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More spiritual/religious BS: “no need for evil”

December 13, 2009

I started on this post a while back, but was inspired to work some more on it after yesterday’s look at different takes on The “Sacred”.

Looking for health figures for a recent post, I couldn’t help but notice one continuing blanket misconception, perpetuated by the NKI Center of Excellence in Culturally Competent Mental Health, in the middle of otherwise mostly decent info:

Traditionally, AI/AN believed all illness was caused by demoniacal interference, malignant spirits, sorcery, or failure to perform an important ritual. The cure was to call in the shaman, or medicine man, who would invoke different magical spells, formulas, native artifacts, tobacco smoke or natural botanical drugs to drive out the evil spirits causing the illness (White, 1979).

This was particularly disturbing, read pretty close on the heels of some of Kahentinetha Horn’s comments on misrepresentation in a display at the Pointe-a-Calliere Museum in Old Montreal:

They minimize our world down to making offerings of tobacco and sacrificing dogs and eating them. In the glass were the bones of a dog. We did not use shamans to contact any forces. We made our relationships with and respect for the natural world and developed our awareness ourselves.

It wasn’t just the Haudenosaunee who ate dogs, apparently; MacCord’s report* of a dig at a short-lived ** Tutelo town site near where my Nana grew up offers some interesting statements:

[T]he only positive evidence that the villagers kept dogs…One dog (Canis familiaris) skeleton was found in Pit Feature #71. This animal had been buried, although we may assume that dogs were eaten, at least occasionally.

I guess MacCord can assume whatever he wants to, based on no evidence whatsoever but his imagination and the school of Everybody Knows; that doesn’t mean the result belongs in an archeological report.

At least he didn’t say straight out that they were sacrificing them, “although why the dog was buried at all is uncertain.” I would guess that it’s because dogs are also mortal, but hey. I was slightly surprised that the sole dog was not buried with the humans, as has been common for at least 10,000 years in the Southeast.

This kind of crap still passes for scholarship, all too frequently.

I may have gotten distracted by repetition of the tired old dog-eating slur (hadn’t run across the sacrifice bit before!), but that wasn’t the main point. Repeating bizarre and disrespectful speculations about other people’s religious/spiritual/cultural practices as True Knowledge is, however. Not to mention feeling entitled to do that rather than bother to find out what people are really talking about.

Back to Kahentinetha Horn:

They refer to the “Creator.” implying we believed in their god. Our philosophy is based on our knowledge of the natural world. Gariwiio is the perfect reality which is nature. The kasatstenera kowa sa oiera is the great natural power which we can see and know exists. We have many symbols for the stories that we passed down to remind us of our history…

The shaman did not suck out the evil or sickness from a person. There was no evil when everything was part of the natural equilibrium. Holy hell! This is completely manufactured probably by a bunch of priests who are trying to hit up people for money. “The shaman would gaze into the fire and go into a trance by dancing, chanting, fasting or sitting in a sweat lodge.” We did not have shamans or sweat lodges. Where did this come from? It’s one of those phony Indian Affairs healing programs being used to pacify us? We were almost tempted to ask where the brown Baby Jesus in the cradle was.

Reading and hearing the impressions a lot of people based in different worldviews have managed to form of various indigenous religions/spiritual approaches, I frequently have to wonder “where the brown Baby Jesus in the cradle was”. Seriously.

This sort of misconception also opens the way for exploitative plastic shamans. That author also points out: “Plastic shaman, just one more thing, we don’t call our medicine people shamans. I just thought you should know that, just in case you wanted to work toward telling and living the truth.”

From the Horn article, “They couldn’t ask us because, in their minds, we had mysteriously disappeared. Their tour guide told us, ‘You are different Iroquois,’ and ‘our scientists have archaeological evidence that backs up our claims.'” Again, you can make any sort of claims you like, if you have managed to convince yourself that (a) you are the real authority on the matter, and (b) nobody is going to show up and effectively dispute your assertions.

These effects of marginalization have been damaging enough, but they are actually slightly moderated from earlier Western interpretations involving the Christian Devil and “primitive superstition”. Yes, from the same people who were naming things after saints and attributing all sorts of things to The Devil and his merry troupe of demons. Now we get fewer demons projected onto us–if we’re lucky–but all the same superstition, magical thinking, sacrifice, etc. allegations.

I was interested if not very surprised to see similar themes yesterday, reading The Decline of the Sámi People’s Indigenous Religion.

I wish Paul Carus’ History of the Devil [1900], linked to above, were an unusual treatment. That’s what comes of taking arrogant primary sources at face value, when they did not understand what they were looking at.

