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A conversation with Vine Deloria, Jr. about evolution, creationism, and other modern myths: a critical inquiry: MariJo Moore asks Sioux author Deloria to shed new light on ancient truths.

Are both sides of the great debate between evolution and creationism wrong? Is there a false distinction between science and religion? Is modernism sheltering us from incorporating the experiences of ancient peoples into beliefs about our origins? Vine Deloria, Jr., Standing Rock Sioux and author of such well-known books as God is Red and Custer Died for Your Sins, thinks so. His latest book, Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths, offers a third way of thinking that "examines the rich verbal traditions handed down from non-Western culture over thousands of years, which speak of worlds prior to the one we now inhabit."

This book is worth a deep read and is not to be taken lightly. With such chapter titles as "The Logic of Evolution," and "The Nature of Religion," Deloria explains that scientists often discard evidence against evolution to stay true to scientific convention, whereas the creation myth offered by religion represents only a minority. Where does that leave the various cultures that believe in the emergence stories, those whose beliefs might hold the knowledge that the world was formed by a series of catastrophes?

During a recent conversation, I presented the following question to Deloria and asked him to pontificate: If the world was formed by a series of catastrophes, and the memories of ancients are interwoven into the numerous myths that scientists avoid, what are these scientists over-looking as far as the possibility of truths about our earth?

He began by saying the scientists are wedded to an interpretation of natural process that suggests a small change over a long period of time. "It doesn't happen that way," he added. "When tribes say they remember the ice age, we need to listen. They say it came on very quickly just as some scientists are now saying."

I then asked Deloria what he was stressing to people of Indian nations in this book. He answered, "There is 'institutional' religion, which is basically a control device, and 'mysticism,' which is kind of a solitary thing, a way of life so to speak, which represents the experiences of the unusual, and probably some secular, intellectual exercise concerning the origin and meaning of things." He believes that many tribes originally denied that they had religions, but instead only a particular way to live, and now because of pressures, almost all Native people say they had a religion.

Deloria energized our conversation by staling the following important information: "The world of the intellect is rapidly changing. Western scientists are seeking out native peoples to discuss philosophy and incorporate non-western ideas into their view of the world. Several Indian scholars have been in dialog with physicists and philosophers and have written books or set up programs to demonstrate a 'native science'. Outsiders will swallow us up unless we develop an independent intellectual position of our own clearly distinguishable from traditional western scientific thought.

"Since Shoemaker-Levy comet was observed crashing into Jupiter, an increasing number of thinkers have accepted the idea that asteroid/meteor/comet fragments have hit the earth in very early times and ended the various geological periods."

Deloria added that he feels this means our earth has its own distinctive history. From the descriptions of these geological-era-ending impacts, we can project how conditions were on earth. They are, in some cases, quite similar to tribal legends of long ago. Therefore, we need to "take tribal traditions seriously and delve into the empirical data being generated by scientists." He hopes his book "provides a basic sketch of how and where we can be essential in constituting an earth history, demonstrating that we are, perhaps, the longest-living societies on the planet."

According to Deloria, various cultures such as the Bengals, the Tibetans, the Bhagavata Purana, the Mexicans, as well as many American Indian nations, embrace the idea of four past ages. The Chinese have ten previous ages, and the Etrurians, the Visuddhi Magga, the Bahman Yost, the Annalos of Cuauhtitlan, the Sybylline Books, and the Mayas all report seven previous worlds, while the Polynesians and Icelanders have nine. He states that we have "no basis for rejecting their statements except to say, as many academics are prone to do, that we don't believe them." All this challenges the view of the Western/Christian propensity to support the single world theory. In fact, he proposes that it is necessary to note the Hebrew belief of the multiplicity (seven) of worlds and that Genesis must be understood within the context of early Hebrew beliefs. Genesis describes only the beginnings of the present world, and it is a summary of Sumerian beliefs.

To Deloria, the term "myth" is a lazy man's way of thinking that pretends there is some mysterious beneficial substance in stories and accounts that differ from what we presently observe but certainly no empirically-based facts or experience. The deeper problem, he intones, is that "myths" of western civilization are regarded as facts whereas they are at best articles of faith or speculations endorsed by people trained to believe in them.

In the ending chapter, aptly titled "The Rocky Road Ahead," Deloria states: "We have relied on authority figures in both science and religion, and they have brought us to this impasse. We are now expected to choose sides between two antagonists, neither of whom offers us an accurate and verifiable set of beliefs to follow. Neither Western religion nor Western science has an empirical foundation. Both apply outmoded doctrines to the data they choose to examine."

If tradition is seen as a way of life that includes and explains all phenomena, not a separate and distinguishable activity of a society, Deloria wonders how can we have a universal idea of "religion"? What cultures outside the Western framework have as "religion" is simply a comprehensive worldview that contains ideas that constitute separate academic disciplines. Instead of scientific "facts" versus religious sentiments, Native people have, according to Deloria, "an ensemble vision of the world around them and seek to find our species a harmonious place in it." This vision is totally empirical, as opposed to the dogmas and abstractions of the West.

Before Christianity hit this continent, the Sioux talked about a great "mysterious energy" that they believed undergirded all life activities and was to be found everywhere. Deloria notes that after Christian influence, of the many words in the Sioux language that expressed a wide variety of experiences with this power, the Sioux were forced to choose "Wakan Tanka," thus trying to force their original conception of this "mysterious energy" into a god of the Old Testament.

So, as you read this book, challenge yourself to rethink what you have been offered concerning evolution and creationism. Then realize Deloria is presenting a discretionary way of viewing our origins. Aboriginal beliefs are not fairy tales and should not be written off as such.

MariJo Moore, Cherokee/Irish/Dutch, is editor of Genocide of the Mind: New Native Writings, author of Red Woman With Backward Eyes and Other Stories, and the novel The Diamond Doorknob. For more information, visit
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Author:Moore, MariJo
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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