The Indian Future
by Thomas Berry
Thomas Berry is a priest who lives in New York City. Berryís thought
and essays inspired physicist Brian Swimme to write "The Universe Is A
Green Dragon", and heavily influenced environment activist/author/ priest,
Matthew Fox, who was ex-communicated from the Catholic Church in the mid-1990s
because of his "radical" environmental views.
I first met Thomas Berry in 1984 in Manhattan though our involvement
with the Temple of Understanding, an international inner-faith organization.
We met again in 1988 at the "First Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary
Leaders on Human Survival" at Oxford University, Oxford, England. There
in England Father Berry agreed to let me publish two of his provocative
essays, "The Indian Future" and "Earth Economics". "Hoka Hey!" published
both essays in various serializations during its eight years of publication.
"The Indian Future" was serialized in four parts in "Hoka Hey!" in 1987-88.
"The destinies of the Indian are inseparable from the destinies of
the American earth. As the Euroamerican deals with one, so he will deal
with the other -and in the end so will he deal with himself. The
fate of the continent, of the Indian, and the white man, are finally identical.
None of these can be saved except in and through the others."
Father Thomas Berry
The Indian peoples of this hemisphere will soon be ending their
first five centuries of contact with the European peoples who have been
occupying this region of the world since the early sixteenth century. While
there was a certain historical inevitability in this meeting, no adequate
interpretation of this event is yet available. It remains, however, one
of the most significant events in the total history of the earth. At first
glance it was purely tragedy on one side, unmeasured gain on the other.
But this is too simple a view. The final score is not yet in. Just now
there is a deeply tragic aspect on the human level for all concerned.
The effects of this meeting have varied in South America, in
Mexico and Central America, in the United States, in Canada. If the Spanish,
Portuguese, French, English, and Dutch were the earliest to occupy the
North American continent, the other peoples of Europe came later. Peoples
from Africa were brought here. Then came the peoples of Asia. Among all
these peoples the Indian maintains his unique status as the original dweller
in this region of the world. He has this position of honor, however, not
merely by his temporal priority but by his mystical understanding and communion
with the continent.
The continent itself and the living beings upon it were safe
and the Indian secure until the invasion took place. Since then the continent
with its rivers and valleys, its mountains and plains, has been exploited
with all the violence that modern science and technology could summon.
The Indian tribes have suffered to hold on to their territory and to maintain
their way of life. From being one of the freest peoples who ever lived,
they have become one of the most confined culturally as well as physically.
Even so, there have been renewals within the Indian traditions.
Within this century, after the decline in the 19th century, new strengths
have developed, numbers have increased, cultural expression has expanded,
political competence has grown. Yet the aggression of the Euroamerican
against the Indian and his territory continues, directly and in more subtle
ways. Extensive efforts of many Euroamericans to improve the situation
remain ineffective because there is still too exclusive a commitment to
the white manís value, his lifestyle, and his sense of superiority. The
very structure of his technological civilization prevents him from communicating
in depth with the native peoples.
There does exist, however, a wide-spread awareness that the Indian
on this continent has a significant place in the historical and cultural
development of man. Survival and development within his own cultural traditions
concerns not only the Indian, it concerns the other peoples of this continent,
as well as the human community itself. It concerns the destinies of the
If we assume that the Indian peoples have such significance,
it is all the more important that the other peoples of this continent develop
attitudes that will make the next five centuries a creative period for
the Indian. It is especially important that the Euroamerican develop confidence
in the extensive human resources that are available to these original inhabitants
of this continent. If we have broken their rhythm of development it is
important that we assist in recovery of this rhythm. Only if we recognize
and appreciate this rhythm will we be able to step aside to let the deeper
qualities of the tradition develop from within.
The first duty of the white man in relation to the Indian is
to see that the Indian has the land, the resources, and the independence
needed to be himself. This involves radical abandonment of the policy of
assimilation. To do this requires much of the white man because of his
compulsive savior instincts. He takes up the burden of saving others even
when in fact he is destroying them. The religious personalities from the
European culture have been especially limited in their ability to see the
profound religious and spiritual qualities of the Indian traditions. European-derived
peoples have consistently had difficulty in communicating with others within
a shared human context. They have tended to confer salvation -whether political,
social, economic, or religious- and have resisted incorporating the
resources offered by others into their own process of becoming.
The present discussion is directed to the Euroamerican in the
hope that if he understands something of the human resources of the Indian
he will become less an obstacle and more of a help. Our presentation is
from the cultural-historical point of view. Studies of the tribal cultures
of the world, of the more massive civilizations of modern culture, and
the prospects for the future can be a great aid in understanding any people.
