Native American mysticism is in many ways different from the classical types of mysticism depicted in European and Middle Eastern texts. Its primary difference has to do with the Native Americans' disposition toward the natural world, and with the fact that in Native American literature, there is rarely, if ever, a moment of epiphany, or peak experience, or mystical union. Instead there are "visions" and "dreams" that are said to be actually happening in what might be termed different layers of reality, though normally these layers are spoken of as "worlds." Our example is the four worlds described by Serge King:

· Ike Papakahi - Objective world: Everything is separate. Scientific, material knowing.
· Ike Papalua - Subjective world: Everything is connected. Emotional knowing.
· Ike Papakolu - Symbolic world: Everything is symbolic. Dream knowing.
· Ike Papaba - Holistic world: Everything is one. Unity, identity. (In a way, it is no longer knowing; cf. Plotinus.)

The experiences of these world can be intense, of course, but I have never encountered a text that appears to describe an experience of a unitary consciousness or an epiphanic unifying vision of reality. But the unifying vision of reality may be the key to the connections we're watching for in this course.

It seems to me that the Native American texts describe a world that is already unified in the individual and group consciousness. In other words, Native Americans describe themselves as living a version of the unitive life already. In a way similar to Plotinus' remark, "Things here are signs," Native Americanss see the objects of the natural world as reflections or signs of realities in the nonphysical worlds which are nonetheless bound together. (At the end of a speech on the takeover of his land, Chief Seattle is said to have remarked: "The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds."
The word "powerless" is not incidental in Chief Seattle's speech. Native Americans tend to speak of a "power" that invests everything, a key concept in understanding the manifestations of their mysticism. It should be noted that this power is not the so-called Great Spirit; the Great Spirit is more like a creator, but the origin of the term is uncertain and may not actually have arisen until after contact with Europeans, and may have been given in response to European efforts at translation. No one knows for sure.
This "power" is spoken of in similar ways by widely different Native American groups. The Sioux, like Black Elk and Lame Deer, call it "wakanda." Iroquois speakers call it "orenda." Algonquian peoples call it "manitou." The power pervades the natural and other worlds, but it manifests itself in individual things - it can be present in greater and lesser degrees in anything, a rock, a pipe, a tree, an animal, an article of clothing, a person. A person with a certain kind of power can become an adept at healing, which means having interactions with beings at different order of reality - in different worlds (again, see King's four worlds). This is where the idea of shamanism enters. The shaman can dream of symbolic acts or objects that will carry power to heal, or find game, or bring rain, for example.
He or she can also induce visions; a vision is like a dream, in that it takes the experiencer to another order of reality, but it differs from a dream in that it can be more vivid and intense, and tends to occur during a state of altered consciousness that can be induced by fasting, extreme deprivation, or drugs.
In "vision quests" certain guided preparations, like the sweat lodge ceremonies, bear unmistakable resemblances to purgative practices among Western and Middle Eastern mystics. The shaman may also use, significantly, chanting and drumming to help re-focus and alter consciousness to prepare to interact with another order of reality. In visions and dreams, the shaman may encounter beings, as for instance Sufis apparently do. For Native Americans, the beings are often said to be animals. The Penobscot shaman, for example, was called a
m'teoulin, a word which derives from a word meaning drumming; the shaman frequently had a baohi'gan, or familiar animal spirit or guide who helped him.
One thing to notice about this interaction is that the animals inhabit other orders of reality just as humans do, and at that level powerful symbolic communication is possible between the adept and the animal. We might interpret this as a kind of unification - animals and people come together in communication at this level in ways they do not come together at the material level. This happens through the manipulation of power. Now it's possible in this context to see a parallel, at least, between the Native American idea of "power" and a way other mystics have used the word "soul" to mean a binding force, a manifesting force. In European and Eastern cosmologies, beings like gods or angels inhabit the realm of Soul, which we noted the first week of class may parallel Serge King's "symbolic world." Granted such a parallel exists, the sense we might make out of it could be that what a Native American shaman or a Sufi or a mystical Taoist finds in his dreams and visions may depend on what he expects to find there - saints, angels, gods, animal spirits.
Just as Plotinus and Hindu metaphysicians indicate that the realm of Soul binds the universe together, the general Native American sense, as Penobscot elder Eunice Baumann-Nelson says, is that everything is interconnected, everything is essentially unified. Such a world-view is an essential element of the unitive life. In their total acceptance of the essential sameness of natural, material reality and symbolic realities, Native Americans describe a form of living the unitive life. When Black Elk speaks of circles and roundness as symbols of unbroken wholeness, he speaks symbolically of that vested view of the whole universe as unified, one. This sensibility can also be observed in Native American rituals that carefully
Some General Observations
on Native American Mysticism
"Moose and dreamers," photo of surface print of petroglyph at Machias Bay, Maine, by Sari Dienes and Mark Hedden.
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