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Native American Traditions by Arthur Versluis. Element Books Limited, Longmead, Shaftesbury, Dorset, 1994; 96 pp., $ ??? (hardcover). Previously published as The Elements Of Native American Traditions, 1993; 122 pp., $14.95 (softcover). Reviewed by Jordan S. Gruber.
Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)
Difficulty Level: 5 (out of 10)
Recommendation: A very nice introduction, especially for a road trip
In Native American Traditions, formerly released as The Elements Of Native American Traditions, Arthur Versluis provides a wonderfully compact and enlightening overview of Native American spiritual beliefs and practices. Although these two books have identical text, the softcover 1993 version contains only a few dozen line drawings, while the hardcover 1994 edition, extensively and lavishly illustrated, is suitable for a home-school library. Both books, however, make good on the premise and promise of the "Elements of" series: "to present high quality introductions to a broad range of essential subjects."
Versluis achieves this high quality by artfully weaving together anthropological and historical facts and insights, visions and tales from well-known modern Native leaders such as Black Elk and Thomas Yellowtail, and a variety of diagrams, illustrations, and (in the full-color, hardcover version) photographs. He also includes a healthy dose of reverence for non-Western subject matter, as exemplified by the books' very first sentence:
That the Native American religious traditions - with all their diversity - represent one of the world religions in the same way as does Hinduism, for instance, is a relatively recent concept in the Judaeo-Christian world.
The greatest strength of Native American Traditions is its ability to quickly immerse the reader in an alternative cosmology and effectively communicate what distinguishes that cosmology from our present one. Whether Versluis is speaking of the warrior tradition, hierophanic nature in general (or the importance of animals in particular), spirits and ancestors, ceremonies and dances, shamanism and medicine, sacred art and mythology, or cycles of time, he manages to impress the reader with the profundity and uniqueness of the views of the first human inhabitants of this continent. Further, although Versluis primarily focuses on North American tribes, he also successfully imparts a feeling for the wide variety of Native American practices. He does this by comparing and contrasting tribes from the Pacific Northwest, the Plains, and the Pueblos, and by tracing various connections to Meso and South American tribes, including the Aztecs and Incas.
The books do have a few minor faults. First, the softcover version seems quite dull in comparison with the well-illustrated hardcover version. Second, the language in both of the books is sometimes a bit stilted, and occasionally too wordy. Add to this a smattering of British vernacular, and the resulting text seems to periodically invite the reader's mind to stumble.
Nonetheless, Versluis has done a superb job in getting across the heart of what we know of, and what remains of, Native American cosmology taken as a whole. He properly emphasizes the "what remains of" point by bemoaning the loss, since the start of the 19th century, of much tribal knowledge and many ceremonial forms. He then reminds us why the rituals of native peoples were (and are) so important:
Modern people seem to think that ceremonies are but entertainment - a view reinforced by intertribal 'show dancing' for tourists - or mere 'superstition'. But in fact rituals are the form, the crystallization, of the mythological and religious cycles that not only make sense of the cosmos, but in fact reveal, augment, and even bring about human beings' harmony with it, and its harmony with them. Without ritual, the tribal tradition has no formal expression, and ceases to exist except as a matter of bloodline and transmitted stories.
On a recent trip to the Native sites of the Southwest, my wife and I made our own "ritual" by reading Versluis' book (the softcover version) out loud every day. By doing so, we immeasurably enhanced our understanding of the traditions of Native American peoples, and, perhaps, to some small degree, our understanding of ourselves.
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