Spirits of Renewal
It is mid-January and, as I write these pages, the snow in Ottawa is thick on the ground and the temperature well below -20oC. East of me in Quebec the Huron people are celebrating their New Year, while an hour's drive to the south, at Akwesasne, the Mohawks are in the midst of their midwinter festival. My Akwesasne friends, Kim, Brenda and the Elder Ernie Benedict, are Mohawks of the Iroquois Confederation, or more properly the Haudenosaunee people. (At the end of this introduction you will find a note on all the sorts of problems that crop up when one group of people try to pin names on another.)
Following the Akwesasne midwinter festival, in which the ashes of the dying year's fire are stirred and thrown over the people, comes the Tapping of the Maple Trees and the maple sugar festival. The year's round continues with planting corn, the strawberry festival, bean festival, green-corn festival and finally the thanksgiving dances that celebrate the gathering of the corn. As the Haudenosaunee move through the calendar of their year they participate in ceremonies that celebrate the annual cycle of nature - the great rotation of time that begins and ends with death and renewal.
To the West, friends who are members of the Blackfoot Confederacy have their own cycle of ceremonies and one summer I was privileged to be present at the opening days of the Sun Dance carried out at the Blood Reserve near Standoff, Alberta. There I sat and dreamed late into the night with the Northern Lights playing in the sky above me. There, listening to the singing and drumming as it moved around the camp, I tried to come to some understanding of the great mystery that surrounded me.
This mystery of renewal is celebrated by the First People all over Turtle Island - the name that many Indigenous Nations give to the continent on which they live. It is a mystery that stretches far back to the times of the Ohio Mound Builders, the Olmecs, Mayans, Incas and deep,deep into the origin of the human race and even beyond into the cycles of the cosmos itself. Just as the sacred tree at the center of the Sun Dance ground acts to connect Mother Earth to the powers and beings of the Sky World, so too all over the Americas can be found that same power of rotation and return, the same axis around which the cosmos and the people, time, history and the cycles of ceremonies and renewal engage in their rotation.
As these ceremonies metamorphosize one into the other so too they lead us into a profoundly different reality from that which we encounter in our everyday Western world. To enter into this domain is to question what we mean by space and time, by the distinctions between living and the non-living, by the individual and society, by dreams and visions, by perception and reality, by causality and synchronicity, by time and eternity.
Take, for example, the cycle of life amongst the Mohawk people. In the spring of each year this life is renewed as the sap begins to rise in the trees, as seeds germinate under the blanket of snow, as air from the Gulf of Mexico moves north to meet the colder Arctic air over Lake Ontario. This is the season when electrical charges build up between these two currents of air, tension is felt in the atmosphere, and the first thunder heard grumbling in the distance. In Akwesasne a number of people, as they go around their daily tasks, listen for this first roll of thunder. As soon as it is heard, sacred tobacco is burned in offering and the people are told of the return of thunder.
The sound of the thunder means the return of the Thunder Birds and this, I suppose, raises one of those many questions that flood the Western mind when it first encounters the Native American world. People may have heard mention of Thunder Birds; they may have seen depictions of Thunder Birds on the great carved cedar poles, often called totem poles, which tell the history of the peoples of the North West coast of North America; they may have read stories in which the Lakoda peoples (Sioux) refer to wakinyan or Thunderbeings.
Our Western minds desire to sort things out, to arrange knowledge in a logical fashion and order the world into categories. Observation shows us that birds return to Lake Ontario and the south shore of the St Lawrence river about the same time as the first thunder is heard. Just as the birds fly south before the first snows fall, so too they reappear with the first sound of thunder. Our linear, logical minds ask: are these Thunderbirds actual birds, particular ornithological species, are they mythic beings or are they forces of nature; and does the thunder bring the Thunder Birds, or do the Birds bring the thunder?
Searching for answers to questions like these, one begins to wonder if these are the right questions to put in the first place; indeed, if such questions make any sense at all! Pretty soon the realization comes that it is not so much the questions themselves that are the problem but the whole persistent desire to obtain knowledge through a particular analytical route. While this approach may be the norm within Western society, it does not seem appropriate when sitting with Native American people. In that act of simply being with another culture comes the realization of a need for balance, of the perception that there are times when it is better to listen than to ask, better to feel than to think, more appropriate to stay with a silence than to seek answers in speech.
