Vine Deloria, a Lakota scholar, and author of God Is Red, wrote about some of the distinctions between European ways of thinking and American Indian ways of thinking. One of the differences he believed was important is the difference between a primary orientation towards place and a primary orientation toward time.
I remember, when I was in Catholic grade school, learning about “salvation history.” We were taught that God was working throughout time to bring humans into a higher level of existence. Deloria points out that Europeans understand the world as an evolutionary process where humankind has evolved from lower forms into higher forms, including the evolution from so-called primitive religions into monotheistic conceptions of divinity.
American Indians are oriented to space and place, and their theological concerns are spacial concerns. Within this framework, each place has its own experiences of divinity, which may be very different from those of another place, without any contradiction. Rituals are important for connecting a people with the places in which they live, with the deeper powers of those places. This is why the land rights struggles of Native people cannot be separated from their struggles for religious freedom. Their religions are focused on nurturing their relationship to the specific land which is their land.
Another difference between American Indian views and those of mainstream society is in the conception of land as object or subject. To view the land as an object, is to see it as something to be acted upon: to be bought and sold, to be used for its minerals and plants, to be owned, to be abused, or even to be watched over carefully. To view the land as subject is to see it as we might see a person, as a being with its own actions, its own view.
The word own is an interesting one here. We use it to describe possession acquired by buying something. As in “I own a piece of property.” Yet it also can be used to describe relationship. My own mother, my own lover, my own family. To say “our land” can mean this is the land we have purchased, or it can mean this is the land we have a relationship to, we belong to it as much as it belongs to us.
European peoples are new to the land we call North America. Our history includes the theft of this land from its original people. Any work we do to reconnect to the land must pass through the entanglements of that history, must include work to heal the brokenness of that history.