Nature as God: Repairing the Circle

The Cree people have never separated their deities from nature—and for good reason.

Cree People

The first mythology has one god, the second has many gods, and the third is a society where god has not yet left nature – god is in nature, nature is god; in a sense, biology is god.

Illustration by Tomson Highway

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I speak two Native Languages because I come from a part of the country where Cree people moved so far north — my father, namely, and four young men at a time in the 1920s — that they moved into Dene territory. I come from the Manitoba/Nunavet border, which is actually Dene territory, so we were Cree people living among the Dene. Our village was half Cree and half Dene. There was the non-status side and there was the status — we’re status — and in order to go from the status Cree side of the village to the non-status Cree part of the village, you had to pass through a Dene section, a Dene neighborhood. Dene and Cree come from two totally different linguistic families. So we speak both languages because we had to. We had no choice. We didn’t speak English though. English didn’t exist back then. So when you speak Dene and Creek, it’s like being able to speak English and Mandarin. It’s a real gift to have had that as a child because, of course, the other languages came easier. So today I speak fluent French. And I work in English, French, and Cree — I have books published in those languages. So that’s where the big difference comes from.

The fact is that the origin of masculinity — the whole issue of gender — comes from linguistic structure. I think one has to understand that … oh, it’s a long story. How do I put it? Human behavior is ruled, the subconscious life of an individual is governed by the subconscious life of his community, his society. And the dream world, so to speak, is defined by the mythology of a people. To simplify the explanation — or raccourcir, to shorten it — languages are given birth to by mythologies, the collective dream world of a society. And they’re given birth to and they’re given form by that dream world. So the structure of a language depends on the nature of the mythology. And mythology spills into the discipline of theology, the but the difference, of course, is that theology is only about “God” whereas mythology is about god and man and nature. It’s interesting when you think about it: mythology, in a sense, is a combination of theology, sociology, and biology — the study of gods, men, and nature.

There’s mythologies, of course, all over the world. There’s as many mythologies as there are languages. And last time I counted, they say there’s between 5,000 and 6,000 languages in the world. And each one of them has a superstructure, like I say, given birth to by mythology, so that mythology is what decides the structure of the language. And those mythologies are divided into roughly three different categories: there’s monotheism, there’s polytheism, and there’s pantheism. These are all Greek words: Theos is “god.” So monotheism is about “one” god. Polytheism is about “many” gods. Pantheism is about god in “all” pan meaning “all.” So the first mythology has one god, the second has many gods, and the third is a society where god has not yet left nature — god is in nature, nature is god; in a sense, biology is god.

So the monotheistic superstructure is Christianity — there’s only one god in Christianity — and polytheism is what preceded Christianity in that part of the world, the eastern Mediterranean. The Greek and Roman mythologies are polytheistic systems, just like today in a society like Japan. Shintoism is a polytheistic superstructure. And then there’s pantheism; that’s Native.

In monotheism, there’s only one god and it’s also a phallic superstructure. There’s one god and he’s male. Male with a capital M. Then there’s man with a small m. And there’s female with a small f. And finally then there’s nature. So there’s He, he, she, then it. In that order. One of my students asked me, “Is there a She with a capital S on this superstructure?” There’s none. There’s no room for it. There’s no room for the idea of She with a capital S. And the other thing you’ll notice here is that there’s only two genders: male and female. And the male has complete power over the female. God created man first, and woman is an afterthought from his rib bone. It would be very interesting to see a society where, first of all, god was female — imagine the kind of world we would have if god was female and she created woman first and then created man from her rib bone? What an enormous difference that would make in human behavior.

