Read an Excerpt
A Journey into the Native American Universe
By F. David Peat
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2002 F. David Peat
All rights reserved.
Spirits of Renewal
It is mid-January and, as I write these pages, the snow in Ottawa is thick on the ground and the temperature well below-20°C. East of me in Quebec the Huron people are celebrating their New Year, while an hour's drive to the south, at Akwesasne, the Mohawks are in the midst of their midwinter festival. My Akwesasne friends, Kim Hathaway-Carr, Brenda La France and the Elder Ernie Benedict, are Mohawks of the Iroquois Confederation, or, more properly, the Haudenosaunee people. (At the end of this introduction you will find a note on all the sorts of problems that crop up when one group of people tries to pin a name on another.)
Following the Akwesasne midwinter festival, in which the ashes of the dying year's fire are stirred and thrown over the participants, comes the Tapping of the Maple Trees and the maple sugar festival. The year's round continues with corn planting; strawberry, bean and green-corn festivals; and, finally, the thanksgiving dances that celebrate the gathering of the corn. As the Haudenosaunee move through their calendar year, they participate in ceremonies that celebrate the annual cycle of nature—the great rotation of time that begins and ends with death and renewal.
To the west, friends who are members of the Blackfoot Confederacy have their own cycle of ceremonies. One summer I was privileged to be present at the opening days of the Sun Dance carried out at the Blood Reserve near Standoff, Alberta. There I sat and dreamed late into the night with the northern lights playing in the sky above me. There, listening to the singing and drumming as it moved around the camp, I tried to come to some understanding of the great mystery that surrounded me.
This mystery of renewal is celebrated by the First People all over Turtle Island—the name that many Indigenous nations give to the continent on which they live. It is a mystery that stretches far back to the times of the Ohio Mound Builders, the Olmecs, the Mayans, the Incas, and deep, deep into the origin of the human race and even beyond into the cycles of the cosmos itself. Just as the sacred tree at the center of the Sun Dance ground acts to connect Mother Earth to the powers and beings of the Sky World, so, too, all over the Americas can be found that same power of rotation and return; the same axis around which the cosmos and the people, time, history, and the cycles of ceremonies and renewal turn in their rotation.
As these ceremonies metamorphose one into the other, so, too, do they lead us into a profoundly different reality from that which we encounter in our everyday Western world. To enter into this domain is to question what we mean by space and time, by the distinctions between the living and the nonliving, by the individual and society, by dreams and visions, by perception and reality, by causality and synchronicity, by time and eternity.
Take, for example, the cycle of life among the Mohawk people. In the spring of each year life is renewed as the sap begins to rise in the trees, as seeds germinate under the blanket of snow, as air from the Gulf of Mexico moves north to meet the colder Arctic air over Lake Ontario. This is the season when electrical charges build up between these two currents of air, tension is felt in the atmosphere, and the first thunder is heard grumbling in the distance. In Akwesasne a number of people, as they go around their daily tasks, take responsibility to listen for this first roll of thunder. As soon as it is heard, sacred tobacco is burned in offering and the rest of the people are told of the return of thunder.
The sound of the thunder means the return of the Thunder Birds, and this notion, I suppose, raises some of those questions that flood the Western mind when it first encounters the Native American world. People may have heard mention of Thunder Birds; they may have seen depictions of Thunder Birds on the great carved cedar poles, often called totem poles, which tell the history of the peoples of the northwest coast of North America; they may even have read stories in which the Lakoda (Sioux) peoples refer to wakinyan or Thunderbeings.
Our Western minds desire to sort things out, to arrange knowledge in a logical fashion and order the world into categories. Observation shows us that birds return to Lake Ontario and to the south shore of the St. Lawrence River at about the same time as the first thunder is heard. Just as the birds fly south before the first snows fall, so, too, they reappear with the first sound of thunder. Our linear, logical minds ask: Are these Thunder Birds actual birds; a particular ornithological species? Are they mythic beings or are they forces of nature?; Do the Mohawk people believe the thunder brings the Thunder Birds, or that the birds bring the thunder?
Searching for answers to questions like these, one begins to wonder if they are the right questions to ask in the first place; indeed, if such questions make any sense at all! Pretty soon the realization comes that it is not so much the questions themselves that are the problem, but the whole persistent desire to obtain knowledge through a particular analytical route. While this approach may be the norm within Western society it does not seem appropriate when sitting with Native American people. In that act of simply being with another culture there comes the realization of a need for balance, the understanding that there are times when it is better to listen than to ask, better to feel than to think, more appropriate to stay with a silence than to seek answers in speech.
