Monday, August 27, 2018

God is Red

God is Red fascinated me.  Vine Deloria Jr. (1933–2006) was a Yankton Sioux activist.  His great-grandfather was a medicine man.  His grandfather was a chief who became a priest.  His father rose to an executive position in the Episcopal Church.  Deloria graduated from a seminary, but chose not to become a minister, because of his father’s frustrations.  He sought a path that could be of greater benefit to Native American people.

There are three editions of God is Red (1973, 1992, 2003), spanning a turbulent 30 year era — aim for the newest version.  The book provides important views omitted from the glorious saga of Western civilization.  Even the 1973 edition was well ahead of mainstream society in foreseeing ecological catastrophe, the destination of our runaway train.  We’re not a good path.  Why are we on it?  That’s the question that drives this book.  Deloria’s search for understanding is presented from a Native American perspective.

All civilized people are descendants of tribal ancestors.  Unique religions emerged in each tribal homeland, fine-tuned to its landscape, ecology, and climate.  Every homeland had sacred places where the community participated in special ceremonies.  All members of the tribe had deep roots in the homeland, and all shared the same worldview.  A tribal person “does not live in a tribe, the tribe lives in him.”

In modern society, neighborhoods are constantly-changing swarms of occupants having highly diverse incomes, ethnicities, religious beliefs, and political views.  People may live side by side for years, yet have nothing in common, and sometimes intense differences.  Many do not know the names or faces of most folks in their neighborhood.  This is not a coherent community sharing a profound sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of their ecosystem.

The Western conception of time is not about the eternal cycles of passing seasons; it is linear — a bloody one-way pilgrimage from the miracle of creation to the tumultuous end of the world, a constantly intensifying cyclone of population, progress, pollution, and bad craziness.  Humans are simultaneously the crown of creation, superior to all other life on the planet, yet each newborn inherently flawed, via the curse of original sin.

Jesus of Nazareth was a radical and intriguing Jewish thinker who lived in occupied Palestine.  He was not fond of the Roman storm troopers, materialism, or greed.  Just live simply and be nice.  At that time, in the Mediterranean basin, and in many surrounding regions, the tribal era was long gone.  It had mutated into a number of civilizations.  Common folks lived under the thumb of elites.  Life was harsh.  Regional bloodbaths were common.

For a while, the members of the Jesus movement were all Jews.  When Jesus died, his followers believed that he was the long anticipated Messiah, and that he “would return almost immediately with an angelic army to judge the world.”  So, they quit working.  Before long, they went bankrupt.  They had no doubt that he would return during their lifetime.  They were wrong.  He didn’t. 

A bit later, they opened the door to allowing gentiles into the Jesus movement.  From this point forward, it was no longer a community having a common ethnic identity.  This was the first step on the path to becoming a multinational religion, the one and only absolute truth for everyone, in every place, for all eternity.

Over time, the Jesus movement expanded into other regions.  In Rome, many joined the parade.  Growing numbers led to the birth of a religious institution — the Roman Catholic Church.  By and by, the Roman Empire was rotting away from decadence and delirium, softening it up for a spectacular blind date with vicious mobs of bloodthirsty barbarians.  The collapse of the Empire created a power vacuum that was taken over by the Church, which proceeded to expand its domain and accumulate enormous wealth and power.

True believers waited for the return of the Messiah for years, then decades, then centuries.  This was getting boring.  One day, a revelation from God arrived — the Messiah could not return until all nations had heard the story of Jesus.  So, believers shifted their preaching and teaching into high gear.  Like the Roman Empire, the Roman Church became devoted to perpetual growth and the accumulation of wealth.  Kings and Popes worked hand in hand to conquer, colonize, and convert distant lands.  The missionaries wanted to save heathen souls, and the states wanted to relieve the converts of their valuable resources, exploit their labor, and collect taxes.

