Thursday, May 29, 2008

Native American Art by E.C.LEWIS - Copyright .4.22.08

Western civilizations lies rooted in the medieval disciplines of Europe tied back to Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire, and developed to their fullness in the of the Renaissance Era. This period in the sixteenth century coincides with the European discovery of the America's, when the European feudal cities oraganized as powerful nation-states and the Christian Catholic Church has organized its influence of declared Christian values.

This peak of European influence met the civilizations of the America's and the pristine natural resources of two continents just five-hundred years ago. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the post-colonial Eurpean influence faces practical challenges of survival and a stubborn superiority of ideas and beliefs that continues to dismiss the wisdom and traditions of those indigenous civilizations which evolved not in five or ten centuries but over millennia and remain rooted not to medieval Europe but to orientation upon the Earth, located within the web of the cosmological universe, with a sense of time oriented to the eternal.
Obstacles to comprehending this orientation lie in the deeply ingrained European concepts which include, for example: TIME, PROGRESS, PRIMITIVISM, PANTHEISM... which has become assumptions referred to and assumed to be collectively understood. To strip these concepts and theories to their medieval roots and examine them in comparison to the understanding of Native consciousness requires more knowledge than the Renaissance could provide. Modern anthropology defines civilization as the language, culture, and consciousness shared by a group of people. Native consciousness in this reference is the indigenous consciousness of North America although as Native North Americans tell us correctly, five hundred civilizations resided on the North American continent in the sixteenth century.
Within five hundred years, three important developments in European consciousness have soften hard core European beliefs: one is Galileo's truth that the earth is not the center of the universe; two is Darwin's theory that man is not unrelated to the Earth but dependant and developed upon it; and three is the Eastern sensibility of the direct and immediate experience of reality as in Zen Buddhism.
This knowledge equips western thought with the tools to probe its own assumptions and misconceptions and begin to correctly define English translations of Native concepts as the meaning is intended in a consciousness of metaphysical reality not as Aristotle defined it, but as in Oriental indigenous philosophy, which is much closer in meaning.
The terms PRIMITIVE, PRE-CIVILIZED, and PREHISTORY are European assumptions of societies existing before the records of written language in Europe and the Middle East. Oral societies are not illiterate-the Anishinabek of the Great Lakes have a written form of lanuage incised on sacred birch bark scrolls recopied continually into the records of the Great Medicine Society whose origins are so far back in time that the founder is simply referred to as "a young man." These symbols are also painted upon the Precambrian rock face of the Canadian Sheild in a method in which the pigment and rock are bonded inseparably. Indigenous societies are not primitive; they are primal.
To understand this compare the time line concept of human history and progress, which was invented by Augustine and accepted within European consciosness after the fourth century AD, and the consciousness that experiences time as infinity in a circular orientation of awareness with nothingness as its center. This orientation was not widely introduced to European academic thought until after WWII, with the American occupation of Japan and the 1959 invasion of Tibet, by China. But this experience of reality is close to Native consciousness and perception.
The fourth tool with which European thought may begin to comprehend Native awareness is the dawn of what has been referred to as the imformation age. The term Third World, which referred to civilizations which did not develop with the speed of the European concept of progress has developed into the term Fourth World, which refers to those indigenous civilizations which retained the knowledge avd perception distilled and cultivated within an ancestry that evolved over millennia of eras rather than centuries.
The voice of this indigenous knowledge surfaces at the height of the European concept of progress in an era in which this concept reaches the summit of its unprecedented capacity for destruction. The concept of progress derived from artificially imposed theories of linear human history is a major obstacle to understanding indigenous consciousness because it lies outside of a consciousness oriented to a circular experience of life and infinity.
The physical sciences, evolved from theories attributed most famously to Aristotle, quantified rather than qualified the Earth's elements. This scientific-rational experience of observation of the Earth misconstrues the qualifying consciousness of observation. Terms such as animism, pan-theism, totenism, and shamanism remain outside of th experience of European rationalistic terms of definition or meaning.
Animism is the quality within a natural element that transcends the sum of its physical parts. Therefore, when a human being of extreme sensitivity in Native culture is asked by a scientist educated in European rationalism if all the rocks on the beach are powerful, he is told that some are.
Pan-theism refers to the concepts of Greek cosmological thought before the development of philosophy and logic in western civilization but does not relate to the perceptive consciousness of Native North Americans in any conceivable way. Native consciousness experiences the non-duality of an intelligent universe devoid of an anthropomorphic personality. The finite phenomena which inhabit th Earth speaks to the reality of the infinite within the apparent thus penetrating the apperance to perceive the reality-which is unchanging.
Totenism is not the superstitious protection of an animal for a human being. By astute and prolonged observation it has been recognized that the clan of a human being is evident in human movement and manner. Those of a Bear Clan maneuverin a manner that differentiates itself from a member of a Fish Clan. Anyone can observe this when they are taught to see it. By prohibiting intermarriage within a clan, a civilization retains its optimum health.
