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Below, an interview with the author of In the Absence of the Sacred:
The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations.
First, a few excerpts from the book itself:
“ . . . technological evolution is leading to something new: a worldwide, interlocked, monolithic, technical-political web of unprecedented negative proportions.” (p. 4)
“ . . . We have lost the understanding that existed in all civilizations prior to ours, and that continues to exist on Earth today in societies that live side by side with our own; we have lost a sense of the sacredness of the natural world.” (p. 187)
“ . . . We still have not developed an effective language with which to articulate our critiques [of the technological juggernaut]. This, in turn, is because we ourselves are part of the machine and so we have difficulty defining its shape and direction. But even if we have this difficulty, there are societies of people on this planet who do not.
STATEMENT TO THE MODERN WORLD
Millions of people still alive on this earth never wished to be part of this machine and, in many cases, are not. . . . they are still aware of certain fundamental truths, the most important of which require reverence for the earth—an idea that is subversive to Western society and the entire technological direction of the past century.
These are people whose ancestors and who themselves have said from the beginning of the technological age that our actions and attitudes are fatally flawed, since they are not grounded in a real understanding of how to live on the earth. Lacking a sense of the sacred we were doomed to a bad result. They said it over and over and they still say it now.
The following is an excerpt from A Basic Call to Consciousness, the Hau de no sau nee Address to the Western World, delivered at the 1977 UN conference on Indigenous Peoples, published by Akwesasne Notes.
In the beginning we were told that the human beings who walk about on the Earth have been provided with all the things necessary for life. We were instructed to carry a love for one another, and to show a great respect for all the beings of this Earth. We were shown that our life exists with the tree life, that our well-being depends on the well-being of the Vegetable Life, that we are close relatives of the four-legged beings.
* * * * *
Editor’s note: I can’t recommend enough Jerry Mander’s 1991 book, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. Mander took 10 years to write this book, and a lot longer thinking about it. it is a tremendously refreshing and challenging critical analysis of the impact of technology upon our culture and upon the way we have chosen to live—as well as the way we have had choices unilaterally made for us without our consent and without laying out for us the worst-case as well as the best-case scenarios of a given technology before it has been introduced, and consequently, overtaken us and our descendants with its affects and influences. Quoting from the interviewer Catherine Ingram,
In the Absence of the Sacred paints a comprehensive picture of how the multinational corporations and the major financial institutions, combined with new technologies, form a juggernaut unhindered by any governmental control and which, day by day, constricts us further.the following are excerpts from an interview conducted with Jerry Mander that begins 108 lines below this one:
In this culture, we have science and technology as religion. We no longer have a religious or philosophical basis for making choices regarding the evolution of technology. All those decisions are made in the corporate world. But there are other societies where taboos, the very concept of taboo, still exist. Taboo is probably the only concept that is taboo in this society. But in traditional societies they have had centuries-long discussions about whether to plant or whether to continue being nomads or whether a certain kind of agricultural relationship is a good idea or not. Taboo constitutes a philosophical framework.
The following interview with Jerry Mander regarding his book, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, (1991, Sierra Club Books), appeared in Issue 192, November 1991 of The Sun, A Magazine of Ideas.
An Interview with Jerry Mander by Catherine Ingram
When Jerry Mander suggested in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, published in 1978, that television was not reformable no matter who controlled the medium, it represented the first time anyone had dared suggest that we do away with television altogether. Mander argued that television is a primary tool in the ongoing mediation of human experience, the visual intoxicant that entrances the viewer into a hypnotic state and thereby replaces other forms of knowledge with the imagery of its programmers. It infuses young children with high-tech, high-speed expectations of life, so that a walk in nature would likely seem interminably boring. It is the tool used not only to sell the resources that have been dug up, melted, forged, and otherwise appropriated from the earth, but to sell us back our feelings, which the entrancement has eclipsed. Television colonizes its viewers by way of an artificial reality replete with its own values. From a political point of view, it is particularly dangerous because “it is the one speaking to the many,” as Mander describes anyone from the corporate sponsor to the nightly anchorperson. And it is bad for our bodies as well, creating mental and physical sickness by the mesmerizing phosphorescent glow of its artificial light.
