Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Yoda: Not a Real Indian. Though He May Be Lutheran.

The revelation that most Indians are Christians may produce, for many who did not already know, some cognitive dissonance, some disorientation. After all, we all know an Indian elder is full of spiritual wisdom, posing koans like a Zen monk, or like Yoda or Obi Wan Kenobi. A lot more profound than the dull routine of weekly Christian church-going. Why, then, would the Indians prefer Christianity? Why would they abandon a superior spiritual wisdom for an inferior?

But then again, perhaps the first question should be: where did this general awareness of deep Indian spirituality come from?

Like so much else, it mostly showed up in the Sixties. Noble savage salad days again. It comes largely if not entirely from several books by Carlos Casteneda, best-sellers through the last Sixties and early Seventies. Casteneda was an anthropology student at UCLA. Prospecting for Indian herbs in the nearby desert, he met don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian shaman, who accepted him as his disciple. Don Juan introduced him, through the use of peyote, Jimson weed, and mescaline, to the awareness of a “separate reality” in which he could turn into a crow, fly, talk to coyotes, or jump off a cliff without being harmed. And, he gradually came to understand, these were not just hallucinations. Reality itself was an arbitrary construct; there was no objective reality. It was just the story we chose to believe in. It could, if one developed enough shamanic “power,” be altered at will.

Carlos Casteneda: selfie

You can see how this would have gone over well in the Sixties. Time magazine declared Casteneda the “Godfather of the New Age”; Salon calls him “the literary embodiment of the Woodstock era.” Much that we now call “postmodernism” can also be found here. And there is a good reason why don Juan seems reminiscent of Yoda or Obi Wan-Kenobi. George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars universe, claims to have been deeply influenced by the don Juan books. Casteneda was Skywalker, the original Jedi knight.

But it was all originally to do with Indians.

The books, presented as legitimate anthropological field esearch, have given “native spirituality” its immense current prestige. Behind that taciturn experior, those infinitely wise old Indians were hiding super powers. They've probably been laughing at us all along.

This presige is now so great that, according to a recent story in the National Post, the Canadian prison service, which funds chaplaincies, currently pays more for native spiritual services than for all other faiths combined. And this despite the fact that only five percent of federal prisoners identify with “native spirituality” (Marie-Danielle Smith, “Prisons pay more for native spiritual services than all other faiths combined,” National Post, June 8, 2016).

All this accepted as so, the fact that most Indians are Christians becomes a puzzle. And we have been able to discount the idea that this was somehow done by government compulsion. So how?

It must have been some kind of trick. For example, seeing the European wealth, perhaps they feigned conversion for material advantage. They are really all still secret pagans.

This is a charge often made against Christian missionaries. In China, the accepted term is “rice Christians”--locals who allegedly nominally converted to Christianity to get a daily dole of rice from the nearest mission.

This may sometimes have been true. The French gave Indians converting to Catholicism one great material advantage: a firearm. They would not even sell or trade a firearm with a non-Christian Indian. Convert, then, and you got a gun, for self-protection and for hunting. It could mean your life.

From the French government point of view, this was probably not intended mostly as an incentive to convert. It was more a matter of wanting to get weapons into the hands of your allies and not your enemies.

Still, it might have served that purpose.

Father Brebeuf also reports a Huron chief telling him, in so many words, "Echon, I must speak to you frankly. ...The people of Ihonatiria said last year that they believed, in order to get tobacco” (Jesuit Relations 13, p. 169). A pretty clear admission. This, however, was in reaction to the Jesuits warning the Indians that, to be Christians, they would have to give up polygamy and other pleasures. It might not have been strictly true—more a matter of asserting that the Indians cared more for their pleasures than for this new religion.

Our Jesuit correspondents maintain that this was at least not always so. “No one can say that this good neophyte,” they report of one convert, “has enrolled himself under the standard of Jesus Christ out of worldly considerations. ... [H]e has never asked, nor showed any inclination to get, anything from us ... We had neglected him for a long time, not even giving him anything to eat, or paying him much attention; .... Indeed, he often said to Father Brebeuf, 'I became a Christian, not for the body, but for the soul.'” (Relations 12, p. 257-9).

If the Jesuits were using material rewards to attract new Christians, it sounds as though they were doing a slipshod job of it.

Yet we cannot simply take the Jesuits' word on this. Honourable men, no doubt, but not disinterested parties. Whether true or not, they would want to believe that Indians were not converting for ulterior motives.

