Black Elk

Douglas Dalrymple on Before Philosophy, Black Elk and Catholicism…

My paternal grandfather’s sympathies were evenly split, I think, between cowboys and Indians. When he died, my grandmother begged me to take a few items from his closet. I kept a button-up cowboy shirt with a nighttime western scene stitched on the back. It was too large for me and I’d never seen him wear it, but it reminded me of him. Grandpa used to tell us kids that the bypass scars on his chest and leg were won in a Great Plains ambush, the marks of Indian arrows and tomahawks. When he wasn’t being attacked by Indians, he was reading about them. Visiting as a boy, I would browse for hours through his well-fingered copies of Black Elk Speaks and National Geographic’s World of the American Indian. He and my aunt (during her New Age phase) once attended a sweat lodge ceremony together.

I think it was in a Guy Davenport essay that I first read a reference to Henri Frankfort’s Before Philosophy. I bought a dollar copy, an old Pelican paperback, at a used bookshop near my office. In the book, Frankfort and his co-authors attempt to reenter the mind of pre-rational man through a study of Egyptian and Mesopotamian metaphysics, politics and ethics. They want to chart the transition from an “I-Thou” relationship between man and nature to an “I-It” relationship – a movement from experience conceived in terms of encounters with living forces to a world where natural phenomena could be understood in terms of impersonal cause and effect. Frankfort doesn’t touch on it, but it occurs to me that the European settling of the Americas – in which my yeoman farmer ancestors were early participants – was, among other things, a conflict of these two perspectives.

A similar thought must have occurred to Davenport, who was also fascinated by Native American history. His essay titled “Finding” – about his father’s obsessive collecting of Indian artifacts – is one of my favorites from The Geography of the Imagination. Apparently this sort of amateur archaeology is still popular in the South. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Unnamed Caves” (from Pulphead) explores the illicit artifact trade in Appalachia, a thematic homage to his hero Davenport, I’m sure. Though born in the South myself, I’ve lived most my life on the west coast where, for some reason, it never occurred to me that I might find any arrowheads lying around. It was more popular among the suburban cul-de-sac kids I knew to compare notes and see who had a higher fraction of Indian blood in his family. Through my wife, my children have managed to accumulate more of it than I was ever able to justify for myself.

The de-enchantment of the world must be a painful, difficult thing however it comes about, but while the transition occurred in the Old World by a slower process and largely as a revolution of ideas, it happened in the New World by invasion, forced displacement, re-education and genocide. In Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (a novel superior in every way to the movie based on it), Old Lodge Skins complains that although the “human beings” – that is, the Cheyenne – know that everything is alive, white men think that everything is dead. It’s a nice summary of the sort of distinction Frankfort has in mind. Chief Seattle, among other Native leaders, had similar things to say. Charles Eastman, who was raised among the still-nomadic Sioux but eventually took a medical degree from Dartmouth (and tended the injured at Wounded Knee), suffered the transition of perspective in his early education:

When the teacher placed before us a painted globe and said that our world was like that, that upon such a thing our forefathers had roamed and hunted for untold ages, as it whirled and danced around the sun in space – I felt that my foothold was deserting me. All my savage training and philosophy were in the air, if these things were true.

Such a thing, he says. Eastman wants to belong to both cultures at once. Among the elements that make his books so intriguing is how well or how poorly he succeeds one moment to the next.

In the final chapter of Before Philosophy, Frankfort identifies two historic exits from the “I-Thou” perspective: the monotheistic Jewish exit, where deity is conceived as starkly transcendent and the material world is God’s handiwork but never God’s self; and the Greek exit, where the personification of phenomena breaks down among the pre-Socratics and a proto-scientific perspective becomes possible for the first time. In the mingling of these two, Frankfort says, you have the germinal confluence of western culture’s past 2,500 years. Of course, it’s not really that simple. I wonder sometimes if Christian sacramentalism, for example, marks a counter-current. By insisting on God’s at least potential immanence in material objects (the Eucharist especially, but not merely) it does something, perhaps, to repopulate the non-human world. It never delivers one back to the full enchantments of pantheism, I suppose, but it may feed the same appetite by offering something approaching panentheism.

