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Native Americans

North American Indians: the spirituality of nature

A history of pantheism* and panentheism by Paul Harrison.

Featured, Dec. 12, 1996.

Are you a pantheist? Find out now at Scientific Pantheism.



Every seed is awakened and so is all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being and we therefore yield to our animal neighbours the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.

Sitting Bull


The environmental wisdom and spirituality of North American Indians is legendary.

Animals were respected as equal in rights to humans. Of course they were hunted, but only for food, and the hunter first asked permission of the animal's spirit. Among the hunter-gatherers the land was owned in common: there was no concept of private property in land, and the idea that it could be bought and sold was repugnant. Many Indians had an appreciation of nature's beauty as intense as any Romantic poet.

Religious beliefs varied between tribes, but there was a widespread belief in a Great Spirit who created the earth, and who pervaded everything. This was a panentheist rather than a pantheist belief. But the pantheistic tone was far stronger than among Christians, and more akin to the pantheism of William Wordsworth. It was linked to an animism which saw kindred spirits in all animals and plants.

The Indians viewed the white man's attitude to nature as the polar opposite of the Indian. The white man seemed hell-bent on destroying not just the Indians, but the whole natural order, felling forests, clearing land, killing animals for sport.

Of course, not everything that every Indian tribe did was wonderfully earth-wise and conservation-minded. The Anasazi of Chaco Canyon probably helped to ruin their environment and destroy their own civilization through deforestation. In the potlatch the Kwakiutl regularly burned heaps of canoes, blankets and other possessions simply to prove their superiority to each other; the potlatch is the archetypal example of wanton overconsumption for status. Even the noble plains Indians often killed far more bisons than they needed, in drives of up to 900 animals.

In other words, the Indians were not an alien race of impossibly wonderful people. They were human just like the rest of us. And in that lies hope.

Wisdom derives from way of life, and is as fragile as nature. Many Indians shared their animism, their respect for nature and their attitude to the land with other hunter-gatherers. But when ways of life change, beliefs change to support them. The advent of agriculture and then industry brought massive shifts in attitudes to nature (see How we fell from unity.)

Beliefs can also change ways of life. Our present way of life is laying waste to the environment that supports us. New beliefs can help us to change that way of life, and in arriving at those beliefs, we can learn immensely from the beliefs of the North American Indians.

Perhaps the most famous of all Indian speeches about the environment is the beautiful speech of Chief Seattle of the Squamish tribe of the Pacific Northwest USA. But alas, Seattle's "environmental" speech was written by scriptwriter Ted Perry, in the winter of 1971/72, for a Canadian film on ecology, and attributed to Seattle for aesthetic effect. It is still a brilliant piece of work which distills the essence of many scattered Indian speeches. Those who wish to read Perry's piece can follow the above link. Also read in full Seattle's original speech, a moving lament on the passing of the Indian, but with only a fraction of the ecological awareness.

In a sense it's a pity that the story came out - it undermined a very fruitful myth. But by assembling the wisdom from many different Indian speakers and writers, as I have tried to do below, it is possible to glimpse that same embracing pantheistic attitude to the earth.


Selected passages.


Respect for Nature


Every part of this soil is sacred - Squamish.

[This is part of Chief Seattle's original speech of 1854, as reported by Henry Smith in 1887].

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground … Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant lined lakes and bays …

Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as the swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch.

It matters little where we pass the remnant of our days. They will not be many … Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance … A few more moons, a few more winters, and not one of the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this broad land or lived in happy homes, protected by the Great Spirit, will remain to mourn over the graves of a people once more powerful and hopeful than yours.

But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people? Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man … cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see.

Seealth, chief of the Squamish, 1854, as reported by Henry Smith in the Seattle Sunday Star, 1887.


We thank you mother, the Earth - Delaware.

We are thankful to the East because everyone feels good in the morning when they awake, and sees the bright light coming from the East; and when the Sun goes down in the West we feel good and glad we are well; then we are thankful to the West. And we are thankful to the North, because when the cold winds come we are glad to have lived to see the leaves fall again; and to the South, for when the south wind blows and everything is coming up in the spring, we are glad to live to see the grass growing and everything green again. We thank the Thunders, for they are the manitous that bring the rain, which the Creator has given them power to rule over. And we thank our mother, the Earth, whom we claim as mother because the Earth carries us and everything we need.

Charley Elkhair, quoted in M. R. Harrington, Religion and Ceremonies of the Lenape, Indian Notes and Monographs, Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, vol 19 (1921).


Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky and water was a real and active principle - Lakota.

The Lakota was a true naturist - a lover of nature. He loved the earth and all things of the earth, the attachment growing with age. The old people came literally to love the soil and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power. It was good for the skin to touch the earth and the old people liked to remove their moccasins and walk with bare feet on the sacred earth. Their tepees were built upon the earth and their altars were made of earth, and it was the final abiding place of all things that lived and grew. The soil was soothing, strengthening, cleansing and healing.

That is why the old Indian still sits upon the earth instead of propping himself up and away from its life-giving forces. For him, to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply and to feel more keenly; he can see more clearly into the mysteries of life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him.

Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky and water was a real and active principle. For the animal and bird world there existed a brotherly feeling that kept the Lakotas safe among them and so close did some of the Lakotas come to their feathered and furred friends that in true brotherhood they spoke a common tongue.

