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Transcendentalism, Native American Theology, and Sámi Worldview: An Interpretive Analysis of the Similarities Between Three Independent Worldviews

By Andrew Slaton

Introduction: Collective Consciousness

20th century transcendentalism, Native American theology, and the Sámi world-view have many aspects in common with one another. Among other things, they all seem to draw from a collective consciousness that sees the physical world as only one expression of life as we know it. Each takes a passionate stance in the realm of the spiritual and ethereal. However seemingly distinct these philosophies are from one another, they each hold a common thread that undeniably links them to each other through a common bond of mystical spiritualism. Whether they are called religions, worldviews, philosophies, or shamanistic rites, each distinct sub-sect revolves around a greater understanding of our natural world. I will examine each in some detail, as embodied in the works of three of the greatest representatives of each: Henry David Thoreau, the author of Transcendentalism; Bear Heart, a Native American shaman/ medicine man of the modern age; and Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, a contemporary Sámi spiritualist/ artist/ poet (among other things).

Spirituality vs. Religion

One important concept to consider while interpreting the similarities of these three very distinct sects is the often-overlooked distinction between religion and spirituality. Religion, as described in the American Heritage Dictionary, is (1.a.) a belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator or governor of the universe. (b.) A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such a belief. (2.) A cause or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion. In the case of spirituality it states, (1.) relating to or consisting of spirit. (2.) Ecclesiastical; sacred. (3.) The belief that the dead communicate with the living, as through a medium. In simpler terms, religion is a set of tightly held traditions and rituals that are used to attain a higher degree of spirituality. However spirituality is independent of such rituals and depends solely on the individual in search of a “higher knowledge” and contact with some greater force. I will examine and interpret the spiritual beliefs of these groups for the most part, and then briefly describe the Christian-religious influences on each in order to provide further insight and context.

Transcendentalism and Henry David Thoreau

Among other things, transcendentalism is a religion, an aesthetic movement and a philosophy. As an offshoot of Romanticism, it inherited from the romantics a love of nature and a tendency to trust emotions rather than reason. (In Praise of Nature, pg. 182) It was a direct reaction to empiricism and skepticism, as explained in the writings of John Locke. The works of Henry David Thoreau are perhaps the best expression of the short-lived transcendentalist movement.

Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these time and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. (The Illustrated World of Thoreau, pg. 174)

Thoreau immersed himself in nature for an extended time to experience, “that period in the life of man when he is no longer dependent on his transient moods, when all his experience ripens into wisdom…” (Reflections at Walden, pg. 43). He goes on to say, “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Reflections at Walden, pg. 14).

Native American Philosophy and Bear Heart

Traditional Native American philosophy, as well as surviving forms of these modernized ideals, is centered on nature and the unseen cosmos. There is a similar degree of faith as also seen in Transcendentalism and Sami Pre-Christian “religion” that revolves around unnoticed forces. Bear Heart, a current Native American shaman, describes one of the most common of the various forms of indigenous “religion”:

We didn’t spend one hour Sunday morning in a religious situation—we spent each day in acknowledgement that every day was a holy day, a sacred day. We have a song we sing in the morning that says, “I thank You for another day. I ask that You give me the strength to walk worthily this day so that when I lie down at night I will not be ashamed.” It’s a song that came to us long before the missionaries. (The Wind Is My Mother, pg. 164)

Bear Heart is well respected by both indigenous peoples and western culture for his insight and wisdom. No matter what religion or lack thereof, his teachings have inspired individuals to explore the potential of true harmony. Many of his philosophies are parallelisms to the concepts alluded to in the poetry of Sámi artist and mystic, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää.

Sámi World-View and Nils-Aslak Valkeapää

The Sámi worldview is embodied beautifully in Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s brilliant book of poems, The Sun, My Father. Transcendental in nature and deeply rooted in spiritual allusion, Valkeapää is able to express some of the fundamental beliefs and attitudes held by many of Sámi heritage. Of life, he says, “I am here to dream dreams…dreams…I dream of becoming.” (The Sun, My Father, #115) He equates life to a state of dreaming, and goes on to say, “dreams…dreams I have got…a rich life.” (The Sun, My Father, #118) Valkeapää takes simple concepts and uses them to objectify his philosophy of life and faith. Truth is another extremely important concept that is central to Sámi understanding. In another poem, Valkeapää speaks of blind faith and truth,

