The Myth of Eden:

Notes Toward A Native American Cultural Philosophy


In the notes which follow this general introduction an effort has been made to compare and contrast, usually by simple juxtaposition, what I take to be standard forms of Eurocentric ideological material, theological and philosophical for the most part, with a point of view predominantly native American in its orientation. Since one or the other of these two points of view must necessarily assume a dominant position in the discourse (one view is always privileged over a competing ideology if and when they are significantly different from each other), a necessary choice must be made by the person articulating the difference as to which point of view assumes the role of dominant and which subordinate. With a title like the one I have chosen, it should be obvious to anyone reading this that the dominant position in this discourse will always be given to the native American perception of reality as opposed to the one articulated by the "great thinkers" of what is now considered to be the generally accepted version of the Western European ideological tradition. There are, of course, numerous arguments circulating in the Academy over which texts by which authors ought to be included in a canon which is used to formulate a view of Western thought, and while those arguments may ultimately change the nature of Western ideology, neither the argument itself nor the potential outcome of its progress will be addressed directly in anything which appears in these pages. Every effort has been made to adhere in a general way to accepted texts, authors, and ideological concepts in the critique which follows.

The major issue I want to address here, among any number of ones that I do not intend to mention but have carefully considered, concerns the claim I have made that the predominant orientation in this critique will be taken from the point of view of native American perceptions of reality. In one sense at least that assertion is but half-truth, since for it to be wholly valid I would be inclined to avoid as much as possible mentioning specific aspects of Eurocentric ideology altogether and simply articulate native American belief systems in their own right without reference to any ground which cannot be said to have given rise to them in the first place. In other words, native American philosophy, native American perceptions of reality, arose historically in the Western hemisphere wholly in isolation from any influence from, or contact with, Eurocentric paradigms, established itself as a viable way of life, served its people and their culture perfectly well and substantially for a considerably long period of time before any contact between the two halves of this dialectic occurred. The fact that contact between the two ideologies can be characterized as a dialectic (European versus native American) and not as a situation in which two different points of view have been allowed to exist in relative peace and harmony with one another is a fact so well established by the past 500 years of Western hemispheric history that the existence of conflict between them ought to go without saying.

I do not let that history of conflict pass in silence, however, because the major point of this discourse is to identify as clearly as possible the fundamental ground of the difference between Eurocentric and native American perceptions of reality, on the one hand, and to suggest reasons why the one (European), which is essentially foreign, has come to dominate the other (native American), which is timelessly domestic, on the other. The history of this conflict, of course, cannot be viewed dispassionately from a native American point of view, as much as Europeans might prefer that it be kept in a strictly "disinterested" perspective, because the sad truth to tell is that millions of native Americans have died as a direct result of the spread of Eurocentric ideology throughout the vast land mass of the Americas since the invasion of the Western hemisphere began at the turn of the sixteenth century. After just twenty years of occupation in Hispaniola by Spanish forces, for instance, it became necessary for them to import slaves from other regions to maintain the exploitative commercial interests established there (gold mining primarily) because of the radical decline in the native population of the island. The details of this history are both known (in ideologically tainted versions) and not known at all by most contemporary Americans who claim European and Christian ideology as the best, most accurate, way of describing their cultural heritage. Retracing the path of that historical reality is inevitable in the context of this discussion because the argument that will be made here is that the destruction of native American culture in the new world is the direct and inescapable result of the ideology that drove most Europeans to these shores in the first place and that their conduct since arriving here has long been justified, if not demanded from them, by the very belief systems that characterize the fundamental ground of difference between European and native American perceptions of social, political, and religious reality.

Making this point in the most forceful and passionate terms possible will very likely unsettle, if not alienate, most people who claim European descent in the Americas because their fundamental ideological ground has always told them that their ancestors had every right to come to America in the first place. This legalistic fallacy has long stood as a kind of wall between the notion that Europeans somehow belong in America, by right of "ownership," as it were, and the plain fact that their being here, against the will of the indigenous population of the Americas, has no ground whatsoever for its legitimacy. Many white people in America celebrate the "fact" that a native American chief supposedly sold the island of Manhattan to a whiteman for a handful of beads. This story epitomizes the fact that native Americans did not deserve what they had, the Western hemisphere, on the one hand, because they were too savage and barbaric (stupid) to recognize the value it had in the eye of desire that Europeans cast on it, and again, on the other, because they were unable to perceive the potential utility it held for economic development and exploitation in both the present moment of the exchange and in the future course of events that were to follow. This story, and others like it, also generates the notion that native Americans both invited and welcomed Europeans ashore when the first ships carrying them appeared on the horizon.

