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Reply to Mary Churchill

From: The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 24, Number 3, Summer 2000
pp. 494-502 | 10.1353/aiq.2000.0006

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The American Indian Quarterly 24.3 (2000) 494-502

Mary Churchill has criticized my interpretation of certain aspects of the belief system and religious behavior of the Native peoples who are the subject of my book The Southeastern Indians. By far the richest information on such beliefs and behavior is that on the Cherokees, collected by James Mooney in the late nineteenth century. Hence, the Cherokees figure prominently though not exclusively in my book. Churchill criticizes my documentary sources as well as the use I make of them, and she criticizes my use of the theoretical and interpretive approaches of the time in which I wrote. In particular, she criticizes my contention that (1) polarity or opposition was a salient feature of Southeastern Indian thought and that (2) an important theme in their ritual behavior was purity and pollution.

I must say that reading her attempt to reconstruct my thought processes as I wrote The Southeastern Indians has been something of an out-of-body experience for me. It has been twenty-five years since I have thought intensively about these matters, and it has not been easy for me to conjure up the mental furnishings of the person I was.

Let me first try to recall the theoretical influences on my thinking when I was writing The Southeastern Indians. Churchill is correct in saying that I regarded Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger as a seminal work. In refreshingly clear, sprightly prose, Douglas set forth a new way of interpreting taboos and prohibitions, not as irrationalities to be explained by one or another psychological or sociological theory but as proceeding from the structure of folk classification systems -- as by-products of a people's attempt to impose order on the world. I particularly admired her analysis of the abominations of Leviticus, for it implied that her analysis held for ancient Hebrews as well as for such people as the Lele of Africa.

In retrospect, I now see that I was perhaps too admiring of Douglas's analysis of the Book of Leviticus. Even though I always thought of symbolic anomalies as purely logical constructs, as things that fell into two or more categories (in the same way that a bat has mammalian fur and teeth but flies with the birds), I sometimes referred to anomalies as "abominations," after the manner of the Book of Leviticus. I will have more to say about this later.

I must say that I am concerned that Churchill implies that I do not sufficiently acknowledge my debt to Douglas. I had thought that my citing her book in footnotes was sufficient.

Whether Douglas's Purity and Danger was influenced by the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss I cannot say. But if her own words matter, she was more influenced by her mentor, the anthropologist Franz Seiner, himself an orthodox Jew who had written on the subject of taboos. For my part, I can say that I never drew heavily on the work of Lévi-Strauss, though I was surely aware of his recognition of the importance of opposition in human thought generally. And I well remember that the logical relation of opposition was very much in the air at the time I wrote. Even before I read Lévi-Strauss I had read Robert Hertz's essay on the symbolism of the right and left hands, and I had read works on the same phenomenon by Rodney Needham, the classical scholar G. E. R. Lloyd, and others.

Churchill missed or ignored the strongest influence on my thinking in the early 1970s, namely Robin Horton's two-part paper on African traditional thought and Western science. Central to Horton's schema is a presumably universal distinction between common sense and "theory." According to Horton's intellectualist approach, when people can render their experience intelligible through the common sense of their culture, they will do so. But when the events in life defy explanation in commonsense terms, then people resort to a higher level of explanation that postulates the existence of causal agencies that are commonly called spiritual, but may properly be called theoretical because of their abstractness. One attractive aspect of Horton's...

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