Western education predisposes us to think of knowledge in terms of factual information, information that can be structured and passed on through books, lectures and programmed courses. Knowledge is something that can be acquired and accumulated, rather like stocks and bonds. By contrast, within the Indigenous world the act of coming to know something involves a personal transformation. The knower and the known are indissolubly linked and changed in a fundamental way. Coming to know Indigenous Science can never be reduced to a catalogue of facts or a data base in a supercomputer, for it is a dynamical and living process, an aspect of the ever-changing, ever-renewing processes of nature.
Visions from Two Worlds
It is at this point that a tantalizing paradox presents itself. For, on the one hand it seems that the very activity and busy-ness of our analytic, linear Western minds obstruct us from entering into Indigenous coming-to-knowing, yet, on the other, scientists who have been struggling at the leading edge of their topics have created ideas that resonate with those of Indigenous science. For example:
- Quantum theory stresses the irreducible link between observer and observed and the basic holism of all phenomena. So too, Native Science holds that there is no separation between individual and society, between matter and spirit, between each one of us and the whole of nature.
- The physicist David Bohm has spoken of what he calls the Implicate or enfolded Order (an order in which the whole is enfolded within each part) as being a deeper physical reality than the surface or Explicate Order that is immediately perceived by our senses. In a similar way members of the Gourd Society wear a necklace of mescal beads, in which each bead symbolizes the cosmos, and reminds them that within each object is enfolded the whole.
In writing this down I am immediately aware that the word "symbolize" simply does not capture what I would like to say. Today a symbol is generally understood to stand for something else and does not possesses a numinous power of its own. The mescal bead, however, is no mere symbol for, to those who wear it, it really does enfold the universe and bring them in direct contact with all of creation.
- In modern physics the essential stuff of the universe cannot be reduced to billiard-ball atoms but exists as relationships and fluctuations at the boundary of what we call matter and energy. Indigenous Science teaches that all that exists is an expression of relationships, alliances and balances between what, for better words, we could call energies, powers or spirits.
- Several leading-edge thinkers in physics suggest that nature in not a collection of objects in interaction but is a flux of processes. The whole notion of flux and process is fundamental to the Indigenous sciences of Turtle Island. Algonkian peoples, such as the Cheyenne, Cree, Ojibwaj, Mic Maq, and Blackfeet, use a strongly verb-based language that reflect this direct experience.
- Some physicians question our current medical models and suggest that healing involves the whole person - body, mind and spirit. Native Healers have never fragmented their vision of health, for it is regarded as emerging out of the whole of nature and is one with the processes of renewal.
- Ecologists stress that we must attend to the basic interconnectedness of nature and the sensitivity and complexity of natural systems. This has always been the approach of Indigenous peoples. The traditional Thanksgiving Address of the Iroquois people, for example, specifically acknowledges the wholeness that is inherent within all of life.
- Scientists are alerting us to the fragility and sensitivity of our planet. It is the tradition of the Iroquois People that in arriving at a decision they consider its implications right down to the Seventh Generation that comes after them.
The Heart of Knowledge
Indigenous knowing is a vision of the world that encompasses both the heart and the head, the soul and the spirit. It could no more deal with matter in isolation than the theory of relativity could fragment space from time; it is a vision in which rock and tree, bird and fish, human being and caribou are alive and partakers of the gifts of Mother Earth. Indigenous science does not seek to found its knowledge, as we do, at the level of some most ultimate elementary particle or theory, rather it is a science of harmony and compassion, of dream and vision, of earth and cosmos, of hunting and of growing, of technology and of spirit, of song and dance, of color and number, of harmony and balance, of death and renewal.
We can all, I believe, learn something of great importance from this vision, from this way of coming to knowing of the First Peoples of Turtle Island. In many ways our cultures and values seem so profoundly different that it appears almost impossible to dialogue between these two ways of knowing. Nevertheless, the striking similarity between traditional teachings and some of the insights that are emerging from modern science suggest that a coming together is indeed possible.
