Western science is a “culture of practice” comprised of many diverse specific disciplines whose common thread is pursuit of provable knowledge that cannot be refuted. Indeed, the pursuit of science is a fundament of global culture, a cornerstone of modern civilization. That science clashes with systems of belief such as fundamentalist religion reveals a perilous realm of “conflicting absolutes” that defies reasonable resolution. Science, or evidence-based knowledge and belief-based social consciousness may remain at loggerheads until humankind refines its collective consciousness to integrate science, intuition of the great mystery, and coherence of collective mind, recognizing that we are a member species of an evolving biotic community that inhabits a living planet, and that if indeed we have a purpose, evolution of consciousness lies at the heart of it.
Over the last half-century as an aural historian, I’ve followed my microphones throughout the western United States and Mexico as far south as Chiapas. This is the patch of our planet Earth that I dearly love, a large mosaic of habitats that contains an enormous amount of biodiversity, cultural diversity and cognitive diversity—fertile turf for one who remains endlessly fascinated, even after many decades of deep listening to the ever-murmuring mystery of existence.
The Seri Indians of Sonora, though influenced by global econo-techni-culture, remain hunter-gatherers fishing the Sea of Cortez, gathering edible native plants and hunting wild game. Their songs reflect their profound understanding of topography and species native to their homeland, their mythic history, the shamanic prowess revealed by gifted members of their community.
On one occasion I visited my Seri friend, Jesús Rojo Montaño in his cottage in Punta Chueca, Sonora to record part of his repertoire of traditional songs. He told me in Spanish that he was going to sing the song of the leaf-cutter ant. He sat in front of my microphones and began to assume an entirely different countenance. Although he was still embodied in human form, he had become a leaf-cutter ant. He sang the Seri ant song four times, and when he was finished, after a period of 15 or 20 seconds he gradually regained his humanness.
By now, I’ve witnessed this shape-shifting phenomenon on several occasions while recording Seri Indians and others. The music is sung from within a trance-like state wherein the singer is literally empowered by the subject of the song. The Seri singer who knows the complete repertoire of animal songs has an uncanny understanding of the regional fauna. Over a period of a dozen years, I’ve recorded several different musical forms of Seri music, including what I call geo-mythic mapping songs, wherein the singer recalls a point in the landscape and extols its characteristics, both natural and supernatural. By knowing the entire repertoire of geo-mythic mapping songs, the singer has a multidimensional map of homeland and seascape embedded in her or his psyche. For the Seris, their mythic process and their shamanic practices bind them to homeland and explain their presence within the flow of Nature. The force of the Seri shamanic mind is formidable.
North of Seri country is the land of the Tohono O’odham, formerly known as the Papago Indians. Their culture evolved in the Sonoran Desert, where water is scarce, and the biotic community is a realm in which to participate with fellow species and maintain balance within the flow of Nature. My friend Camillus Lopez characterized Tohono O’odham perspective regarding cultural relationship to Sonoran homeland:
“Each place has a place in the natural order. To do something with that place, just to take something out from the natural order would cause disturbance to the rest of the order. I guess like the river, how it kind of went into the ground because the farmers were taking from the water below, and the river disappeared in Santa Cruz. That makes the water table go down. Therefore it doesn’t rain so much here because there’s no natural water coming from the ground evaporating into the sky to cause the moisture that we need up there for the clouds to come through in the same way.
“The mountain holds a special place in history or time. There’s a reason that it’s put there. Nobody owns it, it owns itself. In O’odham, it’s a strange thing to own land because the land was there for everybody. It was placed there by I’itoi [an O’odham Nature deity] to serve a purpose so people could live there and do what they needed to there. You take over and you call it yours without the respect that it should have. It was there before. When ants are living in a place and you’re coming for a picnic for one day, you put out ant repellent. You destroy the ants; you destroy the natural flow. So when the ants are gone, you need to replace it with something, but you’re just taking off and the ants are gone and you’ve only used the place for one day or for a few hours. You don’t think of what’s going to happen 10 years from now.
“Community is everything. It’s the stars. It’s the ground way under. It’s the little ant that comes across. It’s coyote. It’s the buzzard. The actions and stuff, it reflects who you are. And if you can see yourself in it, then you’re there. But if you can’t look at Nature and see yourself in it, then you’re too far away. I think one of the things people need to do is go out and look at the mirror of Nature and try to see themselves in it, because if they can see themselves in it, then they can help themselves by helping the environment.”
The Colorado Plateau is a bio-geographical province that is situated north of the Sonoran Desert. It contains the most intricate system of canyons in the world and is regarded by many as one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It is home to many indigenous cultures, including the Ute Indians, the Navajo Indians and the Hopis, whose villages are situated on the three southern promontories of Black Mesa, a deeply sacred landform that lies in the heart of the Colorado Plateau.
Lyle Balenquah is a Hopi man who is both a trained archaeologist and a traditional culture bearer. His perspective is invaluable as he gazes into the deep past to prehistoric cultures whose ruins provide major insights into the relationship of culture to habitat.
“We’re all a part of these landscapes whether we’re Hopi or Anglo or Walapai or Navajo or Zuni,” he says. “We all have impacts in some ways on these landscapes.… Chaco Canyon has been used as a prime example of landscape change initiated by human interaction on a wide scale and how the impacts that prehistoric populations were having on the landscape led to their demise, so to speak. What can we learn from that and how do we view our place in the world today, and are we going to learn from those lessons of the past?
