Native American culture has often been a subject of fascination among Western and European-American audiences, given its wildly different perspectives on religion, judgment, knowledge and wisdom. The differences between Western and Native American culture are substantial and numerous; understanding these variations in thinking can help us to influence our understanding of our notions of knowledge and judgment. Two works in particular that shed light on this different perspective are Carlos Castaneda’s Teachings of Don Juan and John Niehardt’s Black Elk Speaks. In both works, the Native American perspective is solidified; Castaneda’s work sees him working as an apprentice to the native don Juan, while Niehardt records his conversations with the Oglala Sioux medicine man Black Elk. Both of these works enlighten as to the differences between Western and Native concepts of knowledge and judgment; knowledge is much more subjective and spiritual in Native American culture, relying more on intimate personal knowledge of self in relation to one’s environment and the universe at large.
The exploration of knowledge in Native American culture in these two texts is served well by its subjects, both of whom are ‘experts’ of a sort in their respective communities. Castaneda’s don Juan is a Yaqui Indian who is rumored to have “some sort of ‘secret knowledge’”, and that he was a brujo, which in English means “medicine man, curer, witch, sorcerer. It connotes essentially a person who has extraordinary, and usually evil, powers” (3). He is a black sorcerer who practices voodoo and has the capability to turn himself into an animal. Already, the reader is given a glimpse into this particular Native American sect’s definition of knowledge – wisdom is derived from attainment of occultist tricks and spiritual divination, connection of man to the spirit world and nature. Whereas Western culture values science and logic, and define knowledge as the accumulation of scientific and historical facts, Native American approaches are much more holistic in nature.
Native Americans acquire their knowledge, like many, from elders and mentors; don Juan acquires his knowledge from his benefactor (who is thought to be a diablero, or shape-shifting person of evil who practices black sorcery). It must be noted that Castaneda cautions against attributing don Juan’s beliefs to those of Native Americans as a whole: “I was not sure whether to place the context of his knowledge totally in the culture of the Sonoran Indians” (5). By becoming don Juan’s apprentice, Castaneda takes on the mantle don Juan himself did when learning from his own benefactor; this indicates a decided focus on generational learning and a master-apprentice relationship in Native American acquisition of knowledge. Castaneda’s goal in writing his book was to “disclose the internal cohesion and the cogency of don Juan’s teachings,” which deal chiefly with their strategies of acquiring knowledge and power (Castaneda 155).
The acquisition of knowledge for Native Americans is, as previously mentioned, holistic; there is the frequent use of herbs and hallucinogens to achieve the meditative and transcendent effect necessary to perform witchcraft or acquire power: “The importance of the plants was, for don Juan, their capacity to produce stages of peculiar perception in a human being” (Castaneda 6). The use and application of these drugs is one of the primary subjects of Castaneda’s book; according to don Juan (and Castaneda himself), these hallucinogens are a way to achieve inner truth and knowledge, as opposed to the normal Western methods of scientific study and method. Don Juan is unconcerned with the facts of reality, as he “believed the states of non-ordinary reality to be the only form of pragmatic learning and the only means of acquiring power” (Castaneda 6). Knowledge is equated with power, though not strictly (“Power rests on the kind of knowledge one holds,” says don Juan) and this power can only be reached through the transcendent state of hallucination they would acquire through these drugs (8).
When the Native American subjects talk about knowledge in the context of these books, they refer more to a personal knowledge than an objective one. The use of peyote and other drugs in don Juan’s teaching of Castaneda is more or less concerned with how he feels before and after the dose, as well as what he sees. The goal of learning is to overcome fear: “Fear is the first natural enemy a man must overcome on his path to knowledge” (Castaneda 19). Furthermore, one of the most important aspects of acquiring knowledge is to have an “ally,” which is “a power a man can bring into his life to help him, advise him, and give him the strength necessary to perform acts” (Castaneda 19). These allies are powers that can help a man along his life; the book solidifies weed and the peyote smoke as allies for don Juan and Castaneda. Don Juan also believed in Mescalito, an almost deity-like figure who does not teach the proper way to live; instead, he “showed” don Juna how to live (20). Between allies and figures like Mescalito, a man gains knowledge through power, which is the fundamental aspect of a person that must be in place in order to gain knowledge. This perspective is unique to Native American cultures, and much different from Western culture – there, knowledge leads to power, as knowing things means becoming their master. However, Native American culture seems to value the power of the individual first and foremost, that power making him worthy to acquire said knowledge.
