Debate Magazine

Powers on Lakota Cosmology

By Cris

Those interested in Lakota culture and history will be familiar with the work of former Rutgers anthropologist William Powers. He spent nearly 40 years living and working with the Oglala of Pine Ridge Reservation and Brulé (Sicangu) of Rosebud Reservation. I’m not sure how he accomplished this feat, given Lakota suspicions about the anthropological enterprise, but he did. Along the way, Powers published several important books, including Oglala Religion (1977), Yuwipi: Vision and Experience in Oglala Ritual (1984), and Sacred Language: The Nature of Supernatural Discourse in Lakota (1992). Recently I was reading a Powers article on Lakota cosmology and took special note of the following passages:

I agree that cosmology, which I see as a first-cause mythology, is intended or invented by humans to rationalize symbolically their universe and to justify what they believe to be its orderliness. I believe that cosmology is further invented to account for particular processes through which people believe their universes traverse. Firstly, all people believe in specific attributes which precipitate the origin of their universe. Secondly, they agree that once originated there is an orderliness in the process which their universe evolved or developed, even though occasionally this perceived orderliness may be perplexed by chaos. This second part of the process also explicates their own creation. The third part of the process emphasizes what we know most about, the rituals and myths that are stated and performed for the purpose of maintaining some sense of order between peoples, and between peoples and the other part of the environment, and between peoples and gods. (166)

If we turn for a moment to the ordinary definition of cosmology, in most general terms it is simply that branch of metaphysics that deals with the universe as an orderly system. Cosmogony, which equally applies here, deals with the creation of this universe. I see a great deal of utility in viewing cosmological concepts as a relative system of beliefs and rituals, which are concerned with explaining not only the origins of the universe in culturally differentiated terms, but in explaining the relationships between cause and effect. Perhaps more significantly I should say between effect and cause, because in my way of thinking it is the everyday exigencies (that is, the effect) which are of paramount importance to people, and only secondarily their causes. I would then argue that cosmology is more profitably analyzed when viewed as a dialectic between experience and the need to rationalize that experience and the perceived supraempirical or metaphysical causality believed to account for such experience. (175)

When reading these passages, which have a distinctly Tylorean or “intellectualist” feel to them, I was thinking that Powers had been reading Robin Horton’s essays. Horton contends, rather controversially, that traditional thought or “religion” is primarily about “explanation, prediction, and control.” Powers does not, however, cite Horton. So it seems that Powers developed these ideas on his own and verified the validity of this approach with four decades of fieldwork among the Lakota. This would seem to vindicate Horton’s thesis.

Elsewhere in the article and as an interesting aside, Powers criticizes Black Elk Speaks in ways that I found rather surprising:

It might be argued that a good deal of American Indian cosmological  considerations may have been invented or reinvented by the white man creating a near obsession with literary characters such as Black Elk…And how many Black Elks are appearing on the contemporary cosmological scene today? Not only do we have the fictive culture of a white man’s dream of Indian tradition looming large on the academic scene, but today contemporary Indians have raised his status to that of saint, that is, all but those contemporary Oglala, many of whom are named Black Elk. They recognize that what is appealing about their grandfather is mostly fabricated out of the poetry of a white man, and they understand that a good part of contemporary Lakota culture, if not generalized American Indian culture, is based on the “teachings” of Black Elk, a body of text sometimes more reminiscent of a summer vacation bible school than a Lakota paradise.

This assessment won’t be welcome news to those conceive of Black Elk as something like an Indian bible. While I have never heard such criticisms during my visits to Pine Ridge, perhaps it is because I have never asked. I will do so during my visit next month and report back in due course.


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