The Theosophical Forum – October 1937

WHAT IS AMERICAN INDIAN OCCULTISM? (1) — Arthur C. Parker

A great motto proclaims that there is no religion higher than truth, but many religions and many philosophies have declared themselves the sole repositories of truth and the only means of discovering it. A wise master was once asked, "What is truth?" and it does not appear that an answer was given.

Truth is certainly not a thing that men may wish into being. It is far more basic and transcends wishful thinking and the authority of those who have something to prove. Possibly we go too far in our thinking that ultimate truth is a thing that man can understand. Far too much must yet be learned before we can even approach that abstraction. Our minds can only reach out to certain truths that in the aggregate focus upon the ultimate. Let us see that we do this very thing. Destructive of this focus is the unproved statement not susceptible to experiment. Truths should be aligned as mathematical formulae that any man can prove who has the ability. That x multiplied by x is x2 should not be accepted because a good man says so but because his pupil can demonstrate it. So the truths of religion and philosophy should similarly be tested. This makes for truth and shows that truths can be applied.

Many philosophies and many religions have fallen by the wayside and become curious relics because men forgot this and attempted to create belief by fiat. That a great leader said a strange thing may develop zealots who fight to testify, but the strange thing may only be fraud, hallucination, insanity. And because religion is something that is felt and believed and which stirs emotions it is a dangerous thing when promoted by the dishonest, the self-seeking and the deranged. Yet, how many this world has followed who announced "I am God," "I am Elijah," or "I am the expected Messiah"? Credulity and false hope have plunged the world into intellectual darkness many times and all because men failed to exercise the power of analysis, reason, and experiment. What the world still needs but is unwilling to follow is the real apostle of truth. Truth appears too drab, too commonplace, too unemotional, but not to him who finds in truth a religion that lifts him toward divinity. To all others truths must be masked in symbols and in allegories that eventually are taken for the realities.

And then, there are words that deceive us. We take them literally and build straw men out of them. I recently heard a philosopher state that the world needed clear, penetrating thinking. Another man arose to say that it needed men of character and that thinking is futile. This second man did not define character nor did he say whether he meant good, bad, or indifferent character. The word was a straw man to him and he did not stop to consider that good character is the result of clear, penetrating thinking applied to life for constructive purposes.

Yet because men can only approach truths through formulae and symbol, as the mathematician does, the vast majority see only symbols and worship them as realities, not remembering that they stand for unseen things that can scarcely be expressed in any other way by finite mind.

It may seem trite or presumptuous, as the view may be, to discuss the need of cleaving to the line of truth when seeking to sense its import. It should be immediately seen, however, that any other way is fatal and leads to sophistry, to error in the wilderness of isms. It has been so when seeking to follow through unfamiliar subjects or those that seem veiled in mystery. Among these not one is more provocative of varied treatment than that of man's origin, purpose, goal, death, and possible life or transformation after death. "Shall he live again?" is an aged question. "Does his soul evolve?" is another. "Does he ever again appear upon earth?" is still another.

Each of these questions has been answered in the manner that the asker has wished it to be. The desire has preceded the investigation and desire, oftentimes, has created assumptions. Many of these assumptions, declarations, initial premises, have been erroneous, though all that followed many have been logical deduction leading to strange ends.

It has often been thus with primitive people when their mysteries have been interpreted. It has been so with the numerous tribes of the American native. Often the proponent of a theory starts out by saying, "The Indians did thus and so, believed, knew and practised this and that." The initial error has been to say "the Indian." There is no "the Indian." There are many tribes of these people each of whom had divergent ideas. To say that the Indians believed in metempsychosis, for example, is saying too much. To say that some did is nearer correct.

Cyrus Field Willard in visiting the Onondagas in 1895 talked with Chief LaForte, who declared his belief in having lived before. He stated that he knew that he had lived at a former time and done certain things which he recounted. It is for us to analyse what lies back of that statement and discover whether other native Americans in that or other tribes had a similar belief. Heckewelder, (Indian Nations, 1876, p. 247) tells of his conversation with a person whom he calls, ". . . a very sensible Indian, much esteemed by all who knew him, even among the whites." Said Heckewelder, "He knew he had lived through two generations; that he had died twice and was born a third time, to then live out the then present race, after which he was to die and never more come to this country again." Heckewelder goes on to relate that the man said he remembered the conversations of the people before he was born and could repeat correctly what they said.

The question is, did Heckewelder speak an untruth? Did the Indian? We should examine this question in the light of similar assertions elsewhere and determine whether this belief earnestly stated is common among the races of mankind. If it is, we must examine into the facts behind the assertion. Then if the belief is true because it is based upon experience we must seek to discover under what circumstances the student may arrive at sure knowledge of this belief. Is it a delusion or not or is it based upon demonstrable facts? If we hold to the Indian tribesmen we may pursue our inquiry and have many answers. Some believe, some do not, some do not know, some think it possibly so, others say the idea is absurd. We lose ourselves in a wilderness of opinions by this method. Our answer comes from such men as Willard and Heckewelder quote. They say they know and have had the experience and have it as a part of their consciousness. It is they who say, "I have lived before and I shall live again."

Beliefs like this point out that certain native Americans had knowledge, real or assumed, that others did not possess. Investigation along these lines points out also that many tribesmen had other beliefs asserted as fact. For example; they believed in many forms of occult power such as clairvoyance, thought transference, transformation, invisibility, levitation, wandering spirits, thought therapy and magical cures.

In certain instances groups conserved through their rites the means by which they believed these ends might be attained, but in other instances there were individual seers. There are today.

