Book Review- A Sacred World – Native American Stories of the Sacred (Crazed World Pt.2)




Annotated and Explained

Retold and Annotated by

Evan T. Pritchard

Skylight Paths Publishing

Woodstock, Vermont

[excerpted from New York Spirit, April & May, 2006]

We’ve read enough history and done

enough research to know that there is a

spiritual bedrock lying beneath Native

America—a religion of the natural world, a

devotion to the sacred—that many born

within that cultural and genetic heritage

still practice. As Evan T. Pritchard points out

in Native American Stories of the Sacred, it

makes no difference whether it can be historically

verified that Chief Seattle said,

“The earth does not belong to us; we

belong to the earth.” Countless people

before and after him have said essentially

the same thing. The idea is central to the

Native tradition.

This is not to imply that any kind of

orthodoxy is involved. There is no holy

scripture or priestly order. The Native tradition

is as multifaceted as the number of cultures

evolved throughout the North and

South American continents over the last fifteen

millennia (give or take a few, depending

on whose research is appealed to).

Given the immense tribal diversity, in

response to the physical circumstances,

from the frozen wastes of the Northwest

Territories to the abundantly fertile valleys

of central Mexico to the steeply terraced

slopes of the Peruvian Andes, the wonder is

that such a homogenous strain continues

throughout, of religious awe, humility,

gratitude, and respect for the forces of the

natural world—sometimes known as the

Great Spirit. A way of life that honors that

spirit has come to be known as the Red

Road. It is an omnicultural, nonconceptual

rendering of obeisance to the Earth (the

Mother) that arises from a life of arduous

and tenuous survival in an abundant but

demanding environment.

Pritchard has collected stories exemplifying

that spirit from various Native cultures

of North America—stories that were meant

to be told to children (though the stories

are adult in perception and understanding),

and to be told only in winter, and

after dark. No doubt this had to do with

the long seclusion of the season, when

there might actually be time simply to sit

by the fire—as opposed to the warmer

months, when the all-consuming labor of

hunting, gathering, planting, cultivating,

harvesting, and laying up of stores for the

winter was critical to survival. The winter

night and confinement to the hearth must

have been liberating to the imagination,

and conducive to connection with both the

animal world and the spirit world.

Some of the ten categories into which

the stories have been divided make clear

that the intended audience was children—

such as “The Chickadee Story,” “Fire-

Stealing Fox,” “Coyotes and Other

Tricksters,” and the “Why?” stories, which

include “How Deer Got His Horns” and

“Why Deer’s Teeth Are Blunt.” These are

essentially parables in the tradition of

Aesop (or “wisdom tales,” as Pritchard

refers to them), most remarkable for the

degree to which animals are commonly

known and accepted, on humanly equal

terms, within the cultural landscape (not

the lesser beings doomed to extinction that

barely exist in the back of the modern

mind). It is Muskrat, in “The Mud Diver

Story,” who, in competition with Loon,

Beaver, and Otter, has the strength to

retrieve the mud from the bottom of the

pond that, piled onto the back of Turtle’s

shell, will give material shape to the

world—“Turtle Island”—and who even

gives up his life in the effort.

Similarly, the human being is an equal

player on the level ground of creaturely

existence, but, like Muskrat, due to a certain

kind of inner strength, it is the People

who are given the chief responsibility for

the other creatures. This is seen as a lesson

important for children to learn at the earliest

age. In “Why the Blackfeet Never Kill

Mice,” the revelation that justifies the title

is that the leadership of the world—long

coveted by Buffalo, Bear, and Rabbit—was

eagerly ceded to Man by the astute and

intuitive Mouse, who couldn’t be bothered.

Other stories in the collection are more

ambiguously appropriate for both youths

and adults, especially those included in the

sections titled “Creation Stories,” “The

Origins of Fire,” “The Sacred Hero,” and

“The Spiritual Journey,” in which selfless

struggle, suffering, and sacrifice figure

prominently. None, however, comes close

to reaching the spine-tingling, exalted

heights of collective spirituality found in the

Lakota story of “White Buffalo Calf

Woman,” a powerful entity from the spirit

world (here known as the Great Medicine)

who brings to earth the sacramental

“Sacred Pipe”—“a direct link to the

supreme deity,” as Pritchard describes it—

from which all the peoples may learn the

love, mercy, and wisdom that will help to

generate unity and peace, in this life and


Pritchard points out the essence of these

stories that are mostly too ancient to be

dated: that all the earthly beings, animate

and inanimate, as well as the earth itself,

are sacred; that humankind can be extravagantly

foolish; that by blindly following

selfish impulses and addictions, we can

throw the harmony of all living things and

the environment that sustains them severely

out of balance; that the animals, who

have no religion but instinctively avoid suffering,

often come to the rescue of a blundering

and oblivious humankind; and that

the lesson to be learned, again, after the

problems have been solved and the people

have been given the opportunity for a fresh

start, is that “the earth does not belong to

us—we belong to the earth.”

Like all stories with ringing archetypal

resonances, these “stories of the sacred”

are models of brevity and concision. Almost

every line can be opened up to broad

reaches of explication and commentary. In

the format adhered to by the Skylight Paths

“Skylight Illuminations” series, with text on

the right-hand page and notes on the left,

Pritchard is given ample room to annotate,

explain, and expound on every story’s

wider implications. This form is, in fact, the

most reader-friendly I have encountered—

hands-down superior to footnotes, endnotes,

or backnotes—for transmitting the

background information conveniently at

hand and in a readable type size, not

requiring scrutiny with a magnifying glass

or endless trips back and forth from one

part of the book to another.

“Skylight Illuminations,” with Andrew

Harvey as series editor, has given similarly

enlightening and uplifting treatment to a

number of other spiritual texts, mostly in

the Judeo-Christian tradition, but including

the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, the Buddhist

Dhammapada, and the Islamic writings of

Rumi. The series does a great service by

making more accessible, and at the same

time more thoroughly explicating, many

key works of world spiritual literature that,

for lack of inspiration in their presentation,

tend to be shelved and ignored. “Walking

Together, Finding the Way” is this publisher’s

motto and general approach, with

implications, at least one hopes, of further

illuminations to come. ❑

© 2006 William Meyers

About Mare Cromwell

Referred to as “The Voice of Earth Mother” by a gifted Shoshone elder, Mare Cromwell is a multi-award-winning author, Medicine woman/Lightworker and healer. She has also been told by another gifted elder that her work with Earth Mother is in the prophecies. Her books include: "The Great Mother Bible"; "Messages from Mother.... Earth Mother"; and "If I gave you God’s phone number.... Searching for Spirituality in America". She has studied with Native American teachers for twenty-one years and sat on the World Council for Wisdom Gatherings for three years. Mare leads workshops on our Sacred Planet-Earth Mother, Womb Wisdom and Sacred Silliness and more. She is the visionary and producer of the 1000 Goddesses Gathering in Washington DC. Mare loves to be involved in Ceremony. She is also a former worm herder. She calls Western Maryland home.
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