The old Lakota was wise. He knew that man's heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans, too. So he kept his youth close to its softening influence.

In the Indian the spirit of the land is vested; it will be until other men are able to divine and meet its rhythm. Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers' bones.

[The Indian] was kin to all living things and he gave to all creatures equal rights with himself. Everything of earth was loved and reverenced.

As yet I know of no species that was exterminated until the coming of the white man … The white man considered animal life just as he did the natural man life upon this continent as "pests." There is no word in the Lakota vocabulary with the English meaning of this word … Forests were mown down, the buffalo exterminated, the beaver driven to extinction and his wonderfully constructed dams dynamited … and the very birds of the air silenced … The white man has come to be the symbol of extinction for all things natural in this continent. Between him and the animal there is no rapport and they have learned to flee from his approach, for they cannot live on the same ground.

Chief Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle, Houghton Mifflin, Boston & New York, 1933.


The earth has received the embraces of the sun - Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Teton Sioux.

Behold, my brothers, the spring has come; the earth has received the embraces of the sun and we shall soon see the results of that love!

Every seed has awakened and so has all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being and we therefore yield to our neighbours, even our animal neighbours, the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.

Yet hear me, my people, we have now to deal with another race - small and feeble when our fathers first met them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possessions is a disease with them … They claim this mother of ours, the earth, for their own, and fence their neighbours away; they deface her with their buildings and their refuse.

They threaten to take [the land] away from us. My brothers, shall we submit, or shall we say to them: "First kill me before you take possession of my Fatherland."

Speech at the Powder River Council, 1877.

Look at me, and look at the earth. Which is the oldest, do you think? The earth, and I was born on it … It does not belong to us alone: it was our fathers', and should be our children's after us.

Maiden Speech p 270

I wish all to know that I do not propose to sell any part of my country, nor will I have the whites cutting our timber along the rivers, more especially the oak. I am particularly fond of the little groves of oak trees. I love to look at them, because they endure the wintry storm and the summer's heat and, not unlike ourselves, seem to flourish by them.

Stanley Vestal, Sitting Bull, Houghton Mifflin, 1932.


The Spirit in all things


All days are God's - Santee Dakota.

Whenever, in the course of the daily hunt the red hunter comes upon a scene that is strikingly beautiful or sublime - a black thundercloud with the rainbow's glowing arch about the mountains, a white waterfall in the heart of a green gorge; a vast prairie tinged with the blood-red of sunset - he pauses for an instant in the attitude of worship. He sees no need for setting apart one day in seven as a holy day, since to him all days are God's.

Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), The Soul of the Indian Houghton Mifflin, Boston & New York, 1911.


Spirits are all about us - Wintu.

God is called the Great Spirit. I have studied both sides of religion and I believe the Indians have more real religion than the whites … Spirits are all about us - in a gust of wind, or a light wind whirling around our door, that is a family spirit of our loved ones, wanting to know that we are safe.

Grant Towendolly in Helen Hogue, Wintu Trail,, Shasta Historical Society, Redding, Ca., 1977.


God is within all things - Oglala Sioux.

We should know that all things are the works of the Great Spirit. We should know that He is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples; and even more important, we should understand that He is also above these things and peoples.

[The holy white buffalo woman explains the use of the sacred pipe:]
"With this sacred pipe you will walk upon the Earth, for the Earth is your Grandmother and Mother, and She is sacred. Every step that is taken upon her should be as a prayer … All these peoples, and all the things of the universe, are joined to you who smoke the pipe - all send their voices to the Great Spirit. When you pray with this pipe, you pray for and with everything … Every dawn as it comes is a holy event, and every day is holy, for the light comes from your Father Wakan-Tanka; and also you must remember that the two-leggeds and all the other peoples who stand upon the earth are sacred and should be treated as such. All the fruits of the wingeds, the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds are sacred and should be treated as such.

Black Elk, The Sacred Pipe, ed Joseph Brown, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1972.


All that we see of Him is the blue of the sky; but He is everywhere - Lakota.

[The Lakota priest Finger talks to J. R. Walker. In Lakota the presence of God is called Taku Skanskan or Skan.]

What causes the stars to fall?

Taku Skanskan He causes everything that falls to fall, and he causes everything to move that moves.

When you move, what is that causes you to move?

Skan.

If an arrow is shot from a bow what causes it to move through the air?

Skan … Taku Skanskan gives the spirit to the bow, and He causes it to send the arrow from it.

What causes smoke to go upward?

Taku Skanskan

What causes water to flow in a river?

Skan

What causes the clouds to move over the world?

Skan

Lakota have told me that the Skan is the sky. Is that so?

Yes. Skan is a Spirit and all that mankind can see of Him is the blue of the sky; but He is everywhere.

The Sun Dance of the Teton Dakota, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, XVI, Part II.



PANTHEISM

is a profound feeling of reverence for Nature and the wider Universe
It fuses religion and science, and concern for humans with concern for nature.
It provides the most solid basis for environmental ethics.
It is a religion that requires no faith other than common sense,
no revelation other than open eyes and a mind open to evidence,
no guru other than your own self.
For an outline, see Basic principles of scientific pantheism. Top.

Scientific Pantheism: index.
Join the World Pantheist Movement


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© Paul Harrison 1997.