Within the larger complex of manís cultural transformations each can be
seen in itself and in its relations with the others. The history of each
helps in understanding the history of the others. Against this background
it can be seen that the culture of the American Indian is unique, one of
the most admirable of all cultures, destined perhaps for a future historical
role of wide significance.
There will be little mention in this essay of the violent forces
that have been at work. We presuppose all the destructive events
of Indian-White relationships that have taken place during the centuries:
the dispossession from the land, the rapaciousness of settlers, the communication
of diseases that wiped out many tribes and critically weakened others,
the destruction of the food supply, the corruption and mismanagement of
government administrations, the exploitation of natural resources, pollution
of air, water and earth, the denial of basic rights, and the betrayal of
solemn treaties. All these and many others are presupposed. Repeated mention
of all these events has its uses. It is also useful, however, to reflect
on the interior sources of renewal that are available to the Indian. These
are the Indianís strength and, if consciousness of them arises, may become
the white manís hope.
The first basis for cultural survival and renewal for the tribal
peoples of America lies in their awareness of having won a moral victory
of unique dimensions during the past five centuries. Many peoples have
been besieged in the course of history, many have disappeared from the
earth, many have survived over long periods to rise in renewed vigor. It
would, however, be difficult to find a people who over such a long period
have undergone such destructive influences, yet have survived and preserved
their identity so firmly as the American Indian.
The Euroamerican has won his battles with the Indian in the military-political
order, in the possession of property, in the power to control the exterior
destinies of the native peoples; but he has lost in the moral sphere to
such a degree that he is himself amazed to discover the depth and violence
of his destructive instincts, and this not just as a speculative truth
but as the lived reality of his own existence. That his deeds were done
for "sacred" purposes and with highest cultural intentions is an irony
that baffles any human effort at understanding.
But even with such recognition by the white man, no immediate
cessation of his aggressive deeds can be expected. The economic and political
realities of his life have set him on a course that apparently will continue
into the indefinite future. On occasion this aggression can be mitigated,
but it can no longer assume the position of righteousness that it once
assumed. In principle a counteraction has been initiated that in time must
have its effects. The Indian, strengthened by a new consciousness of himself
and his resources, is now able to resist more effectively. But whatever
the situation, it is important that the Indian has not retreated simply
into a negative or merely antagonistic position. He has established a creative
response rooted in his ability to sustain life in its moment of high tragedy
and to continue the basic path of his human development in its most distinctive
aspects. This attitude has been adopted on a wide scale by the Indian peoples.
Awareness of their moral victory has always existed but it has now
led to an increasing confidence and is beginning to function more effectively.
The peoples of this continent have a genius that cannot forever be denied
A second support for the native peoples of this continent is
the awareness that they give to the human mode of being a unique expression
that belongs among the great spiritual traditions of mankind. It is an
observed fact in history that high religious traditions are often carried
by peoples who are not as numerous, as powerful, or as advanced in science
and technology as other peoples. Just as other traditions have their specific
glory -as India has its awareness of divine transcendence and China
its mystical humanism, and Europe its sense of an historical divine savior-
the American Indian has his own special form of nature mysticism. Awareness
of numinous presence throughout the entire cosmic order establishes among
these peoples one of the most integral forms of spirituality known to man.
The cosmic, human, and divine are present to one another in a way that
is unique. It is difficult to find a word or expression for such a mode
of experience. It might also be called earth mysticism.
This numinous mode of consciousness has significance for the
entire human community. Indeed one of the primary instincts of the human
community is to protect and foster such primordial experiences. This task
is gradually being recognized even by white peoples who have temporarily
set aside many of their own most primordial experiences. These experiences,
which generally present themselves as divine revelations, are irreplaceable.
They form the foundations upon which the cultural systems of the various
peoples are established.
They also determine the distinctive psychic structure of the individual
personalities within the culture. Together these revelations form the ultimate
psychic support for the human venture itself.
While the Indian peoples may not always be reflexively conscious
of all this or of the pan-human aspect of such primordial experiences,
the Indian has become increasingly aware not only of his own unique qualities,
but that he carries a human formation of great significance for the entire
human community. Because of his hurt in associations with the dominant
political powers of the continent, the Indian might well conceal the inner
mysteries of his spiritual traditions lest they be trivialized by a secular
society that destroys the inner meaning of everything he touches. But the
reality is there, it is widely recognized. The hope must be that the inner
resplendence of this reality will find its fitting modern expression and
the wide influence it deserves.
