Unearthing Mother

While reading Tony Swain’s superlative A Place for Strangers: Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being (1993), I came across this passage:

In an argument holding uncanny parallels with my own, Sam Gill has shown how scholars, colonists and Native Americans unwittingly conspired to create Indian Mother Earth. While in Australia the Mother had already emerged with the coming of the Indonesians, there can be no doubt that ethnographers, popular writers, missionaries and others, along with the stark reality of imperial interests, all contributed to the Aboriginal re-creation of the All Mother.

Swain argued that many (if not most) Aboriginal concepts considered by ethnographers and historians to be primordial were in fact relatively new ideas that had been generated by Aborigines as a result of culture contact. He demonstrated, in other words, that Aborigines dynamically and creatively responded to changing cultural conditions. While a core Aboriginal worldview could be identified and remained intact, this worldview was not static and could be amended, extended, and transformed in response to contact with outsiders. Because this was often the case, much Aboriginal ethnography recorded something other than ancient or unaltered ideas.

While there are some similarities between Swain’s argument and Sam Gill’s Mother Earth (1987), there are some important differences. Gill, for instance, does not attempt to identify or reconstruct Native American worldviews. His focus is on a single concept, the Mother Earth idea. He locates the earliest references to “Mother Earth” and traces her subsequent appearances, in the historical record, up to the present. Along the way, he critically assesses the sources for each reference and examines how the “Mother Earth” idea was transformed by various people over time. Scholars, in particular, get drubbed for their carelessness with the concept. While Gill’s scholarship on this limited issue was impeccable, it’s not hard to see how such an argument could arouse passions and opposition.

Gill’s book ignited a firestorm of controversy that began at my institution, the University of Colorado-Boulder, where Gill is a professor of religious studies. At the time Gill published Mother Earth, CU was also home to Lakota scholar Vine Deloria and the notorious academic hack Ward Churchill. Churchill wrote a scathing review of Mother Earth. Like most of Churchill’s work, it’s crap parading under the banner of scholarship. Assuming that Churchill even bothered to read Gill’s book, it’s apparent he did not understand Gill’s limited argument.

But hackademics aside, Vine Deloria’s reaction is well worth considering. While he did not publish anything formal in response, Deloria condemned Mother Earth in public appearances. In this fascinating listserv exchange among some of those involved, Deloria explained his position. During the course of his ranging and at times provocative discussion, Deloria stated:

I would advocate that we look seriously at the basic data and try to find new ways of presenting the materials – find a new framework in which to examine Native religions.

For some time in the past the effort was to try and discover if and whether the Indians had arrived at the concept of a creator and/or monotheistic religion (Schmidt’s effort to show a “High God” in North American Native religions is characteristic of this phase). This effort, in my opinion, was fruitless and simply was a means of making Indian religion respectable enough that it could be fit into existing intellectual frameworks. For instance, James Walker’s re-arrangement of Sioux spiritual entities into a hierarchy of “gods” demonstrated again that Indian material could be placed in a Western European framework of interpretation.

But what are some of these tribal religions really saying? The idea of wakan, mana, orenda, etc., was the EXPERIENCE of personal energy within the physical universe and could not possibly have been the correlate of Middle Eastern ideas of deities. That is one of my main criticisms of Sam Gill’s Mother Earth venture. Sam keeps using the word “goddess.” I told Ward Churchill and George Tinker that Sam’s framework of interpretation or his selection of data, not Sam as a person, should be the points of attack. If people had listened carefully a century ago, or would really try to hear what Indians are talking about now, we could do away with the idea of “gods” – which is a Near Eastern concept – and get to the point that most tribal religions and ceremonies were efforts to achieve a balance with a physical universe inhabited by spiritual entities who were intimately connected to everything else in certain fundamental ways. So the interpretations of the Sun Dance, the Vision Quest, etc., should be seen as Indian versions of Universalist-Unitarian quests for deity, EXCEPT they represented emotional and not intellectual commitment.

