Excerpts from the Discovery of the New World

Jul 2017
Kettering, Ohio USA
I'm taking a course called Indigenous Perspectives on the Sacred 2020. This is reading from this course. What it says about indigenous people in America is so Baha'i. In addition America may have learned federalism from the Iroquois.

Excerpts from the Discovery of the New World

People are increasingly becoming aware of the physical dimensions of the struggle, but very few are aware of its spiritual dimensions. Many measure victory in terms of physical symbols of conquest such as the amount of land occupied, the number of enemy combatants killed, and the amount of material wealth seized. From such a materialistic perspective, it appears that the Indian cause was doomed from the beginning. From a spiritual standpoint, however, the struggle is far from over. The European colonists harmed themselves in ways that cannot be physically measured. In their onward rush, the colonizers ignored the one thing that could have enriched them more than any of the land, gold, and silver that they coveted and took through treachery and conquest. Thinking themselves superior in every way, the European settlers were blind to the spiritual and philosophical wisdom of the many indigenous peoples they encountered—a wisdom that could have made these settlers and their descendants more human in the deepest sense.

The Indian’s holistic worldview stood in the way of Western civilization and its preconceptions about White Christian superiority as well as its unbalanced Cartesian-Newtonian worldview. The clash that occurred between the American Indians and the European colonizers should not be equated with the clashes that were common between European peoples, such as the battles between the French and the English, who shared essentially the same worldview. The American Indians and the European colonists had radically different worldviews. The Indian holistic perspective could have helped to equilibrate the excessively materialistic orientation of Western civilization.

The struggle continues even today, as a spiritual battle for the hearts and minds of humanity. For a considerable number of Indian people, the struggle is not perceived as White versus Indian but rather as the struggle of humanity against the forces of ignorance, hatred, poverty and greed. These new spiritual battle lines were demarcated when countless indigenous peoples, even in the grip of almost certain extermination, refused to give up on love. A quintessential example of the enduring power of love was shown by Chief Joseph (1840-1904), who uttered the following statement even after having witnessed scores of his Nez Perce people slaughtered by American army troops:

We shall all be alike – brothers of one father and one mother, with one sky above us and one country around us, and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land, and send rain to wash out the bloody spots from the face of the earth that were made by brothers’ hands. For this time the Indian race is waiting and praying. I hope that no more groans of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief above, and that all people may be one people.

From the moment colonists settled in the Americas, they were on a collision course with the Indian civilizations that had developed and thrived there for many thousands of years. The first European colonists were not settling in “virgin wilderness,” as many of them assumed; they were invading lands that in some places were as densely populated as the European homelands of that time

I am not surprised that the United States increasingly finds itself hemmed in by social, economic, political, and environmental crises. These crises are a result of the same Cartesian-Newtonian worldview that precluded the establishment of Indian-White racial unity several centuries ago. Sadly, many Westerners continue to look in vain for solutions within the same paradigm that generated the problems. This is where the American Indian holistic perspective can play a crucial role. I believe that the traditional Indian worldview contains the seeds for a new vision of reality that can help Americans solve many of their problems. Furthermore, the traditional Indian perspective is consistent with the modern holistic movement, and it is also consonant with several key teachings of the Bahá’í Faith. All three of these perspectives can work in concert to balance the scales of justice and bring healing, reconciliation, and unity to the Americas and to the world. With this in mind, this chapter presents a detailed examination of the worldview, history, and cultural achievements of the American Indians.

Collision of the Christian, Cartesian-Newtonian, and American Indian Worldviews

When the Europeans first arrived in America, many of them were possessed by a rather fanatical and militant understanding of Christianity. For many, the world was divided between the pure, superior Christians on the one hand and the infidel or pagan peoples on the other. This is understandable considering the torturous religious history of Europe. By the time the Europeans first set foot on American soil, Europe itself had already experienced several centuries of religious upheaval in which Christians had fought fellow Christians over conflicting views of what it meant to be a true believer. Throughout Europe, many people were accused of heresy and then tortured, imprisoned, and killed, as exemplified by the notorious Inquisitions. Europe also sent six major waves of Christian crusaders into Muslim-held territories in order to supposedly “recover” the Holy Land and to “liberate” the city of Jerusalem from the Muslims. The crusaders developed a well-deserved reputation for wanton violence as they brutalized not only Muslims but also Jews and even fellow Christians. The Crusaders, for instance, sacked the beautiful city of Constantinople, whose population at that time was Christian but belonging to the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, a rival of the Roman Catholic Church.