I always ask for the truth…even if I know…that truth is a dream…a conviction of one’s faith…these dreams…substance…for a life…these dreams…have still brought life along…until now…truths truths…up until…new truths…dreams. (The Sun, My Father, #150)

Nature: Divine Window to God

As Thoreau stated in his essay Live Simply and Wisely, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.” (The Illustrated World of Thoreau, pg. 16) In Thoreau’s words, his call for simplicity is a return to the basics of life. Through this return to simplicity, Thoreau was of the deep belief that the divine could be contacted when all worldly distractions were minimized or completely void. A heightened sense of awareness, and a subsequently distinct outlook, would be the eventual result, which he wrote of, often in his daily journals:

I think that the man of science makes this mistake, and the mass of mankind along with him: that you should coolly give your chief attention to the phenomenon which excites you as something independent on you, and not as it is related to you. The important fact is its effect on me. He thinks that I have no business to see anything else but just what he defines the rainbow to be, but I care not whether my vision of truth is a waking thought or dream remembered, whether it is seen in the light or in the dark. It is the subject of the vision, the truth alone, that concerns me. (H.D. Thoreau: A Writer’s Journal, pg. 170)

Thoreau’s concept of a heightened sense of awareness coupled with the need for a relational view of the world around him can also be seen in the words of Bear Heart. The Native American Church, through the use of peyote, attempts to achieve such insights and wisdom along with a relational perspective to the greater universe around them. Bear Heart explains a common misconception of the use of the sacrament peyote:

When our Native people take peyote, they aren’t concerned with what it contains—they don’t know about alkaloids or any other contents identified in laboratory studies. Prayers are made not to the peyote, but in acknowledgment of the peyote as a medicine put here by the Creator to help the people. It is viewed somewhat like an aspirin, a cure for all kinds of mental, emotional and physical problems. We don’t take it to “get high” and we don’t meet together for theological reasons. We come to the tipi because we need help, we need direction, we need strength and encouragement. Peyote makes people highly sensitive to sight and sound and more aware of what’s around and inside of them. It helps us in our worship of God and the communicants use it as a symbolic sacrament, much as the Christians use wine in the communion and the Jewish people use wine in the Passover celebrations. Our people say we don’t hallucinate with peyote, rather we see visions that teach us. (The Wind Is My Mother, pg. 203)

In the same way that the Native American Church uses peyote as an awareness extension, and the Transcendentalists use silent contemplation, so too do the Sámi mystics use altered states to achieve closeness to God: the noaide drum. The noaide is a “shaman” of sorts that acts as a spiritual leader, physical guide, and medicine man. His drum is said to have mystical powers to pull the noaide into a trance that allows him/ her to travel to the spirit world, and beyond. The drum is an extremely important part of the Sámi pre-Christian “religion,” for its amazing abilities to provide insight to those who use it. Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, in The Sun, My Father, illustrates this point in a number of his poems. Here, he briefly describes the complicated process, that in modern terminology may be called “astral projection” of the spirit: “I beat these images…on the stone, on the drum…it is so slow…after drumming for a while…I am pulled into another world…to visions.” (The Sun, My Father, #33) Within the drum is a microcosm and macrocosm of the world around the drummer. In a similar poem, he goes on to say,

and then…when I drum…you leave…the skin of the drum comes alive…the earth pounds…the heart of the earth beats…and you travel…across the drum…the grazing lands, camps…the trekways of life…life’s…images…you travel…happiness, prosperity and adversity…you travel…when I drum…and I drum…drum…drum. (The Sun, My Father, #41)

The main theme expressed here in all three theologies is that of finding a window into the divinity of God. Whether they use a handcrafted drum, a hallucinogenic cactus, or simple transcendental meditation, all claim validity in the search for the “higher truth,” and not necessarily in the act performed itself. It reverts back to the differentiation between spirituality and religion. Religion is based on a more strict interpretation of the ritual, where these forms of spirituality place more emphasis on the end result, rather that the means used to attain them. The means are, however, important to each of these groups. For the most part though, it is recognized as merely a tradition that holds psychological and historical significance in maintaining a dying culture (at least in the cases of Native American and Sámi philosophy).

