A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
More than sacred burial grounds. more than water, more than the ecology itself, Native American resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline may spring from a world view thousands of years old and lying as a core principle in so many seemingly disparate beliefs, myths and cultural differences. The essence of this world view is the concept of balance between what we may call the “life force” and its seeming opposite the “death force”. Additionally, this concept may throw more light on what we, in the Western Tradition, label as good and evil. One depiction of this balance may be found in a relatively well know text, the Popol-Vuh. In one section of this book, the hero twins Hunaphú and Xblanaqué do battle with the lords of disease and death Xibalba the Mayan underworld. A second text, found in the book Yaku-Mama (Water-Mother), the grandparent gods have created human beings so perfectly they cannot die and are overpopulating the earth.
The twins are born of Xquic and Hun-Hunaphú. Xquic is a princess from Xibalba and Hun-Hunaphú is an earth god with a connection to the sky gods. The implication here is that the three regions (sky, earth, underworld), a common cosmological configuration of the “world”, are somehow connected and interrelated. This idea conflicts with Western cosmology that depicts them in conflict. The twins descend into Xibalba at the request of the Lords of that region who are plotting to sacrifice them as they have already done to the heroes’ father. The twins are aware of this however and have a plan of their own.
The Lords of Xibalba all bear names in some way connected to death and disease. They have already sacrificed Hun-Hunaphú, therefore,the assumption is that they have overstepped their powers by murdering a god, no less, of the earth. We expect that Hunaphú and his brother Xbalanqué will now exact a similar revenge (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth). But they don’t. After vanquishing the gods in a ritual ball game in which their father lost his life, they proceed to reduce the power of the gods in such a way that the circle of life and death is restored; i.e., out of life death is borne and out of death comes new life. Before descending to the underworld the twins plant reeds in the home of their grandmother (an earth goddess) advising her that when the reeds are seen to die, they, the twins themselves are seeming to die in the under world and when they come to life again, the heroes are coming to life. This cycle of death and rebirth of the plants mirrors what is happening in the underworld as the twins pass from one crisis to another in their quest to defeat the Lords of Xibalba.
In the origin myths collected by Luis Enrique Cachiguango, the author of Yaku-Mama, it is not death that has overstepped its bounds within the life-death circle but life itself. According to various versions of the myth that Luis Enrique collected in the indigenous community of Cotama, Ecuador, the first people had teeth made of ivory. Since these teeth never decayed, they could not die and were overpopulating the earth. Seeing what was happening on the planet, the father god and the mother god caused a great flood to ensue, killing all the people except one couple. The idea of one couple being saved may recall the biblical account of Adam and Eve. But there is one important difference. Adam and Eve are condemned because of a personal transgression against their god. The couple in the Cotama myth are part of a human race that is “too perfect”.
Eventually they find shelter on Mount Imbabura, a sacred site believed to be one of the protectors of the Otavalo Valley. There, the parent gods put them to sleep and replace their ivory teeth with ones made of white corn. These teeth naturally decay and, since without teeth they can no longer eat, they die, restoring the balance between life and death. The salient feature of both myths is that emphasis is neither placed on a concept of good or on one of evil. This is not to say that ideas concerning good and evil do not exist, but rather they are effaced. Even where they do appear, the evil involved is mainly that of hubris, which, by definition, is excessive pride. Evil as it is conceived in Western thought is not the central concern, but rather it is balance that becomes essential to an understanding of these texts. Furthermore, the concept of balance goes a long way in explaining North American People’s beliefs also. For instance the Navajo among other South West Native Peoples use sand paintings to cure sickness. Sickness, among these peoples, is conceived as an imbalance of life forces within the ill person’s system. The sand painting (an image of balance) is then used in a ceremony to correct the imbalance in the patient (See Wikipedia – Sand Painting).
Such an emphasis on balance is not that new to us, and it appears over and over in any discussion concerning the ecology. An essential difference remains, however. Ecology is a science and like all sciences (with the possible exception of modern Physics) its base precept is that there is a division between the observed (all that is “out there”) and the observer (us). Descartes made this very clear but it lies at the heart of all of Western philosophy from the Greeks to the present.
The myths go beyond this: the idea of an observer is not even mentioned. Humanity is part and parcel in the circle of life and death. And to the extent that we are part and parcel we are nature itself. Is contemporary Physics reaching this same point of view when it states that the observer necessarily affects the observed, thus becoming part of the overall observation?
This brings us to Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Sacred lands, water, old treaties: these are all important issues in the struggle to stop the pipeline. But who in the West is concerned with “sacred lands” when our museums are packed full of “sacred” objects taken from all cultures and religions, including the Judeo-Christian? Water, treaties: these too are issues that can be solved or reasoned (or rationalized) away. But if it is true that balance in the life-death circle is essential then the issue is deeper than these. The Lakota people and all the other peoples from both North and South America may see Standing Rock from an entirely different view point. At the very level of our being, the ontological level, we are connected to the life and death circle that Standing Rock and the pipe line represent. Ultimately, what will be thrown out of balance with the completion of the pipeline is not merely nature viewed from the point of view of ecology, but rather we ourselves because, on the most fundamental level, we are nature and nature is us.
Copyright 2016 Vincent Spina