Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Kenneth M. Morrison, “The Cosmos as Intersubjective: Native American Other-Than-Human Persons”

Hallowell anticipates what Dennis Tedlock and Karl Mannheim (1995) call dialogical anthropology, a view that seeks to understand cultural reality as it emerges in engaged and embattled conversation. In center-staging such a conversation between humans and cosmic beings, Hallowell rejects a spiritual view of religion. He favors, instead, locating religious life in the world as a matter of responsibility between human and other kinds of being. Hallowell also prefigures current concerns for understanding human reality in terms of its sensual character, particularly in relationship to the body, and the externalization of self which occurs in acts of breath, song, dance, and gesture (see Classen 1993a and b). In demonstrating that religious life transpires in the ethical acts of powerful persons (Lee 1959), Hallowell points to the provocative insight that Native American religious life is negotiated between humans and other kinds of personal beings (Fienup-Riordan 1983).

Hallowell lays out interpretive principles which are still poorly understood. He examines what he called ‘a relatively unexplored territory – ethno-metaphysics’ (1975, 143)… In demonstrating that humans, plants, animals, and cosmic beings share the same nature and socio-religious motives towards each other, Hallowell moves beyond an anthrocentric view of Ojibwa reality. Hallowell insists, moreover, that social-scientific methodologies in their own right, and in their complicity with non-Indian metaphysical and theological categories, seriously distort the actualityof the Ojibwa’s world (1975, 143-4).

Hallowell realizes that non-Indians assume ethnocentrically that their cosmological system is universal. He also understands that western ontology holds that a hierarchical dissimilarity exists between categories of being – divinity, humanity, and nature – which simply does not fit the Ojibwa’s cosmology (cf. Miller 1955).  Hallowell writes: ‘In this paper I have assembled evidence … which supports the inference that in the metaphysics of being found among these Indians, the actions of persons provides the major key to their world view’ (1975, 144).

Before Hallowell, such ‘person objects’ (1975, 144) – an unhappy phrase because, given the thrust of Hallowell’s argument, the Ojibwa perceive such entities as intentional beings whose character and purposes can be understood in their actual behavior – were usually called spirits because they seem to exist on a plane, in a dimension, or a realm separate from, and greater and more powerful than, everyday existence. In religious terms, scholars often think of these beings as the focus of visionary mysticism and magic, belief or faith (Hollenback 1996). In scientific terms, claims about the reality of these beings’ existence were ascribed to superstition, imagination and psychological projection. Without empirical evidence, these beings’ existence could not be verified, and Native American views about them could not be proven (Trigger 1991). It follows that both religious and scientific perspectives hold that Native American reality systems are supernaturalistic (Hultkrantz 1983).

Hallowell learned empirically, and to the contrary, that humans and those entities he came to call ‘other-than-human persons’ share with human beings powerful abilities, including intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, the ability to discern right from wrong, and also the ability to speak, and therefore to influence other persons. In Ojibwa thought, persons are not defined by human physical shape, and so the Ojibwa do not project anthropomorphic attributes onto the world (1975, 154-7). Hallowell insists, rather, that the Ojibwa world is a behavioral system; a social system, in which powerful persons are remembered, and they themselves emerge, in myth and lore. Moreover, other-than-human persons address and empower human beings in dreams and visions, present themselves as kinfolk and engage humans in daily life, and empower humans to embody them in ritual performances.

Hallowell shows that, because the Ojibwa do not recognize the cosmic dimension that non­Indians define as nature, their Cosmology does not proceed in terms of the nonempirical domain called the  supernatural (1975, 151). Ojibwa people recognize-that animals, plants, the Sun, Moon, and stars, and even ‘objects` are persons because they themselves behave as such. In this behavioral distinction, Hallowell contends that real-world, daily life transpires in the interactions of persons, human and otherwise. Ojibwa people experience themselves as being at the center of world order, not as pre-eminent beings, but certainly as essential to vital cosmic relations which make persons interdependent. Hallowell reveals a world in which both the Ojibwa and other-than-human persons express mutual responsibility, and thus give structure, pattern, and coherence to the multiple centers and related boundaries of cosmic life. At the same time, the Ojibwa understand that antagonistic relations among persons create disorder,  including hunger, illness and social estrangement… In Hallowell’s view, the Ojibwa do not recognize a cosmic hierarchy running from the least to the most perfect being. The Ojibwa emphasize the ontological similarity, rather than the dissimilarity, of all beings…

