Category Archives: New Attitude to Nature

Hopi Spirituality

The San Francisco Peaks are the hugest mountains in Arizona and they can be seen from nearly everywhere in Northern Arionza. The Peaks are sacred to the Hopi, an Indigenous People of the American Southwest.

The Hopi Reservation is entirely surrounded by Navajo lands.  The landscape is harsh and barren, so at least it appears. Actually it is far from barren. The Hopi have cultivated crops here for a thousand years.

The Hopi are deeply religious people. Their religion is a big part of their ordinary lives. Their religious ceremonies often focus on kachina which are spirit figures that symbolize nature in all of its forms. Carver wooden dolls, called kachina are ubiquitous in gift shops in the area. During the growing season kachina dancers get in on the act by representing the spiritual figures.  Through the kachina the Hopi worshipped the living plants and animals that they believed arrived each year to stay with the tribe during the growing season.

Most of the Hopi villages are on or near three of the three flat topped mesas. They are name First, Second, and Third Mesa. We drove by the first two. When we were in the area a couple of years ago we drove by 2 of them and took note of the homes at the top but we had been advised it would not be a good idea to stop and photograph them from in town as friends of ours who had lived with them for a year had told us we would not be welcome. We did photograph them from a distance and I included a photograph in an earlier post.

Currently, the Hopi  continue the agricultural practices and many of the ceremonies of their Anasazi forebears.  Hopi villages still contain underground chambers called kivas which are said to represent the hole in the ground through which it was believed people emerged into the world.  There is also a  Hopi legend, that makes a lot of sense to me, that  humanity has 3 times led to the destruction of the natural world by failing to honour the Creator’s divine  laws. However, 3 times humanity has come back into being. Let’s hope they (we) do a better job this time around.

 

Pueblo People of American Southwest

 

There are many beautiful places in the American Southwest. It is easy to feel connected to them.

One of the things I learned from the television series Native America, was that the Pueblo people of the American southwest were doing the same thing as the Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest thousands of miles away. As Robbie Robertson the narrators said, “The Pueblo people seek the same thing: to find their place in the world. They discover it in America’s Southwest.” Many times living out there, I thought I found it too. This is my place too. Maybe not my only place, but certainly my place.

The Hopi have a very complex religion with a rich mythological tradition. Just as it is with so many other religious groups, including Christians, it is not easy to find any customs or beliefs that all Hopi accept. Each village or mesa may have slightly different versions of their central myths. Some also suspect that stories told to outsiders are not genuine but merely told to tell curious people something, while holding the real versions close to themselves. Hopi people are often reluctant to share their sacred doctrines. Hopi are also often syncretic. They are willing to adopt sacred practices or beliefs from others when they find them helpful. For example if a practice helps bring rain why not use it?

Many Hopi creation stories revolve around Tawa, the sun spirit. Contemporary Hopi continue to petition Tawa for blessings for their newborn children. Tawas is the creator who formed the “First World” and its original inhabitants.

They also have interesting accounts of Masauwu or Skeleton Man who was the Spirit of Death and Master of the Upper World, or Fourth World  so that people who escaped the wickedness of the Third World could be safe in the Fourth World. Sometimes Masauwu was described as wearing a hideous mask. At other time Masauwu was described as handsome.

Maize or corn is central to Hopi subsistence and also religion. It is a central bond among people. In essence Hopi often see corn as physical sustenance, spiritual renewal, ceremonial objects and instruments of prayers. Often corn is seen as the Great Mother. In a literal sense this actually true. People who take in corn convert it into their own flesh inside their bodies.

The Hopi found their center in the American Southwest. It was the end of their migrations. They believe they are doing what Masauwu told them to do–connect to the world. Be a part of it. Indivisible from it.  This is a theme I shall return to over and over again as I discuss Indigenous religious experiences or doctrines. By finding the center place Hopi believe they have honoured the commitment they made when they entered the world.

Along the way on their spiritual journey Native Americans created Chaco, balanced between the underworld and the heavens. They found 6 directions aligned to the movement of the sun and stars all aligned to the cosmos. This is another central concept of many Indigenous religious beliefs and practices. That was why Chaco drew people from thousands of miles away. Visitors brought hallowed objects like turquoise stones, tropical bird feather, seashells, and chocolate.