Mander’s latest work, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, took him ten years to write, thirty years to think over. It expands on themes in his earlier book, including the inherent tendency of a given technology to predetermine its use and render the technology anything but neutral, and the marriage of technologies with large corporations that stand to reap the greatest benefit from the manipulation or sales of them. Mander carefully analyzes the fundamental assumptions that have led us to accept almost every technology that has come on line, and he reminds us of the price we pay—in ecological and social breakdowns—for those assumptions. The book also examines alternatives to the technological way of life—alternatives that can be found among tribal peoples who lived for thousands of years in a harmonious relationship with the earth, and who exist to this day.
Mander has that rare quality which makes his views about technology particularly potent—the insider’s perspective. His experience in commercial advertising shifted over the years to advertising for public interest groups, primarily in the environmental movement. But he first became aware of the plight of native peoples when he was working in commercial advertising in the mid-sixties. A shipping company sent him to Micronesia to assess its impact on the area. During his two months in Micronesia, Mander glimpsed for the first time the ways of traditional peoples. He returned to San Francisco to give the client his recommendation: move the company out of Micronesia and leave those islands the way they are.
A process of self-examination was underway for Mander by this time. Although he had realized his dream of success, going beyond the aspirations of his immigrant Jewish parents, he was no longer comfortable writing ads for audio equipment and Land Rovers by day only to turn to environmental issues by night. He began to feel the contradiction between advocating more consumption while, at the same time, perceiving consumption as one of the root causes of ecological destruction.
Mander had also begun to feel personally disconnected from nature. On a cruise off the Dalmatian coast in 1968, he hit an “emotional bottom” as he discovered he could “see” the spectacular views with his eyes, but he couldn’t experience them within himself. Nature had become “irrelevant,” and he was terrified to realize that “the problem was [him], not nature.”
Meanwhile, his ad agency had been hired by the Sierra Club and later by Friends of the Earth, both under the leadership of David Brower, the renowned environmentalist, who would have a powerful professional and educational influence on Mander. Mander wrote many of the ads that eventually saved the Grand Canyon from the construction of dams, blocked development of the American supersonic transport, and established Redwood National Park and North Cascades National Park. He also wrote the ad that caused the Sierra Club to lose its tax-exempt status while creating sympathetic news headlines and a groundswell of support. As David Brower explains it, “People across the country who didn’t know whether or not they liked the Grand Canyon knew they hated the Internal Revenue Service.” Mander had also begun to work with Hopi Indians on blocking the Black Mesa Mine, again strengthening his ties to native peoples.
By 1972, Mander’s firm had decided that trying to balance commercial and environmental activities wasn’t working, and the agency was dissolved. Mander went on to form the first nonprofit advertising and public relations agency, Public Interest Communications. A few years later, several of its founders, including Jerry Mander, wound their way to Public Media Center (PMC), an offshoot of the original nonprofit organization. PMC has since initiated almost every major environmental ad campaign in the country, as well as campaigns for Planned Parenthood, gun control, and to block Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Jerry Mander has written many of these ads and, as a senior fellow of PMC, continues his work there to this day. As David Brower remarked in a recent interview, “Whenever we get into a new environmental battle and we need a full-page ad to help win it, I say, `Where’s Jerry?’”
But it has been through his books that Mander has managed to weave together the threads of what he has learned in studying the ecological and social issues of the past thirty years. In the Absence of the Sacred paints a comprehensive picture of how the multinational corporations and the major financial institutions, combined with new technologies, form a juggernaut unhindered by any governmental control and which, day by day, constricts us further.
How can we ever remedy all this? Is Mander actually proposing that we turn back? After all, we’re a long way from the hunting and gathering communities of former times. Mander says that it is unlikely that we will go back “and hunt for beavers in the Hudson Valley.” But he says that there are, indeed, native peoples from whom we can learn a great deal about life and that we should begin that process by respecting their right to exist. Furthermore, according to Mander, there are a few basic principles—understood best by traditional peoples—which we will need for the survival of this planet: we must abandon values that emphasize the accumulation of commodities and growth economics; we must reduce world population; we must abandon technologies that are incompatible with sustainability and diversity on the planet and we must study the forces which have caused the social and ecological crisis we now face. “This is not going back,” says Mander. “It is going forward to a renewed relationship with timeless values and principles that have been kept alive for Western society by the very people we have tried to destroy.” Among those people, Mander believes, lies the key to our survival.
