Revoking the Myth of 1492 and Reclaiming Turtle Island

buffalo ancestors

You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough – even white people – the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.

Spoken by a Crow elder to Gary Snyder.

Joseph Campbell, whose resonant interpretations of world mythology left such a mark upon the arts and spiritual imagination of the previous century, once offered four functions for any culture’s mythological system. “Mythology,” in this case, does not mean “outdated” or “pre-scientific,” but rather it means the interface of stories about the nature of existence that any culture must utilize to navigate through an ultimately unknowable cosmos. These stories we use to orient ourselves fall into four categories, or “functions,” according to Campbell:

1. The Mystical Function, expressing our awe of the universe; 2. The Cosmological Function, explaining the shape of the universe; 3. The Sociological Function, supporting and validating a certain social order, and 4. The Pedagogical Function, giving direction for living one’s life within the overarching meaning provided by a mythological system.

Apparently, this works by the trickle down effect. Authentic mystical visions of the highest attainable truths are given symbolic form and then stepped down, systematized, and eventually harmonized into the daily life of a society. This was the idea behind Plato’s Republic as well as the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, in whose cathedrals we can see an entire cosmovision realized in stone.

Yet, as we know, myth can not only point to eternal truths but also be a system of control imposed upon a population. Folk sometimes imagine the sociological function has to do with “socializing” at church or the temple, but it doesn’t. Not at all. It’s the aspect of mythic systems that supports and validates the social order — and like the tradition of sati, where a Hindu widow would throw herself upon her husband’s funeral pyre and burn to death, it can actually be a fairly nasty piece of work.

In fact, mythic systems can even be wholesale fabrications, such as ancient Athens’ political move to boot out Poseidon and co-op Athena as its founding deity (accompanied by propaganda to explain the change in regime). More recent in memory is the Nazi’s Aryan mythology, manufactured and propagated to justify the existence of the Third Reich.

Yet a far more successful and enduring fabrication is the myth of 1492.

The historical event of Cristobal Colón (better known as Christopher Columbus)’s wholly accidental arrival in what was a “new world” for the Europeans has been carefully tailored to serve the sociological function of the mythology of the United States, a belief system which requires the obliteration of memory of the highly populated, advanced civilizations already flourishing in the Americas upon the arrival of the Europeans.

The myth of 1492, inculcated in all of us American school children from kindergarten up, is that the American continent was an empty, howling wilderness, sparsely inhabited by primitives without culture, upon the arrival of Columbus.

It was actually the opposite situation. The magnificence of American civilizations far surpassed anything existing in Europe at that time. When Cortez and his conquistadors first beheld the Aztec capital of Tenochtitan, they were overwhelmed. As his chronicler, Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote,

“When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments…on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.”

Who were the primitives here? The Spaniards or the Native Americans?

If the myth of 1492 is essentially false, what purpose does it serve? From the perspective of Campbell’s sociological function, it serves as a means of control over a people (us), shutting down our genuine perception and deflecting the development of authentic spiritual depth by erasing our deep memory of the Earth we walk upon. The world was transformed in the 100 years following the landing of the Santa Maria, Pinta, and Nina (the ships of Columbus whose names we memorized as children), and that change can only be described as apocalyptic.

As the distinguished anthropologist Stefano Varese puts it,

During the first hundred years of Spanish military occupation, 95% of the indigenous peoples of America disappeared. Conventional and bacteriological warfare, coupled with environmental or ecological war, resulted in the extermination of millions of indigenous peoples, who for millennia had flourished on the continent, and built sophisticated and complex forms of civilization… No history text and very few conventional schools of social thought have called these massive massacres, these killings of men, women, children, and the elderly, by their true name: genocide. If the 6 million or more Jews and other “undesirables” (Eastern European, homosexual, and Gypsies) annihilated by Nazi fascism are remembered as innocent victims of the Holocaust, nothing comparable has been remembered, written, or commemorated for the 300 million or more indigenous people who died to enrich the European monarchies and colonial, and neo-colonial oligarchies.

Seen in this light, the celebration of 1492 is abhorrent, validating as it does the enormity of the cultural genocide that occurred upon this continent.

Not only does it gravely distort history, but, as is often the case with the sociological function, it works to “educate,” or suppress and if necessary violently extirpate, natural awareness from our children and marginalize, or even pathologize, it among the adult population.

As anthropologist Frederique Apffel-Marglin points out, myths such as 1492 are part and parcel of the older eradication program against indigenous perception and lifeways in Europe, begun in the witch hunts and burnings of occult philosophers in the 1500’s. Only after running its course through Europe did the eradication program spread — an ideological virus carried along with the smallpox and the other virulent diseases Europeans transmitted — to the New World where indigenous, animistic traditions were likewise violently suppressed.

In our day and age, we still unconsciously labor “…under the edict to “never regress”. The fear of regression as well as the emotional and psychological wounds exacted by the diktat to clear-sightedly and courageously accept that we are alone in a mute and blind world makes openness to bridging this hyperseparation with earth others not so easy to come by. It is too quickly seen as naiveté, exoticism or romanticism.”

Yet, as the Crow elder once expressed to Gary Snyder, there is always the opportunity for indigenous perception to reassert itself if we just hunker down to the earth again. It might just be a natural mode of perception for human beings, one that in our time of ecological crisis is crucial to reclaim.

Certainly, such perception may be natural for children.

