The survival of the Plains religion
a philosophical approach

by Poehl Friedrich, PhD

I point my peace pipe toward all these directions. Now we are one with the universe, with all the living things, a link in the circle which has no end. It means we were here long before the first white man came, we are here now, we will still be here at the end of time - Indian time. We will live!

Lame Deer

The fatal encounter of the Old and the New World was marked by immense aggressiveness on part of the conquerors, who believed that the New World was up for grabs and the indigenous American peoples part of their colonial find. Not much later philosophy began to take an interest in these "savage" peoples and developed the ethnology of our own culture; since ethnology confronted researchers with alien cultures and modes of thought, this experience of contrast enabled them to take a distanced view on European culture thus transforming European philosophy temporarily into an ethnology of their own culture. It was the French philosophers of the 16 th , 17 th and 18 th century like Michel de Montaigne and Jean Jacques Rousseau - as well as 20 th century philosophers like Claude Lévi-Strauss - who explicitly or implicitly developed a philosophical ethnology of our own (european) culture. This philosophical ethnology of our own culture and thus the philosophical myth of the "noble savage" originated in the 16 th century; Montaigne, for instance, presents European culture as truly evil and barbarian, whereas the culture of the native American peoples stands for the ideal of a life lived in freedom and solidarity and in harmony with nature. The "savage" way of life of the indigenous American peoples epitomizes what is good and is seen in Montaigne's Essais as the realisation of Plato's ideal state.

The discovery - or rather the conquest - of America also introduced a complementary myth into Europe's history of ideas; the myth of the "evil savage". The "evil savage" is compared to a beast, he is exclusively driven by his instincts, he is unfree, practices cannibalism and is belligerent by nature - homo hominis lupus . He is the inferior other, the alien who is in contrast to Europe's "civilized" and consequently superior culture. A typical representative of this point of view is the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Pigeon's Egg head going and returning from Washington, Painting from George Catlin

The dispute between the notion of the "evil savage" and the "noble savage" has been resolved in favour of the latter; the concept of the "noble savage" is still promoted in our age by Claude Lévi-Strauss. The ethnologist and philosopher Lévi-Strauss clearly opposes any form of ethno- or Eurocentrism and the colonialism and imperialism resulting from it. According to Lévi-Strauss, ethnology, which originated in the wake of colonialism and was pursued so excessively as to lead to the destruction of other cultures, has revealed that the peoples of Europe are the real cannibals [1999a : 384]. Ethnocentric thinking is marked by the exclusion of the other as epitomized by a foreign culture; it is an intellectual approach which is not based on an open attitude towards the other, and therefore it is not surprising that the customs of the indigenous American peoples had - and to a certain extent still have - nothing new to offer to European-American thought. As Lévi-Strauss put it everything was, if not "déja-vu" (already seen), "déja-su" (already known). This retreat into oneself, this lack of sensitivity and this deliberate blindness were the first reactions of a society which had perceived mankind as something completely undivided and suddenly had to face the fact that it was wrong: it had to face the fact that it only constituted one part of mankind [1996a : 242]. Even though the notion of "déja-su" still seems to prevail today, we should remind ourselves of Nietzsche's words that the Gods die, but of laughter, when they hear one God say that he is the only one.

The concept that so-called primitive peoples are defined exclusively by their basic needs - procuring the food necessary for survival, satisfying the sexual drive - and the definition of primitive thinking as being primarily based on emotions and myths, is ultimately the expression of ethnocentristic feelings of superiority, and denies these peoples all intellectual faculties. In Lévi-Strauss view, however, "savage thinking" makes use of the intellect in a way that is comparable to the way of thinking of a philosopher or scientist in the Western tradition; "savage thinking" is a logical system of concepts condensed in images [1997 : 304]. Lévi-Strauss illustrated this typical feature of "savage" thinking taking - among others - a myth of Indians living on the Canadian West coast as an example: The myth deals with a time when all human beings and the animals were plagued by winds that blew all the time. So it was decided to wage war against the winds with the ray playing the most important role, capturing the wind from the south. The southerly wind was released, but had to promise only to blow every other day and only during certain seasons, which enabled the humans to fulfil their tasks. The ray is given this special role because he is a fish who very often manages to escape when hunted. Seen from the upside or from below a ray looks very big, seen from the side, however, he is very thin. A hunter might think that it was very easy to kill a ray with an arrow, but the fish can turn to the side showing his profile, which does not provide a target for the hunter. Depending on the point of view, a ray can answer "yes" or "no", he can adopt two discontinuous states, one being positive and the other negative. Lévi-Strauss compares the use of the ray in the myth with the elements used in modern computers, which provide a series of "yes" and "no" answers and can accordingly be employed to solve complex problems. Even though it is empirically impossible for a fish to fight the wind, it is logically feasible that images originating from experience are used - images that can take over the role of conceptual thinking:

