Lichens & Mycorrhizae

by Michael Colebrook

The soil is teeming with life (1). I want to focus on just two elements of this life, both of which involve that that rather odd group of organisms, the Fungi. By tradition fungi are included in the botanical curriculum, although it is now believed that the group are more closely related to the animals than to the plants. The Fungi now have the status of a kingdom all to themselves.

Like animals, fungi need complex organic nutrients, and all fungi are saprophytic, (living off dead organic matter) or parasitic (living off living organic matter). The fungi involved in the two systems I want to describe have found ways of associating themselves with green (photosynthetic) organisms and by co-evolving have established mutually beneficial, symbiotic, arrangements with their green partners.

Historically there has been a marked reluctance on the part of evolutionary biologists to accept the existence of intimate, mutually beneficial relationships between different species. In evolutionary theory, competition rules, at least until recently. In his Analysis of Biological Populations (1972) Williamson stated ‘[mutualism] is a fascinating biological topic, but its importance in populations is generally small’ (2). This echoes Beatrix Potter’s dismissive reception by the Linnnean Society to her suggestion that Lichens exist as permanent associations between Algae and Fungi (3).

It is not altogether surprising that Beatrix Potter had a problem persuading the Linnean Society (and Kew Gardens) that lichens were symbionts. They are emergent entities and exist in forms that are sufficiently consistent to be classified as if they were individual species. It is estimated that there are about 20,000 different forms. The photosynthetic components, green algae or cyanobacteria, are capable of independent existence, the fungi are not, they are obligate symbionts.

Lichens on Rocks Cumbria UK.
Photo Dave & Lynne Slater
Lichen crust on tundra, Iceland
Photo Erwan Balança

Lichens play a vital pioneering role in soil formation. Thin surface crusts of lichens are found in most seemingly barren sites from deserts to arctic tundra. They form the first layer of organic matter and, where the conditions are suitable they provide the basis for the subsequent formation of soil. Lynn Margulis describes the process:Algae growing under the protective cover of fungi cling to sheer rock, extend over its face, and ultimately break it down into soil that can be penetrated by roots of plants and fungal hyphal networks. The hard rock of this spinning planet has been crumbling for hundreds of millions of years into rich, nutritive soil as a result of the fungal-algal partnerships.(4)

Without the Lichens there would be no soil. Without the soil there would be no complex life on land. We are most aware of Fungi in the form of mushrooms (edible) and toadstools (some edible, some not). But the real body of an individual soil fungus consists of long and very fine (microscopic) tubular cells, called hyphae, forming a more of less extensive branching and sometimes networking system known as a mycelium. These are not insignificant or transient entities, the mycelium of a specimen of Armillaria ostoyae (the honey mushroom) in a national forest in Oregon is believed to cover an area of nearly 9 sqkm (2,200 acres) and is estimated to be 2,400 years old! This is exceptional, the familiar fairy rings, which indicate the presence of an active mycelium underground, are usually only a few metres in diameter.

Some Fungi have developed symbiotic relationships with land plants known as mycorrhizae, literally fungusroot, which is a good name, it describes exactly what they are. The fungal element in the partnership merges with and extends the root system of the host plant. The host benefits from the extended root system. The very fine fungal hyphae can penetrate into smaller interstices in the soil than even the fine root hairs of the plant and they are very good at extracting nutrients, especially phosphates, from the soil. The fungus benefits by receiving a share in the energy rich, photosynthetic, materials made by the host.

There are two distinct forms of mycorrhizae. In Endomycorrhizae the hyphae penetrate the cell walls of the host plant but the cell membranes remain intact. The hyphae spread out into the surrounding soil for relatively short distances. The fungal species cannot exist independently. Here are about 130 species of endomycorrhizal fungi and all belong to the phylum Glomeromycota. The number of host species is not known but comprises a significant proportion of the total number of plant species.

In Ectomycorrhizae the hyphae form layers around the roots of the host plant and do not penetrate the cell walls. The hyphae radiate out into the surrounding soil for up to several meters.

The fungi are nearly all from the phylum Basidiomycota (toadstool forming). There are about 5,000 ectomycorrhizal species and they form alliances with about 2000 species, mostly conifers and nearly all are trees.

One of the ectomycorrhizal fungi is the quintessential toadstool, the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria). This produces the well known, bright red capped toadstool flecked with white which clearly signals that it is not one of the edible kinds. It also forms fairy rings thatmight encircle several trees. The single mycelium may be associated with several host trees. Most of the host and fungal species can exist independently but do not flourish nearly as well as when part of a symbiotic association. It is interesting to speculate on the marked difference in the numbers of species of endomycorrhizal (c 130) and ectomycorrhizal (c 5000) fungi.

Taxonomists place the endo- species in four orders, and all the members of these orders are exclusively mycorrhizal. It would seem likely that the habit evolved once only and the existing species are all descended from a common ancestor through differentiation involved in forming relationships with a enormous variety of host species. There is fossil evidence for the existence of endomycorrhizal species in the early Devonian period (c 400million years ago), long before the emergence of flowering plants.

The ectomycorrhizal species are found in three orders but the species involved are not all mycorrhizal. It is suggested that ectomycorrhizal species emerged together with the appearance of Conifers in the late Mesozoic (c 150 million years ago). The taxonomy would also suggest that the habit emerged more than once, through parallel evolution.

It is impossible to overestimate the significance of mycorrhizal associations for the flourishing of plant life of all forms and in all locations, they are a key element in the life of the soil. Along with Charles Darwin’s beloved earthworms, mycorrhizae are a vital part of the nearly invisible and often discounted infrastructure of life on Earth.


1. James Nardi. Life in the Soil (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

2.MarkWilliamson. The Analysis of Biological Populations (Academic Press, 1972).

3. Michael Colebrook. ‘What have Lichens to do with Peter Rabbit’ (GreenSpirit, Summer 2002), p. 7

4. Lynn Margulis. The Symbiotic Planet (Weidenfeld & Nicolson,1998) p. 109.

Michael Allen. The Ecology of Mycorrhizae (Cambridge University Press, 1991

A classification of the whole Kingdom can be found at:

The Dirt Beneath Our Feet

by Marian Van Eyk McCain

Adapted from her book Elderwoman: Reap the wisdom, feel the power, embrace the joy (Findhorn Press, 2002).

Like many older women, then and now, my grandmother was a keen gardener. When I was five, she donated a little patch of her garden to me, and gave me sunflower seeds to plant. For ages, nothing happened. Then, tiny shoots appeared. 1 watched in amazement as the plants grew and grew until they were more than twice as tall as me, their huge yellow heads nodding over, way above my head. It seemed like a miracle. Well, it was, really.

Back then, I assumed that soil was just inert stuff that held the roots and supported the plant stems. No one told me otherwise. It was many years before I really understood what an amazing and important substance soil is, and how unappreciated and badly treated it is by some sections of humanity. Yet a good relationship with it can enrich our lives, which is why I want to begin this essay by thinking about the soil very literally.

Dirt, soil, earth. The topsoil, the subsoil, the rock underneath.  All our lives, we rest upon it. Depend upon it, literally, in all senses of the word. Yet If you think about it, we modern folk spend very little time with our feet actually touching the earth itself. Some of us might go a whole day without glimpsing bare soil. We can even forget that it exists. Much of the time, especially if we live in the city, between that soil and our feet lies the dead weight of concrete, sitting dully and heavily over soil which may never see the sun again. That always makes me feel sad. Although I know it is a silly fantasy, since builders always remove the topsoil before they build, I still have this image of some poor mole or earthworm struggling to the surface only to discover he or she has come up right under the middle of Safeway or the Interstate or Gate Fifteen of the airport. It is a dilemma, for I need stores and roads and airports, too, just like everybody else does.

I also need the soil, for my life utterly depends upon it. Without soil, there would be no food, and without food we would all die. So it seems important to me to think about this dirt, this thing that one’s life depends on.

Firstly, I believe we need to think about it in order to ensure that it is being properly taken care of and that there is enough of it that is not covered over. Lots of areas where the trees can grow and the moles and earthworms can still poke through the surface.  And lots of it that never will be covered over – ever. Because land developers and builders – and governments – often don’t notice when they are overdoing things and putting profit ahead of health and sanity. Sometimes it needs older people like me to point this out; people who have been around a long time and who can see the long-term effects of things are the ones who need to speak out. Just as longitudinal studies in science are a particularly useful and valid way of gaining information, the voices and opinions of older people in a society have a value all their own. It is we who remember the green field which predated a certain parking lot, cattle grazing in what is now the shopping mall, the chopped-down trees. That’s when we find ourselves crying out “STOP!” for we truly understand what is being lost.

Secondly, I think we need to look at our relationship with the soil from the point of view of having been created out of it, and being headed towards intimate reunion with it after our death. Realizing the importance of that relationship, we might want to put more emphasis on celebrating that deep connection. We might want to find opportunities in our lives to walk barefoot, to dig in the garden, plant things in the soil, smell it, get it on our hands. There is literally an earthy satisfaction for many of us in those things, a satisfaction which we may have forgotten in our busy lives up among the concrete buildings, and which will come flooding back when we walk barefoot along the beach or spend an afternoon on our knees in the garden, weeding and planting and mulching.

Thirdly, it seems important to consider the symbolic aspect of it. In other words, the necessity to stay grounded. Physically, we do this by remaining aware of our bodies and not ignoring or overriding their messages of weariness or pain. Emotionally, we do it by keeping a firm hold on reality and commonsense and by tempering drama with humor. And spiritually, we do it by honoring where we come from, our emergence from the ‘stuff’ of the Earth.

So, if the bodies we live in are actually constructed out of the earth, and earth is the substance on which our life and existence depends, surely it must be a highly important substance? Something to give some thought to. What actually is it? Why does it do often get treated as dispensable, as insignificant–or even as horrible? (‘Dirt’ –  ‘dirty ’–  ‘disgusting’ )

I remember thinking about that one day, many years ago, after I had been standing in an airport departure lounge, watching a grandson – then not quite a year old – toddling around on the floor, trying out this new mode of locomotion so lately learned. I recall the way his curved, pink baby feet struggled to splay flat and hold his body vertical. He stepped, he wobbled, he collapsed. Tried again, collapsed, gave up, returned to crawling mode. This he could do, of course, with the speed of several months intensive practice. So off he went, skimming across the vast acres of polished airport vinyl, dodging the travelers and their suitcases. He reached a large trash can of cylindrical metal, twice his height. Up went the hands, fingers seeking, exploring. On to his feet again then, stretching up, those little fingers curling over the top of the trash can, gripping, pulling, until down it came, in a shower of cigarette ash, apple cores, Styrofoam cups and candy wrappers. He settled down contentedly, amid his booty, keen to examine every new object, perhaps to taste some.

By the time I retrieved him, his pink hands and feet and knees were a grimy gray and I tucked him on to my hip and raced for the washroom as though the seeds of a dozen weird and possibly fatal diseases were waiting only for him to put a finger in his mouth.

As I held him firmly with one arm around his waist and used my free hand to wash those baby fingers, my mind went back one week. We had been in the country, staying in our small cabin.

There he was, in my memory’s eye, crawling to the edge of the cabin doorway and easing himself gently over the step. There he was, crawling across the uneven brick paving, pausing to examine and to taste the weeds that grew between the cracks, to pick up a small stone, to dabble in the untidy place where paving and grass met, their boundary blurred by the sprawl of alyssum and nasturtiums.

Off he scuttled, emboldened by a quick look behind him to check that his mother and I were still waiting and caring; off to the mysteries of rainwater tank and bucket, of rock and log, of soft leaves and prickly leaves, darting skinks and slow-moving beetles, and above all, of earth. Dark brown earth.

