Reflections on Spirit

Hobbes, Montaigne, and Valor in War. (12/15/98)

Both Montaigne, in one way, and Hobbes, in another, express a qualified admiration for the fact that native Americans did not pursue warfare against their neighbors for the sake of gaining more land and more possessions. Montaigne says that the victors in such conflicts achieved only the virtue of glory because they did not conquer the other's land and did not "meddle" with the loser's material property. Seeing that constraint as a virtue of moderation which somehow testifies to the nobility of native culture is precisely the wrong way to perceive the issue. What Montaigne, and Hobbes to a lesser extent, fail to comprehend in this context is the role played by spirit in preventing native Americans from engaging in warfare for the purpose of expanding their tribal lands, attributing this failure to the fact that what each tribe already held was sufficient to its needs, and did not confiscate property because they were virtuous in their conduct of battle.

Hobbes falls into a proper explanation for native American practice when he evokes the actions of invisible spirits to tell us why some covenants were kept in the condition of "mere nature" before the creation of the commonwealth. He says that

"The fear of [invisible spirits] is in every man his own religion, which hath place in the nature of man before civil society. The latter hath not so; at least not place enough to keep men to their promises, because in the condition of mere nature, the inequality of power is not discerned, but by the event of battle. So that before the time of civil society, or in the interruption thereof by war, there is nothing can strengthen a covenant of peace agreed on against the temptations of avarice, ambition, lust, or other strong desire, but the fear of that invisible power which they every one worship as God, and fear as a revenger of their perfidy."

Native Americans, unlike Europeans, did not equate invisible spirits or powers with God. In the Americas spirit was spirit, power was power, and no pre-Columbian tribe in the Western hemisphere developed a conception of God that can be compared to European practice or belief. It is also true that native Americans did not embrace the idea that one could engage in the ownership of land. A tribe did not own the land it inhabited and it was not possible for any single tribe to take land from another tribe, since neither one nor the other believed the land could be possessed in any material way. The idea of fighting a war to expand territory was simply impossible, was an idea both absurd and unthinkable. It would simply never occur to a native tribe to go to war against a neighbor in order to seize control of the neighbor's land.

Such an act would be unthinkable for another reason. Every tribe believed that the land of a tribal territory was inhabited by ancestral spirits. After occupying an area for 10,000 years or so, a considerable number of ancestral spirits came to dwell in the land of the tribe that inhabited it. Living in a tribal territory necessarily involves an ongoing, everyday interaction with the spirits that occupy the land. Ancestral spirits are powerful forces that maintain a fierce loyalty to the people from whom they have sprung. The idea that a "foreigner," a person from another alien tribe, could invade territory occupied by his enemy's ancestral spirits, or that he/she would even consider doing something so rash and dangerous, is truly beyond the realm of the rational.

While it may be impossible for a Christian person at the beginning of the twenty-first century to comprehend a prohibition against violating the territory of someone else's ancestral spirits, it is nevertheless true that native Americans are acutely sensitive to the ill-effects generated by such violations. Most Europeans harbor little or no fear of ancestral spirits, since most people living in the Western hemisphere today of European descent do not believe they have ever experienced the ill-effects of occupying land that does not belong, in any meaningful sense, to their own cultural heritage. The obvious facts seem to suggest that spiritual power, if it exists at all, is completely impotent in the face of the more powerful all-inclusive God of the Christian faith, where one is inclined to take a theological approach to the issue and rely on exorcism and prayer to protect against any possible threat, or, more reasonably, impotent in the face of a philosophical and scientific ideology that denies the existence of such force by reducing it to the level of superstitious nonsense. In one way or the other, and probably sequentially over time with the early period being devoted to the protections of faith while more recently that task has fallen to the denials of scientific perceptions, Europeans have managed to convince themselves that their presence in the New World has gone unnoticed and therefore will continue to pass without significant challenge.

Hobbes says that God's purpose, at least in terms of how people perceive it, is to strike fear into the hearts of those who deserve retribution for their treachery, that people fear God as "a revenger of their perfidy." From a European point of view, of course, we are told by a vast collection of cultural artifacts that there is nothing to fear from native American ancestral spirits because they either do not exist at all, or, if they do, they are nothing more than the spawn of the devil and cannot do any harm to one clothed in the protection of the true faith. Certainly, no evidence exists that European acts of genocide against native Americans are odious to God, since, as far as anyone knows, people like Bishop Landa, who burned thousands of Maya books and the shaman who possessed them, and Solomon Stoddard, who advocated the use of war-dogs to hunt and destroy native American women and children in early New England, or Cotton Mather, who celebrated the destruction of 600 Pequot natives when their village was burned by calling it a barbecue, were never punished for their treachery; but were rather perceived then, and still are now, as heroic champions of the faith. (See David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, Oxford UP, 1992: Landa, p.82; Stoddard, p.241; Mather, p.115)

From the other side of the coin, of course, a different view prevails. Native Americans, just like their European counterparts, albeit not where God is concerned, know that ancestral spirits both exist and inhabit the land as densely now as they did five hundred years ago. We also know that the reason God has not taken a just revenge against those who have acted by treachery against us has nothing to do with the fact that He condones such behavior against heathens and non-believers, as most early European settlers believed. God has not avenged the wrongs committed against us because He does not exist. One might assume, incorrectly, from this fact that native Americans have given up on the idea of justice, or, more to the point, have come to the conclusion that ancestral spirits either do not exist at all or do not have the power to take the kind of revenge against the world's miscreants that justice demands. Both assumptions are wrong.