"An animal that functions as a binary operator [...] can logically be related to a problem that is also binary. If the southerly wind [...] only blows half of the time - one day it does, the other day it does not - then a compromise is possible between the needs of human beings and natural phenomena" [Lévi-Strauss 1996b : 33-36]. (1)

Within the framework of philosophical structuralism Lévi-Strauss also deals with the concept of Wakan. In his introduction to Marcel Mauss' work he probes the question whether the notion of Wakan is the expression of a universal and eternal form of human thinking, a form which is by no means characteristic of certain civilisations, of so-called archaic or semi-archaic "phases" in the evolution of the human mind. When the Sioux called the first horse they ever saw Sunka Wakan , i.e. mysterious dog, because it did not at all look like a human being but rather like a dog - only much bigger - then they proceeded in the same way as a Frenchman who calls an unfamiliar object a machin (thingummy). In addition, this word brings "machine" to mind and, more remotely, the idea of strength and power. The difference between Wakan and machin lies in the fact that Wakan is the foundation of a system of meanings which in our culture is solely applied in science. Even though the word Wakan is as such devoid of meaning it can take on any meaning, i.e. it has the function of closing a gap between the signifier and the signified or reveals that under certain circumstances there is a relationship of inadequacy between the signifier and the signified. The concept of Wakan does not belong to the order of reality, but to "symbolic thinking". According to Lévi-Strauss the activity of symbolic thinking is contradictory: Man always has a surplus of signifiers at his disposal in proportion to the signified elements, between the two there will always be inadequacy, which can only be resolved by a divine mind. Man therefore has always faced an excess of meaning and concepts like Wakan are "floating signifiers", which modern scientific thought tends to discipline although they are the prerequisite for all art, all poetry, and all mythical or aesthetic creation. Concepts like Wakan, Manitu or Orenda are the conscious expression of a semantic function and it is their role to enable symbolical thinking. It does not matter whether we interpret Wakan as something abstract or something concrete, as omnipresent or not omnipresent, as a quality, a state or a force - it is everything at the same time for the reason that it is nothing of it all. Wakan is a symbol in its purest form which can assume any symbolic content; it is a "symbolic zero value" whose function it is to counteract the lack of meaning without transporting any clearly defined meaning itself [Lévi-Strauss 1999b : 34-41]. (2)

In the same way, Lévi-Strauss sees similarities to Henri Bergson's metaphysics in the Omaha Sioux concept of Wakonda, which defines objects and living things as solidified forms of the creative continuity of Wakonda . In this context Lévi-Strauss quotes the following statement of an Omaha sage:

"Everything as it moves, now and then, here and there, makes stops. The bird as it flies stops in one place to make its nest, and in another to rest in its flight. A man when he goes forth stops when he wills. So the god has stopped. The sun, which is so bright and beautiful, is one place where he has stopped. The moon, the stars, the winds, he has been with. The trees, the animals, are all where he has stopped, and the Indian thinks of these places and sends his prayers there to reach the place where the god has stopped and win help and a blessing" [1970 : 98].

Lévi-Strauss equates this concept of Wakonda , which he explicitly calls a metaphysical concept common to all Sioux, to a definition of élan vital , the metaphysical life force, which roughly summarizes Bergson's metaphysics:

"A great current of creative energy gushes forth through matter, to obtain from it what it can. At most points it is stopped; these stops are transmuted, in our eyes, into the appearances of so many living species, i.e. of organisms in which our perception, being essentially analytical and synthetic, distinguishes a multitude of elements combining to fulfil a multitude of functions; but the process of organisation was only the stop itself, a simple act analogous to the impress of a foot which instantaneously causes thousands of grains of sand to contrive to form a pattern" [1970 : 98].

The élan vital does not follow the laws of science, it flings itself into matter and materializes and differentiates itself in two evolutionary lines or two different types of consciousness - in the instinct of insects and the intelligence of man [Bergson 1992 : 194]. And it is both the Wakonda and the élan vital making a stop which is seen as the act of organisation that causes all living organisms and material objects. For the Omaha life and nature are a manifestation of Wakonda , for Bergson they are a manifestation of the metaphysical "driving life force", which he conceives as the expression of the love of God and the reason why the universe exists:

"Beings have been brought into existence who were destined to love and to be loved, for the creative energy has to be defined as love. Those beings are dissimilar to God, who is this energy himself, and could only come into existence in a universe, and therefore the universe had to come into existence" [1992 : 200].

