Saturday, November 11, 2017

Robert G. Brown on The Great Spirit

Robert G. Brown is, apparently a professor of physics at Duke University. He also has an interest in theology and has written on the Natives' "Great Spirit" whom, among others, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison invoked by name when speaking to the Natives and referencing God.

A taste:
The Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka, Gitchi Manitou of Native American cultures) is a beautiful example of a non-theistic belief in an active, personal, non-anthropomorphic Deity that is intertwined with the fabric of the Universe itself on the large scale and yet is personally engaged with the web of living things and the world on an earthly scale. These cultures are not completely homogeneous, and there are a variety of creation mythologies that need not concern us as (in my opinion at least) these cultures have always been aware that their mythologies are myths, that their legends are legends, that their sacred stories are stories, and thus they have avoided the curse of socially enforced orthodoxy or any sort of insistence on ``belief''. The myths themselves are intended and used as teaching stories that guide individual behavior in ways that support the individual and the community, not as metaphysical speculation. These religions also seem to lack the hellfire and damnation meme - the Great Spirit doesn't punish people for being bad, doesn't inflict eternal torment on people for ``not believing in It''. In these cultures, a life out of balance with the Great Spirit, with the earth, with the community is its own punishment.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Or not.

To try to describe the Lakota (Sioux) concept of "wakan" would be much like trying to put down a few paragraphs and accurately and amply sum up "God." It can't be done. Wakan is so faceted in nature it would be impossible to describe it all in words, but the following is an attempt to convey just a inkling of what it is all about.

Lakota Great Spirit
In the world of the Lakota, the word wakan means many things, yet nothing that is easily understood. Even among the Lakota themselves a great deal of thought and study is necessary in a quest to understand the concept of wakan.

Those who travel among the Lakota hear them speak of their beliefs in wakan by many names: Wakan Tanka, Tunkashila, Taku SkanSkan, Great Spirit, Grandfather. The traveler might ask "Are these names for one being or for many?" The answer would have to be both.

To the Lakota, those which made everything are Wakan Tanka. Though wakan have separate meanings unto them selves, Wakan Tanka can be loosely interpreted as "wakan" as "mystery" and "tanka" as "something great." And being the "creators," the Wakan Tanka also are Wakanpi, those things above mankind. They are never born and they never die. The Wakanpi, spirits, have power over everything on earth and control everything mankind does. There are benevolent Wakanpi that will bestow the wishes man asks of them, and evil Wakanpi that are to be feared.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Neither did President Washington think the natives were fine just the way they were:

"You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.

Congress will do everything they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it...

And I pray God He may make your Nation wise and strong."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yes that's the only time in GW's recorded words he ever used the words Jesus Christ. Not written in his hand, but signed by him.

And the context is interesting. GW was not suggesting the Indians convert, but rather they had already decided and he was nodding his head in approval.

Elsewhere GW did say he thought it a good idea for Indians to convert to Christianity its instrumental or civilizational reasons.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Despite her harsh rhetoric, Chris Rodda provides some instructive context here with footnotes:

This is what the Indians wrote to GW on May 10, 1779:

"5th. That the said Delaware Nation have established a Town where numbers of them have embraced Christianity under the Instruction of the Reverend and worthy Mr David Ziesberger whose honest zealous Labours & good Examples have Induced many of them to listen to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has been a means of introducing considerable order, Regularity and love of Peace into the Minds of the whole Nation -- the[y] therefore hope Congress will countenance & promote the Mission of this Gentleman, so far away as they may deem expedient; and they may rely that the Delaware Nation will afford every encouragement thereto in their power.(6)"

To which he replied on May 12:

"Brothers: I am glad you have brought three of the Children of your principal Chiefs to be educated with us. I am sure Congress will open the Arms of love to them, and will look upon them as their own Children, and will have them educated accordingly. This is a great mark of your confidence and of your desire to preserve the friendship between the Two Nations to the end of time, and to become One people with your Brethren of the United States. My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.(7)"

Tom Van Dyke said...
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Tom Van Dyke said...

therefore what?

JMS said...

Federal Indian policy was the most egregious violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause in U.S. history, for at least 100 years (1817 to 1928). The quotes cited from Washington, Jefferson and Madison demonstrate clearly that Christianity was seen by these founders as the spearhead for federal Indian “civilization” policy, rather than any understanding of, or appreciation for, Indian sacred ways.

From at least the Monroe administration (1817), Congress appropriated taxpayer funds to various Christian (overwhelmingly Protestant in that era) denominations, and then franchised them out to various Native communities. As Colin Calloway put it, “Indian responses to Christianity were varied, involved complex cultural interactions, and changed over time.” (First Peoples 5th edition, p. 141) The Native American response was varied, rather than monolithic, and ranged from accommodation to resistance. Even those who adopted Christianity, it had more to do with survival than acceptance or assimilation.

I think Professor Brown is correct when he generalizes (always a dangerous thing to do when trying to make a sweeping statement about “500 nations”) about Native American ceremonial life being focused primarily on addressing “life out of balance.” Most of the powerful and best-known prophet-led Native religious revitalization movements (see short list below) arose during eras of cultural loss. They ranged from the founding of the Iroquois League prior to European contact, up to the founding of the Native American Church in 1917.

Short list:
Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish in 1680;
Neolin (Delaware prophet) with Pontiac against the British in 1763;
Tenskwatawa (Shawnee prophet) and his brother Tecumseh against the U.S. in the early 19th century;
Paiute Wovoka’s late 19th century Ghost Dance

In each case, Native peoples attributed their misfortunes to corruption by European Americans, and advocated the restoration of traditional Native rituals, beliefs, and practices.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Native American 'religion' was an ill-defined pantheism. The 'Great Spirit' has little or nothing in common with the Biblical God.

This is a rabbit hole.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yet Washington, Jefferson and Madison all used the title "The Great Spirit" when speaking to uncoverted Native Americans.

As to similarities of attributes, I can't vouch for how accurate Brown's account is. He claims TGS is active and personal.

And this:

"In these cultures, a life out of balance with the Great Spirit, with the earth, with the community is its own punishment."

There certainly is a theme within Christianity that views sin and violation of the natural law this way: That doing such is its own punishment and will not lead to true happiness. Which is also Aristotle's Eudaimonia.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"a life out of balance with the Great Spirit"

also fits pantheism

what it appears is that the Anglo-American founders had no real understanding of

Wakan Tanka, the Lakota Sioux name for “Great Spirit,” “Great Mystery,” or Supreme Being, is an amalgamation of a dominant Father sky god, Mother Earth, and numerous spirits who control the elements as well as human life.

In fact, perhaps the Native Americans who found Christianity appealing embraced it precisely because it offered a far more personal and powerful metaphysical dynamic.

The Lakota also had the Happy Hunting Ground, a sort of heaven but not exactly, according to this.

The stuff about the Ghost Dancer cult is interesting. The NAs wanted there to be a hell, so the white men could go to it!!