The Great Spirit. (09/28/2001)

At some point in the distant past, and well after European efforts to eradicate native Americans in the Western hemisphere had begun, the idea that tribal people worshipped something generally referred to as the Great Spirit entered the field of discourse in the few and widely scattered efforts anyone of European descent made to understand, then communicate, what native people believed about the nature of the world. I have consciously avoided discussion of this concept for almost three years for the simple reason that the idea is so wrapped around with misconception, if not deliberate efforts to make it seem either more or less important to tribal people than it actually is, that getting it straight, even accurately expressed, appears to be a task virtually impossible to accomplish. People of European descent who harbor no particular ill-will toward native people tend to over-emphasize the idea of the Great Spirit because it makes us seem more like Christians. Some even suggest that it is but a small step from belief in a Great Spirit to belief in the One, true God of Judeo-Christian tradition. At the same time, people who still harbor the hope of our eventual annihilation point to the concept as one that proves we still persist in worshipping Satan, an entity they see as a "Great" spirit with command over a pack of evil demons who threaten the existence of a Christianized civilization itself. Neither position can be said to preserve any truth whatsoever with regard to native American culture.

To understand why I am reluctant to discuss the subject it is necessary to recognize the fact that an entire continent of people once existed in the Western hemisphere who never found it rational to assume that a single all-powerful, and therefore controlling, supernatural entity was responsible for the existence of everything in the visible and invisible world in which they lived. Europeans, on the other hand, not only accept the terms of this ideology as truth preserving, but also believe that everyone else in the world adheres to, or are subjects of, its conditions as well, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, and also believe that anyone who does not accept the existence of the One, true God does so out of disobedience to that God's commandment, which they take to be an expression of desire to destroy those who do believe it. The dynamics spawned by this ideology are always, and without exception, extremely harsh and cruel. Take a recent example: Osama bin Laden is an adherent to a radical, fundamentalist sect of Islam that believes all Christians and Jews are both evil and determined to destroy the Muslim way of life. He sees their opposition to Islam as a threat that must be attacked with massive and indiscriminate force. He sends suicidal terrorist bombers into America who seize commercial airliners and fly them into the World Trade Center causing the death of 6,400 people. He then says that this event was an expression of the will of Allah. America responds by demonizing Islam because it harbors, shields, and protects a radical, fundamentalist sect that means to destroy the Christian way of life that America represents. The US will retaliate, eventually, by means of a massive military strike that will kill thousands of people in Afghanistan, a country that harbors and promotes Islamic terrorism against Christians and Jews. This event will in turn be characterized as an expression of the will of God.

500 years ago, when Europeans invaded the Western hemisphere, these same essential concepts and beliefs were firmly entrenched. As soon as it became apparent that the indigenous people of the region did not embrace concepts like the ones held by the invaders, a process of demonization began which depicted native people as cruel and heartless monsters, as evil cannibalistic animals, wolves and such, who not only did not deserve to keep what they had, but also did not deserve to live in the world of the whiteman at all. Programs of enslavement and eradication, aided by the spread of European diseases against which natives had no natural immunity, began as a remedy to the evil represented by the native culture. After only a few generations, native populations over the entire continent suffered losses so massive that the numbers defy comprehension. The wholesale destruction of native people was justified by religious leaders at the time with reference to the "fact" that tribal beliefs were essentially Satanic and that native people believed that demons and spirits ruled the world. This view still persists today, of course, which probably accounts for the fact that native Americans are still incarcerated in concentration camps in the worst and most intemperate regions of North America and have continued to be objects of genocidal warfare in Central and South America.

A principle consequence of having your belief system demonized by a religious bigotry that perceives itself as the only one capable of behaving morally is that you are necessarily and inescapably, even forcefully, coerced into assuming a position on the opposite end of the binary distinction between absolute Good and absolute Evil. One of the things Christianity has always assumed, and declared, as being immutably true is that only Christians are capable of behaving morally and that all other people, no matter what they believe, no matter how they behave, are prevented by their lack of Christian conversion from behaving decently. This perception of the other as Evil arises from the notion of original sin, which afflicts every human being, believer and non-believer alike, with an infection, a disease, of depravity that can only be cured or erased by conversion to Christianity and its dispensation of grace, through the blood-sacrifice of Jesus Christ, whose death brought salvation to a sinfully depraved and disobedient humanity. Hence, if I refuse conversion to the only true faith, if I persist in my belief in spirit as a native American, I am Evil, I am, by definition, incapable of behaving morally.

