Sunday, November 4, 2012

#113. Native American Stories

ARCHIVE. For a list of all my published posts:

This is the 13th in the series of blog entries I began with #101-- a collection of notes and essays (and lots of book reviews, I'm just realizing) from my files all dealing in one way or another with the emerging new religious consciousness. They are mostly things I've written over the last decade or two to clarify my own thoughts but which I would like to make available for anyone who might be interested.

Post #113 contains notes, made in May/June, 1995, on three books dealing with important Native American perspectives.

If you have questions and think I might be of help, you're welcome to send me a note:


Songs from the Mountain, by Djohariah Toor; St Martin’s Press, 1994

This is not-- at all-- the “worst kind of New Age junk” it at first appears it's going to be. It’s a good book-- a fine example of the contemporary spiritual search at its best.

The author is feminist without being anti-male. She has a Catholic background: she's comfortable, at least, quoting Hildegard, Eckhart and Merton. She also has a Jungian perspective: she is at home with those I think of as “classic” Jungian authors-- such as Sheila Moon (of the Navajo Emergence Myth) and Marie-Louise von Franz. And she has great respect for Native American practices.

The essence of the book is stories-- of her clients and from her own experience-- which demonstrate the integrative healing power of medicine wheel teachings, the sweat lodge and vision quest.

She’s family therapist, so most of what’s here is recovery-oriented.

It’s introductory without being elementary and totally avoids the usual New Age references to chakras and vibes and past lives, etc. I think that this kind of thing is just what large numbers of persons with a background in Western spirituality might be looking for.


The Grandfathers Speak: Native American Folk Tales of the Lenape People, by Hitakonan U’Laxk (Tree Beard). Interlink Book, 1994.

I found the Lenape creation story, about the powers of the four directions, especially stimulating. Summary and reflections...

In the beginning there was only the creator and nothing else. He had a great dream-vision. Creation is its realization. First created are the four Keepers of Creation, powerful, co-creative spirit beings, the Guardians of the Gates....

These four Keepers create the earth, sun, moon and stars. And they, in turn, come together to bring forth life: energy comes from the male sun, fertility from the female moon, growth and healing from Mother Earth. (What the apparently male stars contribute isn’t mentioned.) Consistent with what was said about the Keepers (see below), North gives solid form, East gives life and Spirit, South gives inner fire and Spirit, and West gives its waters (to be life’s blood).

Plants appear first, then animals. Humans come last. When Grandmother Moon becomes lonely, she is given the Thunder being for a mate; a set of twins-- one male, one female-- is born.


COSMIC VIEWS. With the mention of the moon’s need for company and the newborn human pair’s dual sexuality, the whole myth seems to shift its focus onto the issue of the union of opposites. It explicitly states, for example, that the humans are whole only when the two sexes are together, and thus implies that there are opposites, both poles of which are equally good.

But the myth also introduces “evil” as the opposite of good itself, although the evils named-- darkness, thorns on berry bushes, biting insects and poison snakes-- are neither moral nor ontological evils (in the old Catholic terminology); they are more in the nature of inconveniences and unpleasantries.

Then, out of nowhere, there is mention of Toad, the Water Keeper; this spirit seems to be an aspect of the Keeper of the West, specifically in terms of control over rain. It also has its opposite: the horned serpent, which tries to take over its job. (There is no mention of the fact that the horned/feathered serpent is, in myths generally, itself considered to be a union of opposites.) Here, he is labeled “evil” and is subdued, although not vanquished, by the Thunder Being (the moon’s mate). The rains continue out of control and the waters continue to rise until everything is wiped away, as in Noah’s Flood.


HUMAN/CULTURAL VIEWS. Reality is saved only by the intervention of the culture hero, called here Nanapush. He restores the world, with the help of the animals-- especially muskrat (who brings dirt from the previous world) and turtle (whose back serves as the platform for the new earth, Turtle Island). Turtle is rewarded by being made the Native American Hermes, the spirit of communications. (It’s our old friend Micamac, from the Shaking Tent ceremony, but the Lenape call him Taxkwax).

The reestablishment of the earth following the Flood is the occasion for the world’s first ceremony of thanks-giving. It is conducted by Nanabush; there are no humans left and no new ones created yet.

Nanabush seems to be an only-positive culture hero, with nothing of a trickster’s grossness or deceit about him. He is called wise, gifted, strong, pure....

Humans are re-created when the female earth gives birth to a male human/tree which, when he/it bends over and kisses the earth, gives rise to a female human. The new humans’ food comes from the plants and animals; birds give music; butterflies give delight; dogs give their faithfulness and love. Bear gives himself as food during the hard time of winter, and so special rites of thanksgiving for Bear and the other game animals are held.

Nanabush teaches the people practical crafts, qualities of leadership, defense, an ethical way of life, hunting skills, agricultural skills, cooking and food preservation, and “religious” ways: medicine bundles for calling on spirit-helpers in times of need, sacred ceremonies, healing rites, and the importance of the vision quest. When Nanabush has completed his work he retires to the North, where he enjoys the peaceful silence and quiet contentment. In winter he hibernates, like Bear, but before he does, he smokes his pipe. We see his smoke as thick fog on autumn mornings.


KEEPERS OF THE FOUR DIRECTIONS. The four First-created Keepers of Creation are powerful, co-creative spirit beings, the "Guardians of the Gates."