All through the records of travelers and missionaries one finds references to these seers and to their esoteric societies. There are accounts of their marvels in many places, and even the Jesuit Relations tell of matters that they attribute to the devil. Thomas Morton tells of the shaman who "made ice appear upon faire water in midsummer and cause the thunder to be heard when the sky was clear." (Quoted from Emerson, Indian Myths, 229) Emerson describes the Mystic whom she calls the Jossakeed and mentions the Medas of the Mandans. Says she, "The Jossakeed was distinguished from the Meda by higher occult knowledge. . . . Though the Jossakeed was their prophet and their priest, it is of him the early missionary speaks with animosity, in affirming that he kept the . . . "devil for a sentinel.'" Both Catlin and Schoolcraft describe their power. Emerson again states, "Among the ancient Indians, according to the Shawnees, the Jossakeeds practised their art without feigning. They were true prophets. These prophets were members of the Medawin or Society of Medas."

Shongo the mystic of the Senecas often told the writer of this paper that he had learned to see invisible forms and to talk with them. By the rites of his cult he would reach out and through a "veil" and lay hold of unseen power which he believed he might apply to the healing of the ill. He came from a long line of mystics who lived along the Genesee when the whites came into the valley. Did he do this or was he deceived? He always anticipated this question and would tell how he could see what others could not. His "bundle of power" is now in possession of his son.

Among Shongo's people, the Senecas, there have been many mystics and seers and today there survive several societies that preserve the formulae of the mystic tradition. Many of the elder beliefs still linger, as those of transformation, sympathetic magic, talking with the dead, the propitiation of animal spirits, the potency of certain words, and the reading of thought. "I can send my thoughts afar and talk with my wife," said Cornplanter. Shongo believed this likewise.

To know what lies behind such beliefs one must know these people and what their thought-life is. One cannot accost the ignorant Indian, the debauched or the half sophisticated, and discover much. It is the sincere man of sobriety and clean living who must be questioned, and then only by one in his confidence. In such a manner I have heard weird tales of happenings that the unsympathetic would doubt. I have heard theories of life and of super-life that sound strangely like some mystic doctrine of another world. I have been told that if all were blind one would reach out and discover strange things that only touch would reveal. "We are blind" said Shongo. "But those who have "the other eyes" can see something quite different and yet hard to describe." "We put too much down on paper" said Cornplanter. "It's good but it makes us think things stay still." I was making a diagram and had tried to indicate a point but he replied that a point never stays in the same place. It was not until years after that I heard of the Einstein theory and understood what he meant. Then I understood that my penciled point was but a chunk of graphite on the surface of paper. The real point had moved and I had indicated only something I could not see nor ever can. Then I further understood what Shongo had told me about the nature of the Universe. "It's all lines that whirl," he said. "They cross and re-cross, or, maybe, never touch. But where they touch things happen. They're big but some are small. They turn and touch and that's why things are." Was he speaking of the lines of creative force? I do not know for sure but think he was. This made me wonder just what the swirling universe is beyond my perceptions and whether or not Shongo's statement might not be a truer picture of reality than I realized. Motion, molecules, cosmic circles of energy, the electron here and then there, once matter then energy, change, and the circle returns. Lines cross lines, and strike the spark that for the moment I call I. Then, whither?

My Indian friends of the Senecas have a cult that teaches the four great realities that reach out into what they call the "great peace." These are the Great Being, virtue, immortality and brotherhood. Upon this their ancient religion rests and even the new prophet taught the need of recognizing these. He proclaimed that his message was the Good Word. Properly defined these words seem like the foundation of good religion.

The real point in the beliefs of the various tribes of the American natives is that they were established to bring well-being to the group and to the individual. The individual wanted good fortune, good health, freedom from pain, power to accomplish, and an assured safety in the realm beyond life, or the ga-o-yah-gen-snon-geh, as the Seneca termed it. But beyond this he also wanted happiness and knowledge.

Thus all the religious practices and occult societies were devised to bring about welfare of one kind or another. To gain this there were certain invocations in certain tribes built up from vocables having no known meaning. This was a precaution based upon the philosophy held by some red men as to the potency of words. When a thing gets a name, some believed, it becomes an entity that may be improperly used. It will sometimes confuse thought and understanding. But if I simply say "ah-ah, O ah-ah" as a prayer and pour my heart's desire into the inchoate expression the Cosmic One will understand, and I shall be free from the accusation of having bossed my God around when he knows better than I do what is good for me. Thus the Piute goes to the mountain top and cries into space, uttering the groan of his heart but saying no word that man can understand. "Thus," said the Piute to M. R. Harrington, "a great something hears me; the mountains hear me, the forests, the rivers, and I have healing."

There is a great philosophy in this, for the moment we make words we limit truth. If I say God, I must define God, and I cannot. If I name a doctrine I must also define it and I bring about disputing. The idea of many red men is that the ultimate, whatever that may mean, is beyond words but not beyond the desire of man to find it. The addressing of great facts, the red man has said, is a matter of the heart and the heart has no tongue. Thus did he symbolically express it.

It was men like those we have mentioned who looked deeply into the great realities and who contemplated them. In their unspoiled state and uninfluenced by the "modern way" they built up a deeply spiritual understanding of the universe, an understanding that existed side by side with pitiful ignorance and superstition. It has always been thus in every age.

Without attempting to call these higher beliefs by any name or even to say that we have built up a case at all for the proof of occultism, I pause to ask whether or not any of these hopes, any of these experiences, any of these expressions, strike a common chord in the minds of those who have heard these words.

FOOTNOTE:

1. A lecture given at the Fifth International Theosophical Students Convention, Niagara Falls, Ont, June 12-13, 1937. Dr. Parker is Director of the Museum of Arts and Sciences, Edgerton Park, Rochester, New York. He is a native North American Indian. Eds. (return to text)


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