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.
· Ike Papakolu - Symbolic world: Everything is symbolic. Dream
· 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
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.