— Catherine Ingram
America has had a love affair with each new technological
wonder. You suggest that with most of these technologies, we assumed
a best-case scenario. What are the questions we should have asked
before they came on line?
The point is the way new technologies are introduced to
us without a full discussion of how they are going to affect the
planet, social relationships, political relationships, human health,
nature, our conceptions of nature, and our conceptions of ourselves.
Every technology that comes along affects these things. Cars, for
example, have changed society completely. Had there been a debate
about the existence of cars, we would have asked, do we want the
entire landscape to be paved over? Do we want society to move into
concrete urban centers? Do we want one resource—oil—to dominate
human and political relationships in the world? The Gulf War
resulted from our choice of the car a hundred years ago.
But who could have possibly foreseen any of that?
Well, when a technology is invented much of its effects
are already known. A study at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology examined what was being said about technologies at the
time of their invention. It turns out that most of the effects of
technology are actually known by the people who invent and
disseminate them. This is logical because those people put a lot of
money into figuring out all possible uses of those technologies.
They can then develop marketing strategies based on the assessment of
the positive effects. At the same time, they figure out possible
negative effects and proceed to downplay those. The car is promoted
as freedom—private and noiseless travel, comfort, and so on—without
any suggestion of its profound multidimensional effects. There’s no
mechanism in our society for hearing the downside. There are no
controls on technological invention or evolution.
In a way we’ve had this experience with nuclear power.
Nuclear power came into existence without much debate, but then there
came a period of great debate, and it was brought to its knees as a
viable source of power. Now, we are seeing a resurgence of its
Nuclear power is the exception that proves the
best-case/worst-case rule. The worst-case scenario was visible the first
time we ever heard of the thing because nobody knew about nuclear
power until it killed eighty thousand people in Hiroshima. It had a
staggering impact on everybody’s consciousness, and people were
frightened by the possibilities of this one piece of technology, no
matter where they lived. The best-case scenarios came in the second
stage of public debate. Anything that the developers of nuclear
power tried to say—that it was going to provide clean, free,
unlimited energy—was in the context of Hiroshima; everybody was
scared and horrified by it. It is rare that we experience the
worst-case scenario before the gigantic sales campaign. Even so, the
sales campaign goes on about the positive uses of nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy survives as a viable option. It’s used in a lot of
places and there’s a big movement now to employ it even more.
Let’s talk about biotechnology and organ transplants,
since those are some of the next major technologies. I just read
about a woman who conceived a child in order to have a bone-marrow
donor for her older daughter, who was dying of leukemia. This
situation calls for hard choices. What mother wouldn’t save her
child if there was the technology to do it? As our organs become
interchangeable, we may have to decide whether or not to give a
kidney, or an eye, or whatever we can spare, to a relative.
Biotechnologies raise still other questions: if there is a
genetically engineered cure for AIDS, are we going to say no to that
cure just because we think that, on balance, biotechnology is a bad
Our culture lacks a philosophical basis, an understanding
of the appropriate human role on earth, that would inform these
developments before they happen. Such an understanding would enable
us to say, no, we cannot go in that direction because, as in the case
of genetics, it is a direct desacralization of life. The title of my
book, In the Absence of the Sacred, refers to the failure of any
sense of groundedness in the natural world and a lack of any sense of
limits. You see, once you’re living in an industrial, technological
society, choices become much more difficult. Even if you believe
that cars are inappropriate, you almost cannot function unless you
have a car. You can’t function if you don’t have a telephone—unless
you retire from participation.
With a lot of money.
Well, not necessarily. I wouldn’t say that you need a
lot of money to withdraw from the system, but withdrawing from the
system means letting the system go on as it is. If you are
interested in changing or affecting the system, then you don’t
Yet people in our society would see this kind of
control—saying no to something before it was developed—as fascist.
Yes, without realizing that this attitude keeps us on a
path of development from which it is very difficult to return.
