04 August 2009

Noble Savages and How I Learned to Ignore Human Nature

Prayers to the Wishemoneto

Man Above, these are my words.

Some posts die aborning. Some are the Chia Pets of essays: smear on some slimy packaged seeds, watch something conventional and silly grow quickly, take up space and excite trite comment, and then the only controversy will be whether it dies of neglect or is deleted first. Other posts are the cicadas which burrow in my brain for 17 years and spring out unexpectedly. And others? Well, sometimes, a post congeals out of smoke, lint and Miscellaneous Unidentified Things.

This post began in my mind as a short email to Parson Jim. He preached the sermon at Central Christian Church yesterday morning, and took as the message for the entire service various “Native American” themes. [See Note 1 below re posts based on sermons.] As the sermon progressed, I pulled out my little pocket notebook and began scribbling notes. [That’s a holdover from my Dad. He could talk at length about the development of papyrus, paper, writing implements and written language to illustrate why depending on a “perfect” memory was sort of stupid.] Parson Jim (and the elders and other participants) talked on, Indian prayer, a children’s sermon of a Shawnee creation myth, and the prospective email was growing. Some of it was (overly?) detailed, and I began to wonder if I simply was being contrarian. You see, all of what Jim was saying was making sense and moving toward consistent points, and was coming from a legitimate and common (if technically inaccurate) view of the continent’s original human inhabitants.

Ouch - original inhabitants. Already, I’m getting hung up on a sticky pedantic hobby horse that I ride. Who are “native Americans”? I am a native American. I was born here. As it happens, so were some of my ancestors, in some instances going back quite a few generations and in other instances just a couple. No matter. Native American. In the 17th Century, some poor Curry schmuck arrived at Hampton Roads (Virginia) either as an indentured servant or dead broke to make his way, presumably because England just wasn’t working for him. I have no shared memory with that guy. In the interior of the continent were some hundreds of thousands of individuals who likewise have descendants in American today who likewise have no shared memory with the 17th Century folks. Shared traditions? Sure. But do we really want to get hung up on racial shit again? OK, “First Americans”? Nope, that doesn’t work, that would have been Benjamin Franklin. I’m not creative enough to come up with a term - ok, how about Bering-Land-Bridge-Descendants? Nope, doesn’t sing, doesn’t even rap, so I’ll stick with native Americans, but understand that I do so with a footnote.

OK, the sermon itself. I doubt if Parson Jim has it in him to preach Hot Hell or Freezing Snow just for the, er, hell of it. Mind you, do harm and he’ll be on you like white on rice, but he doesn’t rant for the fun of it. Jim’s sermon was one of unity and tolerance (the Indian religion was monotheistic, and the “Wishemoneto” just another name for God) (oops, another note below), and the Indian was seen as “one with Nature,” which certainly doesn’t describe current society nearly anywhere.

As such, Parson Jim was using the “Noble Savage” model of the native American, first and best illustrated by Alexander Pope [“Lo! The poor Indian.”] James Fenimore Cooper also wrote ad nauseum from the Noble Savage model in the Leatherstocking Tales, comprising five novels. Five beautiful but TURGID, DRAGGING, PAINFUL novels. (But see Noble Red Man by Mark Twain, which was one of his semi-private works which savaged Cooper’s images.)

There is a lot of beauty in native American culture. Jim used a common creation myth, involving the Turtle bringing mud from the bottom of the ocean to form the land. [The turtle is a common native American symbol, sometimes a central totem/symbol for a tribe or group such as the Lenni Lenape. The turtle is also featured in other creation myths, notably in Southwest Asia.] The terms “Great Spirit,” “Man Above,” and so forth are not simply picturesque, they are reasonably accurate translations. Verbal images such as “sitting in the lap of my mother the earth” also are accurately translated and represent religious and spiritual truths. Moreover, the references to nature reflect the reality of the day-to-day existence of the non-technological culture, because the native Americans drew DIRECT sustenance from the earth.

Let me throw a bit of sand on that bright flame. The native Americans lived in harmony with the earth, but they also didn’t have either the population or the technology to stress the land other than very locally. And when technology was offered to the native Americans, they seized upon it eagerly because it enabled them to perform tasks better. Ultimately, there are all sorts of negatives to the construction of metal blades and other tools - but overall, they perform a whole lot better than non-metalic materials.

Noble Savage is a pop theme, too. Just today, I saw a 20-something white guy with a large tattoo on his upper arm depicting an Indian medallion with (I think from the coloration) a couple of hanging eagle feathers. The First Amendment lets this guy put whatever he wants to on his arm, so that’s fine with me. What message is he giving out? He is “one with the tribe”? That he adopts some presumed set of values associated with Indians? What tribe is he “one with”? What values? How does that affect his daily behavior? We all want tribe, I suppose. [See post of 9 May 2009, Fire and Tribe.] Mostly, we grasp some vague connection from nationality, ethnicity, or political viewpoints and when we do that, that’s REALLY convenient. We do not need to work very hard to develop beliefs, if we adopt somebody else’s tribe, we just get the rulebook and follow it. I’m a Shawnee! Oh, I’m a Limbaugh-ite, or over here I’m a Neo-Progressive Asskisser, or whatever.