A friend of mine, Brian, related to me how, as a boy growing up in a rural area of Illinois, a raven used to come to him in his dreams. It taught him the kinds of things ravens know, and with Brian upon its back, would take him flying over the landscape surrounding his home, showing him hidden things in the forest. One night the raven took him to visit an old broken-down carriage from the previous century, decaying silently in an unvisited part of the woods. Upon waking, Brian bound out of bed and raced out to locate it, following the raven’s instructions. It was there, sure enough, right where the raven had shown him.

For my friend, the visitations of the raven were a special gift, a source of love and companionship his family couldn’t give him. “I actually looked forward to dreaming more than I did waking,” he laughed. “That raven was my best friend.” It is certain Brian needed kinship with the animal world to survive: his father abandoned him and his brother to the streets a few years later.

His bond with the raven was broken, just as such magical perception has been educated and persecuted out of children and whole populations for centuries now, when he made the mistake of revealing the wealth of his inner world to his family. They scoffed. They ridiculed him. They suspected his sanity. The seed of rational doubt and shame planted in his mind, the raven faded away.

Why did Brian’s family wreak such trauma upon their child’s spiritual perception? Why does our society as a whole deride animistic perception — which perceives the cosmos as sentient, sapient, and vital — as primitive and delusional?

One reason may be, as Joseph Campbell once commented, “the sociological function of myth has taken over in our world — and it is out of date.”

What Campbell failed to mention is the role mythologists and anthropologists themselves played in establishing our current, “out of date,” mythology, such as mythologist James Frazer’s doctrine of the three great stages to human development: the Age of Magic, the Age of Religion, and finally, the Age of Science, when all vestiges of archaic thinking would be suppressed and a liberated humanity would enjoy a a reign of “nature, reason, and justice.”

As well, there was Edward Tyler, a founding figure of the discipline of anthropology, who coined the term “animism” and described it as the belief in spirits inhabiting and animating beings, or souls existing in things. Tyler derided such perception as rudimentary, even claiming modern religious belief in God was a “survival” of primitive ignorance. Science, according to Tyler, could explain the phenomena previously justified by religion, and do it far better.

We’ve all witnessed how such Victorian doctrines of racial superiority and progressivism have born fruit: There is an emerging scientific consensus that we are now well advanced into the Earth’s sixth great mass extinction event, primarily fueled by the very tenets underlying the theories of Frazer and Tyler.

After centuries of suppression of direct experience of the mystical, Academia and popular culture now seems to be left with a junk shop filled with carefully labeled fragments of remnant cosmovisions – think of all the oral traditions of raven’s sacred, and trickster, character collected by anthropologists among the Native Americans. Brian, as a child, knew nothing of these ethnographic studies. He knew Raven instead. Wouldn’t a truly well-grounded science of anthropology be founded upon direct experience of Raven before stepping everything down into fabricated theories and tacked together ethnographies?

Essentially, we have colonized our own souls by suppressing our native perception, and the old sanctified Lie may violently explode in the lives of children such as Brian who dare to make crossings into the indigenous mind and directly experience the “old powers” and “spirits coming up from the land.”

Yet there is evidence that, even as adults, we can recuperate from this suppression of our native perception.

As a young man, I joined the members of Ring of Bone Zendo for a Buddhist retreat in the wilderness of Death Valley in California. It was rigorous. We got up and began meditating well before dawn in the freezing cold and practiced silent mindfulness throughout the day’s blazing heat as we walked, ate, and worked together. At night we sat in meditation for a couple of hours beneath the stars, finally crawling into our sleeping bags in the shivery cold, sometimes with light snowfall dancing in the beams of our flashlights.

After many days of zazen, my mind began to become permeable, to shift from its habitual perception, and I became susceptible to teaching from the ancient land. The moment came one evening as a pre-Colombian stone carving tool found on the desert floor made its round from hand to hand.

When it came to me I held it, and feeling how it nestled familiarly in my palm, the hand that had once carefully fashioned it upon the shore of a lake vanished long ago in geological time reached over the millennia to touch me.

With a sudden physical vertigo, I saw and felt the constellations in the sky of my mind wheeling backward, beyond 1492 into the time depths of this continent.

Wrenched free of the artificial, vision-constricting European time-line that had been forced upon my native perception of the world, I grasped that my country, the United States of America, which my school textbooks had hammered into me was the most significant thing to ever happen to the Northern hemisphere, was a flash in the pan compared to the ancient cultures that inhabit it as their own.

Looking back, I suspect upon that day I became the first among my English and Danish ancestors to set foot in the sacred topography of the New World, to begin to comprehend the deep time of the Americas and its native peoples. That intuition would ripen until it led me, many years later, into the Amazon rain forest as an apprentice of traditional medicine and to follow the way of prayer of the Native American Church.

Could it be the “passage into that myth-time world” which Snyder claims has haunted the Euro-American imagination, that rediscovery of the “spirits and old powers” possible even for white people, is the consequence of awakening from an enslaving mythic system? Of simply returning to our native perception?

Curiously, the founder of Ring of Bone, whose sangha members made that journey into Death Valley was Snyder himself, who also wrote, “For the non-Native American to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent, properly called Turtle Island.”

Although I am still a citizen of the United States, I know where I live and my true allegiance lies – it’s to the deeper mythic realm. Turtle Island.

May we reclaim our home sweet spiritual home and learn to walk it in beauty again.