A third resource that the native peoples possess is the instinctive
awareness of their own qualities of endurance. Those historians acquainted
with the larger cultural development of man can witness that frequently
the peoples of the earth, the dispossessed peoples, those lowest in the
social hierarchy, have greater survival value than those with a higher
status, with ruling power, or even with the higher intellectual achievements.
This happened in Europe. It is evident in India where peoples of a higher
civilization invaded the territory in the middle of the second millennium
B. C. During the first centuries of occupation the incoming group established
itself in a dominant position in the various dominant position in the various
areas of life. But almost immediately the peoples closer to the earth,
the peoples without the more sophisticated culture, the peoples with less
political or social prestige, began to make their presence felt in every
sphere of life, from the simplest elements of lifestyle to the highest
spiritual insights. Such a process of transformation from below continues
even to the present: The history of India may accurately be interpreted
as the acculturation from below of a dominant social order, external in
its origins, massive in its power, and extensive in its intellectual sophistication.
That a similar process is taking place in Latin America is evident.
It may not take place to such a degree in North America because of the
limited number of native peoples in the region. Still, the influence of
the native peoples on the incoming Europeans have been more extensive than
is commonly realized. Further modifications can be expected in the future.
The total effect may well be a gradual renewal and development of the Indian
One great strength of the Indian peoples lies in their interior
communion with the archetypal world of the collective unconsciousness.
This is manifested in their extensive capacity for the use of symbolism,
by their visionary experience, by their dream power, and by their use of
language. To renew their ancient symbolisms, is to renew their ancient
techniques of power. Just how these will function in modern times is less
clear than we might wish. Yet the Indian capacity to reach deep into the
realm of numinous power remains evident in their life, art, literature
and ritual observances.
This intimate communion with the depths of their own psychic
structure is one of the main differences between the psychic functioning
of the Indian and the psychic functioning of the Euroamerican in
modern times. The white man has so developed his rational process, his
phenomenal ego, that he has lost much of the earlier communion he had with
the archetypal world of his own unconscious. The American Indian, on the
other hand, is living exemplification of recent understanding of the collective
unconsciousness. All the symbolisms are there -the journey symbol,
the heroic personality, the symbolism of the center, the mandala symbolism
of the self, the various transformation symbols, the great mother.
These symbols have found clear expression in the creation myths,
the initiation ceremonies, in the sacred pipe, the healing rituals, the
sun dance, the ghost dance, the vision quest. They are also evident in
the literature. Portions of the oral literature are passing into a written
literature. The hope must be that more of this oral literature will be
committed to written, not only in tribal languages, but also in English
-the most available transtribal language for the Indian peoples. This is
important since literature must always be one of the main sources of guidance
as well as a main source of psychic energy for the task of renewal. Indeed
it is in the new literature of writers such as Scott Momaday that the interior
dynamics of Indian renewal find their finest expression, although this
expression can be discovered throughout the various forms of artistic creation
that are once again emerging. In such periods the first step is in the
recovery and renewal of esteem for the ancient arts and literature. Then
comes the new art and the new literature which bring the ancient cultural
dynamics into present expression. In the future we can certainly expect
the Indian traditions of dance and song to emerge in a new creative context.
The arts of the Indian in these past five centuries indicate
the capacity to absorb outside influences and to reshape them in accord
with their own genius. So with the beadwork of the Indians. There was beadwork
prior to the arrival of the white man, but this flourished with new vigor
once beads from Europe were available in quantity to the Indian.* Beads
were then able to express visions that they had never expressed previously.
They became part of the gorgeous display of the interior grandeur of the
human. This capacity for absorption and re-creation in the cultural order
could be illustrated from almost every phase of Indian life. Powerful cultural
forces were already at work in the depths of the Indian mode of consciousness,
forces that enabled the Indian to interact with the white manís traditions
even in such things as the Ghost Dance and in establishing the Peyote cult.
Earlier, it can be observed in the religious movement begun by the Handsome
Lake among the Seneca. *[Editorís note: There were certainly no glass beads
in North America before the Euroamerican brought them. Prior to the arrival
of glass beads American Indians created designs by weaving brilliantly
colored porcupine quills, dyed from natural plants, into their leather
But this is of course only one aspect of the interplay of cultural
forces that has taken place between these two peoples. The other aspect
is the influence exerted by the native peoples on the incoming European.
