Long, long ago, when the world was so new that even the stars were dark, it was very, very flat. Chareya, Old Man Above, could not see through the dark to the new, flat earth. Neither could he step down to it because it was so far below him. With a large stone he bored a hole in the sky. Then through the hole he pushed down masses of ice and snow, until a great pyramid rose from the plain. Old Man Above climbed down through the hole he had made in the sky, stepping from cloud to cloud, until he could put his foot on top of the mass of ice and snow. Then with one long step he reached the earth.
The sun shone through the hole in the sky and began to melt the ice and snow. It made holes in the ice and snow. When it was soft, Chareya bored with his finger into the earth, here and there, and planted the first trees.
Streams from the melting snow watered the new trees and made them grow. Then he gathered the leaves which fell from the trees and blew upon them. They became birds. He took a stick and broke it into pieces. Out of the small end he made fishes and placed them in the mountain streams. Of the middle of the stick, he made all the animals except the grizzly bear. From the big end of the stick came the grizzly bear, who was made master of all. Grizzly was large and strong and cunning. When the earth was new he walked upon two feet and carried a large club. So strong was Grizzly that Old Man Above feared the creature he had made. Therefore, so that he might be safe, Chareya hollowed out the pyramid of ice and snow as a tepee. There he lived for thousands of snows. The people knew he lived there because they could see the smoke curling from the smoke-hole of his tepee. When the white man came, Old Man Above went away. There is no longer any smoke from the smoke-hole. White men call the tepee Mount Shasta.
Within most Native American cultures there is no clear distinction between `story’ and `history’. Both are part of the oral tradition, the rich profusion of anecdotes and legends by which each tribe and nation explains the creation of the world and its own origins and experience. As a result, from the perspective of most Western scholars, they are simply `myths’, which – with few exceptions – can tell us almost nothing worthwhile about `what really happened.’
But a `myth’ – despite the widespread use of the word to mean `falsehood’ – is not simply a `lie’ or a childish fantasy. As the writer Ronald Wright puts it:
Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that resonate with a culture’s deepest values and aspirations. Myths create and reinforce archetypes so taken for granted, so seemingly axiomatic, that they go unchallenged. Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them. They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time.
And the myths of Western culture, even if we have consciously rejected them, continue to shape and pervade our contemporary view of the world – including our view of history. Many of the West’s most fundamental assumptions about the universe – the assumptions that separate us most profoundly from other cultures – are deeply rooted in our own origin legend. The Book of Genesis is a story of sin, banishment and loss: it tells us that we are the Lords of Creation, made for a life of ease and harmony in the Garden of Eden, but that we forfeited Paradise through our own wickedness. Finding that Eve has taken the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God first curses the serpent who `beguiled’ her, and then:
To the woman he said,
`I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.’
And to Adam he said,
`Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you,
“You shall not eat of it,”
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.’
Then, `lest [man] put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever … the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.’
This primal catastrophe has left us profoundly dislocated: we are exiles in an alien wilderness which we must struggle to subdue. With every generation we move further and further from the gates of Eden, sustained only by dreams of somehow regaining our lost innocence or of creating a new heaven on earth.
Rather than returning us to our original state of grace, the incarnation only deepens our separation from it by enshrining the concept of linear time: by intervening in our destiny at a specific, defined moment, God gives us a fixed point from which our history unravels away from Eden like a ball of string. As the philosopher Alan Watts puts it: `… according to St. Augustine of Hippo, the universe is going along in a straight line … If time is cyclic, Jesus Christ would have to be crucified again and again. There would not be, therefore, that one perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Time had to be a straight line from the creation to the consummation to the last judgement.’ This concept is one of the fundamental organizing principles by which we try to make sense of reality, underpinning not only the Enlightenment idea of Progress and the theory of Evolution but also our very notion of history itself.
In most Native American cultures, by contrast, there is no fall from grace to begin with. Some traditions have stories about a Creator God or Spirit, but his relationship with his creation is very different from Jehovah’s. According to the Lakota, for instance, Inyan (who existed `at the time of first motion … before anything had meaning’) `desired that another exist.’
But there was only Inyan, so no other could be
unless Inyan created the other from himself,
as a part of himself, to remain, forever,
attached to him …
He would also have to give
this creation some of his power
and a portion of his spirit.