In spite of this, he does not see anologies between his metaphysics and the Omaha's. Wakonda originally is a religious force and religion is nature's defence against the intellect's perception that death is inevitable; therefore he sees in Wakonda an elementary idea conceived by the human mind, which will then later be developed into the notion of a soul surviving the body [1992 : 103]. Furthermore, Bergson is convinced that the philosophy of the American Indian peoples has to be perceived as something represented through action and not simply as a product of the mind. The fact that all things and beings partake in Wakonda is the expression of the vague idea that they are driven by a force that obeys the wishes of man and which man can take possession of. In this sense Wakonda is what enables things to be influenced by magic activities. Its effectiveness is of prime importance for religion and magic, therefore Wakonda is not a philosophical concept standing for an abstract force, but a general human feeling of an effective present. It is not necessary to understand the nature of this present, because what is essential is its effectiveness [Bergson 1992 : 137].

If we consider effectiveness as the origin of religion, we can see that the death of God in Western thought as diagnosed by Nietzsche occurred as early as in Aristotle's metaphysics, which is based on the concept of the divine unmoved mover and defines God and the divine as pure impersonal thought, as thought thinking itself. For Bergson it is evident that we will encounter insoluble problems if we consider God from the Aristotelian point of view and decide to give this name to a being that man would never have thought of turning to [1992 : 190]. The absence of effective presents in the sense of Wakonda kills religion, which is indispensable for the existence of any society and the individuals living in it, because it is the prime task of the universe and of humanity to generate Gods [Bergson 1992 : 247], who can be encountered in rites and ceremonies.

Another philosopher who discusses the key concepts of Northern American Indian traditions in his writings is Ernst Cassirer. The Manitu of the Algonkin, the Wakonda of the Sioux and the O renda of the Iroquois are primarily notions of effectiveness. They stand for the powerful, the effective and the productive as such and are therefore the fundamental and catholic categories of the Indians' world view, which does not allow the separation of animate and inanimate subjects, of spirit and matter or man and nature [Cassirer 1993 : 189]. These categories enable man to influence the divine directly by means of rituals. As the "mythical" (Cassirer does not say "primitive") perception of reality considers being effective and being real as one, there is no gap between existence and non-existence, between life and death. The dead are real too, they have only gone to a different place [Cassirer 1993 : 49]. The mythical view of nature and life is "sympathetic", nature is seen as one large community based on solidarity and the feeling of an indestructible unity of life is so strong that it even defies and denies death [Cassirer 1996 : 133]. The presence of the dead is illustrated by the fact that the spirit of the dead is often kept back or called back as in the Lakota Sioux ritual of keeping the soul of someone who has died. According to Cassirer, mythical thought does not perceive death as a natural phenomenon, death only comes into existence because of a certain form of causal, i.e. scientific analysis of the empirical conditions of life; in this sense science "kills". Cassirer also compares Wakonda to the famous Greek thaumazein , i.e. the astonishment that is the origin of myth, scientific cognition and philosophy [1993 : 99], and Wakan to the concept of pneuma in Stoicism. A sympathetic kinship of man and nature can only be based on the conviction that there is something in nature that encompasses all things. In Greek philosophy this conviction is articulated in the Stoic maxim of the "sympathy of the whole". The Stoic concept of the all-penetrating, ubiquitous pneuma , a breath present all over the universe, which confers to all things the tension that keeps them together is - Cassirer says - similar to the concepts of the Sioux' Wakan and the Algonkin's Manitu [1996 : 149].

We, however, think that this all-encompassing something characterizing the theo-cosmological concepts of the Lakota Sioux has more to do with Wakan Tanka in all its material and immaterial manifestations. Wakan Tanka is the expression of the totality of the universe as well as of the kinship of all things in the universe; therefore the universe and all its components can be given the attribute Wakan . In the same way the Stoic concept of pneuma seems to be closer to the Omaha Sioux' Wakonda. According to the Stoics the flow of pneuma is the cause of the individuation of matter and the consubstantiality of all things or the "sympathy of the whole". The disposition or the state of a single thing is defined by pneuma : The sentence "Black Elk is smoking the pipe" says that Black Elk's smoking is a disposition (state) of the pneumatic flow which makes a piece of "matter" what it is, i.e. Black Elk. The divine pneuma forms, pervades, and mingles with matter and enables Stoics to presuppose the omnipresence of the divine and the organic unity of cosmos. The consubstantiality of all things is proved by the fact that the stream of pneuma pervades any matter, even the tiniest and most inferior component of it. By analogy, also the Wakonda pervades, forms and individuates matter, with all things being points in which it rested. It was only in this way that individual things could come into being [Fletcher/La Flesche 1992 : 600]. This also explains the "sympathy" or the kinship of everything; all things, even the most inferior ones partake in the force of Wakonda. The ethnologist Fletcher writes: "... each >form< was the result of a >stop<, where there had been a distinct exercise of the will power, an act of the creative force of Wakonda performed. Looking on nature from this standpoint, men, animals, the earth, the sky and all natural phenomena are not only animated, but the bear a relation to one another..." [1992 : 600].

