Manataka™ American Indian Council
From Competition to Compassion
Robert Francis, May 27, 2013
Origin of Bears
This is the Origin of Bears story as passed down by Chickamauga Cherokees and as I have heard it told by Uncle Richard Craker. However, it is related here in my own words.
In the beginning, the Ani-Yvwiya or Real People were eight clans of spirits in the heavens. Creator had plans to send all eight clans to Earth as human beings. However, one of the clans approached the Creator with a strange request. Now, this was the clan that is called Ani-Giduwa by Chickamauga Cherokees. (Some other Cherokees call this clan Ani-Jaguhi.) And, the request of this eighth clan was this: Their desire was to be embodied in the Earth as bears rather than as human beings. In this way, they would live simply and would also freely give their bodies to provide meat and their skins to provide warm coverings for the remaining seven clans of the Ani-Yvwiya. Creator honored the request of the Ani-Giduwa, sending them to Earth as bears rather than as human beings. They became a great blessing to the remaining seven clans, and to this day they are honored with a bench and arbor, left empty, at the east door or gate of every Ani-Yvwiya ceremonial grounds.
This is the story as passed along in James Mooney’s book, Cherokee History, Myths and Sacred Formulas* and related or paraphrased here in my own words.
Long ago there was an eighth clan of the Ani-Yvwiya or real people. This clan was called Ani-Jaguhi or, as we Chickamaugas say it, Ani-Giduwa.
There was a boy of this clan who would often leave home to spend the day in the mountains. At first, he did this just once in awhile and later for part of each day, but the behavior gradually increased until the boy was leaving home each morning before sunrise and not returning until after dark. Upon returning from the mountains, the boy wouldn’t even eat with his family.
His mother, aunts and uncles scolded the boy but with no result. He continued to disappear into the forested mountains each day, and his family noticed, with no little concern, that he was beginning to grow hair all over his body.
“Why do you want to be in the mountains and woods all day long?” his mother asked, “And why won’t you eat with us any more?”
“I find plenty to eat in the woods each day,” the boy answered, “and I like the food I find there better than the corn and beans you have here. Before long, I’m going into the woods to stay all the time. I like it better there, up in the mountains. I don’t want to live here anymore. If you want to, you can come with me. There is plenty of good food there, and you don’t have to work for it. But, if you want to come with me, you must first fast for seven days.”
The boy’s mother talked this over with her sisters and brothers and other members of the clan. Finally, they decided to go with the boy. After fasting for seven days, the entire clan followed the boy up into the mountains.
Alarmed that an entire clan of the Real People were leaving, the elders of the other clans got together and went as a delegation to persuade them to stay. The Ani-Giduwa had already left, so the elders of the other clans had to follow their trail until they found them up in the mountains. They were shocked to see the hair already growing out all over their bodies and that their finger nails were transforming into long, black claws. Since they had gone without human food for seven days, their nature was already changing.
“Come back with us,” the elders pleaded.
“We will not come back with you,” the Ani-Giduwa replied. “We are going to live where food is always plentiful and where we won’t have to work to get it. Hereafter we will be called Yanu or Yona (Bears). When you are in need of meat to feed your families and of heavy furs to keep your little ones warm, you may come into the mountains and call to us, and we will give ourselves for you. Do not be afraid to kill us in your need, for we will live always.
Then, the Ani-Giduwa taught the elders of the other clans the Bear Calling Songs that are with the Real People to this day. As the elders of the seven clans walked down the trail toward the town, they looked back to see a drove of bears lumbering into the woods.
So, what are these Bear Origin stories about? Were they originally told only as a means of easing the consciences of the people when harvesting animals whose bodies have a disturbing resemblance to human beings once the skins are stripped off, or is there something more to these old stories? Are they a call to compassion?
An Evolutionary Leap?
Within certain circles, there has been talk and writing in recent years about the next leap in human evolution being a shift from competition to compassion. That’s an interesting idea. However, I’m wondering whether what is being observed and described is an evolutionary leap or a long-awaited return to balance and health.