I remember him coming back, his knees now green from grass, fragments of soil and sand in the soft crevices of his plump little hands, and I remember how I scooped him up and fed him some mashed carrots on a spoon and then, after a while, returned him to his mother’s breast for milk and sleep, and none of us even thought of washing him. So what was the difference? He was dirty, but this time it didn’t matter. Why not?

What, then, is dirt? Words like ‘dirty’ and ‘soiled’ seem to denote some unhealthy, unpleasant state of being, a contamination. But it was only after the airport incident that the truth came to me. The truth that there must once have been a time when the only way you got dirty was in the dirt. The only way you got soiled was in the soil. There was no other class of dirt except that which lay on the forest floor of our ancestors, or within the caves they used for shelter.

The soil, then as now, was made up of three basic types of ingredients: minerals (the fragmentary particles of all kinds of rocks), humus and living organisms. The humus was composed of a vast conglomeration of once-living matter, the waste products of creatures, the broken down remnants of plant parts, all combined into a rich, nurturing compound, essential to continuing life. It was from this compound that seedlings drew their nourishment and built themselves into grass, flowers, trees – green and growing things which, in their turn, nourished and built the animals. Organisms living within this soil mixture – molds, bacteria, worms and other creatures—made up the huge army of workers that converted the raw materials, like dead plant and animal matter, human and animal wastes, etc., into usable form. A huge army which, by the way, is still largely unstudied. It is an astounding fact that only a mere 5 percent of soil organisms have ever been described and classified even though there are thousands of different kinds in every teaspoonful of soil. I always used to assume that scientists knew everything there was to know about soil, but apparently their knowledge is extremely limited.

Once all these decaying and putrefying materials are fully decomposed and turned into humus, they are sweet smelling, clean, beautiful and wholesome again. They eventually become the crumbly chocolate-colored compost into which we love to plant our daffodil bulbs.

But between the decaying, rotting matter and the sweet smelling compost there is a time gap—and, for most of us, an awareness gap. The process of transformation is slow and mysterious and takes place mostly in the dark. So we see the two ends of the cycle but not the middle. Unless we recycle everything ourselves. Then we see the whole cycle. But most of us throw our garbage in the bin and we buy the compost at the garden store and we rarely if ever think about what lies between these two events.

When I rushed my grandson to the airport washroom, the dirt on his little pink hands seemed menacing somehow, ugly, out of place, obscene. It seemed to contain the dirt of a thousand feet that had walked who knows where, over who knows what. The noxious mixture from the trash can was the raw detritus of a culture that no longer recognizes the existence of its own waste products, let alone honors and recycles them. And many are not recyclable anyway. Therefore, this unknown mixture on his innocent hands repulsed and terrified me at some unconscious level where I intuitively felt –  rather than thought about – the difference.

Around that cabin, on the other hand, things lived and things died, and everything, even peoples’ own waste products, ended up eventually as sweet smelling compost in the garden or the orchard. (The residue from the composting toilets, by the way, only goes into the orchard, and not on the vegetable patch.) The process may be mysterious and wonderful, but the processed components are known. We always knew what went in, and always knew what came out. Daily, we remembered to bless the seen and unseen army of converters, the earthworms and their zillions of smaller companions that thrive beneath the surface of our soil. The child, crawling there, was crawling in the known world. Lightly guarded by those who know which berries and which spiders to watch out for, he was safe in his adventuresome exploration of the earth.

So I think that quality of familiarity with the earth, with the movement of things in and out of it, is something we have largely lost. Our loss of that familiarity and knowing, and the pollution of the soil by umpteen industrial and commercial processes that we know so little of, has separated us from that which is really the matrix of our existence. It has made us strangers to the soil and made of dirt a foreign and potentially lethal substance. In a way, we have become strangers to ourselves – to our own bodies and to their matrix.

The soil, and the rock below it, is the body of the Earth. The body with which we were born and in which we age is our borrowed piece of soil. We leave it behind us when we die, returning it to whence it came. So to me it makes sense that while it is in our care, we take good care of it. Like a library book, we should not trash it. Similarly, it behooves us to take good care of the Earth’s body too, since everything else which lives depends on that. To me, there is a deep connection between the way we take care of our bodies and the way we take care of the soil and of the world. Start thinking about one, follow it far enough and it inevitably leads you to thoughts of the other two. Want to be more healthy? Improve your diet. Which means eat better quality, cleaner food – organic food. Which means healthier soil. Which means a healthier planet. Our bodies are the soil, they are the Earth. As the Irish philosopher John O’Donohue so lyrically expressed it in his book Anam Cara, we are beings made of clay.

‘We so easily forget that our clay has a memory that preceded our minds, a life of its own before it took its present form. Regardless of how modern we seem, we still remain ancient, sisters and brothers of the one clay… The human body is at home on the earth.’

So when my own grandchildren planted sunflowers in my garden, I had a lot more to tell them than my grandmother had told me. About the importance of soil, and the creatures who live in it. About the importance of nurturing and protecting it, for all our human sakes and for the sakes of all those non-human life forms with whom we share the planet. About its sacred nature. They needed to learn about humus. And about the huge, unthanked workforce of indefatigable beings who create the basis for new life out of the raw materials of death. A healthy patch of soil, I told them, is a huge, complex ecosystem in itself. An underground community. A vast co-operative project undertaken by billions and billions of tiny interdependent creatures, most of whom we neither see nor know the names of. All of them matter

I hope the children listened. So when that grandson who pulled over the trashcan now walks through the airport wheeling his suitcase, I hope he remembers the soil beneath the concrete and the creatures of the earth. I hope they will still be there for him, in even greater numbers, as people gradually begin to remember the importance of soil, of dirt, of earth. And I hope there are many days in his man’s life when that soil is sweet upon his hands and rich beneath his fingernails.

Getting Children Back Outdoors

When today’s older adults were young, most children spent as much time as they could playing outside. However in recent years, with the popularity of electronic media and parents’ fears for children’s safety, this has changed. Our children are becoming indoor creatures. And this brings many problems in its wake.

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv identified a phenomenon we all knew existed but couldn’t quite articulate: nature-deficit disorder.

Louv cites research to show that all manner of childhood problems, especially those labelled ADD, ADHD etc. show remarkable improvement with even low level exposure to green, outdoor spaces such as parks.

Since its initial publication, Last Child in the Woods has created a national conversation about the disconnection between children and nature, and his message has galvanized an international movement.

Louv’s second book The Nature Principle, revisited this theme, but in a wider sense, in that it examined the deficits in our own adult lives and our adult psyches when we try to remove ourselves too far from the natural world and spend the bulk of our lives in human-built environments.

Louv’s website, with full details of his books and other writings may be found on his website at:

Another initiative which is rapidly gaining popularity worldwide is the concept of forest schools, where children spend a certain proportion of their school day out of doors.


See also: ‘Playing Outside’

and How We Connect with the Earth


Playing Outside

by Marian Van Eyk McCain


A friend’s six-year-old son had one of his friends to stay. The two little boys were playing out in the yard when suddenly, from behind the hedge, came the loud crowing of a rooster. The visitor screamed in terror. “What was that?” he cried.
“It’s just a rooster,” said my friend’s child, quite perplexed at his little mate’s reaction.
“What’s a rooster?” the friend asked.
The little boy stared at him in amazement. “It’s a boy chicken, silly. Don’t you know anything about chickens?” The other one shook his head.
“Come on then, I’ll show you.”
He took his mate next door to see the chickens, but it was obvious that the other boy was intensely uncomfortable about the experience. He didn’t relax until they were both safely indoors again.

It might seem amazing to us that a child could have reached the age of six without ever having encountered chickens. But sadly, more and more children are becoming indoor dwellers.

Where most people my age recall spending as much time as we could outside when we were kids, climbing any tree we could find, capturing beetles in matchboxes like Christopher Robin, and making mud pies, today’s youngsters are more likely to be found inside, staring into an electronic screen.

A study in the USA some years ago revealed that while the average American can identify fewer than ten types of plants, he or she recognizes hundreds of corporate logos. The same is probably true anywhere in the world that the modern, consumer culture has taken over hearts and minds. In just a couple of generations, our Western societies have turned their kids from children of nature to children of mass culture. To me, this is child abuse of the worst kind.

In their book Affluenza, authors John deGraaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor, write:

Thirty-four percent of Americans polled in 2000 rank shopping as their favorite activity, while only seventeen percent prefer being in nature. The Las Vegas Strip is ranked as the number one ‘scenic drive’ in the country. One fourth-grader, asked if he preferred to play indoors or outdoors, replied,’ Indoors, ’cause that’s where the electrical outlets are.’ Another child poked a stick at a dead beetle, commenting to her friend that the insect’s batteries must have run out. On a field trip to trace the source of their drinking water, inner city New York middle school kids were spooked by the cool, starry darkness and crescendo of silence in the Catskills.”

One of the authors recalls helping a college student to plant a garden. She confided in him that until that time she had always thought that potatoes grew on trees.

It is no good leaving it to our educational institutions to remedy this situation. The schools themselves are becoming infected with the same malady, as the corporate world makes deeper and deeper inroads into classrooms, creating curriculum materials with commercial messages, attaching commercial strings to financial gifts, and so on. There are powerful vested interests in turning us and our children – particularly our children – away from the natural world and towards an increasingly artificial, sick, dumbed-down world of consumerism, working, getting and spending.

Besides, even an interested child tends to feign cynical disinterest in anything unfashionable in front of his or her peers. And Nature is unfashionable right now. Virtual reality is in. Real reality is out. Pop stars are cool, stars in the night sky are boring. There’s no money to be made from breaking off a willow branch and making your own bows and arrows, or hunting for birds’ nests and watching the babies hatch. A rooster is a fast food logo, not a natural noise from next door’s garden.

What to do?

I take heart, as always, from the writings of Paul Shepard. He reminds us that we carry in our every cell the genes of hundreds of generations of hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived their lives totally immersed in the rhythms of nature. This artificial civilization we have created is still only skin-deep. To re-awaken the natural child, in ourselves or in another, especially a little person, takes only a touch. But it must come from us – the parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, big brothers and sisters. And it is really important that we find a way to do it.

So get out there. Turn off TV and go and play outside. Take a little person (or your own, inner Child) for a walk this week. Or better still, a camping trip. Lie in the grass, climb trees, peer into the creek. Have a picnic. Listen to the birds. Make daisy chains. Re-connect. And if you hear a funny noise behind the hedge – just go and look. There’s nothing to be scared of.

Eradicating Ecocide


Ecocide is the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.

~ proposed amendment to the Rome Statute, by Polly Higgins, April 2010

The concept of ecocide–the destruction of ecosystems–has been around for many years but a global initiative to have it officially declared a crime in peacetime (it is already considered a crime in wartime) began in 2010 and has been gathering momentum ever since. See:

Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral: The Sacred Connection

Author: Carol Lee Sanchez

Reprinted from: Carol J Adams. Ecofeminism and the Sacred (Continuum, 1999), pp. 207 – 228.
By kind permission of The Continuum Publishing Company, 370 Lexington Avenue, New  York

Her Song

She is here,
all around us.
She is here,
deep inside us.
She is here,
and everywhere.
Weaver of galaxies
and universe,
She enfolds us,
transforms us
and holds us.
She is here,
all around us.
She is here,
deep inside us
She is here,
and everywhere.
Birth Mother of all heavens
Birth Mother of every star,
Birth Mother of each planet
Birth Mother of everything.
Life Bringer, Thought Maker,
Song Weaver,
Receiver of all our dreams.
She is here,
all around us.
She is here,
deep inside us.
She is here,
and everywhere.
Carol Lee Sanchez

This chapter began as a response to a request from Carol Adams that I expand on ideas I first raised in ‘New World Tribal Communities’ (Sanchez 1989). In that article, I stated my conviction that Euro-American people waste the resources and destroy the environment in the Americas because they are not spiritually connected to this land-base, because they have no ancient mythos or legendary origins rooted to this land…. The conquerors and immigrants had no ancestral lineage that had loved, valued, protected, and cared for this land-base, these homelands to hundreds of native Tribes. … They continued to revere the lands of their. … ancestral origins for over four hundred years, paying no heed to the delicate ecological balance maintained by the natives…. It is my premise that the lack of a land-based Mythos and sacred connection to the ecosystems of the Americas has allowed the Euro-American immigrants to rape and plunder these lands without regret or concern. (Sanchez 1989, 345-48)

As is evident, I do not believe one can merely graft environmental concerns upon the attitudes that have caused the plundering and polluting in the first place.

