The Humanities without Humanity;


Native American Literature and Humanistic Education

by Jack D. Forbes

In the United States a movement has developed, especially during the 1980s, to reinvigorate the humanistic side of the university curriculum. Unfortunately, this movement has, in essence, been one of supporting "the humanities" without "humanity."

The movement of humanistic studies has all too often been merely a device for promoting (or maintaining) the dominance of European ethnic studies (including the Middle-Eastern aspects of the so-called Judeo-Christian heritage) at the expense of the rest of humanity. That is, we are to return to the study of the great works of "Western civilization," in order to balance an increasingly scientific-technical education.

It is obvious that the term "human" must refer not merely to Europeans, but also to Africans, Native Americans, Asians, and so on. Therefore the very essence of humanistic studies must be to escape from the narrow straight-jacket of European culture studies and to seek for the implementation of a human-wide approach to history, literature, art, music, and philosophy.

What I am arguing is that the very concept of "the humanities" demands that we avoid an exclusive focus on "white" or European studies and instead seek to create a "liberal arts" curriculum which is non-chauvinistic and international in character. Nothing less than a global approach can be the hallmark of a truly humanistic education.

The art, literature and music of the First Americans, the so-called Indians of the Americas, is normally excluded from the humanities. This exclusion results partly from the European studies dominance discussed above. It also results from a naive perception of Native American thought, art, and literature as being "primitive," "savage," or as being irrelevant or even non-existent.

I do not want to belabor this point, but we constantly are reminded of the "primitiveness" ("earlyness") of our cultures or of the "wildness" (savagery) of our minds by a vast array of persons ranging from an ignorant president of the United States (Ronald Reagan in Moscow) to writers of repute. Generally speaking, those who seek to deny the importance or value of Native American philosophy, thought, and aesthetic creativity do so from out of a profound ignorance. Those educated in a wholly European tradition, or in a somewhat expanded "big empires" tradition (which might include China and India), have been deprived of the opportunity to know anything of Native American cultures and, therefore, see only a void.

The void is a void in their minds, but they project it outward as a "dark-hole" in an imaginary map of human accomplishments.

What I want to do now is to contrast "the void" with the reality of Native American culture by presenting first a brief analysis of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, followed by a look at the Mby† Guaran° story of the creation of our world.

In 1946, Huxley wrote a new introduction to his futuristic novel Brave New World. He said:

The Savage (a white man raised by the Zuni people) is offered only two alternatives, an insane life in Utopia, or the life of a primitive in an Indian village, a life more human in some respects, but in others hardly less queer and abnormal . . . If I were now to rewrite the book, I would offer the Savage a third alternative. Between the utopian and the primitive horns of his dilemma would lie the possibility of sanity (in a community of Utopian exiles). In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry - Georgian . . . Religion would be the conscious and intelligent pursuit of man's Final End, the unitive knowledge of the imminent Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead or Brahman.1

The dilemma presented is not, however, that of John ("The Savage"), but it belongs to "the void" of Huxley.

Brave New World, written in 1931, has been read by millions upon millions of persons. It is certainly safe to say that it has been read by millions more than have ever read The Zuni: Self-Portrayals, or any other book written by Native Americans. But we should be concerned not merely that Pueblo Indian and other Native cultures are known to many persons primarily by means of Huxley's (or other's) fabrications. We should be concerned, instead, because of what Huxley's lack of knowledge (or purposeful deceit) has done to narrow the range of alternatives available to people who plan social futures.

But let us go back and discuss the novel a little.

Six hundred years in the future (or so Huxley said in 1931. By 1946, he had projected a date of 2050 A.D. or so) the world, according to Huxley, will be completely controlled by a single totalitarian government ruled by a group of males much in the same manner that males rule the Mormon Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the USSR, or the major corporations of today. That is, a group of "elder" men collectively govern, selecting their successors after the latter have "worked loyally up the ladder."

Huxley's "utopia" is, in essence, "Phallic-Utopia," since its principal means for maintaining absolute stability is the use of constant sexual gratification, elaborate sports, and other activities which reflect, I would aver, a very narrowly "male" conception of what makes people content.

In any event, this "Phallic-Utopia" is, on the whole, a rather benign totalitarian system (compared to what we have today in many countries) with everyone conditioned from fertilization (in a hatchery) to accept whatever level of life they have been assigned. Although there is little chance for the development of any human potential there is also very little violence, coercion, or brutality (except, of course, for the ultimate brutality of creating genetically inferior humans to perform the more routine and/or obnoxious tasks).

The economic and social aspects of Phallic-Utopia are but poorly drawn out by Huxley. It is clear that it is a society where people have to work only in order to spend (in order to keep every one working), but we are not able to see that the ruling group realizes any inordinate profit from the system (since the high-caste workers essentially experience the same rewards - drugs and sex - as do the lower-caste workers).