In contrast to all of this, religious wars between American Indians were practically unknown. Indian religious tolerance was the rule rather than the exception. Indeed, some of the first priests who entered indigenous societies were surprised at the openness with which the Indians listened to Christian teachings. The Indians, however, were dismayed when these same priests did not reciprocate, and in fact, treated Indian religious teaching as “mere fable and falsehood.”

When Columbus first arrived off the coast of America in 1492, Spain had just finished a victorious military campaign to regain lost territory from the Moors, an African Muslim people who had ruled over Spain for seven centuries. After a series of victorious battles, the Spanish rulers declared that the Muslims, and also any Jews living within the Spanish kingdom, would have to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain. This act of religious intolerance is significant considering the fact that the Muslims had ruled over Spain for about seven hundred years without forcing the Christians or Jews to convert to Islam. Indeed, as mentioned in chapter 4, some Spanish cities such as Cordoba flourished under Moorish control as Muslims, Jews, and Christians built thriving communities known for their agricultural, commercial, educational, architectural, and artistic achievements. Judging by the religious intolerance that they exhibited in Spain against the Jews and Muslims, there is little doubt that many of the Spanish explorers who colonized the New World were imbued with a crusader mentality. In the eyes of the Spanish explorers, the Indians of the Americas were godless pagans, and in fact, most of the Spaniards even wondered if the Indians were actually human beings with souls. Eventually the Catholic Church had to clarify that the Indians were “children” who were capable of Christian virtue.

Similarly, when the English Puritans started settling in America in the early 1600s, they were fired up by a fervid, religious sense of mission in which they viewed themselves as representatives of Christian civilization. The Indians, of course, were seen as pagan obstacles to the creation of a pure Christian utopia or God’s “City on the Hill.” Like other Europeans, the English believed that they were entitled to the lands that they had invaded because of an ancient Christian doctrine known as the “right of discovery.” According to this doctrine, Christians had a God-given right to dispossess non-Christians of their lands in all parts of the world.

At about the same time that Europeans began to settle in the Americas, major philosophic transformations also began to occur in Europe. These transformations would eventually dramatically undermine the power of the church and would have broad and lasting effects even until now. From about 1500 to 1700, the “scientific method” arose as a way of acquiring new knowledge. This new method revolutionized the way people pictured the world around them and also altered their way of thinking. Historians now call this paradigm shift the Age of the Scientific Revolution. Before its advent, the dominant perspective in Europe was holistic, and the general populace believed in the interdependence of physical and spiritual phenomena.

Ultimately, the published works of astronomers, mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists such as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and Newton turned the tables on church authority. Science eventually became the acknowledged supreme authority in explaining physical reality. If the church had any remaining authority, it was limited to defining and describing only the spiritual realm. This division of reality into a physical component and a separate spiritual component marked the end of the holistic perspective and the beginning of the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm in Western civilization. This new paradigm spurred further scientific achievements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and ultimately, helped fuel the Industrial Revolution.

Thus the church found itself in full retreat. This not to say that it lost all power. For those who had faith, the church still had the power to define the spiritual realm, and therefore its decisions were still perceived as having the potential to affect people’s destiny in the eternal afterlife. Thus it is very likely that a significant number of Europeans decided, either consciously or unconsciously, to “hedge their bets” in both this world and the next. Based on the newly emerging Cartesian-Newtonian perspective, many came to believe that it was perfectly “reasonable” to indulge in single-minded worldly economic and political pursuits, provided that they continue to observe Christian mass on Sundays, and even more importantly in the eyes of church authorities, as long as they continued to pay their tithes.

