomes our own
wickedness because it kindles something evil in our own hearts......Carl Jung
A lot of folks have the idea that all Indians are noble savages, but that's not true.
I think the Great Spirit distributed an equal amount of good people among the
races, and an equal amount of ding-a-lings.....Sun Bear
from the Arctic Circle to the tip of South America,
donated many gifts to the world’s common fund of knowledge in the
areas of agriculture, science and technology, medicine, transportation,
architecture, psychology, military strategy, government, and language.
In order to justify the theft of American Indian ideas, inventions, and land,
it was necessary to portray them as less intelligent and less human than
Europeans. Use of the terms savages and heathens were first steps in
dehumanizing American Indians; eventually they were equated with animals.
........Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World
- Keoke, Emory Dean.
At the outset also let me bluntly state the obvious faults of indigenous American tribes and nations:
first of which is obvious, and that is that each of them were excessively proud of their particular tribe
and considered it the centre of the cosmos, and other tribes or nations were generally considered
as less worthy than their own. Tribal affinity was as important value for all tribal cultures not only as
essential for survival but also to develop social bonds and institutions for the development and
continuity of skills and knowledge among other social values, but has a downside insofar as it
promotes tribal egotism. (Tribal affinity and egotism is no longer a serious problem among the
remaining Indians as was before the conquest ). Secondly, in most of the nations there was very little
emphasis on systematic thought, questioning and reasoning (there are exceptions however and one
striking example is the Mayans who made significant developments in mathematics through the
observations of the cyclical movements of planets and stars). The result is that consolidation of
ideas, development of concepts, written language etc could not take place, and the lack of
written literature could not broaden the scope and development of art and knowledge in which
greater number of people could gain access and participate. Written language, in any case
is invented to fulfill the need for commerce book-keeping or organized religion, and literature
is a secondary linguistic activity that subsequently develops.
Native American tales often
place the tribe in the center of the universe, explaining
how they came to be in a particular place. For each tribe this god-given land was
sacred. It fed them with crops and game, supplied them with clothes and shelter,
and they returned to it after death, becoming part of the cycle of life. Each tribe
also had sacred places within its territory, where visions or encounters with the
spirit world might occur and where sacred rituals were held.
.......Hartz, Paula R.- Native American Religions.
Thirdly, the oversensitive and fragile nature of the psyche of the American
Indians made them
very vulnerable to completely give in to things like alcohol when faced with a difficult or desperate
situation. This terrible weakness of the average Indian of lacking mental toughness with flexibility
to deal suitably to very different circumstances than what they were used to, was exploited to
the hilt by the Europeans. Very, very few Indians like Tecumseh could turn the desperate situation
into an ultimate challenge. It may be said that to succumb to the European way of life was also
unacceptable to most Indians in North America (whereas in Central and south America there
was a considerable assimilation, but not without resistance or rebellions) but to give in to alcohol
as a tranquilizer was an even worse option. This problem of alcoholism continues to this day
among the remaining Indians, and is a failing that they have yet to overcome, and so it
remains a serious challenge.
The Indi'n militants keep
wantin' to put things way back a hundred years ago.
We're gettin' pushed back enough without help! Get ever'body killed or dyin' off,
runnin' around crazy and shootin'—that's white man. So many of these nationists
get militant and go away and say they talk for their people. They stay out too
long, away from home. They don't know how to be Indi'n, so busy actin' Indi'n.
Luther Clearwater (Black Hills White Justice: The Sioux Nation versus the
United States, 1775 to the Present, byEdward Lazarus, HarperCollins, 1991.
As I grew up on the reservation . . . I became aware that not very much had changed
for the Indian in several centuries. He no longer had to die on the battlefield...; now
he wasted away from tuberculosis, drifted demoralized into alcoholism, and grubbed
whatever mean subsistence he could, lived and died impoverished, powerless, ignored.
Since he laid down his guns, the Indian has no weapons, literally and figuratively.
Thus his struggle to retain his heritage and to survive as an individual may seem
foolhardy. Faced with corrupt leadership, an indifferent or malicious Bureau of Indian
Affairs, and the absence of any legal remedy for wrongs committed against him,
surrounded by greedy real estate, cattle, timber, oil, hunting, fishing, and other
interests, his capacity to fight effectively is weak indeed.......R. Burnette
The issues and the problems
that confront Indian people on a day-to-day basis are
extremely complex. It takes a lifetime of education to even begin to understand them.
People who are in poverty,
people who are in very difficult situations
and in pain, have to develop humor or die of despair......Linda Hogan
It must also be said that the odds against
the Indians was tremendous, and mere survival an
achievement, but only if the Indian was able to survive without completely giving up on his
way of life. This in itself was the most stupendous challenge that the Indian faced, and therein
also lay the greatest opportunity for the Indian to attain that which he coveted most - Spirit -
the only force that transforms even the most mundane into the most adventurous and which
makes possible the transcendence of the finite and the limited temporal being into the realm
of the infinite and the absolute.
For the sake of our psychic
stability as well as our physical wellbeing, we must be free men
and exercise free choices. We must make decisions about our own destinies. We must be
able to learn and profit by our own mistakes. Only then can we become competent and
prosperous communities. Unless there is some way that we as Indian individuals and
communities can prove ourselves competent and worthy in the eyes of our youngsters
there will be a generation of Indians grow to adulthood whose reaction to their situation
will make previous social ills seem like a Sunday School picnic.....Clyde Warrior
With these in mind I now proceed with the best that this culture had accomplished.
"..( the ) Native American culture lived more closely in harmony
with the natural world than any other before or since."
.....Roger Ebert ( Review of 'Dances With Wolves' )
carries a conviction about a culture that although seems obvious in it's "since"
but a cynic could well question the "before" aspect, since not much is known about other cultures
that have become long extinct. And yet anyone even superficially familiar with the American Indian
culture, but having an intuitive sense, would unhesitatingly vouch for the accuracy of this statement.
captures the essence and the supreme accomplishment of the people of a continent
wide culture consisting of over 200 autonomous "nations", and each nation constituted of several
autonomous tribes, having a limited number of people as members of the tribe, and each member
was considered as a unique, autonomous individual who had the freedom to choose his or her
own way of life. In no other culture has such a high value been put upon individual freedom .
In no other culture have all the creatures in its environment lived in a state of balance and harmony.
saw the Indian as the last remnant of natural perfection -
a model that must be preserved for human rejuvenation: Indians
represented something worthy of sharing and preserving.
.......Ned Blackhawk (Historian)
In the Navajo
religion and culture, there is an emphasis on how you
relate to everything around you. Everything has to be measured, weighed
and harmonious. We call it nizhoni—walking in beauty—and I believe what
I do as a surgeon fits into this philosophy. I know my actions directly alter
the course of people's lives.....Lori Cupp
Today, almost all people
of other cultures fail to grasp the significance of what this culture has
been able to accomplish. It is all too easy to dismiss the North American Native culture as "just
another tribal culture, fundamentally indistinguishable from other tribal cultures of the rest of
the world ". The crucial and fundamental difference between the North American culture
and other tribal cultures can only be seen by a careful and committed study of the social,
religious behavior and attitudes.
The crux of the Native
American culture is an implicit recognition and acknowledgement
of the diversity of life and human nature, of each individual entity as a unique being and
yet to be taken as equal and inseparable to all of life - this is something that is part of the
social and cultural ethos, and that which no other culture has been able to develop and
impart to its members. This paradoxical cultural value reflects in all the actions of the
Native American but which appears as strange, inconsistent and contradictory
to other people.
"Few men exhibit
greater diversity, or, if we may so express it, greater antithesis
of character, than the native warrior of North America. In war, he is daring,
boastful, cunning, ruthless, self-denying, and self-devoted; in peace, he is just,
generous, hospitable, revengeful, superstitious, modest, and commonly chaste.
These are qualities, it is true, which do not distinguish all alike; but they are
so far the predominating traits of these remarkable people as to be
characteristic".......Cooper ( Last of the Mohicans )
This fundamental difference
is not visible or analyzable in a formal sense that can turn it into
scientifically provable hypothesis or proposition, and this point is significant : the North
Native American culture developed a lifestyle that is completely contrary to the scientific,
technological, or even religious lifestyle of the western civilization, and furthermore, even
differed from other tribal cultures in the developments of its society, culture and religion,
although like other tribal societies, there was no development in the physical sciences and
In any case, science and technology arises out of the
between man and nature,
from the drive to conquer and destroy: for those societies that develop and use material
technology do so only to gain material resources : to dominate, to exploit, make subservient
or even eliminate others. That the same technologies then have other creative uses in art
and literature is then only a secondary development, which has significance in the sense
that technology can then possibly lead to a creative co-existence, depending upon a
possible transformation of the attitudes and behavior of the dominant culture.
This motivating force
behind material technology, which arises out of man's alienation
from nature, and which is essentially (not exceptionally) destructive, is seemingly
never acknowledged by the societies that develop them. If they were to acknowledge
this, the destructive hold of material technology just might be redirected.
The white man seeks
to conquer nature, to bend it to his will and
to use it wastefully until it is all gone and then he simply moves on
leaving the waste behind him and looking for new places to take. The
white man is a monster who is always hungry and what he eats is land.
..........Chiksika ( Shawnee)
By killing the
salmon in their spawning grounds, by clear cutting the forests
without reseeding, by polluting fresh water that all life needs for survival,
you have broken the great cycles of regeneration, the fundamental law of
natural life.. .. The law that is absolute and merciless. The law that provides
life endlessly if we abide, and the law that destroys in exact ratio to
transgressions that challenge it.....Oren Lyons
We knew that this
land beneath us was composed of many things
that we might want to use later such as mineral resources. We knew that
this is the wealthiest part of this continent, because it is here the Great
Spirit lives. We knew that the White Man will search for the things that
look good to him, that he will use many good ideas in order to obtain
his heart's desire, and we knew that if he had strayed from the Great
Spirit he would use any means to get what he wants. These things we
were warned to watch, and we today know that those prophecies were
true because we can see how many new and selfish ideas and plans are
being put before us. We know that if we accept these things we will lose
our land and give up our very lives.
(The Great Resistance: A Hopi Anthology, edited by George Yamada)
It was obvious to the
from their observations of the behavior of the
Europeans that the culture and technology of the Europeans would eventually destroy
the Earth. They could not comprehend why the Europeans could not see what was plainly
obvious to the native American Indian. So they often wondered and pondered as to why
the European was so ignorant about nature and the very Earth that gave and sustained life.