Apparently the higher-caste people tend to be of the white race. Huxley's references to people of "negro," dark, or "octoroon" appearance all are in reference to lower-caste or out-caste persons, although lower-caste people could also be white. In any case, there is evidence for racism on Huxley's part, especially in his use of a movie scene involving a "Negro" man making love to a blonde woman. The "Negro" man behaves improperly and has to be "reconditioned." (". . . there stood the steroscopic images, locked in one another's arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Blue female.") She was later rescued from the deranged black man by "three handsome young Alphas," men of the highest caste. Even after re-conditioning the black man did not become one of her lovers again (p. 113).

In contrast to the world of Phallic-Utopia are several small islands of "exiles" which are not described (they are areas where high-caste persons who develop individualism are sent to prevent the contamination of the masses), and, of course, the "Savage Reservations."

Huxley states that "a savage reservation is a place which, owing to unfavorable climatic or geological conditions, or poverty of natural resources, has not been worth the expense of civilizing" (p. 109). Perhaps there is some truth in this, since most Native reservations in the United States were indeed set aside on lands considered less desirable by whites.

The only reservation described was said to be located near Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was guarded by a "Warden" who was "a blond and brachycephalic Alpha-Minus, short, red, moonfaced, and broad-shouldered, with a loud booming voice . . . He was a mine of irrelevant information . . . Once started, he went on and on - boomingly." (Thus we see that Huxley may have met a real-life agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs). A low-caste "negro" porter worked for the Warden.

The reservation covered "five hundred and sixty thousand square kilometres, divided into four distinct Sub-Reservations, each surrounded by a high-tension wire fence" (p. 67). "To touch the fence is instant death . . . There is no escape from a Savage Reservation."

Living in the area were ". . . about sixty thousand Indians and half-breeds . . . absolute savages . . . our inspectors occasionally visit . . . otherwise no communication whatsoever with the civilized world . . . still preserve their repulsive habits and customs . . . Christianity and totemism and ancestor worship . . . infectious diseases . . . priests . . . venomous lizards . . ." (p. 69).

Huxley takes us on a tour of the reservation, flying in a plane over "Taos and Tesuque; over Nambe and Picuris and Pojoaque, over Sia and Cochiti, over Laguna and Acoma and the Enchanted Mesa, over Zuni and Cibola and Ojo Caliente" to Malpais. The "octoroon" medium-caste guide says: "Everything they do is funny . . . And remember . . . they're perfectly tame; savages won't do you any harm. They've got enough experience of gas bombs to know that they mustn't play any tricks" (p. 71).

The reader's tragedy begins when he learns that Huxley's Malpais culture is a thoroughly distorted blend of Hopi, Zuni, New Mexican Penitente, and Victorian English notions, woven together in a strange fabric of sexual puritanism, hatred of the flesh, masochism, and racism.

Huxley chooses to use some Zuni words and some briefly accurate local descriptions to disguise what is essentially a Victorian English middle-class view of human beings. Why?

Why does he choose to ignore the radical sexual equality found among the Zuni and Hopi (a sharp contrast to his own Phallic-Utopia)?

Why does he picture the Zuni as being color-prejudiced (a people who have adopted white people in the past)?

Why does he take a Pueblo Indian culture with virtually a complete absence of negative attitudes towards sexual relations and the human body and transform it into a puritanical, flesh-guilty culture?

Why does he give us a white "hero" (John), adopted and raised by the "savages" (and partially rejected by them) instead of a brown hero?

Finally, why does he portray Indians as "insane" people - dirty, ignorant, dominated by "strange" customs - with no intellectual notions whatsoever? (John has to discover "wisdom" from an old battered copy of the works of Shakespeare.)

We could, I suppose, analyze Huxley's connections with D. H. Lawrence and the latter's perceptions of Native American character.2 While valuable from a historical perspective, such analyses would only detract from the central issue, which is: Huxley could not, or did not want to, entertain the notion that traditional non-Western societies might, in fact, offer a viable alternative to European consumerism, fascism, and conformity, or that Native American "savages" could have an intellectual life giving expression to such alternatives.

Huxley added to this the unforgivable sin of denigrating and insulting a living, breathing part of the human family by lying about them, by inventing false and derogatory values and ceremonies.

What is it that Huxley apparently believes? He rejects the "Noble Savage" image and in its place puts the "Savage is indeed a Savage" thesis or, to put it more accurately, "tribal non-Western peoples are primitive human beings who have some simple virtues, but who are intellectually unsophisticated and wholly incapable of offering anything to modern man except perhaps some kind of raw, elemental resistance and equally elemental religious superstition (my language)."

