Thomas MERTON. Ishi Means Man: Essays on Native Americans. New York. Paulist Press, 2015. pp. viii + 81. $9.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8091-4911-7. Reviewed by Patrick F. O’CONNELL, Gannon University, Erie, PA 16541.
In the last two years of his life (1967-68) Thomas Merton wrote five articles on Native American topics, four appearing in The Catholic Worker, the fifth in Unicorn Journal. In 1976 these essays were collected and published by Unicorn Press, with a brief foreword by Dorothy Day. Long out of print, the volume has now been reissued by Paulist Press in this centenary year of Merton’s birth.
Following Day’s foreword (vii-viii), which focuses mainly on her “great sense of guilt” (vii) at knowing so little of American Indian history, remedied first by her acquaintance with John Collier’s 1940s book on the subject and now by Merton’s essays, Ishi Means Man is divided into two sections. Part One consists of three articles related to Native American life in the western United States, Part Two of a pair of somewhat longer pieces on indigenous peoples in Mexico. All are “review-essays,” resulting from Merton’s reading of particular books, but comprised principally of his own reflections on the material rather than simply summary and evaluation of the works themselves.
“The Shoshoneans” (3-15), based on a 1967 book with the same title by Edward Dorn with photographs by Leroy Lucas, sees the contemporary journey of author and photographer to encounter members of this tribe as a kind of pilgrimage, “a humble, difficult, necessarily incomplete effort to cross an abyss and achieve communion with people who, in such large measure deprived of identity and reduced to inarticulate silence, have little or nothing left to say in ordinary language” (6); yet the book concludes, as does the essay, with an eloquent and moving statement composed for a conference on the War on Poverty by a young Ponca from Oklahoma, which asserts the traditional self-sufficiency of indigenous peoples and challenges paternalistic assumptions that decisions benefitting native peoples can and should be made by white bureaucrats and businessmen. “Democracy is just not good in the abstract, it is necessary for the human condition; and the epitome of democracy is responsibility as individuals and as communities of people. There cannot be responsibility unless people can make decisions and stand by them or fall by them. . . . I might also add it is only when a community has real freedom that outside help will be effective” (14-15). Merton concludes the essay by noting mordantly that this speech was not allowed to be presented at the conference: “The ideas came too close to the nerve” (15).
The second piece, “War and Vision” (16-25), is a reflection on Peter Nabokov’s 1967 volume Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior, a long-neglected record of conversations with a plains Indian who died in 1923 that Merton calls “one of the most fascinating autobiographies published in this century” (20). This fascination for Merton lies largely in the “archaic wisdom” that he finds in the old warrior’s reminiscences, the vision quest of the plains tribes “which did somehow protect them against the dangers of a merely superficial, willful, and cerebral existence” and “did somehow integrate their personality in such a way that the conscious mind was responsive to deep unconscious sources of awareness” (20). Yet Merton also sees “something pathetic about the life of Two Leggings” (22) in that “a spiritual experience, once ritualized, formalized, and fitted into a static establishment, tends to be manipulated by the ambitions of the believer” and thus “becomes self-defeating” (23). Ultimately Two Leggings loses touch with his spirit guide as he moves more into the white world and its materialist values. “In a very real sense,” Merton concludes, “he was deprived of his full identity. Contact with his spirit world was broken, because for him this contact depended entirely on a certain cultural context in which spirit-guidance gave meaning to his personal ambition” (25). Again Merton concludes his commentary on an ironic note – that the Crow warrior ends his story by summing up the final thirty-plus years of his life, when he was no longer searching for meaning through vision, in a mere two and a half lines, basically saying that nothing further happened of any significance.
“Ishi: A Meditation” (26-35), based on Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (1964), is the best known of these articles. The subtitle here is particularly apt, as it points to Merton’s focus not only on the circumstances of Ishi’s early life as a member of the dwindling remnant of the Yahi or Mill Creek tribe of California Indians and his final four and a half years among the anthropologists at Berkeley until his death from tuberculosis in 1916, but also on his story as “a kind of parable” (34). He considers the ways in which dehumanizing “the other” allows one to marginalize and then eliminate those who are different; the fact that the last survivors of the tribe were able to live a totally undetected “hidden life” (30) for twelve years because they were on their “home ground” (31), completely integrated with their natural surroundings; the psychic and spiritual integrity of Ishi and his kin, who were able to endure their sufferings and deprivations sustained by the realization that their cause was just; the sensitivity of Ishi’s academic rescuers who treated him not as a specimen but as a friend; the haunting analogies between the brutality of the ethnic “cleansing” (34) in nineteenth-century California and attempts to “wipe out” the enemy in Vietnam; and finally the remarkable revelation about Ishi’s “name” (35) that provides the entire collection of these essays with its title.
