Tag Archives: Great Plains

Plains, Rocks & Cosmos

In anticipation of a summer touring the Great Plains, I took some time off from the blog to immerse myself in a surprisingly rich literature on the subject, which of course has nothing to do with religion. I will say, however, that anyone who has yet to discover this richness or is thinking about exploring the Plains should consider reading some of the books listed at the end of this post. Having just read each in succession, the immersive effect is pronounced and I’m ready to go but the weather is not yet cooperating. While waiting, and in anticipation of the anthropology of religion course I will be teaching in the middle of the summer, it’s time to round back toward religion.

The good news is that in doing so, I won’t run the risk of being brutally murdered. For the third time this year, a “secular” Bangladeshi blogger has been hacked to death by irate religionists. These three blasphemous bloggers were writing on subjects and topics similar to those that appear here, but were doing so knowing they would be targeted. Talk about courage.

Here in the United States, we fortunately do not have to confront this sort of thing, though we do have young earth Creationists who are relatively harmless. While I have never paid them much mind because arguing with them is futile, a geology professor thinks that the rocks disprove creationism. He apparently does not know that young earth Creationists have considered his argument and flatly rejected it. They are not interested in science and accept it only when it suits their psychological needs or religious purposes. But having said this, I was a bit shocked to encounter the following sentence in the professor’s piece:

“Embracing young Earth creationism means you have to abandon faith in the story told by the rocks themselves.”

This is an unfortunate choice of words. Why should we have faith in a story told by rocks? Rocks don’t tell stories. Geologists provide us with theory and data based narratives about rocks. These “stories” are subject to challenge, revision, and reversal. This method has nothing to do with faith.

From rocks to the cosmos, which is timely for anyone who has recently seen “Interstellar,” a movie with some brilliant science marred by metaphysical speculations about trans-dimensional love tunnels. It was marred even further by Matthew McConaughey’s overwrought acting, but that is another story. The main story here is the science based on Kip Thorne’s work and book, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. Though I am only about halfway through and not sure I understand everything, it is great for bending the mind. The cosmos is stranger than fiction and perhaps even myth.

Finally, the cosmos — and cosmological theories — are the subject of this dense piece by Ross Andersen over at Aeon. Cosmology, it appears, is in crisis and may stay that way for quite some time, perhaps forever. While this may unsettle some, I find it invigorating. When it comes to large and perhaps intractable subjects like this, I always find it helpful to read a good history of the field, so thanks to Andersen for recommending Helge Kragh’s Conceptions of Cosmos: From Myths to the Accelerating Universe: A History of Cosmology. It’s next on my list.

And speaking of lists, here is the one I promised at the beginning of this post, for all lovers of the Great Plains:

Great Plains by Ian Frazier
The Great Plains by Walter Prescott Webb
Love Song to the Plains by Mari Sandoz
Prehistoric Man on the Great Plains by Waldo Wedel
The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal by Stephen R. Jones
Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the Great Plains by William Ashworth
Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains by Jack Brink

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Visions of Ruth Benedict

When it comes to classic anthropology, Margaret Mead may garner the lionesses’ share of attention but Ruth Benedict remains the matriarch. Although Benedict today is dismissed by some as a quaint relic of the “culture and personality” school of anthropology, such demurrals underestimate the theoretical sophistication and continuing relevance of Benedict’s work.

Those who understand Patterns of Culture as a psychoanalytic riff on national character probably haven’t read it. Nietzsche’s analysis of ancient Greek culture as an Apollonian-Dionysian dialectic is a tour de force; Benedict’s similar treatment of the Zuni, Dobu, and Kwakiutl is on par. And despite all the fieldwork-obsessed criticism of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, it is still read by the Japanese and nearly everyone interested in Japan.

About once a year, I am reminded of Benedict’s enduring relevance. It usually happens when I come across something she has written but which was not published or is hidden away. Because Benedict was prolific and her interests so broad, this happens surprisingly often. This year I came across her 1938 “Religion” essay in General Anthropology (open access), a massive tome edited by Benedict’s teacher and mentor Franz Boas.

Although Benedict pays homage to her particularist training and the description is thick, her assay of religion betrays a deeper interest in underlying patterns and themes. The tension is palpable. Her desire to explain is repressed.

Something similar can be found in “The Vision in Plains Culture” (open access), Benedict’s vivid account of the Native American vision quest and its varying deployment among tribes from coast to coast. Published in 1922, it remains the standard reference for those who study the distinctive vision complex of the Great Plains culture area.

Ruth Benedict with Blackfeet Informants

Benedict organizes her data around three patterns that others have considered characteristic of the Plains area vision quest: (1) the infliction of self-torture, (2) the lack of a laity-shaman distinction in seeking visions, and (3) the attaining of a guardian spirit. In typical Boasian fashion, Benedict then shows that while there may be some truth to these patterns, there are many variations and the generalizations don’t always hold. She does, however, identify one that does: in the Plains area, vision seeking is an “affair of maturity and not of adolescence.” Just east or west of the Plains and toward either coast, vision seeking is usually associated with liminal rites that mark passage from adolescence to adulthood.

In closing, Benedict mimics her mentor Boas and reminds us that all this variation argues against generalization:

The very great diversity of the vision pattern even in one culture area such as the Plains is therefore evident. Not only are the general traits unevenly and even entirely lacking in certain tribes, but local developments of one kind and another have overlaid the common pattern till it is at times hardly recognizable. A blanket classification under some such heading as the “acquiring of guardian spirits” leads us nowhere.

[T]he utmost diversity which makes of Plains “religion” a heterogeneity. Animism, magic, mana-ism, mysticism — all the known classifications of religion — jostle with each other in this one area; and after all these headings were tabulated, the real diversities would still remain outside.

These points are well taken. But as is so often the case with Benedict’s work, her appended admonition does little to obscure the larger patterns and explanations lurking throughout the article. Diversity is a pattern that tells us something important about nomadic supernaturalism: across time and space, it is fluid.

As is often the case with incisive thinkers and good writers, Benedict’s mere “description” is organized and presented in a way which smacks of analysis. By showing, she tells.


Benedict, R. (1922). The Vision in Plains Culture American Anthropologist, 24 (1), 1-23 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1922.24.1.02a00020


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