These perceptions, of course, are completely false. The first problem with this "European" view of historical events, in its widest context, concerns the fact that the concept of "ownership," especially of land, was completely foreign to the individual chief who "sold" Manhattan and was incomprehensible to every other native American who drew a breath of air in the first several centuries of contact with Europeans. No native American in the Western hemisphere ever owned the land he/she occupied in any sense that would make an exchange of beads, or anything else for that matter, legally binding in any court of common law then or now. Since the man who "sold" Manhattan did not own it in any real or practical sense, and had no real conception of the idea of ownership, the sale was illegitimate regardless of whether the medium of exchange (a handful of beads for an island) was fair or not because the sale itself was not meaningful to the seller. If you agreed to purchase an automobile from me, an automobile I did not own, the fact that you paid me a fair and reasonable price for it (something other than a handful of worthless beads) would not in itself transfer ownership of the automobile into your possession. If you then seized the automobile by force of arms, you would be subject to arrest for carjacking when the actual owner of the vehicle pressed charges against you for stealing it.

This never happened in native America, of course, because no one owned the land that Europeans purchased. It might also be worth noting here that when the Europeans took possession of Manhattan the people of the tribe who originally occupied it were driven out by force of arms when they refused to leave their homes willingly. This kind of behavior on the part of Europeans, which became the standard form of the exchange relationship in the new world, is fully justified by Western ideological paradigms from both theological and philosophical texts that were inscribed in the 1500 years prior to the European invasion of the Western hemisphere. Demonstrating that fact is the purpose behind the notes which follow this introduction. It is also important to take note of the fact here that the people of Manhattan cannot be said to have invited and welcomed Europeans into their tribal lands because after the illegitimate purchase of that land they had to be driven from it by force of arms. Furthermore, any of the early documents (sixteenth century) which record the nature of the relationship between European colonizers and the indigenous population make it perfectly clear that native Americans did not invite or welcome any of the invaders once the natives began to comprehend precisely how that relationship was bound to unfold.

The point to be taken from this brief account of historical reality, and one must bear in mind that it has been expressed from a native American, and not from a European, point of view, is that the first European visitors to the new world, from Columbus on down to George Washington, had absolutely no right whatsoever to come here, to be here, or to stay here after the first indigenous person asked or told any one of them to be gone. The facts speak plainly enough in this matter; that is, Europeans remain here, not because they were invited and welcomed, but because their superior force of arms, and the deaths of countless native Americans, made it possible for them to stay. The fact that they have persisted for 500 years to occupy the Americas illegally does not change or alter in any way the fact that they have never been welcomed to stay and never will be the rightful inhabitants of the land they have systematically stolen from the indigenous population.

To put this in a slightly more concrete form, let us assume that tomorrow morning I decide to go out on a voyage of discovery and begin by walking around my neighborhood looking for a better place to live because the house I now occupy has come to seem an unsuitable dwelling place for my family. I find a better house several blocks away and decide to purchase it from the person who lives there for a handful for worthless beads. He is not particularly impressed with my offer, does not really want to give up his house, but because he is a white person and morally inferior to my own race, I force him out on the street and take possession of his house. When he comes back later to reclaim his property, which he believes was wrongly taken from him, I kill him where he stands and roll his lifeless body into the street. To say at some future point that this house has become my property, simply because I have managed to avoid being called to judgment for some unspecified amount of time for the crimes I have committed in seizing the property, simply defies all reason and all legal rationality. The house will never be mine and, as everyone knows, not a single hour would pass before the police were at the door to arrest me for murdering the rightful owner of the house. That, of course, is not how it happened in the Americas because the legal force of law was in the hands of the invaders and not in the power of the inferior race of people who were forced out on the street and systematically murdered when they objected to the theft of their lives and property.

The ideological position which emerges from this native American perspective is both biased and opinionated against the dominant point of view that now exists in the Americas. To assume I have nothing positive to say about Eurocentric discourse would be a perfectly legitimate characterization of the analysis which follows this introduction. At the same time, however, I feel compelled to insist that for the most part, and there will be a few necessary exceptions, my negative assessment of Christian and Eurocentric ideology is not directed at people, at individuals, but rather at the ideas that people and individuals hold and express about the nature of interpersonal relationships between and among members of a dominant class and everyone else who is perceived as being below, beneath, or on the outside of that dominant class. In Eurocentric discourse, social, political, and religious stratification is as necessary to its articulation as oxygen is to the continuation of life on this planet. Hunting down the reasons why that is as true now as it was 2000 years ago will be a major preoccupation of this journey through the "great thinkers" of Eurocentric ideological traditions. One objective is to demonstrate that the core content of that ideological false consciousness has not changed at all from the beginning to the present moment of its articulation and that the prospects for it being radically altered in the future are likely to prove non-existent.