In the television series, Patricia Crown said, “Both cacao and scarlet macaws are tropical species that were brought from a great distance into Pueblo Bonito. There’s no question that there was this very large area of shared beliefs in ritual activities.” Chaco was a place where people came from vast distances to share with each other what they had learned. What could be more holy than that? “People share knowledge and beliefs based on thousands of years of observing their world. They have ceremonies to influence the very forces of nature that are still practiced today.”  Hopi traditions say that Chaco was a special place to study the forces of nature. “It grows out of a deep connection with the earth, planted in time immemorial, developed over tens of thousands of years and shared across 2 continents by the pioneering people who created this world. They are Native Americans. Their teachings remain as relevant today as ever.”

Zuni

 

Jim Enote is an elder of the Ashiwi Nation, a Pueblo group in what is now New Mexico and Northern Arizona known as the Zuni. He says that when his people come to water they lift it and splash themselves with it and then they throw it in the direction of Zuni to encourage rain. They have a name for this very large area in Northern Arizona. They call it the place of emergence.  It includes what we now call the Grand Canyon and Glen Canyon. I visited large parts of the area on a number of occasions. It is incredibly beautiful. Perhaps the most beautiful on earth.

 

I don’t know the exact boundaries of Zuni territory but I believe these photos are from in or near their historical territory.

Monument Valley is in my opinion one of the most beautiful places on earth and I am surprised how few people who winter in Arizona never visit it or haven’t even heard of it.

 

In that region the Zuni produced petroglyphs that have been there for more than a thousand years. To the Zuni this is not just art; it is history. One of them shows a row of sheep descending to the water. It is an ancient lesson. To find water follow the animals.

Jim and the Zuni have been using ancient petroglyphs, images from pottery, and from tapestries, and have considered their thoughts and prayers and together with all that have been making unique maps based on these images. Those maps are unlike any other maps in the world. “Not limited by lines or topography, they depict cultural landscapes and living memories.” Jim Enote put it this way,  in the documentary series Native America that I watched this past winter, “The Zuni maps represent the world without defined boundaries.”

Many people are familiar with maps that contain streets and roads. But there is another way. The Zuni have found one of those other ways. As Enote said, “When they see Zuni hand painted maps, they realize there is a different way of looking at the world.” Isn’t that what travel and education are all about, finding different ways of looking at the world? Isn’t this why we converse with people of different cultures? Is this not what the world of ideas is all about? This is why I watch television shows like this one.

This different way of looking at the world is shared across North America. It is a reverence for place. Sacred caves, underground sanctuaries, grand canyons, real physical connections to earth. Its why many call it Mother Earth.

People like Enote when they visit a place like the Grand Canyon, with its steep walls of red rock, like those I saw at Canyon de Chelly, or Monument Valley, both in the same area, get the feeling that they are in a womb. They are inside Mother Earth. That is a deep and powerful connection! Enote said, in front of an incredible film of Horseshoe Canyon where I stood 2 years, “This is the place we came from so the river is like an umbilical cord. It’s all part of the Mother. The Mother is where we begin. Its our ultimate reference point.” Now that is a real connection to the physical earth.

I took this photo of Horseshoe Canyon getting as close to the edge as a person who is deathly afraid of heights could get. When he said that, I could not help but recollect the words of Paul Tillich that profound German theologian who defined God as our ultimate concern.

Connection between Hopi and Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest

I am still thinking about civilization and whether or Europeans who arrived in the Americas had a monopoly on it, as many of them thought, and as many of their descendants still think.

A few years ago some good friends of ours lived on a Hopi Reservation for about a year. They invited us down to visit but I am sorry to say we did not go.  That was a big mistake. We could have learned a lot. The Hopi, like so many Indigenous peoples of North America have a lot to teach us. Chris and I went on our own a couple of years ago, but frankly learned very little.

I did learn a bit about Hopi culture from watching a television series this winter on PBS called Native America.

