- The Stones Shall Cry Out:Consciousness, Rocks, and Indians
Did you know that trees talk? Well they do. They talk to each other, and they'll talk to you if you listen. Trouble is, white people don't listen. They never learned to listen to the Indians, so I don't I suppose they'll listen to other voices in nature. But I have learned a lot from trees; sometimes about the weather, sometimes about animals, sometimes about the Great Spirit.1
When we talk with non-Indians about nature, there is really nothing you can say in universal Western concepts that is going to make a lot of sense. I think that Western people who come into an Indian environment and attempt to preach take along their own set of categories and use it to deal with Indian people they meet. Anthropologists, summarizing what they find in the Indian tradition, always calling us animists, and that view is accepted by a great many people in the field of religion. We are put in a cultural evolutionary framework, and then we are supposed to move from animism to some great abstract conception of one god.2
Science describes things at a level of abstraction, by leaving out of account a whole range of properties that they have (colour, beauty, consciousness...). This is for many [End Page 105] purposes a very useful procedure, but it does not follow that the properties with which science concerns itself are more real than those it leaves out.3
Did you know that rocks talk? Well, they do. Yes, I am aware that this is an audacious claim—even for an American Indian—made in the context of late modernity (or even postmodernity, if you insist) and in the context of a world indelibly marked by the accomplishments of modern science. But the argument proposed for this essay is that rocks talk and have what we must call consciousness. And we must extend our discussion of rocks to trees—as Walking Buffalo asserts in the quote above—and to the rest of the created world around us.
I want to open an exploration of the particular disjunction between the worldviews of American Indian and Euro-Western cultures with regard to Western scientific, religious, and commonsense knowledges. The Western world, long rooted in the evidential objectivity of science, distinguishes at least popularly between things that are alive and things that are inert, between the animate and the inanimate. Among those things that are alive, in turn, there is a consistent distinguishing between plants and animals and between human consciousness and the rest of existence in the world. To the contrary, American Indian peoples understand that all life forms not only have consciousness, but also have qualities that are either poorly developed or entirely lacking in humans.4
Curiously enough, while Western philosophy asserts universally that human beings have consciousness, there is currently no agreement whatsoever as to what that consciousness is and whether its qualities are to be identified through a process of scientific study (neurology, psychology, and so on) or through philosophical or theological reflection. Yet Western culture, the emergent world culture (in Immanuel Wallerstein's useful parlance)5 of globalized capital and Western science, is equally sure that rocks certainly do not have consciousness. What, then, is the nature of these contrasting epistemological claims? Is the Indian worldview "merely" religious—with no value in fact?6 Is the Euro-Western scientific worldview a perception of reality that is equally a "mythological" system? Or is it to be understood as a singular truth-value that is incontrovertible?
Allow me to begin with a personal reminiscence from the summer of 1986.
The Kanukamaoli artist was describing how he found the large rock boulders that he sculpted so beautifully into images of Kanukamaoli deity figures. These sculptures, the artist was quick to note, were never [End Page 106] for sale and hence were not the source of his sustenance. Speaking to a diverse group of U.S. academics and Pacific Rim artists and scholars gathered at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, the man responded to a question by...