I have been reading recently about the myths and legends of the Blackfeet Peoples of Northern Montana and Southern Alberta. Their stories are not too unlike those of other plains’ peoples, the Crow, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho, especially centering around a reverence for the sky gods. It’s not hard to see why these people would be so reverential toward the sky. If you visit these parts of the country, vast horizons extend unobstructed for seemingly endless miles. And it is not for nothing that even today Montana is called Big Sky Country.
I am not a trained anthropologist, or even an historian, and so make no claims at being an expert. As such, my interests are very much those of a layman. Still, for a long time now I have taken every opportunity to learn and read about traditional American Indian religion and spirituality. I know, for example, that all of the Plans’ Peoples held ceremonials honoring the Sun, with special festivities occurring each summer in the form of what is commonly referred to today as the Sun Dance. However, for the Blackfeet at least, dancing is probably the least important part of the ceremony, which lasts for several days, and even the early Europeans who visited and witnessed what was going on called it the Medicine Lodge, rather than the Sun Dance. The term medicine was not used in the sense that we use it today, that is, as having reference to physical healing through pills and doctors and hospitals. Instead, medicine was the term early Europeans used to make reference to things which were beyond the ken of everyday life experience, and which in Indian cosmology meant spiritual power. The Blackfeet themselves call the ceremonial “O-Kan,” a term which seems to have lost its meaning in the mists of history. However, it appears to be related to other words which connect to the concept of “vision sleep,” a kind of power-dreaming whereby gifted or chosen individuals make contact with spiritual entities that are far beyond the experience of most of us in the ordinary course of our daily lives. Or, another way of thinking about it is that these visions were ways of enlightening a person’s life, infusing the transcendent into the imminent, and making even everyday acts into something sacred.
Virtually all American Indian cultures understood this in one form or another, and still do, even though many modern Indians also profess a belief in one or another of the various forms of Christianity (depending on which missionaries forced their ways into the history of the people). I won’t attempt here even the briefest recap of the sad and shameful history of how Europeans, and later on Americans, lied to, stole from, and decimated Indian peoples and their cultures, their religions, their languages, and their ways of life. That story is too well known. My interest for the moment is more in what the results have been for all of us, Indians and non-Indians alike.
We know that poverty, lack of educational opportunity, joblessness, and alcoholism are all appallingly endemic on many reservations. Even so, some Indians escape the cycle and go on to excel in any number of areas of modern life. It is not all sadness and despair, although there is plenty of that to go around, too. But in the historical process of so-called assimilation, one of the things which has been most unfortunately lost, as I see it, is that very world view which so many Indian peoples had (and some still have), and which most non-Indians have little or no understanding of. What I am talking about is the “medicine power” of traditional Indian religions to profoundly connect with and deeply appreciate the natural world around us. Such religious experience is able to perceive the power of Spirit in all of nature, not just the Sun and his Night-Light wife (i.e. the moon) and their Morning Star son, as in the old Blackfeet legend, but in everything. This includes animals and insects of every conceivable kind, as well as all of the “standing peoples” such as trees and other plants, and even those things which most of us today might consider inanimate, rivers and streams and lakes and waterfalls, rocks and mountains, the very earth itself. In my experience, Christianity has entirely lost this ability, if in fact it ever had it.
I sometimes find myself wondering what America, both North and South, would be like today, if the Europeans hadn’t been so aggressive and so able and willing to wield the power of their new-found technology. How would American Indian societies have evolved? Surely, they would have grown and developed in their own unique ways as their histories unfolded, if left undecimated and unobstructed by European aggression. They would have developed their own kinds of technologies, and they would have changed and evolved in ways which are hard for us now to even imagine. Would they, for example, have kept that connectivity with the natural world which was the hallmark of so many of their traditional world views? It goes without saying that this is now nothing but speculation. Still, my own fantasy, or maybe it’s just my hope, is that they would have found some un-Europeanized way of evolving into the world of the 21st century, which would have honored, or at least not destroyed, so much of the natural world, as we modern Euro-Americans have done.
On a related topic, I read in another place, too, not long ago that one of the curious, or disastrous, things (depending on your point of view) about human evolution is that it all happened with such lightening speed. By way of contrast, the various species of ants, that other great social creature, evolved slowly over multiple millions of years. As such, other species evolved along with the ants, and were able to find ways of coping with the immense strength they displayed, given their ability to organize and to get uncountable numbers of individuals to act as a single unit. It was for this reason that ants never took over entire ecosystems, precisely because others found ways of defending themselves, and eventually of living in a kind of balanced harmony with them and their unique power. Not so for human beings. Only some 250, 000 years ago we were still climbing in trees and doing what we could to escape ground-based predators. Then, about that time, we began to think about evolving into what we have become today. But 250,000 years is the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms; less than that in geological ways of thinking. Imagine, then, the surprise and alarm of all the other species of life on earth when these “very smart monkeys” (as Stephen Hawking has called us) began rapidly taking everything over. Now, today, there are seven billion of us and counting, and we have infiltrated every conceivable corner of the planet, no matter how remote or inhospitable.
Would Indians have done a better job of it, had they been able to make a go of things on their own in North and South America, minus the meddling and the decimation of European powers? Unfortunately, we will never know the answer to that question. What we do know, and I don’t see how anyone can question this, is that generally speaking we modern humans of the 21st century haven’t done such a bang up job of it. Yes, of course, there are a lot of things we have done are right, including advances in modern medicine, and the ever-increasing ability of more and more peoples of the globe to choose their own governments. Still, billions live in poverty, and we continue to make babies at a rate which the world ultimately cannot possibly sustain. In the meantime, we are destroying the very planet on which we live, with all of its beauty, mystery, and power. And yet our religions urge us to make yet more babies, merely because someone in a book compiled long ago told an ancient herding people that it was best to increase and multiply. It may have made sense to them at that time, but who can argue that it makes any real sense for us today?
Humans are smart, but not always wise. We are inquisitive, but not always respectful. We are strong, but do not always know how to use and temper the strength that we have. I suppose it’s possible that Indians might have messed things up royally, as well, had they been given half a chance. After all, not so long ago the Aztecs were using obsidian knives to rip the still beating hearts out of captured enemies as a sacrifice to the gods, all because these same gods required blood in order to renew and replenish the earth. Surely, that does not bode well for any people. But then the Europeans, too, and soon the Americans, were enslaving whole other groups of people, not to appease the gods, but in order to slake their thirst for power and their insatiable greed for “things.” Neither does this bode particularly well for a people.
Our all-too-rapid evolution has been equally miraculous and disastrous, both for ourselves and for the world around us. Will we be able to overcome what my friend and co-blog author, Kevin, calls our technological adolescence? That very much remains to be seen.
For the moment, at least, there are still many things we can learn from the Blackfeet, and from many peoples, which could make a difference. But that will depend on whether or not we are able to overcome our immense hubris and our absolute surety that we are always right. How humans ever got that trait is something of a mystery to me, but I guess it must have somehow been evolutionarily useful. Let is hope we can overcome the limitations of that very evolution, or maybe it’s more like evolving even more quickly than we have in the past, in order to become a species that is both smarter and more humble. If we don’t, may the Sun, the Moon, and all the gods help us, and may we – and the earth – be spared the consequences of our own foolishness, and the pride that comes before the fall.