In the New World, especially during the eighteenth century, the Indians increasingly found themselves surrounded by European settlers who professed a deep faith in God yet acted in ways that seemed contrary to such belief. In the newly emerging European worldview, a clear distinction was made between the secular and sacred. For the European colonizers, the natural environment fell into the secular category, and the earth and its resources were simply regarded as commodities to be exploited for economic and political gain. Many of the colonists, especially the Founding Fathers, were steeped in the Cartesian-Newtonian ideas of Locke. Significantly, the colonists not only adhered to Locke’s ideas concerning freedom and equality, but they also subscribed to Locke’s overall mechanistic view of the world and to his ideas concerning natural laws, individualism, property rights, and self interest. A History of Civilization, a textbook on Western civilization states, “The ideas of Locke and Newton were as well known and as much respected in North America as they were in Europe. They underlay the Declaration of Independence. . . . The opening paragraph of the Declaration . . . expressed the concept of a world-machine ruled by the Laws of Nature.”

In contrast, the American Indian holistic worldview drew no distinction between the secular realm and the sacred realm – even the natural environment was considered sacred. Black Elk (1863 - 1950), a Lakota Indian medicine man who witnessed the famous Battle of the Little Big Horn against the U.S. 7th Cavalry, aptly captures the deep sense of reverence that the Indians held for the world of nature: “We regard all created beings as sacred. . . . We should understand well that all things are the works of the Great Spirit [God]. We should know that He is within all things; the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all . . . animals; . . . even more important, we should understand that He is also above all these things and peoples.”

Black Elk’s quote elucidates the traditional Indian religious understanding that even though God transcends all things, He is also “in everything.” All created forms are considered sacred, and whole of nature itself is seen as a temple in which one can worship and learn about God. Thus, for most Indians, the idea of buying and selling parts of Mother Earth as a privately held asset was inconceivable and made about as much sense as the idea of buying and selling the air. This perspective represented the antithesis of the Cartesian-Newtonian mechanistic paradigm, which envisioned the universe composed of separate material things. It also represented the antithesis of Locke’s picture of human society as a machine made up of separate physical individuals whose actions are motivated by self-interest

In contrast, the European distinction between the sacred and the secular is clearly evident in the rational religious philosophy known as deism, which thrived among the intellectuals of the Age of Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson and many of his colleagues in the early United States government were among the American intellectuals who adhered to deism. The deists accepted God as creator of the universe, but they did not believe in any particular religion. The famous philosopher Voltaire was the chief exponent of deism in France and was very influential among American intellectuals such as Jefferson. The deists likened God to a mechanic who had created the machine universe, including humankind, and had then walked away, with only the possibility of returning for the Last Judgment. Deists saw that the world of humanity was flawed and reasoned that the perfect God was no longer intimately involved in the imperfect day-to-day affairs of human beings. Thus the deist viewpoint was in direct conflict with the traditional spirituality of American Indians, who believed that the Creator is in no way separate from His creation. From the perspective of many traditional indigenous peoples, the spiritual presence of the Creator, or the Great Spirit, can be felt and experienced in many ways within the natural world.

The positive side of deist practice was that the deists advocated religious tolerance. In this respect, Jefferson and his colleagues who helped to compose the Bill of Rights scored a deist victory when they included the Establishment Clause, which dictated that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. This controversial clause has a range of interpretations that to this day continue to provoke intense court battles. The clause was probably intended to prevent the type of state-sponsored Christian religious fanaticism and abuse that had plagued Europe. However, one of the negative outcomes of the Establishment Clause was that it validated and enshrined within our Constitution the Cartesian-Newtonian split between the sacred and the secular. The strict application of the “separation of church and state” doctrine has required government officials to maintain a separation between their personal religious beliefs and their public behavior and activities. From the perspective of an Indian holistic worldview, such separations are absolutely inconceivable. The critical point here is that the religious belief system of the Indians was firmly intertwined with all of their socioeconomic and political customs and institutions. Indian societies had no such thing as a secular government with secular public officials who were expected to make “objective,” value-free, decisions free of any religious influence.

American Indian Holistic Civilization

Anthropologist Jack Weatherford and UCLA history professor Gary Nash cite numerous sources showing that, as compared to the ostensibly “civilized” Europeans, the technologically less advanced Indians usually lived in more just and equitable socioeconomic conditions. Even some of the American colonists themselves, such as the famous revolutionary Thomas Paine, attested to the just and egalitarian nature of Indian societies. Paine, whose book Common Sense inspired many with its call for American independence, was tremendously impressed with the socioeconomic conditions he observed while interacting with the Indians as a negotiator on behalf of the American revolutionary cause. In 1797, years after the American Revolutionary War, Paine wrote in Agrarian Justice, “The fact is, that the condition of millions in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they . . . had been born among the Indians of North-America at the present day.”