Addressing a dominant Euro-American audience from a Native American perspective has never been an easy task for me, because I am very aware of the deeply rooted Euro-Western cultural attitudes in our society. As Americans, we were and are educated in a system that was founded on Euro-Western ideas and philosophies that were carefully traced back to ‘classical origins’ in various European nations. Yet the basic principles of democracy, the freedom of the individual and equality among the people of both genders, come directly from the Native American Nations the first European immigrants lived among in the Americas.1 The native origins of these principles are still not acknowledged by American leaders and educators, nor are they widely taught in the American education system. American feminism traces its historical roots to the ancient Goddess Cultures through remnants of manuscripts and artefacts found in Europe and the Middle East, yet has overlooked the many women-centered, egalitarian Native American cultures that are presently ‘alive and well’ in the continental United States. Because I am so accustomed to the ingrained biases held by most non-Indians regarding American Indian cultures, the invitation to reflect critically on these dominant attitudes is especially welcome. I call the reader’s attention to the unique approach to daily living long ago established by the first inhabitants of the Americas – the first Americans. Rather than develop my own solutions to current environmental problems, I will give a few examples of how some of the Meso-American Tribal cultures restored their damaged ecosystems and what they did to ensure they would never recreate those disastrous circumstances. My intention here is to articulate the concept of ‘relationship’ or relatedness and the idea of the sacred in our lives, from a Native American-American Indian2 perspective and to suggest some ways of embracing a Tribal way of thinking.

Those of us deeply committed to the restoration of a healthy ‘natural’ environment are searching for ways in which we may facilitate attitudinal shifts in the consciousness of millions of people. When the majority of this nation’s people consider environmental preservation to be more important than plundering it for economic gain, then they (we) will develop more appropriate methods for providing the basic human needs of food, shelter, comfortable indoor temperatures, clothing, and-to some extent-unnecessary human ‘comforts’ such as exotic household gadgets, recreational toys, and modes of transportation. Many environmentalists have stated that careful planning in the use of renewable resources and the recycling of non-renewable resources must become the norm rather than the exception in every community across our nation. I would add that we must also acknowledge that humans, along with their creative, inventive minds, are an integral, inseparable part of the ‘natural’ environment. In my worldview, there is nothing under the sun that can be called ‘unnatural’ or separated from nature. My own fundamental worldview stems from a deeply rooted Tribal upbringing that was imparted by my mother, her mother, and her grandmother. These women were born to and raised in one of the women-centred or ‘Gynocratic’3 egalitarian Pueblo cultures of the Southwest. Thus, the context from which I speak is based on my own personal Tribal background, upbringing, and experience, as well as my cumulative knowledge teaching college-level American Indian Studies courses to Indian and non-Indian students for over ten years. It is important for me to note that I am not presenting a ‘new theoretical concept’ but rather an alternative approach to generating practical methods for recreating modern egalitarian social structures among non-Indian, non-Tribal people.

My desire is to open a door through which anyone, so inclined, can step to examine the possibilities of adapting certain Tribal concepts or principles for current daily use in a modern, technological society. I believe that we latter-day modern Americans have much to learn from those earliest inhabitants of the Americas. The study of their Tribal histories and culture stories can provide important insights for those of us committed to environmental restoration and preservation. These stories can guide us in the development of personal attitudes that place doing laundry, going grocery shopping, and working a forty hour week in the realm of ‘the Sacred.’ I will suggest some ways in which non-Indian Americans might set about to create a ‘sense of place’ by establishing spiritual roots to this land mass, or how they might generate a personal creation story or legend that is personalized and connected to the land. Before I proceed further, it is first necessary for me to lay a foundation by briefly restating in general the historical context from which I and other Tribal Native Americans emerged.

“Long, long ago … they say …” The ancestors of the native peoples of this Western Hemisphere observed the symbiotic interdependence among plants, creatures, and humans. They observed the interactions between wind, water and fire, sun, moon, and earth, and their effects on plants, creatures, and humans. As these earliest peoples incorporated this information into their daily lives, they noticed that they prospered more often than not when they ‘walked in harmony’ with each other and their environment. They helped each other, shared with each other, and used the resources of the environment sparingly because they benefited by acting in this way. Thus, our long-ago American ancestors used this knowledge to develop a set of social and spiritual principles to guide their daily lives. These principles, developed in the remote past, are the bedrock of all Tribal cultures in the Americas. As the people of those times continued to practice these principles in their daily lives, a specific set of beliefs emerged around these principles. Then, in order to record what they had learned through their experience and to pass on to succeeding generations the knowledge they had gained, they ritually recited what they had observed. These recitations contained what they had come to believe regarding all the information they had collected about their environment and themselves and the explanations as to why all this information was important for the people to remember.

There are many Tribal variations of this process, including the division of knowledge into categories with each different category becoming the responsibility of a clan or family group. Ceremonies among some Tribes require the formal telling of certain stories. Other Tribes perform their ceremonies to reaffirm particular actions or behaviours. However they were individually structured, ceremonial recitations reinforced the historical importance of this knowledge for the Tribe while providing the younger generations with the original source of a given practice such as why the people do this, or should behave like that. Native American Tribal histories and culture stories stress the idea of harmonious coexistence-providing both positive and negative examples, by consistently showing us how everything is related. The stories elaborate in detail the reasons the people should get along with each other and everything they depend on to maintain a ‘good life.’ These stories continue to remind us (as Native American descendants) what our ancestors observed about the relationships in the local ecosystems (from which a given story emerged) and how we learned to survive within them.4 The retelling has kept and continues to keep the circle of life uppermost in the daily consciousness of today’s traditional Native Americans. They remind us of the Sacred Ways and the possibility we always have to live a ‘good life.’

Although the Tribal culture stories are definitely ‘loaded’ with morals and ethics (as Western thought systems would define ‘right living’), I use the phrase ‘good life’ because it is difficult for me to use terms such as ‘moral’ and ‘ethical,’ since they carry so much Western baggage. Indians simply say that ‘to live a good life is to walk in Beauty.’ Clearly, when we don’t feel good about our lives, or when we can find no beauty in anything around us in our cities as well as our open countrysides, we are out of balance and out of harmony with everything. Today, in our genuine recognition of the current national ecological imbalances among plant and animal species caused by environmental pollutants of various kinds, many of us are focusing far more on the ugliness than on the remaining beauty that surrounds us. In doing this we become even more out of balance as our thoughts hold more and more negative images thus excluding beauty from our awareness. The Great Mystery continues to surround us with beauty, and it is important to carry more of those images around with us while we attempt to ‘correct’ the imbalances we have so carelessly brought about. Native Americans do this by remembering their non-human relatives, by ‘sending out a song’ to them and seeking their guidance.


Most Euro-American or Euro-Western peoples tend to separate themselves from ‘nature’ and to rank humans above animals, plants, and minerals in hierarchical fashion, and so it is not easy for them to perceive or accept a personal relationship with what they describe as the ‘natural world.’ Native Americans believe themselves to be an integral part of the natural world.’ When we speak of ‘nature,’ we are also including ourselves. Our thoughts about nature don’t assume humans to be more important and powerful than the rest of our environment, nor do we regard nature as something beneath us to be exploited beyond what we actually need to survive as individuals or as a group. Today, many tribal elders from Tribes throughout the Americas are telling us to be mindful of our relationship to our environment; to remember our relatives; to reclaim and re-establish our sense of connectedness to everything and to acknowledge the sacredness of everything in our universe. More and more contemporary Native American scholars and writers are speaking to non-Indians about Native American ways and spirituality-stressing the need for all of us to respect the land as our Mother Earth, respect the creatures, the waters, the air, and all the elements of our global environment.

During my early childhood I was introduced to the natural environment around me as a place of wonder filled with intricate inter-relationships. My mother taught me to observe where I was walking and what was going on around me as I played outdoors. She explained how ants lived in colonies and how birds, wasps, bees, and other creatures built their homes; how all spiders were our relatives because Spider Grandmother had an important place in our Tribal culture. My mother cautioned me not to destroy any creatures’ homes because they had the right to live their lives in their way every bit as much as I did. She also cautioned me to pay attention to the bees, wasps, ants, and poisonous snakes and to stay away from their nests because that stirred them up. She explained how I could be hurt by certain creatures, but I should also understand that when they attacked intruders they were protecting their homes and young from harm, just as she was protecting me by warning me about their stinging and biting abilities. ‘They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them’ was a statement my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother repeated on many occasions. My mother often picked up garden snakes, lizards, horned toads, frogs, and baby mice and brought them for me to see up close and hold for a brief time so I wouldn’t be afraid of them. With her explanations about insects, snakes, birds, and other ‘critters,’ she also told stories that included these creatures and how they each had a special place in the world; each had a special task to perform-like bees pollinating plants, and so forth. Some stories were about how certain creatures or elements or the sun got here, and some about how they helped us or each other by doing what they were ‘born to do.’ If I was bothered by some creature in our yard, I’d tell my grandmother, and she would always say, ‘Well, what do you expect? They’re just doing their job.’

Growing up with stories and experiences like these gave me a sense of connectedness to my ‘home’ environment. When I went away to school in a non-Indian environment tin a big city), I discovered that I was one of the very few who had such an attitude toward creatures and trees and rocks. For a long time I just assumed it was because I was a ‘country girl,’ until it occurred to me that ‘white folks’ thought of certain creatures as ‘pests’ or ‘predators’ and certain plants as ‘weeds’ and believed they should be killed on the spot. Back home, in the Indian villages, I never heard anyone talk like that. For us, hunting and fishing was for food – never for ‘sport.’ Years later, when I came in contact with Indian students who had backgrounds similar to mine, I realised how important it was to be raised with respect and care for our environment. We grew up with wonder stories, so we were not afraid when we met up with the ‘critters’ in our local environment. As Indian children, we were not terrorised about wild creatures, so we don’t stir them up with our fear. We are as familiar with the natures and aspects of our local animal populations as we are the natures and personalities of our sisters, brothers, and cousins-because we believe all things are our relatives.

Many of the stories from my early childhood, along with the attitudes and teachings of my mother and grandmothers consistently articulate a concept I call the Principle of Relatedness or Relationship. Every living Tribal culture that I have come across through personal contact or research has this principle embedded in its everyday life, and the extent to which this principle permeates the lives of Tribal people as an important core belief is often overlooked by non-Tribal people. There are many examples of the Principle of Relationship among the Tribes of the Americas, but here, I would like to focus on the Lakota people (a North American Plains Tribe) to illustrate how this principle is incorporated into their cultural framework.