Praying to the Great Mystery (Sioux)

A merely theoretical discourse about the key elements of the religion of the inhabitants of the Plains, however, could not and cannot guarantee the survival of their religion and culture - also because this discourse has always been undertaken by defining powers outside the Indian culture. Rather, it is the use of their own language (3), land ownership and the performance of traditional, however modified ceremonies (e.g. the Sun Dance) as well as their acceptance and belief in otherness and the knowledge that God is not dead which enables the Plains religion to survive and gain strength.

The land is drenched in mythical and religious themes, there is a direct and close relationship between religion and the land. It is no coincidence that in their myths many Indian tribes emerged from the earth; the Lakota Sioux were lured to the face of the earth by Iktomi , the Mandan Sioux climbed to the surface on a wild vine. Conversely, the dead are taken back by the land and are therefore close to the living; the loss of the land accordingly means being separated from the dead ancestors and members of the tribe. As Lame Deer explains in his autobiography there is a reciprocal exchange between man and the land, and therefore only wooden signs were used on old Indian cemeteries which decomposed like the bodies. The typical burials in trees of the Plains Indians in earlier times also had the aim of returning the bodies to the earth. The inhabitants of the Plains are existentially tied to the land - a fact that can be described as geographical metaphysics. How closely land, life and death are connected for the inhabitants of the Prairies is illustrated by the words of the Crow chief Curley, who refused in 1912 to hand over ever more land to the government:

"The soil that you see here, is not ordinary soil - it is the flesh, blood and the bones of our ancestors. [...]You have to dig deep before you find other soil, because this layer is Crow. This land is my blood and my death, it is holy, and I will not give you one piece of it" [Deloria 1995 : 118].

The fundamental difference between our modern Western societies and the societies of the Plains cultures is the desocialization, the exclusion of the dead and of death. With us the dead disappear, they cease to exist, because they have been banished from the community of the living. According to Jean Baudrillard the dead are excluded from the symbolic circulation of the group and this causes the living, who are separated from the dead, to be haunted by and sentenced to an equivalent death [1982 : 198]. Therefore our Western culture is a culture of death. The symbolic, Baudrillard says, is the reversibility of the gift through a counter-gift, the reversibility of time through the cycle, the reversibility of life through death [1982 : 8]; the symbolic is neither a concept nor an instance, category or structure, it is an exchange and a social relationship [1982 : 209]. Baudrillard sees the symbolic activity which consists in returning life to death thus eliminating the duality of life and death primarily in initiation rites. Initiation is the basis of the ties between the living and the dead, and in this sense the symbolic or ritual death of the initiated as in the Midewiwin ceremony of the Oijbwa in Minnesota epitomizes the reciprocal exchange between the dead ancestors and the living. Instead of a divisive cut or duality there is continuity, and a social relationship between partners is established, in which death can no longer manifest itself as the end or as an instance [Baudrillard 1982 : 207]. Continuity, not the duality of life and death, is also the foundation of the general religious and philosophical concepts of the Omaha Sioux, who believe that animals, trees and natural phenomena like thunder and lightning or water and earth exist in the realm of the dead as much as in the realm of the living [Fletcher/ La Flesche 1992 : 589]. The "reality of life" only comes into being by separating life and death, and conversely the "reality of death" only emerges in a culture that has been cleansed of symbolic exchange, in a culture that no longer has anything to give in exchange, a culture which does not recognize death as a collective experience, but has conferred it the meaning of an individual fate. In Western culture death is not absorbed by the community, but by biology: "As far as biology is concerned: it is clear that it is scientific rational thinking that has drawn the distinction between animate/inanimate which is the basis of biology. By creating itself as a code, science literally creates death and the inanimate as a concept as well as the separateness of death as an axiom enabling it to pass laws. Like the good Indian there is only one good (scientific) object, namely a dead one. [...] All other cultures have not conceived the notion of the inanimate, only our culture has produced it in the name of biology" [Baudrillard 1982 : 240]

The cultures of the Plains have no biological concept of death or the inanimate, the human species is not considered most important, rather the animals, natural things, earth, the gods, the spirits and the dead are partners and companions. The symbolic exchange of life and death is also extended to nature as shown by the ritual felling of the tree which is going to represent the holy tree of life during the Sun Dance. Four virgins first touch the tree with the axe, i.e. it is killed symbolically, and is then felled by war veterans to be born again during the ceremony in the centre of the earth as the holy tree of life. At the same time, the symbolical killing of the tree is the rite of passage to womanhood for the virgins. As the tree guarantees the life of their people through its ritual death, so will the four virgins. They are the new life of the people, which confers them the honour to kill the tree. The duality of man and nature, of life and death has been resolved. In contrast to Western thought death and nature are not objective, material things, they are absorbed by ritual reciprocity. The Sun Dance is of cosmic importance, it epitomizes the periodic renewal of growth and the fertility of the earth and of life in general, and this is why the tree is decorated with the symbols of life. Images of a buffalo (representing what the people need for their lives) and the sacred bundle (containing implements for making life like a piece of dried meat) are usually tied to the top of the fork of the tree.

