In Vine Deloria’s book Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths, the great Native American scholar lays down the premise that the disciplines of history, geology, physics, and science in general have assumed superiority of thought in their brief existence over the collective memory of humanity. The Enlightenment’s insistence on an objective, sterile, and a-moral investigation into existence ushered in a new era of disembodiment from indigenous consciousness; rationality taking precedent over community virtue, inherited knowledge, and love of the land, following the domesticating trend of separating spirit from mind and mind from body; detaching self from origins and origins from conscience. Enlightenment philosophy proposed, in short, that alienation and disenchantment were crucial in order to understand who we are and just what the hell is happening around here.
The authority of truth once given to traditional wisdom has been cast by academics into the rubble pile of myth and legend. In the colonization of belief, if land-based consciousness wasn’t suppressed by the Church on its mission of religious imperialism, then the state did that work instead. In their early forms either one was inseparable from the other, but sometimes their empires diverged. Long after the slavery, genocide, and oppression reigned in by these institutions destroyed most of the indigenous population, paving the way for more modern forms of government, the aristocratic religion of natural philosophy or science was introduced to further the mission of development and the aims of enlightenment, updating the models of civilized society for more widespread conquest. Not far behind them came the overwhelming technics of the industrial revolution, striking a crushing blow to the popular legitimacy of ancient tradition as life became ever more estranged from the land and the spirit. Though in relative terms Enlightenment’s narratives had the lifespan of a newborn compared to its great-great grandmother of indigenous tradition, its logic of alienation and authoritarianism justified its own vanity in the act of devastating ancient cultures.
Sacred relics and ancestral graves were raided in 20- and 21st century America . This is called theft, if there’s someone around to catch you (as there often was, though scientists of course had state protection). These hijacked artifacts furnished museum exhibits and provided artifacts of study for the expanding institution of science, essentially burying indigenous culture alive and writing their tombstones in textbooks and journals. The historical narrative took on the character of globalization as the new story of human development emerged from archeological sites around the world, rather than from the living memory of the people whom archeologists presupposed to study. And the industrial world had no reason to doubt them–the masses had lost their history along with their ancestral lands and traditional communities. The new historical narrative seemed rational, homogeneous, and unquestionable as industrial society itself.
Meanwhile other disciplines (from biology to meteorology and all around the board) retained their authority in the face of anomalies by “damning” the unexplained, as Charles Fort would write, to the shadows of disbelief and blind skepticism. Evidence which did not align with the academic narrative was disregarded out of hand. The mysterious, mystical, and spiritual experiences of humanity became regarded as no more trustworthy than lies since they could not be proven by materialist means, and the majority of the population, having been weened on materialism, didn’t see any reason to argue. It seemed perfectly plain and logical, after all. The vast importance granted by indigenous peoples to vision, spirit, and harmony with nature was thus transformed by the empire of civilization from wisdom to superstition, or romantic superstition at best. Society and knowledge go hand in hand (or rather knowledge is only rewarded as far as it furthers a society), so an industrial society void of spiritual fulfillment provides technical, materialistic, objective (impersonal) knowledge, and damns the rest.
Even stories which appeared almost universally in tribal cultures across the world still aren’t recognized as legitimate by modern scholars. The story of the great flood is nearly universal, and to a lesser extent the belief that advanced civilizations preceded or precipitated it. So is the legend of people losing their inherent psychic powers after some figure introduces the invention of language. Many tribes maintain that they came from other star systems which, according to the revelations of quantum physics (a discipline which has finally breached the wall of objectivity) is actually conceivable. Stories of giants, ghosts, and spirits are also universal yet only given credence by a few pseudoscientists, New Agers, and other “crackpots” and heretics. But the question remains: why do scientists find these ancient sources so untrustworthy? Is it a symptom of distrust in human nature, the sheltered pride of a privileged class intent to maintain its authority, or the pretensions of those who are blind to their own dogma, and so take it to be free of irrational belief? I think it is all of these, their foundations at home in the walls of civilization, the tilled soil of all alienating philosophies.
And what really troubles me is that by these standards, anarcho-primitivism seems to follow this pattern of disregarding ancient lore in regards to the origins of civilization, something that I think should be crucial to our understanding of the crisis and our work to subvert it.
Certain tales, such as Genesis, and Gilgamesh, are taken as metaphors supporting archeological evidence and modern cultural narratives concerning the rise of civilization, but this essentially belittles the intelligence of those who put these stories down in the first place. Themes from these narratives appear in traditions across the globe, whether in agricultural or hunter-gatherer societies. In fact, if you look at them side-by-side, they appear to tell the same story. If we believe in the wisdom and sanity of ancestors, why don’t we believe in the histories which they have to share with us? The drama of Gods and Monsters, the crossroads of the divine and the human, the intervention of strange beings and unknown creatures, the magic and power of times past, and the legends of colossal upheavals of the earth? It seems, in short, because believing these things would make us crazy, a title given so often to those in touch with an unwelcome truth that perhaps we could take it as a compliment.
