A Report on the Fetzer Institute-sponsored
Western and Indigenous Scientists
Dan Moonhawk Alford
A Presentation for the 1993 Annual Spring Meeting of the
Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness - 4/11/93
Last year I was invited as a working participant in the highest-level
intellectual conferences ever held between the first nations of the American
continent and its historic European invaders. After 500 years of bumping
bodies together, there was finally a meeting of the minds between these
ancient cultures. World-class quantum physicists met with the cream of
Native American intelligentsia, with field-experienced linguists in the
middle, in order to see if any points of agreement could be found in a
meaningful dialog between these otherwise incommensurable cultures.
The dialogues were sponsored by Fetzer institute in two conferences:
In May and December '92, at Kalamazoo and Banff, but I'm focusing on the
first one. A transcript of the conference should be available late this
First two days: Small, preliminary, laying out Native American views
for physicists; then, in larger meeting, three days, with time, space &
language as the major topics.
Quantum/consciousness physicists: David Bohm, David Peat, Sam Kounosu
Linguists: Me, Clem (Al) Ford, Buff Parry
Native Americans: Sa'ke'j, Little Bears, others
Psychologists: Paul Grof, others
I was asked to be a working participant in this dialogue primarily
because of my unwavering support for the principle of linguistic relativity
and other ideas of linguist Benjamin Whorf over the past 20 years, despite
having to swim against the prevailing academic tide to do so. My role was
to help translate concepts between the two worldviews and point out the
deeper causes of communication problems between them.
The Fulfillment of a Personal Dream of David Bohm
It wasn't until during the conference that I found out that David Bohm,
once an associate of Einstein, had been the real instigator behind this
meeting--that this had been a dream of his for decades, ever since reading
what Benjamin Whorf had to say about Native American languages being verb-dominated.
In fact, this had been the third time he had tried to pull such a meeting
together, and finally his persistence paid off and everyone was able to
coordinate their calendars to make it happen.
Historic as far as Native Americans are concerned
(Sa'ke'j:)* It was an amazing experience to
get that kind of respect, for most Native Americans, to be sitting at the
table with the greatest scientist on some kind of cognitive equality, and
come to certain agreements that our language may better describe the subatomic
world... than their language. but they don't know any other language, and
they are very curious about why we would have pre-knowledge of something
hat their methods and rules are just arriving at.
And what did Whorf mean by verb-dominated language? Whereas every sentence
in English must properly have a subject, a noun or noun phrase, and a verb,
many if not most Native American languages can have sentences with no nouns
at all. 'Rehpi,' a full sentence in Hopi referring to a celestial event,
means 'flashed,' where we have to say 'the lightning flashed.' But this
goes much further: sa'ke'j says that when he's speaking mi'kmaq back on
the reserve, he can go all day long without ever uttering a single noun.
this statement is mind-boggling to most English speakers. So much of our
facts and knowledge are wrapped up in nouns, so what would all that knowledge
look like in a language that doesn't value nouns in the same way? This
includes all concepts, all the way to 'god'.
(Sa'ke'j:) We don't have one god. You need a noun language to have one
god. We have forces. All forces are equal and you are just the amplifier
of the forces. The way you conduct your life and the dignity you give to
other things gives you access to other forces.
Even trees are verbs instead of nouns: The Mi'kmaq named their trees
for the sound the wind makes when it blows through the trees during the
autumn about an hour after sunset, when the wind usually comes from a certain
direction. So one might be like a 'shu-shu' something, and another more
like a 'tinka-tinka' something.
Points of Agreement between
Although physics in the western world has been essentially the quest
for the smallest noun (which used to be a-tom, 'that which cannot be further
divided'), as they went inside the atom things weren't acting like nouns
anymore. The physicists were intrigued with the possibilities inherent
in a language that didn't depend on nouns but could move right to verbs
when the circumstances were appropriate.
Physicists & Native Americans
1. Everything that exists vibrates
This point of agreement is important because it moves beyond our usual
'thingy' or particle notion of existence based on raw sensory impressions,
which is favored in the indo-european language family, and allows a justification
on the part of Native Americans for the existence of spirits.
2. Everything is in flux
(Sa'ke'j:) The only constant is change--constant change, transformations;
everything naturally friendly, trying to reach a more stable state instead
of bullying each other around. That kind of process the English language
doesn't allow you to talk about too much, but most Native American languages
are based on capturing the motions of nature, the rhythms, the vibrations,
the relationships, that you can form with all these elements, just like
a periodic table in a different way: relationships rather than a game of
billiards, where you only count the ones that go in--all of their motion
3. The Part Enfolds the Whole:
(not just whole is more than the sum of its parts)
(Sa'ke'j:) When we wear leathers and beads and eagle thongs and things
like that, it's not seen as totally ludicrous, as decoration - it's seen
as containing something you want to have a relationship with.