Sun dance tree, Pine Ridge Reservation 1998

Wasna and buffalo fat is also put under the tree as a gift to the earth. According to Fools Crow wasna is a gift in honour of all dead and their relations, it is a plea to Wakan Tanka that He may guard the dead and their widows and children and may nourish them; the dead are not forgotten. The Sun Dance is a ceremony of annulment and depreciation, but simultaneously renewal and recreation or rebirth of time, the world and of life. It is only through the symbolic death of the tree that the humans are able to liberate themselves from wrong-doing, lack of knowledge and hopelessness to give room to new knowledge, new hope and new growth. Killing the growth of the tree, says Fools Crow, symbolizes the victory over death [Mails 1997 : 169].

It is in the tortures of the Sun Dance, which were considered barbarian for a long time, that the central idea of the reversibility of a gift through giving something in return seems to materialize. Accepting the world from the Gods as a gift is only acceptable if humans repay it with gratitude, prayers and eventually with sacrifices - and the ultimate sacrifice is one's own body. The Sioux Chased by Bears explains the meaning of the tortures as follows:

"The cutting of the bodies in a fulfilment of a Sun dance vow is different from the cutting of the flesh when people are in sorrow. A man's body is his own, and when he gives his body or his flesh he is giving the only thing which really belongs to him. We know that all the creatures of the earth are placed here by Wakan Tanka. Thus, if a man says he will give a horse to Wakan Tanka, he is only giving to Wakan Tanka that which already belongs to him. I might give tobacco or other articles in the Sun dance, but if I give these and kept back the best, no one would belief I was in earnest. I must give something that I really value to show that my whole being goes with the lesser gifts: therefore I promise to give my body" [Densmore 1992 : 96].

A sundancer 1892

In any sacrifice there is always someone who gives and someone who takes; the one who gives has to open up and encounter the transcendental, which means facing a reality that is more than himself. In an immanent closed world without transcendence death and life are not defined by giving and taking. If God is dead there is no need for ceremonies and God is dead because there are no ceremonies left.

In modern Sioux culture, however, God is not dead, because ceremonies still exist which transgress our secular time and bring back mythical age and its divine archetypes. The deeds and actions of primordial divine beings can be repeated and this guarantees the renewal of the world and a new life. In this sense the Sun Dance is a cosmogonic ceremony founded on the notion of a ritual death and a ritual rebirth of the world, of time and of man (4). Equally, the Inipi ceremony illustrates the annulment of secular time, because the absolute darkness inside the lodge takes back all participants to the archaic mythical moment of chaos and ignorance. When the participants leave the lodge at the end of the ceremony, a new age, new knowledge and a new life begin. At the same time, the Inipi ceremony repeats the deeds of the mythical and divine Stone Boy who - aided by the first Inipi - resuscitates his five uncles who were killed by an ugly, old witch [Lame Deer 1994 : 182].

The Sun Dance, the Inipi and the vision quest are not only the embodiment of man's communication with the universe, they are also the expression of a symbolic (in the etymological sense of the word) exchange between man and God or individual divine beings on the one hand and between life and death on the other. Life is not a one-way process, it is returned to death; the living encounter death and the dead through rite and ritual. Losing their ceremonies would lead the Plains Indians to a state similar to the one of the people in Plato's cave allegory.

Moreover, these ceremonies are based on the notion that linear time is reversible through the cycle. The cyclical renewal of time and the world by means of ceremonies results in a perception of reality that is also ceremonial. The irreversibility of time and of history is denied in a sense, the periodic ritual obliteration of time and the subsequent collective regeneration somehow enable the Plains cultures to start a new, almost virgin existence each year.

Sweat lodge ceremony , Pine Ridge Reservation (Sioux)

The perception of death as part of a cycle and the belief in the return of mankind as described in Sioux mythology (5) epitomize their denial of the irreversibility of time and of historical events. Cyclical thinking is often accused of leading to pessimism and fatalism; to this, however, we can respond that this cyclical annihilation as symbolized in these ceremonies gives rise to tremendous optimism, because they convey the certainty that a disaster is never definitive and has a meaning because it is always a sign of renewal [Eliade 1993 : 145]. If you perceive life as a cycle, death is never the banal end of a linear biological phenomenon.