I think people often tend to make their decisions from a
very emotional and often selfish point of view. This has propelled
the human species throughout history. Maybe there are wonderful
examples of people who have not been propelled by this aggressive
May I interrupt and disagree with that point? The
statement that people are propelled by their self-interest or their
greed applies primarily to industrial society. It may also apply to
those who have been deprived of community by the effects of
industrial society, where a formerly integrated, cooperative,
reciprocal mode of being in nature has been destroyed. But since the
beginning of recorded history, there have been many communities that
have existed alongside the so-called Western historical
civilizations, and which exhibit to this day a mode of experience and
living in the world that is cooperative, community-based,
consensual—and not primarily in terms of self-interest.
We somehow got to this point. Something within propelled
us, and it seems to be quite contagious. It spreads.
I agree that it spreads. Once the intrusion of outside
models breaks down the traditional structures where people were
acting in concert and on behalf of the whole community, then it’s
catch as catch can.
Then how do we address the greed, the aggression, our
unwillingness to give up anything? How do we reverse this? How are
we to come back into the presence of the sacred and how are we to do
this on a mass scale?
This is one of the great mysteries—how do you actually
achieve that and how do you keep from falling into despair about the
difficulties in achieving it? I don’t have a tight little answer
that would inspire a slogan but it’s obvious that what we have now is
not working. The fantasies of utopian existence promoted by
proponents of the technological, industrial mode of life for the last
one hundred years are now demonstrably false. That’s not what we
got. What we got was alienation, disorientation, destruction of the
planet, destruction of natural systems, destruction of diversity,
homogenization of cultures and regions, crime, homelessness, disease,
environmental breakdown, and tremendous inequality. We have a mess
on our hands. This system has not lived up to its advertising; in
developing a strategy for telling people what to do next, we first
have to make that point. Life really is better when you get off the
technological / industrial wheel and conceive of some other way. It
makes people happier. It may not make them more money, but getting
more money hasn’t worked out. Filling life with commodities
doesn’t turn out to be satisfying, and most people know that.
You say that in the case of computers, as with
television, it’s not a matter of who benefits, but who benefits most;
that while the environmentalist derives some benefit from computers,
the corporations, military, and financial institutions benefit most.
But I would ask you, why then should we have no benefit? If we can
put a few twigs in the dike, we’re still a little ahead of having no
twigs in the dike.
I do not tell do-gooders or other people working on
Public Media Center activities not to use television. What I say is
that we should have no television at all. The same could be said
of computers. I argue that life would be better, power systems would
be more egalitarian, we would have a more even playing field in terms
of information flow, and our media would be more democratic, if there
were no television. We’d also have a less-alienated population, less
pacified, less inundated by other people’s imageries. But I also
recognize that you can’t just remove television and keep everything
else in place. It’s the nervous system of the technological machine.
It’s part of a very integrated system, so we have to talk about all
of technology when we talk about television.
Let’s talk about virtual reality.
I’ve never experienced virtual reality. I’m very
skeptical about it. I think it’s like every other technology in the
sense that it has some entertainment value and maybe it has some
interesting uses. I’ve heard that a new use for virtual reality
programs is in training bomber pilots. Aside from such uses, which I
find disturbing, what annoys me is the way virtual reality is
embraced and celebrated by those who ought to be smart enough to see
their way out of this technological maze.
You mean the new age crowd.
Yes, it’s such a sign that the new age has misunderstood
something about itself. Proponents of the new age place primary
value on the expansion of human consciousness toward some apparently
higher level of understanding. They regard human beings as the
ultimate expression of evolution, and they regard themselves as the
explorers or the astronauts of human consciousness, trying to develop
human abilities and live up to their maximum human potential. Such a
view justifies any technological or even political development if it
somehow is supportive of the drive toward expanding human
consciousness. That’s why the new age so favors space exploration
and almost any other technology that offers new games, new ideas, new
capabilities for human expression without any sense of the political
or social consequences.
There are some who say that there is nothing which is not
sacred, that all of existence is just a grand manifestation of life
in its various forms, and even if it’s playing out its swan song,
that is part of the sacred as well.
To say everything is sacred implies that everything is
acceptable, which merely permits whatever situation exists to
continue existing, and leaves it to other forces to change that
Do you think it’s possible to work to relieve suffering
wherever one sees it, while adhering to the view that everything is
sacred? That our work to effect change, relieve suffering, and the
suffering itself are part of the great picture of life unfolding—
part of the same whole?