In my last post on this subject, I mentioned how Chaco in northern New Mexico was connected with the Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest. Now I want to mention that the Hopi, many of whom now live in Northern Arizona, make pilgrimages to Chaco in northern New Mexico because they want to maintain their connection to places like Yupköyvi (Chaco in the Hopi language). As a result, there may be a connection to the ancient ceremonies of the Hopi back in Chaco and they are in turn connected too with the Amazon Rainforest To the Indigenous people, the Americas was a small world.

Chaco was built in northeast New Mexico between 900 and 1150 and it covered an area roughly the size of modern San Francisco. That is a pretty big city. And of course at that time people had no buses to get around as they do in San Francisco.

There were 12 great houses in the center of Chaco. They were 5 stories high and contained up to 800 rooms. “These were the biggest buildings in what will be the United States until the 1800s.” They also built cave like gathering places throughout the city. At one time they were covered but those roofs have long since collapsed. They are called kivas. The Hopis still use them in Arizona for special ceremonies conducted by men and women.

1,000-year old Kivasare very important to the Hopi. The rituals inside kivas centered on rainmaking, healing, hunting, all to ensure the continuation of life.” All of these were vitally important to the Hopi people. They often smoked pipes as part of the ceremonies. Like Indigenous people of the Canadian prairies, smoking, to the Hopis is a form of prayer. They meditate while smoking. They pray for rain, long life and abundance. Not that different from Christian prayers when you think of it. People pray to get stuff. But Leigh Kuwandwisiwma, a Hopi, said it is more than that. “We pray to the environment,” he says. And they are part of that environment. “We take the time to contemplate the power around us, the bird world, the reptilian world, the animal world, the insect world, are all part of who we are the Hopi People,” he says. It is a very different attitude to nature.

To Pueblo people of the American Southwest and Hopi people some of their modern corn is also sacred. It is their life-blood. Offering it to earth is a sacred offering. As the smoke carries prayers to the winds Leigh sprinkled cornmeal into the fire and it rose as part of the smoke. “It is a ritual that connects the Hopi to their origin story.”

Many North American Native people believe that they emerged from the earth. I accept these stories with respect. I do not accept them as literal reports of what happened, any more than I accept the story of Noah’s ark carrying two of all species on earth in his ark as a literal rendering of what happened. For example, I don’t think there were 2 blue whales on that ark, or 2 mammoths or 2 tigers. The story of Noah’s ark, like the creation stories of North American Native people are important however. They speak a profound truth. It is just not a literal truth. Sometimes those stories are difficult to interpret.  That does not mean we should discard them. That just means we should work harder to interpret them.

“Many Native American people share a belief that they emerged from the earth. Hopi and ‘Pueblo traditions say that the place of emergence is beneath America’s best known natural wonder, the Grand Canyon. 5 million people visit each year, they come to connect with its natural beauty, but Pueblo people have an even deeper connection. This is their birth place.”

I like that story. Imagine emerging from the Grand Canyon. That would be pretty spectacular. It certainly does not seem any less civilized than the creation story in the Bible.

The Original sin

 

Some of my Catholic friends might be surprised that a heathen like me believes in original sin. But it’s true. It is just that it is a little different form the original sin they are supposed to believe in.

When Europeans arrived in North America, (they did not discover it for it had been there a very long time) they came with that a lot of baggage. In particular they came with arrogance epitomized by that famous European attitude of superiority. They were better than everyone and more important than everything else. Everything was subordinate to them. I think this attitude was best exemplified by Cecil Rhodes that famous English colonialist from Africa. He said, “We happen to be the best people in the world. And the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for humanity.”These attitudes led to the genocide of indigenous people, barbarous enslavement of African-Americans, domination of women by men, the debasement of all religions except their own nasty versions of Christianity, and the subjugation of nature to the will and power of men.  This genocide Tzvetan Todorov in his book The Conquest of America called the “the greatest genocide in history.” Those attitudes were the original sin of the western hemisphere—the Americas.

The original inhabitants of North America had a very different attitude. Their attitude was more like this:

“Native America is alive. Its roots stretch back 13,000 years…to America’s original explorers. New people who create a new world. From North to  South America distant peoples share one common belief a deep connection to Earth, sky, water and all living things.”