On the other hand, note that Brebeuf and his catechumen here are strictly correct in terms of Catholic theology. Although it finds a place in some forms of Calvinism, there is no room in Catholicism for the “prosperity gospel.” It would be bad theology, and the Jesuits always knew their theology. Even if some Jesuits wanted to falsify Catholic doctrine in order to attract converts—an achievement that would be meaningless in theological terms--they would have risked entangling themselves in theological and logical incoherence. It is hard to make the idea of material rewards mesh with much in the gospel or the catechism. A shrewd Indian could have brought them up short.

Given that Catholicism expressly denies offering material rewards, and promises its treasure “not in this world but the next,” the lure of material advantage through one's religion probably, on the whole, would have worked against the missionaries, not for them. If Christianity does not promise material benefits, their rivals, the shamans with their traditional native practices, did. As, indeed, does Casteneda's don Juan. Shamanism is mostly magical in nature: do this dance, and you get rain. Use this herb, and you get a pretty wife. This charm helps with the hunt. The early Moravian missionaries lament, of the Eskimos, “They could see no practical benefit from this new religion, which did not promise them any help in seal-fishing, or in building their kayaks” (Thompson, Moravian Missions, p. 232-3). "Do not speak to me about the soul," remarked one Indian to Father LeJeune, "that is something that I give myself no anxiety about; it is this (showing his flesh) that I love, it is the body I cherish; as to the soul, I do not see it, let happen to it what will" (Father LeJeune, Jesuit Relations 12, pp. 131-3).

Moravian mission, Labrador

It seems the spiritual message got through, but apparently not on this basis.

In any case, even if imagined material benefit was behind the original conversion, this could not explain the continuing Indian loyalty to Christian ideals since. There would be no reason now, with the immense prestige of native spirituality, and the government money lavished on it, to dissemble. The material incentives are clearly in the opposite direction.

Another theory sometimes heard is that it was all dumb luck. The missionaries, if inadvertently, brought the smallpox. The smallpox devastated Indian cultures, making many question established verities. The traditional shamans based much of their prestige on being able to cure illness. There is a reason why they are often called “medicine men.” Happening to be there when this void occurred, Christianity was able to benefit; even if it was really an inferior creed.

Elizabeth Fenn makes this claim. “Repeated bouts of pestilence shattered native tribal organization, disrupted kinship ties, undermined Indian belief systems, and called into question the skills of traditional medical practitioners. The chaos made many Indians more receptive to the alternative religious and social structures offered by Catholic evangelicals when they moved into disease-ravaged regions" (Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana, NY: Hill&Wang, 2002, p. 142).

This seems initially plausible as well. Father LeJeune claims, “These poor barbarians, perishing every day, say that there is no longer any real Manitouisiou [shaman] among them, that is to say, no genuine sorcerer” (Jesuit Relations 12, p. 7). The Jesuits record, of one Indian, “this poor barbarian did come to see ... [Govenor Montmagny], and asked him why they were becoming visibly depopulated, and we, on the contrary, lived so long. 'It must be,' said he, 'that you know some secret for preserving your people, and that you have an intimate acquaintance with the Manitou'" (Jesuit Relations 12, p. 183). Later, another delegation of Indians at Quebec say, “It must surely be, … that the God whom this Father announces to us, is powerful, since he so perfectly cures the greatest and the most contagious diseases,—which the Manitou or Genii, whom our sorcerers invoke, cannot do'” (Jesuit Relations 31. p. 199-201).

“On the first day of July,” Father LeJeune writes, “a Captain of the petite nation of the Algonquins brought me letters stating that this Captain [chief] was coming down to Kebec to see the Captain of the French. 'He is considered,' said this Savage, 'a grand personage in our country; they say he is a great friend of the Sun, and that he gives letters which prevent one from dying, at least soon. I am going to ask him for some of them,' said he” (Jesuit Relations 12, p. 181-3).

This was in line with pre-existing Indian expectations of spiritual practices: sing the proper medicine song, do the proper medicine dance, and you get well. And unlike the cargo cult notion, it was also reasonably in line with Christian traditions. One does not become a Christian for one's health; on the other hand, Jesus went about healing the blind and lame. Healing is the most common class of miracles attributed to the saints. It seems to be a traditional way for the Christian God to manifest his power. So it was proper for the Jesuits themselves to promise that God would give health. “Two or three persons, having had recourse to the superstitions of the jugglers,” one Jesuit reports, “died almost in their hands; and all those who addressed themselves to God were either cured or relieved in their diseases” (Jesuit Relations 31, p. 197). No scoffing at magical thinking here—it was how the Holy Spirit did his work. So too today: visit St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, or Lac Ste. Anne in Alberta, and count the discarded hearing aids and crutches on the wall.

