I was listening to The Current on CBC Radio this morning and I caught an interview with Marlene Brant-Castellano on the newly announced Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools (hear the interview here). Back in the mid 1980s when I was at Trent University, Marlene was a professor in the Native Studies Department. She was a beautiful teacher – quiet and inviting and embodying tremendous dignity and powerful conviction all at the same time. I connected with her quite deeply as I began to explore questions of culture and community. It was in her classes that I was introduced to systems theory, feedback loops and dynamic living communities and cultures. She intriduced me to indigenous philosophy and showed me that there was an incredibly deep a valid intrepretation of the world that had been born and nurtured in North America. Not every way of thinking about things needed to come from elsewhere.
In large part due to her unwavering commitment to this way of thinking, I wrote some amazing papers under her guidance and my learning opened up and expanded. Three major papers stand out: I wrote a paper on the dynamics of culture change in communities, I wrote one with my friend Gary Heuval on hunting as a negotiating strategy for the James Bay Cree in the 1970s and I wrote one looking at themes of connection and interdependence in Native American and First Nations poetry. That last one included a meditation on Duan BigEagle’s poem “My Grandfather was a Quantum Physicist“, interestingly enough. All of this led up to my developing a particular worldview that culminated in my honours thesis, a piece of original research under David Newhouse that developed a multi-disciplinary process for understanding organizational culture in Native organizations. That was what was possible at the undergraduate level at Trent in the 1980s – I think things have changed now. Marlene was an incredibly influential person on my life.
And so it was delightful to hear her this morning, even if it was only out of the side of one ear. What I did catch though was a short story she told about the phycisist David Bohm meeting with indigenous scientists in Banff in the early 1990s, shortly before his death. I had no idea that Bohm had done this. I knew of course of his meetings with Krishnamurti and his cross-cultural examinations of consciousness and dialogue, but I had no idea he had extended that inquiry into indigenous America.
So I Googled the event and came across a report from Dan Moonhawk Alford, a linguist who was at one of the meetings, and who subsequently participated in two other Bohmian dialogues. He did some interviews with some of the partiicpants, including Sakej Henderson, who I have since worked with. Here is a long quote from the report on the eight things everyone agreed on:
1. Everything that exists vibrates
This point of agreement is important because it moves beyond our usual ‘thingy’ or particle notion of existence based on raw sensory impressions, which is favored in the indo-european language family, and allows a justification on the part of Native Americans for the existence of spirits.
2. Everything is in flux
(Sa’ke’j:) The only constant is change–constant change, transformations; everything naturally friendly, trying to reach a more stable state instead of bullying each other around. That kind of process the English language doesn’t allow you to talk about too much, but most Native American languages are based on capturing the motions of nature, the rhythms, the vibrations, the relationships, that you can form with all these elements, just like a periodic table in a different way: relationships rather than a game of billiards, where you only count the ones that go in–all of their motion doesn’t count.
3. The Part Enfolds the Whole:
(not just whole is more than the sum of its parts)
(Sa’ke’j:) When we wear leathers and beads and eagle thongs and things like that, it’s not seen as totally ludicrous, as decoration – it’s seen as containing something you want to have a relationship with.
4. There is an implicate order to the universe
(Sa’ke’j:) This implicate order holds everything together whether we want it to or not, and exists independently of our beliefs, our perceptions, or our linguistic categories. It exists totally independently of the methods or rules that people use to arrive at what it is, and David Bohm’s captured that with the great phrase the implicate order, versus the explicate order of things that they can explain quite concretely, such as a rock falling out of a window. This also agrees with the lakhota phrase ‘skan skan,’ which points to the motion behind the motion.
5. This ecosphere is basically friendly
Sa’ke’j maintains that the planet, and especially the Americas as well as the physical universe, are basically gentle and friendly: You don’t have an electron jumping and bullying into other(s) unless it knows it’s missing a stable state and knows it can reach that stable state and increase its own stability.
6. Nature can be taught new tricks
(Sa’ke’j:) We also agreed that that world out there that exists–that reality, not imaginality–can be taught new tricks with the cyclotron; and what was raised in the meeting was, are these new tricks beneficial, or will they create a hostile universe on their own, independent of scientists, once they teach electrons how to jump and how to amass the energy to jump, and it becomes a bullying, hostile biological world.Reminds me of Alan Watts talking about how the universe has had to learn how to get ever smaller and ever larger as we probe it with microscopes and telescopes, receding ever further in the distance as self observes itself.
7. Quantum Potential and Spirit
After listening to the physicists and American Indians talk for a few days, it struck me that the way physicists use the term potential, or quantum potential, is nearly identical to the way Native Americans use the term spirit. They all agreed there was something similar going on.
8. The principle of complementarity
Physicists for all this century have realized that our usual notion of bipolar or black & white opposites was insufficient when working with nature. The first clue came when they asked incoming light, ‘Are you particle?’ and it answered Yes; ‘Are you wave?’ and it answered Yes. This is equivalent to asking whether something is a noun or a verb and getting a yes answer to both–which is exactly how Native American language nouns are made up: as verbs with suffixes that make them temporarily into nouns for discussion sake. this yes-yes complementarity is foreign to Indo-European languages, but quite common in other language families (such as the Chinese notion of Yin-Yang), and represents a higher level of formal operations, in Piaget’s terms, referred to by some as post-formal operations–that which lies beyond normal Western Indo-European development.
There is much more at Alford’s archive of papers and notes. This is really a rather remarkable find for me – all the more so in that it came to me from the mouth of my first academic teacher 22 years after I first met her. I would love to be in touch with others who were at that meeting or who have more substantial artifacts of the gathering.