There is a phrase among the Lakota that illustrates how they not only ‘relate’ to their environment but how they keep their thoughts focused upon their appropriate place within their environment. The phrase, Mitakuye Oyas’in, is always spoken at the end of a formal voicing to the spirits. Very loosely translated into English, it means ‘all my relations’ or ‘all my relatives.’ This phrase, in fact, represents the Lakota belief in their connectedness to all things outside themselves. Saying ‘all my relations’ affirms this belief and, because it denotes familial relationship, consistently reminds the speaker of her or his personal connection to the universe. In addition to reminding the speaker of her personal relationship with all things, she is also reminding those non-human things that they are indeed related to her. This implies the kinds of interdependencies and interactions that take place within a family unit. Wallace Black Elk, a Lakota Medicine Man, stresses this Tribal principle when he speaks at conferences and gatherings focused on environmental issues. He firmly believes this way of thinking must be shared with all people of all races, and in sharing the beliefs of his traditional upbringing, attempts to communicate this attitude to non-Indians. The following quote is an example of the Lakota approach to life:

This Chanunpa (Sacred Pipe) is your relative. The Powers of the Few: Winds are your relatives. Pray to them. Talk to them. They are your relatives. To the west – the Thunder Beings, they are your relatives. Send a voice out there. These are your relatives. Look to the north, the Buffalo Nation – White Buffalo Calf Maiden – The Chanunpa – these are your relatives. To the east, the Elk Nation and The Elk Nation Woman, that brings joy’ and happiness, these are your relatives. To the south, the Swan, two legged spirits that bring joy and happiness. The medicine people that bring joy and health come from there. These are your relatives. Above you is the Eagle Nation. They watch, control, govern. These are your relatives. Down to Earth – the Stone People [and the green] are your relatives. (Black Elk and Lyon 1990, 39)
Over and over, Wallace reminds us of our familial relationship with creatures, elements, plants, and minerals, as well as humans. In addition to relationship, he illustrates the Tribal attitude of inclusiveness within a spatial orientation. Our connection to and support from the earth is reinforced by the acknowledgement of the directions. They are the marker points of the circle from which we view all that is external to us as human beings, and he invites us to include everything we see outside ourselves as one of our relatives.

The most basic example of relationship that non-Indians acknowledge in our country today exists within the traditional Western family unit. Most of us rightly assume (because of personal experiences) that family members care for each other and take care of each other. When we need help, we often ask our immediate relatives first. We assume our family members will help us because, generally, our experience has taught us to expect it. They of course assume they can ask for our help and we would gladly give it. Since we already have a conscious awareness of family interrelatedness that includes nurturing, assistance, and – for the most part-thoughtful consideration, one might ask: Why not include the rest of creation in our family circle? It’s a short step to take and wouldn’t require adopting an entirely new attitude concerning relationship but merely an e-x-p-a-n-s-i-o-n of our current notions about what (or who) constitutes our personal family. If we think of everything non-human as closely related to us, it would be quite normal and natural behaviour for us to call on our non-human relatives for help. It would be perfectly natural for us to expect assistance from them and for us to help them in appropriate ways. For traditionally raised and tribally connected American Indians, this extension is incorporated during early childhood, as I have indicated earlier regarding my own childhood instruction.

It may be difficult for Euro-Americans to accept this way of thinking with a large degree of seriousness and open-mindedness, for a variety of reasons. Yet, if we examine the ancient Tribal cultures around us who have managed to survive and endure, in spite of all Euro-Western efforts to destroy their way of life, we can learn, at the very least, how they managed to adapt to the imposed ways of the conqueror and still maintain the core of their spiritual traditions. Euro-Americans can adapt many of the life-preserving concepts practised by the original American cultures and apply them to ordinary daily life. Indeed, this is precisely what Wallace Black Elk is inviting everyone with whom he comes in contact to do, because, as a practising Medicine Man, he knows that what we believe about our reality largely determines our experience and if we believe we are related to everything else in the universe we will then experience this connectedness. From his perspective, acquiring this belief can result in a personal connection to the environment around us.

What I suggest here has nothing to do with ‘stealing Native American spiritual practices,’ or dances, or songs, or social customs, which I will discuss later. It has to do with acknowledging and utilising a way of thinking that pervades the daily lives of Tribal people. It is a way of thinking that has sustained the first Americans for thousands of years and kept them, if you will, from totally destroying resources they depended on for survival. How we think about things generates our attitudes about our world and how we treat it. I think all Americans are becoming more aware of this because of their experiences with the many contemporary issues facing us today (most importantly world harmony and an ecologically balanced global environment).


Certainly in the course of their histories, the original Americans experienced ecological disasters of varying proportions. Archaeological site studies of ancient North and South American native cultures gave rise to a variety of assumptions about those early civilisations. In the mid 1800s, Western archaeologists stated that the people of certain ‘highly sophisticated’ Meso-American cultures of Mexico and Central America disappeared because their farming practices were so terrible the topsoil was ruined, causing them to starve to death. When carbon dating and the study of tree rings became acceptable scientific tools during the late 1940s, other archaeologists discovered that around the time the topsoil would no longer produce adequate crops these people were also plagued with a lengthy drought cycle. Shortly thereafter, Euro-Western archaeologists advanced the theory that the majority of the population in these areas starved to death due to famine and ignorant farming practices. Results of recent studies of the Meso-American Mayan culture support certain aspects of these former ‘disappearance theories’5. However, the people didn’t entirely disappear. They reorganised into smaller groups and moved away from the over-farmed areas. In fact, according to their Tribal histories, many subgroups migrated much further north and resettled in semiarid lands.

Although the oral histories still told by the descendants of these earlier ancestors explain what happened, Euro-centrism does not allow ‘quaint myths and legends’ to be regarded as factual information. The ‘scholarly premise’ has been that over time, oral records cannot be verified and accepted as historical evidence, since ‘people forget things and make up things.’ We know the Mayas were a literate culture, that their histories and philosophies were recorded in books, and that their great libraries were destroyed by the Spaniards shortly after conquest. In spite of this loss, they have remained a traditional ceremonial culture and have continued to retell their histories into the present day, although this seems to be generally disregarded by Euro-Western archaeologists and historians.

Other Tribes, particularly on the plains or in the north woods regions of North America, have been cited by Western archaeologists as having such wasteful and destructive hunting practices that many species of animals were reduced to endangered levels ‘long before the white man came around.’ What is not reported very often (if at all, in my experience with these written materials on Indian practices) is that the various Tribes so indicted have not hidden these ‘facts’ from their succeeding generations. On the contrary, the stories of those events, which caused suffering among the people and damage to a regional ecosystem, are solemnly recited at various times during the year or every so many years. This is done so the members of those Tribes would always remember what happened as a result of their greed or lack of careful preparation and thus never bring about such destructive conditions again. Detailed explanations of the ecological disasters that were brought about by the Meso-American pyramid and apartment builders have been preserved in the oral histories of various Tribal groups that descended from them. Many of these stories tell us that the people began to deviate from their Sacred Ways and became greedy and quarrelsome. Some of the recorded Pueblo stories tell how the men gambled all night and slept all day; how they violated the women and ceased performing their sacred duties. The stories speak of the women neglecting the children and gossiping with each other for hours instead of performing their sacred duties. They tell of a time the people took more than they really needed from their creature relatives and Earth Mother. They no longer treated each other and their environment with respect. They ceased honouring their relatives – their brother and sister creatures, plants, elements, and minerals. Their Mother Earth and Father Sky and Sister Moon were forgotten, left out of their thoughts. They became more and more disconnected and continued to commit acts of violence against each other and the things in their environment. As a direct result, the plants, the creatures, and the elements abandoned the people.

Long ago … they say… Father Sun burned their crops. The Thunder Beings, the Rain Spirits, and the Water spirits went away. With the help of the Wind Brothers, Mother Earth sent her rich blanket (topsoil) to other places far away from the people. And so the people suffered. The people suffered a long time before they would change their way of living, before they remembered how to ask for help and how to include all their relatives in their thoughts again. Then, all the people that wanted to change the way they were living came together and began to focus their thoughts towards this goal. As a group, they asked to be forgiven. As a group, they asked for guidance. As a group they sought to re-establish their connection to all the things in their environment. After they did this for a time, their thoughts were more in harmony with this goal. Finally, they received the guidance they ‘prayed’6 for. When they began to receive instructions in their dreams they knew the Spirits had forgiven them. They paid attention to these visionary instructions, strictly following them, and soon the conditions in the environment around them changed. The rains came and the streams were filled. The animals came near enough to give themselves up for food again. The medicine plants came back and the corn grew tall and the squash and beans and chillies were many. The grasses grew everywhere again and the people were saved.
Some Tribal stories say Corn Mother told them how to we for her so their corn yield would be enough to feed all the people. Some Tribes say that Rain God appeared and told them just how to ask for his help. Some say that Water Sister told them how to treat her and exactly where to make a path for her so she could nourish their Corn Children. Others say that Earth Mother told them how to treat her by telling them when and where to plant; what to plant together and what to plant separately; when and how often to give her a rest; how to sing her to sleep; how to wake her up. Some say the spirits of these things came to them, whispered into their ears, and told them what they should do so these conditions would not ‘come into being’ ever again.

Ah these stories, with their many tribal variations, tell us how the indigenous Native people continued to survive, and because they had learned the consequences of separating themselves from the ‘natural world,’ they never wanted to forget that hard lesson. They did not want their children, grandchildren, or the children of future generations to suffer as they had at that time. By presenting examples of wars in which the people could change, examples of better ways to live together, the Origin Stories and Tribal Histories also emphasise that conscious and appropriate choices must be made. And finally, the stories illustrate how the people found their way back to the ‘good life’ they once had when they honoured and respected each other and the rest of creation; the ‘good life’ they had before they became thoughtless and self-indulgent. Thus, the old stories teach today’s generations of Native American people how their ancestors consciously sought to be mindful of their place within rather than above the rest of creation. Through these stories we know that some of the people decided to return to their old nomadic life-style of hunting and gathering and by doing this, gave up their stable food source. However, there were others who apparently kept the new technology but were willing to seek new ways of food production less destructive to their local ecosystems in order to keep their relatively dependable food source.

Closer examination of the earlier oral histories and the ‘disaster’ stories of specific Tribes (such as some South-western Pueblos or Mexico’s Huichols and Mayas) indicates a transition period for these ancient cultures at the point a new technology was emerging-a period much like the advent of the Euro-Western machine age, information age, or nuclear age. The earlier historical stories clearly describe that as hunter-gatherers, some of the Meso-American Tribes were quite accomplished at fitting into the environment that provided what they needed to feed, shelter, clothe, and heal themselves by maintaining a psychic connection to it. When I first encountered the descriptions of how the people became greedy and quarrelsome, I wondered why. The Origin Stories describe in detail how these folks were deeply connected to their environment. They knew where to go, where to look for the things they needed for survival, and had created an intricate ceremonial system to honour all the natural resources they were so dependent upon. What had happened to change them into thoughtless, selfish people3 The simplest answer would be: ‘Well, that’s human nature,’ yet that made no sense to me, because of the communal harmony and environmental connection described in other stories. Clearly the Tribal peoples of Meso-America had already developed solutions for conflicts initiated by the vagaries of human nature, and these solutions are embedded in the cultural histories. Something unusual must have happened to drastically change the way they had lived and behaved in prior generations. Some thing event, or idea came into their lives that eventually produced greed, violent conflict, oppression and the destruction of their environment-and it was ‘a something’ they were either unprepared for, unaware of, or both. Suppose the emergence of a new technology caught them unprepared? Suppose this technology arrived on the scene so gradually they were actually unaware of its intrusion into their everyday lives? I propose that that’s exactly what happened when certain hunter-gatherer groups shifted to farming. My own Tribal perspective tells me that these disastrous results occurred precisely because the people had most likely neglected to incorporate this ‘new technology’ into their established spiritual framework as they were developing it.

