Folklore Lecture Seven: Sacred Geography: A Sense of Home

Folklore as Personal and Cultural Orientation

One of the primary functions of mythology and folklore is to provide us with a sense of orientation:  to tell us where we are, physically, culturally, spiritually.  The mythical portrayal of the making of Chehalis culture is also and importantly the portrayal of a journey in a particular landscape.  As Xwane and Dokwebal (Chehalis Transformer-Trickster figures) go from situation to situation in their story, changing things to the “way they will be in the future,” they make a social, a spiritual, and a concrete geographical “map” of the land on which the Chehalis make their lives.

They make a social map in that they are about the business of creating culture, illustrating and instituting cultural values and practices “for the future.”  They are also making a spiritual map.  They are discovering and interacting with the “powers” and “spirits” (the “helpers” for human beings) of the land, even as they themselves represent important spiritual power in Chehalis culture.  These same Transformer figures, as they move from place to place, are also creating a concrete geographical map.  The way they travel is the way Chehalis people will travel for the generations of their traditional lives on this land, in visiting their neighbors, in fishing, in hunting, and in harvesting the many vegetable foods available here.

In a very real sense, to have in mind Chehalis mythology is also to have in mind Chehalis geography (knowing Chehalis mythology, one can also “find one’s way” in Chehalis territory).  This mythological map, as stated, is geographical, cultural, and spiritual in its dimensions.  Nor is Chehalis mythology exceptional in providing this kind of map of its Native geography.  We may recall, for instance, the Australian “songlines.”  Or that which Momaday (“A Man Made of Words”) says with respect to Kiowa mythology.  He states that the prime and “moral” purpose of traditional storytelling is to help us come to “moral terms” with our “physical world,” “to imagine who and what we are with respect to the earth and the sky.”

The Western Apache with whom Keith Basso worked (you had some readings from his work in an earlier lesson) use the orientation to place to develop and express personal health as well as moral behavior among their people.  In the words of the Apache that title Basso’s book issue, “wisdom sits in places.” Those who, in turn, view nature in such ways– as the source of the “laws of creation”, according to Native Northwestern peoples, have a worldview that expresses, as stated in your article by Matthiessen, that nature is “the religion before religion”.  Worldview is a central concept in understanding cross-cultural differences—and worldview is an important concept implicit in folklore. Therefore this concept bears some discussion.

Worldview:  A Definition

Here is a definition of worldview from Walter Wink’s essay in Sacred Stories: worldview is “an implicit or explicit philosophy of the nature of reality…  Generally, worldviews are invisible.  Their ‘picture’ fits the reality they depict sufficiently well that no one notices the inevitable discrepancies.  One’s worldviews appears to be reality.  Our time is unusual in that we have become aware that there are a variety of worldviews competing for our allegiance.”  (p. 210)


Worldview and Cultural Values

Cultural values are directly connected, in turn, to particular worldviews.  Below are some examples of contrasting worldviews and the environmental and social values associated with them.  Worldviews of the first type are found in indigenous societies.  See if you can think of other environmental values that are connected to each of these worldviews.

                         Worldview I                                                             Values

The natural world is a seamless                                            Sharing, cooperation, reciprocity

whole; all its aspects are interconnected

and interdependent

Nature is the Great Mystery                                                  Respect, reverence, thanksgiving

Animals and plants have souls                                             Empathy, kinship

as do human beings

                         Worldview  II                                               Values

The natural world is a collection of discrete parts               Objectification, individualism

seen in terms of function

The “survival of the fittest”; the natural world is                  Competition; those at the top have

hierarchical and based on domination                             the right to use the rest of nature