“I think that one of the things that Hopi stresses in a lot in our teachings is that there are a lot of good things that came from our ancestral history, a lot of positive values and philosophical ways of thinking. But there are also some negative lessons that we have to own up to. We have to take responsibility for them.
“How are we as modern Hopis and as a society going to interact with our environment? For me, that’s where culture as part of homeland comes in. I get to see this huge landscape across the Southwest. I get to see how prehistoric peoples were living in landscapes two, three, four hundred miles separated. But they all had to understand that they had to live within their means to some degree. And in some instances they didn’t live within their means, and that caused turmoil, that caused chaos, that caused things to go wrong for themselves, for their society. You tie all of that together, you bring all of these different examples within the Southwest of prehistoric cultures experiencing good and bad changes, and I think that’s what Hopi is, is trying to remember. In our modern way of thinking, we’re struggling to maintain those good positive things, and some people might not want to remember the bad things, but I think we have to because those are the things that are going to teach us—not only this generation but those that are coming.
“So there’s a lot tied into that idea of culture as part of homeland. What is the common foundation that we all have to live by?”
East of Hopi country on the other side of the Continental Divide is the watershed of the northern Río Grande. Scattered along the banks of the Río are Indian pueblos long nurtured by the sustaining waters as gardens of human consciousness. My old friend Rina Swentzell was born in the Tewa pueblo of Santa Clara and possesses as refined a mind as I’ve ever encountered. We had been talking about the concept of the commons as it applies to natural resources shared by all. Rina Swentzell provided her invaluable insights.
“From a Pueblo point of view, the commons is everything. It is the context that we live in. When I talk about it, it’s the old Pueblo thinking. The community was always thought of as being whole. Everything was interconnected. There was always a center to it as well, and I was a center and you were a center. There were many centers as a part of the whole thing. And we think that a whole has one center. In a way it’s true. But with the Pueblo there are so many simultaneous things that can happen at once, which is all part of the commons. …The wind is blowing, the water’s flowing, and we’re actually walking around and talking. It’s all part of this idea of what we all share. It’s that notion of sharing.
“In that Pueblo context, then, the focus was always, what is it that surrounds me? Who and what surrounds me, and who do I work with and around all the time? The primary thing is that we felt that is was the Earth, the Sky, the Clouds, the Wind, and that incredible term that we have that for me says it all: it’s the Po-Wa-Ha, the water-wind-breath. It moves through our entire world in such a way that it connects everybody and everything. That becomes the commons in a sense. …What is that blowing through the window right now that’s giving us all vitality, actually? That’s the flow of life. In the Pueblo it really was that thing that swirls around, that moves, that creates that sense of commons. It’s the ultimate of what is common to every living being. What do we have with the trees, with the rocks, with all of that that makes our life what it is today?
“We live in a space. You’re asking about a kind of a responsibility that we have for that space, I think. What can we conceive and what do we feel ourselves responsible for? I think as a group, as a village, as a community, the Pueblo people defined it very carefully with the four mountains around. And anywhere you stand in the Southwest you see 360 degrees around. And anything within that, within what we describe as our world, within that mountain or that mountain, is our responsibility. And it becomes a very spatial thing.
“At the same time it’s not an exclusive world. Just because we see that this becomes our responsibility doesn’t mean that we don’t really acknowledge what’s out there. But there’s recognition that we are limited in our capabilities. We don’t see ourselves as gods.
“I think that notion of center is so important to the commons. Because it’s around the center that energy swirls. If you have a center, it swirls around that place. It is a visual, spatial thing, for the Pueblos anyway. They accept it that this place right here—the Pueblo on the hill here—was a center and it had its own particular kind of swirl and particular kind of energy. Its people were slightly different than the ones that were living down by the river. Their swirl was different because they were close to the water and they took in more of the water energy.
“We are who we are because of that tiny place on this Earth we choose to be a part of. Really just an amazing thought to me is that I can choose a place that will affect me and affect who I am.”
As water-wind-breath is part of the commons, so is consciousness. While we are shaped by the habitat we select as homeland, we are also shaped by how we choose to comport ourselves. Science in its various disciplines provides an adventure of extraordinary magnitude for its practitioners. But science is not the only culture of practice that exists within the sphere of human consciousness.
I have learned an enormous amount from my traditional Indian friends over the last 50 years. Perhaps the most profound knowledge that has been imparted to me is that to secularize then commoditize land and water is wrong-minded. I have also learned that cultural attitude, collective will is a part of consciousness, and that unless cultural attitude is deeply aligned with a sense of being kindred with all fellow creatures, with our sustaining planet, we are collectively awry. We are out of balance with the flow of Nature. My traditional Indian friends invariably understand this. Indigeneity to homeland greatly strengthens that sense of being kindred, that intuition of the sacred nature of life and consciousness as well as the mystery of existence.
Metaphorically, human consciousness peers through a vast crystal of many windows, and just as the Sun’s ray casts a rainbow hue, so does human consciousness portend an extraordinary evolving coherence of potential.
Jack Loeffler is the author of numerous books, including Healing the West: Voices of Culture and Habitat. He is the recipient of the NM Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the Edgar Lee Hewett Award for Writing from the NM Historical Society. For more info, visit www.loreoftheland.org.