For those coming from a Western cultural perspective, competition may seem the norm in human interaction with one another and the rest of creation. After all, competition is highly valued in Western culture as exemplified by competitive systems of
However, competition has not always been the norm in human interaction. The competitive approach or the notion of competition as a virtue is likely no more than a mere 5,000 years old, going hand-in-hand with empire building and with a certain type of theology, a concept of God that goes no deeper than human ego: The Jealous God, The Angry God, The Wrathful God, The Vengeful, Possessive, Controlling, Self-Centered, Incredibly Violent and yes, Competitive God.
If God is that way, then that’s the way to be. But, when compared to the entirety of human habitation in the Earth, that concept of God does not go back very far. Although gradually spreading itself up until the present, even for most of the past 5,000 years, this concept of the jealous and competitive God was limited to only certain parts of the Earth. And, even where it became the norm, there were always other voices, other concepts, other theologies, not competing but quietly, sometimes secretly coexisting.
But, before 5,000 years ago, the norm in human interaction everywhere was not competition but cooperation, and cooperation has remained the norm in human interaction in most of the Earth even during most of the past 5,000 years. Note: I said cooperation, not compassion. But it would seem that cooperation and compassion are closely related, much more so than say, compassion and competition. One may say that cooperation is based in compassion: When one suffers, all suffer; when one has plenty, all have plenty. In contrast, within a competitive societal structure, the wealth of the few is based on the poverty and suffering of the many.
For some, the thought of an evolutionary leap from competition to compassion may seem peculiar in view of a long-held idea that evolutionary “survival of the fittest” is the result of competition between species and within species. However, it was Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin, who first coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to bolster a set of ideas most often referred to as “Social Darwinism” but which, in truth, have little if any basis in the research and writings of Charles Darwin. In truth, the evolution of species is infinitely more complex than the simplistically stated “red in tooth and claw” process of no-holds-barred competition postulated by Spencer, in that, species are created or evolve within intricate webs of cooperative relationships.
It might well be that compassion, with its resultant cooperative interaction was or is the result of evolutionary development, but if so, it is an evolutionary development that occurred long, long ago. As humans lived together in close connection with the Earth, either in hunter/gatherer communities or in farmer/hunter/gatherer communities, those lacking in compassion, unwilling to cooperate for the common good, may well have found themselves banished for the good of the greater community and thereby removed from the gene pool. The non-compassionate, non-cooperative, egotistical, competitive, empire building ways of human interaction that have developed in the past 5,000 years might be best understood as devolution, a freakish anomaly that forcibly raised itself up for the period of one short epoch of human existence and will soon necessarily follow in the train of the dinosaurs.
Toward a Happier Outlook
The competitive outlook focuses on self or on what one has or does not have in comparison to what others are perceived to have. The competitive outlook is characterized by attempts to “keep up with the Joneses”, keep up appearances or keep abreast of trends and fashions. Competitive actions include worrying about what one doesn’t have or about losing what one does have, worrying about what others think of one’s position or status, bragging or boasting of one’s accomplishments and extolling one’s own supposed virtues. Ironically, making a point of saying, “I am a compassionate person,” could reveal a competitive outlook attempting to follow a perceived trend of being compassionate.
The genuinely compassionate/cooperative outlook takes the focus off of self. Knots in the stomach and creases in the forehead relax as the grip of the hand is loosened. Instead of worrying about getting, accumulating and keeping, the focus shifts to freely sharing what one has, not for recognition, but for the greater good of all. The result is a happier life.
While there may be some people who are so competitive as to be completely lacking in compassion and others so compassionate as to be completely lacking in competitive tendencies, my feeling is that most are somewhere in the middle or on a continuum between these two extremes, sometimes leaning more toward competition and other times shifting back toward compassion/cooperation.