The Sacred Hoop

A concept that is often expressed in these three philosophies is the cyclical nature of all things made by the Creator. Thoreau illustrates this point in a journal entry, saying,

There is, indeed, a tide in the affairs of men, as the poet says, and yet as things flow they circulate, and the ebb always balances the flow. All streams are but tributary to the ocean, which itself does not stream, and the shores are unchanged, but in longer periods than man can measure. Go where we will, we discover infinite changes in particulars only, not in generals. (Reflections at Walden, pg. 23)

The Native Americans have a concept known as the “Sacred Hoop.” Bear Heart’s writings also illustrate the cyclical character of life as,

Our old teaching is that the universe is in harmony as long as we keep the Sacred Hoop intact. The Sacred Hoop is the circle of life—the Four Directions, the Earth, and everything that lives on the Earth. It includes not only the two-leggeds, but also the four-leggeds, the wingeds, those that live in the waters, those that crawl on the earth, even the plant life. Everything is part of the Sacred Hoop and everything is related. Our existence is so intertwined that our survival depends upon maintaining a balanced relationship with everything within the Sacred Hoop. (The Wind Is My Mother, pg. 190)

This idea of interconnectivity is expressed in Sámi literature as well. In fact, this is the central theme for Elina Helander and Kaarina Kailo’s work entitled, No Beginning, No End. It is this cyclical idea that Valkeapaa writes so extensively on,

and time does not exist, no end, none…and time is, eternal, always, is…rises, falls…is born, dies…thus,…days, years are rounded…snow melts…buds push…the river of life…into deep pools…in motion…the trek in the heart…land…rounded off…life’s circle…infinite…without…beginning…or end…fulfills…changes…colors…life (The Sun, My Father, #566)

Walk Silent and Seeing

The attention to detail that is expressed by these groups is unique. Each one has their own way of silent contemplation, but the end result is overwhelmingly similar. The Sámi ideal, as expressed by Valkeapää, focuses on the cycle of life that I explained earlier.

step by step…smell of green, the first grass…blue heather…Angelica…wood sorrel…upland waters…towards the sky…from peak to peak…these lands…the valleys…the high mountain slopes…over the forests…towards the coast…meadows…reindeer calf moors…land where the calves are born (The Sun, My Father, #69)

Bear Heart describes a similar importance of the smaller details and adds a degree of respect. The respect that he writes of is an inherent need in all-living things. Through this observance, one can enhance their own life:

You can’t walk or run all the time. Sit down occasionally and see your surroundings. If you go in and out of a house every day, there may be one particular blade of grass on the lawn that always stands there watching you go by, but you don’t even notice it because you’re preoccupied with getting to work on time. You’re thinking about the traffic, you’re thinking about the day ahead—“When I get to the office I’m going to do this and do that”—and you miss the little blade of grass that stands as a protector, trying in its own way to filter the air so we can all breathe better. The grass and its relatives are beneficial to our bodies, so next time you rush out, stop, look down, and say thank you before you go on. It’s an injection of joy and beauty into your life. That little blade of grass has life just as we have life. Sit down and notice the world around you. (The Wind Is My Mother, pg. 228)

Thoreau’s favorite subject to write and philosophize about is attention to detail. He spoke frequently of the observant traveler, and silent contemplator:

Each phase of nature, while not invisible, is yet not too distinct and obtrusive. It is there to be found when we look for it, but not demanding our attention. It is like a silent but sympathizing companion in whose company we retain most of the advantages of solitude, with whom we can walk and talk, or be silent, naturally, without the necessity of talking in a strain foreign to the place. (The Illustrated World of Thoreau, pg. 82)

The collectivity of these thoughts is bound together by the immense respect that these people learned to have for the world around them and the interdependence of all life. It was this philosophy, however, that brought great oppression on each group’s people. The Christian missionaries had preconceived notions that such attention to the natural world was “pagan” or ritualistic Satan-worship.

Christianity: Deeply Rooted Influence

Christianity reached these remote groups with devastating consequences. Persecution ensued with the killing of shamans and the destruction of traditional artifacts. Many Christian missionaries and clergymen saw these “primitive” peoples as godless and evil. But their ritualistic practices were more symbolic than literal. Just as with the use of Peyote or the sacred Sami drums, the importance was in the mind-set and emotion rather than the actual act.