Now let us turn to look at how the study of traditional Native American literature can, I believe, help to replace the empty space of "savagery." I want to illustrate what such an effort might mean through a very brief and introductory examination of certain ancient American cosmological conceptions.

In the 1940s and 1950s Le¢n Cadogan was able to publish certain accounts of the creation of the world, accounts carefully maintained by the Mby†, a Guaran°-speaking group of Americans living in the area of Paraguay. The Mby† had tenaciously resisted Spanish aggression for centuries, and had retired into inaccessible areas in order to maintain the purity of their traditions.

I believe that it is significant that in these ancient oral accounts the Creator arises from the primordial nothingness (obscurity) as, essentially, Wisdom. This divine Wisdom then unfolds as a mental-like process, conceiving things by means of creative wisdom. Significantly, many other Native Americans (such as the Zuni) record this tradition of the mental nature of creation. The process of genesis is also seen as evolutionary, a gradual unfolding of stages of creation.

Before looking more carefully at the Mby† conception, I want to note that according to the ancient Mexicans the original Creator, Ometeotl (Two-Spirit), encompassing both male and female powers, arose in a similar way to Ñande Ru of the Mby†. Ometeotl is also known as Yohualli-ehecatl (invisible Night Air-Wind), Ipalnemohuani (The One Through Who One Lives), Moyocoyani (He Who Invents or Gives Existence of Himself) and Moyucoyatzin †yac oquiyocux, †yac oquipic (He who is created by no one else but himself but who himself, by his own authority and will, does everything). The verb yucoya means "to invent" or "to create mentally." This is a very significant concept, since it means that the universe is created through a "mental" or "thought" process. As Miguel Le¢n-Portilla has noted: ". . . he holds the entire universe, which is, to the eyes of man, `like a marvelous dream'" 3

Significantly also, the Uitoto people of present-day Colombia hold that

in the beginning, the word gave origin to the Father . . ." They go on to say: A phantasm, nothing else existed in the beginning; the Father touched an illusion; he grasped something mysterious. Nothing existed. Through the agency of a dream our Father Naimuena kept the mirage to his bodyAn he pondered long and thought deeply . . . Nothing existed, . . . Our Father attached the illusion to the thread of a dream and kept it by the aid of his breath. . . Then he seized the mirage bottom and stamped upon it repeatedly, sitting down at last on his dreamed earth. . . There upon, Rafuema, "the man who has the narrations," sitting at the base of the heavens, pondered, and he created the story so that we might listen to it here upon earth.4

The Mby†, as we shall see, record that "the Absolute" (the totality of everything, the infinite, the all,??), Ñande Ru, actualized itself in the midst of the primordial, original obscurity. It (he) later created human speech, love of mankind, and a sacred hymn. Four male powers and four female powers became the Creator's first companions and the world gradually evolved thereafter. Ñamandu seems to appear with el Colibr° (Hummingbird) as direct unfoldings of the Absolute, as the Absolute assumes self-sustenance and actualization.

The human language (lenguaje) created by Ñande Ru constituted the future essence of the souls given to humans, an essence participating in the creator's divinity. Love of one's fellows and a sacred song (hymn) constitute other fundamental essentials for the unfolding of the world.5

Now I would like to present some brief portions of the early part of the story of genesis as presented by the Mby†:

Our First Father, the Absolute, arose in the midst of the original obscurities. The divine soles of the feet,the small round seat,in the midst of the original obscurities, he created the course of his evolution. The reflection of the divine seeing-wisdom,the divine hearing of all things,the divine palms of the hand with the staff and sign,the divine palms of the hands with the flowering branches,Ñamaduí created them in the course of his evolution in the midst of the original obscurities.From the divine little sublime crown the flowers of adornment of feathers were drops of dew.For in the midst of the flowers of the divine adornment of feathers the original bird, el Colibr°, flew fluttering.In the meantime our First Father created, in the course of his evolution, his divine body.existing in the midst of the original winds;before having conceived his future earthly abode,before having conceived his future firmament,his future terrain which originally arose,the Hummingbird used to refresh the mouth;he who sustained Ñamaduí with products of paradisewas the Hummingbird.* Our Father Ñamandu, the First, before having created his future paradisein the course of his evolution,He did not see obscurities:although the Sun still was not shining,He existed illuminated by the reflection of his own heart such that, it served as thesun, the wisdom contained within his own divinity . . . Having conceived the origin of the future human speech, from the wisdom contained in his own divinity, and in virtue of his creative knowledgeHe conceived the foundation of love of one's fellow man,Before the existence of the Earth,in the midst of the original obscurities,before having knowledge of things,and in virtue of his creative knowledge,He conceived the origin of love . . .Having created, in his aloneness, the foundation of human speech;having created, in his aloneness, a small portion of love;having created, in his aloneness, a short sacred hymn,He reflected deeply over whom should participate in the foundation of human speech;over whom to make participate in the small portion of love;over whom to make participate with the series of words comprising the sacred hymn.Having reflected profoundly,with the wisdom contained in his own divinity,and in virtue of his creative knowledge,He thought who would be companions of his divinity . . . By having them assimilate the divine wisdom of their own First Father;after having assimilated the human speech;after having been inspired in the love of one's fellows;after having assimilated the series of words of the sacred hymn;after having been inspired in the fundamentals of the creative knowledge,to them also we call the sublime true fathers of the word-souls; sublime true mothers of the word-souls.6