Yet this factor too may have been, for the early missionaries a double-edged sword. After all, it was not likely to escape Indian notice that, wherever the black robes came, the smallpox seemed to come in their wake. Did this new religion cure disease, then, or did it cause it?

“I wish to say,” writes one Jesuit, “that the savages have all the reasons which purely human argument can suggest to them, for having an aversion toward the faith, or rather, for rejecting it; ... Since we have published the law of Jesus Christ in these regions, plagues have rushed in as in a throng. Contagious diseases, war, famine, — these are the tyrants that have sought to wrest the faith from the faithful, and that have caused it to be hated by the infidels. How many times have we been reproached that, wherever we set foot, death came in with us! How many times have they told us that they had never seen calamities like those which have appeared since we speak of Jesus Christ! 'You tell us' (exclaim some) 'that God is full of goodness; and then, when we give ourselves up to him, he massacres us. The Iroquois, our mortal enemies, do not believe in God, they do not love the prayers, they are more wicked than the demons, — and yet they prosper; and since we have forsaken the usages of our ancestors, they kill us, they massacre us, they burn us, they exterminate us, root and branch. What profit can there come to us from lending ear to the Gospel, since death and the faith nearly always march in company?’ There are Christians who generously answer these complaints: 'Though the faith should cause us to lose life, is it a great misfortune to leave the earth in order to be blest in heaven? If death and war slaughter the Christians, no more do they spare the infidels.' 'Yes, but,' answer the others, 'the Iroquois do not die, and yet they hold prayer in abomination. Before these innovations appeared in these regions, we lived as long as the Iroquois; but, since some have accepted prayer, one sees no more white heads, — we die at half age'” (Jesuit Relaions 25, p. 33-5).

"It is la prière that kills us” another informant maintained to the Jesuits. “Your books and your strings of beads have bewitched the country. Before you came, we were happy and prosperous. You are magicians. Your charms kill our corn, and bring sickness and the Iroquois. Echon (Brébeuf) is a traitor among us, in league with our enemies" (Parkman, The Jesuits in North America, p. 272).

“There is no human eloquence,” laments another missionary, “which can persuade a people to embrace a religion which seems to have for companions only pestilence, war, and famine. It is God alone who causes the Faith to germinate, who preserves it, and who vivifies” (Jesuit Relations 31, p. 239).

So smallpox is unlikely to have been a critical factor leading to the general conversion. Christianity seems to have conquered as much in spite of, as because of it. In any case, as with material prosperity, if the Indians were “tricked” into becoming Christians by seeing it as medicine (and granted that Christian prayer really may heal), why their continued commitment today? The government gives them free health coverage.

We are left, then, with the disturbing likelihood that, to the minds of the Indians, who should know best, Christianity was simply superior as a spiritual doctrine to anything their traditional culture could offer.

In order to understand this, first it is probably important to know that Casteneda's don Juan, the wise Yaqui shaman on whom our high opinion of “native spirituality” is mostly built, was a fictional character—no more real than Obi Wan Kenobi. Casteneda was one more in a familiar line of charlatans who saw that, by putting their claims in the mouth of an imaginary Indian, they suddenly gained great credibility. Indians, we instinctively believe, cannot lie. Without this device, who was actually going to accept that Casteneda turned into a crow, or learned to fly? Yet they did in his day—up to and including his thesis committee at UCLA, and UC Press. In 1973, Time magazine discovered that most of Casteneda's public claims about his own biography were false, and for no particular good reason: he had lied about his military service, his father’s occupation, his age, his country of birth; possibly about his name. So others began to examine the details of his tales about don Juan. While don Juan supposedly presented “a Yaqui way of knowledge,” and was resolutely anti-Christian, it turned out that the real Yaquis were Catholic, so far as anyone could see. Unlike don Juan, even in their older pagan traditions, they did not use peyote or other psychoactive substances. In his 1980 piece “The Don Juan Papers,” psychologist Richard de Mille tracks down don Juan's spiritual sayings, and discovers they are generally taken more or less verbatum from familiar philosophers, spiritual writers, and anthropological literature. Either don Juan spent a lot of time in a college library, or Casteneda did.