We get a classic quote from “Capt. John Smith, the hero of the colonisation of Virginia, in 1607”, describing “the worship of Okee (a word which apparently means that which is above our control) as follows:”

All thinges that were able to do them hurt beyond their prevention they adore with their kinde of divine worship; as the fire, water, lightning, thunder, our ordinance peeces, horses, &c. But their chiefe God they worship is the Diuell. Him they call Oke, and serue him more of feare than loue. They say they haue conference with him and fashion themselues as neare to his shape as they can imagine.

Smith goes on to describe all sorts of bizarre-sounding practices in his characteristic completely unbiased (ahem, ahem) way. His account is very similar to a number of French accounts from Iroquoia. So is the terminology Smith specifically picked up on: Oki. Puzzling through the very similar accounts, the basic Renape (“Powhatan”) and Iroquoian concepts there do sound pretty much the same. It looks like shared terminology.

Smith did offer an inadvertently good point, with “They say they haue conference with him and fashion themselues as neare to his shape as they can imagine.” Cut out the anthropomorphizing, find out what oki/uki actually is, and that’s a reasonable observation.

What is oki? Again, I’ll refer to Barbara Mann’s Iroquoian Women:

The missionaries clearly did not understand what they were encountering in Iroquian spirituality, but contented themselves with putting evey Iroquoian spirit down as a demon…Le Jeune made much the same mistake of defining ‘oki’ as ‘Demon’, as did later Jesuits.

Put very simply:

Uki [oki] refers to the portal of spirit that is always harmless or beneficial to humans. It can be safely approached by novices. Otkon, on the other hand, refers to the portal of spirit that can be dangerous to unprepared or careless humans.

This is a very basic division applying to basically everything in the universe–but it should not be confused with the “Good”/”Evil” oppositional binary. It’s one of many complementary sets, in a very similar spirit to another culture’s yin and yang. Just about everything lies somewhere between–and nobody/nothing really benefits from all those value judgments.

I went into the not-oppositional-binary thing some before, in the more philosophical bit of my Gender, sexuality, identity, and binaries post. Oppositional dualism may be a tempting model of how things work to a lot of people, but I find it simplistic. Things just are ; dividing them up into “good” vs. “evil”, and all the rest, isn’t going to help you understand them, much less their complex interactions.

Storms are otkon, but that doesn’t make them “bad” in any fundamental way; they just don’t give any consideration to humans, and it pays to be careful dealing with them. There are lots of things like that in our everyday lives, like electricity (and a lot of institutions humans have set up, IME). Don’t go picking venomous snakes up willy-nilly; they may not be hostile as such, much less “evil”, but they will bite you if you don’t show proper respect and caution. “There was no evil when everything was part of the natural equilibrium,” as Kahentinetha Horn put it.


* Unfortunately, the museum has taken the full report off their website; here is an archived version. It’s, erm, interesting reading.

Why the palisade was built around the houses is an unanswered question. It most likely was built out of fear of some other Indian group whose identity is not known to us. It was not likely to have been built to keep out marauding animals, since the occupants of the village would have welcomed warmly any game which dared approach–even a bear or mountain lion (cougar).

On the way to the outhouse in the middle of the night, sure!

Compare to another one from Kahentinetha Horn:

They suggested we were the victims of diseases or a “Little Ice Age” that began around 1450? Then they said, “It was ‘intertribal Warfare’.” Their evidence for this is that we built “defensive palisades” around our villages. Well, we did grow our medicines right next to our longhouses and we erected these fences to keep out the creatures who might want to come and disturb them.

Yep, MacCord neatly disappears us, too:

No resident Indians were found in the area, and those Indians who came to harass the settlers during Lord Dunmore’s War, the War for American Independence and the troubled years after were from the Ohio area. Their purpose was to slow westward movement of the English, not to defend or re-take their homelands. Those Indians were Shawnees, Miamis, Delawares, Wyandots, and Mingoes–none of whom had lived in the Bland County area in prehistoric times.

** Being familiar with the area, I would not build a town there now–or as close as you can get, with I-77 running through that specific site. Right around where they fairly quickly folded up that town and left, the surroundings are remarkably snaky and generally less than pleasant. You’re better off going about half a mile down Wolf Creek, where more people live!

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 13, 2009 6:04 pm

    Uki [oki] refers to the portal of spirit that is always harmless or beneficial to humans. It can be safely approached by novices. Otkon, on the other hand, refers to the portal of spirit that can be dangerous to unprepared or careless humans.

    I need to read that book. Everything you’ve posted from it makes me more convinced of this. Seriously… that quote makes so much sense.

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