Worldviews and Comparative Social Structure

As they are commonly expressed, worldviews are social understandings ofreality.  As Suzuki and Knudtson point out (Wisdom of the Elders), Western science relies on social consensus.  Underlying any scientific endeavor is the worldview of scientists themselves, which directs the selection and analysis of their data.  As Thomas Kuhn points out in his classic historical study of Western science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Western scientists have classically ignored data that does not jive with their cultural paradigmuntil there is a historical shift in that paradigm—a shift, that is, in worldview.  Only then have Western scientists historically begun to “see” the data they previously neglected.
Just as it is important for scientists to understand ways in which their worldviews influence their work, it is important for eachof us to develop a critical understanding of the ways in which our worldview influences the values and choices in our lives.  As stated above, worldview is unspoken and assumed—and seems commensurate with reality itself.  The benefit of the cross-cultural perspective is that it allows us to step outside of this “reality” to gain perspective on our own cultural assumptions.  Gaining such perspective is essential if we are to understand our own human heritage— as well as our own human possibilities.  Worldview I above—that of our indigenous ancestors represents some 99 per cent of the cultures on earth since we have become human.  In the 1960’s (before the recent explosion of human population), these egalitarian, peaceful and long-lived First Peoples also represented 99 per cent of the world’s historic human population.  These peoples included those of Central Europe before the Indo-European invasions 5,000 years ago.  Here is another perspective.  The Industrial Revolution, which is interconnected with so much of the contemporary Western worldview, took place only six generations ago– whereas the tenure of humanity on earth has been 36,000 generations.

The worldviews of First Peoples that are expressed in some of the folklore we have seen in this class are an essential part of our human heritage.  They also model our possibilities for environmental sustainability—and as such, give us a sense in which the functions of folklore expressed in lesson one have concrete application.  We can cite the results of human interaction with the environment by a few local examples.  The oak savannas that dominated the Willamette Valley in the early 1800’s were maintained by careful burning techniques of Native Americans.  The camas (a Native lily) prairies were so predominant on the pioneers’ arrival in the valley that the pioneers termed them “camas lakes”, since their rich profusion of blue blossoms looked like the shimmering of water.  The actions of Native women helped create this abundance of camas by their centuries of the careful digging of camas roots in a way that spread them at the same time.  Peter Boag, author of Environmental and Experience, has done considerable work on the history of the Willamette Valley in Oregon.  From close attention to the Kalapuya ecological practices, he concludes that “the early settlers did not tame a wilderness, they inherited a park”.  William Robbins, in the first part of his book, Landscapes of Promise, also speaks to the results of the interaction between Native peoples and their environments throughout what is now Oregon State.  Both of these authors address the ways in which influence of Native peoples on the local environments led to increasing diversity and variety of natural animal and plant species.  Basically, their activities were aimed at encouraging habit in which natural communities could flourish.

The First Peoples of Northern California respected the natural world as their teacher and judge, and believed firmly in the kinship of all living things.  They acted accordingly, and the Northern California environment white explorers came upon show us, Margolin states, a “view of humanity as not living apart from, or being destructive to the natural world.”  The following quotes were collected by Malcolm Margolin and cited in his “A Blessing on the Land: the Cultivated Landscape of Native America” (from Bioneers Conference, l998).  This is the same Margolin whose work we are reading on E-reserve (from The Way We Lived) in this and a previous lesson:

George Vancouver, description of the Santa Clara Peninsula, in 1780’s:

We arrived at a very pleasant and enchanting lawn situated amid a grove of trees at the foot of a small hill by which flowed a find stream of excellent water… we entered a country I didn’t expect to find in these regions.  For about twenty miles, it could be compared to a park… the underwood that had probably attend its early growth had the appearance of having been cleared away and had left the stately lords of the forest in complete possession of the soil, which was covered with luxuriant herbage, grasses and beautifully diversified with pleasing eminence and valleys.

George Yount, l833, description of the Napa Valley:

It was more than anything a wide and extended lawn, exuberant in wild oats and the place for wild beasts to lie down in.  The deer, antelope, and the noble elk held quiet and undisturbed possession of all that wide domain.  The above-named animals were numerous beyond all parallel, and herds of many hundred, they might be met so tame that they would hardly move to open the way for the traveler to pass.  They were seen lying or grazing in immense herds on the sunny side of every hill, and their young like lambs frolicking in all directions.  The wild geese and every species of water fowl darkened the surface of every bay and firth, and upon the land in flocks of millions they wandered in quest of insects and cropping the wild oats which grew there in the richest abundance.