One of the most fundamental is the influence of the Indian on the development
of modern dance; Isadora Duncan, originator of interpretive dance in America,
was in her early years influenced by the dance rhythms and movements of
the Indian peoples. In other realms of life the Euroamerican has also been
deeply influenced, so much that Carl Jung claims that often in his dealings
with Americans in psychotherapy he found an American Indian component in
the psyche. The basic ideals of freedom found in the American peoples have
been profoundly influenced by the Indian ideals of personal freedom. In
the development of the U. S. Constitution, there was early reference to
the Iroquois confederacy as a model. These are only a few of the areas
of influence that have passed into American life from the Indian. The only
thing that has not been influenced by the Indian or even modified by these
contacts is the white manís idea of private property. But this too may
change in the future. *[Editors note: For an extensive presentation of
the American Indianís influence on the Euroamerican see Indian Givers:
How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World, by Jack Weatherford,
New York, Crown Publishing, 1988]
A fifth source of strength for the native peoples of this continent
is their appreciation of man in his integral relations with the earth.
Even those desolate regions assigned to the Indian tribes by the white
man seem to become sources of strength. This has become true particularly
for the Navajo. What is profoundly impressive is the subjective communion
that takes place between the Indian and the earth and the living beings
upon the earth and all the natural phenomena that take place upon the earth.
The intercommunion of life systems, understood with a certain
instinctive awareness by tribal peoples throughout the world, is something
that the white man with all his science and technology seems unable to
appreciate, even when his very existence is imperiled. European man has
had a certain sense of himself as above all other living things, as the
absolute lord and master of the earth. He sees the earth as divinely presented
to him to do with as he pleased. It was there as an eternal reality that
would be some inevitable law not only provide manís basic needs, but endure
whatever affliction he might lay upon it. The earth, it seemed, would bear
any amount of human exploitation, would sustain any amount of damage as
an inexhaustible store of nourishment and of energy for manís use. With
a supreme shock the white man discovers that the earth is a delicate balance
of life systems, that the fuels for his machines are limited, that defacing
the earth defiles man and destroys the divine voice that speaks so powerfully
through every phase of cosmic activity.
The Indian now offers to the Euroamerican a mystical sense of
the place of the human amid other living beings. This is a hard teaching
for the white man since it is unlikely that he can undertake the adjustments
it demands until he acquires both a new set of values and a new art. This
art of communion with the earth the white man can learn from the Indian.
Thus a reverse dependence is established: survival in the future may depend
more on the white manís learning from the Indian that on the Indianís learning
from the white man.
A sixth source of strength for the Indian is his traditional
heroic ideal. The Indian has never accepted human life as ordinary, as
something that can be simply managed in a somewhat superficial or painless
manner. He has realized that life tests the deepest qualities within himself,
qualities that emerge in heroic combat not merely with others, but with
himself and with the powers of the universe. The sacred function of enemies
was to assist each other to the heroic life by challenge, even by the challenge
of death. For this to be effective, however, it was necessary that there
be a certain equality between the protagonists. The Indian and the white
man will long be at war. It has never ceased and possible will never cease
in the foreseeable future. What must be hoped for is not exactly "peace"
but a creative tension. Peace does not create heroic achievement. There
must be challenge that forces the best that is in man to emerge into its
proper expression, challenge that brings about dimensions in human achievement
that would not otherwise be attained. Just now, however, the disproportion
in size and power seems to remove all possibility of truly creative relationships
that would be neither destructive nor paternalistic. Yet in the dialectic
of human affairs, size and power eventually become self-destructive; the
inequalities may eventually be leveled and the ancient fruitful combat
relationship revived in a new setting.
What can be said is that the heroic life attitude is available
and even demanded in the line of the Indian development itself. The great
chiefs of the past have attained an immortal place in the annals of mankind.
They are not simply tribal personalities, nor are they simply personalities
of the American continent; they are personalities alongside the greatest
leaders known to man. They have exhibited strength, spiritual insight,
human compassion, as well as an aptitude for public affairs and a capacity
for leadership in periods of unspeakable tragedy. A people who can harken
back to such leaders as Tecumseh, Crazy Horse, and Chief Joseph are necessary
a people capable of amazing human achievement. These men of the past talked
with the nations of the world on a plane of equality. They spoke as equals
with the highest officials in the land, including presidents in Washington.
They stood in their regalia before the world representing something beyond
what the white man could understand at the time. They stood as numinous
figures in a world that had lost its numinous qualities in favor of the
practical qualities of exploitation and oppression.
This tradition of leadership has not been lost, although it has
not found its full expression in recent times. Even in the midst of the
white manís cities the Indian lives in his own psychic world that seems
an indestructible reality. he is not so much in a role of antagonism. He
is simply another mode of consciousness, a language that is not only foreign
but also mysterious. Translations is less a matter of linguistic skill
that of feeling insight.
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