This is, in my estimation, mostly correct. I have bolded the parts that accord with my own understandings of Native American worldviews. I have underlined the parts that do not so accord.

My hesitation is that I’m not sure Deloria has gone far enough. By talking about Native “religions,” he is using Western cultural categories and historical taxonomies. He complains that Indian materials have been crammed into “Western European frameworks of interpretation.” I agree. But it seems to me that treating these comprehensive worldviews as “religions” does them a disservice.

Having said this, I also recognize there are good juridical and political reasons for continued use of the term. While it would be nice if we could engage in scholarship without having to worry about all this, we really can’t. We should nonetheless keep these analytical-juridical distinctions in mind. Animist worldviews are not, in my estimation, “religions.” They are more than that.



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14 thoughts on “Unearthing Mother

  1. reternaljudith copithorne

    It would also be worth while to consider including the indigenous European views such as the idea of the great goddess which was destroyed by the arrival of the Romans and then a bit later by the Roman Christians.

  2. Stewart Guthrie

    Thanks Cris! Another excellent post. Seems like Genealogy of Religion is where I’m getting most of my fresh anthropology of religion these days.

  3. Sabio Lantz

    (1) If most of original aboriginal thought is buried under centuries of western accretions, looking for the original aboriginal thought seems pointless except out of anthropological curiosity. It is mostly dead, eh? Certainly original is not “good” is it? For in religions you constantly hear people trying to claim the original, the true, the pure. Sounds familiar.

    (2) If everything evolves, how can there be an “original” or “core”? Core of what, of when?

    BTW, I have only got through pg 42 of Swain’s “A Place” and put it down — very hard reading. I did not enjoy the writing style at all. To abstract, not tight. Just my impressions. So I switched to Blainey’ “Triumph” — much easier reading. I may go back to Swain but it was painful for me. Maybe it takes years of reading academic anthro to appreciate his style. In philosophy grad school I got mad at myself for getting accustom to academic philosophy but fortunately after years out of it, now dislike it again. I can still read medical journals and enjoy them, but I have to. :-)

    Aside from this, the in-house quibbles in this small field was tough for me to follow.

  4. Cris Post author

    I don’t think indigenous or aboriginal thought is buried “under centuries western accretions.” Let’s start with the accretion idea, which implies that indigenes were passive recipients rather than active agents. I don’t think this was (or is) the case. Indigenes are primarily responsible for these changes in thinking. These creative and dynamic transformations occurred as a result of contact, exchange, change, migration, dislocation, and in some cases, cultural destruction.

    I don’t think that seeking and identifying a core set of ideas that correspond more closely to pre-contact thought and practice is just a pointless exercise in anthropological curiosity. Aside from the keen and continuing interest that indigenes have in these ideas (an interest which means they are anything but “dead,” but instead are living, albeit in substantially transformed ways), identifying these is important from an evolutionary and analytical perspective.

    As I’ve mentioned before, these worldviews are (in my estimation) tightly linked to a lifestyle of hunting and gathering. This tight linkage gives rise to a “core” but just because there may be a “core” it does not mean the core was ever static or impervious to change and innovation. This also means, by extension, that as a society moves away from hunting and gathering, pre-contact “cores” are likely to undergo substantial transformations.

    Because all our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, it stands to reason that these worldviews probably give us more insight into evolutionary research questions than do agricultural worldviews. As I’ve also repeatedly argued, this in no way means that animist worldviews are “primitive.” They are just as complex and sophisticated and rich as agricultural or industrial worldviews.

    I would also argue that we should be interested in these ideas because they show us that ways of thinking we think are “natural” or “universal” are really specific to certain historical times and social conditions. This is more than intellectual curiosity, though I think animist worldviews are important for this reason too. While I don’t particularly care for Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, it too shows that these worldviews have something to offer beyond anthropological curiosity.

    There is of course no “pure” or “true” or “authentic” animist worldview — there are many different variations of these worldviews, but there are some common themes across time and space. Some of these themes (collectively, a “core”) allow us to test various proposals made about cognitive, social, linguistic, and “religious” evolution. This is why I spend so much time with them.