Yaqui flag. Note the central cross.
“In one example, de Mille first quotes a passage by a mystic, Yogi Ramacharaka: 'The Human Aura is seen by the psychic observer as a luminous cloud, egg-shaped, streaked by fine lines like stiff bristles standing out in all directions.' In A Separate Reality, a 'man looks like a human egg of circulating fibers. And his arms and legs are like luminous bristles bursting out in all directions'” (Robert Marshall, “The dark legacy of Carlos Castaneda,” Salon magazine, Apr. 12, 2007).

To be fair, Casteneda was probably justified by his own stated beliefs in claiming that his experiences with don Juan were real. After all, if we can all just make our own reality, a fictional character is at least as real as you or I.

But it would be wrong to suppose that don Juan tells us anything about Indian culture. He, and Casteneda's claimed experiences, have clear antecedents, again, in the European romantic tradition of the noble savage. Casteneda more or less casts himself as the hero in Matthew Arnold's mid-Victorian poem “The Scholar-Gypsy.” The original setting is Oxford instead of UCLA, and the noble savages are gypsies instead of Indians, but the essential narrative is otherwise the same:

And near me on the grass lies Glanvil's book—
Come, let me read the oft-read tale again!
The story of the Oxford scholar poor,
Of pregnant parts and quick inventive brain,
Who, tired of knocking at preferment's door,
One summer-morn forsook
His friends, and went to learn the gipsy-lore,
And roam'd the world with that wild brotherhood,
And came, as most men deem'd, to little good,
But came to Oxford and his friends no more.

But once, years after, in the country-lanes,
Two scholars, whom at college erst he knew,
Met him, and of his way of life enquired;
Whereat he answer'd, that the gipsy-crew,
His mates, had arts to rule as they desired
The workings of men's brains,
And they can bind them to what thoughts they will.
"And I," he said, "the secret of their art,
When fully learn'd, will to the world impart;
But it needs heaven-sent moments for this skill."

Arnold was working from an earlier legend, dating back at least to the seventeenth century.

So real Indian religion, no relation, might well have been just as far behind Europe as Indian material technology was. Indeed, why would it not be so? A resistance to the strange or new would have inhibited innovation in spiritual just as much as material matters. The same need to focus on the daily stuggle, on war and subsistence, would have drained away time for quiet meditation as much on spiritual as on material affairs. And the lack of writing may have been crucial. There is a reason why religions are so often and so closely built around “The Book,” around some written scripture. If you have the essence written down, you have a firm foundation on which to build generation by generation, as great minds come along. If all must be transmitted orally, you have built on sand. You can retain, meditate, and build upon no more from one generation to the next than can be stored in one human memory. General understanding cannot surpass the best understanding in each small tribe in each generation. Matters well-resolved a thousand or a hundred years ago are likely to be utterly unremembered today.

Time and again, when the Jesuits or others ask the Indian elders a challenging question about this or that element of their beliefs, they seem obliged to answer, “about this, our ancestors did not say; we do not know.” There were, it seems, logical gaps in their traditions, fairly obvious questions left unanswered. If someone had somewhere once worked these out, the information was at least not reliably passed on.

Christian cosmology, after two or three thousand recorded years of dedicated scholarship, tested too in the rational fire of Greek philosophy, tends to be a rather complete, comprehensive, and defensible world view. It might easily have blown away traditional aboriginal understandings in any public debate.

In addition to this, there is the matter of “upaya.” This is a Buddhist concept, and a useful one.

Ontology, or cosmology, is only the starting gun. Right. God exists. The next question is, what are you going to do about it? Buddhism, usefully, understands religion not as a set of beliefs about the world, but primarily as “upaya,” literally, “skillful means.” Religion is spiritual technology—practical ways and means to achieve a full and true experience of the divine. God is not an abstract concept in a book: he is a living person with whom one wants a living relationship.

The most common observation made regarding the pre-existing native religion by the first missionaries was that they, the Indians, did not seem to have any. There was a near-complete lack of rituals, votive objects, prayers, any physical or visible evidence of religious concerns—of spiritual technologies, of “upaya.” “I cannot obtain the least insight into the religion of the Red Indians,” writes John Cartwright after his expedition to contact the Beothuk, “and have thought it very remarkable, that in a journey of about seventy miles through the heart of their winter country, not a single object should present itself that might be looked upon as intended for religious purposes or devoted to any superstitious practices of those people” (Captain Cartwright, head of the Palliser expedition, 1768. Quoted by Howley, p. 39). The Jesuits made similar comments of other tribes. “[T]hey have hardly any virtue or religion,” writes Brebeuf of the Hurons (Jesuit Relations 10, p. 115). “[T]he savages have no definite religion,” writes Father Biard of the Micmac (Jesuit Relations 2, p. 7). “There is among them no system of religion, or care for it,” writes Father Jouvency of the Algonquins (Jesuit Relations 1, p. 285).