Archaeologists tell us that the ‘corn cultures’ of Meso-America progressed slowly from small, randomly sown and unattended patches of corn to more carefully sown and tended patches. The average yield was, at first, enough for that season’s consumption, with some left over that they dried and saved for the next spring planting. Many seasons and several generations later, the cultivation of a dependable food source required them to settle in one place permanently in order to guard their crops from animals and nomadic bands from other Tribes. Permanent settlement produced larger, heavier, and less portable tools with which they could work greater areas of land. Crude storage caches became improved, and they could amass larger quantities of food for longer periods of time. More food feeds more people, and more people require more housing, until finally, huge urban complexes were built in the Valley of Mexico, the Yucatan, and the Four Corners area in the United States Southwest. As these new food production practices gradually emerged, I believe the people in those areas were not prepared for the importance cultivation would assume in their daily lives. Indeed, they were so intent on amassing greater stores of food against losses from ‘thieving nomads’ or periods of drought they spent more of their time on the ‘manufacture’ of new tools for cultivation, the building of storage granaries, and clearing and tilling more land. Hunting, fishing, and root gathering were still important activities, but they became less so as the variety of crops they were able to cultivate increased. Undoubtedly, as they became more involved with farming and its time-consuming tasks, they neglected to observe the effects this intensive technology was having on the local ecosystem, so when the negative effects finally became apparent to them, the damage was irreversible. As hunter-gatherers, they had no reason to create a ceremonial structure for planting and harvesting, as it had not been an integral part of their lives, and so the early stories don’t include (and wouldn’t) the mention of special dances or songs for planting and harvesting at certain times. These same stories do mention specific ritual preparations for hunting and describe feasts of thanksgiving after successful hunts. In fact, in several of the corn-culture Tribes, there are stories of how rain dances or rain ceremonies were brought to the People after they were settled in their present villages for some time. In some instances, the retelling of the ‘bad times’ the people experienced by turning their attention away from their local ecosystem occurs during rain or planting ceremonies.

When we examine current Pueblo farming practices (in the South-western United States), we find a ceremonial framework surrounding the planting, growing, and harvesting of corn. From the preparation of the fields for planting through each phase of the growing season and finally the harvest, ceremonies are enacted that demonstrate a technology made sacred. Thus, the later stories, along with the present-day examples of ‘ceremonial farming’7 would indicate that many of the Tribes did, in fact, eventually return to the essence of the Old Ways by incorporating this new technology into their previously established spiritual framework. The positive outcomes of the spiritual regeneration that took place at that time are emphasised through these ceremonial recountings to their descendants.

The Pueblos of the Southwest United States, particularly Hopi Zuni, and Acoma, still maintain pre-contact agrarian practices noted by twentieth-century scholars as examples of ‘perfected farming techniques.’ These techniques include: terracing of fields; leaving fields fallow for a minimum period of three years; periodic burning of corn stubble before turning the soil, and finally, always planting crops of beans, corn, and squash (the Three Sisters) together. Today’s Western agricultural science supports these practices as ecologically sound methods for preserving precious topsoil. My point here is to bring attention to the lessons already learned by many of the stable, highly sophisticated Meso-American cultures as an example of how a people united in thought and purpose restored the ecological balance to their environment.

Among us today, there are people who would return to the ‘old agrarian ways’ of the pre-industrial period; some would even return to the hunter-gatherer period. There are others, like me, who believe we can keep the beneficial technologies that have emerged among us and, with careful planning, can rethink and revise the present methods of modern production to make them less destructive to our local ecosystems. However the new technologies appeared in our realities, they are here, and it is possible to incorporate them into our spiritual frameworks if we so desire. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, all human creations to date come from Mother Earth – from Her Body. She provides the ‘raw materials’ of our ‘inventions.’ Humans are just one of the many species of creatures that her body nourishes and sustains. Native Americans believe the Great Mystery placed us on earth to do just what it is we do. We belong to the Great Circle of Life, along with the rest of creation. Everything in the heavens and on the earth is natural, is part of the ‘natural world’ – including humans. An earthquake is a violent ‘natural’ act, as is a volcanic explosion or the destructive force of a hurricane, and yet not one of us would judge or condemn such an event as ‘unnatural’ or meddlesome tampering with the environment. Oddly, when humans disturb the ecological balance by tampering with the environment, Euro-Westerners judge themselves and ‘others’ (non-Westerners) of committing unnatural acts or creating unnatural technologies. I believe this to be a misnomer that carries considerable negative side effects for us, both mentally and psychically. It forces us to continually instruct ourselves that we don’t belong to the natural world-that human creativity is unnatural or alien. Our spirits know this to be untrue. ‘Anti-nature’ is a more accurate way to describe a selfish technology that arbitrarily destroys creature and plant species. Technologies come into being in the natural world out of the substance of the natural world through the miracle of human thought and, whether humans or bees or birds or earthquakes or volcanoes or hurricanes or tornadoes or dash floods or radioactivity manipulate the environment, most Native Americans view all of them as natural occurrences. We also know that when we become extremely self-indulgent with our ‘creativity,’ focusing on ourselves to the exclusion of all our non-human relatives, they will abandon us. We have this experience in our past, and we have been raised to remember that we are all ‘equal’ in the thought of the Great Mystery. Our duty to ourselves is to restore our own balance within the rest of creation.

There is much practical information available in the old stories still told by many of the North and South American Indian Tribes. In recent years, members of many different Tribes have attended universities on both continents and have been recording much of this information in written form – most particularly the histories of their Tribes. Some Tribes are still reluctant to have their ceremonial practices recorded in print or on tape or film, and these wishes should be honoured by all outsiders. But, where there has been a concerted effort by diminishing Tribal groups to preserve not only their histories but also their sacred ways, I truly feel that Western scholars can learn a great deal if they would study these materials. In some instances (though not all), a Western analytical approach to these ‘stories’ can concretely fill in the gaps and possibly provide us with some viable solutions relevant to this land base for today’s ecological imbalances. However, care must be taken in using this approach. I make this point because Western scholars (for the most part) are mono-cultural and perceive other cultures through their academically trained Western bias. Academically trained Native American scholars are bicultural and in reality, walk in two worlds – the Indian world and the Euro-Western world. It is important for non-Indians to keep this in mind, simply because the dominant perspective or thought system of the Western Hemisphere is Euro-centric. Willis Harman explains cultural bias in a most understandable way in his recent book:

Now each of us, from infancy onward, is subjected to a complex set of suggestions from our social environment, which in effect teaches us how to perceive the world. We may from time to time, especially in early childhood, have experiences that do not conform to this cultural norm-but we eventually ‘correct’ these perceptions and cease experiencing the anomalies, through the power of the socializing process. And so each of us is literally hypnotised from infancy to perceive the world the way people in our culture perceive it.
In the modern world this ‘cultural hypnosis’ extends to experiencing a world in which ‘scientific laws’ are always obeyed-whereas in other, more ‘primitive’ cultures, ‘violations’ of these laws may be relatively commonplace. For example, the phenomenon of changing inner beliefs to such an extent that one can with impunity walk barefoot over burning coals … is one which has for centuries been observable in a variety of pre-modern societies. (Harman 1988, 19-20)
Ideally, non-Indian scholars will make an extra effort to establish contacts and dialogues with American Indian scholars throughout the United States, Canada, Alaska, and Mexico. Although Mexico is still struggling to reclaim its Indian origins, European-born monotheism still prevails, and Tribal natives there are isolated and looked down upon for their ‘indigenous lifestyles and ceremonial practices.’ In spite of this, there are many Mexican Indian scholars who were raised in their Native traditions and who continue to respect as well as steadfastly claim their Indian heritage. Again, it takes extra effort to identify them. Hundreds of books, articles, and research papers have been written about all the Tribes in North America by early (as well as later) Euro-Western historians, ethnologists, and ethnographers-much of it with sensitivity and insight and with the best of intentions.

The most difficult obstacle to overcome with this non-Indian authored material is the Western penchant for comparing the rest of the world to itself and making root assumptions accordingly. These authors tend to automatically credit Western civilisation as the most advanced culture on the planet, using it as the highest pinnacle of human attainment. This is indeed a mono-cultural bias and patently absurd to those of us who derive from cultures whose living histories date back some ten thousand years and more. This is not to disparage Western scholars; rather I would caution my readers to weigh the volumes of information available on American Indians thoughtfully. Again, Willis Harman’s explanation of ‘cultural hypnosis’ is quite candid and helpful in this context. He goes on to state:

These several examples emphasise the difficulty of distinguishing the extent to which the ‘reality’ we perceive is peculiar to our cultural hypnosis. We tend to find it curious that other ‘primitive’ or ‘traditional’ cultures should perceive reality in the way they do – so obviously discrepant with the modem scientific worldview. It is harder to entertain the thought that we in modern Western society might have our own cultural peculiarities in the way we perceive the world-that our reality might be as parochial in its way as that of the Middle Ages appears to us now. Since Western science is the ‘best’ knowledge system yet devised, it seems reasonable to consider our values ‘normal,’ our predilections ‘natural,’ and our perceived measured world ‘real.’
It was hard [in the early seventeenth century] to ‘see’ challenging information precisely because the old belief system provided a coherent picture of the world which worked. Likewise it is not comfortable for some of us, in the late twentieth century, to recognise the parochial nature of our prevailing belief system (even though it may seem to be based on the best science available). It is hard for us to ‘see’ evidence that doesn’t fit in, and that suggests the conventional worldview may be in a state of fundamental change. Despite our discomfort, it is essential to consider that possibility. (Harman 1988, 20; emphasis mine)
And though white Euro-Westerners have created the most sophisticated tools of massive destruction and the most self-centred ideologies of any race on the planet, Native American philosophies say: ‘They are our relatives.’ Many Native American prophecies state that: ‘It is our duty to show them how to Walk In Beauty—with us.’ It is important for all of us to find our ‘Beauty Way,’ and Native American spiritual frameworks can provide examples of ways in which non-Indians can ‘tune in’ to the spirit force of this land.


To be spiritual, or inclined to honour, respect, and acknowledge the elements of our universe (both physical and non-physical) that sustain and nourish our lives, seems to be an innate aspect of human beings. Among traditional Tribal people, to be spiritual is to be aware and accepting of spirit or the Spirit World and to believe in a spirit force or power that manifests itself in all things. When Native Americans refer to themselves as spiritual people, they are saying they believe that everything in the universe is imbued with spirit and they embrace, acknowledge, and respect the animating force within /surrounding/beyond all things-including humans. The idea of ‘the Sacred’ held by traditional Indians is all-inclusive, and to be connected to the Spirit World is to be ‘in communion’ with the Great Mystery. This concept also carries a mandate for the people to strive to achieve harmony within their community and its surrounding environment, to ‘Walk in Beauty’ or ‘see the Good in everything.’ This internal sense of harmony, when expressed externally, gave rise to the creation of ceremonies that honoured all life, sustaining and transformation processes in the natural world for both humans and non-humans. Generally speaking, non-Tribal people do not embrace this concept. Most organised non-Indian religions accept spirit or soul as a non-tangible aspect of humans. In American English, to be spiritual is usually understood to mean either being very religious or a practising devotee of some religious sect who exhibits all the required virtues. The emphasis here is on humans interacting with each other. Being a good person usually means you are kind to your neighbours and friends and loving to your family; you are generous, helpful, pleasant, a pillar of the community doing good deeds for others. What is missing is the distinct inclusion of non-humans. Being a good person in Tribal terms means your good behaviour and intentions are extended toward creatures, plants, and elements, as well as humans.

