TRIAL BY ERROR. (12/9/98)
A most troublesome, and troubling, problem confronting anyone who wishes to comprehend the difference between native American and European perceptions of reality arises all across the field separating alternative conceptions and perceptions of spirit and deity. The ground between those two poles, and indeed the issues dividing one from the other are truly polemical, has been littered with an accumulation of mutilated corpses that began to return to the dust from which they sprang nearly five hundred years ago and virtually from the first day of encounter between the native people of Hispaniola and the Columbus who is credited with "discovering" them. What older histories generally fail to include in the recitation of that glorious event is the fact that Columbus also quickly enslaved the people he "discovered," worked most of them to death in his pursuit of precious metals, and was forced, after only a few years, to begin importing other native slaves to fill the gaps left by the multitudes who died at the hands of their Spanish masters. Some estimates place the number of native dead, after only a few months, at 50,000 (see David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, Oxford UP, 1992: 200-206). Those old bones, and some more recently added to the pile, are mostly ignored by archeologists, covered up by historians, and, as far as I can tell, have never entered the consciousness of a single European ethical philosopher. No one wants to dig too deeply into that intellectual ground, into that moral vacuity, where the only likely reward is a sign not quite fossilized yet, not quite turned yet to mute and voiceless stone, a bone, say, yellow and moldering that might break apart in the hand that uncovers it and begin to speak a word too harshly honed against the slavers who put it there in the first place.
What is most unfortunate about this circumstance is that most native Americans are so angered by this history that few of them have ever ventured to address the perpetrators of this crime directly. On the other side, the descendants of the slavers, of the Europeans responsible for the destruction of an entire hemispheric culture that may have had as many as 100,000,000 people in its ranks in 1492, where there are only a few million left alive today, are so guilt-ridden by their complicity, if only in retrospect, in that massive human catastrophe that few of them are even capable of admitting that anything like a crime ever occurred in the Western hemisphere at all. Those who do admit that a few natives might have died at European hands find an infinite number of ways to justify the necessity of needing to waste a few worthless lives for the sake of a greater good. European culture in the Americas, after all, is so much more highly advanced over what it would have become, if native Americans had been left to control its development without intervention, that this discourse itself would not only not be necessary now, but also would not be possible either.
Spirit has always been used to mark, like a continental divide, the difference between "primitive" tribal societies and the more cultured and civilized versions of human community that disclaim their essential right to exist in the first place. The need and right to disparage the phenomenology of the other is a practice deeply rooted in Eurocentric racism. The concept of spirit in native American culture has always been disdained by European scholars because they do not want to taint their own scholarship by drawing too close to the distastefully superstitious underbelly of tribal irrationality. There is much to be feared after all when one opens the door to the knock of Satanic forces and invites the devil willingly onto a field of play. Early sixteenth and seventeenth century religious bigots were aware of the danger native American spiritual beliefs and practices posed to the steadfastness of their isolated (from the rest of Europe and mother church) colonies and flocks of impressionable children. The fathers had no choice but to protect their defenseless believers from heathen gods, demons, and monsters.
A few examples might be appropriate. Bishop Landa in Mexico, for instance, burned hundreds of Maya books, and murdered the shamans who possessed them, in an effort to eradicate native spiritual beliefs because the existence of those beliefs interfered with the spread of Christian doctrine in central America. In Colorado, Black Kettle, a Cheyenne leader, brought his people to a peace conference in the mistaken belief that it would be possible for native and European people to coexist peacefully in the same land. A Methodist minister raised a mob of white religious bigots who butchered every man, woman and child in Black Kettle's band. John Mason in the Plymouth Colony (1636) directed a militia to surround a Pequot village in the dead of night, set fire to it, and burned virtually every one of them to death. Afterwards he quoted the Bible (Deuteronomy) in noting that God "was pleased to smite our enemies . . . and to give us their land for an inheritance," a statement which leaves little doubt about the actual purpose of the butchery (Stannard, 111-116). Cotton Mather, some years later, and with celebratory joy, referred to the burning of 800 natives as a "barbecue." Herman Melville wrote a novel about the "Pequot War" and called it Moby Dick but no European scholar has ever noticed that the name of Ahab's whaler is the same as the native American nation New England's Christians destroyed so they would not be forced to pay for what they only intended to steal in the first place.