Perceiving time as linear, leads to the concept of eternity, of a never-ending expanse, which in turn marginalizes the vital experience of being safe and sheltered in the centre of a life-giving and soul-giving circle. To the Sioux the circle is sacred, it is more than a geometrical figure, it fosters identity and solidarity and encircles the living within a ring of life. This ontotheological and theocosmological perception of the circle symbolizes a collective feeling of security, harmony between nature and culture and immunity from the "reality of death." Lame Deer says:

"The nation was only a part of the universe, in itself circular and made of the earth, which is round, of the sun, which is round, of the stars, which are round. The moon, the horizon, the rainbow - circles within circles, with no beginning and no end. To us this is beautiful and fitting, symbol and reality at the same time, expressing the harmony of life and nature. Our circle is timeless, flowing; it is new life emerging from death - life winning out over death" [1994 : 111].

The great ceremonies of the Sioux again and again focus on the centre of the circle to which all points are connected. In the centre of the tipi there is the fire, which is a manifestation of Wakan Tanka's power, and the round fireplace in the centre of the sweat lodge is at the same time the centre of the universe, where Wakan Tanka is present with his force, the fire [ Brown 1953 : 32]. As Black Elk repeatedly says, all life emerges from the divine centre and returns to it. Therefore the Omaha and Osagen Sioux ritually placed newborn infants in the "centre of the four winds" and thus initiated them in the divine and cosmical ring of the universe. In contrast, European thinking replaced the spherical God of theology with the mathematical concept of linear eternity as early as in the 12th century and deprived Him of His centre. A God who is defined as an endless sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere can only be a disappointing God who cannot provide shelter or security. For this reason man could relate less and less to this ever more sophisticated "theo-mathematical monster" and it was Nietzsche who first nihilistically encouraged us to do away with this useless God by announcing the death of God [Sloterdijk 1999 : 538]. The Sioux religion, however, has preserved the sheltering, life-giving function of the circle, because their notion of "circles within circles" among others still defies the mathematical concept of the endlessness of a linear expanse. According to Lame Deer the white man has not only killed God's son, but also the circular, morphological God providing security for all beings:

"The white man's symbol is the square. Square is his house, his office buildings with walls that separate people from one another. Square is the door which keeps strangers out, the dollar bill, the jail. Square are the white man's gadgets - boxes, boxes, boxes and more boxes - TV sets, radios, washing machines, computers, cars. These all have corners and sharp edges [...]. You become a prisoner inside all these boxes" [1994 : 111].

As this metaphysical sphere of immunity has disappeared, modern man is forced to construct his own order and is cast into a precarious existence inside boxes, where he does not find freedom and security, only eternal captivity and voluntary slavery.

The hypotheses advanced so far about the potential ability of the Plains cultures and religions to survive also reveal why both the Lakota and the Omaha Sioux only have very vague ideas about the afterlife, which in general do not go beyond concepts like the path or the land of the spirits. If we remind ourselves of the fact that the Sioux live and experience the ties between the living and the dead communally in their rites and perceive and experience Wakan Tanka and his divine manifestations as real, then we can understand that they have no need for proofs of immortality or of the existence of God. Conversely, we have to ask whether Western philosophy has not almost forced such proofs on mankind since the establishment of the Judeo-Christian belief (i.e. since the establishment of a linear model of time) resulting in the end of the cyclical reappearance of mythical or divine archetypes [Eliade 1993 : 175]; or we have to ask whether philosophical proofs of immortality have not simply tried to conceal the death of God, because there have always been churches to conceal the death of God [Baudrillard 1982 : 37]. (6)

Finally, another indicator for the ability of the Plains religions to survive is the way in which they accept and perceive otherness. If we presume like Lévi-Strauss that an analysis of myths enables us to see how a society functions and how its thinking operates, then the analysis of twin mythologies of the North and South American Indians shows that their systems of thought are dualistic and contain a "void", which leaves space for the totally different (in particular for the Non-Indian). According to Lévi-Strauss the native American peoples decided to explain the world as a dualistic system oscillating in ever-lasting imbalance, a dualistic system which sometimes materializes in myth, sometimes in social organisation and sometimes in both in a coherent way [1996 : 260] (7). The void is caused by a dualistic ideology which contains the potential for otherness and a dual relationship. Even though the myths of the Sioux do not explicitly leave a "void" for Non-Indians like the myths of the Tupinambá and of other South American peoples analysed by Lévi-Strauss, the fact that the Sioux allocate the four holy colours to the four directions of the wind and to the four human races goes to show that they include the other in their system of thought and of ceremonies. Furthermore it is well known that the holy men of the Sioux tolerated other religious beliefs; Black Elk, Fools Crow and Lame Deer have repeatedly stated that Jesus must have been a "good medicine man". Including the other through hospitality as practiced by the Plains cultures (the other is always also a guest) gives them a power to absorb which guarantees the survival, if not the reinforcement of these traditions.

