The world we used to live in: remembering the powers of the medicine men
Vine Deloria, Jr.
I think the biggest disadvantage to modern polytheists who are working to revive and reconstruct dormant traditions is a lack of elders. Aside from the obvious, that a lot of traditional wisdom has been lost because of this, what we also lack is people who share our world view and can also potentially reshape the perception of the world around us. For several years, I have believed quite strongly that many of those tales of amazing feats and inexplicable things people saw and recorded in the various lores could indeed have been truly SEEN. Not simply a matter of having a vision, or perception of one thing being a stand in for a spirit or God, but simply taken at face value.
This is why I was so excited as I read Vine Deloria‘s last book, The World We Used to Live In.
For those of you not familiar with his work, Vine Deloria was one of the foremost scholars of Native American religion(s) in the world. When he was younger and a student of theology, he began collecting stories recorded about members of different Nations in history which had to do with what we might now classify as “supernatural” happenings. Under the assumption that indigenous American cultures were not prone to boasting, he took these stories to be true at face value and compiled them into one book in order to present a more thorough worldview of Native Americans. He chronicles several different areas of power which medicine men had in the past and provides a wealth of stories for each: dreaming, healing, distance communication, speaking with animals, speaking with the land, working with sacred stones and plants, “unexplained” phenomena, and the nature of the universe around them.
As I was reading these various recountings, I could EASILY imagine our spiritual ancestors sharing such tales 1000+ years ago. True, in some cases they may have had some extra polish places upon them (Heathens ARE known for boasting, after all), but like Deloria, I too would take them mainly for face value. These stories give a much more whole view of the entirety of the reality the original inhabitants of this country had.
One story which has stuck with me is his recounting of the sacred stones. Medicine men would find/be given some small, ordinary seeming stones and they would be employed in a variety of ways.
“One characteristic of the sacred stones is that they remain within our chronological time while looking for lost objects. That is to say, they disappear and the people wait, sometimes for an hour or more, until the stones return. It must be a spectacular experience to suddenly discover that the stones, which are laid out on a soft buckskin or on top of the bag in which they are carried, suddenly disappear. You would find them gone, and the only indication that they have been there a slight popping, if they choose to go through the sides of the tipi instead of using the door…. Suffice it to say that they are amongst the most valuable religious objects that medicine men can have, since they perform menial tasks for them.”
Other tales you are not likely to soon forget are stories of people (sometimes white) being present or nearby as medicine men told tales of the world forming or of major events, and the soundscapes which accompany them. No instruments would be present, no one there making any sort of sounds. But more than a few stories of people hearing sounds like major storms happening either outside or inside (usually the opposite location to where they were) and absolutely no way for anyone to make those sounds either.
I am absolutely not advocating we appropriate these stories as our own. What I am suggesting is that we look to other cultures whose original spirituality were not completely cut away in order to get a better sense of where we might be had this not happened. This is an excellent book indeed.
Five sacred stones out of five.