Archive for October, 2012

Are the Beliefs of Earth-Based Peoples a Valid Guide to Their Behavior?

Are the Beliefs of Earth-Based Peoples a Valid Guide to Their Behavior?

Ken Fischman, Ph.D

Jon Young with Bushmen in Botswana

Jon Young with Bushmen in Botswana

Is there any validity to the oral histories of indigenous peoples? Typically, the avatars of western culture do not put much stock in the legends, stories, and myths of indigenous peoples. Being people of technology and the written word, we especially look down on those who have no written language, regarding them as “primitive,” and therefore not worthy of being taken seriously if we bother to study them at all.

When we study another culture, we usually take only so-called hard evidence seriously. Evidence such as bones, implements, hieroglyphics, and ruins can be touched, photographed, categorized, and put in the form of graphs and tables. We even define whether a people had something called a “civilization” in such a way as to downgrade the importance of  any people unless they had monumental ruins, a written (and decipherable) language, hierarchical social orders with division of labor, and whether or not they made war.(Guess which one counted highest.)

My point here is that I do not think that we attach sufficient significance to the beliefs of Earth-based peoples. Imagine if you can, that a future historian dismissed the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution as not having any bearing on the way people lived in North America during the past 200 years. I think that you would agree that such an attitude was ludicrous and showed sloppy scholarship indeed.

Yet, in a very real sense, this is what many scholars do when it comes to the beliefs and behavior of people whose traditions are oral. I believe that we should take these beliefs more seriously and give them more weight when we attempt to reconstruct events in pre-history. I came across the following story some years ago and found it a good example of this principal.


The Legend of Mount Mazama

 (As told by a Klamath elder to a soldier in 1865. Retold by Ella E. Clark In: Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1952.)

The story begins when the spirit of the Below-World fell in love with the chief’s daughter and demanded that she marry him. This overture was denied and the rejection did not sit well with the spirit, who threatened to destroy the people. “Raging and thundering, he rushed up through the opening and stood on top of the mountain.”

The spirit of another great mountain now intervened and the two mountains began some sort of combat. “Red hot rocks, as large as the hills hurtled through the skies. Burning ashes fell like rain. The chief of the Below-World spewed fire from his mouth. Like an ocean of flame it devoured the forests on the mountain and in the valleys. On and on the curse of the fire swept, until it reached the homes of the people. Fleeing in terror before it, the people found refuge in the waters of Klamath Lake.”

The Klamaths decided that someone should sacrifice him- or herself to appease the spirit. Two medicine men climbed the mountain and jumped into the opening [Caldera?}

“Once more the mountains shook. This time the chief of the Below-World was driven into his home and the top of the mountain fell on him. When the morning sun arose, the high mountain was gone.” Then, according to the Klamaths, rain fell. For many years rain fell in torrents and filled the great hole that was made when the mountain fell …”

Note: This legend appears to be describing the simultaneous eruptions of two volcanoes. The very language seems to be evocative of volcanic eruptions. The Klamath’s legend appears to be about Mt. Mazama in Oregon, and its twin, Mt. Shasta in northern California, as having spirits who lived in them, and openings [vents?] which led to a lower world through which the spirits passed. The Klamaths apparently knew when the mountain was active because when he [the spirit] came up from his lodge below, his tall form towered above the snow-capped peaks [smoke, steam?].

volcano erupting


After all, how would the Klamaths know about such things unless they had actually witnessed them? The only trouble with believing that this legend was a kind of transposition of an eyewitness account is that there have been no volcanic eruptions in the Pacific Northwest since Mt. Mazama blew its top three thousand years ago. Could the story have been passed down from generation to generation for such a long time period?

Before you dismiss such an idea as fanciful, consider the part about the rain filling the great hole made when the mountain fell. It seems to be describing Crater Lake, which was formed in exactly that fashion when Mt. Mazama collapsed.

Our culture, which depends on the written word and now also on electronic bytes, can hardly conceive of such prodigious feats of memory. However, many other cultures, which depend on oral history to keep accounts of their people’s stories, developed this capacity over millennia.

Crater Lake, Oregon

One startling example of this capacity is cited by anthropologist Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty in her delightful book, Other People’s Myths. O’Flaherty states “ India has two sorts of Sanskrit classics, typified by two great texts, the Rig Veda and the Mahabbarata.  The Rig Veda is a massive collection of hymns, a text of over 350,000 words (as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey combined); it was preserved orally for over three thousand years. The Mahabbarata is one of the two great Sanskrit epics (the other being the Ramayana), a text of over 100,000 verses, or three million words (almost ten times as long as the Rig Veda, and fifteen times the combined length of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament); it was preserved both orally and in manuscript form for over two thousand years. “

These texts were recited flawlessly in villages from one end of the Indian subcontinent, to the other without a single mistake. Doniger tells the perhaps apocryphal story that it was only when these classics were translated by an English Consul into print that mistakes began to appear.

Navaho “singers” are capable of memorizing three-day ceremonies so flawlessly that no mistake creeps in. In fact, these ceremonies are never written down, but are passed from one singer to another down the generations. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, tells the amusing story of one such singer, Jeff King, who, in 1966, recited his ceremony and made a sand painting for a distinguished audience at the New York Museum of Natural History. When he had appeared to finish, he was confronted by one very knowledgeable woman, who insisted that he had left something out. “No” he said. “Yes” she said, and insisted that he put it in. “I cannot, he said, if I did so, every woman in Manhattan would become pregnant.” As Campbell put it, “Those Navaho ceremonies had power!”

(Jeff King Sand painting below)

In sum, I believe that western scientists and anthropologists are mistaken to dismiss the oral histories of these people. In doing so, they are losing a lot of valuable knowledge, that may have at least as much validity as Carbon 14 isotope studies.

The reason why I emphasize that oral histories should be taken more seriously is that I have trouble with people who tell me that the only reason that Native Americans and other indigenous peoples did not destroy their environments just as thoroughly as we seem to be doing, is that they lacked bulldozers and insecticides.

On my side, I find it hard to believe that people who regarded the rivers as their sisters, would have raped them by pouring toxic waste into them, or thought of their forests as brothers, would have clear-cut them. Explain to me how people who looked at wolves as older brothers and whose scouts emulated them, like the Cheyenne did, would have turned around and shot them from Cessnas if only they had they possessed such equipment.

Wildlife Services airplane displays killed wolf decals on engine cowling