Having more rituals, more symbols, more smoke and incense and hymns and forms of prayer, means more paths to the sacred. Christianity could in this regard have been as obviously technologically superior to traditional shamanism as the arquebus was to the bow and arrow. Or more so.

But there is yet another, and I suspect a more important, factor. Casteneda's fictional Indian spirituality shares at least a superficial resemblance to real Indian world-views: like the Indians, Casteneda maintains that the real world is the world as imagined, not as sensed. But note a critical difference. Casteneda believes, with New Age and postmodernism, that we can construct our own reality. With psychic “power,” we get, God-like, to choose for ourselves what is and is not real. This is entirely different from the Indian experience. To Indians, one did not choose the elements of the dream—they were objectively real, and no more readily manipulated than the visible world. You did not get to be God; you were obliged to obey. And this was as true of shamans as of laymen.

Yaqui Indians.

The source for Casteneda's doctrine that you get to choose what to believe is, again, not Indian, but European. The probable original source is Martin Luther. Luther introduced the doctrine of sola fides--”salvation by faith alone.” All very well if Luther by “faith” meant “trust.” But fides is not always understood so. Sola fides implies, at least in some interpretations, “belief,” in the sense that believing in the truth or reality of “A” instead of “B” is a moral act. Which is to say, it is a matter of free will. If one chooses what one will believe, one chooses, in that sense, one's reality.

This is not how the imagination is actually experienced, or indeed how belief actually works. We do not consciously decide what we are going to dream. That is exactly why the Indians considered the imagined world objective: it is not part of us, we did not make it. Nor does an honest man choose what to believe—he seeks truth, whatever it is, or seems to be.

Casteneda's separate reality looks appealing when you suppose it means you make your own reality: I choose not only to be able to fly, but also to have a million dollars in the bank. And, of course, to be dead handsome.

But, as we eventually discovered in the Sixties, not all trips are good trips. This, no doubt, is why there is not so much of a constituency for LSD any more.

The West Coast Salish, in common with apparently all Indian cultures, took dreams to be revelations of the greater reality. Sproat explains that for them, “Dreams are both good and bad, but oftener forebode evil than good. Almost equal to dreams in importance is the influence of omens. An eagle flying near the houses, the appearance of many seals, a watery moon, the presence of a white man, are the fancied causes of innumerable events; in fact, hardly a day passes in a native house without some fear being caused by dreams or omens. All the people live in constant apprehension of danger from the unseen world” (Sproat, Scenes and Studies of Savage Life, p. 175).

This does not sound like that much fun.

The pre-Christian Indian, other authors agree, lived in near-constant terror. “[T]he Indian lived in perpetual fear. The turning of a leaf, the crawling of an insect, the cry of a bird, the creaking of a bough, might be to him the mystic symbol of weal or woe.” (Parkman, The Jesuits in North America, p. 55).

The Indian inventory of supernatural beings includes many that would work well in a horror movie. The Abenaki had Atosis, a reptilian humanoid, who forces people to find a stick so that he can cook them on it. There was the Dzee-dzee-bon-da, so fearsome to look at that even he is terrified by his reflection in a still pond. There is M-ska-gwe-demoos, a moss-covered woman who lives in the swamp. She might turn into Maski-mon-gwe-zo-os, a giant toad who lures men and children into the depths of the bog, then drowns them. There is a vampire, the tsi-noo, whose heart is of ice, and who, having no soul, must eternally eat the souls of others to survive.

The Algonquins had a version of the sasquatch, called Bagwajiwininiwag, an ape-like being larger than a man. They knew of a flying skeleton called Bakaak, a giant horned panther called Mishibizhiw who caused unsuspecting travellers to drown, and the notorious cannibal spirit of the woods, the Wendigo.


And so it goes, tribe by tribe. Fun, perhaps, for a Saturday matinee, but not fun to live near day to day.