The reason I approach the outcome of my own task with such negative expectations arises from the fact that I count among my ancestors a maternal grandfather who was forced by societal oppression to abandon his half-white/native-American family at the turn of this century prior to the birth of his sixth child who was my mother. To say that her family, and my grandmother especially, suffered because of his absence, at a time when hardly any family of one adult and six children, except by the intervention of untimely death itself, was left to fend for itself when its head enjoyed only the equivalent of a third grade education, is to express what is only obvious. My grandmother was Christian through and through and raised her family in the same faith. She was the kindest, most gentle person I have ever known. Many, perhaps even most, Christians are like she was. My mother raised me the same way in a situation where my father was essentially indifferent to religious affiliation. The most profound effect these various circumstances produced in my life, however, grew from the fact that I did not know my maternal grandfather and was not aware of his native American ancestry, and consequently my own, until I was nearly thirty years old. The subject was never discussed in my mother's family and, in fact, my grandfather was never mentioned by any of her brothers and sisters, nor by my grandmother, at any time in my living memory even to this day.

Only two events ever occurred which made me aware of my grandfather's heritage. My mother's oldest sister, who was perceived by everyone as being a bit strange, primarily because she changed her religious affiliation on a more or less yearly basis and always moved away from traditional denominations toward more and more extremist branches of Christian ideology, ending finally in the midst of a Pentecostal group that "spoke in tongues" and may also have handled snakes, for all I know, announced one day at a family gathering that she was an "Indian princess." She had been doing genealogical research and had chosen that moment to inform the others of her discoveries. The reaction her assertion produced was nearly as bizarre as anything I had ever witnessed in my thirteen years of life on the planet. My grandmother began to weep and left the room without a word, disappearing into the back part of the house. My mother's brother and his wife, one of her other sisters and her husband, my mother and father greeted this revelation from their oldest sibling and sister-in-law with the coldest, most absolute silence of condemnation, outrage, and fury that I have ever seen in my life. After several minutes, my aunt turned and left the room in the face of their reaction to her news, packed her belongings and demanded to be driven to the train station because she was going back to Indiana that very day. She and my grandmother had driven down to west Texas with the brother and his wife and she was going to return with them. My grandmother was going to spend the winter with us and with my mother's other sister as she usually did to avoid the harsh weather in the northern Midwest. No one even attempted to dissuade my aunt and my father took her to the station. I had no clue what had happened and no one made any attempt to explain it.

Several years later, in response to a question I had asked my mother about her childhood, what it had been like in general growing up in southern Illinois, she told me that she had "another" family of half-brothers or half-sisters (she did not know how many or what sex they actually were) who lived somewhere in Nebraska or South Dakota. She wasn't sure exactly where they lived. She also said that she had never met any of them and did not expect to do so any time in the future. She said nothing else about the subject and never mentioned it again. At the time, I made no conscious connection between that odd bit of information and the fact that my aunt had claimed to be an "Indian princess" several years earlier.

Any of this personal history matters, not because my mother and her family suffered, if only indirectly, at the hands of European intolerance toward native Americans and/or anyone who dares establish a personal relationship with one of them, but because my ignorance of a personal ancestry was something that began to haunt me well before either of the two events described above gave me a positive knowledge of myself that ultimately made it possible for me to comprehend a second series of bizarre events in my life that began about this same time. At about the age of ten or eleven, perhaps, I read a book about archeology and decided that I would pursue that as a profession when I grew up. Just after my fifteenth birthday I began to prowl the west bank of the Rio Grande in west Texas looking for artifacts left behind by the native American tribes that lived along the river during pre-Columbian times. One day while doing so an old man came walking up the bank of desert sand that dropped down into the river valley. He was an odd-looking person of a kind I had never seen in the area where I lived in general and in the area of the desert where I usually searched for arrowheads and pottery. He walked directly up to me and stopped about five feet from where I was standing. He said: "You will build the bridge."

I was startled speechless for several reasons. I had never seen, much less spoken to, anyone in the desert where I spent my time before that day. He did not look like he belonged there. He had come from nowhere out of the cotton fields that flanked the river and ended at the bank of rising sand on which we were standing. I had not seen him walking across the fields and certainly would have done so because there was nothing between the bottom of the dunes and the river itself, except flat empty fields, for the mile or so that separated us from the water's edge. I only caught sight of him when he reached the top of the dunes. I finally managed to articulate the only words that came to mind at the time: "What bridge?" He replied, "The one we are standing on." He pointed to the ground between us as he said it, turned to his left, facing west, as it were, and walked away and out of sight between two hills that had built up around the roots of the thorn trees that dotted the area. As he vanished into the thin western air, I noticed that there were no footprints in the sand where he had stood and along the path where he had walked. Every time I returned to the same area after that I saw things that were not there out of the corners of my eyes. I heard voices carried on the wind. Though I never saw the old man again, his voice ultimately emerged from the general chaos of the others I could hear and, except for a few disjointed periods of time in which he has fallen silent, I have listened more or less attentively to his voice ever since.

