Different Tribe, Same Story

The Hopi have a story, passed for generations, that the world was destroyed three times. The first world was one of endless space and after congenial living and then strife, the world was destroyed by rain and fire. Survival came by living underground with ants with emergence when the world cooled down. At the second level, greed brought them down and this disaster was characterized by a cold period with ice covering the earth. After surviving, this time they destroyed one another by war and the destruction was by a flooded world. The astounding element is that each disaster actually did happen during the creation event – by fire, by freezing, and by very high water. Brains existed at those times storing emotional responses. Could these elaborate stories possibly actually be some memory?

In the Pueblo story, the people found the opening into the Fifth World too small. A fly, sent out to explore, reported this was the world Mother Creator had promised. The opening was made large enough with the help of an antelope and a badger. Indeed, homo sapiens’ assent into the world was done with the help of all the animals in the long evolutionary line preceding us!

The Lenape Nation creation story begins with a piece of coal from the earth and involves a tortoise, then a man, then a woman. Does this have a Genesis tone? The Navajo have sacred mountains from which they rose from the underworld (which, although a story, has some truth). In a sense, they have a sacred geography. The Crow’s religious basis is that all life came from a single source, not well defined, called Wa-do Sioux.   A map of the sky was given at the top of Bear Butte, South Dakota, which guided the life of the Lakota, Dakota, Arapaho, and Nakota Nations. Receiving this star map, to these Nations, is n-tah; equivalent, to them as the Old Testament report of the Ten Commandments being received by Moses.

The Cheyenne story builds off a visit to one of their own, Sweet Medicine, received four sacred arrows and a medicine bundle in a cave near Bear Butte, South Dakota. The Pawnee beliefs include emerging from the darkness into the world of light in their creation. Does that not sound like Big Bang? One place, Shipapu, is the place of origin and one road ancient Pueblos built leads there, thereby placing their place of origin near them. For Kootenai, at the beginning of time, a supreme being called Quilxha Nupika created the people. The task given them at the time was to guard and keep the land forever. In the Apache creation belief, worship and mythical figures connect to animals and plants.

Did the emotions and behaviors appearing before humans evolved pass on to the Native Americans? From the perspective presented above, they did. Not only did the Native Americans display them, they expanded them. Here were humans who could think and ask questions, and their response was an inseparable connection between personal interactions, the earth around them, and religion. Frankly, it sort of sounds like these early homo sapiens had begun asking, “How Did We Get Here?” as well as “Why am I Here?”

One group slowly migrated southeast to what is now India. For a long time, a religion based on violence dominated. But though many worshipped violence, many did not. Slowly but surely their religion moved closer to the behaviors passed onto hominids from the chimpanzees. This led to Buddhism and Hinduism, now called religions, but then more a way of life.

Generally, here in North America, “wisdom” goes in a category called “intellectual.” “Compassion,” on the other hand, belongs in a separate category led by emotion. Buddhism differs sharply, teaching that the two must be merged, just like a bird needs both wings to fly. Buddhists are taught to selflessly help those who are suffering. His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote,

According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive — it’s not empathy alone — but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering.

Hinduism is not that different.   Hinduism accepts that human intelligence is linked to environmental damage. People should unselfishly behave to maintain earth’s natural balance to repay God for the gifts given.   The Universe is viewed as a divine creation so animals and plants, hills and rivers all can be worshipped, much as was seen with the Native Americans.

In this region, then, around 800 BCE, the religious beliefs of the two developing religions matched quite well the behaviors that had evolved over time and were part of the first hominids. Wisdom and emotions were interdependent. People seeking and believing in these two new religions were rejecting a religion based on violence which, for thousands of years, preceded them.

Move onto those first settlers in China. Contrary to the grasslands group, the environment here was rugged. Abundant large, edible animals influenced life style. An early civilization (about which little is known) appears to have made a satisfactory environment.   Around 2000 BCE, available information marks the appearance of a king whose appearance story sort of parallels the New Testament’s story.