I spent the spring break of my junior year of college working at an elementary school on a Cree reservation in central Alberta. Though most of the white farmers in the surrounding country were Protestants, most of the Cree themselves seemed to be Roman Catholics. They were therefore sacramentalists. The difference made an impression on me at the time, but I couldn’t plumb the wherefore of it. It’s interesting to note that while Charles Eastman converted to a non-sacramentalist Protestantism which he never seems to have felt really comfortable with, Black Elk converted to Catholicism and spent the last decades of his life as a pious and successful lay catechist.


Tags: , ,


  1. Nige on Wednesday 12, 2014

    Fascinating stuff…
    Rupert Sheldrake is interesting on all this. There’s a strand of thinking in evolutionary theory that allows that – if consciousness, like everything else, evolved – there must be traces or forms of consciousness in all living things, that it’s not just Us but the whole living world. This has led some to a reluctant acceptance of panpsychism. I believe the philosopher Galen Strawson is a panpsychist…

  2. Worm on Wednesday 12, 2014

    how serendipitous that this is the second time this week that I’ve stumbled across this subject – this is something that Susan Bordo alludes to in her excellent book The Creation of Anne Boleyn ( our january Dabbler book club choice) where she mentions that often in our appraisal of the actions and motives of historical figures, (pre enlightenment), we assume that they were just like us, when in fact it could be said that they were in a sense less evolved in terms of introspection/existentialism and actually considered things in a very different way than our brains do now. Obviously American indians and any other less scientifically-minded societies would have the same sort of issues

    Interesting to think about (with my modern brain)

    • George on Wednesday 12, 2014

      ” they were in a sense less evolved in terms of introspection/existentialism and actually considered things in a very different way than our brains do now.”

      I’m not sure about the pairing of introspection and existentialism here. But it would be hard to read St. Augustine’s Confessions–agree with its theology or not–and argue that we are more evolved in introspection.

      Certainly it is possible to read back one’s own presuppositions in evaluating what historical figures did, and probably impossible not to do so. But one needs to be aware of what one is doing.

  3. Gaw on Wednesday 12, 2014

    Great discussion and a very persuasive bit of theorising, or at least it seems to me,

    I’m reading ‘American Colonies’ by Alan Taylor at the moment and it’s very good on the cultural and religious disparity between natives and settlers. It’s very depressing actually – I’ve never considered myself ‘anti-Western’ but there is something repellant about the materialism and anthropocentrism of the colonists.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0142002100/ref=oh_details_o06_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

  4. George on Wednesday 12, 2014

    I’d explain the Crees and the farmers historically. The French and then Canadian missionaries were energetic and far-ranging. The farmers brought their Protestantism with them from England and Scotland.

    One can argue that the logic of Greek thought ultimately led to the I-It dichotomy, but if so at a great remove. While Aristotelianism lived (through at least the late 13th Century), there was a belief in the animal and vegetable souls–not rational souls, but principles of movement and growth. After Descartes you end up with a thoroughly mechanistic view–extending to humans. Yet within a hundred years, Kant’s successors are trying to reverse that, with what success I leave others to judge. By then, though, philosophy had lost prestige compared to the natural sciences.

  5. Douglas on Wednesday 12, 2014

    Terrific comments. I’m not familiar with Rupert Sheldrake but I’ve had the Nagel book on my to-read list for a while. I’m not sure I’ll have the strength for what I expect to be a great deal of very academic philosophizing, but we’ll see.

    Gaw, I find it a bit depressing too. At the risk of making myself a Dances-With-Wolves caricature, I can’t help but partly sympathize with the captive colonial children adopted into native families who didn’t want to go home after Pontiac’s War ended: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a9/Bouquet_captives.jpg. It’s all very complicated, however.

    George, I have no particular argument to insist on and I’m sure you’re right about the historical explanation of reglious differences between the Cree and the local farmers. To judge by the farmers’ quite distinct accents, I’d say that most of them came from Scotland. Despite living a few miles from the reservation, most of them had never visited it.

  6. Douglas on Wednesday 12, 2014

    I mean, of course, that their ancestor had originally come from Scotland. But the present-day farmers still retained a bit of the old accent. It was certainly not the standard Anglo Canadian pattern.