The original explorers of the western hemisphere were not Europeans. They came here long before then. They came before the Egyptians built the pyramids. They came before Christ was born. They were different. They avoided the original sin. Fundamentally, they had a different attitude to nature and to people. They were the ancestors to the Indigenous people of today.

Teresa Ryan, in a recent PBS documentary series, Native America,  put it well, “We are part of this forest as much as the forest is part of us.” This is a fundamentally different attitude to nature and to all living things in it.

Beau Dick, n the same series,  added to that: “All of our ceremonies illustrate that one notion connectedness— not only with our fellow beings with animals and other creatures, but with all of creation.”

This attitude I have called Affinity. This is my word. I have applied it to this philosophy because I wanted a convenient handle. I considered the expression “being-in-the-world” invented by Martin Heidegger. But his philosophy is very difficult and  I am not sure I entirely understand it. He really uses it to apply just to humans, so it seems to me, but it does latch onto the very important basic notion that we are not separate and apart from nature. We are not alienated from it. We not apart from the world; we are a part of the world! We cannot hope to understand humans unless we take into consideration that they are part of the world. But, in my view, unlike Heidegger’s, this applies to all beings not just human beings.

From this fundamental principle, so different from the Europeans who later invaded their territory, a multitude of important consequences flow. As the PBS documentary Native America, said, “From this deep respect for nature, people create great nations.” That does not mean they were perfect. Not at all. But they were different in important respects. They had a lot they could contribute to the invaders, and they had a lot to learn from them. It is however very difficult, as the Europeans found after they invaded, to learn from the other whom you despise or at least do not respect. Feelings of supremacy are not a sound basis for learning. This does not mean they learned nothing from their hosts. It is just that they could have learned so much more had their feelings of superiority been blunted.

Many of the nations in the New World grappled with war and peace. They “develop governments from dictatorships to a democracy that will inspire the United States constitution.” Yet amazingly, here comes that powerful feeling of superiority again, that same constitution contained racist presumptions of superiority that helped to install the original sin as the basis of their society and has to this day prevented the United States from healing from that fundamental sin against at least 3 groups of people; Native Americans and African-Americans, and lets not forget, women. Of course, these white men also presumed to be superior to women.  That was also part of the fundamental sin of white male supremacy that still haunts the United States,  Canada, and frankly this entire western hemisphere. Not that the other hemisphere is much better. The other aspect of white male supremacy is supremacy over all animals, and even, all of nature. This last bias is still the least understood of these presumptions, but I believe eventually we will catch on that this too was a powerful illusion. It too has had a profound effect the west.

Sadly, the Europeans who arrived in the New World thought they were superior to the natives they found, to anyone who was not white, to women, and to all of nature. As a result they often failed to learn from their “inferiors.”

That deep sense of superiority drove the settlers in the New World and ultimately poisoned their relationship with indigenous peoples and African-American slaves.  The west is still suffering from that influence and non-Indigenous must recognized that ill influence or that relationship will never be whole.

 

David Suzuki and the Indigenous Attitude to Nature

At the University of Winnipeg talk after showing the film Beyond Climate, Suzuki also discussed a new attitude to nature. He  began by talking about the American economy.

After World War II and the end of the Great Depression, America President Franklin Roosevelt realized that the war economy had saved capitalism from self-destruction. But a war economy carries with it enormous unpalatable costs far beyond mere economic costs. He realized that what it needs is consumption. Constant relentless consumption. That was his solution.

Of course what the United States has actually done is to maintain both a consumer economy and war economy. The U.S. spends as much on the military as the 9 countries that are next in line, spend combined.

Suzuki thought we needed a better way. Climate change was just one of the things such an attitude had ushered in. He said  he had learned a lot from indigenous people. In fact he said, “Indigenous people have taught me all I know.” This was important because much of the film dealt with the opposition of First Nations to the plans of Alberta and the Canadian government to build pipelines from the Oil Sands of Alberta to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) or oil or bitumen to the coast of British Columbia. Alberta was upset that the federal government could not ram through the pipeline approval process. Of course that is just not feasible. Those days are done. The Supreme Court won’t put up with it.

