Language, Madness and White Men in Paradise… or, Lewis & Clark Revisited — a Native perspective
‘He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.’
Black Elk’s great vision, as related by his own lips at the end of his life, is to contemporary Native America what the Sermon on the Mount was to members of a Jewish sect. In early Carthage, The Beatitudes promised members of that radical sect, known to us today as “Christians,” a pathway to heavenly life on earth. Black Elk’s vision of the “many hoops that made one circle,” of balance and harmony in the great circle that is the peoples of the world, marks the center of indigenous cosmology. This is as true for the Hopi of Second Mesa in northern Arizona as it is to the aborigines of Alice Springs, in the Australian outback. These two visions, two millennia apart, are cut from the same cloth.
The earlier vision was recounted by a great Nazarene mystic nearly 2,000 years ago. His message for the people of the world was so threatening to the rabbinical hierarchy that officials of the state were obliged to nail him to a cross and let him hang there until he was dead. The later vision was spoken by a great Oglala mystic, in the “American Century,” near the end of the second millennium. His message for the people of the world was so threatening to the Eurocentric authorities that officials of the republic were finally obliged to subdue him and his followers with a storm of lead on a frigid winter day beside a small creek called Wounded Knee.
Such is the fate of the great mystics. By dint of miracles, the mystic called Jesus was resurrected, and Black Elk survived the maelstrom. “Great spirits,” the late, great genius Mr. Albert Einstein once remarked, “will always encounter violence from mediocre minds.”
Black Elk and his Crow counterpart, the great Chief Plenty-Coups, both Plenty-Coupsdied in the early 1930s. From birth till death, Plenty-Coups and Black Elk lived parallel lives on opposite sides of Crazy Horse’s beloved Black Hills, the very place Black Elk and Plenty-Coups were given their visions as young men. To the good fortune of generations to follow, both chiefs decided in the late autumn of their days to take one last look backward, to gaze once more upon a time that is now forever sealed shut from our tampering. Thankfully, both decided to relate what they saw through the glass darkly to another human being.
Near blindness and death, Black Elk sat in the tall grass of the South Dakota prairie and told his life story to John Neihardt. Plenty Coups, also nearly blind, mostly deaf, just a “Moon-of-the-Long-Shadows” away from the deepest sleep, sat in the tall grass under a tree with his friend Frank Lieberman, near Pryor, Montana.
Plenty-Coups told Lieberman of the glory days of the Crow people, before Crow eyes had ever filled with the strange vision of a White man. As Plenty-Coups painted his canvas of words, he nearly sang at the memory of his people’s joy — their lightness of being — in the days of his boyhood. Lieberman noted that a faint buzzing sound insinuated itself into the background silence, a buzzing that grew insistently louder and soon materialized into a bi-plane. Plenty-Coups looked up for a brief moment to follow the plane’s progress as it flew off toward the east. Then he resumed his story without bothering to comment on the strange flying machine. Perhaps the old chief was telling us that a man’s eyes can see more in one lifetime than his heart and mind can possibly absorb. With the passing of Black Elk and Plenty-Coups also perished the living memory of the freest people to ever walk the Earth, a memory we struggle to imagine a mere two generations later.
Stretching irony to the absurd (which may not be far enough), there is something about genocide that brings out the worst in people. Evidence of that foul river of blood which runs through the souls of all men and women is first encountered in language, in the word. Language begins as chaotic, unorganized electronic impulses that gather energy at our deepest region of self, struggling like expanding bubbles toward the sunlit surface of our being. As it approaches the surface (where we spend most of our lives), that energy passes through the neurological labyrinth of cerebral tissue where it is transformed into sound. The shape of that sound is represented to us in words. We agree to share these sounds in order to conduct the business of life, a sacred contract that enables us to stand firm against the great entropic forces perpetually tugging us down toward lower, more stable forms of order. To dust. These immutable entropic forces comprise the first law of nature, the “law of entropy.” Helen Keller — deaf, mute and blind — gave us a profound insight into the dynamics of their ultimate power. Until Ann Sullivan came into her life and gave her a language that enabled her to communicate between her silent, dark world and that of the hearing and seeing, Keller tells us that the sum total of her prior existence was that of a “sentient clod of earth.” Dust.
In other words, we are what we say we are, because we dare to say it. Our most powerful weapon against the abyss is language.
Acts of love and compassion, like acts of genocide, are carried in language. They are borne up in the shaping of those electronic impulses ascending from the nether region of self which tell us who we are. That keen student of the great mystics, Dr. James Carse, has explained that the proof of the existence of that deepest state of consciousness, the basement of our selfhood, comes to us when we awaken in the morning: It is evidenced in the fact that we remember who we are (before our first cup of coffee).
