ENCOUNTERS WITH NATIVE INDIAN LITERATURE

 

 By  - Dr. Khalid Sohail         

Nearly ten years ago while I was translating world literature into Urdu and studying world mythology, I came across those lectures of Joseph Campbell that he had delivered before he died in 1987. (Ref 1) The more I read them the more I developed a great respect for this philosopher. In his lectures he discussed the myths and legends of different parts of the world. He believed that all cultures started with a mythology but unfortunately in some communities the mythology transformed into an ideology and gave birth to ideological wars and a life of cooperation deteriorated into life of confrontation and holy wars. Joseph Campbell introduced me to the sayings and stories of Chief Seattle and Black Elk. They were so full of insights into life and wisdom that I decided to do a series of translations of Native Indian writings and introduce them to the Urdu readers all over the world. I think their messages need to be available to people of all nations. Our children and grandchildren need to be introduced to the wisdom of all communities and cultures and find ways to live harmoniously with people from other lands. Literature builds bridges between different generations and communities and writers have a creative and social responsibility to build bridges of peace and harmony as well as breaking walls of conflict and prejudice. My translations are a humble attempt in that direction. I am very grateful to the Native Indians, as I have learnt a lot from their teachings. In this short essay I will share only some of my impressions of Native Indian literature hoping that it would inspire others to enrich their lives by studying the histories, teachings and stories of Native Indians, a nation of dream catchers.

          The first thing that touched my heart about Native Indian literature was the oral tradition. It is the tradition of folklore and folk stories, a tradition that is transferred from heart to heart between grandparents and grandchildren and between people connected by a bond of love. The oral tradition is transferred in a personal and loving way between people who have respect and reverence for each other.

          When the oral tradition becomes a written tradition, it gains something but it also loses something. In the written tradition the words on a page can become impersonal and can easily be misunderstood and misinterpreted. The message received may not be the message given and every attempt to clarify the message might make it more cloudy and fuzzy. I am amazed that the Native Indian elders did not share their stories with everybody. I was struck by the fact that when a young enthusiastic journalist approached Black Elk he acknowledged that she was charming and adventurous but he refused to share his story with her but when he was approached by a genuine writer John Neihardt with good conscience, he was willing to talk to him and share his story, his truth, in words as well as silences. That is why I call such literature, wisdom literature, which tries to capture the meanings of words as well of silences and Native Indian literature has a rich tradition of wisdom literature.

          We are all aware what happened to the teachings of Moses, Jesus and Mohammad when their oral traditions were transferred to written traditions. This gave birth to holy books and for the last two thousand years so many priests, rabbis and maulanas have engaged in battles of words, fighting about the literary and metaphorical interpretations of holy scriptures. Such battles are not just academic debates to win arguments they have caused holy wars and thousands of men, women and children are killed in the name of God and religions. In Native Literature mythology has been maintained and has not transformed into ideology.

          The second thing that impressed me about Native Indian literature is their concepts of God and spirituality. In the Middle East, in the Juda-o-Christian-o-Islamic tradition there is a concept of Creator God who has created this universe and performs miracles. In India there is a tradition of many Gods and Goddesses that create, maintain and destroy life. In Native Indian literature the concept of God is seen as a Great Mystery, a mystery that inspires mystics, artists, scientists and ordinary people to discover their truth and meaning in life in their own unique way.

          Alongside the concept of God I was also impressed by the idea that the whole universe is sacred. To be in touch with our spirituality we do not need to go to churches and temples and mosques and synagogues, we can get in touch with it by meditating, by looking at the sunrise and sunset and by connecting with the trees and flowers and lakes. The idea that the whole universe is sacred is quite well developed in Native Indian tradition. Followers of that tradition believe that human beings, animals and birds are part of the same family. They also believe that whether rivers or mountains, suns or the moons, deserts or the galaxies, all are part of a cosmos that is holy and we as human beings are mystically and mysteriously connected to them.

 

Peter Blue Cloud stated,

“ Will you ever begin to understand the meaning of the very soil beneath our feet?

From a grain of sand to a great mountain, all is sacred. We natives are guardians of this sacred soil” (Ref 2)

Chief Seattle said, “ Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sand shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect, all are holy in the memory and experience of my people. We know the sap that courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are a part of the earth and it is part of us. Perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the dear, the great eagle are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man, all belong to the same family.” (Ref 1)

          In the Middle Eastern tradition in which I grew up there were heavenly religions and ideologies, while the Native Indian tradition is more earthly. I gradually became aware through the teachings of Chief Seattle and Black Elk that we are all children of Mother Earth. That was a powerful message and resonated with me strongly and when a message resonates with us we are inspired to follow it further.

          In the teachings of Black Elk I was also touched by the concept of working together. He stated ‘No good thing can be done by one man alone’ (Ref 3). It was the message of cooperation rather than confrontation. It was an invitation to be connected with the bond of love and peace and harmony. That is the message that can inspire all of us.

          We are living in the world where there are divisions of ‘us and them’, where freedom fighters of one nation are the terrorists of the other, where colonial and imperialistic powers are not only abusing weaker countries and communities but nature also. They are a living contradiction, talking about peace and preparing for war, talking about democracy and supporting dictators, monarchs and army generals. It is the time we need to share the message of Black Elk and Chief Seattle and other Native Indian philosophers and prophets with the rest of the world to create a more peaceful world, where inner and outer, emotional and social, environmental and political peace go hand in hand. Chief Seattle shared with us that if we do not have inner peace we are vulnerable to feel angry, resentful and bitter and join the cycle of violence motivated by revenge. He knew the difference between the angry young men and the wise old men and peaceful loving mothers. He shared his wisdom in these words, “ True it is, that revenge, with our young braves, is considered gain, even at the cost of their own lives, but old men who stay at home in times of war, and old women, who have sons to lose, know better.” (Ref 4)

          Chief Seattle has also warned all those who do not respect trees and birds and animals and lakes that their destruction can lead to human destruction. We can commit collective suicide as we are doing in the Middle East. As the people living in the twenty-first century we need to cherish the peace loving traditions of other communities and build bridges of understanding with other cultures and translating each other’s literature is one creative and humanistic way of doing that.

          In the last twenty years I have published translations of

…literature of blacks

…feminist literature

…gay and lesbian literature

…humanistic literature

and

….folk tales of the world

They are my humble gifts to the Urdu world. Translating Chief Seattle’s speech and Black Elk’s story and the story of other Native Indians is my latest gift to the Urdu world, the gift that I feel very proud of. I am inspired by the positive response I am receiving. In the end I want to thank Family of the Heart for inviting me to this seminar and thank you for listening to me patiently.+

                                                REFERENCES

1.    Campbell Joseph Transformation of Myth Through Time Harper and Row Publishers New York USA 1990

2.    Cassidy James Through Indian Eyes… The Untold Story of Native Peoples Readers Digest Association Canada 1996.

3.    Reiger Willis Masterpieces of American Indian Literature MIF Books New York USA 2003 

4.    Chief Seattle’s Speech 1854…HistoryLink.org…Internet The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History.

Translated by Dr. Henry Smith

 

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