Five hundred years of attacks on indigenous identities has brought about the evolution or devolution of a peculiarly American-Indian form of competition in which a person may attempt to bolster or build up one’s own tribal or indigenous identity as a “Real Indian” while attacking the tribal or indigenous identities of others. A certain indelicate phrase is often used to describe this competition. Please pardon my bad French, but it is commonly called an “Indian Pissing Contest”. This is an apt description for a sort of activity that is vile, disrespectful and dishonoring to all involved. I am ashamed to consider how often I myself have engaged in such behavior. One may seek to ease one’s conscience by saying, “Oh, but I didn’t start it; I just finished it.” It’s like nuclear war. It doesn’t matter who started or finished it; it’s unhealthy for all, including innocent bystanders! Sometimes an “Indian Pissing Contest” is entered into through the telling of personal stories. Now, stories are sacred, with no story more sacred than one’s own personal narrative, but when we add into our story big or little barbs or digs that seem to shore up our own identity as a “Real Indian” while challenging, minimizing or negating the identities of others, we dishonor ourselves and the sacredness of our stories. I have heard each of the following personal details used to qualify a person as a “Real Indian” while, at the same time, disqualifying others:
The list goes on and on. For the most part, these are not bad things to share. It is OK to share, but we must remember to share in good ways, respectfully, not to put others down.
We need to remember that we are all related. It is not just a cute phrase; it is not some sort of deep, metaphoric statement. We really are all related; and not just everyone in our family, not just everyone in our tribe, not just all Indian people, not just all human beings, all mammals or all animals but every aspect of the Earth, every aspect of creation, the entire universe or multiverse, everything. All is related; all is so intimately and intricately connected and networked so as to leave no place for selfishness or self-centeredness. This is not a matter of belief but of seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding and experiencing. As we look this way, our happiness increases along with our compassion.
Signs of Hope
So, what’s going on now? Some maintain that human beings are continuing to devolve. There is certainly a body of evidence to suggest that dependence on electronics is rewiring the human brain in detrimental ways. In spite of that, what do I see happening that gives me hope for this shift from competition to compassion/cooperation?
Picking up on bits and pieces read or watched in episodes of Nova or Nature aired on our local Public Broadcasting Station, I see that Western science has begun to discover some things indigenous people have known for ages: that the human brain is not the only network of connections capable of intelligent thought, that hives of bees and even slime molds exhibit the ability to make decisions, that plants as well as animals communicate and possess self-awareness once mistakenly considered by Western science and philosophy to be the exclusive province of the human mind.
I have been hearing ministers of various Christian denominations questioning the long-held view that God revolves around the church. Pluralistic understandings are becoming the norm in many Christian denominations, as every doctrine and dogma from vicarious punishment/atonement to hellfire and brimstone is scrutinized and re-examined. Even the recently elected Pope, the Bishop of Rome, indicates an inclusive attitude leaning in the direction of pluralism and certainly more cooperative than competitive. It is said that the fastest growing religious designation in the United States is “none”. In no way do I see this as a sign that people are growing less spiritual. From my own observation, I would conclude that by-and-large, people are growing more spiritual while much less inclined to put faith in organized religion. Empire-building and enabling forms of Christianity and other major religions, with claims of exclusive ownership of ultimate truth, terrorizing with books as well as bombs, may soon be gone. While such zombie religions** are still prevalent, their influence appears to be waning.
People are learning to live with less, to walk in the Earth with lighter footsteps, so to speak. New houses are being built smaller rather than larger, with multi-generational households once again becoming common. Auto makers are having more difficulty selling new cars as young people wait longer to purchase a first car and are much more apt to buy a used car and keep it as long as possible. Purchasing used clothing in thrift shops or online is growing in popularity. Loaning and bartering networks are becoming more common, and as Western Medicine prices itself beyond all reason, more people are returning to herbal medicines. The profit motive may be on its way out, to be replaced by the service motive. It is my personal observation that, in many cases, and leastwise within one’s own community, even a basically selfish person may profit more from giving away what he or she has in excess than by putting a price on it. Consumerism is by no means dead yet. It may hold on for decades, but it won’t be around forever.