I have stated elsewhere that it is not my intention to ‘Indianize’ anyone, but to present practical alternatives to our current ecological imbalances by providing examples of a ‘living philosophy’ that not only originated from this land base but has endured into the present. It is because the land-based social structures of the original Americans continue to provide the core traditional patterns from which these peoples draw their spiritual nourishment and practical approach to daily life that I am strongly suggesting that the many principles (philosophical, spiritual, and social) that emerged through these earliest inhabitants are the true legacy of all American-born individuals. However, I am also aware of the conflicts surrounding the study of, the borrowing of, the adapting from, or just being influenced by the Native American way of life. My personal experience tells me it is important to speak directly to some of the possible objections concerning my statements about Tribal principles and the risks involved for non-Indians who embrace a ‘Native American perspective.’ Obviously, approaching our daily lives in a ‘sacred manner’ is not the sole province of any one Tribe, or any particular culture, for that matter. In addition, dancing and singing to the beat of drums or other percussion instruments cannot be claimed as the exclusive right of any racial group of people, nor is the purifying of the body through fasting and cleansing in some manner or the offering of the smoke of some substance to the ‘spirit world’ (be it sage, tobacco, frankincense, or sandalwood). What seems to be lacking at the moment concerning the issues around cultural or religious theft is clear articulation about the dos and don’ts regarding any particular culture’s sacred forms. The question now becomes: How can non-Indians Imow what kinds of rituals or ceremonies they can perform without infringing upon some Tribe’s sacred religious-spiritual practice?

I believe the way in which certain acts are put together and consistently repeated designates them as a cultural form of worship or honouring and therefore ‘belonging to’ a particular group. So, in order to infringe upon or desecrate any Tribal religion, an ‘outsider’ would have to sing ‘sacred’ songs in a particular language (Navaho, Lakota, Cherokee, and so forth) while executing the steps of dances traditionally done to those songs by a given Tribe. Then, and only then, can tribal elders say outsiders are truly stealing their sacred practices. Songs, dances, ceremonies, and sacred rites are created by people for very specific reasons and purposes.

Every ceremony and sacred rite ever practised on this planet was invented by humans to be performed by humans-one or hundreds. The motivation is generally inspired by the witnessing of the mysteries and cycles of transformation continuously assailing our physical senses. The awe we experience-the joy, love, or grief that overwhelms us-inspires us to express in some fashion our brief encounter with that which is beyond physical touch but is within reach of our inner senses. When this happens, we achieve a kind of ‘knowing’ that we have somehow been touched by something beyond us. A knowing that we cannot articulate often leads us to celebrate this personal event (or in many cases, communal event) through some form of expression. When Tribal peoples experienced a brief encounter with the Great Mystery, they celebrated this experience with chanting and rhythmic movements. The Tribes view these celebrations or ceremonies as sacred because the intent of the performers and the witness/participants is one of reverence and respect. It is within this context that traditional Tribal Indian people view all the elements that make up our universe as sacred. They acknowledge that all ‘others’ are entitled to and deserving of existence along with us and therefore to be celebrated as sacred components-of their realities.

While Euro-Westerners define sacred as ‘set apart or dedicated to religious uses, hallowed as opposed to profane,’ American Indians make no such arbitrary division. If the Great Spirit or Great Mystery holds everything in its thought, then everything is sacred. Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary goes on to state that sacred means ‘pertaining or relating to deity, religion, or hallowed places or things.’ Among Indians, sacred is sacred. It pertains to all and everything. If a place or ceremony or objects art considered extra special, then they say it is filled with power or is powerful. Items of special significance are thought of as places of power or power objects, and some places or things are more powerful than others, but they are all always considered sacred to begin with. Some ceremonies are more solemn than others, but it is always understood that whatever the people are doing, they will be doing it in a sacred manner. Sacred also means ‘consecrated and dedicated to a person or purpose.’ I concur, as would any traditional Indian. Of course we are consecrated and dedicated, to ourselves, each other, our world, and Wakan Tanka (Lakota), or Thought Woman (Laguna and Acoma), or Maheo (Cheyenne) or the Great Mystery or Great Spirit, and – fulfilling our life paths – ‘walking our individual roads’ is a consecrated and dedicated purpose. Finally, the most fundamental meaning of the word Sacred for Native Americans is ‘entitled to reverence and respect; not to be profaned; inviolable.’ American Indians believe the universe and everything in it is ‘entitled to reverence and respect’ because it exists. Thus the Tribal Principle of Relationship, that we are all related, is a natural extension of this belief. The Tribes teach that when we are disrespectful, irreverent, or abusive to the inhabitants of our environment, they will abandon us. They will no longer give themselves up for us if we disconnect ourselves from them.

Native Americans believe the animals and plants they need for sustenance and healing ‘give up’ or ‘give away’ their lives so the people can continue to exist. Observing animal and plant life taught the Tribes that ecological balance was maintained through interdependence and reasonable use. Following the natural laws in operation around them, Native American Tribes practised reasonable use rather than denial. As various Tribes discovered the consequences of taking more than they could reasonably use, they changed their thoughtless, destructive practices to more thoughtful, life-promoting ones and incorporated this knowledge into their Tribal histories. They instituted various forms of ceremonial Give Aways instead of structuring accumulation of things and property into their social systems as human achievements to be esteemed and honoured. The Give Aways recycled tools, clothing, ornamental, ceremonial and household items among the members of the Tribe and guaranteed the most basic needs for the less capable or handicapped.


In ‘Indian fashion,’ I have presented several ‘idea blocks’ as examples of other possibilities for generating new ways to think about our local, regional, and global environment. In restating some historical information about certain Tribal practices (documented in more detail in many other sources), I hope I have provided the impetus for incorporating a too-often-neglected perspective in our search for holistic, life-sustaining practices for today’s global communities.

In my introduction, I stated that I would offer some suggestions for facilitating attitudinal shifts in consciousness and becoming more open to Tribal ways of thought. I said I would present some ways that non-Indians might use to create a sense of place, generate a personal legend or origin story, and adapt a few valuable Tribal principles to fit a modern technological world.

Let’s begin with the idea or Tribal concept of the Sacred. If non-Indians can accept the Native American premise that all of creation is held in the creative thought of the Great Mystery (or in the Mind of She Who Thought Us into Being), then it is an easy step to adopt the concept that everything in heaven and on earth-including the human race-is truly sacred. If we believe that everything is sacred, then the most mundane tasks take on a deeper meaning. One approach is to consciously ritualise ordinary actions such as awakening to each new day, the preparation of foods, of the accomplishment of daily tasks. For example, the Apache day is begun this way. An individual male arises at dawn, leaves the house, faces east, and begins singing a song to assist the sun in its journey over the horizon. This is considered a sacred duty, and the song is one of joyful greeting. Grinding corn for ceremonial use is still done by many Indians on a stone slab (a matate) on the floor and is not an easy task to perform. In traditional Navajo families, corn is ground by the women, but the men help to lighten the drudgery by sitting nearby, singing joyful corn-grinding songs. This is done to keep the thoughts of the grinder happy and cheerful, so the resulting foods offered in ceremony and/or eaten by the family will not have unhappy or ‘tired-aching-back-and-knees-thoughts” in them. It is believed that if the woman grinding the corn is cheerful, the food will be well received and blessed by the spirits and will be nourishing for the family.8

If you love your home but hate the job that fills the icebox and pays the rent and utilities, then your thoughts are out of balance, according to our way of thinking. If you love your home but hate the city or town where you live, then you are out of harmony with your life’s circumstances. Suppose you thought of your job as a sacred duty that assists you (as it does) to maintain your private residence? Suppose you think about all the beautiful places in your city that may have been sacred places at one time for the original native inhabitants? Every city and town in the United States was once a special place for native Tribal peoples, too, because people instinctively locate themselves in spots that are energizing and nourishing to them – physically, psychically, and spiritually. There are trees and grasses and flowers and birds and ants and bees waiting for you to ‘send your songs to them’– to say hello to them – to call them sister, brother, cousin, or friend. They ere your relatives; they hear your thoughts as you travel around your town or city, back and forth from your home.

Begin where you are. Do you have a baking song? You can create one. How about making up a song for grocery shopping or a song for making your laundry sparkle? You can create a food blessing poem to thank the spirits of the foods you eat for giving themselves up for your nourishment. They give themselves up so your breath may continue. Native Americans believe that plants as well as animals do this willingly when we acknowledge their great gift of life to us – even grocery-store food! We are taught that if we always do this, no foods will harm us, because the spirit of that food will think kindly of us. We believe that how we think about ourselves and our environment, but how we will experience it in our day-to-day existence? So we strive to be thankful to the spirit world around us, consciously every day, including our relatives in our thoughts to remain in harmony and balance. There are other systems that teach similar things. Recently, much has been written about various foods that are harmful for this or that reason, but there are also many groups of people who still adhere to their old-fashioned (pre-scientific, non-Western beliefs and have proven that these foods or substances are not harmful to them. Shifting our consciousness to focus more on nourishing and helpful examples can be far less harmful to us as well as our non-human relatives. Focusing on destructive forces all the time causes feelings of despair and, too often, a sense of powerlessness to do anything to change these dreadful circumstances. When we seek the beauty and wonder of creation, creation responds by bringing more beauty and wonder for us to be glad about and thankful for. The Navajo people call this the Beauty Way, and all North American Tribes have similar philosophies.

Where you live now was once home to your Native American ancestors hundreds or, possibly, thousands of years ago. Who were they? What is their history of the place where you live? That history is also your legacy. How did the Tribal ancestors come to be in that place? Did they originate in the east or north and migrate there? Maybe that Tribe originated in that very place. Your local library probably has the resources that will answer these questions. Answering these questions for yourself will give you a different perspective of your present ‘land base.’ How did you come to this place? When did your family (parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents) arrive? Where did they originate? Write your own Migration Story. Trace the wanderings of your own people and, if you can, the reasons they or you finally settled in the place you now call home. Doing this can give you a stronger and more conscious connection to your present homeplace.

Next, identify the prominent landmarks surrounding your homeplace (not the human-made marks). According to their historical traditions, how did the Tribe(s) relate to these landmarks? What significance was assigned to them (for example, special sacred places for receiving visions, for locating healing plants of the region)? Find out what the original plant and creature life in your region was; the ecological interaction and interdependence between plants, animals, insects, birds, air and winds, water, and earth. Consider what has changed about your environment since European contact. How have the creatures and plants adapted to the changes? Then centre yourself in the region where you make your home and introduce yourself to the spirits of your place. Greet the plant, creature, mineral, wind, water, earth, and sky spirits. Make a song to them. Do this in a sacred manner and you may be surprised by what you will begin to notice happening around you. If your intention to become connected to your land base is sincere, the resulting experiences will be very rewarding and personally enriching. If you will follow through on a few of these suggestions, you will attune yourself to your homeplace, and if you make it a point to acknowledge your local non-human surroundings on a daily basis (several times a day, preferably), your environment will begin to respond to you according to your thoughts. Welcome all your relatives into your immediate family. Approach each day in a sacred manner and with a healthy sense of humour. Our relatives will help us if we ask them to help. Our relatives will forgive us if we ask for their forgiveness and make a serious commitment not to repeat our previous mistakes. If we ‘send our voices out to them,’ as Wallace Black Elk suggests – if we can believe they are our relatives – they will instruct us as Earth Mother, Corn Mother, Water Sister, Rain God, the Thunder Beings, and the Wind Brothers did for our ancestors, so long ago. If we all open our hearts and minds to this rich legacy, we may discover many creative solutions to our ecological dilemmas.