Because of this focus on power over knowledge, Native American culture values the individual’s self-efficacy and self-concept as a conduit to said knowledge: “every time a man sets himself to learn he has to labor as hard as I did to find that spot, and the limits of his learning are determined by his own nature” (Castaneda 20). Knowledge is something intrinsically found, not through the typical Western method of dialogue and rhetoric – “he saw no point in talking about knowledgecertain kinds of knowledge were too powerfuland to talk about them would only bring harm to me” (20). To that end, the focus on drugs and hallucinogens to achieve that knowledge is seen as a purer way to learn than talking. Don Juan believes that a “man of knowledge is one who has followed truthfully the hardships of learning”, indicating a strong emphasis on personal growth as opposed to investigation and exploration of the world around them (34). Becoming this man is an unending journey for the Native American; there are four enemies that one must constantly battle throughout his life, and the battle itself comprises the search for knowledge. He would never win, as the last symbolic enemy would always destroy him, thus creating the “idea of impermanency” that explains death for the Native American people (90). The point of the acquisition of knowledge is the journey itself, a very spiritual way of looking at learning and growing as a human being.
Looking at the Native American focus on hallucinogens and holistic medicine to discern internal truths about self and spiritual truths about the universe, one finds little in common with the typical methods of the Western culture it cohabitates with. Ever since the days of Aristotle, we have valued the pursuit of knowledge through scientific and rhetoric pursuits; we talk about things and study them to learn about them. We trust what we see with our own eyes, and rely on standard, reliable instruments to measure the world around us. To the Western world, this is knowledge; a greater understanding of the physical world in which we live through breaking it down into component pieces and seeing what it is made of. The Native American perspective, on the other hand, emphasizes the unknown and subjective; when seeking knowledge, one is enhancing his own power, and understanding the nature of the universe itself. The focus is on anthropomorphized versions of concepts such as power and clarity, calling smoke an “ally” and talking about wish-granting and wisdom-dispensing deities like Mescalito.
In relative contrast to don Juan’s approach, but carrying very similar perspectives, is Black Elk, the subject of Neihardt’s book Black Elk Speaks. Black Elk is much more concerned with a spiritual, holistic view of the universe than finding personal truth; this Native American tradition is focused on continuity and repetition. “You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round” (Neihardt). The Native American people place their knowledge and faith in the unified Spirit of the World, which creates all things around them and unites the elements of the universe. While he speaks of multiple spirits, he believes they are also one – a benevolent spirit that embodies the earth and allows them to learn.
Like don Juan, Black Elk’s perspective is largely informed by the power of drugs; the first chapter involves Black Elk and Neihardt sharing the pipe in order to express peace and find wisdom. The story of the woman who walked into the village and spoke wisdom before blowing “a white cloud that was good to smell” from her mouth is said by him to be the origin of his tribe using the pipe to acquire knowledge (Neihardt, Chapter 1). Between he and don Juan, the Native American people place a great deal of faith in the existence of beings or forces outside the realm of science, which guide the fate of the world and provide for those who place their faith in it. The drugs are used as a kind of conduit to greater access and closeness to the Spirit of the World, thus achieving a state of higher consciousness. This is much different than the Western concept of religion, which typically revolves around Judeo-Christian traditions of a strict, specific and named deity figure (God, or Jesus Christ, or Yahweh) who is the creator of the universe, and to whom we have to be subordinate to. Native Americans have a much more symbiotic relationship to nature and their gods, as their gods are nature itself, and they worship and pay homage to them through the use of these drugs and herbs. There are few strict moral directives placed upon Native Americans by their religion, as opposed to the moral codes of Christianity and Judaism.
