Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Culture 101 (part 11) - Native American Osmosis

Wikipedia/The Searchers

As November is Native American Heritage Month, what better opportunity is there than to offer tribute to one of the greatest contributors to our American culture, especially in the American West?  And the culture of the American West leads close to home - my home.

Before my father married, he had been a cowboy in the the first half of the 20th century.  His immigrant parents had homesteaded, he had worked the family ranch, and he had also worked as a ranch hand, where he met my mother, who was on a working vacation .

I recall my father really loved the American West and all the shows associated with it.  Gunsmoke was one of his favorite television programs.  As for movies, he really loved John Wayne especially in westerns.

Below is a clip of some stills of John Wayne's westerns (audio from the Alamo (1960))

This American icon is an attempt to capture a characteristic of a people identified with the American West.  The laconic, plain spoken, down-to-earth, honest pilgrim has seemed to have resonated in American culture as evident by the popularity of the western genres.

But a strong case has been made that the source of these values and characteristics of the American cowboy, for example, came from the Native American Indians.  And here is a theory how that may have happened.  Let's start with ...

East meets West

I have a running series on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance  by Robert Pirsig - which I abbreviate as ZAMM.  (For the last post - with links to earlier posts, check out - ZAMM (part 7) - Yes or No - Gotcha!)  

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig was published in 1974 and has been deemed an important culture-bearing book of the 20th century.  And 15 years later (1992), Robert Pirsig came out with another one -  Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.  (Perhaps, I may start another series based on "Lila" when I wrap up ZAMM.)

The metaphysical discourse continues in this sequel as the author uses the voice of his alter-ego Phaedrus.  While sailing down the Hudson River, he encounters a troubled woman named Lila - his muse as he ponders the meaning of culture and morality.

In one discourse, Phaedrus recalls a fellow English professor at Montana State College (now MSU-Bozeman),   James Verne Dusenberry (1906-1966).  Professor Dusenberry had made an impression with his passion for helping the Native Americans at the college and on the reservations.

 Many details are given in Lila, but Praedrus writes how Dusenberry had immersed himself with the culture, much to the consternation of "objective anthropologists."   Turned down by American universities for further graduate study in anthropology, Dusenberry got his PhD at the University of Stockholm with a thesis of Native American Indians.  Quite ironic.

Wikipedia/ Native American Church
During their days at Montana State College, Dusenberry took Phaedrus to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation near Busby.  There, the two college professors engaged in one of the ceremonies at the Native American Church.

Phaedrus admitted the experience seemed quite strange as it involved imbibing the hallucinogen,  peyote, a Mexican cactus.  (In that day, peyote was a relatively unknown substance - as this was before the 1960s counter-culture.)  But this cactus was a key part of their vision quest.  Peyote was less masochistic and quicker than the olden days (before the 19th century). Back then, a vision quest involved days of isolation, fasting, prayers, and mediation until the Great Spirit revealed himself and took over the life of the seeker.

As Phraedrus just let the experience happen - he describes it in Lila - he became aware that he had become part of a people who were the plain spoken, laconic, deliberate in their actions, direct, honest.  Then Phaedrus felt a split inside him.  One part felt the experience was so alien.  The other part felt it was quite familiar -  like he was coming home.

Ah hah!

Then it hit Phaedrus.  The Native Americans were the originators of the culture of the American West, which we share in the stories of the mountain men, the settlers, the cowboys  - such as portrayed by actors like John Wayne.  Yet, we don't recognize this because of the long running hostility between the white men and Native Americans.

Here is another story in our popular culture to make that point.

In the movie Little Big Man (1970) , Jack Crabb survived a Pawnee massacre of his parent's wagon train, but later he was rescued and raised by the Cheyenne.  Telling the story as an old man looking back, Jack moved in and out of  the culture of the white settlers and the Native Americans.

Jack's adopted grandfather in the scene below plainly talks of the hostility between the two peoples.  Yet the human beings (what the Cheyenne called themselves) accepted Jack, a white man, into their culture much like Professor Dunsenberry had been accepted by the Northern Cheyenne in the 20th century.

Osmosis ...

That's the best world I can think of to describe what happened as the Native American culture rubbed off onto the settlers.  The first Mountain Men  lived with the Natives and learned their ways.   Later, the settlers came and learned to survive from the Mountain Men.  Yet the settlers did not recognize the source of the culture that they had embraced came from the Native Americans.  Perhaps they did not want to recognize it.  They were hostile toward them and looked down on them.

But Phraedrus researched the writings of the natives commenting on the white men and white men commenting on the natives and made this correlation:  Europeans viewed Americans - their lack of eloquence, lack of discipline, their sloppiness, lack of social class structure -  much like how  the Americans viewed the natives.  And natives viewed the white man - their deceitful and empty talk, the snobbishness, the arrogance, the disingenuousness - much like how many Americans viewed the Europeans.

With more digging, Phaedrus discovered that Professor Dusenberry was not the first to come to this conclusion  Child prodigy William Sidis was onto this and wrote about it, such as in this piece - An Unpublished Exploration of Native American Contributions to Democracy.  Mostly, Sidis' writings at the time were scoffed at and ignored, much like Professor Dusenberry was at Montana State College.

Much can be said about the Native American influence on the American government and our cherished beliefs - equality, lack of social classes, freedom.  But that can be fodder for another blog.

Yet these values - equality and freedom - are part of our American culture and the New World's gift to the Old World.


Other posts on this subject

America's Story (part 2) - Savages! (2011)

America's Story (part 11) - Sacajawea (2012)


Previous posts in the Culture 101 series:

Culture 101 (part 1) - Reagan's Challenge (2012)

Culture 101 (part 2) - Easter Eucatastrophe (2012)

Culture 101 (part 3) - Paul Revere's Ride (2012)

Culture 101 (part 4) - Gold Diggers and the Great Depression (2012)

Culture 101 (part 5) - Blue Bloods and 9/11 (2012)

Culture 101 (part 6) - Gilligan's Island and Breast Cancer Awareness (2012)

Culture 101 (part 7) - Band of Brothers  (2013)

Culture 101 (part 8) - Snow White (2013)

Culture 101 (part 9) - Father Knows Best (2013)

Culture 101 (part 10) - Summertime! x 3 (2013)


Photos from:  Wikipedia/The Searchers ; Amazon/Lila ; Wikipedia/ Native American Church;  

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