And so, Christendom spread across Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia.  Colonists eventually arrived in America.  Epidemics of Old World diseases rapidly spread, killing maybe ninety percent of the Indians.  The buffalo robe fad exterminated 40 to 60 million bison.  Fur traders nearly eliminated the beavers.  Loggers mowed down vast virgin forests.  The cavalry slaughtered those Indians who resisted surrendering their freedom.

Tribal folks were not amused.  They were confused, perplexed, and pissed.  A missionary would convert them to the one true faith, and a year later the next missionary would inform them that the first one was a demonic fire hose of lies and deceptions.  All the black robes read the same book, but none agreed on what it meant.  WTF?  Especially aggravating was the enormous gulf between the beautiful beliefs they taught, and the relentless brutality of the colonial society, and its frantic gang rape of their ecosystem.  Meanwhile, back in Europe, instead of brotherly love, Christian nations endlessly waged war on one another.

When the Church shifted into globalization mode, and the Reformation shattered it into numerous denominations, the sweet teachings of Jesus largely got thrown under the bus.  Many express deep concern for zygotes embedded in uterine walls, but display far less compassion for the infants that eventually squirt out of the womb.  When American economic interests are threatened, reverence for human life stops, and the Marines are sent to mow down the enemy of the month, as well as innocent bystanders.

Deloria maintained a sense of humor.  He had a lot of fun with his chapter on popular Christianity — the theme parks, Jesus freaks, pussy grabbing faith healers, shameless money-hustling televangelists, and mega-church prosperity cults.  “The evangelical and fundamentalist wing of Christianity dwells on the figure of Jesus, and on the theology of old time religion.  Yet their knowledge about Jesus, his times, and the early church is nearly nil.”  Sunday school taught me nothing about the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Thirty Years War.

Today we’re flying along on a joyride to Judgment Day, which is mere months or days away, maybe.  In polite conversation, it remains rude to contemplate our responsibility for leaving behind a somewhat habitable planet for the kiddies.  “It takes incredible willpower to pretend that history is the unfolding of a divine plan for humanity.  In less than two and a half centuries, American whites have virtually destroyed a whole continent.” 

Deloria concludes, “Who will find peace with the lands?  The future of humankind lies waiting for those who will come to understand their lives and take up their responsibilities to all living things.  Who will listen to the trees, the animals and the birds, the voices of the places of the land?  As the long-forgotten peoples of the respective continents rise and begin to reclaim their ancient heritage, they will discover the meaning of the lands of their ancestors.  That is when the invaders of the North American continent will finally discover that for this land, God is red.”

Deloria, Vine, God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 3d ed, Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado, 2003.

YouTube offers a number of Deloria videos.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Lapps and Labyrinths

Once upon a time, all humans in Europe were nomadic hunter-gatherers.  Today, we know little about those prehistoric wild folks.  Over the centuries, farming, animal husbandry, ceramics, textiles, and other technologies from the Middle East slithered westward into Europe.  Eventually, almost all of the wild folks were either absorbed into the turbulent new culture or eliminated by it.

In Europe, the far north was one of the last regions to be colonized.  Around 15,000 years ago, it was buried under a sheet of ice that was a kilometer thick.  Then, the climate warmed up, and by 8,000 years ago, the northern interior of Sweden was no longer hidden under an ancient glacier.

Humans began moving into some parts of Scandinavia about 10,000 years ago, along with the reindeer, moose, wolves, bears, seals, and other pioneers.  The descendants of these early humans are known as Saami or Lapps (“Lapps” is insulting to some).  For thousands of years, they were largely disconnected from European civilization.  Some forest dwelling Saami remained hunter-gatherers until the end of the nineteenth century.

There are now maybe 70,000 Saami.  They call their ancient homeland Sápmi.  Four modern nations claim sections of it: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.  In the past, Saami groups spoke nine different languages.  These belong to the Uralic family of languages, which emerged west of the Ural Mountains of Russia.  Uralic languages include Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, and Samoyed.  The Saami in western Sápmi look Scandinavian; in eastern Sápmi they look more like Inuit.  Their language includes 400 words for describing reindeer.