So, Inyan took of himself and shaped a disc,
this he wrapped over and around himself.
He named this new being, `Maka’.
He desired that Maka be great,
so he opened his veins and
allowed his blood to run freely.
At that point, Maka became the earth
and the liquid of his blood became the water, Mini,
circling the earth,
the blue of his blood surrounded Maka
to become the sky – Marpiya To.
So the other would be, Inyan took of himself, completely,
now his spirit, power and meaning were reduced,
He now became inyan – the stone – brittle and hard,
first of all things, existing from the beginning of motion.
In other words, Inyan is not removed from what he has made, or any part of it: his spirit inhabits the totality, making everything – rocks, water, earth, plants, animals and people – sacred. Again and again, in Native American stories, human beings are seen as an integral part of a `natural’ order which embraces the whole of creation.
Similarly, although there are numerous myths about wrongdoing and its consequences, there is almost no Native American equivalent to the Judaeo-Christian idea of a kind of communal sin, an inherited curse which isolates us and opposes us to a hostile material world. The created landscape, however forbidding it may seem to an outsider, is as it should be, and `the people’ – like the pre-lapsarian Adam and Eve – are an essential part of it. It is their relationship with the land and its other inhabitants which identifies them as who they are. Their destiny is not to change it or move away from it but to maintain it according to the instructions they received `long ago’ from their Creator or culture hero.
This idea is woven into the life of almost every Native American culture. Small hunting groups express it in rituals like the Shaking Tent, which directly reconnect `the people’ with the sacred powers that created them. Many larger societies have elaborate annual ceremonies — the Plains Indian Sun Dance, the Cherokee Green Corn Dance, the Summer and Winter celebrations of the Pueblos – which renew their relationship with the eternal and allow them to relive the drama of their own origins. The sacred realm and sacred time run parallel to ours, and, through ritual, human beings still have access to them. Historic time is therefore less a straight line than a repeating cycle: instead of taking you a step further from your beginning, each year in some sense brings you back to it.
It is, of course, dangerous to generalize: the precise understanding of Time, and the significance attached to it, varied widely from culture to culture. Among some tribes, it was a comparatively hazy notion: when the Kiowa writer and artist Scott Momaday was asked about it, for instance, he replied: `[It] is an interesting concept … I don’t know that anyone can really explain it … I think instead of being something that passes by, it is static, and people walk through time as they might walk through a canyon, and one can pause and stand in time … It isn’t something that necessarily rushes by, one can take hold of it.’ In other groups, it was a central preoccupation: the great agricultural societies of Central America, for example, had sophisticated calendars, which (in the case of the Maya) allowed them to measure time over millions of years with greater accuracy than their European contemporaries. Yet even here it was Time in its cyclical, seasonal aspect that was considered important: the Aztecs, for instance, believed that each cycle lasted fifty-two years and ended with a period of immense uncertainty and danger — an idea which was to have cataclysmic results when the Spanish reached Mexico on the cusp between two cycles.
Inevitably, this concept of Time creates a notion of history very different from the European view. For Native American cultures, an experience gains its significance not from when it happens but from what it means. If Time is essentially cyclical, there is no simple, straightforward chain of cause and effect: events have to be seen not in chronological relation to each other but in terms of a complex, coherent understanding of the world, rooted in the origin story, in which time, space, spiritual entities and living beings all interact. The function of history is to provide not a linear record, but a blueprint for living, specific to a particular people in a particular place.
Origin accounts vary enormously, consequently, from one culture and region to another. The agricultural societies of the Southwest and the Southeast, for instance, have complex, intricate descriptions of how their ancestors emerged from underground and migrated to their present homes, whereas the Iroquois peoples of the Northeast talk of the first woman falling through a hole in the sky. Many tribes have cycles of stories about a time `long ago’ when animals and humans were essentially the same and could communicate with each other, and there are numerous traditions about how this old order was swept away and the `first people’ were transformed into the creatures we know today by a `trickster’ hero or by a cataclysmic flood or fire.