That very remembering allows us to agree on the meaning of words, from one year to the next, a remembering that anchors us to a continuity of being. That agreement holds us firm against the withering forces of mortality and entropy. We live on and on in our language, eons after our bones and tissue have rejoined the stars. Language is our only legacy, a contract binding the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.
The language of compassion is the pure and involuntary utterance of our most abiding love. The language of genocide is the pure and involuntary utterance of our most compelling fears. Love and fear — twin rivers — one of light, one of darkness, running side by side through the souls of men and women in selfhood, marking our primordial beginnings.
‘Yet we keep on keepin’ on, because we have built a nation on the notion that no price is too high to preserve the mythology so long as someone else downstream is picking up the tab.’
When we emerge from the womb, our first act on Earth is to wail with excruciating pain. Those first cries are a heroic response to the utterly impossible duality looming ahead.
Canons and bombs and sabres and catapults are secondary weapons. First, we kill people with words, in our language. Only then can we finish them off with our devices and anaseptic acts accomplished with detached formality. General Phil Sheridan’s words, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” vanished in as instant on a prairie breeze. But the sound that rose from the point of origin in Phil Sheridan’s being gave thousands of soldiers the permission to act, to butcher women and children and to hang their sexual body parts on public display at the Denver opera house. Our national selfhood was born in the shadows of our darkest words.
We sanitize history by means of the delusion that these sordid events marked an era now long removed from consciousness. Allow me to cast this veil of denial into a breath-taking context: A Crow friend of mine, Oliver Pease, who is now in his 80s, was given his Indian name, Travels the World, by Chief Plenty-Coups when Oliver was a young boy. Two lives — Oliver Pease and Plenty-Coups — set end to end like bookends, reach back from the threshold of interplanetary travel to pre-contact with the White man. Pre-contact. In just two lifetimes. There are distances measured by the American experience that cannot be conquered by automobiles or jet planes.
If it is a stretch to imagine Dr. Mengele, the World War II Nazi who performed gruesome experiments on Jewish death camp prisoners, stalking the gas ovens of Buchenwald sporting a yarmulke, then what flaw in our deepest being prompts us to shrug when anthropologists tell us that the European Immigrant to North America conducted an organized, officially sanctioned campaign of genocide that eliminated an estimated fifteen to twenty million Native Americans over a period of three hundred years? A century ago, the European Christian psyche absolved him of his guilt, if only temporarily, but long enough to get him through the bloody part. In his right hand he carried the King James Bible. In his left hand he carried a Winchester repeating rifle (or, a blanket infected with smallpox given as “gifts” — comparable to Iraqi chemical warfare that U.S. leaders so feared — to indigenous peoples, knowing the disease would kill the entire tribe). The perfect union of these two ultimately produced the mythology the interloper so desperately sought.
In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner told an audience at the World Exposition in Chicago that the “frontier” was now closed.
“Up to our own day,” Turner declared, “American history has been in large degree the history and the colonization of the Great West. The existence of settlement westward explains American development. And now … the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”
Jackson’s theory of westward expansion echoed the language that animated the American landscape in the imaginations of millions of non-Native Americans. Like his countrymen, he pinned the efficacy of his theory on the shared perception of “unsettled” territory. The settling of this “frontier” was the defining hallmark of the American experience, the highest expression of Eurocentric ingenuity, determination, righteousness, and national identity.
Historians have been measuring the American experience through Turner’s lens for more than a century. Yet truth, the great mythologist Joseph Campbell noted, is not an integral element of mythology. Turner’s, on reflection, is the fun-house mirror in which America finally recognized itself. In every essential aspect of American life, as we have witnessed in the short and unhappy history of the “White man in paradise,” Turner’s mythology became the “story” in which generations of White settlers, politicians and extraction industries mined their justification for executing de Toqueville’s grim observations. Turner’s myth was far more important than any theoretical inquiries into actuality, or the nature of truth. It elevated mythology to the status of national policy.
The myth ruled. As we now know, there is nothing quite so tragic or bloody as a mythology mislaid.
As the new millennium unfolds, the spiritual cousin of that blond, blue-eyed door gunner in Pleiku, former Secretary of the Interior James Watt, et al. (we know them by their words) recently attempted to cheer up a despondent gathering of “Wise-Use” enthusiasts in New Mexico by saying: “Where the ballot box fails, the cartridge box is sure to succeed.”
