A circular past and an extended present

Regular readers know I’ve become interested in the idea that it’s very difficult to understand the past unless you can gather enough context to develop what some call “historical empathy.” In short, people from the past have world views different enough from ours that their actions and experiences can’t be interpreted through our own sets of beliefs, values, and assumptions.

This post is about how the people who lived in the land now called Ontario more than 400 years ago thought about time and creation, in order to start building even a partial foundation of “historical empathy” before later posts get into more detail about how they lived, loved, fought, and died. My source is a book by Georges E. Sioui called Huron-Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle. Sioui is a Wendat, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in the history of his own ancestors in order to “scale the imposing heights of the citadel of white knowledge” and be taken seriously as a scholar.

I’ve mentioned the Wendat before (the French re-named them “Huron,” because the French were always renaming everything). The Wendat Confederacy and its predecessors have thousands of years of history in the land now called Ontario and beyond. Sioui writes that they were “people who had possessed a civilization — a brilliant civilization worthy of being known and recognized.”

The challenging idea at the centre of his book is that Wendat civilization was fundamentally different from European civilization, and therefore can’t be understood using a European frame of reference. “First and foremost,” he writes, “Amerindian world vision is circular, as opposed to European-based linear world vision.”

One consequence of a circular world view is that the concept of “advancement” becomes difficult, if not incoherent. Europeans considered Wendats, who lived in villages and grew a surplus of corn, “to be ‘more advanced’ than their Algonkian hunter neighbours,” but “the Wendats apparently did not, in any way, see their move to agriculture as a shift to a superior subsistence mode. On the contrary, this society, with its strong spiritual (circular) sense, seems to have viewed the nomadic life of the hunter as being closer to holy things and therefore an ideal human condition.”

Many of us are so used to the idea that agriculture represents a “more advanced” type of society that this is surprising. We’re also frequently exposed — sometimes explicitly, sometimes insidiously — to the idea that European cultures were superior to Indigenous ones. But “the belief in cultural evolutionism — a fundamental premise of linear thinking — is absolutely and permanently foreign to Circle civilizations. In North America, in any case, over five hundred years of indefatigable assaults have failed to convert Amerindians to a linear perspective.”

A related distinction is that “Amerindians in general, and the Wendats and Iroquois in particular, have a sense of morality that differs completely from the Christian tradition. Christian morality advocates and seeks an absolute good, while Amerindian morality sees absolute good and absolute evil as equally dangerous concepts.”

Sioui recounts the Wendat creation story and points out that it involves a “woman who comes from a paradise and founds a human race in a world that is a testing ground fraught with danger; and the presence of two brothers, one of whom kills the other.” The similarity to the Christian myth of the Garden of Eden is striking, especially since both stories developed while the “old” and “new” worlds were completely isolated from each other.

But a key difference in the Wendat creation myth is that “life triumphs without eliminating death.” And instead of having “a single God who is infinitely good and who crushes evil… Wendats have Aataentsic and Tawiskaron, who protect them against absolute good.” [Italics in original.]

Therefore, in circular societies, “nothing exists by and for itself. Good is partly the product of evil, as evil is partly the product of good, which means that neither quality exists as an absolute.” Also, because of their animist spirituality, which depends on a “capacity to perceive the soul (anima) inhabiting all beings and all things,” the Wendat were “unaware of the concept of human and non-human exploitation aimed at the accumulation of power by certain groups within a society, to the detriment of the majority.” That any society could be unaware of that concept is shocking to me, since it is such a cornerstone of my own.

This spiritual and moral context is relevant to all other historical understanding, Sioui says. “For peoples without writing (a characteristic of Circle societies, generally speaking), life cannot and should not be a purely material and temporal venture. History that fails to address the human spirit and conscience is of no use.”

And, he says, historians have done a particularly bad job of appreciating the special circumstances that arose when circular Amerindian societies were suddenly severed from their past by the violent insertion of linear European societies:

Their historical trajectory was abruptly and radically curtailed by the coming of Europeans to the Americas. It is only natural that Native peoples should still feel the violence of the shock, as well as the psychological and spiritual trauma resulting from this collective severance. It is also normal, therefore, to find that Amerindians have been unable to distance themselves spiritually from the repercussions of its terrible impact, and that they cannot view this impact as over and done with; they see it as part of their present and something to which they must necessarily and inevitably reconnect.

Ok but time does move in a straight line forward… doesn’t it? That belief is so fundamental to my understanding of the world that all of this still feels a bit lost in translation.

The story that helped me get the closest to grasping a circular relationship to time was one that Sioui recounts from N. Scott Momaday, who himself is remembering a story his father told about his own father. As a storyteller, Momaday’s father “invariably slipped into the present tense.” A story that began “he loved melons… we stopped at a certain place” would become “he loves melons, and he always stops at that place.” Momaday says “this is a common thing in my experience of the Indian world. For the Indian there is something like an extended present.”

After quoting this story, Sioui writes that “with regard to their respective conceptions of time, historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists speak languages that are unintelligible to Native people, and vice versa.”

More people should know this:

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