Yet, for all their range and variety, these stories often have a similar feel to them. When you set them alongside the biblical Genesis, the common features suddenly appear in sharp relief: they seem to glow with the newness and immediacy of creation, offering vivid explanations for the behaviour of an animal, the shape of a rock or a mountain, which you can still encounter in the here and now. Many tribes and nations call themselves, in their own languages, `the first people’, `the original people’ or `the real people’, and their stories locate them firmly in a place of special power and significance. A Tohono O’odham in Arizona can see, through the heat-shimmer of the desert, the sacred peak of Baboquivari which stands at the centre of the universe; traditional Pikuni (Blackfeet) still make pilgrimages to Badger-Two Medicine in Montana, part of the `Backbone of the World’. Far from telling them that they are locked out of Eden, the Indians’ myths confirm that (unless they have been displaced by European contact and settlement) they still live in the place for which they were made: either the site of their own emergence or creation, or a `Promised Land’ which they have attained after a long migration.
Native Americans were unconcerned if their neighbours’ myths differed from their own: their neighbours, after all, were created to be part of a different landscape, and would naturally understand their origins through stories that made sense of their own unique experience. As the modern Sioux writer Vine Deloria Jr. explains:
People believed that each tribe had its own special relationship to the superior spiritual forces which governed the universe and that the job of each set of tribal beliefs was to fulfil its own tasks without worrying about what others were doing. Tribal knowledge was therefore not fragmented and was valid within the historical and geographical scope of the people’s experience. Black Elk [a prominent Lakota spiritual leader], talking to John Neihardt, explained the methodology well: `This they tell, and whether it happened so or not, I do not know; but if you think about it, you can see that it is true.’
But this approach has always jarred with the Western, Judaeo-Christian tradition. Exiles from Eden are not part of a particular place, with a unique connection to particular rocks and mountains, rivers and trees: they are separate from the inanimate `natural’ world to which they have been banished and can manipulate and exploit it at will. They see this material universe as the work of a conscious, rational and all-powerful Creator which must, therefore, be governed by rational, discoverable rules that operate consistently at all times and in all places for all beings. And they believe that they have received, through God’s Word, a unique revelation of His true nature which gives them a global, literal account of reality and allows them to dismiss other people’s beliefs as factually wrong.
Almost since the time of Columbus, the Native American ability to syncretize two realities – to accept that different people have different truths or to believe that two apparently contradictory statements can be true in different’ ways – has baffled and frustrated Europeans brought up with the idea of a single, monolithic truth. The accounts of missionaries, from the seventeenth-century Jesuit Relations on, bubble with impotent rage at the Indians’ refusal to accept that because European beliefs are right their own beliefs must be wrong. Father Paul Le Jeune, a French missionary who spent the winter of 1634 with three Innu (Montagnais) families on the shore of the St. Lawrence, reported, for instance, that:
The Savages do not throw to the dogs the bones of female Beavers and Porcupines, – at least, certain specified bones; in short, they are very careful that the dogs do not eat any bones of birds and of other animals which are taken in the net, otherwise they will take no more except with incomparable difficulties … It is remarkable how they gather and collect these bones, and preserve them with so much care, that you would say their game would be lost if they violated their superstitions. As I was laughing at them, and telling them that Beavers do not know what is done with their bones, they answered me, `Thou dost not know how to take Beavers, and thou wishest to talk about it.’ … I told them that the Hiroquois … threw the bones of the Beaver to the dogs, and yet they took them very often: and that our Frenchmen captured more game than they did (without comparison), and yet our dogs ate these bones. `Thou hast no sense,’ they replied, `dost thou not see that you and the Hiroquois cultivate the soil and gather its fruits, and not we, and that therefore it is not the same thing?’ I began to laugh when I heard this irrelevant answer. The trouble is, I only stutter, I take one word for another, I pronounce badly; and so everything usually passes off in laughter.