None the less, crazy or not, pseudo-historians, tribal peoples, and ethnographers have kept these legends alive, though an untold number of priceless stories and songs have passed into oblivion. And the fact remains that if we are to understand how to get beyond civilization, we would do well to take these narratives into account, especially when we find them repeated across the globe. Vine Deloria explored the possibility of the ancient astronaut theory applying to our interpretation of world history as espoused by Erich von Däniken, although he made clear this was not his personal belief (again, see Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths). In any case, he was sure something besides the mainstream narrative had to be true. David Icke is a figure universally scorned except in small conspiracy circles although he makes a very interesting synthesis of lore and history pertaining to the spread of authoritarianism, reaching all the way back to oral traditions around the world. His interview of Zulu shaman Credo Mutwa is a fascinating story, if unbelievable to most.
Whatever may be the truth, I think civilization could safely be called an unexplained anomaly itself, so far as modern narratives are concerned. Its origins seem completely unprecedented in nature, and its cause illudes even the most keen of anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians. In our bafflement we might consider that to look at the cause of civilization we have to look at the rather obvious heirlooms of ancient tradition and trust in the ability of these mediums, and those who perpetuate them, to reveal precious truths about history. Why, after all, would they forget?
We’ve seen an amazing spread of interest in “secret histories” through the last decade, and whether it’s the moon landing conspiracy, Illuminati/Freemason hype, or 9/11 truthers, everyone wants a look behind the curtain of mainstream narratives. This shows how the population is looking to embrace the mysteries of our origins and their role in the modern travesty, even if they haven’t factored in civilization as a whole quite yet. Everyone is looking for a way out, a way beyond, a triumph over the pervasive modern oppression and deceit, and it seems the popular imagination (or perhaps the popular intelligence) intuitively grasps the possibility of extra-ordinary causes for our extra-ordinary problems. Investigating the origins of civilization beyond the scientific narratives will not only make our critique more accessible to the wider population, but may also help solve that gaping question still plaguing anarchists: how do we kill a beast which has no heart to strike?
My friend Nathan related to me a story of his great grandfather who was a missionary in Navajo country. One night he awoke to the horrifying sound of rocks pelting his house. By the time he’d dressed and loaded his rifle, his windows were broken and his wife was hysterical. He stepped outside and the rain of stones stopped. He couldn’t see anyone in the deep shadows that surrounded his house. “Come out of the dark and face me like a man!” he yelled. A Navajo man stepped forward into the moonlight and shouted, “Why don’t you come out from behind your priest robes and face me like a man!”
It’s time for anarchists to do just that. We have our own veil of dogma which we need to lift if our paradigm is to address the problems we face universally. Relying on the authority of anthropology and archeology (not to mention the authority of anarchism itself) is no more holistic than relying on the white collar of the church to give our words weight. In short, we should reconsider what we are willing to consider a part of our worldview. We should be careful not to dismiss extra-ordinary evidence that reinforces our beliefs, simply because it seems so extra-ordinary. In a universe this strange and marvelous, I think we can hardly discount the strange and marvelous stories of our ancestors, especially if they have survived the near-complete genocide of spirit and ancient tradition executed by science and civilization.
The purpose of wisdom, as demonstrated by indigenous lore, is not to derive facts from material evidence, but to cultivate maturity, harmony, and knowledge in the spheres of the personal, the community, and the larger macrocosm. I remember a story of physicists coming to a reservation to explain atoms and particles to the natives. After they were finished, an elder stood and said (something like), “What you are saying is not wrong or untrue, but can not guide a [wo/]man to walk with the Great Spirit on the good red road.”
Another tale has a youngster asking his grandfather, “Why does it snow in our valley?” His gran’pappy told him how a long time ago a man from their tribe had stolen fire from the thunder spirits and denied its return. As retribution, the thunder spirits promised to burn the green plants each year and rain their ashes on the valley, which is why the green plants died in fall and it snowed in winter. At this the young boy said, “But it snows in the next valley over, too…” His grandfather told this to a friend, and added sadly, “He didn’t understand.” The point of a story–any story, any history–is to pass on values and wisdom. In this case, the lesson is that all of nature is full of living spirits which we must treat with respect, or suffer the consequences. Traditional history perpetuates the myth of man-as-conqueror, and if we wish to turn this cataclysmic concept on its head, a totally new type of poetry-of-that-passed could be a lethal weapon against civilization.
(That being said, though, I’d like to add that no rose needs a history. As Emerson wrote, “These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” The great spirit does its work without end, and it does it on the same earth with the same elements it always has, though the scenery has changed. That ever-present truth is far more essential for the anarchist to comprehend than stories of what has passed. There is no past.)