Well, you’re asking if we can say that nuclear energy is
sacred because it’s a further manifestation of creation, and still
work against nuclear energy. I don’t know. As a practical matter, I
don’t adopt that view. I don’t find it a particularly useful way of
thinking. Instead, I think about it in the sense used by Native
American and other native aboriginal societies: an integrated
understanding and relationship with other life which is honored and
maintained. When people in the rain forest come up against a dam,
they are not going to look at that dam and say, “This is a further
sacred manifestation of creation.” They’re going to look at it and
say, “This kills life. This destroys life. This is against the
earth.” I think this is a much more helpful way of viewing the
matter than to say that all things are sacred. What matters to me
most is how people view sacredness in light of their activities.
Native peoples’ view of the sacred involves a value judgment
concerning what is OK and not OK to do.
Randy Hayes, president of Rainforest Action Network, told
me that Native Americans might interchange the term “sacred” with the
concept of “functional” or “useful.”
I was at a conference that considered the relevance of
native spirituality and native ceremonies to non-native communities.
You know how, in the beginning of a conference, you go around in a
circle and say who you are? Our tendency is to say something like,
“I’m Jerry Mander, and I work on such and such.”
Yes, when we are asked to say who we are, we usually say
what we do.
Right. Well, a woman from one of the Canadian Indian
groups took forty-five minutes to describe who she is. She started
with her great-grandparents and described where they lived. Some of
them were river people, some were mountain people, some were bear
people, some came from the other side of the mountains. Some were
ocean people. Then she spoke about what she knew about the other
ancestors in the area, who they were, what they were like. Then she
said that all of those people are her. That was just the historical
part. There was a spirit part as well, which had to do with what she
does in the world right now and how that is an amalgamation of all
those ancestors. What I’m getting at is when you ask who she is, she
is telling you something that has to do with her ancestors, with
nature, with her community and the way that community has related to
Well, we do live in a time of tremendous alienation.
Life is so terrifying that many people find solace in watching
television or playing their video games. Certain technologies serve
as drugs. How are we to take those away and replace them with
These technologies do act as drugs. They are what
society offers to make up for what has been lost. In return for
family, community, a relationship to a larger, deeper vision, society
offers television, drugs, food, noise, high speed, and
unconsciousness. Not only are those the things that are available,
but those are the things that keep you from knowing that there’s
anything else available. It’s easy to see why people go for those
things and why they become addicted to them, because each one offers
some element of satisfaction. Watching television, for instance,
keeps you from thinking about other things, it passes the time, it
provides “entertainment,” it can make you laugh sometimes. It tells
you a little bit about what seems to be happening in the world,
although it discourages any relationship you might have to it. Now
if you’re asking how we might change that pattern, I can only say
that you have to create alternative visions; you have to get people
to experience what they’ve lost.
But as you described in your book, within a couple of
years, the Dene and Inuit cultures were decimated by the introduction
of television. Why is it that watching “Dallas” on television was
more appealing than traditional modes of entertainment?
It wasn’t that their cultures were decimated by
television. The impact of television was tremendous, and they asked
me to come there because they were concerned. That was a sign of
consciousness, not unconsciousness. And it was a sign that there was
an alternative reality still available to them. That is the
difference between native peoples and Western peoples: there are
still people who know about what came before, and who know that
there’s still wild nature available and that they have a relationship
to it. Among the native cultures of the world there’s still a memory
and a philosophical base for resistance.
I’ve heard that in the United States, some of the young
Indians who went off to cities became disillusioned and went back to
the reservations. Is there a resurgence of traditional ways among
the young Indians?
Yes, it’s a great phenomenon, and it’s particularly
encouraging to see in the United States because these are the people
who have been most influenced by outside forces. There is a
collaboration in the United States among the young and the old. It’s
the middle that is sort of gone, the ones who were ripped away from
their families when they were young and
forced into Bureau of Indian
Affairs schools, where they were not allowed to speak their native
language, were not allowed to wear long hair, had to wear only
Western clothes. This happened all over the United States; they
were separated from their families, instilled with a terrible
self-hatred, forcibly trained in Christianity and Mormonism. Mormonism
teaches that white is good, and that you become white by giving up
In your book, you describe corporations as entities that
enjoy the rights of an individual but not the responsibilities. Will
you elaborate on this?