4. There is an implicate order to the universe
(Sa'ke'j:) This implicate order holds everything together whether we
want it to or not, and exists independently of our beliefs, our perceptions,
or our linguistic categories. It exists totally independently of the methods
or rules that people use to arrive at what it is, and David Bohm's captured
that with the great phrase the implicate order, versus the explicate order
of things that they can explain quite concretely, such as a rock falling
out of a window. This also agrees with the lakhota phrase 'skan skan,'
which points to the motion behind the motion.
5. This ecosphere is basically friendly
Sa'ke'j maintains that the planet, and especially the Americas as well
as the physical universe, are basically gentle and friendly: You don't
have an electron jumping and bullying into other(s) unless it knows it's
missing a stable state and knows it can reach that stable state and increase
its own stability.
6. Nature can be taught new tricks
(Sa'ke'j:) We also agreed that that world out there that exists--that
reality, not imaginality--can be taught new tricks with the cyclotron;
and what was raised in the meeting was, are these new tricks beneficial,
or will they create a hostile universe on their own, independent of scientists,
once they teach electrons how to jump and how to amass the energy to jump,
and it becomes a bullying, hostile biological world.
7. Quantum Potential and Spirit
Reminds me of Alan Watts talking about how the universe has had to learn
how to get ever smaller and ever larger as we probe it with microscopes
and telescopes, receding ever further in the distance as self observes
After listening to the physicists and American Indians talk for a few
days, it struck me that the way physicists use the term potential, or quantum
potential, is nearly identical to the way Native Americans use the term
spirit. They all agreed there was something similar going on.
8. The principle of complementarity
Physicists for all this century have realized that our usual notion
of bipolar or black & white opposites was insufficient when working
with nature. The first clue came when they asked incoming light, 'Are you
particle?' and it answered Yes; 'Are you wave?' and it answered Yes. This
is equivalent to asking whether something is a noun or a verb and getting
a yes answer to both--which is exactly how Native American language nouns
are made up: as verbs with suffixes that make them temporarily into nouns
for discussion sake. this yes-yes complementarity is foreign to Indo-European
languages, but quite common in other language families (such as the Chinese
notion of Yin-Yang), and represents a higher level of formal operations,
in Piaget's terms, referred to by some as post-formal operations--that
which lies beyond normal Western Indo-European development.
Looking out window at the wind/flux/spirit
At one point during the fourth day of the conference, Sa'ke'j and I
were facing an expanse of floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto a forest
outside the plush Fetzer institute, and the trees were swaying back and
forth. The physicists had been looking at the wall behind us for hours
and hadn't seen the dramatic happenings outside. Sa'ke'j had them turn
around and look outside and said, 'We've been talking about the flux all
day. There it is. What's causing those trees to move? You can call it the
wind, but you might as well call it spirit.'
Report on Blackfoot sacred geography in second meeting, time permitting
The Blackfoot Nation just completed a project where, using a map of
western Canada, they took out the modern names and, on consultation with
elders, put in the old names of Blackfoot geography. When they were through
with Bow Mountains, Elbow River, Flat Tummy Plains, and something with
head and foot included, out popped a picture of Nabe the creator as a hunter.
Thus, wherever they were on their land, they were also inside the creator's
body, always relating to the heart.
David Bohm on last night
David Bohm died just a few months after the first conference. but the
way I remember him most clearly is as he was on the final night of the
conference, at the powwow: Barefoot, dancing a round dance around a fire
to the beat of Native American drums, in the moon of the croaking frogs--with
a smile on his face, as if he was now a part of something he had long wished
for. He had seen how being part of a different language means paying attention
to reality in different ways.
I knew that Sa'ke'j and Leroy had read Bohm's and Peat's works long
before this historic conference and so were ready for them, but I supposed
that the scientists knew very little about the American Indian worldview.
I asked Sa'ke'j on my TV show whether he thought the scientists were ready
(Sa'ke'j:) No, I think they were really in culture-shock for a while,
until we started constructing a bridge toward them. We had them go through
the pipe ceremony and stand at the center of our universe, and then we
had them dance at night at a powwow we arranged. We said well, if we're
going to talk about your scientific universe, you have to compromise with
us and get into our method, our rules of comic to describe the world.
And I think there's a way to see the Fetzer Dialogues as the fulfillment
of a prophecy of sorts made over 50 years ago by Benjamin Whorf, who said:
We all know that the forces studied by physics ... are powerful and
important. People generally do not yet know that the forces studied by
linguistics are powerful and important, that its principles control every
sort of agreement and understanding among human beings, and that sooner
or later it will have to sit as judge while the other sciences bring their
results to its court to inquire into what they mean.
I offer this as a tribute to David Bohm. Thank you.
*This and other quotations from Sa'ke'j taken
from an 8/92 interview with Moonhawk on 'Reality, Mind & Language'
TV show in Hayward CA. (back to text)