When disturbed, they arose to fly.  The sound of their wings was like that of distant thunder.  The rivers were literally crowded with salmon.  It was a land of plenty and such a climate as no other land can boast of.

Thomas Mayfield, in the San Joaquin Valley in l850:

As we passed below the hills, the whole plain was covered with great patches of rose, yellow, scarlet, orange and blue… some of the patches of one color were a mile or more across…  Several times we stopped to pick the different kinds of flowers and soon we had our horses and packs decorated with masses of all colors.

Here is the writing of an early pioneer Ezra Meeker on the salmon runs in Puget Sound:

When we had broken camp and were sailing along we heard a dull sound like that often heard from the tide rips.  As we rested our oars, we could see that there was a disturbance in the water and that it was moving toward us.  It extended as far as we could see, in the direction we were going.  The sound increased and became like a roar of a heavy fall of rain of hail on the water, and we became aware that it was a vast school of fish moving south, while millions were seemingly dancing on the surface of the water or leaping in the air.

We could feel the fish striking against the boat in such vast number that they fairly moved it.  The leap in the air was so high that we tried tipping the boat to catch some as they fell back, and sure enough, here and there one would drop into the boat.  We soon discovered some Indians following the school. They quickly loaded their canoes by using the barbed pole and throwing the impaled fish into their canoes.  With an improvised net we too soon obtained all we wanted.

When we began to go on we were embarrassed by the mass of fish moving in the water.  As far as we could see there was no end to the school ahead of us; but we finally got clear of the moving mass and reached the island shore in safety…[i]

The early fur traders in the Willamette Valley labeled it as the “gourmand’s paradise”, since there was so much abundance of natural food here implemented by the ecological practices of Native peoples. As you read such quotes as those above, you might contemplate n the ways in which folklore expressing the “laws of creation” governed human behavior in such a way as to motivate humans to treat the environment with exceptional care.  For instance, in a Skokomish tale (Hoods Canal area, Washington), the Creator specifically told the people to allow salmon eggs to be released from spawning salmon in order to sustain the salmon runs. In Central Oregon, Coyote tales discouraged waste, as they told of the ways in which the salmon and deer had given their lives for the people—and such a precious gift should never be wasted.  Other tales indicated the ways in which downriver peoples must release a percentage of salmon upriver, both to allow the survival of runs and to share with those who lived upriver. Returning to the first lesson on the functions of folklore, we can certainly see how the traditional folklore of local Native peoples fulfilled its pragmatic functions in terms of their relationship to their environment.


In local folklore, the land was depicted as being both infused with spirit and alive.  It was the land’s voices that told you where you were in Native traditions throughout the Northwest. The land’s voices provided spiritual and practical guidance together to the one who listened to them. Siuslaw elder Andrew Charles taught Norman Dick, the child of a local emigrant family, how to determine his location by listening to the distinct voices of different water courses. “Sit still and be quiet” Charles would say, “and listen to this stream tell its story.” According to Siuslaw tradition, each river and stream had a particular voice, and one would never be lost if one learned to listen to and recognize these. [ii]