In Indian societies throughout the Americas, land was owned communally. Some communal lands were worked collectively. Other communally owned lands were worked by individual extended families but always with the understanding that the land was not “owned” privately. In such arrangements, any land that was left unused reverted back to the community. The food produced in all the lands was generously shared among everyone in the community including the less fortunate, the aged, and the ill. Also, hunting was usually done communally, and the catch was divided equally among all members of the village. However, while most things were shared communally, Indian people were not trained to be mindless drones operating within a collective. To the contrary, they were raised to be independent thinkers and problem solvers; they were encouraged to think for themselves but to be selfless in the sense of acting for others. A French Jesuit missionary made the following statement regarding Indian socioeconomic conditions in 1657: “No hospitals [poor-houses] are needed among them . . . because there are neither mendicants nor paupers as long as there are any rich people among them. Their kindness, humanity, and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common. A whole village must be without corn, before any individual can be obliged to endure privation.”

It is noteworthy that in most Indian societies women were afforded more respect, equality, and democratic participation in socioeconomic and political decision-making than their European counterparts, who were still largely treated as the property of men. Furthermore, a significant number of Indian societies were matrilineal, with extended family membership being determined though the female clan lines, as opposed to European cultural customs based on patriarchy. In matrilineal arrangements, the husband moved in with the extended family of the wife, and the wife typically had the prerogative to divorce her husband if necessary. Such arrangements were incomprehensible in patriarchal European cultures.

When the Revolutionary War began in 1776, only 5 percent of the people could vote in England, and in Ireland no Catholic could vote or hold office. In contrast, Weatherford refers to numerous studies that show Indian nations throughout the Americas were governed by fairly democratic councils. Indian societies practiced sophisticated principles of group decision-making, and supreme authority ultimately rested in a group rather than in an individual. Contrary to the American Hollywood stereotype of powerful Indian chiefs, the position of Indian chiefs, if it existed in certain tribes, was largely ceremonial and honorary and was not vested with much actual power.

The Iroquois League was founded sometime between AD 1000 and 1450 by the Indian messianic figures Hiawatha and Deganawidah. From the perspective of the Iroquois, it is clear that Hiawatha and Deganawidah had supernatural divine dimensions. Indeed, many consider Deganawidah to have been a supernatural messenger or creature from God, the “Great Spirit,” whereas Hiawatha is considered to have been his first disciple, or human prophet, who carried Deganawidah’s divine message to others. At any rate, Deganawidah enunciated a code for the revitalization of the Iroquois, a constitution that the Iroquois called Kaianerekowa (“Great Law of Peace”). Hiawatha preached the Great Law of Peace from village to village and recruited other disciples to the cause of Deganawidah. According to Iroquois sacred traditions, Deganawidah said,

I carry the Mind of the Master of Life, and my message will bring an end to the wars between east and west. The word that I bring is that all peoples shall love one another and live together in peace. This message has three parts: Righteousness and Health and Power – Gaiihwiyo, Skenno, Gashedenza. And each part has two branches. Righteousness means justice practiced between men and between nations; it means also a desire to see justice prevail. Health means soundness of mind and body; it also means peace, for that is what comes when minds are sane and bodies cared for. Power means authority, the authority of law and custom, backed by such force as is necessary to make justice prevail; it also means religion, for justice enforced is the will of the Holder of the Heavens and has His sanction. It will take the form of the Longhouse, in which there are many fires, one for each family, yet all live as one household under one Chief Mother. Hereabouts are Five Nations, each with its own Council Fire, yet they shall live together as one household in peace. They shall be the Kanonsiónni, the Longhouse. They shall have one mind and live under one law. Thinking shall replace killing, and there shall be one Commonwealth.