Watt’s epithet is the death rattle of a crumbling mythology, one that was built on a fault line reaching all the way down to that point of origin in the national psyche, which tells us who we are when we awaken (before our first stock quote). That mythology of origin was constructed on a failure of integrity that runs so profoundly through our national character that no amount of righteous rhetoric could keep it hidden forever. In time, like a lie found out, like a crime exposed, the Turnerian “story” that was spun to sanction the European’s version of the American experience, from the Doctrine of Discovery that declared the continent void of inhabitants, and Manifest Destiny which declared the continent a wilderness frontier (free for the killing), to the fictitious precept of “liberty and justice for all,” were revealed at Gettysburg and Wounded Knee and Little Rock, to be rotten at the root. Toxic to truth.
To this day we perpetuate the jingoistic nonsense of westward migration in the pop histories celebrating the achievements of 19th-century “explorers” Lewis and Clark, who Americans will honor with coast-to-coast bicentennial celebrations this year. Nowhere do the storytellers remind us that the McKenzie expedition went coast to coast in 1793, or that the famous American duo set off into the great “unknown” with maps of the Northwest territories drawn by a brilliant young Canadian cartographer, David Thompson, who had been exploring the Columbia river system since 1795. A minor point, perhaps, one that fails to meet the rigorous requirements of our mythology of origin.
We now acknowledge that westward migration was accomplished through officially sanctioned treachery and genocide. The catalog of horrors (need we name them?) resulted from an absolute failure to act in moral alignment with the organic language and law that established the American experiment in democracy. In 1830, the great Chief Justice John Marshall said as much in his opinion in Wooster v. Georgia, a legal and moral challenge to President Andrew Jackson that dared to expose the great lie to the fight of day. Jackson was so enraged that he defiantly retorted: “If that’s Mr. Marshall opinion, then let him enforce it,” and then sent 4,000 Cherokees to their death on the Trail of Tears after illegally removing them from their homelands.
By the late 20th century the great social philosopher Foucault had posited the argument that the language of madness was invented by the state to cover for its own failure to secure the very values it claimed to live by. This was Justice Marshall’s point. This was also the birth of “spin.” Truth was what you said it was, and no one was more adept at spinning truth than White men in paradise. From time to time, courageous spirits such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., would rise among us in a shudder of outrage to ask that most unsettling of all questions: “Are not great nations, as great men, good to their word?” Questions such as these were assumed to be rhetorical and were quickly drowned out in the din of the marketplace.
As a nation, as a people, we are so deeply enrolled in preserving the sanctity of Turner’s mythology that we have left ourselves no escape from the funhouse mirror. The only apparent choice is to go deeper, which is no choice at all. The desperate appeal for some cockamamie approval of the Eurocentric world view takes ever wilder turns, acquires ever more extreme methods of expression. The voices of fear hit shrill high notes in the Sage Brush Rebellion, Wise Use, the militia movement, the Christian right, and the hyperbolic hysteria of the stock market. A measurable desperation tightens its grip once the crumbling mythology disintegrates beyond the point of no return; i.e., when we can no longer find ourselves in our own stories, in our own words. We look into the funhouse mirror and see nothing.
In that emptiness, in that silence, we come face to face with the terror of each other.
The cultural hard-wiring of Tumerian mythology teaches us to recognize the “dry hole” as a failure. It says nothing about the adolescent compulsion to keep digging deeper. That compulsion is as American as baseball, but what it gets us is Wounded Knee and the Oklahoma City bombing of the federal building. Bigger, prettier houses. Global warming. Leroy Jackson and Nye County, Nevada. Mass extinction. Fancier wives and faster cars. Waco, Texas. BLM’s Carson City explosions and Amtrak On the Rocks. And that’s only the prologue. Yet we keep on keepin’ on, because we have built a nation on the notion that no price is too high to preserve the mythology so long as someone else downstream is picking up the tab.
Nothing is quite so tragic as an omen misread.
“Language defines our lives,” writes the eminent linguist Steven Fisher. “It heralds our existence, it formulates our thoughts, it enables all we are and have.” Until the American society finds a way to shatter the fun house mirror, until we are willing to answer Wendell Berry’s solemn exhortation to practice “resurrection,” to challenge our own mythology of origin, we are condemned like Dostoevsky’s Rashkolnikov to live imprisoned by the language of our past, language that is killing us from the inside out, and killing the planet from the outside in. There is no future in the mythology created by those words. There is only the past and its champions. There is no answer for the plea of a screaming newborn in that past. There is only terror. We are dared by the great mystics to redeem the vision of the hoops, joined together, forming one great circle. It is now though our words that Black Elk will speak or be forever silenced.
About the author
Journalist and filmmaker Paul VanDevelder reports on natural resources, public lands, and Indian Country for numerous national periodicals and newspapers, including the Smithsonian, News Watch, Esquire and the Seattle Times. His most recent film, Journey to Medicine Wheel, was honored as the Best Documentary Feature at the San Francisco film festival. His book, “Coyote Warrior: A Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial that Forged a Nation”, is being published by Little, Brown in fall 2004.