This result occurs because God created human beings with an immortal soul, according to the ideology, that is affected in various ways, mostly badly, by any and everything that happens to people as they make their way through the universe. The soul is the seat of reason, is a faculty, apart from the brain and all other organs of sensory perception, that perceives and orders everything in the world according to a hierarchical structure ranging from the greatest Good to the basest Evil. The soul then informs the person how each thing is ordered according to its kind and is supposed to guide each and every choice among alternative courses of action. In a converted Christian, only the greatest Good is ever chosen except in cases where some failure to resist temptation occurs and the person chooses ill rather than well. When that happens there are virtually no consequences because God always forgives every mistake committed by His flawed creatures. If the soul of every European Christian tells them that native Americans are Evil and that they should be annihilated, then only the greatest Good is achieved in the resulting genocide.

Native Americans, of course, do not accept the idea of the soul as it is expressed by Christian doctrine. We see the world instead, each individual human being included, as being animated, not by soul, but by spirit. Spirit has nothing to do with reason. We depend on our brains for that function. Spirit has nothing to do with morality. We use our memory for that function. We remember what decent behavior is and do our best to repeat it. We remember what honor is and attempt to perform it with our whole lives. We have been taught these things by our grandfathers, our grandmothers, for 10,000 years. We are not flawed creatures who kill indiscriminately anyone who does not believe as we do. We are not the children of any God who must coerce and punish us because, like children, we cannot tell decent from indecent behavior on our own. We are taught and reminded of that difference every day of our lives by the spirits of our grandmothers and grandfathers.

Spirit is power, not supernatural power, but the power that informs every relationship that exists between one thing and another in every corner of the whole universe. Native Americans do recognize a difference and a distinction between the spirit-world and the one where ordinary and everyday events and people occur and live. The spirit-world, however, is not other-worldly in the way that heaven and hell are thought to be in Christian ideology. Rather, the spirit-world is contained in this world, in the world of everyday events, but is dislocated from the present moment, any present moment, by virtue of being in the past. This fact is not fully articulated in native belief systems and has always been both difficult to explain and difficult to understand. In terms of ancestral spirits, the idea is fairly obvious in what it means; that is, the spirit of any individual person resides in the absolute time-frame of that person's life and does not reach beyond that frame into the future. Time itself occurs in coherent and definitive segments or blocks of duration that are cyclical, recurrent, and repetitious. Hence, the past itself still exists and the people who occupy it are still present in that block of time that encompasses their lives. From the beginning of our culture, and indeed in most tribal cultures the world over, techniques were developed and employed to communicate openly with people in their past lives from any given present moment in their future. When I speak to an ancestral spirit, or when he/she speaks to me, we are simply transcending a bridge across time from this present moment where I live to another "present" moment in the past where he/she lives. The fact that there is only one time and one space in universal reality, coupled with the fact that both of us occupy it simultaneously, even if we are dislocated from each other by our respective cycles in time, constitutes the ground that makes it possible for us to converse with each other. There is no magic here, no mystery, nothing supernatural connected to any of it. Native Americans simply take advantage of the natural world, live fully in it, and do what is possible.

The difference that has arisen between European and native American perceptions of reality is that Judaism and Christianity, for whatever reason, decided that the disembodied voices its adherents and advocates heard in their daily lives belonged, not to the ancestors in the past-time of the spirit-world, but to supernatural deities, gods and devils alike, who dwelled in some fantastic other-worldly realm, heaven or hell, that could be reached by flawed creatures if they behaved well or badly during their lives, turning what is only natural, dying at the end of your cycle of real time, into a supernatural event that elevates you beyond what is humanly possible or depresses you beneath what any ordinary person can expect to achieve. God is nothing more than your grandfather, so to speak, who you ignored during his life and who now terrifies you from your forgotten past.

The first indication that the concept of the Great Spirit belongs more to Eurocentric discourse about native Americans than it does to anything native Americans actually believe emerges from the first term of the title; that is, "great," which is wholly inappropriate in any tribal context because it implies the existence of a spirit who is less than great. In harmonic structures, out of which native American belief systems have always arisen, there are no binary distinctions and no hierarchical concepts. On that ground alone the idea of one spirit that is more, better, greater, than another, or any other, is literally unthinkable because there are no categories than can accommodate such differentiation. The idea did nevertheless emerge on the lips of some native American at some point in the past since it has wormed its way, like a computer virus riding on the back of a pirated e-mail, into the discourse about native beliefs. Its likely origin is in the time when Christian missionaries, with the full backing and coercive power of European government, forced native people to convert to Christianity. Since the idea of the "Great Spirit" has always been linked to the notion of the One, true God of Judeo-Christian theology, it seems likely that it has its beginnings there.

A less tainted view of the concept can also be expressed. If one were to take all spirit-power as a whole, which is possible because in a harmonic construct every part would fit rationally and perfectly into that composite, it might be appropriate to refer to that unification of power as a "Great Spirit." The other problem, of course, would still remain, in that a natural inclination would be to say that the existence of the great implies the presence of the small, which would be a distortion of native belief, since all spirit-power is perceived as being on an equal footing. For those who depend on binary opposition and hierarchical structure as a sure means and mode of thought, native philosophy has nothing to offer.

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