And then they discovered the reason : the European not only had no conception of that
which was most precious to the Native American, but also that which the Europeans had
almost none of: Spirit, in its most abstract primal sense: the life giving or creating force.
( not spirit in its general meaning of being spirited etc.)
They will be
powerful people, strong, tough. They will fly up into the sky, they
will dig under the earth, they will drain the earth and kill it. All over the earth
they will kill the trees and the grass, they will put their own grass and their
own hay, but the earth will be dead—all the old trees and grass and animals.
Fred Last Bull (Cheyenne)
And so they worried, not so much about their own fate, but the coming and inevitable
destruction of the Earth by the technology of the European. And then they sensed that those
of them that were left would have to become the last defenders, the caretakers, the
custodians of mother Earth.
The Indians did not understand (very few of them did) that in this conflict
the role of the Europeans was that of the most formidable and deadly
adversary for them and that they could not have possibly anticipated
this beforehand, although there are references to disturbing visions
about the darkening future in which their kind would increasingly
and unceasingly come under pressure of becoming extinct. The one's
that did understand, did so because they had the developed knowledge
do deal with this very situation. But these were extreme exceptions, Like
the ones in the quote below.
"For the poor average Indian, the reign of the white man has
been sheer hell. And yet the irony is that for another kind of
Indian (the sorcerer) it has been sheer bliss. For the sorcerer
the Conquest was the challenge of a lifetime. They were the
only ones who were not destroyed by it, but adapted to it
and used it to their ultimate advantage.
After the tonal of the time and the personal tonal of every Indian
was obliterated, the sorcerers found themselves holding on to the
only thing left uncontested, the nagual. In other words, their tonal
took refuge in their nagual. This couldn't have happened had it
not been for the excruciating conditions of a vanquished people.
The men of knowledge today are the product of those conditions
and are the ultimate connoisseurs of the nagual since they were
left there thoroughly alone. There the white man has never
ventured. In fact, he doesn't even know it exists.
.....Castaneda ( Tales of Power )
For the North American Indian societies and nations, it was even worse, because
unlike the societies and civilizations of the Mesoamerica and South America whose
people had submitted to the European authority, the North Americans resisted like
no other, and the price was the complete decimation not only of their tribes and
nations, but also their lifestyle, their way of life. This they could see in their visions
even before it eventually took place.
These visions were confirmed subsequently when it became abundantly clear
to them that the European became worse and worse in his behavior towards
every other living creature except their own kind, and had no respect for life
other than their own. Rather, all other life forms were treated as subservient to
the European's "evolution", to be exploited and finally exterminated when it
was no longer of any use for them. It became painfully obvious to the Indian
that even mere survival for them would mean a surrender of their freedom
and subservience to the white man's ways. Most of them decided that it was
better to die in battle against their most formidable adversary. Those who
were not warriors, (or women) would find even mere survival, rather than
death, as a worthy challenge.
"It will be the end of living and the beginning of survival"
Intuitive Understanding in the Thought
& The aesthetic and ethical in actions
religion there is an element of the supernatural, varying with the
influence of pure reason over its devotees. The Indian was a logical and clear
thinker upon matters within the scope of his understanding, but he had not yet
charted the vast field of nature or expressed her wonders in terms of science.
With his limited knowledge of cause and effect, he saw miracles on every hand,
-- the miracle of life in seed and egg, the miracle of death in lightning flash and
in the swelling deep! Nothing of the marvelous could astonish him; as that a
beast should speak, or the sun stand still. The virgin birth would appear scarcely
more miraculous than is the birth of every child that comes into the world, or the
miracle of the loaves and fishes excite more wonder than the harvest that
springs from a single ear of corn.......Eastman ( The Soul of The Indian )
Since the American Indian
did not use a written language, there was no systematic or
formal education, which had one powerful advantage: their thinking was not constrained
or bound by the dogmatic rationality of science or organized religion. And it is not that
they never thought or reflected intellectually, it is just that they mostly acted first, actions that
relied upon instinct and intuition and then, if required, thought or reflected upon things of
concern. This did have the drawback of making them unduly rash at times, and lack of
structured and ordered thinking.
But here again, there was a marked difference from other tribal cultures : there was a
positive development in their intellect in the political management of their inter-nation
relationships and laws, particularly in the unsaid law that no nation would annihilate
or sub-serve another. Even within a tribe or nation, if there arose a serious difference
over an issue, there was no forcible imposition or coercion upon the one person or
group to accept or concede to the other's view. At the most there would be a parting
of ways. Fundamentally and most significantly, there would be a minimum and open
agreement about what clear course to follow as a result of the disagreement - even if
it means violence- but no backstabbing, lying or deception about it. And once an
agreement was made, it would not be violated. Violation of an agreement in Native
American societies was the most serious offence.
people have always watched nature; it is their textbook
for living...Sun Bear
We come here . . . speaking the truth on behalf of people, of the world,
of the four-footed, of the winged, of the fish that swim. Someone must
speak for them. I do not see a delegation for the four-footed. I see no
seat for the eagles. It is our responsibility, since we have been given
the minds to take care of these things. The elements and the animals,
and the birds, they live in a state of grace. They are absolute, they can
do no wrong. It is only we, the two-leggeds, that can do this.
....Oren Lyons - Speech at United Nations conference in Geneva,
Their reasoning was not
formal or systematic, for reasoning was always of secondary
concern to them. Reasoning came only after, not before insight, and a person who
lacked a specific vision or insight about some problem or issue, rightfully did not
even bother to exercise his intellect, but continued the warrior's struggle to sharpen
his instincts and to gain insights into his own nature and that of other creatures.
This was of utmost value for the American Indian : to learn from nature directly,
through interaction, challenge and conflict. That was the only worthy learning :
by direct interaction with other creatures - and the deadliest of these was man
himself. They understood intuitively that to turn reason into a systemic thinking
incorporated into indoctrinated learning would itself destroy their way of learning
directly from nature. Their understanding was therefore not subject to reasoning
but primarily subject to intuitive insight.
Indian was a logical and clear thinker upon matters within
the scope of his understanding........Eastman
is it you guys want from the Elders? Secrets? Mystery?
. . . I can tell you right now there are no secrets. There's no mystery.
There's only common sense.....Oren Lyons - Remarks to two non-Indian
journalists who were interviewing Native American elders
The Red man did not make
theories about anything. Their outlook was pragmatic
and concerned mostly about the issues at hand, rather than speculate or make
elaborate abstractions about "the infinite" or "the absolute" or "the ultimate" and
referred to these abstraction only in terms of "Great Mystery". Nobody proposed
theories about the Great Mystery and there were no academic or institutionalized
discourses about it.
Another feature that is so easily misread is that people of a science based education
assume that the Native Americans were not creative. This mistake is made because
the creativity of the Native American was not primarily in terms of created physical
objects, but primarily in terms of vision and interaction. To people who look upon
creativity only in terms of immediate tangible outputs in concrete forms, the
creativity of the Native American is impossible to comprehend.
The Native Americans
understood that human beings were very different kind of creatures
that were both magical as well as destructive. From their observations and interactions
with the other creatures they developed a cluster of societies or a culture that could
effectively bring forth and account for both the magical-creative as well effectively
channelize the destructive potential of man, without damage to or destruction of
nature itself. In the ecological aspects this culture exhibited the deepest respect, the
greatest concern as well as the actions needed to maintain and sustain the given
balance in nature.
This was the right path
for them - this was the core of their understanding and it reflected
in their religion, society and culture through the length and breadth of the continent.
But how did they manage to sustain this through up to ten millennia or even more ?
By the development of the art of managing conflict....
3.A STATE OF WAR :
THE CONCEPT OF A WARRIOR
THE ART OF CONFLICT MANAGEMENT
THE ART OF BALANCING OPPOSITES
warrior marvels at his good fortune of having found a worthwhile challenge.
when approaching the enemy ready to fight life for life can you hear and
learn from fellow warriors. Only then are these things told—what Power has been
given the warrior, what Power he must use. It is at such time the guard Spirit
enters into the warrior's head.....Yellow Wolf
path of power is different for every individual; it represents the course one
should follow through life in order to fulfill his or her purpose on the Earth Mother.
It is why you are here. (The Path of Power, by Sun Bear)
"The American Indian was an individualist in religion as in
war. He had neither a national army nor an organized
warlike state and the strong warlike cultural behavior pattern among the Native
American male is even more difficult to comprehend than their religious behavior. To other
people it seems completely irrational and silly. This can be contrasted to the not-so-candidly
-admitted war like behavior of so called civilized nations and cultures. Civilized people fight
wars for specific and tangible reasons ( or what has been taught as reason in civilization ), and
the reason that is taught is that the others pose a threat to their future existence or evolution,
and that they are simply defending themselves. But it is hardly ever told that in order to grow
and so called evolve, any civilization requires resources and there are simply not enough of
these around, the other planets are simply too far away and gravity is a very formidable force.
The inescapable logic, though not consciously admitted is that in order to sustain it's rate of
growth and evolution of sciences and technology an advanced civilization require resources
and slaves. And for this it is necessary to dominate and conquer. Since the meaning of
existence in civilization is presumed to be "evolution", this high priced evolution can only be
attained if all human beings are made to cooperate, either by religion or by scientific logic or
by force ( war ). This is the basic motivation of civilizations. But what is the motivation to go to
war for a culture like the Native American who had no drive to conquer and exploit other
lands or to bring all resources under their control ? This question is very difficult to answer,
even by the Native Americans, since they were not analytic about their motivations.
Their motivations were sourced from the synthetic process - by visions and dreams - which
is beyond the reach of reason and analysis since it is in total contrast to the process itself.
The Native American went to war
in his individual capacity and for individual reasons,
although it was a social norm for the male to become a warrior par excellence. The
highest social norm in Native American societies was to become a man of wisdom
and knowledge, and to become a warrior was the first, essential step, for only a man
who had dealt with death in a personal manner could muster the courage, the Spirit to
attain the right knowledge and wisdom. ( Here knowledge and wisdom is not what is
known as scientific knowledge or philosophical wisdom, but a capacity to learn directly
from nature, to act or direct wisely and courageously in any situation, and to have a
vision or direction for the future. ) Only those men who had attained this kind of integrity
was deemed fit to become old, and those who were not fit enough to attain it, death
was the filter that sorted them out early enough through the process of becoming a
warrior. For this the warrior needed to go to war, and he sought a vision that would
guide him in the process. Very few of the Native American reached old age, and
those that did were considered to have attained the integrity and the Spirit to be
of guidance to others.
become a great brave was . . . the highest aspiration [of a young man ]
....Not only must he have great physical bravery and fighting prowess, but he
must meet the severest tests of character. The great brave was a man of strict
honor, undoubted truthfulness, and unbounded generosity. In the natural course
of events, every Lakota boy became a hunter scout, or warrior. When I reached
young manhood, the warpath for the Lakota was a thing of the past. The hunter
had disappeared with the buffalo, the war scout had lost his calling, and the
warrior had taken his shield to the mountain-top and given it back to the
elements. The victory songs were sung only in the memory of the braves and
even they soon went unsung under a cruel and senseless ban of our overseers.
.....Chief Luther Standing Bear
This was never formulated in a formal, logical manner and so this is very difficult to
comprehend logically. Especially for 'civilized people' this appears illogical and absurd.
But this was no absurdity for the Native American because he sought the power of that
force that righteously and unfailingly resolves the absurdity and paradoxical nature of
life and human existence - Spirit.
In just about anything in nature, there is a paradox - a critical balance between opposites
- a balance upheld and maintained by a sustaining force - Spirit. In pristine nature there
is a harmony between all kinds of creatures. And yet, paradoxically, there is also a
conflict between them. Particularly when the human being comes into the picture.
"The art of the warrior is to balance the terror of being a man with the
wonder of being a man".....Castaneda
This was realized intuitively and instinctively (although it is possible to realize this rationally
too) by the native American culture, and so they set up their societies or tribes and nations
to incorporate this paradoxical state in nature, since everything they did was taken as a cue
from nature directly.
A paradoxical state of a harmony in conflict : the paradox inherent in
it's creatures exist in a fragile state of conflict, yet there is an underlying and hidden
harmony between them. Which basically means that the rules and limits of conflict have
a cohesive binding force. And if these limits lose their cohesiveness, then it manifests firstly
as a progressively declining diversity of life ; if one kind outgrows all others, the ecosystem
loses its balance, leading finally to the destruction of all of life - this is instinctively understood
by tribal cultures in general, and was particularly well understood by the North American
Indian culture. Whereas in the rest of the creatures, the conflict, balance and harmony
between them had a pre-existing cohesiveness provided by Nature, human beings have
an inherently different nature ; as creatures having intelligence above a critical threshold,
human beings attain an autonomy and freedom of decision or choice available to them
that are not generally available to the other creatures. This autonomy comes at a price : it
puts a demand upon human beings to formulate or define their own rules and limits of
managing conflict without devouring harmony below a critical threshold. Human existence
thus carries a grave and terrifying responsibility : and this was never understood better than
the North American Indian culture and this manifest in their ability to engage in conflict
with harmony : to wage war without losing their harmony with Nature.
It is not a new development for white society to steal from nonwhite
peoples. When white society succeeds it's called colonialism. When
white society's efforts to colonize people are met with resistance, it's
called war. But when the colonized Indians of North America meet to
stand and resist we are called criminals. What could be more clear than
that to treat us as criminals is a farce?.....Leonard Peltier
Thus the motivations for the American Indian to go to war were totally different from the
motivations of people of other cultures : whereas in the rest of the world, generally ( since
individual motivations can differ as an exception ) the motivation was to conquer and
gain land or resources, with the Native American it was the opposite - it was to become
a warrior par excellence by challenging his own death in war - for only a warrior who
had attained a certain proficiency in dealing with his own life and death could attain
the highest ideal : to become pure spirit - to become a force that creates balances
and sustains life.
Non-Violent Disagreement but Violent Agreement
The Indian was suspicious of easy
or too-convenient agreements which did not address key
issues, and so peace was an unusual condition of existence, only to be sought when war
seemed to be getting too out of hand or when too one-sided. Any major disagreement was
considered most seriously, for it implied a major rethinking on the issue at hand - that could
only be resolved or the lines drawn up by contemplation and dialog, not by war.
Disagreements could not be resolved by war, although this was not valid at a personal but
at an intra or inter tribal level.
WAR, DEATH and OLD AGE
Since the face to face
experience with death was the core of the warrior's quest,
death claimed many, even most of them before they reached old age in spite of the fact that
hardly anyone died of diseases, and most diseases were neither known there nor prevalent .
Therefore, few of them reached old age, but the most significant part of this process was that those
that had lived after their encounters with death, acquired that which was most precious to
them : knowledge of the right way to live and its consequence - power : to be able to chart
one's own destiny, or at the very least live their lives with the wisdom to properly guide their
children. Hardly anyone that reached old age was a senile old fool or a tyrant. Hardly anyone
in old age became a manipulative person who would misguide or mislead the younger ones.
If they faced a situation in which they had no clear idea of what to do, they would clearly
state their lack of knowledge to deal with that situation, and leave it to others to find their
own solution - there was simply no pretence, no megalomania about their knowledge
and wisdom. An old man or woman in Native American culture was an asset to their
society and almost never a liability.
"An elder is an honored person who knows much about the
traditions and has an instinct to how things are supposed to be. These
elders are named when they have proved themselves worthy of the title".
The drawbacks of a society that
is oriented towards warrior-ship as its highest creed are also
not so obvious : any individual who inherently disliked hunting and killing was a misfit for
there was no other social institutions where he could discover his other talents that were
contrary to warrior-ship. Similarly, the role of women was limited to looking after children
and housekeeping, although there were areas of overlap in medicine and handicrafts.
religion of the Indian is the last thing about him that the man of another race
will ever understand. The American Indian was an individualist in religion as in war.
He had neither a national army nor an organized church. There was no priest to
assume responsibility for another's soul. That is, we believed, the supreme duty of
the parent, who only was permitted to claim in some degree the priestly office
and function, since it is his creative and protecting power which alone
approaches the solemn function of Deity".....Eastman
People traditionally learned about the Great Spirit, or Great Mystery, through
tradition, the tales of magical beings and important events and ancestors passed
down from one generation to the next. They also experience this mysterious power
directly through dreams and visions. Children learn from an early age to pay
attention to their dreams and to examine them for meaning. They learn to be aware
of the spirit world, which is all around them, a kind of parallel universe that is always
close at hand. Later in life they may actively seek a vision for spiritual guidance
through periods of fasting and self-denial.....Hartz, Paula R.- Native American Religions
public religious rites of the Plains Indians are few, and in large part of
belonging properly to the so-called "transition period"....Eastman
There is no clear cut classification that can be made about the activities of the Native American
that can be called strictly religious as different from social activities, war, hunting, festivals,
dancing, chanting or even seemingly mundane daily activities. They themselves did not
make a distinct category of activity called religious activity, except for unusual happening
or feelings - which were intuitively regarded as having personal religious significance.
Certain activities that cannot be called routine ( for example - vision quest ) were the essence
of their religion, whereas certain routine activities like hunting and dancing were also of
religious significance to them. But what is important to note at the outset is that the mundane
was of little or no religious significance to them, and thus a blind ritual was unthinkable.
The Indian was a religious man from his mother's womb. From the
of her recognition of the fact of conception to the end of the second year of
life, which was the ordinary duration of lactation, it was supposed by us that
the mother's spiritual influence counted for most. Her attitude and secret
meditations must be such as to instill into the receptive soul of the unborn
child the love of the "Great Mystery" and a sense of brotherhood with all
creation. Silence and isolation are the rule of life for the expectant mother.
She wanders prayerful in the stillness of great woods, or on the bosom of the
untrodden prairie, and to her poetic mind the immanent birth of her child
prefigures the advent of a master-man -- a hero, or the mother of heroes -- a
thought conceived in the virgin breast of primeval nature, and dreamed out
in a hush that is only broken by the sighing of the pine tree or the thrilling
orchestra of a distant waterfall.....Eastman
The white man's religion talks about mastering the earth, which means
putting up your towns by water so you can watch your garbage float away.
we first of all look at what was "not religion" in the American
Indian perspective but are definitive features of all other religions : it was not a ritual that had
to be performed; there were no houses of worship where a regular visit had to be paid; there
were no scriptures to recite or learn from; there were no set of doctrines or procedures to
follow; there were no priests to consult, please or bribe; there were no deities which had to
be appeased; and finally, there were no religious leaders who would address the masses
with their blah blah; in short : no organized or institutionalized religion.
"There were no temples or shrines among us save those of nature. Being
a natural man, the Indian was intensely poetical. He would deem it sacrilege
to build a house for Him who may be met face to face in the mysterious,
shadowy aisles of the primeval forest, or on the sunlit bosom of virgin prairies,
upon dizzy spires and pinnacles of naked rock, and yonder in the jeweled vault
of the night sky! He who enrobes Himself in filmy veils of cloud, there on the
rim of the visible world where our Great-Grandfather Sun kindles his evening
camp-fire, He who rides upon the rigorous wind of the north, or breathes forth
His spirit upon aromatic southern airs, whose war-canoe is launched upon
majestic rivers and inland seas -- He needs no lesser cathedral!......Eastman
This much is certain : the American Indian had no institutionalized religion: theirs was
the primal religion, uncorrupted, sustained for the longest time, free from doctrines,
institutions and most significantly - from civilization, till the coming of the Europeans.
Thereafter too, the American Indian was inherently averse to the institutionalized
religion of the Europeans, which was forced upon the Indians and to whatever
extent it was accepted, it was out of sheer desperation. The religion of the American
Indian was first classified by the Europeans as 'Paganism' which was a degrading term
applied upon all barbarians (all those who were not civilized ) and all tribal societies.
The 'Medicine Man' was labeled as a practitioner of witchcraft, and those that did not
accept Christianity immediately, as devil-worshipers, the proof of which was taken
to be the animal totems of the Natives. It never occurred to the mind of the western
man, and still doesn't, that the classification system is of the European culture is
deeply flawed as it is applicable only to a very limited viewpoint apart from being
totally inapplicable elsewhere. The deep and fundamental difference lies in the
mindset of the civilized man, who believes, without question, that since he is at the
height of human evolution therefore everyone must agree, or else be made to agree,
with the religion and science that has been established by the dominant civilization.
( Except for the latest weapon, data for which of course must be kept secret )
missionaries, good men imbued with the narrowness of their age,
branded us as pagans and devil-worshipers, and demanded of us that we
abjure our false gods before bowing the knee at their sacred altar. They
even told us that we were eternally lost, unless we adopted a tangible
symbol and professed a particular form of their hydra-headed faith."
"During the era of reconstruction
they modified their customs and beliefs
continually, creating a singular admixture of Christian with pagan superstitions,
and an addition to the old folk-lore of disguised Bible stories under an Indian
aspect. Even their music shows the influence of the Catholic chants. Most of
the material collected by modern observers is necessarily of this promiscuous
"There are to be
found here and there superficial accounts of strange customs
and ceremonies, of which the symbolism or inner meaning was largely hidden
from the observer; and there has been a great deal of material collected in recent
years which is without value because it is modern and hybrid, inextricably mixed
with Biblical legend and Caucasian philosophy. Some of it has even been invented
for commercial purposes. Give a reservation Indian a present, and he will possibly
provide you with sacred songs, a mythology, and folk-lore to order!".........Eastman
This is the most significant aspect of the American Indian religious life or experience :
no one was made to believe in religious matters - it was entirely up to the individual's
predilection to pursue or seek an experience or vision that could make sense of the life and
it's direction or purpose for that particular individual. It must be pointed out that whenever
someone is made to believe in something, the essential aspect of a religious experience
( that of the mysterious ) is inhibited or lost. The essence of any religious experience is a highly
personal one, and any beliefs about it beforehand, obviously imposed by society, have a
strong tendency to either prevent any deeper experience, or to distort its post - experience
rationalizations. (again limited in terms of socially accepted beliefs ) .Walking the red path
meant making everything into a spiritual act - an act that was in accordance, direction
and flow of one's spirit.
"Whenever, in the course of the daily hunt, the red hunter comes upon a scene
that is strikingly beautiful and sublime -- a black thunder-cloud with the rainbow's
glowing arch above the mountain; a white waterfall in the heart of a green gorge;
a vast prairie tinged with the blood-red of sunset -- he pauses for an instant in the
attitude of worship. He sees no need for setting apart one day in seven as a holy
day, since to him all days are God's."...... Eastman
Even the act of the hunting of animals had a deep
religious connotation : it was
performed with the greatest of reverence for the hunted creature and a prayer was
performed at the body of the slain animal, which thanked the animal for the use of
it's body, acknowledged the role, the brotherly connection or bond of the animal with
human beings, and the interdependence of their lives. Along with it was the promise
made that one day the gift that was taken will be returned. Most Native people
considered that there was a sacred relationship between themselves and the plants
and animals that served as food. This bond of balanced inter-relationship was typically
called the 'sacred hoop' or the 'sacred circle', from which comes the phrase 'circle of
life'. After the large scale killing of these animals by the Europeans, the Indians felt that
the 'sacred hoop' was broken, which meant for them that the destruction of the ecosystem
had become inevitable.
On the reservation we made
these little gray houses of logs . ..and they are square.
It is a bad way to live, for there is no power in a square.... Everything an Indian does
is in a circle and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and
everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people,
all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop
was unbroken, the people flourished.
I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud [of Wounded Knee],
buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream The nation's
hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer and the sacred tree is dead.
(Black Elk Speaks, Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux,
as told to John G. Neihardt,)
Native hunters traditionally
prayed to the spirit of the game they killed for food,
thanking the deer, the buffalo, or the salmon for giving up its life so that people
might eat and remain alive. People understood that only with the help of the spirit
world could they succeed in life. Someone who neglected to respect the life of the
deer he had taken might find that the other deer spirits rose up against him and
hindered future hunts. .......Hartz, Paula R.- Native American Religions.
Every act of his life is, in a very real sense, a religious act. He recognizes the
spirit in all creation, and believes that he draws from it spiritual power. His respect
for the immortal part of the animal, his brother, often leads him so far as to lay
out the body of his game in state and decorate the head with symbolic paint or
feathers. Then he stands before it in the prayer attitude, holding up the filled pipe,
in token that he has freed with honor the spirit of his brother, whose body his
need compelled him to take to sustain his own life. ...Eastman.
GREAT SPIRIT or GREAT MYSTERY
Among the American Indians
there was a single concept of religion regardless
of tribe or geographic location. They believed that the finite and infinite were
expressions of one universal, absolute being that furnished guidelines for their
morals and conduct, and motivated every living thing. They called this the
Great Spirit. (The Memoirs of Chief Red Fox)
We are two distinct races and
must ever remain so. There is little in common
between us.......Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger
of an angry God, lest you might forget it. The red man could never remember
nor comprehend it. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors, the dreams
of our old men, given them by the Great Spirit, and the visions of our sachems,
and is written in the hearts of our people......Chief Seattle
Their Wise Ones said we might
have their religion, but when we tried to understand
it we found that there were too many kinds of religion among white men for us to
understand, and that scarcely any two white men agreed which was the right one
to learn. This bothered us a good deal until we saw that the white man did not take
his religion any more seriously than he did his laws, and that he kept both of them
just behind him, like Helpers, to use when they might do him good in his dealings
with strangers. (Plenty-Coups, Chief of the Crows, by Frank B. Linderman)
Direct experience, without any pre-indoctrinated
mindset was the crux of the American
Indian religion. No one made noises and claims about how deep or profound the
experience was or that everyone must now be made to listen to these sermons
about the divine. The only referring term to the most profound religious experience
used throughout the two hundred nations of the North American Indian can be
loosely translated as : Great Mystery or Great Spirit, something that no one even
elaborated upon or gave sermons about - once again they understood intuitively
the essential characteristic of Spirit as the primal and ultimate force of nature : that
it could not be talked about loosely and can never be institutionalized, and never
ever be made an object of worship.
That solitary communion with
the Unseen which was the highest expression of our
religious life is partly described in the word bambeday, literally "mysterious feeling,"
which has been variously translated "fasting" and "dreaming." It may better be
interpreted as "consciousness of the divine."....Eastman
The only socially imposed religious
activity of the American Indian was on the individual
to seek a religious experience of one's own that would yield a vision or dream that
would indicate the path which that person should seek. Such a vision or dream was
considered so personal that unless the vision or dream itself indicated a communication
or interaction, it was never told to anyone else.
"There was undoubtedly
much in primitive Christianity to appeal to this man, and
Jesus' hard sayings to the rich and about the rich would have been entirely
comprehensible to him. Yet the religion that is preached in our churches and
practiced by our congregations, with its element of display and self-aggrandizement,
its active proselytism, and its open contempt of all religions but its own, was for
a long time extremely repellent. To his simple mind, the professionalism of the
pulpit, the paid exhorter, the moneyed church, was an unspiritual and unedifying,
and it was not until his spirit was broken and his moral and physical constitution
undermined by trade, conquest, and strong drink, that Christian missionaries obtained
any real hold upon him. Strange as it may seem, it is true that the proud pagan in his
secret soul despised the good men who came to convert and to enlighten him!"
These were thus the traits and highlights of the religion of the Native American :
1) Individual experience, 2 ) No Doctrines, 3) No idle speculation 4 ) No Deification
5) No Church or Temple 6) No stuff like "God or XXX came to me and said 'Blah Blah
Blah' and that everybody better listen 6) The importance of a vision but : 7) No stuff
like "I have seen or have been revealed the ultimate reality and it is '$$$$$$$$' and
now everyone has to buy it from me or else....
"The rites of this physical worship, again, were wholly symbolic, and the Indian no more
worshiped the Sun than the Christian adores the Cross. The Sun and the Earth, by an
obvious parable, holding scarcely more of poetic metaphor than of scientific truth,
were in his view the parents of all organic life. From the Sun, as the universal father,
proceeds the quickening principle in nature, and in the patient and fruitful womb of
our mother, the Earth, are hidden embryos of plants and men. Therefore our reverence
and love for them was really an imaginative extension of our love for our immediate
parents, and with this sentiment of filial piety was joined a willingness to appeal to
them, as to a father, for such good gifts as we may desire. This is the material or
"The elements and majestic forces in nature, Lightning, Wind, Water, Fire, and Frost,
were regarded with awe as spiritual powers, but always secondary and intermediate
in character. We believed that the spirit pervades all creation and that every creature
possesses a soul in some degree, though not necessarily a soul conscious of itself. The
tree, the waterfall, the grizzly bear, each is an embodied Force, and as such an
object of reverence"...Eastman
THE VISION QUEST
"The future cannot be left alone to stumble along without direction"......Bearskin
pray to the spirits, receiving answer usually in a dream. Indeed,
all dreams were thought to be from the spirits; and for this reason they were always
heeded, especially those that came by fasting and suffering. Sometimes a man
fasted and tortured himself until he fell into a kind of dream while yet awake;
we called this a vision. .......Edward Goodbird
vision, the gift of seeing truly, with wonder and delight into
the natural world, is informed by a certain attitude of reverence and
respect. It is a matter of extrasensory as well as sensory perception. In
addition to the eye, it involves the intelligence, the instinct, and the
imagination. It is the perception not only of objects and forms but also
of essences and ideals.....M Scott Momaday (Contemporary American
Indian Leaders, by Marion Gridley, Dodd Mead, 1972.)
peyote by North Native Americans is not traditional but 'imported'
from Mesoamerican cultures where the use of natural psychedelics was well
mapped and explored from thousands of years. North Native Americans relied
on 'vision quest' as their primary religious quest and was not 'ceremonial' but
individual and private.
Once the conditions of the vision quest were no longer there, the North Native
Americans had to fall back on vision inducing plants as a substitute, which has
become 'ceremonial' - sort of quasi-social rather than individual.
Use of psychedelics in order to be meaningful requires a serious intention, and
usually requires the presence of guides or those knowledgeable about the
possible effects/side effects/distractions etc.” .....G RYDER comment in HuffPost
The most significant event in
the life of an individual in Native American culture was a vision
that indicated to the individual the directions and pointers for the path or course of action as
well as omens for the future of that individual. Thus a vision or visions were the most sought
after experience and the most important event in the life of the individual as also for the tribe
in case the vision so indicated.
encourage or even induce the seeking of a vision that showed the right way
the individual to lead his or her life was perhaps the highest value conferred upon
the individual by their culture. The most effective method to seek a vision was for
the person to go to a secluded place where he would have to spend an indefinite
time without eating or drinking and sit in silence until a vision appeared, or the
person gave up to try another time or method - even dreaming sometimes led to
a vision of significance. Sweat lodges or burying into the earth for a few days were
other vision inducing methods. Vision inducing plants were not a preferred method
for the North Native, but was extensively used by the Mesoamerican or South
Added to the seeking of vision was the basic education of the child to respect and
learn from all other living creatures, and have the highest respect for the ecological
balance between all living creatures. Even in war, they were careful not to ex-
terminate their war adversaries, or even to loot or plunder other people's lands
or possessions. Some of these values were lost by the coming of the Europeans,
but the loss was never total despite relentless pressure and genocide by the
Therefore the Native Americans were among the very few tribal societies who
did not become completely corrupted or assimilated by civilization, and at least
some of them retained and even sustained their positive cultural values that
other wise would have been completely consumed by civilization, as in the
rest of the world.
civilizations will have to relearn these values and incorporate them in
their societies if there has to be any chance of sustaining life on this planet.
inescapable conclusion is that the American Indians are truly the last
strands that hold this fragile web of life in this world and have at the very
least slowed down the spiral of destruction unleashed by civilization.
"The (remaining) Native Americans are the
keepers of America"...Kevin Costner in 500 Nations (Documentary)
5. SOCIETY AND CULTURE :
SOCIAL, CULTURAL VALUES
current existence of American Indians and their cultures is a tribute to their
Indians have survived outsiders' attempts of extermination, relocation, and destruction
of their language, culture and religion."...( Hall )
Native religions were strong
largely because they were practiced in small, tightly knit
communities. People lived in close quarters; they knew each other almost as members
of a family. These extended families took responsibility for each other as brothers and sisters.
However, when Native Americans moved to cities, community commitments were dissolved.
Furthermore Native Americans were attached to their sacred lands as an essential part of
Native worship. Because cities had no such lands, urban Native Americans were cut off
from the wellspring of their religious life........Hartz, Paula R.- Native American Religions.
In this section, most of the matter is focused
upon the North Native culture and societies.
Many of the societies like Aztec, Inca etc, were partly civilizations insofar as their cities and
towns were concerned, but in the country side the influence of civilization and its control
values were not strong, although not much is known about the societies in these regions
that were tribal and not city based.
ECOLOGY and BALANCE
When Indians speak of the
continent they yielded, they are not referring only to the loss
of some millions of acres in real estate. They have in mind that the land supported a
universe of things they valued, and loved. With that continent gone, except for the
parcels they still retain, the basis of life is precariously held, but they mean to hold the
scraps and parcels as earnestly as any small nation of ethnic groups was ever determined
to hold to identity and survival. (Black Hills White Justice: The Sioux Nation versus the
United States, 1775 to the Present, by Edward Lazarus,)
The American Indian culture is a sort of benchmark culture in the very basic sense of ecology
and natural balance. The values of this culture is a reference point for comparison between
cultures, simply because it was the only culture that achieved a near perfect balance between
individuality or individual freedom and social institutionalization or social indoctrination. The
crucial cultural value here was the highest respect for all natural things and resources.
Rather, the given natural resources were treated as an integral part of religion and of religious
significance. To waste or abuse natural resources was sacrilege. ( Rare exceptions noted,
as there is a tendency among Western intellectuals to pick on rare exceptions, or post conquest
behavior of some natives, and then paint the entire culture with the same brush, while
conveniently ignoring mainstream cultural values, since these are fundamentally contrary
to Western cultural values. )
NO Religious Indoctrination
Some years ago, a good
man . . . came to us. He talked me out of my old faith; and
after a while, thinking that he must know more of these matters than an ignorant
Indian, I joined his church and became a Methodist. After a while, he went away,
another man came and talked, and I became a Baptist; then another came and
talked and I became a Presbyterian. Now another one has come, and wants me
to be an Episcopalian.. . . All these people tell different stories, and each wants me
to believe that his special way is the only way to be good and save my soul.
I have about made up my mind that either they all lie, or that they don't know any
more about it than I did at the first. I have always believed in the Great Spirit, and
worshipped him in my own way. These people don't seem to want to change my
belief in the Great Spirit, but to change my way of talking to him
..........Spotted Tail (Red & White: Indian Views of the White Man, by Annette Rosenstiel,)
This was essentially so
because there was no religious indoctrination as such and the only traditional
norms themselves were oriented towards the initiation or encouragement towards direct individual
religious experience - specifically there was no priestly class ( with the exception of Mesoamerican)
and there was no formal education.
The natural corruptibility of social institutions and the tendency of institutions towards degeneration
was largely absent because there were no complex, formal or rigid institutions. Such formal and
rigid institutions are found in civilizations, since these are necessary to protect and perpetuate the
wealth and power of the elite and to ensure subservience and compliance of the lower classes
for easy access to cheap or free labor. These institutions then have a natural tendency for
attracting corrupt and manipulative middle class people who want to become the elite,
and thus these institutions become more and more complex and intricate as a result of the
power struggles that go on within the social system.
This kind of problem was not faced by Native Americans simply because there was no social
hierarchy to rigidly maintain or a power struggle to become the elite class. Thus the absence of
complex, formal or rigid institutions. Therefore it was a near impossibility for a greedy or criminally
minded person to hijack a social institution - a bad person could not become the Chief of a tribe
or even reach old age. Therefore their society was oriented towards promoting people with wisdom
and integrity for important social roles in the most natural manner as possible. The rogues, the
criminals would get eliminated by their own follies or recklessness in the institution of war.
The central aspect of the success of the Native American societies in maintaining a harmonious
relation with the rest of nature is that they did not allow their society to succumb to a class or
caste hierarchy or discriminations. Social equality was the core of the Native American culture,
and one of the central cultural value.
"Each being is
sacred -- meaning that each has inherent value that cannot be ranked
in a hierarchy or compared to the value of another being"......Starhawk
whites] spoke very loudly when they said their laws were made for everybody;
but we soon learned that although they expected us to keep them, they thought nothing
of breaking them themselves. They told us not to drink whisky, yet they made it
themselves and traded it to us for furs and robes. (Plenty-Coups, Chief of the Crows,
by Frank B. Linderman,.)
Although most tribal societies
were free from the discriminations of class and caste hierarchies, for the
Native American a higher and lower categories of human beings was itself anathema if not outright
sacrilege - it was considered degrading to their society as a whole. Equality of treatment towards all -
even young and old, was socially ingrained in the most pragmatic way. The most significant aspect
of the Native American social life was the social interactive process in which everyone participated.
This was usually ( but not always ) the evening get-together around the fire ( council-of-fire ) where
any issue facing the whole tribe was discussed or debated in a manner that makes any modern
day assembly house ( senate, parliament etc ) look worse than a monkey circus. Everyone had a right
to put forth their point of view in a highly ordered and calm manner. No one indulged in theatrics or
exaggerated rhetorical speeches. It was a sort of free dialogue, a dialectic of a kind that was only
dreamed of by Socrates, in which ideas or suggestions by the person who put forth the most effective
solution was usually unanimously accepted, irrespective of who presented it - young or old, male or
female, chief or warrior.
It was this attitude of
equality of all creatures that made them open to knowledge from any source,
not just some "divinely ordained lord" claiming direct divine revelations that everyone had to be
subjected to. This attitude which pervaded throughout their culture ensured a non-stratified society :
in which there was no hierarchy ; no lower caste, no upper caste ; no classes of nobles or commoners ;
no lords and no serfs ; no masters and no slaves ; no oppressors and non oppressed ; no priest and
no devotees ; no teachers and no disciples ; no kings and no subjects ; no scriptures and no doctrines.
The elevation of some people to a god like status was absent simply because everyone was a creature
from the same common source and hence equally holy or divine. If some people attained certain
powers by which they could reveal something of significance to the community, then that was their
duty and responsibility as a consequence of their attainment, and not a matter of worship.
This did not mean that there
were no leaders in war, or chief of tribe, but that they were so by the
consensus of the tribe as a result of their demonstrated talents or qualities - and not by some
birth right or divine ordination. A leader became a leader only because others recognized the
qualities of leadership in the actions of that person and accepted that person as leader by
heart or instinct. Most of the time any kind of leadership - that of a medicine man, chief, elder
or war leader was through instinctive consensus. In case of a split between tribal members
about the acceptability of a leader the matter was put to a rational debate or dialog - and
the result was to be binding for everyone in the tribe -unless someone else could prove to
be more worthy of the consensus of the tribe. Therefore the tribe was both a closely knit unit
as well as individual freedom oriented in which there was no subservience of the mass of
people or even some people to an unquestioned elite that perpetuated its own class.
THE RED WOMAN
The general characteristics of the red woman are : initiative, wisdom, sobriety and is generally
more balanced in contrast to the male who were more wild and highly impulsive. But one chief
characteristic was the role of the red woman as mother : dedicated and caring since for most
part of the child's life was wholly under the care and guidance of the mother. Only when the
child was older and male, was a greater role played by the father. Gender equality was not
total or flexible : the woman's role was confined mostly to house keeping, cooking, foraging
etc, but they were not suppressed or inhibited from expressions and ideas of their own.
The suffering of the Red woman was far more than the Red man after the conquest, which is
not surprising since the male warrior at least had the choice to die fighting on the battlefield,
whereas the woman was left not only to fend for herself, but also look after the children - clearly
compounding her difficulty several times more than the men. Even in these times, in the
reservations, women have a tougher life than the men.
Woman beating is part of everyday life on the reservation. The white man oppresses the
half-blood, the half-blood oppresses the fullblood, and everybody takes out their anger,
despair, and feeling of helplessness on the women.
If you plan to be born, make sure you are born white and male. It is not the big, dramatic
things so much that get us down, but just being Indian, trying to hang on to our way of life,
language, and values while being surrounded by an alien, more powerful culture.
(After describing a life of violence and abuse upon herself, female friends, and
relatives; Lakota Woman, by Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes,
POTLATCH CEREMONY AND GIVING
GIFTING AS HIGHLY VALUED SOCIAL CUSTOM
The act of giving and gifting
was the most significant social gesture that actually enhanced the
social prestige of the giver. This act of giving, especially those possessions that were no longer
needed or necessary was ingrained as a cultural value early in life : the child passes the doll to
others when she is through playing with it. Not clinging to possessions needlessly was considered
a supreme accomplishment and a sign of wisdom in their culture. The crushing burden of excess
of possessions - beyond one's needs was well understood, and therefore the act of giving away
- especially to those in need was one of greatest social value. The Potlatch ceremony was a
ceremony of giving and gifting.
"The native American has been generally despised by his white conquerors
for his poverty and
simplicity. They forget, perhaps, that his religion forbade the accumulation of wealth and the
enjoyment of luxury. To him, as to other single-minded men in every age and race, from Diogenes
to the brothers of Saint Francis, from the Montanists to the Shakers, the love of possessions has
appeared a snare, and the burdens of a complex society a source of needless peril and
temptation. Furthermore, it was the rule of his life to share the fruits of his skill and success
his less fortunate brothers. Thus he kept his spirit free from the clog of pride, cupidity, or envy,
and carried out, as he believed, the divine decree -- a matter profoundly
important to him.....".....(Eastman)
BROTHERHOOD AND FRIENDSHIP
"The highest type of friendship is the relation of "brother-friend" or
This bond is between man and man, is usually formed in early youth, and can only be
broken by death. It is the essence of comradeship and fraternal love, without thought of
pleasure or gain, but rather for moral support and inspiration. Each is vowed to die for the
other, if need be, and nothing denied the brother-friend, but neither is anything required
that is not in accord with the highest conceptions of the Indian mind."...(Eastman)
Such are the values that the society and culture of
the American Indian bestowed upon its
individual members. It is their spirit that could not be broken, and it kept them from giving
in. Their spirit would not let them renounce their way of life - the quest for the best life,
rightfully lived to its full creative potential.
NATIVE AMERICAN AND WESTERN CULTURE
A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS
The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody had
not to see....Ayn Rand
cultures were highly developed by the time European explorers first reached this
Many tribes had sophisticated systems of agriculture, government and commerce with other tribes.
Knowledge in medicine ( already quite advanced ), astronomy, and the arts was also developing.
There was more cultural and linguistic diversity on this continent when Columbus arrived than there
was in Europe. Indian tribes treated the environment with respect. Agriculture, hunting and fishing
were primarily for subsistence purposes. The land was not misused or polluted, nor were animals
killed except for food. Indian attempts to maintain a balance between the land's resources and
their own survival needs were consistent with spiritual values of harmony within nature. Despite the
existence of advanced Indian cultures, European explorers viewed Indians as savages dominated
by passions, especially sexuality"....( Hall )
"More than this, even in those white men who professed religion we found much
conduct. They spoke much of spiritual things, while seeking only the material. They bought and
sold everything, labor, personal independence, the love of woman, and even the ministrations
of their holy faith! The lust for money, power, and conquest so characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon
race did not escape moral condemnation at the hands of his untutored judge, nor did he fail
to contrast this conspicuous trait of the dominant race with the spirit of the meek and lowly
There is a time coming . . . when many things will change. Strangers called Earth Men will
appear among you. Their skins are light-colored, and their ways are powerful. They speak no
Indian tongue. Follow nothing that these Earth Men do, but keep your own ways that I have
taught you as long as you can.. Those people will wander this way . . . they will be looking
for a certain stone. . . . These people will not listen to what you say; what they are going to
do they will do. You people will change..... They will tear up the earth, and at last you will
do it with them. When you do, you will become crazy, and will forget all that I am teaching
you.......... Sweet Medicine (In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, by Peter Matthiessen, )
Indian oral history has not been acceptable to American society not because it
unwritten but because the Indian system of moral value has not been accepted. A system
which is based upon relationships with all things is not efficient within the workings of the
American social system. A value system that is all inclusive—in the Indian sense, speaking
of a responsibility for all the universe—is unwieldy according to the precepts of the American
system which is conveniently exclusive and finds useful only those parts which gain precedence
and dominance over others.....Simon Ortiz (The Great Sioux Nation: Sitting in Judgment on America,
by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz,)
Let me state at the outset
that the comparative analysis here is on a cultural basis, rather than taking
race or skin color as the basis. No doubt these are also significant, for culture develops as an inter-
action between different types of people and how they have managed their similarities, differences
and conflicts. The primacy for any issue is therefore culture and the values, behavior patterns or
norms of that culture, and if a racial type holds certain values exclusively or in high esteem, then
the association of race and culture is unavoidable. Although "European culture" and "white man"
or "American Indian" and "red man" for most practical purposes mean the same thing but may
not exactly be interchangeable and therefore it is the sentence construct that makes a particular
word set fit into the picture to give it appropriate meaning.
The "discovery" of the new world and the migration of large number of Europeans to the continent
spelled doom for the existing inhabitants of the continent simply because the Europeans were
conquerors who wanted to subdue, dominate and enslave all other creatures. Whether they were so
(and to a considerable extent still are) by design of nature or developed that way is an interesting,
question. A question that they will eventually have to confront as importantly on an individual
basis as on a cultural basis, and not merely shove it under the carpet as "white man's burden".
The nature of people in
civilization dramatically changes, whereas the diverse kinds of humans
also develop cultural traits that define their core values and one such divergence is in their world view
regarding other creatures, other type of humans, as also how they treat each other - social equality
or social stratification.
Any culture is shaped by the
stories that are told to their next generation and therefore develops
value structures that are built up by the values and attitudes projected and highlighted in the stories
told. Having heard a lot about the Grimm brothers and by reading the stories, some of which I had
already heard, it occurred to me that many of the roots of the Western cultural values and
attitudes could be found here.
The most profound and striking contrast between the Grimm stories and similar stories from a
different culture, for example, the Native American culture, was the attitude about animals, to
take one instance of this contrast. The Grimm stories projected animals as lowly creatures and
the jungle as a horrible place where only evil witches resided, whereas in many Native American
stories, there was a profound and sacred relationship between all animals and humans, particularly
a relationship of inter-dependence not only for survival but also of learning and knowledge.
One of the beliefs central to the Native American stories was that every individual human being’s
nature had an intimate bond with a particular animal’s nature, and many individuals were named
according to what other people saw was the essential nature of that individual in relation to a
particular kind of animal and it’s behavioral characteristics. This type of relationship of humans
with other creatures and with nature as a whole is almost absent in the Grimm stories.
Consequently, we can observe the disconnect between the Western culture and nature in
general and animals in particular, and even humans of a different race or culture.
[WEB INTERACTIVE 2013 notes; (Coursera: Aboriginal Worldviews)
(LGregory Cajete, a Tewa
educator writes: Teaching the basic concepts forming the foundations
of modern science, students are led to believe that:
• Time is uniform and flows in a single linear direction from a past to a present and on to a future;
• Matter is made of particles that obey universal laws which never change;
• Our mind is our brain;
• Only the fittest survive through the process of natural selection;
• Modern science will eventually solve all major mysteries of the universe; and
• Scientists are totally objective and scientific knowledge is universally applicable
directly contradict each of the above statements.
Can anyone specify what exactly the statements of the aboriginal worldview would be)
Here’s my view point of the
comparative world views :-
1.) Time is not absolutely linear, rather in pure synthetic experience (disconnected from
physical senses as in visions, ecstasy, dreaming, out-of body travels, etc.), time warps,
stops, can jump back and forth, essentially becomes non-linear. In normal sensory mode,
time is linear. However, the processes of life, in creation and destruction, in broad patterns
of change, are cyclical in the sense that time connects with eternity in a non-linear
manner. Therefore the aboriginal view rejects any substantive value in material evolution,
but posits a possibility of individual evolution into total freedom.
2.) The Aboriginals were interested more in the unseen, intangible realm of the Spirit, and
had no fundamental/theoretical interest in matter, only pragmatic interest. The properties
of matter are static and unchanging in the sense that matter, without interference from
hidden (un-observable, undetectable) forces behaves in predictable, consistent, verifiable
manner – science is the body of data about these properties. The Aboriginal people
developed very little and rudimentary data about material objects.
3.)Aboriginal people did not substantially develop a concept of mind (being a linear process
mechanism mostly connected with the physical), but intuitively understood it as a process
engaged in or vital for survival, and rather had a more developed concept of ‘heart’
(non-linear process mostly connected with the non-physical) from which real knowledge,
especially moral knowledge emanated.
4.Aboriginals were not so keen on physical survival, but very keen on survival of their Spirit,
through keeping their moral integrity intact.
5.The quest for modern science will eventually plunge the world into ignorance (already has)
by suppressing, denying and obliterating non-scientific and moral knowledge and will
eventually be instrumental (already is) in the destruction of the world, not essentially because
of the properties of matter, but because of reckless use of scientific data for trying to dominate
and conquer nature. (Although the presence of Uranium in sufficient quantity is indicative that
there is inherent destructive power in matter itself (a planted trap!), but finally it is the actions
of the arrogant and egoistical mindset of the dominating culture that leads to the eventuality
of destruction). The thing is - there are more deadly traps planted in the physical world than
there are in the non-physical. The dominating culture has no knowledge of this.
6.Yes, scientists are so objective that they have themselves turned into objects by claiming that
there is nothing else in the cosmos except physical objects! And yes, scientific knowledge is
universally applicable, but only to physical objects, but totally useless in all other realms, and
actually, by default opposes the moral realm because it is amoral data that serves as a mask
or shield for immoral actions.
so peaceable, are these people that I swear to your Majesties there is not in
a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and
gentle, and accompanied with a smile, and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners
are decorous and praiseworthy............Christopher Columbus (Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, 1493)
(This is before his lust for gold made him into monstrous tyrant who would enslave and finally
exterminate the peaceful people of the island of Hispaniola on which he had first landed.)
"There is as much of the epic in the unlyred and futile
toil of the tumble bug as there is in the
classic hopelessness of the endeavor of Sysyphus. It cannot be proven without the aid of
egotism that the crushing of a worm under foot is less laden with meaning to the universe
than the decimation of a phalanx. The failure of the superstitious hope of an unhistoric savage
is of as much importance to eternity as the calamitous miscarriage of a diplomat's scheme!
The most mathematical of you who read have dreamed day dreams. Have you not built houses
of the future, whose corridors were scintillant with tints of sunrise? And when you explored your
house of the future there was a strange music that fled through the mysterious chambers. One
night you went to sleep, glad of your dreams, and you awoke and found your castle fallen.
Was it not so? Then no doubt you buried your face in the ruins and wept. And the ruin in which
you wept was as great as Ninevah, as worthy of chronicle as Babylon, for are you not an
integral part of the universe?" ....John G. Neihardt
FOLLOWING QUOTES are From a Documentary FIlm:
is deep and proud, and the eagle holds it. The Integrity of our beliefs and our
will to survive have shaped American History. Like the eagle our people have no terror at
the edge of extinction.
We have always fought a battle - to remain who we are and to keep what is ours
Nothing has changed fundamentally about how our white brothers think of us
there a gap between the native American values and the European
values greater than in the concept of land. We never understood how one could own
the earth who is our mother.
If there was
a gift that we gave to the white man - it was the concept of free,
and how to be free - that's what they found here
The destructive side of
human nature that had been effectively channelized by the institution of
controlled warfare became unbalanced and dangerously vulnerable to total disruption by the
coming of the European and his uncontrolled, genocidal warfare - the objectives of their warfare
being totally different.
While the objective of warfare of the American Indian was the sharpening of the instinctive along-with
an exposure to death that led to an enhancement of the individuals' spirit as well as provide for an
outlet for the violent and criminal aspect inherent in many or even most human beings in any society,
the objectives of warfare in western culture were : plunder, capture, conquest and enslavement.
And now in these times, the
materialist mindset of the global mass led by the dominating Western
culture is in the process of exterminating all remnants of those who see value in things that are not
Web INT> 2013 The mindset of a materialist tries to destroy any conception of there being
underlying essence, that was there before creation/existence from nothingness and there still
being this essence when all is gone, our relationship to this essence and our sense of purpose
coming from this relationship.
The fatal flaw of scientific-atheist mindset is not that it denies divinities like God or or so
called super-natural causes or entities, the fatal flaw of this thinking is that it completely
denies metaphysics and metaphysical conceptions to the extent that it becomes as fanatical
in its beliefs/unconscious underlying assumptions as the theists.
The true philosopher from the time of Socrates challenges the materialist mindset on the
one hand and the blind faith of the theist on the other hand and this is a perennial battle
that is the legacy of Socrates. This apart, the frustration of the Native American people in
trying to communicate with both these extreme mindsets of the invading Europeans is
understandable. They concluded that the Europeans were not interested in trying to
understand nature, but had this one point agenda to force their religion and their science
upon everyone in order to dominate and enslave them.
"It is simple truth that
the Indian did not, so long as his native philosophy held sway over his mind,
either envy or desire to imitate the splendid achievements of the white man. In his own thought
he rose superior to them! He scorned them, even as a lofty spirit absorbed in its stern task rejects
the soft beds, the luxurious food, the pleasure-worshiping dalliance of a rich neighbor was clear
to him that virtue and happiness are independent of these things, if not incompatible with them."
warfare of the American Indian promoted the best of men in their society, the
of the western man promoted the worst in their society.( Exceptions noted )
"Some He made with faces paler than the ermine of the forests;
and these He ordered to be traders;
dogs to their women, and wolves to their slaves. He gave this people the nature of the pigeon; wings
that never tire; young, more plentiful than the leaves on the trees, and appetites to devour the earth.
He gave them tongues like the false call of the wildcat; hearts like rabbits; the cunning of the hog
(but none of the fox), and arms longer than the legs of the moose. With his tongue he stops the ears
of the Indians; his heart teaches him to pay warriors to fight his battles; his cunning tells him how to
get together the goods of the earth; and his arms inclose the land from the shores of the salt-water
to the islands of the great lake. His gluttony makes him sick. God gave him enough, and yet he
wants all. Such are the pale faces".............Cooper ( Last of the Mohicans )
The psychic consequences of the warfare between the two cultures was just as devastating to
the Indians as the physical contact was devastating to the Indians by the spread of diseases
for which they had no immunity.
The Lakotas are now a sad,
silent, and unprogressive people suffering the fate of all oppressed.
Today you see but a shattered specimen, a caricature . . . of the man that once was. Did a kind,
wise, helpful and benevolent conqueror bring this situation about? Can a real, true, genuinely
superior social order work such havoc?.......Chief Luther Standing Bear
"It is noteworthy that the first effect of contact with the whites was an increase of cruelty and barbarity,
an intensifying of the dark shadows in the picture! In this manner the "Sun Dance" of the Plains Indians,
the most important of their public ceremonials, was abused and perverted until it became a horrible
exhibition of barbarism, and was eventually prohibited by the Government".....(Eastman)
The unprincipled warfare methods of the western man infected the
the Indian to the point that the the Indian also started waging war like the white man : for now
the motivations had shifted to mere survival or vengeance: all rules, all principles broke
down. The motivations of the Indian to go to war became corrupted with the white man's
motives, even though the Indian was now fighting just to save his land and way of life.
The Human Race is the
only animal that laughs and weeps; for they are the only animal that is
struck by the difference between what things are and what they might have been.... William Hazlitt
What if does
not exist. There is nothing but what was and is and we're all stuck with that
to struggle to do our best with the hand we've been dealt......Janet Campbell Hale
Could things have turned out otherwise? Put
differently, could there have been a
positive fusion of cultures, rather than a almost wholly negative one? Or was it fated
this way - a force of necessity in reality - a tragedy bound to occur, that nothing
could have averted?
In real life, such contacts
hardly ever took place. The dominant American culture was nearsighted,
incurious and racist, and saw the Indians as a race of ignorant, thieving savages, fit to be shot on
sight. Such attitudes survived until so recently in our society - just look at the B Westerns of the 1940s
- that we can only imagine how much worse they were 100 years ago. In a sense, "Dances With
Wolves" is a sentimental fantasy, a "what if" movie that imagines a world in which whites were
genuinely interested in learning about a Native American culture that lived more closely in
harmony with the natural world than any other before or since. But our knowledge of how things
turned out - of how the Indians were driven from their lands by genocide and theft - casts a sad
shadow over everything.
As Dunbar discovers the culture of the Sioux, so do we. The Indians know the white man is coming,
and they want to learn more about his plans. They have seen other invaders in these parts: the
Spanish, the Mexicans, but they always left. Now the Indians fear the white man is here to stay.
They want Dunbar to share his knowledge, but at first he holds back. He does not wish to discourage
them. And when he finally tells how many whites will be coming ("As many as the stars in the sky"),
the words fall like a death knell............By Roger Ebert
Such questions are of course academic, but still terrifying in their scope of even mere
pondering on them because the answer is clear - that things could not really have turned
out much different considering the gap in the cultural values.
But the real thing is finally - what an
individual can learn from this culture clash. Now here
it is entirely up to each individual, and so I leave it there.
"We have taken so much from your culture, I wish you had taken something
from ours...For there were some beautiful and good things within it. Perhaps
now that the time has come, We are fearful that what you take will be lost"
......... Chief Dan George
I often wonder if there is
anything in your [white] civilization which will make
good to us what we have lost. (Native American Doctor: The Story of Susan
LaFlesche Picotte, by Jeri Ferris.) onto
Psychiatrist Robert Coles
reported this view of the moon landing,
told to him by a young Indian boy:
When the white man landed on the moon, my father cried.... I
told him there weren't any Indians on the moon, so stop crying. He said
nothing for a long time. Then he said our spirits were there, too—and
he was sure Indians were crying up there, and trying to hide, and hoping
that soon they'd go back to their Earth, the white men, where they make
so many people unhappy, and where they don't know what to do next.
I will follow the white man's trail. I will make him my friend, but I will not bend my back to his
burdens. I will be cunning as a coyote. I will ask him to help me understand his ways, then I will
prepare the way for my children, and their children. The Great Spirit has shown me - a day will
come when they will outrun the white man in his own shoes. ......Many Horses
THE REEL INDIANS
- About American Indians in Movies and How Hollywood's change
of Heart led to a broader cultural change.
After initially getting a
raw deal from Hollywood, in which Indians were depicted as savage, stupid,
good for nothing and sub-human, a course correction took place around the middle of the twentieth
century, and a more realistic portrayal began to take shape. Rather, as a kind of redemption from earlier
mistakes, the main theme of many western movies focused upon the wrong kind of stereotyping that the
entire Western culture had done so far about the Indians. After several such movies about the white man's
mistreatment and misunderstanding of the Indians, the impact of these began to be felt by a larger
and wider section of Western society, and in a few decades the tide had turned to the extent that even
in academia the corrections in textbook History began to take shape, and although the destruction of
native cultures was by this time almost complete, some restoration, some acknowledgement, some
understanding did emerge in limited circles, especially artists, writers and genuine anthropological
researchers. I believe that this was largely because Hollywood's artists, producers, directors, script writers
and actors had a change of heart. And just what exactly triggered this change of heart? It is very, very
difficult to say for sure, and I can only provide several possible hypothesis that together may account
for this change. Firstly, the jolts suffered by the Western nations in World War 1 and 2 brought about the
stark realization that the dream of the enlightenment and scientific modernity had changed into a
nightmare of desolation and destruction in which the value system of the West was beginning to implode;
secondly, art has a way of correcting and compensating itself in time or it is not genuine art, merely
entertainment ( and in my humble opinion, the motion picture is firstly and fore-mostly the most powerful
medium of art, and entertainment is only a secondary, though complimentary goal of this medium);
thirdly, the past ill deeds of a whole lot of people were unfolding and unraveling through this art form
in the most positive manner, and finally, the archetype of redemption and nemesis was being
unleashed in a burst of creativity.
LIST OF MOVIES ABOUT AMERICAN INDIANS
1. Broken Arrow(1950)
I have listed this as the
number one because I consider this movie the first as 'tide turner' mentioned
Not only a reversal in portrayal of the Indians, but also the beginning of the change in the attitude of white
folks as depicted right in the beginning of the movie in this remark: 'my mother is crying, he says. It's funny
how it never struck me how an Apache woman would cry over her son like any other woman. Apaches
are wild animals, we all said.' These are thoughts of Tom Jeffords, a real character acted by Taylor, and
these thoughts set the mood of the movie. This opening is also significant in the sense that it exemplifies
how a change in the perceptions and attitudes of a culture can possibly take place, and that is when at
least one individual summons up the courage to defy the norms and attitudes that he has been brought
up with. But that is the first step. He has to next face the challenge of holding on to his own way of thinking
when confronted by the ‘crowd’ that thinks he’s gone nuts. It is only when that individual can survive the
onslaught of public opinion against him, is able to express himself forcefully, that other people begin to
see in the courage of that individual that they were wrong. The story of that individual starts a process of
change in the attitudes of others. This movie is one such story, one of the first in movies. The story of real
characters Tom Jeffords and Apache Indian Chief Cochise, and although the story may not be totally
true in all its details, but is very much so in spirit. Superb acting by all the cast, though lacking in Indian
actors. Great educational value.
The fact that the script is based on real characters and the events depicted are not entirely fictional, but
broadly true, makes this of much greater significance than the wholly fictional ones, and that is why I have
rated this higher than Dances With Wolves.
Powerful Dialogs in the film:
I don't understand. You mean you found a wounded Apache and didn't kill him? I like to ask you Why?
If you don't fight against them, you are with them.
Remember then, if you see him, do not lie to him, not even in the smallest thing. His eyes will see into your
heart. He is greater than other men.
What is it about tomorrow?
My people have done your people a great harm. I say this to you as I say this to them.
Is it not possible that some day my people and yours can live together like brothers?
It is strange talk for a white man. Your people do not want peace, they have taught me that.
very different from other whites. You have learned to speak our tongue, try to
It is good to understand the way of others.
he gave me his word and he is a man of honor.
A man of honor? No Indian is a man of honor.
We'll have peace when every Apache is hung from a tree.
whites will hate your wife because of the color of her skin. And you Sonseearhay,
they will look at
you like you were a strange animal, and make jokes.
2. Soldier Blue (1970)
This movie, made twenty years after
"Broken Arrow", by which time the tide had turned against deception
and towards truth insofar as Hollywood is concerned, had a shocking impact upon the audiences or at
least those who had the guts to go see it even after knowing what the movie was about. Those who didn't
want to see the dark and horrible side of American History, those who had their minds made up and hearts
hardened by racism or nationalism, were in denial and didn't bother to see it or dismissed it as exaggerated
and one sided.
Earlier I was not keen on Western genre movies, and this was the first movie that I had seen until then (this
was around 1975, I had not yet seen earlier movies like "Broken arrow") about Indian and White relations
depicted explicitly and it came as quite a shocker - a bolt from the blue and I wondered - how come I had
never heard about, known about, come across such events in History that were crucial for race and cultural
relations? And that is because I was a Technology buff, an engineering student. And History of race/cultural
relations were of little interest to me at that time, all I cared about was the latest technological developments
taking place. As humans, we notice only things that interest or attract us, and even the most profound tragedy
escapes our notice, unless one is acutely aware and sensitive to such things. Only as a victim of a tragic event
does this awareness become acute. As a perpetrator or participant, we work overtime to justify and cover up
such crimes, as if we have no choice in the matter and that it happened as a consequence of earlier events
and so on. We build elaborate stories of justifications for our actions, always assuming that we could have done
no wrong, and at worst our hand was forced by the chain of events, forced by the victims themselves.
But this movie jolted me out of my typical complacent attitude that such things happened because the
march of civilization was a necessity for Science and Technology to develop, and the savages were the
impediment to this progress towards the Technological utopia. This movie disturbed me profoundly, and I
realized that it had upset the dream that modern civilizations had built and taught to me and to each of its
children - that Scientific progress and its application in Technology were ultimate human goals, and that
issues like 'justice' and ideas like 'humanity' were puny, inconsequential and trivial before the latest machine
or gizmo that we were infatuated with. What was merely a means had become an end in itself, but what was
the end of Science and Technology? Because the truth is terrifying, the men of civilizations wanted nothing
to do with the truth, lest the edifice built up after such efforts comes crashing down. But although the Natives saw
it plainly, there was no way to communicate this because the men of civilization did not want to hear any such
nonsense from the foolish, primitive savages, who stubbornly wanted to maintain their primitive ways.
I then became more and more aware of racial, cultural issues and conflicts, and thereafter whenever I got
a chance to know more about the past and about alternative cultures, I took it, and it kept on growing like
the snowball in an avalanche.....
3. Dances With Wolves (1990)
My friend went away because you were
coming. That is how I see it.
This is a tale of exploration and adventure of the most unusual kind – almost a fantasy. It is a fictional story
about a soldier who ‘turns Injun’ in crude terms. It is not as if no one had ever lived with and become like
the Indians. J.W. Schultz who wrote ‘My Life As An Indian’ is a classic example, well known because of the
book, but there have been several, mostly unknown, because at that time no one was really interested to
know about the life style and social, cultural values of the Indians. Some fictional tales can become more
powerful by the excellence of their presentation, and Costner has been able to achieve this in Dances With
Lt. Dunbar is a desperate hero, who is given the choice of any station that he desires. He wants to go towards
the frontier. Some mysterious force is pulling Lt. Dunbar towards the frontier (compare Schultz’s account). The
only reason he can give is that he wants to see the frontier before it is gone. The mood of the story builds up
slowly and gracefully. Dunbar will gradually and surely discover why he wanted to come here, leaving
behind the comfort and security of cities and forts...he will find who he really is inside. And to find all that
he loves...the open, beautiful, un-spoilt land, the wild but friendly wolf Two Socks, the tribe of Indians with
whom he develops a social bond, and finally - Stands With A Fist. The good days can't last long....more
troops have come to the frontier, and the frontier is shrinking. Dunbar now sees that the tribe of which he
is now a member is going to be decimated. He decides that he must go back to civilization to talk to those
who would listen....that the existence of the frontier is actually the last chance for civilization to learn from.
The frontier here is not just a physical boundary, but also a metaphysical one - a metaphor for the unknown,
and if the frontier dies, so does the chance for civilization to learn from what lies beyond the frontier.
He sets on his journey back....will anyone listen?
4. Last of the Mohicans(1992)
When all else is falling apart…love
As the title goes, this film epitomizes the beginning of the decimation of whole Indian nations down to
insignificant numbers due to colonization, war, disease, and commerce – all of which were cumulatively
devastating to the Indians both physically and psychically. This is the overall background of the movie,
and violence runs almost throughout, from the beginning hunt to the last few minutes. Despite the sad and
violent backdrop, the story is uplifted by the tense developing romance of Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis)
and Cora (Madeline Stowe), and both of them give a sterling performance as the role seems to fit them
perfectly. The romance is all the more intense because it is between two people who are so differently
oriented and socially placed and also because it is fused with intense adventure. The script and direction
provide several insights into Native American culture, one of which is right at the beginning when Russell
Means performs a prayer ceremony over the fallen deer.
Neat and economic script with nothing superfluous, beautiful photography, unforgettable musical score,
brilliant dialogs…in short, no wasted moments, makes it a movie that can be seen several times, worth
having in your collection.
5. Devil's Doorway(1950)
It takes only one man to open the Devil’s Doorway and hell to pour through.
This movie is in a remarkable contrast to
Broken Arrow (released in the same year) insofar that in this
movie one bad man (lawyer Verne Coolan) leads a whole community on the wrong path. It’s not
that the others are innocent sheep that can be led anywhere, but the racial, cultural prejudices are
the preying grounds for the Devil to feed upon. And what better agent or instrument of the Devil than
an evil lawyer, and an unjust law as the weapon?
The hook or by crook manner in which the Native people in the new World were looted and stripped
of all their rights is nowhere better exemplified than in this movie. Of course in this fictional (although
in reality it was typical) case, the methodology is crude and overt because all that was needed was
to push over one man who wanted to hold on to his land and to hold on to it even if he has to buy his
own land if need be. But even that is denied to him because a new law framed by the government
does not recognize an Indian as a valid citizen (and therefore cannot legally own any land even if
bought by him). The far more sophisticated method was to simply pay a few dollars and bottles of
whiskey to just one weak and drunkard Indian of the tribe, in return get a piece of paper signed by
him selling all the land the tribe was living on, and loudly claim that they were now the owners of the
land and the Indians had better push off or get killed by the ‘volunteer army’. A further level of
sophistication was required when the tribe was united under a strong Chief. In that case a treaty was
made that promised protection to the Indians from further encroachment if the Indians gave up a
large chunk of the land. Once that was accomplished, a slow process of gradual encroachment
would begin, along with provocation upon provocation that would eventually elicit a retaliatory
response. Once again a hue and cry would be raised that the Indians had broken the treaty.
Naturally, the ‘poor innocent settlers’ were under grave threat to their lives and ‘fully paid-up’
property, and the ‘poor innocent government’ had no choice but to call in the ‘highly disciplined’
army to restore order in the land by wiping out the remaining Indians, and if some had still managed
to survive, they would be confined to a ‘reservation’ where they would be slowly starved to death.
Much later, even Hitler expressed his admiration for these sophisticated methods and advanced
political science techniques used to find a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of sub-humans.
Such is the legacy of the ‘conquest’ and on such foundations ‘the birth of The Nation’ took place,
The Nation that would claim to be the champion of ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom of the individual’
all over the world. Such ill-gotten power carries a terrible burden, and the telling of the story truthfully
(in the general context) as this movie does, has substantial redeeming value, although what is done
cannot be undone. Try to ignore it, try to forget it, and even that little window of redemption
is shut for ever.
6. GREY OWL(1999)
The greatest love is commitment. A story
of two ‘Pilgrims of the Wild.’
This is a story of a man who first transforms himself into what he dreams to be – the kind of life he wants
to live, and then is further transformed by a woman who commits herself to him. As I see it, this movie
is not merely a biography of Archie Grey Owl, but more so of a relationship that transforms him from a
trapper into a conservationist and writer. Pony, who befriends him and becomes his wife, lights up the
‘eco’ consciousness within him so as to make him stop killing the beavers ("You must stop this work. It is
killing your spirit as well as mine.") and instead becomes a protector of wildlife by championing the
cause of conservation of the ecological system by writing about it.
The sequences about the two beaver kits that were saved by Pony after Archie has killed their mother
are moving scenes. Pony looks after them and they grow up virtually as part of the family for it is their
presence that makes Archie turn away from trapping any more beavers. (The interested viewer may
want to check what finally happens about the pair of beavers – (spoiler) and that it is the saddest part
of the entire story.)
There is another shadow that hangs over Archie, and that is his past, his identity by birth, which he wants
to conceal for whatever psychological reasons – one of them being that he loathes the life of the civilized
man. It is only a matter of time before someone finds out, and when it is out after his death, the ‘civilized’
world is outraged at the ‘deception’.
I would have thought that these ‘civilized’ people would have been proud of him, and appreciate the
joke played on them by the powers that be. As the Indian Chief ‘sees’ the joke, and has a good laugh
at it, the others present also intuit this joke, including Grey Owl, the shadow that hangs over him is lifted.
The Chief then makes a remark that epitomizes the life of Grey Owl: “Men become what they dream.
You have dreamed well.” That scene is the climax of the film, which also lifts the otherwise somber
mood. Fairly good overall acting by all the cast, especially Brosnan if one can suspend the ‘Bond’ image
of him. The more complex character of Anahareo (Pony) would always have been a difficult one to portray,
but I feel it is good enough, though it could have been better. Compact and comprehensive script,
brilliant cinematography, makes it a must watch film for the ‘pilgrim of the wild’.
Grey Owl pays great tribute to the Indians in this quote: "Indians were my very first friends, because the Indians
took me and made a man of me."
To be continued.....
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