So polytheism is not a phallic superstructure. It’s a semi-circular superstructure, interestingly enough, in the sense that there are many gods and goddesses. In fact, the principal deities, the pantheon of twelve gods among the ancient Greeks atop Mt. Olympus, consisted of six gods and six goddesses. So it was evenly divided. And there is historical proof of the time in history when one goddess was replaced by a god, resulting in seven male gods and five female gods, and that was the beginning of the end of the idea of divinity in female form. And those gods, as you probably know, are Zeus, the king, of the gods; the queen of the goddesses being Hera, his wife; and then there’s Poseidon, god of the sea; there’s Hermes the messenger god; there’s the god of the intellect, Apollo; and then there’s Demeter, the goddess of grain, an earth-based goddess,  the goddess of fertility, really; the goddess of war, Athena; and the goddess of love, of human sexuality, Aphrodite, who became Venus in Roman mythology; and so on and so forth. So there’s all these gods and goddesses along this semi-circle and there is room in this polytheistic structure for the idea of male and female divinity.

Over here, pantheism is a complete circle. (My weakness here is that I don’t speak ancient Greek. That would help me tremendously in my analysis of the situation.) But over here there is no “he” and there is no “she.” In the Native languages of North America, so far as I know — certainly Cree, Ojibway, and Dene — there is no “he” and there is no “she.” There is no gender. In the monotheistic superstructure, on the other hand, there seems to be an obsession with the division of the universe according to gender. There’s the part of the universe that is male and then there’s the part that is female. And it’s even more pronounced in French with le and la. In French, un bureau is masculine but une table is feminine. Very interesting that most of the negative nouns are feminine : la colére — anger; la douleur — pain; la tristesse — sadness.  Whereas the positive terms, for the most part, are masculine: le bonheur — happiness. And of course there’s always exceptions, but that’s generally the case. And it’s always the man having superior power over the women because of the creation story that underpins this superstructure.

If the universe in a monotheistic system is divided into genders, the universe in a pantheistic system is divided into animate and inanimate. There’s the animate part of the universe and there’s the inanimate part of the universe, meaning that there’s that which has a soul and that which has no soul. Anything that has biological life is a living, animate creature. In Cree we’d say ana nepêw, the man. Ana iskwéw, the woman. Ana mistik, the tree — ana being the article. Ana asinîy, the rock. They all have a place in the circle. There is no gender difference and one does not have power over the other. The only way that these animate creatures can be made inanimate is if you kill the man and body becomes anima mêo, the corpse. It’s no longer a he, it’s an it. Anima, that’s one of the great accidents of linguistics in that it has nothing to do with the Latin anima — which is where the word “animate” comes from, meaning “soul.” The only way you can make this living creature inanimate is to remove the life, so she becomes anima mêo, a corpse. The only way you can turn the tree into an inanimate creature is to chop it down and turn it into a chair. So that a chair is a tree without a soul. And a rock has a soul, according to this superstructure, and the only way you can make it not have a soul is to kill it, to crush it up into cement, and to make a sidewalk out of that cement. So that a sidewalk is a rock without a soul. So the rock is now anima miskêw. So the articles change accordingly.

Basically in Cree all of these living creatures have equal status, as do all of these non-living creatures. So that this circle contains two circles: there’s the circle with the animate creatures and within that circle is the circle with the inanimate creatures. When a man dies, he goes to another circle. He undergoes transference. He doesn’t go to hell or heaven. He just stays here, which is we believe that the planet is just filled with our ancestors. They’re still here, they never went anywhere. My brother, who died of AIDS 21 years ago, he never went anywhere, he’s still here, still with me. Even biologically, I have his lips, I have his eyes, I have this, I have that. I even have his voice, apparently.

So there’s room on the living circle, the animate circle, there’s room for the male and the female, as well as all of these other shades of gender. We have the he/shes, and we have she/hes. We have room for the idea of men with the souls of women and women with the souls of men. Those are gay people. To put it in blunt terms, the role of men in the circle of our society was to hunt and the role of women was to give birth — my mother had 12 children and my father was a fabulous hunter — but there was also a group who biologically were assigned neither role. Neither the hunt nor giving birth. So our responsibility became the spirit, to take care of the spirit of the community, which is where all the artists are from. This is why so many artists are gay. And that’s our job, to create this magic; we’re the magicians.