Shamanisn, which utilizes animism and a mysticism oriented to the infinite and unchanging within the cosmological orientation of human beings upon the Earth, is the metaphysical realm of consciousness and perception akin to the Tantric in Buddhism. It is not a superstitious fear of the unknown but a fearless intervention of balance between human being and natural law. The path of spiritual development for a shaman in Native North American culture corresponds in discipline, sacrifice, and endurance to the term "warrior" within buddhist spiritual disciplines. The type of intervention referred to is within the realm of intervention practiced by those oriented to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, where the dying may be guided on their journey before the final breath is taken.
Native North American shamanism is communicated and developed by direct oral transmission as in Buddhist tradition, but differs in cultural expression, of course. The art and ritual of Native North American civilization share some similarities of consciousness and many cultural differences as well. What is important in the understanding for European styled societies when relating to Native North American societies is aptly expressed by Erich Fromm in his book The Sane Society:
"No sane society can be built upon the mixture of purely intellectual knowledge and almost complete absence of shared artistic experience....On the whole, our modern ritual is impoverished and does not fulfill man's need for collective art and ritual, even in the remotest sense, either as to quality or its quantitive significance in life....
"What are we to do? Can we invent rituals? Can one artificially create collective art? Of course not! But once one recognizes the need for them, once one begins to cultivate them, seeds will grow, and gifted people will come forth who will add new forms to old ones, and new talents will appear which would have gone unnoticed without such new orientation." (p.349-350).
Erich Fromm's evaluation for a sane society is already addressed in Native culture in North American. By correctly defining the terms we use to describe Native art and ritual, we are already supplying the means within the open door of art to perceive collectively and fulfilling the North American collective experience. Modern Native artists continue to communicate ancient Native consciousness. This consciousness is the expression of perception that penetrates the appearance of natural form to reveal the unchanging infinite. In the words of Native North Americans it is to see the Creator in Creation.
The Creator is not perceived as an anthropomorphic god but the permeating intelligence of the universe, deviod of human personality. This intelligence is seen to reveal itself not in prophets, written laws, or sacred writing but in the natural forms and natural balance of all creations, including man. Therefore, every leaf, rock, tree, river, bird, fish, animal, human, star, sun, moon, and planet are sacared. The Earth, and all that inhabits the Earth, is scared.
This metaphysical conscioueness is able to adapt to various history-based religions but the creeds of history-based religions may not easily expand to the consciousness that encompasses the orientation to infinity that traditional Native societies are culturally oriented to. The infinity in which the eternal is experienced in the moment that is now, is the sudden realization referred to in Zen Buddhism as enlightenment, and is the awakening produced within Native North American rituals. These rituals though known, cannot be explained in words; they must be experienced, just as meditation must be experienced , to be understood.
In this light it can be seen that the oral cultures of North America are not pre-civilized or primitive. Native societies are spiritual civilizations in the highest sense of the term civilization necessarily entails by European defination. Spiritual societies live in necessary simplicity. The collective sharing and specializations of Native North America pre-contact societies average a twenty-hour work week for it's memebers; this allowed the spiritual and cultural development of those traditions which Erich Fromm discribes as necessary for the sane societies and which modern purely rational society now require. It is our own assumptions which have blocked our understanding.
The art of civilization is a respectful door to open to cultural awareness and expression. If we continue to assume that native culture has been lost or Native people have vanished, we make it impossibe to receive the gifts of those civilizations. To look back upon these civilizations and project a European rationalism is to mass a current message that Native artist are perfectly capable of giving meaning too.
Native North American consciousness has witnessed the arrival of European consciousness. Native consciousness has observed European rationalism and its value of intellect and merchandise for over five-hundrend years. The orientation to the infinite has endured the physical onslaught of immigration of millions upon millions of human beings into the geographical territories once inhabited only by Native people. Native North America culture has survived by remaining invisable: it has endured European concepts of ownership, history-base religion, policies such as Manifest Destiny, ingrained ideas of progress, and modern civilization resulting from industrailism. It has adapted in stages to resisit disease, warfare, assimilation, removal of cultural artifacts, removal of children from their families, and the removal of their ancestors for the graves.
The European rationalism continues its course we may observe it from the perspective of Native North Americans. The concept of progess which has led to water too poisoned to drink, land unfit for human habitation, and air that is too unhealthy to breathe, is the definition of insanity in Native culture. The element of fire has been intelligently manipulated to produce engines of transportation, manufacture, and destruction, which are impressive but reason would suggest caution and discipline in its use. While European rationalism wages current wars of ideologies, Indigenous populations pray for the healing of the Earth, especially the water which is the natural element with which to sustain life.
