Most of us have been taught to think of our body as a physical structure, isolated from everything else. But if we think of it as a living system, then a different picture emerges.
Traditional Indigenous thinking points towards an open system, connected with the universe and the Creator.
In the mid-1970s I wrote down what I had been saying in many Indian gatherings:
"I can lose my hands, and still live. I can lose my legs and still live. I can lose my eyes and still live. I can lose my hair, eyebrows, nose, arms, and many other things and still live. But if I lose the air I die. If I lose the sun I die. If I lose the earth I die. If I lose the water I die. If I lose the plants and animals I die. All of these things are more a part of me, more essential to my every breath, than is my so-called body. What is my real body?
We are not autonomous, self-sufficient beings as European mythology teaches.... We are rooted just like the trees. But our roots come out of our nose and mouth, like an umbilical cord, forever connected to the rest of the world.... Nothing that we do, do we do by ourselves. We do not see by ourselves. We do not hear by ourselves.... That which the tree exhales, I inhale. That which I exhale, the trees inhale. Together we form a circle."
When I was growing up, I had a strong feeling of relatedness to the earth, to the animals, and to the trees and plants. At age 22 I wrote a poem which expressed my feelings of wonder, and of relatedness, as regards the non-human world. But it wasn't until I read some of the teachings of Black Elk, the Lakota holy man, that I started thinking deeply about "nature" as being part of us, and we being part of nature. He told a British writer, John Epes Brown, in 1947, that ...peace comes within the souls of men when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all of its powers, and when they realize that at the centre of the universe dwells Wakan Tanka, and that this centre is everywhere, it is within each of us.
As published in The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian, as well as Sacred Pipe.
He also said, on many occasions, that humans and animals are to be relative-like and that we humans were like a suckling child, all of our lives, in relation to the Mother Earth. And then, too, I remember reading of what Pete Catches and Lame Deer both said: that all of nature is in us. (Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions)
Gradually, I began to understand that our relationship with the earth, with the air, with the water, and with all of the living creatures of the world, is more than simply a relationship of mutual dependence, kinship, and respect. I began to see that "our body" is bigger than what we normally think of as our physical body; that we have such absolutely essential connections with air, water, plants, earth, and animals, and also with the Sun and Moon, that we literally have a physical body which embraces all of these things.
From about 1967 on I began to give lots of talks to Native audiences, from Virginia and New Jersey to Seattle and the Southwest. In these lectures I often focused on the "Greatness of the Native Mind," and one of the major aspects of this greatness was the idea of unity between humans and other living creatures.
"If we lose the water we die. If we lose the plants and animals we die."
In the early 1970s, while struggling with racism in the university, I experienced a spiritual transformation. I began to write in a manner quite different from most of my earlier books, incorporating many of my deepest feelings and insights even if they might be very displeasing in Eurocentric and materialistic academic circles. I wrote a book which was originally called "The Wetiko Psychosis" (about the cultural disease of cannibalism, or conscious exploitation of others, which I believed was dominating much of the world). When published it was called A World Ruled by Cannibals. This book was to have been printed by Akwesasne Noes in 1976 but they had insufficient funds. It came out in 1978 instead (from D-Q University).
In this work I gave written expression to the idea that our bodies included more than simply our arms, legs, head, and trunk. It is certainly true that we can lose part of our "flesh" and go on living, but we cannot lose the air, the sun, the animals, the plants, or pure water. These gifts are not simply added to us, they are the core of our flesh. We are made of these things.
"Our eyes are not clear-glass windows. We do not look directly out upon ... the world surrounding us...." We must therefore eliminate "...the border between mind and universe...." (What is Space? by Jack Forbes). I have also written that "We and all the animals and living things , we complete the world. If the world be a drum, we are its taut skin vibrating with its messages.... (Forbes, "The Universe is Our Holy Book," unpublished poem, 1993).
We are, indeed, bodies without borders.
[Professor Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Delaware, is the author of Red Blood, Africans and Native Americans, Only Approved Indians and other books. He is professor emeritus, University of California, Davis. His Web site is www.cougar.ucdavis.edu/nas/faculty/forbes/jfhome.html