We begin today with Native American Wisdom, a collection of provocative quotations attributed to sundry indigenous sages. Here are a few of the questions and comments they’ve provoked in me. Tell me yours.
“All things are connected,” of course– whether Seattle said so or not– but just how intimately? Is the universe “internally” and determinately wired, or are the relations between us and our world loose enough to sustain our ambition and initiative?
And, just how much bigger is Mother Earth than you and me? How much does she suffer our collective foolishness and our consumptive excess? How much can we actually perturb and derange long-term ecological interrelationships and regional or planetary biodiversity? Do we give her too little credit, and ourselves too much?
We all spend forever on this rock, Annie Dillard once wrote, mostly “tucked under.” So the question of how we regard our ancestors, tucked already, is at the same time a question of how we see ourselves spending eternity. For those inclined to take the long view, it is a sacred question: the earth is home, now and always, to wave upon wave of human aspiration and repose. It is incubator and sacred burial ground alike.
Native peoples famously revere the spirit of both the land and all the life upon it, and still they hold the humans to special account: “A man who would not love his father’s grave is worse than a wild animal.” Humans bring something new to the wild world. Human nature is larger than nature per se, in this respect, but is also inseparably a part of it. Human culture is “civilized” but it often needs the tonic of wildness. What does this complicated condition say about us? What special obligations, of an ethical nature, does it impose?
Philosophical naturalists are not necessarily natural lovers of Nature, but indigenous naturalists always are. They’re born conservationists. But, conservatives, with respect to technology and science and “progress”? Is there a form of change naturalists can or should believe in?
I always think of native peoples as tribally territorial, deeply imbued with a sense of place; but at least one of the native speakers we read today chooses to emphasize the concept of homeland as open and unbounded, not so much a particular place as an expansive and figurative landscape, a stage for uncircumscribed movement by free peoples across space and time. How different is that, I wonder, from the combustible freedom of mobility we celebrate in our own time? When people nowadays re-locate for work or whim, and cruise for personal amusement, are they free? Or just untethered?
“It does not require many words to speak the truth.” How many words will we need to address this? Too many, no doubt. But this is the most interesting question I’ve found so far, in my own reflections on native wisdom. A proclivity for more silent forethought might be the most important thing we can hope to learn. Guess we’ll have to talk ourselves into it. [words… talked out…Reality (conceptual shotguns)]
“We do not want riches. We want peace and love.” Another big challenge to the heirs of western ideology: is our civilization’s commitment to the perpetual expansion of wealth compatible with the other, simpler, humbler virtues we say we honor?
On the question of education, it’s hard not to feel one’s cheeks redden when reading Canassatego’s polite repudiation of “the white man’s kind of education.” Thoreau issued the same indictment in Walden, of the practical disutility of so much that we call “higher education.” Why don’t we all study “cabin building” and, if not deerslaying, then at least gathering, planting, and harvesting?
“We shall soon pass, but the place where we now rest will last forever.” Or, as I usually prefer to put it: “the things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves…” We should be teaching our children that, too.
And what about a sense of humility before “the Great Mystery”? If anything, such an attitude would actually reinforce the vaunted presuppositionlessness of the scientific quest.
“A pause giving time for thought was the truly courteous way of beginning and conducting a conversation.” But we hate the silent pauses, don’t most of us, most of the time? That’s a correctable deficiency on our parts, isn’t it? From fear of being taken for slow half-wits we leap into the breach, too glib to be good. A council of elders would find our typical exchanges brash and impudent. They’d want nothing to do with our classrooms, our courtrooms, our interview exchanges. Don’t you sometimes feel the same way? Don’t you frequently find yourself wanting to push your interlocutors’ “mute” buttons, if only they had them?
I’ll give you a few moments to think about that. And I’ll shut up now, just for now. Your turn. Take your time.
Next time: Bruce Wilshire’s Primal Roots of American Philosophy.