    As for Swain’s book, it’s hard no doubt. It is also at times tedious. Blainey’s book was intended for a large, popular audience. Swain’s book is not. The former is good and has its place, but the latter also provides a much more rich, and dense, intellectual feast. The trick with books written by specialists for a smaller audience is to identify his main points and read with those in mind. This allows you to read past or skim things that don’t directly address the main points or arguments. I did this with parts of Swain’s book.

    Swain’s book contains some hugely important arguments and evidence. I encourage you to work through it.

  5. Chris Tolworthy

    I am intrigued by the comparison between middle eastern religions with gods, and other religions with forces. (Please forgive my oversimplification!) But how do we know that even middle eastern religions had gods as we know them?

    I’m thinking specifically of Moses: he was adamant that god should never be portrayed as the likeness of anything. Then we have John, surely the most educated of the apostles, who defines God as the logos. Sure, in later generations logos was given a special theological meaning, but it had a perfectly clear non-supernatural meaning before that.

    The problem seems to me that we interpret the Bible in terms of later understanding. It suited the priests and bishops to invoke a kind of super-priest or super-bishop in the sky, and say “follow me because I am his special friend”. Later prophets might have believe them. It’s about power. So later scholars, believers or unbelievers, say “God is a man in the sky” because that is the voice of tradition. But I don’t see any evidence for that view in the books of Moses, or in Mark, or John, or the gnostic texts. Any thoughts?

  6. Joe Miller

    Check Genesis. If I remember correctly, God ascends to the firmament after either the Fall or the Flood.

  7. David Pecotic

    Cris – I agree with you re: the interpretive power of Swain’s historical analysis and can attest to in person, as he was frequently one of my lecturers during the 90s and 00s in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. As I progressed through honours and postgraduate study I got to know him a little bit – the last time I spoke to him he had moved in to Chinese religions and had started spending a lot of time in China. As you could imagine from the thrust of his argument and the reception its had, he had become disillusioned with academia and was thinking about packing it in and teaching English in China instead. He was good friends with Sam Gill and probably still is; by all accounts, Sam is now a teacher of dance, and for the same reasons that Tony had for leaving academia. Its a pity that Tony’s work like Sam’s work pissed so many people off that it has really had no direct descendants, that no-one has taken up the mantle or a ‘Swainian school’, especially now in this moment of great religious change in indigenous Australia. Tony’s stuff was a great influence on me when I wrote this paper: https://www.academia.edu/5638856/Three_Aboriginal_responses_to_New_Age_religion_a_textual_interpretation._Australian_Religion_Studies_Review_v.14_no.1_Autumn_2001 Its one of the best things I ever wrote for that reason. However, it was only the introduction to an earlier paper I wrote on Aboriginal shamanism as a response to contacts. You’ve reminded me that it may be time to write this paper this year …

  8. Sabio Lantz

    @ Cris,

    Thanks for the reply. Here are my responses as I read through your reply.

    Right, I agree, it should make obvious sense that the indigenes would be as active (and as passive) in the changes in their views as any other people through out history. No more, no less.

    Seeking the “core” pre-contact views of Germanic tribes prior to Roman dominance, or Egyptian views prior to Islamization or …. Would be like seeking Indigines views before colonization. Just as interesting, no more, no less. Those prior view are just as alive and just as dead. And it is important to know that before each of those core views existed, another set existed centuries before that. Or do you have some evidence to suspect that set of core-views was unchanged for millenia — unlike other peoples?

    You say, “No, they are not static” — so there were different cores, right? Or are you saying, “Means of Production models, make core beliefs that don’t change unless the Means of Production changes. All societies with same Means of Production will share some core-values that they don’t with different Means of Production societies?”

    Again, as I write repeatedly, I am not accusing of “primitive” belief. I am not sure why you bring it up in defense when I don’t make the claim. Just because lots of people make a false claim about HG, does not support your arguments unrelated to that. I am sure you know that better than me, but that is what it seems like when you repeat yourself on this issue to me. Again, just trying to give you material to fight against opponents when your book comes out — boy I am looking forward to reading that! Because if I am thinking it, you know more will be — right or wrong.