Human caution and discipline in the use of fire is developed in a consciousness that transends intelligence and awakens reason. Therfore a concept of ownership of divide portions of the Earth, which allows for the indiscriminate and manipulation of the Earth's resources to the detriment of the Earth's inhabitants, is not considered reasonable or intelligent in Native consciousness. It is not considered civilized for a fraction of the Earth's human population to consume or waste a majority of the Earth's resources. The natural balance observed in natural phenomena simply does not tolerate the imbalance of European rationalism.
The term scientific-civilization, applied to the twentieth century, stands outside of the understanding of balance. The duality of good and evil is transcended because good and evil is conceptual-dependant upon a point of view-while balance and imbalance are immediate referances with practical, non-conceptial influence and remain observable in every civilization of every era. Therefore laws of balance and imbalances sustain natural laws of the universe which remain infinate and absolute. The harmonize human conduct with the infinate laws of the universe is to develop a consciousness of extream sensitivity and adaptability that does not linger in realms of consciousness that entertain projections into the future to detriment of the immediate, exact reality of the now. This discipline of awareness may be referred to as Zen when applied to a Japanese form of Buddhism. It may be referred to as Shamanism, for lack of a better word in English, for developed Native North American consciousness.
The highly developed consciouness born of a specific culture does not automatically translate to every member of that culture, just as not all Catholic Christians are Catholic priests. Every Native North American is a Shaman or would communicate a transcendent level of developed consciousness. It is important to know that those who communicate on this level communciate within the symbols of their own culture. If the confines of European thought dismiss what it is not oriented to understand it perilizes the understanding of meaning for successive generations. European colonial concepts may have dismissed these tools for meaning but future generations of North American are likely to require them for basic survival.
Societies which are ancient are those which have endured. Their traditions are the purest of sciences in relation to themselves and the natural Earth. When the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Boddhi tree and was asked how he knew he was enlightened, he simply pointed to the Earth. It was the very Earth that bore witness to his enlightenment. As well, it is the very Earth to which ancient, traditional indigenous societies refer when communicating the transcendent consciousness that develops relightenment reason for human contuct. Simutltaneously, humn conduct in relation to the Earth. as ot rptates arpimd the sun, within a galaxy that is only one of many galaxies, has been understood before a telescope or spacecraft was invented.
The scientific inventions which the nineteenth century has invented so prolifically also relates to the European nineteenth century assumption that all consciousness relates to a tangible physical element. This conceptualization and finite limitation led Freud to attach human consiousness to a "libido." Twelieth century European thought allowed that consciousness can exisit without attachment to a physical element and now explores intelligence that permeates the universe unconfined to the human skull or differentiated molecules. This may be the cutting edge of western science but is the traditional reality of Native consciousness for millennia.
When modern Western civilization can allow for the possibility that the Native societies encountered in sixteeth century European exploration were mystic. enlightened, spiritual societies capable of absorbing, adapting , and resisting the European mercantile and consciously primitive poplations arriving in mass hoards upon their shores with beliefs and values alien to the natural laws of the natural universe, we may begin to open to the discipline of human conduct that must develop from within the balanced sanity of individuals before it can emanate into outward action. This is the discipline that traditional indigenous have cultivated for millennia with their civilizations.
In other words, traditional societies acknowledge that change is developed from within and coerced by outside force in forms of punishment or fear. This how traditional societies have resisted force assimilation. The mastery of psychology and humor is employed as a correcting influence on imbalanced behavior. The concept of reward and punishment either immediate or delay in terms of heaven and hell are not practiced. This method of reward may serve as a deterrent but it would not awaken the essential consciousness of an individual.
Traditional societies share - whether it is food. knowledge. resources, culture or territory. If they didn't share they would not have survived. This shared culture specializes area of work according to natural talent and skill. Specialization in western civilization means something quite different: specialization in traditional society reduces the average work week to twenty hours and leaves time to develop art, story telling, and ritual, which forms the basis for the type of human development largely devoid in the modern civilization of our time and which humanist such as Erich Fromm observe to be missing-and missed-by human beings. To open to the wisdom of traditional. indigenous cultures we simply observe the assumptions upon which modern society has developed and allow for the introduction of their meaning to be objectively defined.
This introduction is mot readily available through the universal language of art.Native art is no tprimitive, but primal. To separate Native artifacts for the cultures which have poduced them is defined as a form of genocide in the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. For non-Native propulations it has removed meaning from the collective artifacts Moden Native art, produce within the enviroment of Native ulture, retains the meaning rooted within the ancient cultures.
By not expecting the symbolism and abstraction of Native art to conform to the developments of European Renaissance art, we can respect a parallel path of human development and lean to see, understand, and appreciate Native consciouness. The development of understanding the meaning opens our own human consciousness to a relationship to the Earth. The quantifying developments of scientific rationalism have disregarded the qualifying reasoning of indigenous culture. By opening to an understandig of the meaning inherent in the reason of indigenous culture, we open a door of humanism that the west has flirted with but not married into its consciousness.