These are my suggestions for restoring our own balance and harmony with All That Is. I know it is possible, because the Pueblo people of the arid Southwest come together to dance for the corn in the heat of the dry summers year after year-and it rains. They must not harbour thoughts or talk about ‘how dry it is’ or ‘how hot it is’ or ‘what if it won’t rain’ or ‘yes, but the weather person said.’ Instead, they imagine the Cloud People appearing in a cloudless sky, building huge formations of vapour and then dancing up there to release the Rain Spirits on the cornfields. They imagine the gentle rains falling on the fields and imagine how glad the Corn Children will be when the Rain Spirits come to ‘visit them.’ When the people dress for the Corn Dances, they imagine the corn plants growing taller and taller, the ears perfectly shaped and plump with fat kernels of corn. These are the kinds of thoughts they hold when they dance for the Corn Children.

The examples of this ‘Way of Thinking and Believing’ are many and not restricted to the Southwest United States. The beneficial results of Rain Dances, Corn Dances, Deer Dances, and other Tribal ceremonies practised by Tribal peoples all over the planet have been documented by many credible scientists and social scientists. The implications of these ancient Tribal thought systems are immense. I believe that many basic Tribal principles can be adapted to fit modern daily life and can produce the appropriate ecological changes we are seeking.

I trust your creative imaginations to expand on the somewhat brief and generalised historical examples of the few Tribal principles I have discussed here, with the hope you will find these important concepts helpful in your own lives.

May your heart and mind find the Beauty Way, and may peace through balance and harmony be yours in all your days on Mother Earth.


1. Sanders and Peek 1973, 183-92, in their introduction to Chap. 4 they discuss how Benjamin Franklin’s knowledge of and interaction with the League is never mentioned in standard American history texts. This American and Euro-Western penchant for ‘disappearing’ an American Indian Confederacy of Nations as a foundational source for the structure of United States governmental institutions is further and more recently documented by Weatherford 1988, Chap. 8.
2. I use the terms Native American, American Indian, FirstAmericans, Indian(s) and Native(s) interchangeably, because it is comfortable for me to do so and because much of the literature written about and by American Indians uses all of these terms to designate the first or original inhabitants of the Americas.
3. Allen 1986b, 3-29. Paula introduces this term and the framework for its usage in this essay.
4. Early non-Indian ethnographers collected tribal stories in virtually every region of the United States. Since the mid 1970s, many Native American communities have published collections of their Tribal stories and histories for their own use in school programs and to provide the public-at-large with informative materials written from their own perspective. A collection such as Beck and Walters ,1977 is an example of a comprehensive Indian-authored text and excellent source of many American Indian Tribal teachings. Other similar publications can often be found in local libraries or local historical museums – particularly if the museum has a display on early Indian inhabitants of the area.
5. The National Geographic, Vol 176, no. 4 (October 1989) ‘La Ruta Maya’ Wilbur E. Garrett, ed., 424-78; ‘Copan: A Royal Maya Tomb Discovered’ Ricardo Agurcia Fasquelle and Wilham L. Fash, Jr., 481-86; ‘City of Kings and Commoners: Copan,’ George E. Stuart, 488-504.
6. In this context, preyed is intended to mean group thought focused toward The Great Mystery or Great Spirit actively imagining the ‘state of being’ their reality should assume or become. The English word prayer is the closest equivalent that conveys the spiritual sense of this activity, but the word itself carries broader implications for American Indians than those perceived by Euro-Americans. For example, The Great Mystery contains not only The Maker but all Spirit Being everywhere – as well as the concrete or solid substance of the universe from which everything occurs or comes into being
7. Weigand 1978, 110 states that ‘Ceremonialism still accompanies the planting of cotton and gourd and tobacco seeds and the act of sowing, though the rites [for the above-named crops] are no longer well remembered or even generally practised. Ceremonialism for corn and squash is very well developed and central to the rainy/dry season dichotomy in the Huichol calendar.’
8. Brandon 1974, 138. Another example of this practice exists in the Southwest among the Pueblo peoples. Brandon notes that ‘the women were expected to make a social bee of the never ending community work of grinding corn, and the right way of doing things also demanded a man at the door of the grinding room, playing the grinding song on a flute.’ As sensitive and accurate as Brandon is about recounting the histories and customs of several hundred North American Tribes in this work, his own Euro-American bias (‘cultural hypnosis’ to restate Harman) is immediately apparent in his assumption that ‘the women were expected to’ do this or that. He also says ‘demanded a man at the door,’ which is a bit strong to describe the communal participation that takes place in preparing cornmeal. In the pueblo I come from, the women organise all the women’s activities and the men tend to their own duties, but when a community activity is taking place, both genders assist each other to make the ‘chores’ more pleasant.


Paula Gunn Allen, 1986. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (Beacon Press), pp. 3-29.
Peggy Beck and Anna Walters, 1977. The Sacred Ways of Knowledge: Sources of Life (Navajo Community College Press).
Black Elk and William S Lyon, 1999. Black Elk: The Sacred Ways of a Lakota (Harper & Rowe), p. 39.
William Brandon, 1974 .The Last Americans: The Indian in American Culture (McGraw Hill), p. 138.
Willis Harman, 1988. Global Mind Change: The New Age Revolution in the Way We Think (Warner Books), pp. 19-20.
Carol Lee Sanchez, 1989. New World Tribal Communities: An Alternative Approach for Retrieving Egalitarian Societies. In Judith Plascow & Carol Christ (Eds.) Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality (Harper and Rowe).
Thomas Sanders and Walter Peek (Eds.), 1973. The Liberated and the League: The Law of the Great Peace and the American Epic (Literature of the American Indian, CollierMcMillan), pp. 183-92.
Phil C Weigand, 1978. Contemporary Social and Economic Structure. In The Fine Arts Museum of SanFrancisco. (Art of the Huichol, Harry N Abrams), p. 110.
Jack Weatherford, 1988. Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (Fawcett Columbine), Chap. 8.

Carol Lee Sanchez is a native New Mexican of Laguna Pueblo, Lakota, and Lebanese heritage. From 1976 to 1985, she was a member of the San Francisco State University faculty, where she taught American Indian, Ethnic, and Women’s Studies courses. In July of 1976, Sanchez became State Director of the California Poets In The Schools Program, a position she held until July of 1978. Her poetry has been widely anthologized and three volumes of her poetry have been published. Sanchez and her husband, Thomas Alien, closed their contemporary American Indian Art Gallery in Santa Barbara, California, in 1989 to relocate in Central Missouri. She is currently involved in living in and renovating an 85-year-old Victorian farm-house, growing vegetables, writing, painting and taking long walks in the woods to meet the creature relatives in her new homeplace.



‘The Story of Creation’ by Christa Muths

Once upon a time there were 5 siblings who lived in the middle of the universe right amongst all those millions of stars with whom they liked to play.  Light was the first-born daughter and the other 4 siblings were quadruplets and were called: Fire, Water, Earth and Air. Their father was Matter and their mother Vacuum and thus all five siblings had like all other children traits of their father and their mother.

The father, Matter, was made up of very tiny particles, the atoms. All Atoms have a minute nucleus and around it move equally little energy particles, called electrons. Mother on the contrary, who was Vacuum, the void  was a totally empty space. And although the parents were complete opposites, they got on very well and enjoyed their children very much.

Muths1The children were very lively and curious. Of course they had such an enormous playing field, in which they could let off steam: our cosmos, the universe. Air was blowing stars across the room so that some stars actually shot right across the universe and left a long tail behind, similar to the air tail behind airplanes in the sky. Fire was creating new stars which consisted only of fire, like our sun and other stars. Earth enjoyed  throwing about  large rocks which flew across the universe as meteorites, which created huge craters when they hit another star. But Earth also created new stars or planets when some stars collided.Water sent rain everywhere and because of the icy coldness in the universe it was in charge of the comets’ tail. Light was playing with all objects and was responsible for dark and light, as well as for light and shadow.
Our adventurous five discovered new games all the time and caused a lot of mischief and did many silly things so that sometimes stars crashed into each other. Then there was an enormous bang and huge dust clouds covered whole galaxies. Sometimes galaxies were covered in dust for many years,  there was fog everywhere. Even Light could not shine through, so was unable to do much about it. Occasionally stars  exploded when they collided and the sound of the explosion roared and raged across the universe, even father Matter and mother Vacuum  got really scared, because the huge sound waves shook everything including both parents.

One day, when the children were playing again and had caused yet another collision followed by an enormous roaring, huge sound wave disturbed mother and father in their afternoon nap. That’s it, finally  the parents had enough and were totally fed up.

Fire, Water, Earth, Air , Light!!!!!!! Come here at once, they shouted and their voices roared across the universe like huge thunder. Our Five knew at once that this time they had gone too far and they came back to their parents very quietly, eating humble pie, in order to avoid more trouble.Muths2
There was a huge blow up and father threatened severe punishment: next time if ever they were to cause such a huge noise and destruction of a whole galaxy, they would be grounded, meaning the universe would become a forbidden zone! If they ever caused as much noise and destruction again that would mean being grounded for several thousand years. Their playground would just be a small part of the universe a play pen within the universe which would be so small that they would be unable to do any more mischief to the remaining universe.

Suddenly our Five became very quiet indeed, never had they seen mother and father so angry. They went with their heads down knowing full well that they had to be good from now on.

Quietly they discussed what to do next in order to make up for the stress they had caused their parents. In fact they were not bad children and had a good heart. Sometimes they were a little bit frolicsome and playful and overlooked the consequences of their actions. They did not really mean to destroy anything or harm anyone.

Although the Five were very mischievous, they were also very helpful and did a lot of good deeds.

Suddenly they had an idea: they wanted to create something new, no, not what you are thinking now  — making a cake to sweeten the parents, but to create a new star of their own. To our five children of the universe  Fire, Water, Earth, Air  and Light creating a new star, would be like you and me making a new cake or preparing breakfast for the angered parents. Yes, they wanted to create a new star which was just like themselves. This new star should have new life which would also consist of Fire, Water, Earth, Air and Light. They wanted their new star to be a mirror of themselves, the way they lived, played and worked together and also a reflection of their personalities.Muths3

In unity together they stormed like a vortex through the cosmos, to find a suitable place where the new star would feel at home. And because they just stormed and raced across the universe without thinking, they sort of “overstormed” and suddenly they had lost their way. Totally confused  they stopped helplessly somewhere in the universe and had no idea how to get back. They were afraid that their parents would miss them,  and they would be grounded again. Even Light was scared and loosing its shine more and more; Water cried tears of despair; Earth bored herself deeper in the ground and became more and more rigid; Fire was spitting and hissing, flared and flickered angrily but mainly because of helplessness. Air flapped and stormed up and down, up and down, just like a hurricane running in circles.However, they lost all their energy after a while, had no more strength and were in despair and felt very lonely and lost, despite being together. Light gained its courage and strength back first and said to the others: we need to tackle the problem differently. We just stormed out into the universe without thinking straight, we had no clear thoughts or plan, we just rushed out in the blue and far to further a field as we should have dared and without realising where we went.  I will now send a ray of light to our parents Vacuum and Matter to let them know that we are fine and will be back soon. I am sure you all know that light travels within the speed of our thoughts.

That being said and done, now they were more relaxed and considered what to do. And suddenly the quadruplets Water, Fire, Earth and Air had a brilliant idea: what was actually missing was an orientation system, something like a map of the universe. No wonder, they had been lost, or “over stormed”, there was simply no orientation points whatsoever.

Talking together they tried to retrace their steps, how they raced, how they got to where they were now. The next step was to  develop a kind of orientation system, a kind of map for the universe. They sat together and each placed themselves in their own centre, they looked ahead, behind, right, left, above and below and suddenly they had the solution:  – using the connection from their own centre to develop a sense of the four directions NORTH, SOUTH, EAST and WEST in relation to themselves and each other. They also used the two other directions: ABOVE and BELOW. By doing this they were able to develop a seven point orientation system in the whole universe.