Bear Heart illustrates a lesson of humility in his writing with a story about a child. In his own way, he is addressing the problem of religious zealotry without specifically naming any of the many instances in which Native Americans were oppressed for their unorthodox practices. He writes:

There’s an old story about a baby girl being brought home from the hospital and her four-year-old brother asking the parents, “Can I be alone with her for just a little while?” The parents said, “Not right now, but a little later you can.” The next day he asked again, so they put an intercom by the baby’s crib, turned it on, and said, “Now you can be alone with her.” The four-year-old went up to the crib and said to his baby sister, “Tell me about God. I’m beginning to forget.” The Scriptures say, “A little child shall lead them,” and we say that children came here to teach us—to teach us how to be humble, teach us how to be forgiving. (The Wind Is My Mother, pg. 181)

Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s poetry expresses a similar dissent with the Christian influence. Many of the Sámi people have embraced some aspects of Christianity, and at the same time, are very vocal about the inconsistencies. Valkeapää writes, “beauty… is sinful…that is what they taught…and god…only a zealot” (The Sun, My Father, #429) He goes on to say, “ you speak of eternal life…without knowing…what eternal is…what life is…and even you contain…infinity…the universe…strength, power…undiscovered…unused” (The Sun, My Father, #432)

It is these conflicts that many had with Christianity, and organized religion as a whole, that caused Thoreau to write often of the subject. He very strongly rejected altruism, and he tried to show that, essentially, no one faith is any better or worse than any other.

I do not prefer one religion or philosophy to another. I have no sympathy with the bigotry and ignorance which make transient and partial and puerile distinctions between one man’s faith or form of faith and another’s,--as Christian and heathen. I pray to be delivered from narrowness, partiality, exaggeration, bigotry. To the philosopher all sects, all nations, are alike. I like Brahma, Hari, Buddha, the Great Spirit, as well as God. (H.D. Thoreau: A Writer’s Journal, pg. 19)

Conclusion: Inherent Connectivity

Native American theology, Sami worldview, and transcendentalism contain several similarities. I have shown many, but many more exist. However, the point that should be derived from this is less tangible or scientifically provable. There is no easy way to explain anthropologically why these very different groups came to many of the same conclusions about life and deity. Each group was centered on nature and the cyclical movement of life, and each demanded respect for all living things. They understood the land and the creatures that inhabited it. This is their common bond; an understanding that the modern world as a whole has missed out on. But their words speak for themselves, and there is still much to be learned from these fascinating groups of people.

Like Oxen in a Flower Garden

What are the natural features that make a township handsome? A river, with its waterfalls and meadows, a lake, a hill, a cliff or individual rocks, a forest, and ancient trees standing singly. Such things are beautiful; they have a high use which dollars and cents never represent. If the inhabitants of a town were wise, they would seek to preserve these things, though at a considerable expense; for such things educate far more than any hired teachers or preachers, or any at present recognized system of school education. (The Illustrated World of Thoreau, pg. 119)

We’ve miscommunicated with our environment for a long time, not knowing its language. We’ve complicated things with our great intelligence—we’ve created all this pollution, the hole in the ozone layer, and the greenhouse effect because we’re so smart. Now it’s time to get back to basics. (The Wind Is My Mother, pg. 177)

The Sun
the world’s father
The Earth
spring daughter
                the horizon’s gold flower
                the fragrant grass
                                           the rays
                                                       the tundra
                                                                        the sea
                and the sky
The Sun
the world’s father
The Earth
life’s mother
                the horizon’s red dawn
                the starry peaks

and when everything is over
nothing is heard any more
and it is heard                    (The Sun, My Father, #570)

Works Cited:

  1. “Religion.” The American Heritage Dictionary. Third Edition. 1994
  2. “Spirituality.” The American Heritage Dictionary. Third Edition. 1994
  3. Thoreau, Henry David. The Illustrated World of Thoreau. Photographs by Ivan Massar; Edited by Howard Chapnick; Afterword by Loren Eiseley. New York: Today Press, 1974.
  4. Valkeapää, Nils-Aslak. The Sun, My Father. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.
  5. Bear Heart. The Wind Is My Mother. New York: Clarkson Potter/ Publishers, 1996.
  6. Underhill, Ruth M. Red Man’s Religion. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965.
  7. Thoreau, Henry David. H. D. Thoreau: A Writer’s Journal. Selected and Edited with an introduction by Laurence Stapelton. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960.
  8. Bäckman, Louise and Hultkrantz, Åke. Saami Pre-Christian Religion: Studies on the Oldest Traces of Religion Among the Saamis. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiskell International, 1985.
  9. Thoreau, Henry David. Reflections at Walden. Kansas City: Hallmark Cards, Inc., 1971.
  10. Nyerges, Alexander Lee. In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West. Dayton: The Dayton Art Institute, 1999.