An issue with Noble Savage is the “proof” by the degeneration of the native Americans after contact with Europeans, a degeneration which tribes lament until this day. [Statistically, native Americans are more prone to alcholism, poverty and other ills, the causes of which are subject to argument which is beyond this post on this day. (Although the inept multiple personality disorder treatment of Indians alternately as “nations,” dependents, enemies, racial inferiors, and social failures may have some little role there.] Well, modern developments after contact with a culture that overwhelmed the Indians numerically and technologically proves rather little about the pre-contact culture. Direct information about the Indian life, however, suggests that we’ve been handed a bill of goods. Parson Jim praised the Kevin Costner movie Dances With Wolves, and I’ll tell you I really enjoyed that flick, too. It depicted a tribe which was peaceful, honorable, resourceful and in some ways almost childlike. The tribe was the Comanches, and I bet that at times they were all of that. The Comanche culture also included torture and mutilation of captives. So I’ll accept that they were a workable culture, but don’t be telling me that Kicking Bird sat around all the time planning how to win the Nobel Peace Prize. [Is an appropriate response that the Army lied to Comanche leaders on occasion in order to lead them into killing ambushes? That’s true, by the way. It also has nothing to do with the fact that the Comanche were also cruel as we understand the term.] And Jim’s reference to the Shawnee in the service was appropriate. The Shawnee were a very developed nation with several semi-specialized “septs” or sub-groups, and they trod the ground of Mother West Virginia and Marion County. (Shawnee organization, culture and life is described well in the historical novels of Allan Eckert, beginning with The Frontiersman.) Ever heard of “running the gantlet”? That’s where you run between lines of guys who are trying to kill you and usually succeed. That’s a Shawnee thing. The Shawnee also had a designation called cutahotha. That consisted of painting a guy black and killing him in the most painful ways possible. Many of those methods involved pre-morbid evisceration.

So, mainstream modern culture is superior.



We don’t torture anyone? Do we?

Um, ok, there’s the little glitch of the fuel-air explosive, which maximizes the explosive potential of flammable liquids to create a wide area of high overpressure. In other words, big bomb, cheap, lots of dead people. Well, we have the “Laws of War”! One of those bans soft-nosed bullets which cause more damage to flesh because they expand and deform on contact and expend more energy in damaging the person they strike. So, in the primary modern military rifles, technology has come up with a way (based on the rate of rotation) to destabilize the bullet so that on contact it tumbles (and disintegrates) so it does as much damage as a soft bullet would but still meets the letter of the law. Perfectly legal, perfectly civilized, just hard luck on the target.

But we aren’t savage. We don’t torture. We don’t use “extraordinary rendition.” We don’t ration basic healthcare. When someone has, say, diabetes, we as a society provide the most basic support in the form of medication, insulin and an acceptable diet so that these people don’t crap out immediately, don’t we?

So maybe we don’t even reach the Noble Savage level?

Have we?

I could be wrong, you know, and it’s Parson Jim who’s been on the right track all along. Maybe there is a Noble Savage to the same extent that there is a Noble American. And there IS a Noble American. When I hear Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA, I feel the music and the lyrics and BY GOD I'M PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN AND IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT, YOU CAN GO STRAIGHT TO HELL. And then, I’ll pick up the sword-cum-laptop and talk about the 535 thieves, the broken justice system, poverty, idiocy and Things That Are Broken. I feel no inconsistency. Ivory Soap is 99-44/100% pure. There’s 56/100% impurity there to go after. If we tolerate crap, it's because we don't care about any of it.

And if we don’t see ourselves as Noble, if our “reach doesn’t exceed our grasp,” there’s just no point in any of this.

Oh, in a very recent comment to another post, Parson Jim mentioned Richard North Whitehead, because obviously I was familiar with his work and writing. Yeah, obviously. Jim has not yet learned the truly plaid nature of my half-formal and half-autodidactic education. I had never heard of Richard North Whitehead. The quotes provided by Jim made ZERO sense until the fifth time I had read them. His work is still going to take a lot of study. If you call me an intellectual, them’s fighting words.

So, Friend Jim, preach on, teach on.

Note 1: I’ve gotten a bit of push back from basing essays and posts on sermons, religious themes and other spiritual bases. Sermons, done correctly, are thoughtful essays from the hearts of educated and moral people. If it still bothers you, please note that your ISP provides a number of options in the tool bar above for other web content elsewhere, so goodbye and good luck.