It is not so much that a particular physicist may have hit upon a theory that echoes images or connections with a traditional piece of teaching - that would be far too trivial to be of importance. No, it is more that the whole way the Western mind works is beginning to open itself to new possibilities, and that from within that openness a dialogue may be possible. This is certainly something I have picked up from my Native friends who are excited about some of the new ideas in science they are hearing and have pointed out to me resonances to their own tradition.
A Dialogue between Worlds
It is in such a spirit, and with such an aim, that this book is written. This is not a book "about" Native American society, or "about" Indigenous knowledge. It is certainly not the result of objective academic study. Rather it is an exploration of two different ways of knowing, two different worlds of consciousness and a discovery of the ways that peoples can begin to dialogue with each other, enter into relationship, and offer each other the respect and courtesy that is the hallmark of humanity.
In beginning this dialogue, however, it is wise to be aware of the difficulties we may encounter along the way. No matter what may be our color, religion, social status or racial origins, those of us who have grown up within a North American or European school system, playing with other children, watching television, reading newspapers and books, going to college and eventually entering the workforce have learned to participate in a world-view that is common to the Western Industrial Nations. Although we may be beginning to acknowledge the importance of other cultures, races and world views, North American culture is still, to a great extent, based upon the traditions of European civilization, that stream of culture which began with the Greeks and Romans and underwent a partial transformation firstly during the Renaissance and again with the rise of science and technology. In particular, modern science which emerged through the efforts of Bacon, Galileo, Newton and others, has created an intellectual mechanism that dominates much of the world.
Today people have begun to question the more materialistic aspects of this world-view. There is an interest in the meditative practices of the East, in various therapies that deal with personal growth and transformation.
Change can come from dialogues between different cultures and forms of spirituality. The ancient Mayan peoples spoke of the end of our present world and the appearance of a new sun. This, fifth sun, heralds the World of Consciousness and it may well be that the wisdom that can be found here on Turtle Island will help to catalyze a change in global culture.
Five hundred years ago a major contact was made between the peoples of Europe and Turtle Island. At the time Indigenous knowledge was freely given and in many cases this led to the survival of a people new to this continent. Yet in the light of the centuries of repression and bloodshed that followed, the deeper meaning of this teaching was never really understood by the first guests who set foot on Turtle Island. Nevertheless, there are Native Elders who believe that today the time has now come for them to speak again, for the White Man is willing to listen. Their prophesies tell of a time of purification. To some this means a period of devastation when Mother Earth cleanses herself and renews the processes of life across the planet. Others interpret this as an opportunity for transformation, since global devastation can be prevented provided that the races cooperate, hand in hand towards a renewal of our relationship with all of nature and each other.
But how is such a dialogue to commence? Many of the world's spiritual traditions speak of the impossibility of the rational mind alone ever approaching a deep understanding of another way of being. Some of them refer to particular religious experiences as having a flavor or a taste that is impossible to appreciate without direct experience. The same thing applies, I believe, to cultures that lie outside our own. One can no more understand them from the outside than one can describe the taste of an orange to someone who has never eaten such a fruit, nor a sunset to a blind person. How then can we grasp the flavor, the odor, the spirit of a profoundly different world view, one that cannot be approached by reason, analysis, description and the accumulation of facts alone?
The answer, I believe, is that we can come to some form of knowing, albeit in some strictly limited way, through an actual change in consciousness. But if we remain as observers, objective scholars of another society, we will never enter into its essence. But if we approach it in a spirit of humility, respect, enquiry and openness then it becomes possible for a change of consciousness to occur.
As you sit with Native people, walk in nature and spend time at a sacred site an actual transformation of consciousness takes place. For a time at least you can begin to hear, see, feel, touch and taste the world in a profoundly different way; you think and perceive with a different mind so that your ego can, temporarily at least, blend into that of other people.
If you happen to hold that human consciousness is no more than the epiphenomenon or secretion of our individual brains then you are more or less trapped in your own skull. But if consciousness is open, if it can partake in a more global form of being, if it can merge with the natural world and with other beings then indeed it may be possible to drop, for a time, the constraints of one's personal world-view and see reality through the eyes of others.
The poet Robert Graves, for example, believed that he was possessed by the spirit of one of the Cesars when he wrote I Claudius. On several occasions the historian Arnold Toynbee was projected across time and space to become a participator in another historical era. In one case he found himself in Italy of 80 BC witnessing a suicide. On another, while walking near Victoria Station, London, he had the experience of being plunged, not into a particular historical period but into the entire passage of history and time.