Noticing European life from up close as a Native man, the great arc of European history contains three arcs. First of all, there’s war after war after war after war in which human blood has been spilt; I swear to god, there’s not a square inch of that continent that hasn’t been soaked in human blood. And 97 percent of that is caused by “man.” When you look at world wars, where are the women? Why are these men killing each other? Where are the women in all that? When you see these military marches, thousands and thousands and thousands of soldiers … it’s just men. Where are the women? Anyway, that’s one part: the destruction, the pain, and the agony and the trauma. Europeans are a traumatized people. To this very day, we talk to our friends in France about the Second World War and they start to cry because their parents were prisoners of war. There are Jewish friends who lost parents to the Holocaust, who were incinerated in Auschwitz. And that’s one arc.

The other picture you see that astonishes you even more is that they’re still there, the Europeans are still there, and they’re beautiful. The Italians are beautiful. The Spanish are beautiful. The Germans are beautiful, physically and emotionally. And that beauty was given to us by “woman.” She’s the one who nutured those people, who made them survive, who gave them birth and rebirth and rebirth.

And the third arc of European civilization is the shoes, the hair, the fashion, the theater, the poetry, the music, the architecture, the film, the pure spectacle of it all, a spectacle for which people pay millions of dollars from all over the world to come and gawk at. And that was given to the planet by these people — the he/shes and the she/hes. And yet in the monotheistic superstructure there’s no room for them. There is no room for a third gender here in this phallic superstructure. Nobody crosses the path. Anybody who crosses that dividing line is to be destroyed, and we were destroyed by the thousands.

So on this side of the diagram the idea of god in female form is completely nonexistent, and god as male has complete power over us, the male has complete power over the woman, and all have complete power over nature. On the other side of the diagram the power is nature. To take this idea of the phallic structure versus the yonic structure — meaning “womb-like” structure — the idea of the animate and inanimate dichotomy needs to me be made more specific. The parts of the human body are, by themselves, all inanimate. The head by itself doesn’t have a soul. The hand by itself doesn’t have a soul. The stomach by itself doesn’t have a soul. Even the heart by itself doesn’t have a soul. On the male side, even the penis has no soul. It’s an inanimate creature by itself. The only parts of the human body that have a soul by themselves are the vagina, the womb, and the breasts — the female recreative parts of the human body. Those are the only parts that have a soul. And that is the very center of the idea of matriarchy and the idea of divinity in female form. Where in one superstructure god is upper male, in the pantheistic superstructure god is super-female. And that’s where the She with a capital S belongs. From this other superstructure she’s been completely excised, creating the male/female power imbalance.

When 1492 came along with Columbus, the most significant item in his baggage was the religion — the theology/mythology. That’s when the god met the goddess for the first time and punctured her, and the circle was broken, almost destroyed, to serve the Genesis-to-Revelation straight line. So what we artists are doing right now is trying our very best, especially female artists and feminist thinkers, to bend this straight line back into a circle, to repair the circle. If the principal prayer in the Christian canon says, “Our Father, who art in Heaven,” where’s our mother? In the 14th century and 15th century, when the witch-burnings were at their height in Europe, that was the very same period that the monotheistic superstructure arrived in North America. I live in France; I swear to god, when the wind has a certain power, you can hear the women screaming and howling in the middle of the night. It was the thing to do on a Saturday night in villages across Germany and France and Spain and England, to go down to the village square and watch the women scream their tits off through the flames. Wholesale destruction. and as recently as 1945, women in France weren’t allowed to vote or own property. They were chained to their wombs and their kitchens. And now, finally, the superstructure that made such horror is being bent back into a curve and the circle is being repaired. And that’s what we see right now.


Tomson Highway is a Cree playwright, novelist, and pianist/songwriter. He is best known for his award-winning plays (Fifth House, 1988) and (Fifth House, 1989). Excerpted from a conversation with Sam McKegney, an author and associate professor of English and Cultural studies at Queen’s University, who compiled conversations about indigenous manhood in his book published in Canada by University of Manitoba Press (2014) and co-published in the U.S. by Michigan State University Press (2014).