Thomas Merton on Indigenous History, continued

In his book, Ishi Means Man, which included a Forward by Dorothy Day, Catholic monk Thomas Merton expressed admiration for indigenous rituals such as a Sundance for Peace and the “mystical” practices of fasting and vision quests.  He recognized the power of rituals which create a full integration:

“Vision Quest.” Image by andres musta on Flickr

into a cosmic system which was at once perfectly sacred and perfectly worldly….’Self-realization’ in such a context implied not so much the ego-consciousness of the isolated subject in the face of a multitude of objects, but the awareness of a network of relationships in which one had a place in the mesh.  ….One fell in step with the dance of the universe, the liturgy of the stars.   

His essay on “Ishi: A Meditation” begins with the following stark words:

Genocide is a new word.  Perhaps the word is new because technology has now got into the game of destroying whole races at once.  The destruction of races is not new—just easier.

“Ishi in 1913, last surviving member of the Yahi Indian tribe of California.” Image by Saxton T. Pope on Wikimedia Commons

Ishi was the last survivor of the Mill Creek Indians who were hunted in California for fifty years and Merton is responding to a recent study published in 1964 by Theodora Kroeber, Ishi In Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America

Merton celebrates “the courage, the resourcefulness, and the sheer nobility of these few stone age men struggling to preserve their life, their autonomy and their identity as a people.” 

He compares the “hidden life” of this tribe, reduced to twenty people after the governor of California put a $50 bounty on heads of Indians.  This remnant of a tribe learned to live “invisible and as unknown” for twelve years undetected until only Ishi and his sister and sick mother remained. 

Trailer for Ishi, the Last Yahi. Produced by Jed Riffe

When they died, Ishi surrendered to the white world on August 29, 1911.  Fortunately an anthropologist at UC Berkeley took him in and treated him well for the remaining four and a half years of his life. 

Merton composed a myth about indigenous history in which a character says: “We have not understood their playful modes.   We have fought Eros.” 

How much of colonial history and enslavement of other peoples is a case of Western culture and religion “fighting Eros”?  Are both patriarchy and capitalism committed to fighting Eros?  Does love of death reign over love of life, necrophilia over biophilia?

“Pre-Columbian ruins in Oaxaca, Mexico, 1976” Photo by Infrogmation on Flickr

In an essay on “The Sacred City,” Merton speaks of the recently discovered archaeological findings of the Oaxaca Valley and remarks on “the almost total neglect of the arts of war” among those people.  

This provides an “entirely different conception of man and of life” which can be characterized as

…a network of living interrelationships….In plain and colloquial terms it is a difference between a peaceful, timeless life lived in the stability of a continually renewed present, and a dynamic, aggressive life aimed at the future.


Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 198-200.

Banner Image: “Mill Creek Valley [Yahi ancestral territory] seen from the top of Black Rock, 1955.” Photo by g.bertschinger on Flickr

Do you agree with Merton that much of the Western efforts to colonize indigenous peoples has been a war against Eros or love of life including play?  How can we change that dynamic and move from necrophilia to biophilia?

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism


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2 thoughts on “Thomas Merton on Indigenous History, continued”

  1. Avatar

    We too often overlook the profound beliefs of the indigenous peoples of the world. They are often labeled as ‘pagan’ in a derogatory sense. Native Americans, on both continents, tribal faiths in Africa, Polynesian spirit worship, Aborigines in Australia, among others, have much to teach us.

  2. Avatar

    That “anthropologist at UC Berkeley” who took in Ishi was the father of Ursula LeGuin, the wonderful Science Fiction author. She was a young girl at the time, but much of her writing reflects on how this experience affected her. Her stories are full of unexpected relationships between races, and how we must learn to LISTEN and learn from each other.

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