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Archives: Native American Time   (Views: 14,857)

Contributed by skip on December 28th, 2007

Native American Time
By John Collier

The recent death of John Collier, who was best known for his service as U.S. Commissioner for Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945, came as a shock to me. This may seem an extraordinary thing to write of a man of 84 living in very modest retirement in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, but Collier was an extraordinary human being--a poet, historian, ethnologist, journalist and public servant. More particularly, he was a prophet, and I was shocked to realize that despite the value his prophetic writings had for me, they were not widely known among my friends in the Movement and that I had done very little to correct this.

The fact is that Collier had been for more than forty action-filled years an exponent of a social philosophy that is more relevant today than ever before. The source of his inspiration was the American Indians, to whom he--a "dropout" from Atlanta and Greenwich Village-devoted most of his life from 1922 on. But he was no simple do-gooder or esthete. His encounter with the Indians was shattering in its revelation of true humanity and of the sickness of Western society, with community lost and nature denied.

His best-known work is Indians of the Americas, published in paperback by the New American Library, and his autobiography, From Every Zenith (published by The Swallow Press, Inc.), is fascinating. My favorite book of his is the more philosophical On The Gleaming Way, subtitled "Navajos, Eastern Pueblos, Zunis, Hopis, Apaches and Their Meanings to the World." It is a Sage Book published by the Swallow Press, Inc., and available in paperback ($1.85) and cloth ($3.50). Although it is copyrighted 1949 and 1962 by Collier-and might seem dated-it should be recommended reading for any American who is puzzled by the "stubbornness" of the anti-American Vietnamese. The following excerpt is the first chapter of that book. - L.H.

These Southwestern Indians have much that we know we need. And they have one possession, the most distinguishing of all, which we have forgotten that we need. Rather, perhaps, we dare not hope to make it our own.

That possession is a time sense different from ours, and happier. Once our white race had it too, and then the mechanized world took it away from us. Each of us has experienced that other and happier time sense in young childhood, and then we moved into the lockstep of clockwork time. We think, now, that any other time than linear, chronological time is an escapist dream. The Indians tell us otherwise, and their message and demonstration addresses itself to one of our deepest distresses and most forlorn yearnings.

We bow to clockwork time. We think we must yield to it our all-body, conduct and soul. Strange vortex in the ocean of life, created by intellect and by the machine only yesterday in our racial history, and in hard contradiction with vital and spiritual instinct: such is clockwork time, necessary as a tool, deadly as a master.

Clockwork Time

But we think it is our master, and here the Indians will gainsay us. And clockwork time-the event which in unmusical synchrony marches to the beat of the minutes, the hours, the onrushing and vanishing years of linear time-sweeps us and inwardly impels us faster and faster on. And enough of clockwork time we never have-never. And we abide so briefly, within that rush of linear time which subconsciously we experience as a kind of panic rout; and we are old, so soon, and we are done, and we hardly had time to live at all.

Not that we choose that life shall be that way. Did there exist-as the Indians in their whole life affirm-a dimension of time-a reality of time-not linear, not clock-measured, clock-controlled, and clock-ended for us, we would be glad; we would enter it, and expand our being there. There are human groups, normal, and efficient in difficult ways of the world, which do thus expand their being, and the tribal Indians are among them.

In solitary, mystical experience many of ourselves do enter another time dimension. But under the frown of clockwork time which claims the world, we place our experience out in an eternity beyond the years and beyond the stars. Not out there did the other time dimension originate, in racial history, but within the germ plasm and the organic rhythms and the social soul; nor is its reference only or mainly to the moveless eternity. It is life's instinct and environment, and human society's instinct and environment. To realize it or not realize it makes an enormous difference, even a decisive difference. The Indians realize it, and they can make us know.

Rhythms of Ceylon

There comes from England, by boat mail, a manuscript chapter of a book not yet published. Its writer is a British colonial administrator, recently lecturer on colonial administration at Oxford University, now returned to colonial service in Melanesia. Adrian Dobbs is his name; a man of experience wide and profound. And his subject proves to be the time dimension, examined as a practical factor in the administration or servicing of the billion of "pre-industrial" inhabitants of Asia and Africa.

Time, Adrian Dobbs suggests, does veritably have, for organisms, souls and societies, a dimension different from, and in contrast with, that merely linear dimension which our machines, clocks and calendars insist on. One, two, three, and thus on without pause or end, goes linear time; the synchronized future is hurtled remorselessly across the knife-edge present into a time-ordered past where nothing changes, moves or acts, forever. But not thus, Adrian Dobbs insists, does time appear to the Buddhists of Ceylon, to the Gaels of the wild northwest coast of Ireland, and to many another branch of the human race.

The Time Dimension

In the mind of Buddhist Ceylon, in its private and public behavior, in its work rhythms and play rhythms, its private and public expectancies, linear. time is not the only and not the controlling time. Instead, time as experienced and lived by Buddhist Ceylon is no linear instant wherein all real events march lockstep from nothing to nought; time is enduring and commanding future, which hurtles not across the narrow present to become immured in a linear past-it is enduring future which draws the present on and on. And time is enduring past, which is not dead and gone, which can enter and does enter the knife-edge present, but whose fundamental relationship is with the enduring future. In human reality, in Ceylon, this other time dimension contains the linear dimension as a sometimes phantasmal, sometimes insubordinate and unreconciled, lesser part; in the final event, it is lord over linear time.

Hence, human experience in Ceylon has an atmosphere and meaning and value somewhat different from experience with you and me. Life has an inner spaciousness greater than yours or mine. The capacity to wait, to endure, to possess the things that seem gone, and to strive, and socially to create, is somewhat different from ours. Dobbs believes that the difference is momentous, practically as well as emotionally and spiritually, and he asks: What will result, in changed world events, if the clock-mindedness of the modern industrial West shall equate itself with the enduring-past and enduring-future mindedness of peoples like the Ceylonese? And how far representative, in this matter, are the Ceylonese?

