How It Is

The Native American Philosophy of V.F. Cordova

how it isThese essays by Viola Cordova are something this world has not seen before: from a person who grew up nourished by Apache wisdom and worldviews, a powerful critique of European-Christian thought. From a person trained as a scholar of European thought in the analytic and classical traditions of an American Ph.D. program, a brilliant statement of a Native American’s philosophy. From a woman writer who knows firsthand what it means to be excluded and embraced, a moving, life-changing account of what she most deeply believes is true.

What is the world? What is a human being? What is the role of a human in the world? The book ends with a coda in which Dr. Cordova addresses perhaps the hardest question of all — how, then, shall I live? Her answer is simple and complex, beautiful and burdensome: The greatest duty, if it can be so called, of a human being is to cause no disruption to the greater, and beautiful, whole of what it is that is.

The Mother of us all
made many kinds of human beings.
Some she made for mountains
  for rivers
  and deserts
  and plains
  and lakes.
The story of the mountain people
  will not be the story
  of the desert people
  and their story will differ
  from those of the lakes.
  In the east
    will be one story
    in the west
And all of them
  the stories
  will be true.

Listen to the audio here.



Gregory Cajete, University of New Mexico

“This book has the potential to change the guiding assumptions for viewing indigenous thought in Western philosophy. I consider it a seminal work that will make a lasting and essential contribution to indigenous studies.” -- Gregory Cajete, University of New Mexico

Jennifer Denetdale, University of New Mexico

“This collection will not only be a source of inspiration for students and scholars, Native and non-Native, but will also be useful in mapping the intellectual conversations that Native scholars have engaged in for several generations.” – Jennifer Denetdale, University of New Mexico


What is the Role of a Human Being?

by Viola Cordova

Any discussion about the role of humans in the world necessarily incorporates discussion about the ethical dimension of human action. Most ethical discussion begins with the grounds for justifying one’s actions toward others. In a Christian worldview, humans are seen as tied, first and foremost, to a relationship with an extra-terrestrial god. The relationship is between and 'I' (an individual) and the god: if the 'I’ follows the rules of the god, he will be rewarded; failure to follow these rules results in punishment.

In the secular version of this view, an individual is alone and separate from other human beings. "Right" behavior results from a contract between humans that is based on self-interest: "I won’t harm you at the waterhole if you won’t harm me." An important conception of what it is to be human in both the Christian and Western secular views is that humans are seen as existing in a state of competition with one another, even within the group of which they are members. Human membership in a group is not understood as a natural state; there can, therefore, be no "natural" explanation for ethical behavior between human beings. Moreover, since a human being, in the Western/Christian context, is defined as separate from "the world," there is no need to include the Earth in one’s ethical calculations.

The Native American view of human beings and their role in the world is very different from that if the Western/Christian view. It could be said that human beings have an instinct that draws them to others. It is this instinct that provides the basis for cooperative behavior. Cooperative behavior is "right" or "normal" behavior. Persons act ethically because they want to maintain their membership in the group. In order to maintain membership in a group, the survival of the group is as important as is the survival of the individual, perhaps more so. The individual is dependent on the group for his survival and the group is dependent on its individuals for its survival. The group, in turn, as well as the individual, is dependent on the particular conditions of the area which they occupy for its continued survival. Other areas contain other people equally dependent on the conditions of their area for their survival.

One very important fact here, a fact that is missing from the Western/Christian perspective, is that humans are seen as groups occupying specific niches. The existential and geographical circumstances of the group will provide the basis for the ethical considerations of the group. Since each group occupies a specific area, each group will have its own "code of conduct."

The ethical rules of Native American societies would seem to be based on two assumptions:

  1. Humans are not alone.
  2. Humans occupy a specific place.

What follows from these two assumptions is the following:

  1. If humans were solitary individuals, as are some animals, then there would be no need for cooperative behavior and there would be no social groups. But humans do exist in groups and do not automatically compete with each and every individual. Therefore, it is "natural" for humans to be cooperative.
  2. If our survival is dependent on certain conditions prevalent in our area, then we must maintain those conditions in order to continue our survival.

    The consequences for behavior that is not conducive to the welfare of the entire group is a failure to survive, either as a group or as an individual. "I am good," in other words, "in order to maintain my membership in the group." And, "I must be mindful of what I do to my environment because I am dependent upon it."

An article by McPherson and Rabb,2 which deals with the training of Native Americans children to act autonomously, points to the fact that such training leads to individuals who need no written rules or rewards and punishments with which to gauge their every action. The internalized perspective derived form the view of humans and humans in the world becomes, perhaps, the unconscious ground that guides individual behavior: each human being, in this context, becomes the judge and jury of his own behavior. The individual who is perceived as having done something "wrong" is also perceived as knowing that he has done so and is expected to engage in self-correction. Repeated wrong behavior is seen, not as criminal, but as abnormal ("There is something wrong with him"). Ostracism ("throwing him away") or exile (as in the ancient Greek societies) is the most prevalent means of dealing with an individual who persists in wrong behavior that results in harm to others individuals or to the group.