Thursday, September 26, 2013


There are three disciplines or categories of thought that I’ve been working on for decades.  The one in which I have the most -- and the most formal -- training is “religion” including spirituality, personal devotion, ritual design and so on.  In that field I am neither conventional nor dogmatic, though my diploma says MA in Religious Studies and my formal focus was anthropology.  

Instead I’m starting from the basic design of the human body, including the brain, and how it experiences life so as to translate it into survival.  This is not about being pretty or virtuous -- it’s about staying alive.  It's an approach that is only just now possible.

The second category is environmentalism which interfaces with spirituality through its supply of material culture and its role in forming basic human concepts which eventually mesh into a culture and a language.  Consider that the three Abramic religions came from the desert and now they are helping to render the planet into a desert.

The third category is animals and the place of humans in the animal kingdom, both as sources of survival and as spiritual concepts and guides.  The arts and sciences are crammed with new ideas about this.

In support of these ideas I subscribe to a lot of environmental groups and animal-thought people.  All three of the above categories are huge, world-wide, and sophisticated beyond anyone’s capacity to keep up with them.  I heard almost nothing about these ideas at Issksiniip Symposium, which is GOOD, because that means that there is an amazing of array of things to bring to this specific group of People.  It is the equivalent of discovering a new world.

There is a fourth category which I’ve only been exploring for a short time: that’s neuroscience which is now working at the cell-by-cell level and suggesting powerful explanations and strategies.  Issksiniip confronts the issue of closed skull trauma, a clear factor in mental health on the rez.  I’m using neuroscience concepts, played off against ecological principles, to draw all these ideas into one circle that begins to make sense.  I want to discover and invent ways to weave the sacred into this.

It’s important not to get muddled or shallow.  We need to think carefully and consolidate as we go.  I begin my theory sequence BEFORE language in what I call “the sensorium,” which is a fancy way of saying everything the body can detect through its senses, not just the five senses but also one’s sense of gravity, movement, pressure and so on.  The key book is “The Sacred and the Profane,” by Mircea Eliade, not because of any fancy ideas about shamans, but because he points out that somehow we can feel a difference in the quality of space that is related to sacredness.  Some places feel holy:  a place of transition, like a doorway in a house; extremes like a mountain peak or deep in a canyon gorge; or like dawn and sunset.  Those are natural examples, but also there may be a space that is built to feel holy or a place that is holy because of some crucial event.  Learning to feel that is the first step.

Connection to the ecology of the place gives rise to the material culture.  The grasslands feel different from tropical jungle, but also there are different things there to eat, one must dress differently, one needs different tools.  Too much of our lives is trucked in from someplace else, including our religious institutions.  Too much is piped in on gizmos, and yet human connections are also sacred and can be maintained on the gizmos.  If one’s sensorium is aware of the sky-world of prairie, the seething sound of grass in the wind, the smell of bee balm and mint by the creek, one’s feeling of fitting in is stronger.   One needs to hear beloved voices and see their faces. 

“Fitting in” means surviving.  At this point I go to Roy Rapaport’s ideas about survival of the individual and survival of the “tribe”, which ideally fit together but for the Blackfeet has been divided.  Ceremonies of the sacred that contribute to the fittingness of either, and particularly the ones that put the survival of group and and individual in harmony, will support and guide success.  Harmony does not mean pretty.  It means real and honest.  When Darwin said “survival of the fittest,” he did not mean the biggest and strongest:  he meant the ones that fit the best.  When the dinosaurs were dying because they didn’t fit anymore, it was little mammals down around their toes that survived.

Back to the symposium, where Janice Hamrick, who is the CFS Program Manager for the South East Alaska Health Consortium, told us that she would train her Yupik first-line mental health people in the necessary concepts for understanding trauma, addiction and abuse and as long as they were in the main meeting place, everything was fine.  When these people got back to their tiny communities, only accessible by bush planes, they would send back reports of interviews that made no sense at all.  Hamrick asked what was happening.  The field people said that when the Yupik-speaking people told them about their troubles, there were no words for the problems in English.  When they tried to translate, the meaning escaped .

There is much contemporary thought about all this.  In the first place, mental health is a field that uses a lot of jargon.  PTSD is an acronym for “post-traumatic stress disorder” -- but to the Yupik, all of life is stress: there is no “post” and what order is “dis” in their village?  It’s simple necessity and often hard.  What is “trauma” when everyone is abused and addiction is a constant emergency?   So much of language is an attitude, one’s first concepts formed in infancy.  To the Yupik those are entirely different from the ideas of the shrink’s couch.

Working with indigenous people means facing the dilemma that education IS assimilation.  UNLESS educated people learn how to get under the language and assumptions so as to find a way to say convincingly to a Yupik, “It is not good for your husband to beat you.”  When Benjamin Whorf figured out that the Hopi language is based on actions rather than “objects” with edges that can be controlled, he was working at the deep level of the brain where those earliest concepts form.  Whole bodies of thought address this.  One can go to YouTube and find excellent talks.  TED Talks often address this.

We have talked about the opposition between Euro and Indigenous and many essays and books explore that.  Recently I read about the Siege of Paris in which Prussia held Paris in its grip so tightly that 6,000 citizens of Paris died of starvation.  At about the same time 600 people on the Blackfeet Reservation died of starvation because their commodities weren’t sent.  The U.S. government had to think about both in a time when few Blackfeet even spoke English, so could not advocate for themselves.  That got me thinking about Euro folks.  

The mid-continent of Europe was forming into nations and leaving feudal ways about the same time that the American east coast indigenous peoples were forced out of their life-ways.  We tend to think about the Euro/Tribal split in terms of photography, which was exploding just as the plains tribes were at war.  At the treaties, Indians were vividly depicted in their feathered buckskins alongside Victorian men in three piece suits and top hats or uniforms, which lends itself to the idea that one is of a higher culture than the other.  (At least they sat on chairs!)  This was in the 19th century, when the US had just fought a disastrous tribal war between the north and south over African people who had been dragged there against their will.  Yet they claimed to be civilized.

At the Symposium was said that if the tribe could be more like the Hutterites, they could make a lot more money.  They are a very focused group of people.  But the Hutterites fled Europe in order to escape from the 19th century "new" German nation and its innovative, capitalist, individual ways.  Hutterites are nothing like the tribal plains people were.  Their struggle has been to avoid education in order to defeat assimilation because they wish to preserve a FEUDAL way of life, a medieval pattern in which men dominate women, land is held in common, change is opposed, rules are unyielding.  To the Hutterites, the “Euros” that the Native Americans oppose are “the English,” the empire-builders.  All the nations of that period were empire builders, which gradually engulfed the Americas along with India and Africa.  Everything was trade and profit, sucked out to send back across the Atlantic.  For the Canadian Blackfoot tribes, the country was the same thing as the Hudson’s Bay Company for many years.  It was a time when religion and nation reinforced each other for the sake of profit. 

(to be continued)

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