Melville also drew inspiration for his story from the sinking of a Nantucket whaler in 1819 called the Essex. That ship went down in the Pacific after being rammed several times by an enraged sperm whale. The crew survived the sinking but were left stranded several thousand miles from the nearest land in three small whale-boats, the ones they used to attack their prey on the open waters of the ocean. The captain, Palmer, believed their best chance for survival lay in sailing east toward the islands of the south Pacific, Tahiti for instance, but was overruled by the first mate, Owens, who convinced the others that those islands were inhabited by cannibals and that they should sail instead toward the south, to avoid unfavorable trade winds blowing toward the east, until they could turn back to the west and return to South America. Fear of rumors of cannibalism to the east, then, condemned the 20 survivors into becoming cannibals themselves when their choice of direction to avoid the rumors of native cannibals took them away from any safe harbor in the tropical paradise to their east. Sailing south, then west, the foodless whalers, who could not feed themselves from an ocean of fish, fell to eating each other, one by one, during their three-month voyage back to civilization. On one occasion, according to a diary kept by one of the sailors, the cousin of Palmer was murdered, after the drawing of lots to determine fairly who the victim should be, and was eaten by the others to sustain themselves. This series of events is a symbol, an emblem, and a sign that encapsulates the primary distinction between people who believe in spirit, natives who are never cannibalistic, and the ones who believe in God, Europeans who turn to it as soon as the first opportunity to do so presents itself.
Spirit, in native American phenomenology, is a complex system of classification applied to the natural world as a means of differentiating between and among the nearly infinite forms of power that exist in, and animate, the living ecosystem of the earth. Spirit has nothing to do with gods, demons, or monsters; nothing whatsoever, in fact, to do with anything even remotely supernatural. To say that native Americans worship spirits the way Europeans worship God is so profoundly misguided, so profoundly in error of the truth, that I cannot even think of words adequate to the task of refuting the absurd character of that assertion. Europeans, in the arrogant belief that their culture defines universal human reality and practice, project their behavioral characteristics into the substance of all other cultures, even though they are always careful to point out the "primitive" incapacities of those cultures to live up the high ideals of their own practice and belief. The early Christian fathers of the New World committed two fundamental errors in their zeal to convert the natives to their religious point of view. They assumed that native Americans worshiped spirits because they could not conceive of any other form of relating human reality to the (super)natural. The first error, of course, was the mistaken assumption that native Americans perceived spirits as supernatural beings.
I wonder now as I write this whether it is possible to convince even one European that the word and concept of God is completely foreign to all Pre-Columbian tribal people. I am tempted to argue in this context that native Americans are, and always have been, atheistic. That would be the easiest thing to say and would settle the issue of the distinction once and for all. To say that native Americans do not believe in the existence of God, however, would be the same as missing the essential point of the distinction between spiritualism and religion that makes it possible to enter into a discussion of the Myth of Eden in the first place. As difficult as it might be to accept the notion that God is an invention of Eurocentric civilizations (Mediterrian, Judeo-Christian), only and primarily because the idea itself asserts that God is the ultimate universal reality behind all human and natural existence, that fact (that God is nothing more than an invention) must be taken to heart if there is to be any progress toward understanding why native Americans cannot be characterized as atheistic even though they do not believe in the existence of (super)natural beings.
Put simply: tribal people never found it necessary to posit the existence of the (super)natural in order to explain how they were related to the rest of the world. Native Americans have never been afflicted with the arrogant notion that they are somehow above and beyond, as a chosen people, all and every limitation that a natural state imposes on human beings. Native Americans never believed they lived outside the natural world and hence never had any reason to invent God as proof and cause and rationalization to demonstrate against all evidence that they were, in fact, un-natural. In other words, God exists only in order to prove that human beings (European) are not affected by, or subject to, natural processes, that they are exempt from every restriction human mortality and contingency imposes on them as natural entities. To believe and behave otherwise is to accept the first, even the only, limitation nature imposes on human beings, the one Europeans are incapable of accepting, that they are, in fact, mortal. Native Americans never stepped in that trap.
Spirit is nothing more than a way to classify and/or define the various forms of power that animate the natural world. Take the spirit of the bear, for instance. If you live in the natural world, not in an urban environment where the only bear lives in a zoo, it becomes necessary to know the difference between a yearling male and a she-bear who has cubs, between a brown bear and a grizzly. Knowing spirit tells you how to behave in the face of the power that confronts you. If you mistake the grizzly for the brown, you die. If you mistake the yearling for the she-bear with cubs, you die. During the early history of native America's encounter with the whiteman, if you mistook a European for a human being, you died. We learned that lesson early in the history of the encounter but too late to do any of us any good.
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