The initial terror I experienced from the encounter eventually drove me out of the pastime of searching for artifacts of lost civilizations along the river. That terror stemmed from a belief that I had somehow inadvertently fallen into the company of a spook or a ghost or a demon of some sort who could not represent anything but the worst possible consequence to my immediate and future well-being. Needless to say, I stopped going out into the desert alone and only went back to the place where I had encountered the old man once again after the first several trips to the old village site convinced me I was either losing my mind completely or was walking myself out on a dangerous ground that reached out from the spirits who clearly occupied that place.

I spent the next fifteen years doing every thing in my limited power to suppress the presence of the old man's voice in my life. At one point, about four years after the initial encounter, I even convinced myself that the voice belonged to God and that He was issuing the "call" for me to join the ministry of faith to the body of believers in Christ's church. Fortunately, that delusion only lasted for a few years. In some way, however, the initial practice of having an explanation for what was happening in my head did manage to lessen the concerns I had about the strangeness of hearing a voice that had no known or visible source in reality. The problem I had during those years, of course, stemmed from the fact of my ignorance of a cultural heritage that included, as a relatively normal course of events, contact with spirit forces that take up the burden of guiding individuals through their lives. Acquiring a spirit-guide after all is something that virtually any native American can do and if I had done so in a tribal context I would have had all the support I needed from tribal and clan elders to learn how to deal with the demands and benefits of my situation. Without that support, however, my life was as fractured and disjointed as one could be. I went quickly enough from theology to philosophy to psychology and back all over again in an effort to find an explanation for the emergence of ideas and concepts in my thinking that had no ground in Eurocentric discourse that I could see and seemed to spring full-blown into my mind from nothing at all.

Eventually, I found a book (I don't remember now which one it might have been) that described in some detail the experience of a native American who acquired a spirit-guide through a vision quest and went on to become shaman for his tribe. In a flash of blinding recognition, as it were, a fifteen year journey of doubt and considerable fear became comprehensible. The only problem, of course, was that I still did not know my maternal grandfather was native American and it was a bit confusing for me to rationalize precisely why a spirit-guide had singled me out for instruction in a cultural activity that depended on tribal and clan affiliations that had nothing whatsoever to do with anything even remotely connected to my life. The old man, whose voice I now began to hear without the filters of denial and fear that had blocked it for so many years, was both helpful and not helpful at all in getting me across the divide that separated his experience from my own. It all came down to the "bridge" I was supposed to be building between his world and mine. I put it to him in terms that fell out of European dialectics, as it were, by suggesting that I was supposed to find a way to reduce, or more properly, harmonize the difference between Eurocentric and native American perceptions of reality. He did not object to that characterization of my perception of what he meant by the "bridge" but at the same time insisted that I learn and master the interior dimensions of the Mayan calendrical system and its associated astronomy.

I thought he was crazy. Not long after I began to apply myself to that task, and one I did not mind doing, in fact, because it appealed directly to my interest in archeology, I found that the Quiche Maya, in the Popol Vuh, say that time is the bridge between this world of flesh and bone and the world where the spirits dwell. The old man told me that the bridge had been destroyed when the Spaniards invaded central America and that the only way native culture could be salvaged from the ruin left behind by that destruction was for me to reconstruct the bridge between his world and mine. In essence, then, when the old man confronted me that day in the desert he was standing at one end of the bridge that spanned the gap between his time while I was standing at the other end in my own. We occupied the same space together and simultaneously which was why I could see him and why he could talk to me. He told me he had worked for many centuries to find a way across the gap and could only make that journey himself on rare occasions. Until the bridge was finished, then, we would be able to meet directly only at certain specific times and only in certain specific places. He would tell me where and when such "meetings" could occur. In spite of the bizarre nature of the old man's existence in my life, I have always gone where he sent me and I have always done what he asked me to do.

The bridge is finished. Part of the discourse which follows is meant to explain how that task was accomplished. For the rest, I suppose one could argue that, while some of it may seem overly harsh in its judgment against European ideology, it is meant to suggest a simple necessity; namely, that the spirit world is alive and well and in process of becoming reintegrated into the world of flesh and living bone like it was before Europeans came to the Western hemisphere. Anyone who cannot live with that prospect will most likely find it difficult to do so at all. If such thoughts tend to annoy you, find some other thing to read.

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