In the 1980s, archaeologist Noel Broadbent was engaged in routine research on Iron Age seal hunting in Sweden and Finland, along the northern coastlines of the Gulf of Bothnia.  One day, in the Västerbotten region of eastern Sweden, he discovered evidence of a ritual bear burial, which made no sense whatsoever, because it spit in the face of sacred myths — and myths often trump reality.

Bear burials could only be Saami business.  The myths said that Swedes were the original settlers of Sweden, and the scruffy Saami were exotic aliens that wandered in from elsewhere a few hundred years ago.  The myths said that Saami were reindeer herders who lived in the interior, and Swedes were the ones who settled the coast and began seal hunting settlements.  On, the coast, Broadbent had stumbled across an inconvenient truth, and a significant one.  The bear burial forced a sharp turn in his research.  He rolled up his sleeves and became a myth buster.

Broadbent reported his Saami findings in Lapps and Labyrinths.  It does an excellent job of documenting his archaeological research in Västerbotten — lots of charts, graphs, tables, illustrations, maps, and detailed technical information.  It’s not written for general readers, it’s not a pleasure to read, but it is readable, and it delivers many fascinating insights on these wild folks of prehistoric Europe.

The Saami were fortunate to inhabit a region that was far from ideal for farming, or herding cattle, sheep, and goats.  Six month winters are not easy for tropical primates.  Unfortunately, Germanic peoples, who farmed and herded, were being driven by population pressure to expand northward — folks who are now called Swedes and Norwegians.

What followed was similar to the later conflicts that arose between European settlers and Native Americans — their language, music, and spirituality was banned.  Kids were sent away to boarding schools.  Much of their land was privatized by settlers.  This put the squeeze on traditional hunting, so many shifted to reindeer herding.  The Saami were forced to perform hard labor in silver mines and construction projects.  The formerly wild and free became taxpayers, required to give the king furs, skins, feathers, fish, and so on — this put additional stress on wildlife.

The Saami were nomadic.  In the warm months, reindeer grazed in the mountains; in winter, they moved to the forest and dined on lichen.  At the coast, the Saami hunted seals on the late winter ice.  In the autumn, when the skins, blubber, and meat were at peak quality, they returned to catch seals in nets.  Three months were devoted to seal hunting.  Along the shore, Broadbent’s research uncovered thousands of bones from seals, reindeer, hares, ducks, moose, and bears.  Ninety-eight percent of the bones were from seals.

On the coast, they caught salmon, whitefish, cod, herring, and shellfish.  In rivers and lakes they caught salmon, perch, whitefish, pike, burbot, trout, and char.  When the catch diminished, they simply moved to another lake.  When game got scarce, they packed up their lavvo (teepee) and moved on.  In summer, they feasted on raspberries, bilberries, blueberries, crowberries and bearberries.

The Swedes were sedentary, betting their lives that luck and cleverness would allow them to survive in one permanent location in the wilderness.  It was a harsh life.  Farming was small scale, and very risky, in a land where late spring frosts, and early autumn frosts could nuke their crops overnight — and often did.  Too much rain could rot their crop.

The wild Saami didn’t soil their britches when a wolf killed a reindeer, because they didn’t own the reindeer, and wolves needed to eat.  What could possibly be more normal, natural, and healthy?  Duh!  Saami wisdom understood that everything was spiritually alive: humans, animals, trees, winds, streams, blizzards, northern lights, and so on.  Their entire reality was magnificently sacred.  They were always careful to remain quiet and respectful, because shouting and loud disturbances profaned the holiness of their home.

Saami people had great respect for bears, highly intelligent magical beings who slept all winter without eating, and then returned to life when warm breezes blew.  Every spring a bear was killed and eaten in a holy ceremony, and then its bones were lovingly buried.  It was a celebration of rebirth, renewal, and profound admiration for the bear people.