Unsurprisingly, the modern scientific tradition still shares many assumptions with the missionary culture from which, in part, it developed. In language much like Father Le Jeune’s, twentieth-century scholars have confidently dismissed Native American beliefs about their history as `superstition’ and then gone on to provide their own version, based on empirical evidence and `common sense’, of `what really happened.’ The hundreds of Indian origin myths, for example, are uniformly rejected – except insofar as they may contain a few nuggets of `fact’ about a migration or a natural event – in favour of the `proven’ scientific account. A highly regarded textbook, Carl Waldman’s Atlas of the North American Indian, gives the generally accepted view:
After decades of guesswork and unfounded theories of lost European tribes and lost continents, it is now held as conclusive that mankind first arrived in North America from Asia during the Pleistocene age via the Bering Strait land bridge, also known as Beringia. There were four glaciations in the million-year Pleistocene, with ice caps spreading down from the north; these were separated by interglacial periods. The Wisconsin glaciation (corresponding to the Wurm glaciation in Europe) lasted from about 90,000 or 75,000 to 8,000 BC. It is theorized that at various times during the Wisconsin, enough of the planet’s water was locked up in ice to significantly lower the oceans and expose now-submerged land. Where there is now 56 miles of water 180 feet deep in the Bering Strait, there would have been a stretch of tundra possibly as much as 1,000 miles wide, bridging the two continents. The islands of today would have been towering mountains. The big game of the Ice Age could have migrated across the land bridge. And the foremost predator among them – spear-wielding man – could have followed them. These Paleo-Siberians were the first Indians, the real discoverers of the New World.
In fact, as the Sioux writer Vine Deloria Jr. shows, in his recent book Red Earth, White Lies, the evidence for the land bridge theory is very far from `conclusive’. Even within its own scientific terms, it is riddled with gaps and ambiguities: some apparently human artefacts and remains in Mexico, for example, have been dated to more than 200,000 years old, an age which would challenge not only the contention that the first people arrived in America via the Bering strait but also current ideas about human evolution. Nonetheless, it is, in many ways, an awe-inspiring achievement: using only a few fragments of data, scholars have managed to create a compelling narrative which has been almost universally accepted as fact. It is a tribute both to the vigour of Western science and to the enormous confidence that we place in it.
But whereas archaeologists see their account replacing origin legends as a description of American prehistory, some Native Americans – accustomed to co-existing with other peoples whose stories differ from their own – seem able to accommodate it without abandoning their own beliefs. Alfonso Ortiz, who grew up in a Tewa village and then went to an American university to train as a social scientist, strikingly exemplifies the capacity for this kind of double vision:
My world is the Tewa world. It is different from your world … Archaeologists will tell you that we came at least 12,000 years ago from Asia, crossing the Bering land bridge, then spreading over the two American continents. These archaeologists have dug countless holes in the earth looking for spearpoints, bones, traces of fires; they have subjected these objects to sophisticated dating analysis – seeking to prove or disprove a hypothesis or date. I know of their work. I too have been to Soviet Asia and seen cave art and an old ceremonial costume remarkably similar to some found in America. But a Tewa is not so interested in the work of archaeologists.
A Tewa is interested in our own story of our origins, for it holds all that we need to know about our people, and how one should live as a human. The story defines our society. It tells me who I am, where I came from, the boundaries of my world, what kind of order exists within it; how suffering, evil and death came into this world; and what is likely to happen to me when I die …
Our ancestors came from the north. Theirs was not a journey to be measured in centuries, for it was as much a journey of the spirit as it was a migration of a people. The Tewa know not when the journey southward began or when it ended, but we do know where it begins, how it proceeded, and where it ended. We are unconcerned about time in its historical dimensions, but we will recall in endless detail the features of the 12 places our ancestors stopped.
We point to these places to show that the journey did indeed take place. This is the only proof a Tewa requires. And each time a Tewa recalls a place where they paused, for whatever length of time, every feature of the earth and sky comes vividly to life, and the journey itself lives again.
But increasingly, in a kind of mirror image of our own intolerance, Native Americans are rejecting the scientific account altogether and insisting – like some Christian fundamentalists – that their own explanation of their origins is literally and exclusively true. In some communities, the issue has become emotive and contentious, turning acceptance of the origin legend into a talisman of cultural pride and identity. To understand this, you have to see it in the context of the Indians’ recent historical experience: generations in which native beliefs, languages and practices have been ridiculed and often brutally suppressed.
But the debate also has an important legal and political dimension. If, as archaeology suggests, Native Americans arrived in America at a specific date and then moved around more or less incessantly, nudging and modifying and displacing each other as they went, then their claim to an absolute relationship with a particular landscape is undermined. They are reduced, more or less, to the same immigrant status as other North Americans: the European invasion which dispossessed them was just the most recent of the series of migrations that brought them to America in the first place. As well as seeming to weaken the overall legitimacy of Indian land claims, archaeology and ethnography has been used against tribes in specific cases: opponents of the Sioux’ campaign to regain the Black Hills, for instance, produced evidence which, they said, demonstrated that the Sioux had only moved into the area within the last three centuries and that other tribes had lived there before them.