The Mby† version of the world's creation is profoundly beautiful, even after being translated from Guaran° to Spanish and Spanish to English. Certainly such beauty is a hallmark of great literature.

The Mby† account is also quite relevant to "scientific" views of evolution, not only in the perception of gradual change or stages of development but, even more profoundly, in its opposition to the popular scientific image of human beings originating in a state of "animality" and "brute" struggle. The Guaran° account elevates humanity. It adorns our history with love and sacredness and traces these elements to a period prior to our actual appearance.

In essence, the Mby† version uplifts human beings by showing us the deeply spiritual side of our nature (and making that prior). This is, of course, so important in a day and age in which many of us are being demoralized by organized examples of brutality and by being pictured either as creatures "born in sin," or evolving as "killer apes," "territorial warriors" or whatever.

Of great interest to me is the position that human speech is prior and was conceived from the wisdom contained in the Creator's own divinity. This archetypal speech was created "before the existence of the Earth," and before the existence of our human ancestors. Isn't this of profound significance for writers and poets and others who seek to utilize speech to give meaning to human life even today?

Existentially what the Guaran° mean to say (I think) is that our "thought-speech" is of the very essence of our being ("word-souls"), and that without it we, as humans, would simply not be. From this perspective humans cannot evolve from a speech-less past. We and speech (lenguaje, language) are, in fact, synonymous.

The philosophical implications of this perspective are also profound indeed, since the transactions within "the mind" and the interactions of "minds" by means of signs (speech) would seem to anchor our existence. But that is not enough. Love is also created prior to our existence, love and a sacred hymn. Quite clearly the Mby† account offers readers a sharp contrast to the rather more negative creation traditions which we often are exposed to. The biblical genesis, for example, seems to connect the acquisition of knowledge (the apple of the tree of wisdom) with disobedience, sin, and expulsion. It is very significant that the Mby† record a creation which seems to provide us with a positive relationship between humans and "nature," between humans and the divine creative process, while certain biblical (and Greek) conceptions often provide us with images of conflict and opposition.

It is significant that many cultures of European origin offer us a life of aggressive conflict with nature, of the exploitation of other creatures, et cetera, while many cultures of Native America offer us a life of balance with nature, of the avoidance of exploitation of other forms of life. These contrasts need to be explored as a part of humanistic education.

Traditional American literature, from all parts of the Americas, needs to be removed from its present situation of obscurity in order that it might join with the literatures of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific in a new global exploration of the richness of the human mind. Such a journey will free us from the limited perspectives offered by nationalistic, racist, and chauvinistic prescriptions, and may well help us to create a new world wherein, in fact, love and the sacredness of the word can be realized.

Jack D. Forbes

6/22/88 - appeared in Native American Literatures, ed. by Laura Coltelli, (Pisa: Universita di Pisa, Forum 1, 1989)


1. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, (New York: Bantam, 1946), pp. vii-ix.

2. D. H. Lawrence never was able to perceive First Americans as being other than "barbaric," although his novel The Plumed Serpent, (1926) is complex. In general, Native People are perceived as participants in a rather European-style messianic movement rather than in any thing approximating the actual decentralist and democratic character of most Mexican Indian communities. In the story, "The Woman Who Rode Away," Lawrence incredibly invented modern Aztec-like survivors who still practiced human sacrifice in northern Mexico, and who wanted nothing more than to sacrifice a white woman for the sustenance of the sun. Huxley couldn't have asked for a better example of how to invent savagery!

3. Miguel Le¢n-Portilla, Aztec Thought and Culture (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), pp. 90-103.

4. Margot Astrov, American Indian Prose and Poetry (New York: Capricorn, 1962), pp. 20, 325-6; and Thomas E. Sanders and Walter W. Peek, Literature of the American Indians (New York: Glencoe, 1973), pp. 60, 108.

5. Le¢n Cadogan and Alfredo L¢pez Austin, La Literature de los Guaranies (Mexico: Mortiz, 1965), pp. 29, 41-3, 51.

6. Cadogan and L¢pez Austin, pp. 51-6. Colibr° is the Creator himself, actualized as the first bird, in the act of self-sustainment.