A major surprise comes with the phenomenal success of The Hunger Games series of books by Suzanne Collins and the subsequent success of the first Hunger Games movie. Our son Luke was sufficiently impressed with The Hunger Games series to introduce it to his parents. As I read the first book, I found myself thinking, “Is the author communicating what I think she is communicating? Are others reading the same message that I am?” I was seeing an anti-imperialism, anti-war, anti-consumerism message. I was reading a call to reclaim an indigenous connection with the land and with one another. I was reading a story in which a young woman, reminiscent of Arrow Woman from our own Cherokee Oral Tradition, becomes a reluctant but forced competitor in a deadly game of “survival-of-the-fittest” and winds up learning the meaning of true compassion, the one thing imperial power fears above all else and the one thing imperial power can by no means understand. A cornucopia or horn of plenty is an important image in the book and in the movie. “A horn of plenty for us all!” a plaintiff song in the movie declares, but the cornucopia becomes the site of a horrid bloodbath, reminding us that all too often, abundance enjoyed by the few is gained through the sacrifice of the many. What American does not associate a cornucopia with the National Thanksgiving celebration? And, the earliest official colonial and state Thanksgivings were celebrations of successful massacres of indigenous people. Far from escapist fantasy, The Hunger Games disturbed my sleep and haunted my dreams, for I understood the story to be about us. And, as I watched the movie and watched the special features included with the DVD: interviews with the screenwriter, director and actors, I saw that yes, others have recognized the same message that I saw in the book, and young people and not so young people all over the country and all around the Earth are seeing this as an important message. You have heard of self-fulfilling prophecies. Perhaps The Hunger Games is the sort of prophecy which works in the opposite way, giving us a picture of where we may be headed without the change of direction that seems to have already begun.
All these are just a few examples of how things have changed and are changing. Maybe it is an evolutionary leap. Certainly, a new epoch has dawned, and as present empires fail in the decades to come to be replaced by localized, sustainable, indigenous communities, heartless competitors, who have long fancied themselves fittest for survival, will find themselves once more eliminated from the collective gene pool. Be that as it may, primarily I see the observable change or shift from competition to compassion/ cooperation in terms of an Awakening. Now, to limit confusion, I must be careful to contrast what I perceive as the present Awakening with the so-called “Great Awakenings” of 18th Century America . I do not see those as awakenings at all, but rather as eclipses of truth and light orchestrated by an angry god created of human ego and encouraging suggestible Euro-American multitudes to claim and conquer the “wilderness”. In this present Awakening, the eyes, ears, hearts and minds of the people are being opened. Far from blind belief, people are becoming aware, perceiving in and of themselves and through their own observations that we are all related. People are seeing that regardless of “race” or ethnicity or spirituality or any other perceived difference, we are all part of one another and an integral part of all that is. This awareness is by no means new, although it may seem new to many. This is the root of compassion.
Epilogue on “Good Competition”
My friend Bud Moellinger points out that there is such a thing as “good competition”. Games and sports played within a community immediately come to mind. Some of these are actually sacred ceremonies within indigenous cultures and may be examples of good competition. Certainly, not all competition sets itself in opposition to compassion. Some competition may actually serve to increase compassion. Here’s a short checklist to gauge whether or not a given competition may be good:
Does the competition strengthen, encourage, build up or empower all competitors?
Does the competition engender good-natured, good-hearted or joyful feelings in all competitors?
At the end of the competition, are all competitors able to sincerely rejoice with the winner or winners?
Does the competition strengthen relationships or draw competitors into closer relationship with one another?
Inasmuch as one may answer these questions affirmatively, a given competition may be understood as good or not at odds with compassion.
* Cherokee History, Myths and Sacred Formulas by James Mooney was most recently published or rather reproduced in 2006 by Cherokee Publications, PO Box 430, Cherokee, NC 28719 in collaboration with The Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual of Cherokee, NC.
** Zombie religions: A zombie is dead and decaying yet continues activity so is therefore undead. Having lost the ability to think and feel, a zombie continues its wretched existence by roaming about, cannibalistically sucking the brains from the living, rendering those hapless enough to be so overpowered undead in turn. An interesting side note is that a zombie is slow and clumsy and unable to catch a living person unless that person, overcome by fear, stumbles and falls down. A zombie religion is a religion sharing the characteristics of a zombie, having traded living tradition for dead and decaying dogma to which it requires brainless adherence.
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