Red, White, and Green; the warning of Luther Standing Bear
The Lakota way of being in the world provides context to explain why modern Western civilization is destroying the natural world. This flows from Luther Standing Bear’s description of Indian mind and white mind (1). For me, four themes stand out.
First, the theme of individual consciousness – awareness of the world. Indian mind is a way of being in the world that is in harmony with all living things. Standing Bear calls this way of being in “…kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky, and water”. This way of being is closed off permanently for almost all white minds. And since there can be no true understanding between minds operating at different levels of consciousness, white people are not capable of hearing, nor appreciating the import of, Standing Bear’s words.
Second, the theme of scientific thinking. For the Lakota, writes Standing Bear, “…mountains, lakes, rivers, springs, valleys, and woods were all finished beauty; winds, rain, snow, sunshine, day, night, and change of seasons brought interest; birds, insects, and animals filled the world with knowledge that defied the discernment of man… Lakota could despise no creature; all were filled with the essence of the Great Mystery.” For the white man, there is no Great Mystery, only uncharted territory to be discovered, classified, labeled, explained, dissected, analyzed, and used for the benefit of humans. Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese scientist and farmer, known for his practice of natural farming, states quite forcefully in The One-Straw Revolution: “…understanding nature is beyond the intelligence of man”. (2)
Third, the theme of thinking with the heart. Luther Standing Bear writes “…I have come to know the white mind does not feel toward nature as does the Indian mind.” There is one word choice that allows us to glean a valuable insight from this sentence. Standing Bear does not say the white mind does not think as the Indian mind. He says the white mind does not feel toward nature as does the Indian mind. A similar notion is recounted by Carl Jung, the founder of depth psychology. In 1925, at the age of 50, Jung visited the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. According to Jung, Ochwiay Biano, the chief, shared that his Pueblo people felt whites were “mad,” “uneasy and restless,” always wanting something. Jung inquired further about why he thought they were mad. The chief replied that white people say they think with their heads – a sign of illness in his tribe. “Why of course,” said Jung, “what do you think with?” Ochwiay Biano indicated his heart. (3)
Fourth, the theme of sensitive, somatic awareness. The Indian lives with respect for the source of his food, water, and air. These are essential for survival. Kinship with all living things comes from sensing with the body – touching, smelling, tasting, listening, and most of all seeing with natural eyes. The white mind has lost this sensitivity by supplying food, water, air, and all of nature as commodities. All a white person needs for survival is money. There is no need to understand or appreciate the source of the food, water, and air. Food, water, even air, can all be purchased with money. As a result of this alienation from nature, White mind has skin and hands but does not know how to touch, has ears but does not know how to listen, has a nose but does not know how to smell, has eyes but cannot see clearly. As Emerson has written, “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature.” (4)
Indian mind, as Luther Standing Bear tells us, is a kind of consciousness, able to see what is there, with fresh open eyes. Indeed, many white people have experienced an alteration of their consciousness, arriving at a state of mind resembling more closely that of the Indian mind. Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau come to mind. My sense is that such transformations of consciousness occur only for individuals immersed intensely inside a natural world, or in circumstances of great pain or trauma. There are other catalysts, I am sure, but my point is that it happens infrequently. It is doubtful whether this consciousness can be accessed by the will, desire, or intention of a white mind. And if this is the case, it is possible, then, that expository nature writing will be read only by lovers of nature and lovers of nature writing.
There is one strand of nature writing that may help to transform white minds without the need for extraordinary catalysts. Standing Bear’s description of the Lakota way of being in the world is made personal and enhanced by his boyhood memories. He knows of what he speaks from personal experience and observation, and that is what he describes for us. “The old people came literally to love the soil and they sat or reclined on the ground with the feeling of being close to a mothering power.” There is a hint in his expository prose that suggests storytelling may perhaps engage the white mind and heart on a deeper level of knowing. This is especially so, I think, when storytelling is written in language accessible to young people. As Standing Bear writes, “…the old Lakota was wise. He knew that man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things, soon led to lack of respect for humans too. So he kept his youth close to its softening influence.” Young people can be brought close to nature’s softening influence by encouraging them to be in nature, and also by providing storytelling in accessible prose and style. I am thinking of three particular examples:
- The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter
- I heard the owl call my name, by Margaret Craven, and
- Pilgrims of the Wild, by Grey Owl (Archibald Belaney)
Notably, each of these books has been adapted into film, or has inspired a film.
1. Standing Bear, Luther. “Nature”. Nature Writing: The Tradition in English. Eds. Finch, Robert, and John Elder. New York: Norton, 2002. 326-331.
2. Fukuoka, Masanobu. The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming. Trans. Larry Korn. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1978
3. Shulman Lorenz, Helene and Mary Watkins. “Depth Psychology and Colonialism: Individuation, Seeing Through, and Liberation.” 4 Sep. 2000. 25 Oct 2009 <http://www.pacifica.edu/gems/creatingcommunityw/depthpsychologycolonialism.pdf>
4. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature”. Nature Writing: The Tradition in English. Eds. Finch, Robert, and John Elder. New York: Norton, 2002. 140-151 (p. 143)