Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The animistic consciousness: Review of “Dancing with a Ghost: exploring Indian reality” by Rupert Ross

Rupert Ross. Dancing with a ghost: exploring Indian reality. Octopus publishing group: Ontario, Canada. 1992.

I would like to thank the blog commenter who uses the pseudonym Thursday (I also know his real name) for very generously sending me a copy of this book, because he believed – correctly – that I would appreciate it and learn from it. I don't suppose I would ever have read it otherwise.

This book is about the difference in the thought-worlds of modern Canadians of European descent (such as the author, Rupert Ross), and the American Indians or Native Americans – especially those who have recently been hunter-gatherers – specifically the Cree and Ojibway peoples of Northwestern Ontario.

My brief summary of the book is that some of the descriptions of how these Indians perceive the world are among the best I have encountered – they really seem to take you inside the minds of these hunter gatherers – and, implicitly, our own pre-agricultural human ancestors.

And what different minds they are!

It is this aspect of the book I found of such great value – and it is my intention to transcribe edited version of my favourite passages from the book over the coming days.

What is not good about the book are the explanations for these differences: the explanations for why Indians think and behave so differently from whites are incomplete, incorrect and in general just wrong.

The preferred explanations are mostly cultural – i.e. Indians think and behave the way they do because of Indian culture; or Freudian-ish – e.g. Indians engage in binge drinking of alcohol because it releases their repressed anger.

And the explanations completely ignore the 'racial' – in other words they do not even consider the fact that Indians and whites are separated by hundreds or thousands of generations who have experienced very different evolutionary trajectories and selection pressures – so that now Indians and whites are (inevitably!) psychologically different in a way that is hereditary and genetic; and which therefore ought to be regarded as the main explanation for group behavioural differences that are so large and so powerfully resistant to social shaping.

In other words, in truth Indians (and recent hunter gatherers generally) are different from whites, mainly because Indians/ hunter gatherers are different from whites – and not merely because they have been brought up in a different culture.

So, in reading this book – and I would recommend it to people like myself who are fascinated by the hunter gatherer mind – a degree of filtering and selectivity is necessary; there is a lot of angst and muddled-goodwill to be waded through in order to get at the good stuff.

But the good stuff really is good! 

Edited from pages 81 through 85:

I earlier spoke of 'imaging' as opposed to 'imagining'. I suggested that the skilled imager visited times and places in advance of going there, and that during such visits he would experience as the sounds, smells, feels, tastes and sights of those times and places in his mind.

As he crouched on the trail reading a fresh physical sign, he would also be up ahead with his quarry , reading the signs available to it, sensing fully what it sensed.

He would, in fact, be able to inhabit two worlds, and for a significant part of each day he would trek back and forth between them...

In other words, for the skilled hunter gatherer there was life on two planes, equally vibrant, equally full and... equally accessible.

...It seems clear that such a conviction could not help but lead, ultimately, to certain other kinds of conclusions.

If, for instance, it is possible for a man to 'walk' through the spiritual (that is the imagined) plane, then he could not deny the possibility that others would be able to do the same... Each person who did this visiting thus ought to be able to encounter... others; suddenly the possibility of interaction with others on that plane becomes real.

Further, there would be no reason to conclude that such interactions could only be of a positive sort; it would therefore seem prudent to adopt a stance of vigilance even in thought, lest offence be given on that other plane. Ridding yourself of negative thoughts would be considered essential, if only to avoid antagonizing the spiritual dimension of others.

Because people were vulnerable on two planes, extreme circumspection was a central requirement.

...Reverence for (and perhaps fear of) ancestors becomes reasonable, for death on the physical plane does not means ceasing to exist on the other.

Fasting, vision pits and the seeking of protective Naming-Spirits are seen as reasonable precautions. 

Dreams themselves take on a different significance, being seen as … signals that are being channelled through [one's subconscious]; why would dreams not be the logical way for inhabitants of the spiritual plane to communicate?


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