The Spirit of the Hunt

We should understand well that all things are the work of the Great Spirit. We should know that He is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples [birds?]; and even more important we should understand that He is also above all these things and peoples. When we do understand all this deeply in our hearts, then we will fear, and love, and know the Great Spirit, and then we will be and act and live as He intends. (Black Elk)

I found the above quotation from the famed Lakota (Sioux) elder, Black Elk, among a whole pile of quotations, old and new, compiled a few years ago by one of the groups opposed to all hunting and fishing here in the United States. Apparently these folks believe that if we all followed the advice of Black Elk, we'd all rise up and throw away our guns and fishing tackle. But I hardly think that is the case.

First, think about it. Black Elk was a Lakota -- a member of one of those nomadic tribes on the western plains that most depended on the hunt for their existence. You can't raise much corn or squash or beans when you spend all your days following the buffalo migrations. For them, the hunt was everything. With this source of food, the Lakota became the most powerful tribe on the plains. Without it, as the invading whites knew well, they'd all be reduced to near starvation -- which is exactly the reason the whites deliberately wiped out all the vast herds of bison. It is impossible to imagine someone like Black Elk as a vegetarian, at least voluntarily so.

Even more to the point, read what he said. Read it very carefully. He makes two assertions about the Great Spirit ("Wakan Tanka" in Lakota or "Gitchie Manitou" among the tribes around the Great Lakes.) First: "He" is in all things. Second: He is above all things. In other words, to put it in more philosophical and theological terms, God is both immanent and transcendent. Lose this double perspective, and all kinds of things go wrong, both with our view of the Almighty and with our view of nature, even worse, with the conduct of our lives. And this includes the way we relate to the animal world.

The reason for this is that when one view of this ultimate reality excludes the other, we are apt to fall into either one of two extremes. On the one hand, if we imagine God as completely "immanent" or contained within all things, we end up in kind of "pantheism" that can't distinguish the divine or the "sacred" from creation -- the kind of mentality that holds it to be a sin to kill any animal for any reason whatsoever. Or else, on the other hand, we will end up with an overly "transcendent" view of God that locates God in some far-off "heaven" -- a kind of divine watch-maker, leaving ourselves free to promote ourselves as "masters of the universe" with a "manifest destiny" to "subdue nature" -- and whomever or whatever -- especially all animals or "backward peoples"-- that get in our way. Obviously, it is that latter view that predominated in American society from the beginning, and which still dominates the thinking of those who rant and rail over those they scorn as "environmentalists".

However, I think it is particularly significant that even Black Elk saw that, no matter how essential it is to begin with a sense of God's presence within all things, in the end it is more important that we do see God as ultimately transcendent -- that is, that "He is above all things." Why? For one, (as the medieval philosophers were quick to point out) only a God who is beyond or above all created beings can be, at the same time, present within all of them. Transcendence and immanence are not so much opposed as complimentary.

In addition, a God who is simply identified with nature is really no explanation for the universe, which as Black Elk must have sensed, as the world of the Lakota came apart -- and as science now tells us -- had a definite beginning and most likely will come to a definite end. As modern cosmologists tell us, the origin (and the likely destiny) of the universe can only be imagined in a "singularity" that transcends both space and time.

But more immediate to our concerns, a view that holds all forms of life as equally sacred, while it may seem to benefit the environment, does not make much sense in the long-run. Black Elk realized, as did all the ancients -- and certainly much more than non-hunters buying their food wrapped in plastic bags in a supermarket --, that all forms of existence, and especially all forms of life, exist in a great hierarchial "chain of being" in which one form of life exceeds, and yet depends upon another, much as a predator upon the prey. The law of nature is pretty much eat or be eaten, and for the most part, it is the dumbest critters that get eaten the most. In other words, the great "chain of being" is reflected, to a large extent, in the food chain. Nor are we humans (even those who choose to be vegetarians) exempt from our role in all of this.

Yet, for all that, we humans are different. Animals may instinctively know these things. But only we humans "know that we know" -- that is, can be fully aware of our own awareness and reflect upon it. For it is only when we finally "understand all this deeply in our hearts" that we will come to "fear and love and know the Great Spirit" and only then will we have reached the point were we will "be [exist] and act and live as He intends."

Something to think about, surely, as we sit and contemplate the world from a deer blind, or as we stand, carving knife in hand, over our Thanksgiving turkey.


Published in Northwoods Call (November 1996)

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