The all-powerful God had sent an egg carried by a bird. The egg was eaten by a woman who then gave birth to the first king. Only the king could contact the all-powerful God. Therefore all other people must worship and obey the king – or else the king would ask the all-powerful to do some damage them (ruin their crop, for example.) Over time, the king (and his ancestors with the same bloodline and, therefore, the same connection to the all-powerful) ruled a substantial area.

The years preceding Hinduism and Buddhism had religion as a worship of violence and cruelty which, over time, lost to a more compassionate approach. In this society, the king and those at the upper levels knew little about raising crops or any sort of hard work. The labor was done by the peasants, a much, much larger group. The king’s ancestors blood connection meant he should be capable of predicting the future to key issues like “Should warriors be sent to conquer this land?” “Will this year’s crop be enough to feed the people?” The peasants were mistreated, but kept in by fear of the kind bringing vengeance onto them. Eventually, when critical predictions by the king were wrong and caused hardship, the masses lost confidence in the king.

The focus changed. Karen Armstrong explains, “an ethical ideal that had hitherto been unconcerned about morality” appeared:

If a ruler was selfish, cruel, and oppressive, Heaven would not support him…if the ruler was wise, humane an truly concerned for the welfare of the subjects, people would flock to him.

The concept of an all-powerful God was not altered, but the expectations of that all-powerful God changed dramatically.

The two civilizations, geographically distant from one another, went through the same sort of experiences. Each went through hard times, when cruelty and mistreatment were part of their beliefs/religions. Although the route in China differed sharply from that to Hinduism and Buddhism, but the both outcome at this time were pretty much the same. The outcome was, once again, quite consistent with evolved emotions and behaviors passed onto homo sapiens. The time is now approaching about 800 BCE.

Learning from Native Americans

The goal here is to find out if inherited emotions and behaviors were still in place. Answering this question has turned out to be a challenge. Why? Because tribal languages differed profoundly with English and European languages. The only information to trust had to come from the Native Americans themselves. Jeannette C. Armstrong, speaking for the Okanagan, explains the culture difference.

“In Okanagan … the word for seeing a dog means ‘happening upon a small thing’ and ‘sprouting profusely (as in fur.)’” She continues, “When you say the word ‘dog,’ you don’t ‘see’ a dog image, you summon an experience of a little furred life, the exactness of which is known only by its interaction with you or something. While I may see a dog, the Okanagan sees her or his past connections with all “small sprouting profusely” things. That culture that all things, organic and inorganic, are interdependent changes the way visual images reach the brain.”

Think about that: “…all things, organic and inorganic, are interdependent.” Our current culture has treated oceans and rivers as sewers and ignores nature’s demands. The Native Americans’ language and culture viewed humans and animals and plants and rivers and the moon and the sun – all things as interdependent. No wonder those first Europeans and American explorers saw them as ignorant savages. They were indeed different, in that they viewed life from a very different perspective, but looking back, their perspective actually made a lot of sense.

After seeking information from centers for Apache, Seminole, Lenape, Iroquois, Abenaki, Shawnee, Chinook, Crow, Osage, Blackfoot, Navajo, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Cherokee, Pawnee, Comanche, Chickasaw, Sioux, Caddo, Pueblo, Ojibwa and Kootenai tribes, this thoughtful letter from the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki was received: “Many tribal members consider knowledge about traditional religious practices to be private information transmitted among individuals who have long-term, personal relationships.”

The writer’s term “long term, personal relationships” refers to an often-forgotten common thread across the tribes. The tribal stories, often long and complicated, moved from generation to generation by way of a few chosen people, sometimes called shamans. No written record: true. But the content of these carefully-learned stories may actually have begun way, way back in history.

Digging, trying to stick to only Native American authors, the author finally accumulated some reports of first behaviors. Even though the many tribes were widely separated in terms of location and conditions, those stories had common themes. From today’s perspective, that common theme might be called religion — but NOT the kind of religions with which you are familiar. For Native Americans, behaviors and religion are inseparable.   Native American beliefs and behaviors define their religion; their religion defines the beliefs and behaviors.

To speak of the people is to speak of land – remember how the dog was viewed: “small sprouting profusely”? Without land there is no life; to sustain the land, a responsible social and cultural outlook by humans must exist. Why? Because, like the people before them, they were responsible to guard the land for those who would follow. Each generation had the responsibility to do the same. Although different words and examples are used, this general sense of the interdependence of earth and life and creation and living and religion seems be persistent, at least in a general sense, in all tribes.