Nor could the Indians turn to any trustworthy spiritual champion in times of peril. Chief among the gods, in the Eastern Woodlands, was Nanabozho or Nanabush, the creator or restorer. He is, like the Greek gods, not a moral being. “… [S]ometimes,” writes Parkman, “he is a vain and treacherous imp” (The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, p. 45).

We have previously mentioned Father LeJeune's experience during a sojourn with the Innu. It is relevant here. “During the night, a woman who had gone out, returned, terribly frightened, crying out that she had heard the Manitou, or devil. At once all the camp was in a state of alarm, and every one, filled with fear, maintained a profound silence. I asked the cause of this fright, for I had not heard what the woman had said; eca titou, eca titou, they told me, Manitou, 'Keep still, keep still, it is the devil.'” (Jesuit Relations 7, p. 83).

Manitou, strictly speaking, means only “spirit.” Its use here unmodified implies that spirits generally were among Indians things mostly to be feared. So many dragons, so few beautiful princesses!

And here perhaps we see the most important advantage of Christianity.

“I began to laugh,” LeJeune continues, speaking like a Christian jedi, “and rising to my feet, went out of the cabin; and to reassure them I called, in their language, the Manitou, crying in a loud voice that I was not afraid, and that he would not dare come where I was. Then, having made a few turns in our island, I reëntered, and said to them, 'Do not fear, the devil will not harm you as long as I am with you, for he fears those who believe in God; if you will believe in God, the devil will flee from you.' They were greatly astonished, and asked me if I was not afraid of him at all. I answered, to relieve them of their fears, that I was not afraid of a hundred of them; they began to laugh, and were gradually reassured” (Jesuit Relations 7, p. 85).

Christianity protects you from demons. This should come as no great surprise. It was a prominent feature of Christianity in first-century Palestine, too: the ability to cast out devils.

Jesus casts out a demon
Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. (Mark 3: 13-5; NIV).

It may have also been the feature that allowed Christianity to spread throughout the Roman Empire. Historian Ramsay McMullen has called Christian exorcism “the chief instrument of conversion” throughout the ancient world (McMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984, p 27).

This works on the premise that the omnipotent God is necessarily more powerful than any other spiritual beings. Hold fast to him, and you have complete protection from the beasts and demons of the night. And he loves you.

Modern psychiatrists would no doubt instead tell the Indians that these spirits of the night did not exist, were only in their heads. That might work for some; but not likely for most Indians, who fully understood that the imagination was real. And there is no good logical reason to say they are wrong, is there? Other than arbitrary prejudice, why suppose the material world is any more real than the one we see in dreams? Saying it is “unreal” then sounds like whistling past the graveyard. “I don't believe in ghosts, because if I don't believe in them, they can't hurt me.” Not terribly logical. How well does it work for Revenue Canada?

It has been claimed that Indian medicine men regularly faked madness, to demonstrate their supposed contact with the spiritual world. “The Neutral nation,” writes Parkman, “was full of pretended madmen who raved about the villages, throwing firebrands, and making other displays of frenzy” (Parkman, op. cit., p. 80).

Two logical problems here: first, it assumes that other Indians were stupid, and could not tell real from faked madness. This is not plausible. Second, it assumes that modern psychiatric professionals too cannot tell real from fake madness. For many years, up to the middle of the twentieth century, the traditional Algonquin shamans, the waabanowin, were commonly put into mental hospitals by American mental health authorities.

If this was not madness, I think we need to qurestion whether we know what madness is.

Oxford defines “psychosis” as a state in which “contact is lost with external reality.” Merriam-Webster says it is a state in which you “believe things that are not true.” If for “external reality” or “truth” you read “physical reality,” as I suspect most of us do, then any genuine Indian shaman was, in fact, by this measure supposed to be psychotic. When at the height of his trade, he was fully in the spirit world, the world of the imagination.

You can argue that, in this event, traditional shamanic beliefs are superior to modern psychiatry. Instead of being locked up and drugged to semi-consciousness, the native psychotic remained within the community and had a ready means to support himself—although at the same time, he risked sudden murder by anyone who suspected he had laid a curse on them.

But Christianity's answer is surely better still. It is all very well to let psychotics be productively psychotic, but, as noted, this can often be terrifying and excrutiatingly painful. Ask any schizophrenic. Yet unlike modern medicine, Christianity does not deny the traditional Indian world view. Instead, it allows it, but introduces a new spiritual technology that can protect from any harm.

We really ought to try it on psychosis generally.

Why not share this vital piece of traditional Indian spiritual wisdom we call Christianity?

No comments: