I'm finally getting around to reading and contemplating Steve Heinrich's book, Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry, a great collection of essays on the settler/indigenous interface in North America. A great book to read and study for all of us “settlers” who are impatient for the finding of a solution that will finally bring about equality between us and the people whose land we bartered for in everlasting treaty arrangements.
I was reminded by several of the essays of a concept I used to present when teaching Hamlet to high school students, namely the “Great Chain of Being,” a hierarchical conception of creation that ranks all its components on a vertical line (see above and here). Going back to the philosophical musings of Aristotle and Plato, this construction implies degrees of authority and dominance so that men, for instance, have authority over women and women naturally defer to men. Animals, of course, are inferior to all humankind and rocks and minerals being at the base of the chain are there for exploitation by all the rest of creation. (It strikes me that when Paul wrote in the New Testament that women's relationship to men is as men's relationship to Christ that he might have been looking at a diagram like the one above.)
The horizontal plane in the illustration is roughly representative of an indigenous conception of creation, where the elements are seen in a side-by-side, roughly-equal configuration. This implies a very different concept of authority and deference, where men and women are equal and plants and rocks, minerals and animals are co-creations and not ranked hierarchically.
Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry is, in a manner of speaking, about the clash of the two concepts. Creation care, for instance, resides quite naturally in a spirituality that reveres all the elements of creation as residing on a horizontal plane. And there's a vast difference in outlook between a god that resides “high above” and one that resides in the creation “beside and in.”
Think for a minute about the Great Northern Pipeline proposal, the indigenous people of BC and the Canadian government in this light.
But all this, too, is simplified. Spiritual concepts on both sides are shifting and fluid. Indigenous people are Christianized, Christian doctrine is rethought, changing conditions demand new thinking, etc.
When I think about the residential school system and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at work right now, an image arises of men and women in black robes heaving at the horizontal plane in the hearts of their dark-haired charges, trying to drag the plane 90 degrees to the vertical. The tragedy being that in many cases they manage only to drag it 45 degrees, leaving their students in a state of limbo and spiritual confusion.
A real and pernicious tragedy.