Swedish settlers depended primarily on their cattle, goats, and sheep.  These provided milk, meat, hides, wool, and fertilizer.  For six months animals could graze outdoors, and for six months it snowed and snowed.  In places, it could get up to 3 meters (10 ft.) deep.  Animals were jammed together in shelters, eating stored hay.  In warm months, pastures sometimes got baked by droughts, eliminating the forage.  Sometimes rain preceded haymaking, damp hay rotted in the barns, and animals sickened and died.  In remote settlements, dry hay could not be hauled in from elsewhere.  Sometimes epidemics of animal diseases wiped out the herds in a region.

Sometimes predators dropped by to have lunch with the herd, which always resulted in settlers violently soiling their britches, jumping up and down, and shouting impolite comments.  Settlers were law abiding royal subjects, and they were obligated to regularly make generous contributions to the friendly bailiffs who collected taxes for the king.  The animals were private property, living wealth, and status symbols.  The more you owned, the better.

The primitive devil-worshipping Saami hung out with the reindeer people, herbivores who were perfectly adapted to the chilly climate of Sápmi, needed no barns, ate lichen all winter, and took care of themselves.  The Saami did not suffer from tax collectors and tithe collectors.  They were free.  They inhabited their Sápmi homeland for thousands of years without causing permanent injuries to the ecosystem.

Beginning in A.D. 829, a mob of radicalized black robed terrorists began to stomp in from down under, and build churches on holy sites.  The Saami were perfectly happy with their own spiritual beliefs, so converting the small population took 300 years.  They learned to act like faithful believers, whilst privately preserving their ancient culture.

A bit later, the Saami were shocked to discover that they had mistakenly converted to a fake religion, according to the new Lutheran black robes, who hated both Catholics and the Saami.  In the 1600s, the Lutherans and the state began a brutal crusade of compulsory conversion.  Resisters were beaten, some were killed, especially shamans.  Sacred drums were confiscated, smashed, and burned.

Swedes were encouraged to move into the “vacant” wilderness and settle.  Population grew.  Women lost status.  Saami were driven away from the coast and other prime locations.  By and by, Sápmi country was savagely molested by money hungry road builders, miners, loggers, trappers, sealers, and fishers.

Oh, before I go, here’s an interesting fact.  By 8,000 years ago, the glaciers had melted away, raising the sea level.  At the same time, because there was no longer immense weight on the land, the land rose in elevation (called isostatic uplift).  “Stone Age sites in northern Sweden are found on old beaches that have been uplifted 120 m or more (393 feet).”  The Bronze Age coastline is now 20.5 km (12.7 miles) inland from today’s coastline.  Land uplift has greatly altered the waterways, lakes, and fjords over time.  Many old water networks and harbors dried up.

Finally, what are labyrinths?  Broadbent discovered some of these along the coast.  They were spiraling stone constructions made up of single lines of stones forming walkways toward a center point.  More than 300 have been found in Sweden.  Labyrinths were built by Christian settlers, mostly in the sixteenth century.  They were symbols of protection, indicating that the land was no longer corrupted by dangerous heathen devil worshippers.  Labyrinths are found in many regions of Europe.  Ironically, they were originally invented by pagans.

Broadbent, Noel, Lapps and Labyrinths: Saami Prehistory, Colonization, and Cultural Resilience, Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C., 2010.

A print version of Lapps and Labyrinths can be purchased from Amazon.  A free PDF version of the entire book can be downloaded free [HERE].

The Sami is an easy to read, colorfully illustrated, 86-page PDF produced by the Sami Parliament in Sweden.  It contains info on the modern Sami, their history, traditional spirituality, and struggles as an oppressed minority.

Other peepholes into Sápmi:

A gorgeous 4-minute video of Saami, reindeer, and their land is [HERE]