Two Cultures

Winter-SunsetLast night my good friend, Susan Grimaldi, came to my class, bringing stories from her life as a Choctaw shaman, and new ethnographic video from her work in Mongolia. Lucky students were able to engage in conversation with a highly respected shaman who has, over the past twenty years, conducted groundbreaking work with remote shamans in China and Mongolia, and has, at their request, shared their knowledge and experiences with others throughout the Americas.

One of the shamans Susan interviewed conducted a ceremony that aimed to begin to heal the relationship between the Earth and the Moon. This shaman perceived that space junk, the metal remaining from orbital rocketry, was disturbing this important relationship. After the ceremony he noted that while his ceremony was important, it was crucial that shamans and healers around the world also conduct ceremony to support the healing. He stated emphatically that the efforts of one person, no matter how powerful, was simply not enough.

There are two ideas implicit in the shaman’s request that we who live in Western culture might find difficult. One is the concept that space junk might damage the relationship between the Moon and the Earth. We might agree there is a large debris field circling the Earth, and that the field is a serious risk to space craft. Yet, I suspect most of us would be hesitant to imagine that the junk might somehow distort the relationship between celestial bodies. The idea that the debris from previous launches might have a real, if unanticipated, effect on our lives may seem nonsensical to the Western mind, even as it makes sense to the Indigenous mind, a cultural frame in which everything is aware and interwoven.

The other disconcerting idea is the belief that we must all work together to repair damaged relationships. This is everyday knowledge in tribal culture, and yet may seem alien to many of those living contemporary Western lives. Still, there are so many problems that demand collaborative action. How are we to rapidly find cures to devastating illnesses, repair the environment, or update dilapidated infrastructure if we refuse to address these issues together? During my lifetime, we, in the U.S., have faced numerous challenges (Polio, the pace race, AIDS, environmental collapse, to name a few), and drawn together to do whatever was needed to address them. Disturbingly, there now appears to be a lack of willingness to share in the hard work and significant sacrifices required to repair our lived world.

I imagine most folks believe Indigenous ways of knowing mostly disappeared in the last century, the natural outcome of competition with materialist views. Yet, Indigenous understandings of the world are alive and well, in remote villages and urban centers. They remain, and even thrive, everywhere Indigenous people gather. They continue because they fit the Indigenous experience of life and world.

Listening to Susan, I became aware that I much prefer living in a world filled with consciousness and intent, a landscape in which relationships are fundamental and Mystery abounds. The Indigenous view of the world insists that all actions are more complex than we imagine, and are accompanied by unanticipated consequences, good and bad. In the Indigenous world all actions are fraught with moral implications requiring deliberation and, often, reparation. Of course, this world requires a great deal of upkeep; relationships are like that, are they not? The reward is immense and persistent joy.

As I write I am reminded of my encounter with C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures in high school. He envisioned a cultural divide between the arts and humanities, and science, a chasm reinforced by language and discipline related practices. I wonder what he would make of the even greater cultural divide between materialism and Indigenous knowledge.

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