“The tipi is much better to live in; always clean, warm in winter, cool in summer; easy to move. The white man builds big house, cost much money, like big cage, shut out sun, can never move; always sick. Indians and animals know better how to live than white man … If the Great Spirit wanted men to stay in one place he would make the world stand still; but he made it to always change, so birds and animals can move and always have green grass and ripe berries, sunlight to work and play, and night to sleep; summer for flowers to bloom, and winter for them to sleep; always changing; everything for good; nothing for nothing.”
––– Flying Hawk, Oglala Sioux, 1852 – 1931
I came on this quote yesterday, when I opened the book Touch the Earth, A Self Portrait of Indian Existence, compiled by T. C. McLuhan. It occurred to me immediately that Flying Hawk had recognized the core of the rift between western civilization and the natural world, some ninety years ago.
To understand the indigenous world view represented in this quote, one has to understand that the “Great Spirit” reference is a mistranslation of Native America culture. The translators were white men steeped in Christian religion, embodied in an anthropomorphic creator they called God. They interpreted the Lakota “wakan tanka” to refer to a singular god or creator, when, in fact, the phrase means great spirit or great mystery.
Among the Yupik and Inuit people of Alaska, the word Innua refers to the spirit that flows through all things, including humans, a spirit that is ever watchful, ever connected between humans and animals. This gave every thing and every event a depth of meaning in the lives of the indigenous peoples living close within the natural world.
This connection was lost in western civilization when organized religion displaced local spiritual cultures, substituting a centralized authoritarian religion for the ancient decentralized, personal relationship among humans and the local natural world.
Today we live in centralized authoritarian societies in which the dominant religious world view is embodied in all of our cultural organizations, centralized and authoritarian, from national governments, to local governments, to businesses and even families. Morality, ethics and meaning are seen to come from the top down, not from the grass roots up. We have few cultural connections between the human world and the natural world, and those that exist, historically and immediately, are swept away in the overweening cultural energy of our modern consumerist societies.
The result, of course, is destruction of the natural world, reduction of wilderness, loss of the small remaining bits of untrammeled biodiversity that once were predominant. The human species has indeed subdued the Earth.
Of course, “That which cannot go on forever, stops,” is a truism that offers no hope or relief. Those of us who remain aware live in Leopold’s “world of wounds,” doing whatever we can to at least slow the tide of destruction, speak for those who have no voice in human affairs, and live as simply as possible in a culture that demands constant, unrelenting material complexity.
I used to write about this extensively, frequently and with great enthusiasm. I haven’t written much lately, feeling that I’ve said it all before, that we have all said it all before, and what’s the use of saying it yet again.
But then I realize there are people born every year, growing up in this mad, mad world, who haven’t yet heard these words, experienced these fundamental realities, thought these critically important thoughts handed down to us through time. If nothing else, those of us who know are a repository of information critical to the well-being of all life in the biosphere, and it is our solemn duty to share it whenever and wherever possible.
So this is my whenever and wherever, here in the electronic ether that I oppose but I must use, to reach those minds still receptive to these ideas.
Perhaps this modern world does indeed bear the seeds of its own destruction and this is my garden.