• The Guardian Keeper of the NORTH controls the power of ROCK. To Creator's vision it gives solidity and physical form. To us it gives wintertime ice, snow and cold; it also brings forth our bodies, the rocks, the trees and all things visible, matter.

• The Guardian Keeper of the EAST controls the power of AIR. To Creator's vision it gives breath and mind and growth. To us it gives springtime, warmth, birth and new beginnings. It also brings forth our inner fire, the winds; it gives creativity, knowledge, music and songs.

• The Guardian Keeper of the SOUTH controls the power of FIRE. To Creator's vision it gives Spirit and life. It us it gives summer, warmth, growth and maturity; and it gives fire to the sun.

• The Guardian Keeper of the WEST controls the power of WATER. To Creator's vision it gives water and a softening influence. It us it gives autumn, death and readies us for renewal. It also brings forth the waters, rain, our life’s blood, healing, intuition, dreams and visions, and things unseen. Aided by male Thunder, it makes the moon fertile.


PERSONAL REFLECTIONS. I notice how the myth distinguishes what the Keepers do for God and what they do for us. That feels similar to my mandala distinction between what I do for the Male Ancestors and what I do for those invited to the kiva. This one, who lives in a sweat lodge, is to call on precisely these Keepers of the Gates. Reflections, in the order they occur in his personal mandala:

• WEST (Water) is neither matter, mind nor energy in a physical sense, but something like a religious attitude toward reality: a trustful respect for the unconscious, a fundamental faith in the benevolence and graciousness of the universe. I identify West with the Intuitive Function, what allows us to perceive the big picture. Jung calls Intuition the transcendent function and the religious function: it puts us in touch with the biggest meanings of our lives. The fundamental trust of the West seems pretty close to Jung’s sense of Intuition.

How did the Lenape-- grandfathers of all the tribes-- know all this? (Better: How come the rest of us didn’t have the opportunity to know it until the early part of the 20th century?) Especially important is the emphasis on intuitive vision, death and renewal. “This is where it all starts.” “The end which is the beginning.”

The boy must give up being a boy if he is to become a bear/man; that giving up of who and what he is requires a fundamental trust in the mystery of the universe. To stand tall, un-smothered by the static feminine, requires the same trustful letting go.


• NORTH (Rock) seems to be that male form of “Earth” the Lakota calls Inyan: solid matter, physical reality. Inyan seems close what Gene Monick calls proto-phallus, the co-equal male principle of the cosmos. In Jungian typology terms, this is what we deal with via our Sensation Function. Closeness to earth, groundedness, hanging lose. I have Elk in the North, the healing function not mentioned here. But it’s always the East and North together which feels to be the source of healing power: affirming and healing aren’t all that distinct.


• SOUTH (Fire) is the only feminine Keeper. She seems to be “developmental energy”: inner growth and development on the human level, but also biological drives at the evolutionary level and the force that “moves the sun and stars” at a cosmic level. I remember Brant Segunda, on the weekend I spent with him in NYC many years ago, talking about a major power in the universe which the Huichols call “Grandmother Growth,” whose color was green. Clearly, this is she: an inner, Pentecostal, fire-- which blossoms into what Hildegarde calls “verdancy.” The fire isn’t green but it shows itself as green-ness. An early perception of the anima in men?

I usually identify South with the Feeling Function and with relating, with those energies-- of meaning, purpose, identity-- which are ours when we enter into right relationship with “all our relations.”

The ability to “warm up to” others is the precondition of growth and development.


• EAST (Air or Wind) is consciousness, “spirit” in the secular sense, the mind, mental or psychological reality; what we deal with via the Thinking Function (before it narrows itself to individual ego awareness). It's that new knowledge which the Morning Star gives, the golden dawn eagle flying on the wind, “the beginning which has no end.” And ultimately, phallic awe.


The Native American Sweat Lodge, History and Legends, by Joseph Bruchac. The Crossing Press, 1993.

I really enjoyed the photos in this book. There’s something delightful about seeing the many different forms the sweat lodge has taken in different cultures. Certainly the weirdest and most interesting story is the Seneca’s “The Blanket of Men’s Eyes” about two young brothers, living alone with a grandmother, but no parents, and no explanation for lack of parents. One youth injures the other during an act of disobedience. The injured/older brother has special knowledge (“Evil people lie ahead”), but is lost to those evil ones (women! females!) while the younger escapes, blinded; eventually, he marries and fathers another set of precocious males who, soon after birth, set out to avenge their father’s blindness and recover their long-lost uncle.

They bring back the uncle almost without explanation, then one of them gains entrance into the domain of the females by taking the form of a duck (that’s what it says!) and entering into a women so that she becomes pregnant with him and then almost immediately gives birth to him. He steals the magic blanket where the women keep the eyes of the men they have captured and killed. (An especially weird image! Eyes = balls?)

Somehow the bones of the dead men are recovered; they are brought back to life and their sight restored in a sweat lodge where some kind of trickery is involved: one of the sons of the original younger brother pushes over a tree so it will fall onto the sweat lodge, and this trickery (if that’s what it is!-- not at all clear) is what causes the dead men-- victims of the women, who are horrible monsters-- come to life and get their balls/eyes back.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it feels very old and has at its center a strong feeling of male fear of women and of the feminine ability to take away a man’s power. (Just by looking!) I think the story may go back to very early agricultural times. It would be well worth dealing with in terms of active imagination, to see what might be unearthed. I’d love to have the opportunity to do it.


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