Thus it may be that, for a few moments, or hours, or even days, we enter into the heart and head and body of another culture. We will always return back to our own world, for that is where our roots lie. Nevertheless, on our reentry we may be changed in some subtle yet important way. And, sometimes, when we spend time living within that other culture, we are able to look back upon our own world and see it through alien eyes, appreciate its limitations, as well as its beauty and attraction.
It is my belief that, at its deepest level, the dialogue between Western and Indigenous science will involve an increasing flexibility in human consciousness, an ability to leave the boundaries of our own egos and world-view and temporarily enter into those of another. It goes without saying that the more we do this the easier it will become. We will no longer attempt to understand another culture from outside, or to think in terms of analysis and description, rather we will enter in, partake and absorb. And, in doing so we engage in a new relationship, we both give and receive, we create alliances and become one with a much greater spectrum of consciousness, one that involves not only other humans but beings, forces and powers of the natural world.
In writing this book I have kept this approach in mind, that of moving between the worlds of Indigenous and Western science and attempting to convey their respective flavors. In particular, Chapter Two attempts to give the feel of my own experiences at a Sun Dance as my own perceptions flickered back and forth between two worlds.
This is a book about two worlds, two ways of knowing and being, and of the traffic that can take place between them. It is based upon my own experiences and encounters, experiences that were built on the foundation of puzzling, for over thirty years, about the nature of reality and of Western science. What I discovered, within the Native American world-view, was a vision that was staggeringly subtle yet, at the same time, perfectly natural, a vision that was sophisticated in its philosophical engagements, yet never strayed from the human heart and the warmth of relationships. Since no other encounter has affected me in such a personal way, let me begin with the story of my first contact with Native Science.
The First Encounter
I arrived in North America in the late 1960s after completing my PhD in Liverpool, England. At the time, I had hoped to learn more about the First Peoples of Turtle Island yet I discovered few good books about the First Nations, nor could I find anyone who had first hand contact with their culture. Indeed, it almost seemed to me, back in the 1960s, that the First People of this continent had been hidden away and North America was a Dark Continent whose ancient mysteries and achievements had remained concealed for the last five hundred years.
Sometimes, as I walked through the woods, or camped beside a lake, I sensed that I was intruding upon an ancient land, that I was an uninvited visitor who moved noisily and disrespectfully into what had once been the home the First People shared with trees and plants and birds and animals. I longed to be given permission by the guardians of the land to stay awhile. Sometimes there was the faint hint of voices from the bush, a movement across the face of the water that may have told me, had I been sensitive enough, that somewhere a spirit was watching me, assessing me.
During my first years in North America I worked as a scientist engaged in theoretical research, studying the way atoms, molecules and solids are formed at the quantum level of matter. As time went on I began to ask more fundamental questions about the nature of space-time and quantum reality. I was struck by the way our society had become separated and abstracted from nature, and how good intentions concerning the integration of body and mind so often stayed within the conference hall and laboratory. Indeed, so much of the new holistic thinking remained no more than abstractions without balance or grounding in a much wider world.
By the 1980s I had begun to explore these questions in a series of books and it so happened that one day I was sensing the need for some new idea, a fresh approach perhaps, something that would integrate with my felt sense that all nature, indeed, the entire universe is alive and vibrant. I wandered around the house pulling out books from the bookcases, turning over their pages and putting them back again. A feeling of undefined frustration and a sense of unease came over me until, by pure chance, I came to a book of photographs my wife had bought. It was called Touch the Earth (edited T.C. McLuhan) and contained 19th century images of Native elders and leaders together with some of the speeches they had made.
As I turned the pages I was struck by the serene power of the faces that stared back at me from across the century. These were faces with the character of a rock, or the bark of an ancient tree. I returned to my desk and, as I began to read the first of the speeches, the telephone rang. Still looking at the book I picked up the receiver and heard someone asking for David Peat and announcing that his name was Leroy Little Bear. For an instant it was as if one of those images had sprung to life and was actually speaking to me. For over twenty years I had unconsciously sought contact with a subtle and ancient culture, and now someone was actually reaching me by telephone!