As a part of the Great Law of Peace, Deganawidah instructed the Iroquois people to unite in a new and strong confederacy composed of five Iroquois nations (as previously mentioned, late, a sixth nation was added). At the lowest level of Iroquois organization were the Indian villages, each having its own council to govern local affairs and to elect tribal delegates to regional tribal councils. Each regional tribal council in turn was to elect national delegates, known as sachems, to one national council. The six nations of the Iroquois League each had one of these national councils, which exercised jurisdiction over the internal affairs of that one nation only. In addition to the separate national councils, one grand Council of the League was also formed from an assemblage of the national delegates of all six nations. All the sachems could gather together to discuss issues of common concern and to make policy and laws that were binding on all six nations, on all tribes, and on all villages. The Iroquois League lasted for centuries as an economically prosperous and socially harmonious unit that spanned from New England to the Mississippi River.

It is impressive that Iroquois philosophers intended to spread the Great Law of Peace throughout all of mankind so that all people could join together in one confederacy. According to Iroquois beliefs, Deganawidah said, “The white roots of the Great Tree of Peace will continue to grow, advancing to the Good Mind and Righteousness and Peace, moving into territories of people scattered far through the forest.”

At the request of Thomas Jefferson, Thomson wrote a manuscript pertaining to Indian social and political institutions that was later published as an appendix in one of Jefferson’s books. Also, Benjamin Franklin, as Indian commissioner for the Pennsylvania colony, extensively studied the social, economic, and political organization of Indian societies. Franklin became a major advocate for the use of Indian political structures within the American government.

The Iroquois system is now known as a “federal” system, in which each sovereign unit retains some power to regulate internal affairs yet yields some of its sovereignty to one central government, which has the power to regulate affairs common to all. The writers of the U.S. Constitution did not have any viable European models of how to unite the thirteen American colonies, each a separate sovereignty, into one nation. They had only one possible model of what would later become known as federalism – the League of Six Nations. Weatherford states, “The Indians invented it [the federal system] even though the United States patented it.” The founding fathers also borrowed the concept of providing guidelines for allowing other territories to join the federation as new states, just as the Iroquois had allowed the Tuscaroras to join their league.

While the founding fathers did not follow the Indian example of granting women political powers, they did adopt other Indian concepts, such as maintaining a wall of separation between military and civilian authorities to prevent a concentration of power. This was unlike the European custom of allowing military officers to hold civilian political offices. The colonists also followed the Indian lead of requiring elections for all political offices. This broke the longstanding European custom of appointing people to office based on heredity. Within many Indian societies, even the military leaders were elected by their subordinates. The United States did not adopt this practice, although Benjamin Franklin was in favor of it. The Indians also allowed outside immigrants to become naturalized into the Indian nation, in which case such outsiders became eligible for election to office, a precedent the United States followed.

At this point, in order to address typically biased accounts, a special note must be made concerning the Aztecs. Today many remember the Aztec nation primarily for its militaristic tendencies and its warfare against other nations to secure captives for sacrifice. However, the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico in the 1200s, and they did not practice sacrifice frequently until about 1450. A devastating drought in 1450 resulted in an increase in sacrificial rites, and then shortly before the Spanish invasion, sacrificial rites increased again, quite possibly instigated by superstitious attempts to avert the fulfillment of apocalyptic legends which prophesied the approaching annihilation of the Aztec confederacy. We have no way of knowing whether this brutal practice would have eventually come to an end, but we know that it had increased in popularity under the auspices of Moctezuma II who had arrogated to himself more power than any of the previous huey-tlatoani. It is significant to note that some, such as members of the ancient religious sect of Quetzalcoatl in the important city of Cholula, expressed vocal opposition to Moctezuma’s actions and protested the practice of human sacrifice.

In all fairness to the Aztecs, judging the entire span of their civilization solely on the basis of the repugnant practice of human sacrifice would be equivalent to judging the entire span of Roman civilization on the basis of its practice of persecuting Christians by burning them alive and crucifying them, or on the basis that Roman spectators often packed the Colosseum to watch gladiators fight to the death. Westerners who discount the totality of Aztec civilization based on its practice of human sacrifice should also be prepared to discount the totality of Western civilization based on the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Jewish Holocaust, and the killing of many millions of innocent civilians during World Wars I and II.
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