But the implications of the controversy over origins go even deeper. The scientific view is deeply rooted in our culture and our understanding of the world. It has clear parallels with the Genesis story, telling us that Native Americans, like all of us, are wanderers on the face of the earth, exiles from the African Eden where human beings first lived. (When scientists first suggested that we are all descended from a single female ancestor, they dubbed her `Eve’.) Like the biblical account, it describes an epic trek through a hostile wilderness with immense imaginative power, conjuring images of a few heroic fur-clad figures battling through a blizzard to conquer a new continent and then, over generations, evolving into the myriad societies of aboriginal America. And, like all good myths, it reinforces our basic perception of reality. It confirms that history is a linear process whose meaning comes from change: as we move further and further from our own beginnings we also move upwards, progressively conquering both an alien world and our own ignorance and irrationality. In the process, we leave behind other, less `developed’ peoples: `barbarous tribes’ – in the words of the English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper – ‘whose chief function in history … is to show the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped.’
This idea gives us a sort of ruler by which we can measure the relative level of `advancement’ of other societies. Our culture – the culture of scientific enlightenment, rooted in Christian civilization – stands at the top of the ladder, the undisputed summit (so far) of evolution: beneath us stretch the inferior levels through which our ancestors passed in their relentless struggle to improve. These stages are objectively definable – hunter-gatherer, farmer, band, tribe, chiefdom, state – and all human populations belong to them at some moment in their history. As `the founder of modern anthropology,’ Edward Tylor, put it in 1871:
[My] standard of reckoning progress and decline is not that of ideal good and evil, but of movement along a measured line from grade to grade of actual savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The thesis which I venture to sustain, within limits, is simply this, that the savage state in some measure represents an early condition of mankind, out of which the higher culture has gradually been developed or evolved, by processes still in regular operation as of old, the result showing that, on the whole, progress has far prevailed over relapse.
This intellectual framework, in one form or another, still informs most scholarly writing about American Indians. In some books, like Peter Farb’s Man’s Rise to Civilization, it provides an explicit structure for analysing and comparing different cultures. In others, it simply underlies the entire argument in an unconsidered, perhaps unconscious way, so that Harold Driver, for instance, in his standard textbook Indians of North America, can write: `A comparison of rates of cultural evolution in the New World with those in the Old World shows that American Indian cultures developed faster from their first appearance until about 7000 BC … By the time the Indians began to farm … they were only about two thousand years behind the earliest farming in the Old World … From this time on, however, the Indians fell behind …’
If you accept this idea of a kind of pre-ordained pattern of development measured by an evolutionary clock, then peoples like the American Indians are, in a sense, living in our past. Our response to them is profoundly ambivalent: we pity (and perhaps despise) them for their backwardness, while at the same time seeing them wistfully, even longingly, as vestiges of our own lost innocence. We study them for clues to our own history; we debate whether their primitiveness is the result of circumstances or innate inferiority; we try to help them fulfil their destiny by making them more like us; we pilfer their cultures for fragments of the ancestral wisdom that we feel we forfeited through Original Sin or the rise of capitalism or the development of Patriarchy. What we cannot do is accept that they live with us in a contemporary reality.
It would be quite wrong to hold modern science solely responsible for this view: the belief that Europeans and Native Americans are at different stages of development has underpinned European attitudes since the time of Columbus. Through the centuries, it has validated the certainty that some force greater than ourselves (God, History, Evolution) destines Europeans and Euro-Americans – for better or worse – to subdue the wilderness and supplant the `Indian’. And of course it validates our conviction that our view of the world, our perception of time, history and the origins of people, is destined to supplant theirs. From our Olympian perspective at the pinnacle of creation, there can be no permanent co-existence, no equality, between the `objective’ reality we see and the legends of more `primitive’ people.
If we are to begin to understand the experience of Native Americans, we have to challenge the tyranny which this view has established in our minds.
Copyright ” 1998 by James Wilson. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.