Up till now, corporations have not been critiqued as
technological forms, or in terms of their inherent characteristics
which would reveal why they behave as they do. The common wisdom
said that we can get corporations to behave more responsibly if the
people in the corporations could be educated in better values and
saving the earth and so on. This is naive. The corporate form
predetermines the way corporations have to behave. In order to
sustain themselves, and be financially viable to banking and other
institutions, corporations must produce a profit and they must grow.
Profit and growth are absolutely required.
In your book you say that the corporation is lying when
it presents itself as environmentally concerned; if it did feel much
responsibility toward nature, it would not need to use expensive
commercials saying it did.
Corporations will advertise whatever isn’t true because
if it were true they wouldn’t have the image problem in the first
place. If the corporation were a good citizen it wouldn’t need to
say it is. The truth is that corporations generally act in direct
opposition to nature because profit is based on the
transmogrification of raw materials into a new, more salable form.
Let’s talk about the global merger of economies, such as
GATT [the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade], the EEC [the
European Economic Community], and so on.
In addition to the EEC, there are plans for the
U.S./Canada Free Trade Agreement, the U.S./Mexico Free Trade
Agreement, the North America Free Trade Agreement, a Western
Hemisphere Free Trade Agreement, a Southeast Asia Free Trade
Agreement, and a Pacific Basin Free Trade Agreement. Eventually
there will be an East/West Free Trade Agreement.
You describe the last two uncharted wildernesses as space
and genetics. Do you also include consciousness itself as a
wilderness that is uncharted?
One can say that the human mind is a kind of wilderness
that is uncharted. But in speaking of space and genetics, I mean
that they are the last ones the corporate world intends to turn into
industrial forms that can be made into profit.
Have you phoned that person you love today?
Right. Those are all related to your feelings. They are
presented in images; you then react to yourself; and then you
have to pay something to get back the feelings that they took from
you. It’s an amazing process.
In your descriptions of the West Edmonton Mall, EPCOT
Center, and San Francisco as a theme park, you suggest that the
advent of these artificially controlled environments—technotopias—
is worse than the ecological breakdown that we face.
Right. What you have in those theme lifestyle
communities and the mega-malls are utopian creations of life as
synthetic re-creations. I try to make the comparison between those
places and domed existences in space.
Terraforming, you call it in the book.
Right, the bubble existences in space. The West Edmonton
Mall is a domed city in space. While EPCOT Center doesn’t have a
roof on it, every blade of grass and every animal is preconceived for
its mix in the experience. It’s the ultimate suburb. They envision
a life where there’s no relationship to nature at all and where
everything has been done to destroy one’s sense of connection to
anything outside of what the corporation and the technological world
can provide. And it’s done in a way to make it seem very attractive.
EPCOT Center’s book about itself says that its purpose is to get
people comfortable with the highly technologized change that is going
to take place in the future. These visions are basically a sales
system for a future where all human experiences are reduced to
push-button experiences or glorious travels with packs on your back
through space and time. They envision a general make-over of the
world, where authentic places, such as England—old England, or old
Norway—would be re-created entertainments of themselves, like theme
parks. That’s why I use the phrase “San Francisco, the Theme Park,”
because this is already happening here, but it’s also beginning to
happen everywhere else; authentic places are beginning to advertise
their features in order to promote tourism. They become commodified
versions of themselves.
The irony is that we are trying to re-create what we’ve
been busy destroying all these years. It’s like the example you give
of advertisements on television selling us back our feelings of
connection. Now we’ll have to buy back Eden—in a dome.
Yes, people will have nature inside domes, but little
nature outside anymore.
I saw in the European edition of the Wall Street
Journal a front page story about a scientist’s idea to blow up the
moon in order to improve the atmosphere on earth. In your book, you
described such technological solutions as the proposed plan,
supported by the National Research Council which advises Congress, to
spray hundreds of thousands of tons of iron powder onto the seas in
order to stimulate algae growth and soak up the carbon dioxide, as
the forests have done previously.
All of those solutions are insane because they’re so
disconnected from any sense of the ramifications of drastically
altering an ecosystem. But they’re driven by the profit motive,
because those are the solutions that work inside the capitalist
Let’s talk about some of the stereotypes and formulas
that affect perceptions about native peoples, such as the idea that
they are always fighting each other and that they have an inability
to govern themselves.