As it turned out, Leroy was inviting me to a conference that was to be held on the land of the Stoney Indians at Nakoda Lodge in Alberta. For several days Native Elders and Indigenous scientists would meet with a few Western scientists to explore their different visions of reality. Leroy, it turned out, was not only a philosopher within his Blackfoot tradition but was also well acquainted with the writings of David Bohm and the new ideas of quantum reality. A few days later I received a follow-up call, this time from Pam Colorado, an Oneida of the Iroquois Six Nations Confederacy, who had written papers on the nature of Indigenous science and had been one of the first Native Canadian women to obtain a PhD. Pam herself was later to devote more and more of her time to exploring the world-wide connections of Indigenous science.
Those two phone calls represented my first contact with Indigenous Science - and the whole thing almost ended there. A couple of days before I was due to fly to Calgary I was stressed-out by writing deadlines and felt I was coming down with a heavy cold. At least that was what I was telling myself, but a deeper part of me knew that I was simply resisting that invitation to enter another world for, I realized, once that door had been opened it could never close.
The result was that I was still packing some time after the aircraft had departed! I came to the conclusion that I would never see Nakoda Lodge and my contact with Indigenous Science had been still-born. But I had not counted on Leroy and his influential friends. He called late at night to say that I had a seat on the first flight out next morning and that someone would pick me up from Calgary Airport.
That someone proved to be Kim Hathaway Carr, a Mohawk woman from Akwesasne, who became a good friend and taught me about the integrity of the heart within Indigenous knowing. Thus, after a false start, I arrived at Nakoda Lodge and was exposed to a different way of seeing the world. At that meeting there were Iroquois, Blackfoot, Cree, Haida, Navaho, Hopi and Creek people present but also a fellow physicist, a linguist, a few other Western scientists as well as two Aboriginal women from Australia.
On the first day we began conventionally enough, sitting in a room and listening to presentations. But on the following day we began to move out to a nearby tepi and to sit and talk around the fire until late at night. Very gently we from the West were led into another way of being, dreaming and talking together. A high point of our time together was a visit to an ancient Blackfoot medicine wheel where ceremonies were performed and my Western scientific mind was opened into an alternative way of experiencing the world. An account of what happened that day is given later in this book.
From that day on I was drawn to the richness, power and subtlety of the Indigenous approach to knowing and being. As a physicist I became impressed by its ideas on time, causality and reality, its view of number, its interest in astronomical observations, and its painstaking attention to the details of the natural world. I was struck by the depth of its metaphysics, by the way in which Indigenous knowledge permeates every aspect of life from education to healing, from sacred ceremony to an effective legal system and the daily care for the environment. Above all, I was struck by the way in which all aspects of life are based upon relationship and renewal, upon the balance of heart and head, upon the courtesies and dignities of daily life, upon harmony and balance and on the acknowledgment of the powers that animate the world around us.
Yet today, as I look out over the midwinter landscape I must also acknowledge that a lifetime of experience would never be long enough for me to fully enter into the subtleties of the Native Mind. For I was not born to this way of life, part of my soul's body belongs to the Lancashire plains, the British seacoasts, and the mountains of North Wales and the Lake District, and until recently, all my education had been within the traditions and paradigms of the West.
Again and again I delayed in writing this book, for I knew that my understanding of Indigenous science was fragmentary and that my exposure to the First People had been minimal. On the other hand, over the last thirty years I had been talking and working with people who are at the forefront of scientific thinking; together we have speculated upon the limits of the Western mind, the confines of the scientific approach and the possibilities for a New Science. Thus, while others may know far more about the Indigenous world, at least I am in the position of being able to dialogue within two different world views in such a way that I can understand something of those areas in which new ideas in the sciences can bridge themselves towards traditional Indigenous knowledge.
Yet, each time I sat down to write my mind was filled with doubts and divisions. I was well aware of the debate about cultural appropriation, the ways in which our Western society has used, without permission, the artifacts and stories of The People. In the past Indigenous people were displaced from their traditional lands, their sacred sites were excavated, their dead exhumed and their sacred objects removed to museums. Today their art, which was never separated from their culture, history and spirituality, is commercially reproduced or developed for the Western taste. Traditional ceremonies are depicted in movies and novels, and their culture and spirituality is analyzed and interpreted by academic institutions.