Black Elk believes that spirits can speak to people personally, as he describes occasions in his youth where he heard their voices on the wind: “Behold, a sacred voice is calling you; All over the sky a sacred voice is calling” (Neihardt, Chapter 2). He then had a detailed and complex vision, allegedly supplied by the spirits, involving flaming horses and images of tepees and his grandfather; he believes these images were given to him by a supernatural force in order to warn and enlighten him – to give him power, as don Juan says. Like he, Black Elk sees the point of knowledge to maintain and attain power, and vice versa; the individual must grow as a person and a warrior before knowledge and wisdom can come to him.
The relationship with nature that Native Americans have is decidedly different from Westerners, and is part and parcel of their perspectives on knowledge. The ideal state of man is one in which they can live in harmony with nature, according to the Sioux; they name their months after events in nature that happen in that time, like the Moon of Popping Cherries. Goodness is defined by Black Elk as an era when “the two-leggeds and four-leggeds lived together like relatives”; man and nature must be able to live in harmony for true happiness and peace to be achieved (Neihardt). This is opposed to the white way of living, which uses nature as a resource and discards it; Black Elk notes that whites “have made little islands for us, and other little islands for the four-leggeds,” stating their dissatisfaction at their separation in stature and consideration from the animals around them (Neihardt). This clear respect for nature is borne of the Native Americans’ need to use nature to their advantage; they must know how to navigate hunting fields, find the best ways to create clothing and shelter, etc. By focusing so much on this, they became masters of the plain, and Black Elk even believes that the fact they could flourish was proof that the Spirit of the World was watching over them.
In Western culture, however, a rational perspective informs man that there is no special significance to every part of nature, and that they must use it to survive. They feel no need for kinship with plants and animals, as these things are not sentient, and therefore are resources to be exploited. Western culture sees no need for karmic consideration of the equality of the ecosystem except for means of conservation alone (i.e. maintaining the ecosystem so that it might continue to bear fruit for them). Swinging it back around to religious considerations, Western religion typically involves, as part of its doctrine, the notion that God/Jesus provided the earth for men to use, and so they should feel no remorse for using up nature – despite its beauty, it is merely a means to an end for them. Therefore, the acquisition of knowledge through nature mostly lies in studying it as a subject, not learning more about how to interact with it and incorporate it into one’s sense of self.
Looking more closely at these two texts, the holistic view of knowledge presented by the Native Americans allows for a much more eye-opening perspective when viewed from a Western context. Though it is easy for one to discount the philosophies of Native Americans as spiritual hogwash, there is a great deal of merit to the fundamental principles of harmony with nature, self-reflection, and the respect of the universe as a single, unifying entity. By exposing existing perspectives to ‘new worlds’ of thinking, it is possible for us to expand our own methods of thinking beyond what we can see. Though the methods of achieving knowledge are still somewhat strange and archaic (e.g. smoking of peyote and red bark), these make more sense when viewed in a ritualistic context. For Native Americans, knowledge comes with power; to that end, it is possible for Westerners to take from that a holistic and individualistic approach to learning. Instead of learning objective facts, one can learn more about who we are in relation to the universe, learn more about ourselves as individuals, and more.
In conclusion, both The Teachings of don Juan and Black Elk Speaks provide an insight into the holistic, spiritual pursuit of knowledge that Native Americans value more than scientific progress. In Native American culture, drugs are often used as a means to achieve a higher plane of thinking, thus leading to greater communion with nature and the universe, as well as a greater sense of self-efficacy and power. Western cultures, by contrast, are much more accustomed to learning by discussion and exploration, learning objectively about the facts of the world around them. By adopting a more holistic approach, or learning about it at least, Westerners can learn to adopt a more introspective viewpoint and find new sources of knowledge, such as the self, and focus on becoming a more powerful and fully-realized human being (which can lead to greater acquisition of knowledge in the first place). By finding a balance between the objective analysis of science and the introspection of spirituality and communion with nature, Westerners can expand their perspective and perhaps tap into more hidden potential in themselves.
Castaneda, Carlos. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1998.
Neihardt, John. Black Elk Speaks. SUNY Press, 1932.