In the West, our view of Indians goes back to the debate
several centuries ago in the Catholic Church over whether or not
Indians were even human beings. The Church was trying to determine
whether Indians had souls and were therefore worth saving, or whether
they should be slaughtered or made into slaves. There was never a
thought given to whether Indians had validity on their own terms.
One can quickly see the analogy to nature, because right now people
are beginning to talk about whether nature has validity on its own
terms, rather than being in service to human beings.
And they worked only three to five hours a day.
On the average. And that is when they worked. There
were lots of months when there was no work at all.
What did they do during all those hours and days off?
They hung out. They flirted. They played a lot of
music. They slept. They seemed to have a good time. They related.
There was a lot of community life. But who knows? I mean, you’d
have to go into a Stone Age community now where some of this activity
is still alive. People who do go in say that they have a great time
hanging out. Not everything is perfect. There are all kinds of
intrigues and taboos and so on, things you’re not allowed to do and
things you try to get away with, and there are retributions. But
it’s a very intense personal experience.
They must feel a heightened sense of belonging.
That’s what they’ve got. See, the Western view of
Indians is based upon no contact with Indians. The average American
has never met an Indian, except maybe a drunk Indian in the city.
Indians live in wilderness areas for the most part—in areas where we
aren’t—so we don’t really interact with them, and they are not
represented in the media in any accurate fashion. The media
presentations have all been stereotypical. First, Indians were
presented as savages; then it was as noble savages. Both are
inaccurate. They are really just ordinary people living in an
ordinary society that has certain structures which have been very
workable. So our awareness of Indians is just fantasy. We really
have no way of knowing what their societies were like.
Are these primarily oral traditions?
They’re strictly oral traditions. They don’t believe in
codification in the same way that we do.
Oren Lyons, an Onondaga
leader, stresses the importance of the oral tradition of law. When
the Great Law was written down, it was filled with distortions
because it’s actually more fluid than that. Everybody gets together
and talks it over and figures out what is right in a given situation.
If you spend time with Indians you find out a lot about how the oral
tradition works, because their memories are incredible. They
remember what you say very clearly, for a very long time, and without
the use of tape recorders or notes.
What accounts for that?
It’s because they are awake in that process. They are
listening. I believe the oral tradition trains listening. For
instance, if you have a digital watch, you don’t have to figure out
time in the same way. It’s all done for you. Calculators destroy
the ability to calculate. If we have systems of recording what goes
on, then we’re not paying as much attention and we don’t use our
memory. I’ve seen that so often. In the mid-sixties I was involved
in a meeting down on the Hopi reservation. I had gone there to
discuss something and everybody sat in a circle and the meeting took
the entire day to deal with one subject. When the meeting began, all
these people were sitting around the circle with their eyes closed.
I thought they were asleep. It became apparent to me only much later
in the meeting that they were absolutely awake, and they heard
everything that was being said. And not only that, they had a lot to
say about everything that was being said, but they had their say very
slowly, in turn, at great length, and with absolute, vivid recall.
In your book, you say that one of the reasons we’re not
told the truth about Indians in history is that we don’t want to face
our own guilt, it is not considered good television to show what we
did to the people of this land when we came here. I heard that when
test audiences were shown a version of “Dances With Wolves” that
ended with the slaughter of the tribe, it got a terrible reaction, so
they changed it to have the tribe getting away.
Well, I was grateful for no slaughter in the film.
My point is that we don’t want to see what we did in the
past; moreover, it’s not an old story, it’s happening all over the
planet—here and now.
Americans are the most resistant to admitting their
flaws. Lately, many nations have apologized for various acts. The
Germans have apologized to the Israelis. The Russians have
apologized to the Poles. The Poles have apologized to their people.
These have been formal apologies; they’ve been negotiated and
resolved. The Indians are asking that we apologize for the past as
well as for the present, and that we return a lot of the lands we
stole from the Indians, because the land is crucial for traditional
cultures to survive.
(from the Hopi Language) n. 1. crazy life. 2. life
in turmoil. 3. life out of balance. 4. life disintegrating.
5. a state of life that calls for another way of living.