Cultural appropriation is not simply the act of taking something away from a people, it also means using something in a way that is inappropriate, disrespectful or distorted. How easy it is for a well-meaning outsider to interpret what they have seen and experienced, and in the process, misrepresent the knowledge and world view of Indigenous people. How easy it is to study a ceremony, story or area of knowledge out of its context, and based upon Western critical paradigms and values. In doing so one creates a profound distortion of its original meaning. In this way the First Peoples continue to suffer, after five hundred years of misunderstanding, the denigration of their most sacred practices and disruption of their way of life.
Yet another of my concerns was with the very limitations of the English language in which I write. Language is intimately tied to the way we think and see the world around us. Over many centuries the languages of Europe have evolved within a particular society and general view of reality to the point where they have become inseparable from it. The English language, as well as German, French, Italian, Spanish, etc. predispose us to say things in certain ways and, in doing so, to lose the flavor of those subtleties that are best expressed in other languages. An almost universal factor in Native American languages is their holistic and process-view of the cosmos. Thus Mohawk expresses the complex relationships that exist within nature and society. Mic Maq explores a reality that is based upon sound. Blackfoot and other Indigenous languages manifest a world of animation. Yet, as soon as one attempts to express these ideas in English they seem to disappear from the page.
To write a book that would explore the dialogue between Western and Native American realities seemed an impossible task, despite the fact that some of my Native friends suggested that I should attempt to articulate my experiences. In the end my decision to begin the book grew out of something that was said to me, something that moved me deeply. I had been visiting with Betty Bastien on the Blood reserve and our talk one day had ranged from conditions on the reservation to problems that children faced at school. She had touched on the meaning of the Sun Dance that was taking place, on the significance of the Blackfoot medicine wheels and the connection between the cosmos and society. I can remember being excited by what she was saying and pointing out how close that Blackfoot vision was to the way I had begun to see the world through science. I told Betty that there were times when we both seemed to be seeing reality from the same side.
Betty replied in words something like these, "For so long our culture has been ignored, dismissed and laughed at; our beliefs have been called superstitions and we have been referred to as primitive people. In most schools our children are never taught about their own history, and for them the only truth about the world is that given by Western science. As a result, the young people don't listen to the words of our Elders, they simply laugh at them. But now a physicist comes along and says that he respects the way we look at the world, that he can begin to understand the reasons for some of the things we do and that he can see connections with things from the frontiers of his own science. I think that it is important that other people should know this."
What follows is the result. It is certainly not a book that attempts to explain traditional knowledge in the light of Western science. Rather it is an acknowledgement of another way of knowing and an attempt at dialogue between two worlds. It is only a first step, one that looks forward to other books, ones that are written by Indigenous philosophers, metaphysicians and scientists who will present the own authentic visions, and reflect upon Western science and culture written from the perspective of their own traditions.
CALLING EACH OTHER NAMES
Every school child knows that name-calling is a powerful way of humiliating one's opponents. In the last few decades North Americans have been made aware of the political implications inherent in the names that were earlier used to denote African-Americans and other ethnic groups. Similar difficulties arise in this book of how to describe people belonging to different groups and nations.
This is a particularly pertinent problem for it is not really within the Native American world-view to group things together into abstract categories of thought such as "fish" or "trees" - and particularly not the different Nations of Turtle Island.
The Mohawk, Hopi, Navaho, Haida, Miwok, Blood and other peoples have, within their own languages, names that distinguish them from others. Generally these words can be translated into English along the lines of "the people", "the true people", " real people", "the two-legged creatures - as opposed to the four-legged" or "the people who live in this place". There are also the names, often humorous or insulting, that peoples use to describe their neighbors. Finally, there are the names that English speakers have used to describe The First People.
To take a specific example, my friend Leroy Little Bear has a Blackfoot name which has nothing to do with bears. In fact, the English translation "little bear" is based upon a mishearing of a Blackfoot term to do with part of a Buffalo. Leroy is a member of the Blood Nation, the term "Blood" being an English mistranslation of the Blackfoot term "Kainah" meaning "Many Chiefs".
The Kainah themselves are one of four divisions of what has become called The Blackfoot Confederacy - although more properly the name "Black-feet" is only used by one of these divisions, the "Siksikah". Maps, treaties, text books and documents show a degree of ambiguity over naming the people Blackfoot or Blackfeet.