    I loved living immersed lifestyles abroad in Asia. Those experiences taught me that “ways of thinking we think are “natural” or “universal” are really specific to certain historical times and social conditions.” So I agree with the value of understanding other systems. And your elaboration of these animist views are also helping me in a similar way and I am grateful. I just don’t weigh them more heavily that my other challenges, though my pagan friends think I should.

    Oh, I will continue through Swain’s book. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Thanx Cris.

  9. Sabio Lantz

    @ Chris Tolworthy,
    Passages in the Tanakh abound with bodily images of their Yahweh. Indeed, believers today and then stress this bodily component.
    The scent of burning animal flesh was claimed to be a great delight in Yahweh’s nostrils, for instance.

    @ Cris Campbell,
    Another thing I found odd of your claims is that is seems you don’t want HG worldviews to be a religion because they are “so much more than religion”.

    I watch this fun movie recently on conservative Jews in Israel and thought about how much more life-total their faith is than the Protestants in my neck of the woods:

    The Israeli (Hebrew) 2004 film: Ushpizin. The film uses the Jewish Holy Day called “Succoth” to show us a glimpse of an Israeli family’s Orthodox Jewish faith and much more. [clipped from my blog]

  10. Cris Post author

    Sabio — it’s not a matter of me wanting animist worldviews to be one thing or another. I don’t have any wants or personal preferences in these matters.

    It’s a matter of gathering data and then fitting those data into various definitions of “religion.” Having done that, I simply don’t see how these worldviews can be reduced or crammed into a category called “religion.”

    These worldviews strike me as being more like what Kant called a “manifold” than the kinds of formations that we call “religions.” None of them require anything like “faith” or a particularized set of beliefs. I don’t see them as being analogous to conservative Judaism or any other form of doctrinal, universal, theistic and/or ethical religion.

  11. John Balch

    Cris, have you read Deloria’s book, God is Red? I think that Deloria’s view of Native American “religions” is in many ways a modern synthesis-they are directly constructed in contrast to Western monotheism and in accordance with the emergence of pan-Native American solidarity within their civil rights movement (and the importance of the reclamation of tribal religion for that movement). I think this is at the heart of why he uses the term, he is setting up competing views of “religion” in order for his audience to understand how American culture is intrinsically interwoven with the monotheistic metaphysic that gave raise to it (he’s a big fan of the “Christianity is always anthropocentric and destroying the environment” Lynn White thesis) and how the Native view provides a counterpoint. Does this give full credit to the diversity of Native American views and practices? Hard to say. I think he often prefers to possibly err on the side of promoting pan-Native unity and rights (he is definitely a politically-oriented author), which can vary from very strong presentations of commonalities of Native American religions to oddly pseudoscientific views, such as you see in Red Earth, White Lies (it turns out that Christians don’t have a monopoly on creationism).

  12. Cris Post author

    Funny you should ask, John. I have long avoided that book (for political reasons you touch on), but just got it and am nearly finished. I agree with everything you have said here.

    There are aspects of Deloria’s construction that I think derive from (traditional) animist worldviews. In particular, his emphasis on spatiality as opposed to temporality is, I think, grounded in what might be called pre-contact “cores.” It certainly accords with Swain’s reconstruction of Aboriginal understandings and is not limited, as Deloria suggests, to Native Americans.

    How have you been? Shoot me an email, if you would.

  13. Chris Tolworthy

    Sabio – thanks. I am tempted to observe that God must also have wings (Psalm 36:7 etc.) and his nostrils must be uncommonly large (Exodus 15:8 etc) but I appreciate the pointer. It is interesting to see the reasoning behind giving God a body.

  14. Cris Post author

    David, sorry about the late response — your post got buried and I somehow missed it. Thanks for this keen information, and the link. I’m looking forward to reading your article. If you are interested in doing something shorter and less formal, say a blog length (or blog series) post, please let me know.

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