At a recent Muckleshoot cultural committee meeting, elders recounted the tragic litany of Muckleshoot sacred sites ravaged by development.  Against what might seem like overwhelming odds, an elder voiced her sense of guardianship of these venerated sites on Muckleshoot land: “I guess we just have to go on the side of life.” Indeed, caretaking their land was “going on the side of life”, since their land was profoundly alive to Native Northwestern peoples. “The earth is alive”, said Esther Stutzman, “It has a heart.”  Because the earth has a heart, in turn, treating it with respect can “bring about balance”. When a student asked her what advice she would give from her tradition concerning environmental choices today, she said, “This is what I think will save us.  Always thank the earth.  Thank everything, living and non-living, and sometimes pay the earth.”  Stutzman said her granddaughter gives the earth pennies in return for items collected from it. Esther continued, “If you take food or basket materials, say thank you. If you swim in the river, say thank you.  Respect everything, living and non-living”. Esther joked that she even tells the weeds as she pulls them from her garden, “You are going to a better place.”  This attitude of respect and thanksgiving makes you a “better-spirited person.  You feel better about yourself inside, and when you feel better about yourself, you treat others in a better way.” (Some of you heard Stutzman speak these words in her visit to a recent Linfield class).

The appropriate attitude toward a live land was one of partnership, rather than domination or control. Allying with the land’s spirits was allying with one’s “co-partners” among the Nisqually. [iii]  Traditional Plateau tales “demonstrated that humans do not have dominion over plants and animals but that they are on equal or lower plane than other life.”[iv] In like manner, the Sahaptin-speaking people east of the Cascades on the Plateau emphasized the “chieftainship” of the earth, plants, and animals. [v] “The Chieftaincy of the earth was to be kept inviolate.”[vi] In ancient Northwestern traditions, honoring one’s natural partners entailed ceremonial as well as practical care.  Both of these meant acting with reciprocity toward the spirits of the land, making a return on whatever one took: “paying the earth”, in Stutzman’s words. The failure to take such care might result in grave consequences: the animals who chose to die so that the people might live might no longer share their lives with human beings.  The roots might not grow or the salmon return.  Further, those who did not thank the earth would lose that occasion to “feel better about yourself” that caused you to treat your human community with comparable care.  That is, the right relationship to earth and to other humans was intricately interlinked.

The human influence upon the environment was not mere happenstance on the part of Native Northwesterners.  There is ample evidence that indigenous societies lived in close day to day contact with the results of—and responsibility for-their actions on the natural world.  From an indigenous point of view, there were often hard choices to be made in this respect.  But it was considered the responsibility of human beings to learn from the consequences of their actions—and change their behavior accordingly. Carol Sanchez (in “Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral”) and Scott Momaday (in “A First American Views his Land”) assert that indigenous environmental values are not a “given”, but are developed over generations of critical observation of the results of human interactions with particular landscapes. These observations are then passed down in stories, illustrating consequences of particular human actions. In this sense, I think we might say that the specific lack of such inherited stories concerning human activity and the land on which we now make our lives is a serious loss among modern Northwesterners.

If Native environmental knowledge expressed in stories had different forms of expressions from our own scientific knowledge, its goals and results were equally concrete and pragmatic.  At the mouth of the Columbia River, Anson Dart, the first Indian Agent in this area, wrote to Congress that the Chinook Indians would not sign the treaty proposed by the Americans unless the latter removed their salmon cannery.  Although the American pioneers assumed salmon resources were so abundant they could never be depleted, the Chinook protested that fishing them as that cannery did (allowing virtually none to go upstream to spawn) would deplete those runs in short order.  Congress dismissed this idea, not because it was scientifically evaluated, but because the United States did not have to pay attention, as Congressman Sam Houston put it, to such “militarily insignificant” tribes.  We see here an example of the way in which the worldview of domination curtailed the transmission of important environmental knowledge between the Untied States and Native Americans.

To give another example, though expressed in ways in which American pioneers were not used to—in traditional stories, Native geology was quite sophisticated.  In stories told explorers in the 1840’s, there was contained information about local volcanic eruptions, as well as the ways in which certain land formations were due to glacier melting at the end of the last Ice Age.  But in l840, our own science had some catching up to do.  It took several decades for American geology to understand the results of volcanoes and the recent Ice Ages on the Willamette Valley landscape.  Today, we are able to grasp the geological knowledge contained the Native stories that settlers thought merely fanciful in the mid-1800’s.  Both this example and the one above show us the importance of looking carefully at the indigenous environmental understandings expressed in traditional stories even if we do not see them as “factual” in the context of our own worldview.


