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Legacy of Transcendentalism: Religion and Philosophy

Heaven on Earth: Is the Legacy of 19th Century Transcendentalism an Ecumenical Philosophy of Nature?

Meg Brulatour, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1999

Introduction  19th Century Transcendentalism Native American Tradition Judaism
Overview Christianity Buddhism Bibliography

The Native American Perception of Environmental Responsibility

George Hochfield quotes Orestes Brownson on the peculiarly American, democratized Transcendentalism: is virgin soil, an open field, a new people, full of the future, with unbounded faith in ideas, and the most ample freedom. Here, if anywhere on earth, may the philosopher experiment on human nature and demonstrate what man has it in him to be when and where he has the freedom and the means to be himself. 

Such language, Hochfield asserts, underscores the closeness of 19th century "Transcendentalism to a native American vision . . . . the fullest, most radical, rashest expression of . . . the 'American dream.'" Ironically, it may be that, except for Thoreau's interest in Indians--and even he did not fully escape the prejudices of his cultural context--the seers of this new vision failed to realize that it was, in large part already extant, in the pre-existing (uppercase) Native American tradition.

Native American tradition is generally assumed to maintain close and respectful links with Nature, more so than the other religions discussed here; this is undoubtedly due to the overwhelming use of nature as metaphor in the tradition. For instance, the spiritual values of the Haudenosaunee--the Iroquois Confederacy, which includes six nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora)--are symbolized by the Great Tree of Peace, an eternal evergreen with roots embracing the four corners of the earth and a straight, true trunk touching the "sky world." The Tree represents the Great Law, with its main principles of justice, equity, and peace (Rockefeller, 17). Furthermore, religion itself is not a separate entity, just one of several of life's components--rather it is the entire way of life (23). Many of the different Native American groups had no separate name for their "religion" until the concept of naming it was introduced, along with Christianity.

The Native American view of the relationship between the "Me" and "Not Me" is famously illustrated in the speech of Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Ogala Sioux:

We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as "wild." Only to the white man was nature a "wilderness" and only to him was the land "infested" with "wild" animals and "savage" people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it "wild" for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the "Wild West" began. 

Standing Bear's description of the Lakota concept of "a great unifying life force" is Emerson's Oversoul reiterated:

From Waken Tanka there came a great unifying life force that flowed in and through all things--the flowers of the plains, blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals--and was the same force that had been breathed into the first man . . . . Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky, and water was a real and active principle. . . .This concept of life was humanizing. . .  it made a place for all things in the scheme of existence with equal importance to all. The Lakota could despise no creature, for all were of one blood, made by the same hand, and filled with the essence of the Great Mystery... The old people told us to heed wa maka skan. . . the 'moving things of the earth'. . . .Knowledge was inherent in all things. . . . We learned to do what only the student of nature ever learns, and that was to feel beauty. . .

To "feel beauty" is different from merely being able to see it. The Navajo quest for spiritual perfection is called "The Beauty Trail" or "The Beauty Way;" to walk it requires the ability to transcend earthly distraction much in the manner Emerson prescribes in Nature:

. . .few adults can see nature . . . .[but] the sun shines into the eye and the heart of the child. . . .in the woods is perpetual youth . . . .we return to reason and faith. . . .all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. 

Like Sivaraksa and the Dalai Lama, Audrey Shenandoah, Elder of the Onondaga Nation, feels the elements of earth are out of balance, reflective of a spiritual lack of equilibrium (18). Also, like the Dalai Lama, she proposes education and science as avenues of restoration, but the essential missing ingredients are gratitude, for the world and our place in it, and mindfulness of our responsibility not only to the present but deep into the future as well. In this regard Native American tradition seems to differ from Transcendentalism, which concerns itself with perfecting the present moment; in essence, for Transcendentalists there is no "future," and while the wisdom of the ages is valuable, too often it is entangled with stultifying tradition. The ideal is to balance on the narrow edge between yesterday and tomorrow; to live in the moment is perhaps one of the most difficult things a person can do. However, in Shenandoah's culture, each generation is responsible for the well-being of the next seven. Decisions are weighed to judge their effect over centuries. 

Euro-American interpretation of this Native American foresight may be skewed due to an almost insurmountable cultural difference concerning the way passage of time is reckoned. Paula Gunn Allen explains that "the American Indian perceives all that exists as symbolic," and his or her closeness to the earth--too frequently satirized, intentionally or not, in the "noble savage" caricature--is "actual, not a quaint result of savagism or childlike naivete." The sense of the earth as living transfer to the sense of metaphysical reality as well; "no one's experience is idiosyncratic" (70 - 71). The best name European thought can give to this psychic sharing is Jung's "collective unconsciousness" -- it sounds much like the Transcendental idea of separate individuals connected with, and by, the Oversoul. Emerson's "Circles" are reminiscent of John (Fire) Lame Deer's description of cosmic cycles as "circles within circles" (73).

Native American tradition is the one belief system discussed in these pages that tends to view environmental problems as a result of political missteps as well as cultural faults; the situation is not unlike that of the Buddhist in Sivaraksa's Westernized Thailand. Herded onto and confined to reservations, the Indian peoples find themselves living at the intersection of yesterday and tomorrow, not in the joyous "present moment" of Thoreau's vision, but rather suspended uneasily in space. Their former culture, steeped in environmental respect and acknowledgment of the human connection to all things has dissipated not because the Indian has been swept into the consumer culture but because that culture has surrounded it in amoeba-like fashion. There is no mistaking victim for guest; the Native American is in the unhappy position of having strong awareness of what Transcendentalism calls the "inner spark of divinity" while at the same time possessing little strength against outside forces that would quell it. Thoreau's night in jail, recounted in "Civil Disobedience," pales in the light of Wounded Knee or the Trail of Tears.

However, with great resilience, the Native American also looks to education and individual awareness as solution to the environmental crisis. Gunn cites the emergence of a literary tradition among Native Americans as a key component in sparking awareness inside and outside the culture. Her point of view recalls the Transcendentalist vision of the poet's role in articulating the connection between God and Nature and humankind. Vine Deloria, Jr., displays the same fervent challenge to religion as does Sallie McFague, although his vision concentrates on the healing (of physical and spiritual damage) tradition being revived in Native American culture (250 - 253). He sees the reclamation and protection of sacred places as the primary environmental concern, linking the physical degradation of such places to spiritual decay in echo of Emerson: "Nature is the symbol of the spirit." 

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