Every day (one should also say every night), human beings and animals communicate in dreams, a state of consciousness which bridges cosmological dimensions, including objective time and space (1975, 164-8). In such dream states, human beings are not only addressed by entities who live in other space-time dimensions; they also respond in kind, acknowledge mutual responsibility, and so motivate everyday behavior… Hallowell concludes that Ojibwa reality consists of interpersonal encounters with other-than-human persons, and not in the objective or supernatural character of a world upon which non-Indians insist for reasons of both science and faith…

Sam D. Gill has shown, for example, that Native Americans think of ‘religion’ in performative terms, as transformative speech acts in which communication shapes all ethical purpose (1982, 11; 1987b). In these terms, ritual modalities like song, dance, smoking, and drumming imply acknowledgment and mutuality. Ritual processes draw human and other-than-human persons into active communities, particularly in rites in which names, masks, costumes, bundles, sand paintings and pipes embody cosmic persons in forms with whom humans can interact, feast, and celebrate solidarity… Such ritual systems are poorly interpreted in the credal, dogmatic, textualized and institutionalized forms of religion that characterize church-based religions.

In fact, as has been demonstrated amply for the Navajo (Gill 1977), Yaqui (Yoeme) (Evers and Molina 1987), and Lakota (Bunge 1984; Powers 1986), Native American languages encode the insight that speech is a power all persons share. As Gary Witherspoon (1977) has shown, the Navajo think of language as generative rather than, as in European convention, representative. Navajo speech does not encode realities which might exist independently, objectively apart from itself. In Witherspoon’s interpretation, Navajo words do not mirror reality. Words do not stand for or, as is often said, symbolize any reality apart from themselves. On the contrary, Navajo speech embodies the speaker’s intentionality, and extends the self beyond the body, to shape a reality coming into being in the field of interpersonal dialogue. Speech influences and motivates a cosmos of relationships and social processes (Witherspoon 1977).

Such a view of language has revolutionary importance for the study of Native American religions in terms of the personal entities who constitute them (Morrison 1992a, b). A generative view of Native American languages requires scholars to recognize that non-Indian languages assume that words have a representative character in relation to an external reality which is objective. One major consequence has been the pervasive misunderstanding of Native American symbolism as encoding and representing a reality that is otherwise unseen, non-empirical, and ‘spiritual’ in character (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). Sam Gill partially addresses this misrepresentation in arguing that Native American symbols have a performative significance which their use evokes (Gill 1982, 59-82). But Gill does not go quite far enough.

Native American ‘symbols’ are generative because they themselves are persons. So-called ‘sacred,’ ‘symbolic’ objects are intentional beings. Walens, for example, documents the complex ways in which Kwakiutl feast dishes have distinctive lives of their own, and link ‘the household of the chief who owns them and that of the spirit who gave them’ (1981, 57). In the Southwest, for another example, Kachina masks are embodiments, in which a human person gives physical form to cosmic persons encountered in dreams. Embodied as well in dance, what appears as a ‘spiritual’ difference between human beings and the kachina merges as an essential truth of cosmological correspondence (Gill 1982, 71-2). Similarly, at both Zuni and Hopi, prayer-sticks extend the life-bearing breath of human beings, and thus extend human intentionality towards non-human others. The being of the prayer-stick is inhaled by cosmic kachina persons who, thus nourished, extend themselves in rain. Rain in turn nourishes corn, who in turn feeds human beings. In these ways, Kachina masks, rain, corn and prayer-sticks are not ‘sacred’ in the sense of referring to, or revealing, another pre-eminent order of reality. On the contrary, they are each intentional beings, whose needs are bound up with the desires and needs of all persons (Fulbright 1992).

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