“The Cross Fighters: Notes on a Race War” (39-59), the first of the two Mesoamerican articles that make up Part II, is based on Nelson Reed’s The Caste War of Yucatán (rpt. 1967), a study of a rebellion of the indigenous Mayan population on the Yucatán peninsula against the predominant Ladino and mestizo (mixed-race) society, beginning in the 1840s and continuing into the twentieth century. As Reed points out, the conflict was rooted in fundamentally incompatible conceptions of the land and the corn it grew – sacred for the Mayans, merely a commodity for the whites. At the outset Merton emphasizes that his interest is not primarily historical or political but rather “in the ways in which an oppressed and humiliated ‘primitive’ civilization seeks to recover its identity and to maintain itself in independence, against the overwhelming threat of a society which can rely on unlimited backing from the great powers, precisely because it is white” (39). He is particularly intrigued by the second phase of the rebellion, after the Mayans had been defeated militarily because “they were still too willing to listen to the voice of peaceful and constructive human instinct” (48), when a synthesis of archaic traditions of prophecy and sincerely, intensely adopted Christian beliefs among the Mayans led to the formation in the jungle of “an authentic, Indian society built of Christian and Indian elements fused together in an organism with a complete and fully coherent identity of its own” (49). This hidden, virtually independent community of resistance was represented especially by the “speaking cross” (50) enshrined in the sacred city of Chan Santa Cruz where it was revered as a source of direct contact with God (despite the fact that the “voice” was that of a concealed human being) as opposed to truly fraudulent dicta of the “official” spokesmen of a Church implicated in oppression and injustice. Merton finds in this obscure group, whose adherents had not completely disappeared even at the time of writing, a revelatory paradigm for all sorts of apocalyptic movements whose “symbols . . . may take forms that seem fantastic and illogical” but which represent a creative response to “real problems and genuine grievances which cannot be dealt with by existing political or cultural means” (58).
The final essay, “The Sacred City” (60-81), a response to Ancient Oaxaca, edited by John Paddock (1966), looks at the early Zapotecan city of Monte Albán and similar centers in Mayan Guatemala as exemplifying an urban culture that is associated not with “kingship or at least with militaristic autocracy” (60) and based not on “commerce . . . war and conquest” (61) but on a sense of human identity not equated with “the empirical ego” but “fully integrated into a cosmic system which was at once perfectly sacred and perfectly worldly” (65). Evidence cited by Merton suggests that these sacred cities were built not by forced labor but from spiritual motivations incomprehensible when considered “solely in economic or technological terms” (68). He sees such magnificent accomplishments as evidence of a way of life in profound harmony with the patterns of the natural world, “a peaceful, timeless life lived in the stability of a continually renewed present” (71), having a “direct, sensuous contact” with its surroundings, “celebrated in an aesthetic and ritual joy” (74) manifested in its sculpture, ceramics and other works of art which were “marked with a very special charm, humor, and taste” (76-77). For still unknown reasons, these sacred cities were eventually abandoned, but only after their creative period had extended for perhaps as long as two millennia. While Merton resists the temptation to set up a crudely simplistic contrast between the sacred cities of ancient Mesoamerica and the contemporary secular city marked by “the turbulent, unstable, and vulgar affluence of the warfare state” (79) – noting in passing his own somewhat chastened affection for New York City – yet he does see the importance of integrating a knowledge of these radically different ways of social organization into contemporary consciousness as a salutary challenge to complacent modern assumptions of moral and cultural superiority and above all to a faith in technology as the solution to problems that are at root not merely scientific, political and economic but essentially spiritual, problems of human identity and of the direction and purpose of human personal and social life.
These essays serve as important testimony of Merton’s deep empathy for the oppressed and marginalized that is also evident in his writings on war and racial injustice during the last decade of his life, as well as to his belief that encounters with “the other” can help to dissipate one’s own illusions and unexamined myths and deepen and broaden one’s experience of human community. They are also closely if indirectly linked with the anthropological materials that were incorporated into his late book-length poem The Geography of Lograire (1969), published the year after his death. His reading of works on Mesoamerican art and culture, on the Ghost Dance movement of the late nineteenth-century American west, and on Melanesian cargo cults (explicitly likened by Merton to the Cruzob movement in his “Cross Fighters” essay) reflects a similar interest in indigenous societies that resulted not in reflective essays but in poetry of global range. To have the material in this volume, long unavailable, once more in print is welcome, both for the contents themselves and for their connections with other significant projects in which Merton was engaged at the very end of his life. The new edition would have been enhanced, however, by a prefatory note providing some background about the initial publication of the individual pieces and of the volume as a whole. As it now stands, the reader can only be puzzled by Dorothy Day’s expression of hope, four decades out of date, “that Unicorn Press will be deluged with orders for this inspiring collection” (viii). A new introduction putting these essays in context, both of their own time and of ours, might not have led to a deluge in orders for Paulist Press, but could well have made a strong case explaining why Ishi Means Man can still be considered an inspiring collection.