Although the twin mythologies are a popular subject in North America, Lévi-Strauss's analysis has shown that there are no real twins in these myths. What they do is give information about the native North Americans' perception of the world and of society as founded on a dynamic imbalance, which can never reach a state of inertia. Therefore these myths deal with the impossibility of being a twin, which also pervades the relationship between Indians and whites, and they show that every unity hides a duality and that - when this duality manifests itself in reality, there can never be total equality between the two halves [Lévi-Strauss 1996 : 83]. The myths develop a series of different solutions, and if the duality is irreversible, it takes on an antithetical form as exemplified by the benign and the malign twin in the Iroquois myth of creation. In Lakota mythology the unequal twins are the ("good") thunderbird ( wakinyan) and the ("bad") giant Iya , who fight each other perennially without either being able to defeat the other. At the same time they provide a mythological explanation of destructive forces in nature like gales and thunderstorms [Walker 1989 : 218]. In addition, the mythological figure Iktomi illustrates that good and bad inevitably exist; the duality of good and evil, of betrayer and the betrayed is united in a figure and not absorbed in the universality of good or evil.

Bad spirits too are an undisputed entity in the religion of the Sioux holy men and they cannot be redeemed by a universal reconciliation with the good. In a system in which two eternal and irreconcilable principles co-exist, duality is the norm and - as Baudrillard stated - it is only in a dualistic system that radical otherness is possible:

"Otherness is not based on vague dialectical relationship of the one and the other, but on an irrevocable principle. Without this dual and antagonistic principle we will only ever find a phantom of otherness, just mirror cabinets of difference and a culture of difference in which the great concept of duality has been lost" [2000 : 138].

The notion of redeeming duality in a final reconciliation testifies to the dream of the modern age that the exchange of good and bad can be rendered impossible and that all negative traits can be eliminated. According to Baudrillard, every manipulation of a gene and above all the American experiment of Biosphere II are manifestations of the dream to extinguish everything that is negative - also death . But a world that has reached immunity and immortality through technology leads mankind in a direction, where the symbolic features of the species disappear, confirming Nietzsche's vision that a human species left to itself can only "duplicate" (cf. cloning) or "destroy" itself [Baudrillard 2000 : 53]. In the religion of the Sioux, however, the exchange between good and evil is still possible. Their religion cannot be affected by God's cunning - as Nietzsche sees it - to redeem guilt through his son's sacrifice, thus stripping man of the opportunity of giving a reciprocal counter-gift and creating an endless circle of guilt, a burden that mankind has to carry forever [Baudrillard 2000 : 15]. The death of God's son is a unique event which cannot be repeated, and Lame Deer says about this and in the context of cyclical regeneration:

"The difference between the white man and us is this: You believe in the redeeming powers of suffering, if this suffering was done by somebody else, far away, two thousand years ago. [...] We do not lay this burden onto our god, nor do we want to miss being face to face with the spirit power. It is when we are fasting on the hilltop, or tearing our flesh at the sun dance, that we experience the sudden insight, come closest to the mind of the Great Spirit. Insight does not come cheaply, and we want no angel or saint to gain it for us and give it to us second-hand" [ 1994 : 219].

So the burden of guilt is not passed on to God, but redeemed by a personal and collective counter-gift, the vision quest and the Sun Dance.

The dualistic model also offers a "void" within the structure of society for what is completely different. The contraries or heyokas as they are called embody tolerance and acceptance of the other. If the contraries break a taboo, they are treated with indulgence, their unnatural behaviour is considered holy, and immense spiritual powers are attributed to them. The contraries remind us of the Dionysian and animal forces in human society and in ourselves, and we could define them as metaphors for interior and exterior otherness. When clowns utter forbidden thoughts and feelings, temporarily causing a "revaluing of all values" (Nietzsche), they prevent society and the individual from repressing these feelings and protect man from their dangerous return. The nonconformism of clowns is neither anarchy nor blasphemy, they are not excluded from society as mad or unreasonable persons. Additionally the degree of openness towards the other can be seen in the treatment of homosexuals, lesbians or transvestites. For instance, the important role of a winkte is giving a long life name to a person, which, as the name suggests, guarantees this person a long life.

Openness towards the other and the consequent rejection of uniformity as dictated by a universal (divine) force which - like racism - excludes and eliminates all that is different is a basic feature of Sioux culture and religion. Differences even within the same species, Vine Deloria says do not prevent unity and homogeneity and do not require the use of force - otherness is a fundamental philosophical discovery:

" Living with creation is more than just tolerating other forms of life; it reflects the discovery that difference is the strength of creation and that this strength was the creator's desire." [Deloria 1995 : 84].

Departing from Sitting Bull's remark that it is not necessary to make eagles out of crows, we can state that the European-American attempt to change the world into eagles undertaken under the auspices of universality, reason and the general good is only producing vultures [Deloria 1993 : 207]; this is the transparency of evil.