Simon Ortiz, speaking for the Pueblos, summarizes nicely thoughts found in nearly all the tribal reports. He says, “If anything is most vital, essential and absolutely important to Native cultural philosophy, it is the concept of interdependence: the fact that without land there is no life, and without a responsible social and cultural outlook by humans, no life-sustaining land is possible.”

The “sweat lodge,” used in different tribes, sometimes with different names, is a good example. One person’s needs (perhaps due to sickness) leads to a healing ritual. However, the healing process focuses not on the individual but on the entire family and village, the crops, the air, water, and everything conceivably attached to that patient’s world. The god to whom they appeal was not in a distant place but was here, now, at this location.

Can you see that this belief is consistent with the emotions and behaviors passed onto homo sapiens? Generally speaking, in our cultures, the importance and needs of the individual take precedence over needs of the group as a whole. The Native American theme displays a distinctly different culture. So, for them, the definition of “religion” is something like, “the proper way to live.” The land provided to them is heaven. What has been and what will be is now; this land, this location.

This summary is based on the information gathered. Here are some examples. As you read, see if you can identify themes.

An interesting beginning quote from Leslie Marmon Silko speaking for the Pueblos: “The remains of things — animals and plants, clay and stones — were treated with respect, because for the ancient people all these things had spirit and being.” Continuing, “Survival depended on harmony and cooperation not only among human beings, but also among all things — the animate and the less animate, since rocks and mountains were known on occasion to move.”

For Lenapes, life was suppose to be spent in harmony with the environment and with the world around them. Along the same general theme, the Iroquois worship concentrated on what existed, such as thunder, maize and other regular parts of life. Interpretation of dreams was very important. Ceremonies were related to the activities of life. The Abenaki (at times spelled Abnaki) also believed that what happened on earth was clearly connected to religious beliefs.

Crow People’s religious beliefs are deeply rooted in the earth; the earth is alive and so is everything related to it. The Blackfoot connected religious believes to the rains, the wind, and the earth. Animals of the Earth, especially the buffalo, bear, raven, wolf and beaver, are given respect but are not part of a religious belief. The Lakota Sioux view as sacred these seven elements: land, air, water, rocks, animals, plants, and fire. (Think back now to first life on earth. The implication here is that first life appeared when the organic and inorganic separated. Inorganic remained important to the Native Americans.)

Navajo religion also concentrates on balance and harmony. Maintaining good health is more than avoiding illness; it involves maintaining balance with the earth and the people around you. The spirituality is maintained by healing ceremonies. Similar report on Pawnee early religion, which was tightly connected to maintaining a balance with nature, with worship directed from the stars to the corn itself. (“…involves maintaining balance with the earth and the people around you.” Would earth be approaching the sixth extinction if that theme had remained dominant?)

For the Comanche, what is written supports that the idea that everything has a spirit and the main emphasis is on maintaining harmony in the universe. Dreams and visions played a role. Similarly, Apache ceremonials concentrate on the Sun, the rain, the crops and the harvest, a duality connecting religious force connect to here, this earth, and now.

The Ojibwa also focus on the community. The culture was fashioned from rocks, rivers and lakes, trees and roots, and the sun, moon, and stars. If one loved nature, nature would love in return. Life and religion were inseparable. The requirements of personal behavior had mostly to do with personal interactions with others and nature. Religious rituals usually focused on thanks for nature’s gifts.

The creation stories are passed from generation to generation. They would not belong in this section except for one thing: anyone who carefully read the How Did We Get Here? event thus far will recognize that the great floods, extended darkness, life beginning in the water, a frozen world actually did happen!   As you read this, think about:

Did those first Native Americans, way, way back, actually somehow recall these stories, perhaps in dreams, and then pass them from generation to generation? Remember, they were isolated for a long time AND they maintained these stories orally from generation to generation long before writing appeared. So many of the tribal creation stories seem to contain these happenings – connections to the deep, deep past…

Next week, we’ll explore some of these stories.