The Tesuque Indians

My mind goes to a certain American Indian tribe. The Tewan pueblo, Tesuque, is practically within the suburbs of Santa Fe, in New Mexico. Its contact with the white world has been a thing of every day, now into its fifth post-Columbian century. Tesuque is a tiny city-state; its population is one hundred and fifty souls. Tesuque is at home in the white world. Economically and politically, it is a cooperative commonwealth, efficient, sophisticated, and of undeviating public virtue; but the virtue contains within itself no puritan gloom. Tesuque functions, when need be, and through a secondary adaptation, along the narrow edge of linear Western time.

In the autumn of 1922, I had occasion for long and absorbed meetings with the Governor of Tesuque and his Council of Principal Men. Whites had seized nearly all of Tesuque's irrigable land. Legislation had been forced through the Senate by the Interior Department at Washington, designed to legalize the whites' seizure of the tribe's lands. The bill momentarily might pass in the House, and was assured of Presidential signature. And a drive to exterminate the Pueblos' ancient religions had been launched by the government.
Tesuque at that date was subsisting (I did not then know the fact, because the Tesuques never mentioned their bodily hunger) on a per capita income of a few cents over sixteen dollars a year, including all produce grown and consumed.

Gradually, as our meetings progressed, and as Martin Vigil of Tesuque enlightened me by interpretation, I came to realize that I had entered a time dimension not like that of the white world from which I had come. These men and women were living in a time a thousand years ago. An event of many thousand years of group volition, no part of it lapsed into a dead past, was travailing across the present into a future of unknown thousands of years. Toward that "enduring future," the tribe's being and soul was winging like a migrating bird along its ancient migration route.

So intense was the reality of this effort of flight between the "twin eternities" of past and future, that all minor aspects fell into oblivion. Personal contingency, personal fate simply did not figure at all. Hunger did not figure. A white well-wisher in Santa Fe discovered that the little tribe was in famine, and set in motion a newspaper campaign for relief. The Tesuques smiled, because the diversion from their real issue was friendly meant; they stayed with their real issue.

A violent action was in process (this was how the Tesuques viewed their crisis), an action directed from the outside against the tribe. The action was designed to kill what the white man called the Indians' past, by shattering the bridge of tribal land and tribal religion which united past and future-the bridge on which the deathless two-way journey plied from living past to living future, living future to living past. Meeting the crisis, the "twin eternities" merged their brooding power; and this they did at each of the twenty-one menaced pueblos in New Mexico of which Tesuque was one. The result was planned action in the linear present -action which will be mentioned at its place in this book;
the action marked and made the beginning of the historic change in governmental policy which revolutionized the situation of all Indians. But at this point, the subject is the time dimension of tribal Indian life, that all-conserving abysm of time wherein is no past wholly gone and no future wholly inert.

Relevance of Geologic Time

On another occasion, some years later, at a pueblo which I may not name, the tribe's priestly representative was assisting for initiation into the tribe a young man from another pueblo who had married a girl of this pueblo. Much that he told this young man, the teacher was not free to tell to me. But part of the tutelage was the unveiling of the hidden names and the spiritual meanings of hundreds of physical places, wide over the land. Mesas, plinths, streams and springs; forests that existed no more, trails unused for hundreds of years. Some of the places had vanished utterly with the passage of linear time; the highest mountain peak, in one of the sacred areas along the Rocky Mountain range, was the highest no longer, and the tree line had moved upward two hundred vertical feet since these tribal memories, as we would call them, this tribal present, as the Indians knew it, had been born. The memories, the present, spanned geological time.

"But Geronimo," I remarked, "your tribe does not own these places and boundaries any more." He replied: "We own them in our soul."

In those years, I still took for granted our modern fatalism: that the Indian's spirit, and all aboriginal and ancient spirit, had to die. Omnipotent clockwork time must engulf all. The glory and power of that other time dimension would have to yield to the cosmopolitan century. I knew it would mean diminishing the human stature, draining the dearest meaning out of the universe, the stripping away of his uniquely vital and human part from man, the greater dominance of mechanism over life. But it had to be, I believed; and only in solitary, mystical experience, thereafter, would all-conserving and prophetic, dynamic, creative time be known.

The ensuing twenty-five years seem to have proved that the fatalism was wrong, not only as applied to the American tribal Indian but as applied to groups in many parts of the world. That time dimension not linear, which was of ancient man, bestows a power to endure, to create, and to outlast; a .motive and a power to bend means to ends; it has a survival value biological and social; it is central to man, and this age of commanding externalism, which seems to have engulfed so much of our white life, may yet fail to engulf the human time dimension.

In the Americas at least, Indian societies which live by the time dimension not only linear, the conserving and future containing dimension, are reasserting themselves in all the lands from the Arctic shores to southern Chile. And in the American Southwest, recent years have witnessed a deeply exciting event. Ancient tribes, in order that their living past shall not die, and under the impulsion of their living future, have utilized the modern technologies and organizational forms with brilliant effectiveness; they have triumphed along the roaring assembly line of linear time, in ways which the clock-conditioned observer finds to be practical and momentous. That other time dimension, which Adrian Dobbs finds in Asia, is no mere subjectivism, no mere and sterile dream of the Ceylonese and the Hopi and Tewan and Keresan and Zunian and California Wintun soul. It is a society-building, action-sustaining, wisdom-giving and health-giving and world-shaping endowment, which humanity will not permanently do without.

Source: Liberation Magazine

Native American Time
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