And from that moment on every place in the universe had a seven pointed orientation system.

Now the Five went home to their parents, now they knew that how to get home they could relax from the hard work and adventure of their universe storming. During the next days and weeks they discussed what their newly created star would need to enable life to survive.

Soon they found all the answers: the new star needed a lot of light and warmth so it should be close to a star that radiated enough light and energy, but not to much. It needed sufficient light, as well as times of darkness, so that all creatures living on the new star could relax and restore their energy and have a sufficient rest. It needed earth so that the creatures could walk on it, find their habitat and rest and sleep. Water was necessary so that all water creatures could survive and be happy in their habitat. Water would provide nutrition for all. Air was also necessary so that all creatures could breath; and air could carry earth, sand and water across the star. Also, they planned creatures being able to live in the air. Fire’s responsibility was to provide warmth and to give light in the dark, to burn old material to make space for new growth and also to nourish the creatures.

After that our Five took off again, to find a suitable place for their new star. They found it right next to our sun, it gave enough warmth and energy for the star to be able to survive but there was also enough distance so that no creature got burned.

When the energy vortex of fire, water, air, earth  and light had reached this place, they blew all together with all their power and strength to send energy into this place: Air blew and blew and formed the sky; Earth created the continents and the mountains; Water was everywhere and created the oceans and the rivers; Fire spit its energy like a firework in the whole area and also created the inner core of the new star. Light spread everywhere and created day and night, light and shadow.Muths4
There was actually much more work involved to create our lovely star Earth then they had imagined at firstDuring this time of creation they got tired and needed some rest. Thus they talked it over and decided to set up a rota, so that nobody was too exhausted. This was the first time in the history of the universe that beings worked in cooperation and developed a rota.

Light being the oldest sister had had more experience and therefore more responsibility but was supported by all the quadruples.

Slowly the new star was created and as he rotated around another star, our sun, it became a planet: so in fact our planet earth was the result of a project which Fire, Water, Earth, Air and Light had wanted to do together in order to appease their parents Matter and Vacuum.

Eventually our five siblings whizzed back home to relax, exhausted but at the same time full of joy and happiness about the creation of their new planet.

After they had recovered from their stressful work and were full of energy again, they invited their parents on a day-out to see their new planet. Now it was easy to find their way as remember, the universe now had a seven point orientation system: their own  centre, the four directions, we call East, South, West and North and also the below and above.

The parents Matter and Vacuum were thrilled to bits about their children’s idea. They were very proud indeed. They were especially proud that their children had worked together in a team and had sorted out all occurring problems themselves.

But now there was the small matter of actually designing planet earth in such a manner that it was possible for all creatures to live upon it . Again the siblings  had a meeting and discussed this issue together. And because each one of them was very innovative and full of ideas they created their own playmates:

Light gave life all colours and with water as rain and air to the rainbow.

Water created oceans, rivers, lakes, creeks and ponds.

Earth created continents, landscapes. mountains, trees and plants.

Fire formed the magna of the core of the earth and provided the warmth for us.

Air created winds, storms as well as high and low pressure of the different atmospheric levels and after another meeting with it’s sisters and brother, they created our famous weather, including storms and weather. You see, lightening is also a child of Fire.

Now they needed a longer break before they were able to tackle their last project to make all creatures and life forms on earth.

The creatures of Water are the fishes, the creatures of Air are the birds, the creatures of Earth are us humans and animals, the creatures of Fire are the little fire devils, dancing merrily and happy around all burning fires.

As you can see now: all living beings on earth were created in the image of our five siblings: for all of us need air and oxygen in our bodies, so that it can work and function. We have water in our blood and loose water by excretion and perspiring. We need fire to be able to digest.

Yes, we even have earth in our body: all our little cells contain earth and it is also part of our blood. The red colour of our blood (haemoglobin) is  related to the green colour (chlorophyll ) of the leaves of trees and all plants.

Light, the older sister of our Five carries all information with ultra speed throughout our bodies  from one place to another. All this happens much quicker than we can imagine.

The Five had so much fun and joy creating our planet and its creatures. The sun heats up the water which evaporates into the atmosphere and returns as rain, snow or hail and waters depending on the season and it will therefore water all land and all continents. Rivers flow through the earth just like arteries and veins in our body.

Earth is providing food for all small creatures, plants that live on her as our cells provide us with food in our body. All our cells have an important part in providing us with energy. Mountains and caves also protect us, should one of the other elements become too boisterous, for instance during catastrophes.

Fire burns old material so new can grow from the ashes, just like the digestive fire helps in our body to burn the food we have eaten.

Air helps us to breathe so we can survive. Blood transports oxygen, as well as nutrients to all the appropriate places.

Light carries all information within a flash from one place to another and we need light, given to us by the sun, for our body to function.

Therefore, we have therefore characteristics from all five siblings and their parents Matter and Vacuum in us and are thus are all part of fire, water, earth, air and light. Therefore we are all connected to each other, even if some of us may lack a little bit too much of one element or have too much of another.


Yes, we are the children of Light, the elements and Matter and Vacuum are our grandparents. They are our ancestors and at the same time exist in ourselves now.

Each one of us is a miracle and an expression of the mutual creation of all elements and Light on the base of Matter and Vacuum and because we all have the characteristics of our parents and ancestors in us, we can live our lives creatively.

All this goes hand in hand with a cycle: as below so above.

All creatures on or planet have therefore a spark of the original-creators Matter and Vacuum. Each living being which vanishes returns its elements and energy into the big cycle of creation and passing,  which again creates new life of Matter and Vacuum, Light, Air, Water, Earth and Fire.

The rainbow is not only very special to us, but also to the siblings. Whenever they are very happy about their work or want us to be happy, they all get together and form a rainbow to make us dream and smile.

Like our creators, we need to smile and dream to be happy. In many dreams during our sleep we can remember where we come from. Therefore our dreams aid us to stay in touch with our creators. Thus dreams assist us to understand ourselves and support us also do understand the world and therefore we are able to find our own way.

Smiles are also important because they give us joy and make our heart laugh. The rainbow itself looks like a smile and radiates the joyful energy of a smile out to the world so that we can radiate like a rainbow and smile at the world.



Review of Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’ trilogy, by Jean Hardy

AALittNorthernLightsPhilip Pullman: Northern Lights 1995. The Subtle Knife 1997. The Amber Spyglass 2000.
All published by Scholastic Children’s Books.

I’ve always loved some children’s books – the Earthsea trilogy (Ursula le Guin): Penelope Lively: C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. But finding Philip Pullman’s trilogy just before Christmas has been the greatest experience yet. At their best, adults write for children with an imagination, warmth, often spirituality, which contrasts with the bleakness of much grownup fiction. The many accolades for this prizewinning trilogy stress that it is for people of 8 to 80 (why stop there?), and it has certainly kept me completely hooked over this winter. As one critic, Francine Stock, says: “this is classified as children’s fiction, but it is as uncompromising and passionate as writing gets”.
It is partly the sheer scale and quality of Pullman’s imagination. There are many parallel Universes in his world. Lyra, the heroine (and she truly is one), finds her way into another world in her search to defeat her father’s cruel work: “so Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky” . But they subsequently discover the Subtle Knife of the second book, which can cut through into any different universe its owner wants it to. The inhabitants of the many realities live in worlds within worlds of their own – the millions of Witches and thousands of Angels can move through barriers at will: the Gallivespians of the third book are tiny , spurred, highly mobile creatures who are professional spies: the armoured bears of the first book, whose leader Iorek Brynison is Lyra’s great friend, live in the northern areas of the earth and are truly formidable: the mulefa community are a benign group who are diamondshaped, wheeled, and have trunks and appear later in the story. These are just some of the glorious creative variety of beings co-existing in the different spheres.
The story is a spiritual journey in the classic tradition – a search for an understanding of the evil underlying our present situation, and for its remedy. In the third book Lyra and her friend Will journey to the land of the dead – a Hell quite as frightening as Dante’s Inferno. There is also a numinosity to the books, a sense of spirit, and an acceptance of soul. In the very first line, Lyra appears in her world in Oxford (but rather different from our Oxford) with her daemon. Everyone has a daemon in her world. Hers is called Pantalaimon: he was born with her and will die with her, and never go far from her. He is her life’s companion. If they are separated by force, they will both die, at least in spirit. He can take many different shapes to express the circumstances they are in, and to aid her. With his presence she is never lonely. Each person has a deep connection to soul. And with this, for Lyra, comes a lifelong sense of work to be done – a Great Work.
Pullman is wonderful at fear and terror. He doesn’t shirk anything. He really looks at the pits of experience. He is also a very lyrical writer, with great appreciation of beauty, truth, courage and stoicism. The books are about ways of seeing, different kinds of knowledge, and a recognition of how spirit could be recognised by all.
We begin to find out through the books that there is an old Authority who ran the world, but he has run out of steam, though he is still supported by many significant forces with Inquisitorial weapons who are persecuting people from a very Calvinist sense of evil. Old religion is seen as a very different form from spirituality. Lyra’s separated and frightening, very powerful parents, play strong different roles in this fight between Wholeness and Division, Love and Hate, Biodiversity and Sameness, Heaven and Hell, Compassion and Cruelty, Original Blessing and Original Sin. However, Lyra, on the edge of adulthood, with her friends, is the person who must make the journey and the choices that are necessary to save all the universes from destruction.
In his final acknowledgements, Pullman cites Milton’s Paradise Lost and William Blake. A work of this quality has to have great inspiration. I also found great resonances with my favourite Dante’s Divine Comedy and Dante’s journey (with his ‘daemon’ Vergil) through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. I do feel that Pullman has written a true myth for the early 21st century, using modern physics and technology, a great sense of our time, wide reading, and a huge gift of story-telling. It is altogether 1288 pages of real enjoyment and involvement: what more, for an avid reader, could you want?
I was disappointed in the two Harry Potter books I have read. J.K.Rowling has many great skills, particularly in naming and in action. She also has a great sense of evil and different realities. But, for me, there isn’t much soul in her work. I find Philip Pullman’s trilogy light-years on from this, as his vision is truly conceived and inspiring, maintaining a strong and gripping storyline through the diverse realities of hell and paradise in many forms. For me, it feels like what it is to live now.
Jean Hardy.

‘The Mossman’ by Christa Muths


Since the moment of his birth the Mossman knew only laughter. “Look at the greenness of my coat and the softness of my fur. Sink your hands into my cool, moist carpet. Everywhere in these woods you’ll see me, want to touch me and feel my mossy embrace.”

 As the moss expanded, the Mossman roared with delight. You could see him all over the woods – on rocks, on trees and hiding in shady pathways. Until…. One day  a man approached the Mossman’s special rock and detached what he thought was a twin-pronged stick lying below it, and touching the Mossman himself.

 “Just what I need in my shack. It’ll look good in my kitchen and I can hang mugs on it.”

 What the man didn’t know, was that the stick was the Mossman’s Power Generator, with its prongs conducting power from the Secret Source that gives life to all things. With this stick removed, the Mossman began to lose energy, and his gigantic grin started to fade. The end of the Mossman, and therefore the moss that has covered much of planet Earth loomed ominously.

But, miracle of miracles, as the man left his shack the next day, the Mossman’s ecstatic laughter could be heard rolling around the woods. Once more the rivulets, dancing their way down to the Great Lake, shouted their defiance:

  “You’ll never catch us Mossman, no matter how much you laugh.” At which the Mossman laughed so much that he nearly detached himself from the Power Generator!

And on a branch, above the stream, sat a giggling squirrel munching on some nuts, and yelling taunts at the man, as he passed by:

“You can take the stick, old man, but I’ll always steal it back. The Mossman will always hide my food for me, so long as I keep the Power Stick stuck his belly!”