In the late 1970s Suzuki realized that we needed a new attitude to nature. And he found it. He found it in the 1980s when he went to interview indigenous people at Haida Gwaii. He wanted to talk to them about the protests by indigenous people over logging on their land. He talked to forest company executives, environmentalists, politicians, and, most importantly Haida. That was how he met Guujaaw a young artist who was leading the Haida opposition to the logging.

Suzuki wondered why the Haida were so vehemently opposed to logging since many of their own people got jobs with  logging companies. And many of them badly needed jobs. Suzuki asked him, “What would happen if the trees were cut down?”  His reply was profound, but Suzuki did not realize at first how profound. Guujaaw said, “Then we’ll be like everyone else, I guess.”

A few days later Suzuki thought about that answer and it “opened a window on a radically different way of seeing the world.” As we keep getting reports from the World Wildlife Fund and others about the incredible impact humans are having on the world, I think a new attitude to nature is exactly what we badly need. Suzuki explained it this way,

“Guujaaw and the Haida do not see themselves as ending at their skin or fingertips. Of course they would still be around physically if the trees were all gone, but a part of what it is to be Haida would be lost.  The trees, fish, birds, air, water, and rocks are all part of who the Haida are. The land and everything on it embody their history, their culture, the very reasons why Haida are on this earth. Sever that connection and they become ‘like everybody else.”

Indigenous people around the world have similar attitudes. They  are based on a deep attachment to the land they occupy. They are connected to that environment. It is part of who they are. Suzuki like other people from the west had a different attitude to nature and that has made all the difference. To the Haida, and other indigenous people, and as Suzuki concluded,

 

“…there is no environment ‘out there,’ separate and apart from us; I came to realize that we are the environment. Leading science corroborates this ancient understanding that whatever we do to the environment or to anything else, we do directly to ourselves.The ‘environmental’ crisis is a ‘human’ crisis; we are at the centre of it as both the cause the victims.”

 Suzuki realized he had found the new perspective he needed. It allowed him to see the world through different eyes.  He realized, as the Haida had before him, that what we needed to survive and thrive was not more money in order to live rich and healthy lives. This new attitude to nature was reflected in all the Haida did and found its fruits in how they wanted to interact with the land. As Suzuki said, “Rather than being separate and apart from the rest of nature, we are deeply embedded in and utterly dependent on the generosity of the biosphere.” I use the word “affinity” to describe this new attitude to nature. I will comment on again in these blogs.

It is this attitude that Albertans don’t understand. It is not just a matter of paying the Indigenous people money. They want jobs, they want money, but not at any cost. They don’t want it at the cost of their identity. That is why some of the indigenous people, but not all of them, do not want pipelines on their land and will sacrifice the jobs if necessary. I know that seems bizarre to Albertans and most Canadians for that matter. Alberta and Canada have to learn to respect that. Only then will they be able to successfully deal with Canada’s first nations.  And perhaps Canada will learn something valuable in the process. Perhaps there is something of value in that new attitude to nature.

Gimme Some Truth; Beyond Climate

I attended the showing of a new film on climate change at the University of Winnipeg in November  2018 as part of the Cinematheque Gimme Some Truth documentary film festival. The film was called Beyond Climate Change and was directed by Ian Mauro of the University of Winnipeg and narrated by David Suzuki. Cinematography was by Len Peterson. The showing was followed by a discussion between Mauro and Suzuki during which  Suzuki delivered a stirring address that all the ingredients of a lively religious Revival. I called it a secular revival.

The film was preceded by an important message by First Nation elder Dave Courchene of Manitoba. He emphasized some important matters. I will paraphrase his remarks since it was impossible to make an accurate word-for-word transcription. He said that climate change was a direct consequence of our moral failure to follow our moral obligation to moderate our consumption and protect the earth. Our consumptive society, he said, is based on fear, greed, anxiety, stress, discontent, and ultimately genocide. Those were unsettling words. He said, “We are a species out of control.”  This attitude comes from looking at the earth as a non-living entity.  “We need a change of heart to survive as a species,” he quietly but powerful said. We must remember, as aboriginals have always preached, “What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.” This of course follows from the fundamental premise of many indigenous people that we are fundamentally connected to the earth; we are not separate and apart from it. We have to renew the spirit—i.e. we need to awaken our deep feeling of kinship and affinity with each other and the earth itself. I have already blogged about how this is in my opinion a deeply religions notion.

Courchene added, “We need to disengage with a life that is not in alignment with the earth and aboriginals have an important role to play in this process. They can help the rest of us do this.”

Early in the film Suzuki quoted from American poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder. He was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Petr Kopecký called him “the Poet laureate of Deep Ecology”. Snyder, according to Suzuki said that the two most important words were “Stay Put.” I think he meant that we should resist being removed from the place we call home. We should stay connected to it. That is our base for all we do. We should not sell that home to anyone for money. That is what the first nations of British Columbia are doing when they refuse to sell rights to oil and gas companies to build a pipeline over their land to the Pacific Ocean.

Suzuki pointed out that “climate change is the critical—the existential issue of our times. The science has been in for 30 years. We know that the problems our children and grand children face will be immense.”

If you think this is alarmist or bat shit crazy here is what the World Health Organization had to say. Climate change is “the greatest threat to global health in the 21stcentury.” “Climate change is a global emergency.” But it is not all bad news.  The policies that we must adopt have demonstrable health benefits beside the climate benefits! However our Canadian government that held such promise when the newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canada was committed to the Paris agreement on climate change, has been disappointing. Committing billions to supporting the purchase of a pipeline for bitumen without adequately assessing its effects on health or the environment is a big step in the wrong direction. As Tim K. Takaro and Jennifer Miller said, “Our government must invest in solutions to, not the causes of, climate change.”

The film emphasized what we already know, particularly after this horrific year that brought us record wild fires, spectacular storms, and brutal heat waves, and that is that extreme weather events will relentlessly plague us and we had better get ready for that. This is not how things are supposed to be, but this how they are. As Suzuki said, “the entire planet is at risk because humans have become so powerful that we are actually impacting the water, the air, the soil in a way that no other species has ever done.”

Albertans are very upset that BC and some indigenous nations are objecting to their project to bring liquefied natural gas and oil to the Pacific coast through the province of British Columbia and over indigenous land. But what do they think gives them the absolute right to bring a project to the land of others without their consent? Just because such projects produce a lot of money? As one indigenous leader said in the film, “Fundamentally there are just some projects that Canadians, and indigenous peoples, and British Columbians have the right to say no to.” As another leader said, “It is not just about corporate quarterly profits.” Another indigenous leader said, “I don’t feel comfortable pushing this off to my children.” These leaders summed up the issue precisely. Albertans by and large don’t understand this. Each of us has to take responsibility for this issue. We all have to do our part.

I liked many things about the film. For example, I liked the sign held high by one of the protesters: All you need is less. That is what we always forget and this is the problem. We always want more. I loved another sign, “Live gently upon the earth.”

I liked the scene in the film where a young aboriginal boy made a sensational jump when he drove his bike into the wall of a sandbox filled with a big mattress. The photographer caught him in midflight as he lifted off after hitting the board “flying” through the air completely horizontal, with a massive grin on his face and a bright gleam in his eye. The boy was obviously confident that he would hit the mattress. He knew he was resilient. He had hope.

I loved the comments about British Columbia and Vancouver in the film designed to explain to us why many of them  opposed pipelines into their bay up the coast. I did not know it, but Vancouver is the major city with the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emission in North America. This has been achieved at the same time that Vancouver has undergone significant growth: 27 per cent increase in population and 18 per cent increase in jobs. They are justifiably proud of that.  Why would they want to lose that? I wonder how much of this achievement is the consequence of their carbon tax?

Suzuki was interviewed for his views a number of times in the film. He was clearly sad that although fishing had always been a very important part of his life from the time he was 4 years old, he could not fish in the streams outside of Vancouver anymore. He could not bring his grand children to those streams. That is a pity. Not only that, it is important. It is not all about money. As one indigenous leader said, “you can’t eat money.”

I won’t say that I learned a lot new from the film, but it did inspire. The talk that followed did more than that. Suzuki in particular was in fine form. His speech was powerful. It was a secular revival. My kind of revival.