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New World Library Unshelved

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Thursday, January 19, 2017
PRIMAL RELIGIONS, PRIMAL PASSIONS: An excerpt from AND LIVE REJOICING by Huston Smith
 
Spiritual trailblazer Huston Smith, who passed away on Friday, December 30, 2016 at age 97, was a preeminent teacher of world religions. He wrote comprehensive books about religion and memoirs of his own life, but nowhere did he merge the two elements of seeking and experience with such storytelling flair as he did in And Live Rejoicing, a book that New World Library is proud to have published. We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book, in which Huston discusses Native Americans and indigenous cultures. May he rest in peace. 

# # #

John Collier, one-time United States commissioner of Indian Affairs, said about Native Americans, the indigenous people of North America, “They had what the world has lost, the reverence and passion for human personality, and for the earth and its web of life.”

To that double loss, I believe we can add three others. First, we, the nonindigenous peoples of North America, are less clear about our values, what is important in life. Second, we are less able to see the Infinite in the finite, the Transcendent in the immanent. And third, we have lost our way metaphysically, which is to say, we have lost sight of the Great Chain of Being with its multiple levels of reality.

Before proceeding, let me say something about the word indigenous. Literally, it means only “native,” and it is used mainly to refer to fauna and flora in their natural habitats. As this chapter’s title, “Primal Religions, Primal Passions,” indicates, however, I am using the word to refer to people — specifically those whose ancestors lived where they themselves are now living. As far as we can trace their lineages, they are not immigrants. On our continent they are the people John Collier was speaking of, the Native Americans. In my experience the principal way in which indigenous people differ from the rest of us is that the lines they draw between the things in this world are not as categorical and sharp as the lines that we draw. 

For example, we draw a categorical line between human beings, as the acme of intelligence, and lesser breeds, which is to say, the rest of the animal kingdom. The inference is that animals are markedly less intelligent than we are. Watch that, indigenous peoples have advised me. To the native mind, as is borne out in their myriad myths, the trickster coyote can outsmart human beings. 

To illustrate this difference, take the categorical line between animate and inanimate that we draw. My Onondagan friend Oren Lyons told me how his uncle once erased that distinction completely. Oren happened to be the first of his tribe to attend college, and when he returned home during a semester break, he had an encounter with his uncle that changed his life.

“Once, when I went home during a college vacation,” he told me, “my uncle took me on a fishing trip. When we were in the middle of the lake he said to me, ‘Oren, you’ve been to college. You must be pretty smart now. Let me ask you a question: Who are you?’”

Oren was stunned. He asked, “What do you mean, Uncle? You know me. I’m your nephew.”

His uncle was not satisfied, and simply repeated his question. “Who are you?”

“I’m Oren Lyons.”

“No,” his uncle responded.

Oren tried again: “I’m a human being.”

“No.”

Oren tried again and again. When he had exhausted all the answers he could think of, he said, “I guess I don’t know who I am. So tell me, Uncle, who am I?”

His uncle said, “Oren, do you see that bluff over there? You are that bluff. Do you see that giant pine on the other shore? You are that pine tree. Do you see the water that our boat is floating on? You are that water. You are not separate. You are the water under the canoe. There is no sharp division between human and animal — the coyote trickster can outwit humans in our stories.”

Oren nodded, finally understanding that he was much more than his own man. I think of that story every time I hear native people discuss how differently they perceive themselves in relation to nature. They don’t divide the world categorically into objects that are separate from one another. 

Another story I find revealing about Oren’s integrity has to do with the time he spent a grueling day negotiating land claims with a congressman. Afterward they went to a bar and were forced to wait several minutes to be served. The congressman kept looking at his watch until the bar finally opened.

“What will you have?” the politician asked.

Oren said, “Oh, orange juice would be just fine.”

“Good,” the congressman said, “a screwdriver. I’ll be right back.”

“No!” Oren objected. “Just plain orange juice!” 

Well, the congressman brought Oren his orange juice and proceeded to have three martinis. Then his speech began to slur and his steps became uncertain. 

Seeing the absurdity of the situation, Oren made the uncanny observation that history was repeating itself in reverse, since all the treaties between native people and the American government during the nineteenth century had been signed while kegs of gin and rum and other alcoholic beverages — firewater — were opened and passed around. This time, Oren smiled to himself because the shoe was on the other foot.

# # #

Huston Smith is the author (with Phil Cousineau) of And Live Rejoicing and a recognized and revered teacher of world religions. His many books include the classic The World’s Religions and the New York Times bestseller Why Religion Matters. He passed away in December 2016 at age 97.

Excerpted from And Live Rejoicing. Copyright © 2012 by Huston Smith

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