Western education predisposes us to think of knowledge in terms of factual information, information that can be structured and passed on through books, lectures, and programmed courses. Knowledge is seen as something that can be acquired and accumulated, rather like stocks and bonds. By contrast, within the Indigenous world the act of coming to know something involves a personal transformation. The knower and the known are indissolubly linked and changed in a fundamental way. Indigenous science can never be reduced to a catalogue of facts or a database in a supercomputer, for it is a dynamic and living process, an aspect of the ever-changing, ever-renewing processes of nature.
Visions From Two Worlds
It is at this point that a tantalizing paradox presents itself. On one hand it seems that the very activity and busy-ness of our analytic, linear Western minds would obstruct us from entering into Indigenous coming-to-knowing, yet, on the other, scientists who have been struggling at the cutting edges of their fields have come up with concepts that resonate with those of Indigenous science. For example:
* Quantum theory stresses the irreducible link between observer and observed and the basic holism of all phenomena. Indigenous science also holds that there is no separation between individual and society, between matter and spirit, between each one of us and the whole of nature.
* The physicist David Bohm has spoken of what he calls the implicate, or enfolded, order (an order in which the whole is enfolded within each part) as being a deeper physical reality than the surface, or explicate, order that is immediately perceived by our senses. In a similar way, members of the Gourd Society wear a necklace of mescal beads in which each bead symbolizes the cosmos and reminds them that within each object is enfolded the whole.
In writing this down I am immediately aware that the word symbolize simply does not capture what I would like to say. Today a symbol is generally understood to stand for something else and is not seen as possessing a numinous power of its own.
The mescal bead, however, is no mere symbol. For those who wear it, it really does enfold the universe and bring them in direct contact with all of creation.
* In modern physics the essential stuff of the universe cannot be reduced to billiard-ball atoms, but exists as relationships and fluctuations at the boundary of what we call matter and energy. Indigenous science teaches that all that exists is an expression of relationships, alliances, and balances between what, for lack of better words, we could call energies, powers, or spirits.
* Several leading-edge thinkers in physics suggest that nature is not a collection of objects in interaction but is a flux of processes. The whole notion of flux and process is fundamental to the Indigenous sciences of Turtle Island. Algonkian-speaking peoples, such as the Cheyenne, Cree, Ojibwaj, Mic Maq, and Blackfoot, all share a strongly verb-based family of languages that reflects this direct experience.
* Some physicians question our current medical models and suggest that healing involves the whole person—body, mind and spirit. Native healers have never fragmented their vision of health, for it is regarded as emerging out of the whole of nature and is one with the processes of renewal.
* Ecologists stress that we must attend to the basic interconnectedness of nature and to the sensitivity and complexity of natural systems. This has always been the approach of Indigenous peoples. The traditional Thanksgiving Address of the Iroquois people, for example, specifically acknowledges the wholeness that is inherent within all of life.
* Scientists are alerting us to the fragility and sensitivity of our planet. It is the tradition of the Iroquois people that in arriving at a decision they consider its implications right down to the seventh generation that comes after them.
The Heart of Knowledge
Indigenous knowing is a vision of the world that encompasses both the heart and the head, the soul and the spirit. It could no more deal with matter in isolation than the theory of relativity could fragment space from time. It is a vision in which rock and tree, bird and fish, human being and caribou are all alive and partakers of the gifts of Mother Earth. Indigenous science does not seek to found its knowledge, as we do, at the level of some most ultimate elementary particle or theory, rather it is a science of harmony and compassion, of dream and vision, of earth and cosmos, of hunting and growing, of technology and spirit, of song and dance, of color and number, of cycle and balance, of death and renewal.
We can all, I believe, learn something of great importance from this vision, from this way of coming-to-knowing of the First Peoples of Turtle Island. In many ways our cultures and values seem so profoundly different that it would appear to be almost impossible to have a dialogue between these two ways of knowing. However, the striking similarities between traditional teachings and some of the insights that are emerging from modern science suggest that a coming together is indeed possible.
It is not so much that a particular physicist may have hit upon a theory that echoes images or connections with a traditional piece of teaching—that would be far too trivial to be of importance. No, it is more that the whole way the Western mind works is beginning to open itself to new possibilities, and that from within this openness a dialogue may be possible. This is certainly something I have learned from my Native friends who are excited about some of the new ideas in science they are hearing and have pointed out to me the resonances with their own tradition.
A Dialogue Between Worlds
It is in such a spirit, and with such an aim, that this book is written. This is not a book "about" Native American society, or "about" Indigenous knowledge. It is certainly not the result of objective academic study. Rather, it is an exploration of two different ways of knowing, two different worlds of consciousness, and a discovery of the ways that peoples can begin to have dialogues with each other, enter into relationships, and offer each other the respect and courtesy that is the hallmark of humanity.
In beginning this dialogue, however, it is wise to be aware of the difficulties we may encounter along the way. No matter what our color, religion, social status, or racial origins may be, those of us who have grown up within a North American or European school system, playing with other children, watching television, reading newspapers and books, going to college, and eventually entering the work force have learned to participate in a worldview that is common to the Western industrial nations. Although we may begin to acknowledge the importance of other cultures, races, and worldviews, North American culture is still, to a great extent, based upon the traditions of European civilization, that stream of culture that began with the Greeks and Romans and underwent a partial transformation first during the Renaissance and again with the rise of science and technology. In particular, modern science, which emerged through the efforts of Bacon, Galileo, Newton, and others, has created an intellectual mechanism that dominates much of the world.
Today many people have begun to question the more materialistic aspects of this worldview. There is an interest in the meditative practices of the East, in various therapies that deal with personal growth and transformation.
Change can come from dialogues between different cultures and forms of spirituality. The ancient Mayan peoples spoke of the end of our present world and the appearance of a new sun. This fifth sun was said to herald the World of Consciousness and it may well be that the wisdom that can be found here on Turtle Island will help to catalyze a change in global culture.
Five hundred years ago a major contact was made between the peoples of Europe and Turtle Island. At that time Indigenous knowledge was freely given and in many cases this led to the survival of a people who were new to this continent. Yet, in light of the centuries of repression and bloodshed that followed, it is clear the deeper meaning of this teaching was never really understood by the first guests who set foot on Turtle Island. There are Native Elders who believe that today the time has come for them to speak again, that now the White Man is now willing to listen. Their prophecies also tell of a time of purification. To some this means a period of devastation when Mother Earth cleanses herself and renews the processes of life across the planet. Others interpret this as an opportunity for transformation, for global devastation can be prevented provided that the races cooperate, hand in hand toward a renewal of our relationship with all of nature and with each other.
But how is such a dialogue to commence? Many of the world's spiritual traditions speak of the impossibility of the rational mind alone ever approaching a deep understanding of another way of being. Some of them refer to particular religious experiences as having a flavor or a taste that is impossible to appreciate without direct experience. The same thing applies, I believe, to cultures that lie outside our own. One can no more understand them from the outside than one can describe the taste of an orange to someone who has never eaten such a fruit, nor a sunset to a blind person. How then can we grasp the flavor, the odor, the spirit of a profoundly different worldview, one that cannot be approached by reason, analysis, description, and the accumulation of facts alone?
The answer, I believe, is that we can come to some form of knowing, albeit in a strictly limited way, through an actual change in consciousness. If we remain as observers, objective schoiars of another society, we will never enter into its essence. However, if we approach it in a spirit of humility, respect, enquiry and openness it becomes possible for a change of consciousness to occur.
As you sit with Native people, walk in nature, and spend time at sacred sites an actual transformation of consciousness takes place. For a time, at least, you can begin to hear, see, feel, touch, and taste the world in a profoundly different way: You can think and perceive with a different mind so that your ego can, temporarily at least, blend into that of other people.
If you happen to hold that human consciousness is no more than the epiphenomenon, or secretion, of our individual brains then you are more or less trapped in your own skull. But if consciousness is open, if it can partake in a more global form of being, if it can merge with the natural world and with other beings, then, indeed, it may be possible to drop, for a time, the constraints of one's personal worldview and see reality through the eyes of others.
The poet Robert Graves, for example, believed that he was possessed by the spirit of one of the Caesars when he wrote I, Claudius. On several occasions the historian Arnold Toynbee was projected across time and space to become a participator in another historical era. One time he found himself in the Italy of 80 B.C. witnessing a suicide. Another time, while walking near Victoria Station in London he had the experience of being plunged not into a particular historical period but into the entire passage of history and time.
Thus it may be that, for a few moments, or hours, or even days, we can enter into the heart and head and body of another culture. We will always return to our own world, for that is where our roots lie. Nevertheless, on our reentry we may be changed in some subtle yet important way. And, sometimes, when we spend time living within that other culture, we are able to look back upon our own world and see it through alien eyes, appreciate its limitations as well as its beauty and attraction.
Excerpted from Blackfoot Physics by F. David Peat. Copyright © 2002 F. David Peat. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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