Western civilisation is driven by the desire to do away with all otherness under the pretext of humanitarianism. Nature, the animals, other cultures and races are subjected to a universal rule of law, everything and everybody is allocated a place in the hegemony of evolutionist anthropology. According to Baudrillard this is the true triumph of uniform thinking as epitomized by the Western definition of the universal, the good and democracy; it is an anthropocratic way of thinking cleansed of any symbolic order, which only produces the hell of uniformity [2000 : 55]. The hell of uniformity is the prototype of the impossible exchange, where the subject can only encounter itself and becomes its own antibody. This is not the hell of the other, it is the hell of uniformity - and this too is the transparency of evil [Baudrillard 1992 : 140-141]. Like racism a philosophy of the same never discovers the other, but produces waves of uniformity leading to the extinction of what cannot be identified [Deleuze, Guattari 1992 : 245]. The culture of the Plains, however, takes its inspiration from opening up to the other, it does not follow the Cartesian principle of cogito ergo sum and does not revolve incessantly round the mere manifestations of the I. It also recognizes the other as fate, it lives in a fated world and by the uniqueness and firmness of its values and rites. It does not live - as Baudrillard says -with the lethal illusion that everything can be redeemed and understood; an undecipherable remnant of fate still exists. The Plains culture humbly encounters fate, our western civilisation has destroyed all that is elsewhere and is now filled with consternation because fate no longer exists:

"Everything can only come from ourselves. In a way this is absolute unhappiness" [Baudrillard 1992 : 167].

Our fate is now in our hands, the modern liberated individual is a subject deprived of the other and left to itself. It is no longer part of a transcendental order and therefore exhausts itself in its own potential. Lacking fate, it replaces it by fatal experiments with itself:

"For instance all the people who expose themselves to extreme conditions: people sailing around the world, lonely mountain climbers, explorers of caves, participants in war games in the middle of the jungle. All the high-risk situations which in former times were man's lot by nature are now recreated by a kind of longing for extremes, for survival and for death. A technical simulation of suffering and of sacrifice, also in the humanitarian drive to take over the suffering of the others in order to find a substitute for fate" [Baudrillard 2000 : 72-73].

Because God in Western culture is dead, we are responsible for the world, which no longer finds justification in another transcendental world; the world and life and death in it can no longer be returned in a ceremonial counter-gift - and therefore, Baudrillard says, we cannot simply accept it thankfully but we will have to replace it by a simulated artificial world, we will have to liquidate the natural world [2000 : 23]. If we exclude the other, death, evil, fate and God, the human species can only duplicate itself or destroy itself. Excluding the other can only manifest itself in hatred, racism and in the form of deadly experiments [Baudrillard 2000 : 65] - and from this point of view it seems that the survival of the native Northern American cultures and religions in the Plains is guaranteed.


1. So-called primitive thinking makes use of "concrete" logic, which consists in contrasting or binary perceptions of the properties of concrete things (e.g. damp/dry, raw/cooked etc.), whereas modern analytical thought is based on completely abstract opposites like + and -.

2. This zero value or zero point is the foundation of philosophical structuralism. This empty field is the only place that must not be filled: "This emptiness, however, is not not-being; or in the least, this not-being is not a being in the negative, it is the positive being of >the problematic<, the objective being of a problem and a question". On this, see Gilles Deleuze, Woran erkennt man den Strukturalismus (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 1992), p. 54.

3. According to Lévi-Straus language is structure as such, because its symbolic functioning constitutes man as a social animal: "Whoever mentions man, mentions language; and who mentions language, mentions society". On this, see Claude Lévi-Strauss, Traurige Tropen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1999), p. 385.

4. The Lakota Sioux' Sun Dance has not a mythical archetype like the Cheyenne's, which is called "hut of the new life". The Sun Dance of the Cheyenne is the ritual re-enactment of the mythical shaman and his wife in the cave of Maheo. Having been taught by Maheo, they leave the cave and the whole earth is regenerated.

5. According to Siouan mythology, it is believed that at the beginning of the cycle a buffalo was placed at the west in order to hold back the waters. Every year this buffalo loses one hair, and every age he loses one leg. When all his hair and all four legs are gone, then the waters rush in once again, and the cycle comes to an end. On this, see Joseph E. Brown, ed. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953), p. 9.

6. At the beginning of 1890 on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota one hundred and thirty-six church groups were established with land grants. Their target was a mere thousand Sioux. One church for every seventy-three Sioux. On this, see Jack Little , Lakota Spirit: The Life Of Native American Jack Little (Sydney: Andrew Hogarth Publishing, 1992), p. 4.

7. With the Omaha Sioux this dualism is not expressed in their mythology, but in their social structure which is perceived from a cosmic and religious point of view. The ring of the camp was divided in East and West by an invisible line, the Sky peoples camped to the north, the Earth peoples to the south. There are numerous examples of this dualism, e.g. every marriage was a union between Sky peoples and Earth peoples or between heaven and earth. On this, see Alice Fletcher, and Francis La Flesche, The Omaha Tribe (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), pp. 134-198.


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