The other two members of the Confederacy are divisions of the Pikunni people comprising the Northern Peigans in Alberta, Canada and the Southern Piegans, or Blackfeet Tribe, in Montana, US. Again note the different spelling- Peigans for the Canadian group and Piegans for the US.
The language spoken by the Confederacy, called in English Blackfoot, is part of a much greater family called Algonkian which stretches across Canada and parts of the US and includes the languages spoken by the Cree, Huron, Ojibwaj, Cheyenne, Mic Maq as well as many other peoples. And when one speaks of a family of languages one should bear in mind that while certain words in Blackfoot, Cheyenne and Mic Maq may be mutually comprehensible, as a whole these languages are as different from each other as are English, Italian and Russian within the Indo-European family.
Thus the many different Nations and linguistic families of The First People all have their own names and designations, many of which are mistranslated into English. But what the orderly Western mind would like is a generic term that could be used to refer to The People as a whole - as some sort of generic unity. Such generalizations are alien to what I (and now I immediately fall into the trap of generalization!) have heard referred to as the Native Mind, or Indigenous way of seeing things. Each people has a place to live, a set of special relationships with the land and the powers around them, they simply cannot be lumped together into a single generic category. The Bloods of the Blackfoot Confederacy are not therefore "Indians" - a term redolent of past racism and considerable global geographic confusion - neither would many of them wish to be grouped into that newer category "people of color" as some would like them to be.
Yet the realities of modern politics have forced leaders of the First Nations to negotiate with governments and seek ways of advancing their people. Therefore a variety of compromise terms have evolved in order to come to terms with Western thought patterns and refer to the many Indigenous Nations within one generic term. One of these terms is Indigenous - as used in the expression Indigenous Science. This conveys the sense of the people who belong to a particular region, but it also has a more global usage that extends outside the Americas.
The term Native or Native American is often used in general conversation and several Indigenous people have told me that it is quite acceptable to them - although, to someone brought up in England, it smacks of the unsavory associations of the British Empire in which earnest young men sought to bring law and order to "the natives". By the way, I use the term America and American to cover the entire continent and not simply the United States. First Nations is becoming a working alternative when dealing with politicians, as is Aboriginal - meaning the first people to occupy the land. Another approach is simply to use the direct English translation of the names many groups use and say The People. In the end, I have followed my ear and tried to use terminology in ways that are similar to what I have heard from my Native friends.
This also brings up another problem in reverse: What should I call the non-Native inhabitants of Turtle Island? Traditional people, in their early contacts used the terms (I am only aware of the polite ones) White Man, White Race, White brother and European. In some cases an African-American would be referred to as "a black white man".
A few hundred years ago these designations reflected the political realities of The People's first encounters with a very different world. But today North America holds people of such a wide diversity of racial origins who would be offended to be described as White, European or Western, or in terms of the masculine inclusive.
So I apologize to my readers when these terms are used in an historical context. They are a reflection of the fact that the first disruptive contacts were with people, generally men, having "white" faces and subscribing to a fairly uniform set of beliefs about society, property, government and religion. We should not forget, however, that they were accompanied by Black slaves and servants, and that later Blacks occupied positions in the U.S. army and many worked as "cowboys". Black people who escaped from their European oppressors were welcomed into Native American societies as full members.
The term Western is also used in this book. This refers to a certain world-view that has come to dominate the globe, both economically and through its science and technology. Western sets of values are often adopted by people of other races who have grown up in North America, passed though the school system and entered the work force. The other term, European, is used to denote the historical origins of a scientific, philosophical and political world-view that evolved within Europe. European is also used for the family of languages that expresses that particular world view. James Youngblood (Sa'ke'j) Henderson has also suggested the term Mediterranean to describe the world-view and attitude of mind that emerged out of the Greek and Roman culture and spread into Europe and across America.)
So again let me apologize to readers who are neither "white" nor of European ancestry, as well as those of European ancestry who do not choose to subscribe to the world-views and value systems that I have called "Western". In the long run I feel that, as we enter into dialogues together and learn to shift our consciousness between different ways of being and seeing, language itself will reflect an increase in flexibility and sensitivity.
To Return to Book Description
Contact F. David Peat