Note 2: The Names of God. Arthur C. Clarke did an interesting sci-fi short story called The Nine Billion Names of God which just came to mind. Anyway, Jim termed the Shawnee deity “Wishemoneto.” Actually, “God” was the Moneto. (Spellings differ.) The benificent spirit/aspect was the Wishemoneto and the malevolent aspect was the Matchemeneto, sort of a Yang/Yin thing that I’ve never understood. See, I told you my thoughts as the sermon proceeded were getting positively persnickety.

Paladin, Paladin

Last week, my great friend Mike Beninger was in town. Mike is unquestionably one of the 10 best trial lawyers in West Virginia. As Bro. Dave and I sat in the cafĂ© solving the world’s problems, we saw Mike trudging up the street, an associate in tow with a dolly load of file boxes. Clearly, Mike was on his way to try a case. Mike was in a plain grey suit, it was raining, and he was wearing a baseball cap. That is Mike, totally a one-off. (It was a Naval Academy cap, since Mike’s son is in his plebe summer there now.) I had a matter in Family Court, near the Circuit Court’s courtroom, so I caught the edges of the trial. As it turned out, it was a criminal case which ultimately was resolved very favorably for Mike’s client before one word of evidence was heard. Why? My view is that it’s the Paladin Syndrome in action. When you have a skillful lawyer, one of known talent, known to be willing to try a case and one who is known NOT to exaggerate and bullshit, s/he has credibility. On the other hand, if you don’t have the skill or haven’t made your bones, putting on the act earns you only a belly laugh.

The Duchess, The Nabobs, and a Simple, Polite Guy

The Internet war drums are alive with shocked, whining shrieks about the intolerable ego of Senator Barbara Boxer. In June, Army Brigadier General Michael Walsh was testifying to a Senate Committee and responding to questioning by Senator Boxer. In the conversation, he referred to her as “Ma’am.” She stopped him and pointed out that she wanted him to call her “Senator,” not “Ma’am,” because she’d worked hard for the title. The exchange was conducted at normal tone and wasn’t some obvious big deal at the time, although she was clearly pissing on his table to mark her boundaries and put him in his place. [Someone unfamiliar with Nature will give me noise about that metaphor, I’m sure.]

The nattering nabobs of the right are wailing like they’ve been gut shot, thus illustrating that in their frenzied need to feel afflicted, they are willing to bid a mighty “Screw You!” to conventional notions of logic and adopt willy-nilly all the logical fallacies they can fit in. Here, they use (1) anecdotal evidence (she did it once), (2) suppressed evidence (Sen. Boxer has at least expressed humility on lots and lots of occasions like any good little liberal should) and a whopping dose of (3) group think (liberals, bad; us, good.) Unfortunately, in the Sound Bite Universe, Logic has been suspended. Hard luck for all of us.

But On The Other Hand, Duchess, the General was talking to you respectfully, the way PEOPLE talk. You’re in the Senate by a vote, not by the Grace of God. Sure, you didn’t shriek about it, but this little exchange is yet another example of the culture of superiority in government and in money. You did work hard for the title. You worked hard raising money, kissing ass, taking polls, shafting enemies, casting loose inconvenient friends, keeping silent about some unpopular opinions and changing others outright, and I’m really not picking on you because you have 534 brothers and sisters there working with you who have done and do the same thing. Your humility prescription from Coal Run Hollow? Clean your own toilet for a while. Nothing like shit to turn your thoughts to the humble and comfortable.

Pippa passes.



Jim N. said...

Hey Roger,

The Shawnee name for God that I know and used in the service is "Gitchi Manitou," which roughly translates as "Great God" or "The Most Awesome of the Awesome." I don't know the term "Wishemoneto."
I'd be interested to know where it comes from.

The Philosopher I mentioned is "Alfred" North Whitehead; not "Richard." I'm just being nitpicking.

No doubt, Native American cultures, along with all cultures and people, (as you so ably point out) have their inconsistencies, mixed histories, both the noble and ignoble in them.

My own bias leans in the direction of viewing the early settlers and those who forged into the frontier as the marauders, and the various tribes as lacking the skill to form coalitions that could have withstood the newer arrivals--except, possibly, in the case of the Jamestown settlement, and that other colony in NC.

But then, I tend to empathize more with those perceived as underdogs. It's curious how much our own psyches and emotions guide our inclinations.

Forging ahead,

Joshua Patty said...


Glad that Jim got you going in my absence. Maybe we should let him preach more often.

As for the Noble Savage mentality, I keep waiting for a history of the pre-European colonization of North America that sounds like the post-colonization history of the European continent. I have no evidence of such a history (aside from some anecdotal evidence and some ingrained beliefs about anthropology and sociology), but I imagine that it was more like the quarreling history of Germany than we've ever imagined.