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Notes from “The cosmos as intersubjective: Native American other-than human persons”

January 29, 2013

… when the power concept manitou is understood as knowledge and influence, the term embodies (that is to say is given presence, rather than abstract representation) an awareness of the social interdependence of all persons. Far from being impersonal, then, manitou describes a world emerging from the intersubjectivity of various beings’ self-oriented and other-oriented purposes… (Morrison, Kenneth M. “The cosmos as intersubjective: Native American other-than human persons” Indigenous religions: a companion. Harvey, Graham, ed. Continuum, 2000. pp. 26-27)

… As one would expect in a cosmos constituted by persons, the Ojibwa think precisely in relational, rather than objective, terms. For them, as for other Native American peoples, causality and personal intentionality are synonymous, particularly since they invariably locate power – here understood as the ability to influence other beings – in the interplay of all sorts of persons. Such a relational view shapes the ways in which the Ojibwa conceive of a wide range of interpersonal phenomena. They understood prominent features of the land as having emerged from the intentional acts of Nanabozho, their culture hero. They think of the course of the seasons, and of day and night, as related to the purposes of Winter and Summer, the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. Bird and animal behavior reveal a similar purposefulness as these persons interact with each other, and with Ojibwa individuals… Hallowell writes that the Ojibwa are not at all interested in dominant non-Indian modes of thinking. They do not ask: What causes? They ask instead: Who causes? (p. 31)

… Native American ways of life have a relational character whose power cannot be understood either in objective or supernaturalistic ways. Native American religious sensibilities focus on the ways in which reality is interactive, rather than substantial, fixed, mechanical, or magical. (p. 33)

Native American languages encode the insight that speech is a power all persons share. As Gary Witherspoon (1977) has shown, the Navajo think of language as generative rather than, as in European convention, representative. Navajo speech does not encode realities which might exist independently, objectively apart from itself. In Witherspoon’s interpretation, Navajo words do not mirror reality. Words do not stand for or, as is often said, symbolize any reality apart from themselves. On the contrary, Navajo speech embodies the speaker’s intentionality, and extends the self beyond the body, to shape a reality coming into being in the field of interpersonal dialogue. Speech influences and motivates a cosmos of relationships and social processes (Witherspoon 1977). (pp. 34-35)

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2 Comments
  1. emmeellez permalink

    “speech embodies the speaker’s intentionality, and extends the self beyond the body, to shape a reality coming into being in the field of interpersonal dialogue.”

    This is what I always found fascinating about Native American Culture — they didn’t see their speech as just speech. The spoken word could influence the very universe and change the course of their lives forever. Speaking something aloud meant that whatever it was, would actually happen.

    No one watched their tongue more than they!

    • Absolutley! There is so much that our contemporary culture has forgotten about sound. Life is all about vibrations and frequencies, sound can heal, build and destroy. Image all the B.S. sounds(words) that we are unconsciously exposed to…

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