In the first place, it is virtually impossible for a native American to doubt the existence of ancestral spirits. Being part Christian myself, so to speak, in as much as I have spent some of my years living as one in the faith, it troubles me to inform you that I have never seen God nor has He ever taken the trouble to speak to me about anything whatsoever. Of course, you can write that admission off as proof that I am not worthy of such attention, a fact made obvious by what I have had to say on the subject of God so far, or, perhaps less contentiously, that I am not able for some unspecified reason or another to recognize the visage of God when I see it and cannot hear the voice when it speaks to me. My sin, original or contemporary, and however one might be inclined to categorize it or them, simply prevents me from reaching that state of grace or belief where God's presence becomes a living reality in my consciousness. What I am saying here, simply put, is that I have never had any reason to suspect the existence of any supernatural being or force whatsoever. I have never seen anything, or heard second hand about anything, that demands the existence of the supernatural to account for its presence in the world.

At the same time, however, I have not only seen an ancestral spirit, the old man referred to in the Introduction, but he has been speaking to me as a spirit-guide for the better part of the past 35 years. What would you have me do? Believe in the existence of a Supreme Being who does not appear and has never broken His profound and absolute silence? Or should I accept the possibility of a spirit-guide who I have seen and who has not stopped talking to me even during those periods of time when I both prefer that he doesn't and do everything in my power to not-hear him when he persists? This is a question long settled in my mind and receives attention here only to point out the fact that it was resolved after considerable struggle.

To get back to more pertinent issues: what prevents ancestral spirits from exacting a just revenge against the whiteman's invasion and appropriation of lands that clearly do not, and never can, belong to him?

The answer is both too simplistic and too complex to be spoken directly. The war that Montaigne mentions in his essay about the cannibals of the New World is the reason the whiteman was able, in the first place, to invade the Western hemisphere and also explains why he has been able to stay for as long as he has. When Europeans settled the coastal areas of north American, they displaced the natives who lived there and forced them to move west. Doing so, having no other choice as it were, caused an irreversible violation in the prohibition against one tribe overrunning the ancestral territory of their nearest neighbors. This fact produced two consequences. On the one hand, the native Americans living at the time were forced by laws and customs observed without interruption for 10,000 years to protect their ancestral lands from invasion by other tribes who had no right and no justification for being where they were. The turmoil generated by this horrific state of affairs literally destroyed every tenet and aspect of trust between and among the tribes initially affected, so much so, in fact, that they were rendered unable to respond to the threat posed by the invasion. Tribe against tribe, instead of all people against the foreign barbarians, was the knife that severed the cord between native Americans and their own most deeply held spiritual beliefs.

At another, deeper level, the ancestral spirits themselves were overwhelmed by the chaos unleashed when the eastern tribes were forcefully expelled from their traditional place in the cosmos. This is neither a small nor an insignificant matter. After 10,000 years of peace and stability an endless flood of blindly brutal monsters were unleashed on a people incapable of comprehending how another member of the same race of being could burn an entire nation to death in order to avoid negotiating with a woman for the purchase of land that was not owned by anyone, in the first place, and could not be bought or sold under any circumstances, in the second. According to the old man, as it were, several hundred years went by before any of the spirits could convince themselves that the white barbarians actually existed in the real and natural world of their collective experience. The spirits did nothing because they had no idea what to do. The question in the beginning was how do you fight against such monstrously brutal demons. What act of mere spirit can overcome a race of devils willing to burn defenseless women and children to avoid "paying" for something they can never own in the first place?

The good news, if you're European, is that the spirits have not finished the debate over what action to take to exact a just revenge for the atrocities committed against the tribes by the Christian invaders during the last five hundred years. The bad news is that time itself is irrelevant when you were already out of it for 9,500 years before the genocide began. If it takes the spirits another hundred or two hundred years to reach a decision, added on to the five hundred that have already passed, then we, who have not reached spiritual continuance yet, will simply live out our lives in the sure and absolute knowledge that what is right and just will, like the wind, pass this way in its time. Put more directly, no one forgets and spirit never sleeps.

What lies, just beyond vision, in the back of my mind is the kernel of an idea that cannot quite come to conscious articulation. It seems to resemble a mechanism, perhaps a generally unrecognized psychic machine, well-equipped with claw and fang, like a lion or tiger hidden in the tall grass, waiting for the unsuspecting, self-proclaimed, Innocent to pass by on the path to material and spiritual well-being, a person even without a care in the world, who is struck down suddenly and without warning by an act of terror, even one focused against someone else, even against total strangers, an act so horrible in its execution that it sets the claws and fangs of the psychic machine in motion. That mechanism tears at the fabric of presumed Innocence with such an unrelenting ferocity that bits and pieces of the shield that protect against, and prevent, self-recognition of complicity in past crimes against humanity, the very ones that produced the sense of material and spiritual well-being in the first place, begin to crumble and slip away into the horrific realization that the act of terror was not directed at someone else, someone who deserved it, but was instead, and rightly so, directed at you, and your presumed sense of innocence, because, in fact, you can lay claim to no Innocence at all. The claws and fangs of that deeply buried ancestral guilt cannot really harm anyone. What it can do is create a nagging sense of disquiet and disease that never completely goes away. It disturbs a person's dreams. It haunts. It comes back again and again to tell you who you are.