Obviously the orientation to the natural world which mythology can provide is important on a practical level.  Those societies who take their livelihood directly from the land must know that land intimately.  But this practical aspect of a mythological orientation to the land (with its multi-dimensional way of locating us in and spiritual space) is not limited to those cultures who live by hunting and gathering in direct response to nature’s way of arranging things. Only a few generations ago, among the peasant farmers of Eastern Europe, there were traditional stories of “spirits” who lived in the cornfields.  These stories directed the local peoples in the right relationship (the “moral” relationship, as Momaday would put it) to the things these peoples had growing in their fields.  This right relationship, in turn, had its practical meaning.  It laid out the rules by which one made an effective crop.

An established sense of “home” serves important psychological and social purposes as well.  Where there is a time-enduring sense of belonging to a particular place, there is also a timeworn sense of responsibility to both the natural world and the future of one’s people.  Certain Native American groups put it that they are only “borrowing” the land from their children, and therefore they must treat it with every respect.  When white explorers first came to the Northwest Coast, Native persons from what is now Canada to northern California termed them “moving people” or “drift people” (the latter, from a mythical story in which certain people were lost during a great flood and drifted away), since they apparently did not “belong” anywhere.

According to Native myth, these lost people have been looking for home ever since–which explains their restlessness (and, though this part is often tactfully left unsaid, their irresponsibility).  A few years ago, a Native speaker at a local conference was asked how whites could “help” her people.  Her reply that they could “find one place and stay there” was expressing an old perception of her people: that, as a settled people, whites would automatically become responsible members of the human community.  For staying in one place would force them both to live within their means and to experience the consequences of their own actions.  The contemporary American writer Wendell Berry (in “A Sense of Home”, an article published in Utne Reader) has expressed the same sentiment in an essay relating irresponsible decisions in the political process to lack of personal connections in local communities affected by those decisions.

In fact, we are still discovering how central is our sense of our relationship to the land to our entire behavior as a people.  Cultural values which express the necessity of “dominating” nature follow (and are followed by) social systems in which persons dominate one another.  Such values also follow (and are followed by) comparable ways of relating to ourselves, to our own sense of identity, or human “nature.”  Where there is an attempt to control “nature,” a relationship to it as an “alien” force, we also find concepts of human nature as something which must be kept under control, which must be “tamed” (and which cannot be trusted).  Note the ways in which this differs from the ideas of “integration” that folklore often expresses– and that you worked with in the last lesson.

There is obviously much more to be said about this, but before I turn over an analysis to you in the reading questions, I will make only one more point.  Nature, for all its good and bad aspects (its source of both our life and our death) provides what I will call a “natural model of reciprocity” in cultures that honor the natural order of their world.  In the large proportion of such cultures throughout the world, hospitality and food sharing are the norm, the rationale being that if nature provides us with food, we can do no less than share it with others in like fashion.  In such societies (which expresses the predominant human mode through the ages, of which our type of society is the blatant exception) food, shelter, and clothing, as gifts of the earth, can only be shared.  (Even as nature gives to us, we must give to others.)  Paul Radin says that among the Winnebago, not to share with another is tantamount to “declaring them dead.”  As long as one is alive, such sharing is simply considered to be due one as a matter of course.

To restate the general point this example illustrates, the type of relationship any culture has with “nature” is intimately bound up with the type of relationships the members of that culture have with one another.

[i] Ezra Meeker, Ox Team Days on the Oregon Trail (Yonkers-on-Hudson, New York and Chicago: World Book Company, 1922), pp. 95-96.

[ii] Dick, ms in Siuslaw Museum., p. 41.

[iii] Carpenter, p. 13.

[iv] Trafzer, Grandmother…, p. 22.

[v] Trafzer and Scheuerman, p. xiv.

[vi] McWhorter, Hear Me… p. 79.

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