Ecological Messages in Native American Religion, Paganism and Psychedelic Experiences

In this article I want to draw attention to the similarities between the ecological messages in Native American culture, Paganism, and those often expressed in the psychedelic experience. Embedded in Native American culture is an ecological view of the world – the intrinsic interconnectedness of all things in nature. Unlike the Western world, Native Americans see humans as participants and fellow citizens with all life-forms. Humans should be like stewards who take care of the Earth and nurture it. The religious beliefs and lifestyles of the Native Americans reflect this ecological mindset.

In Western culture, however, we find a very non-ecological worldview in action. Our beliefs and actions reflect a view which says that nature is something to be feared and avoided. The Western world does not see nature as something valuable to all life-forms and as something equally belonging to them. Rather, our fear of nature and our ignorance of the value that it has to all life-forms has led to a lifestyle of domination and destruction. Native Americans view nature as having intrinsic value, whereas we in the West view it as only having instrumental value. The Deep Ecology movement, originating with philosopher Arne Naess, also stresses the intrinsic value of the non-human world.

Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko outlines the term ‘landscape’ as it is interpreted by her Pueblo tribe: “the term landscape, as it has entered into the English language, is misleading. ‘A portion of territory the eye can comprehend in a single view’ does not correctly describe the relationship between the human being and his or her surroundings. This assumes the viewer is somehow outside or separate from the territory he or she surveys. Viewers are as much a part of the landscape as the boulders they stand on.” For Silko’s tribe the individual person is not only a constituent of the natural world, they are equal constituents.

Tom Brown Jr’s book Grandfather is a detailed story of one Native American’s spiritual journey. It tells the story of the life of Stalking Wolf, a Native American boy turned shaman who is determined to find spiritual truth and impart it to as many people as possible. On his journey he encounters white people and the way in which they organise their society. He is dismayed at the way in which they litter the natural environment with waste, spoil the land and waters, pollute the air with smoke and how inept they are at living in harmony with nature. When he first came across this industrial life he was brought to tears at the level of disrespect shown to the environment.

Native Americans intuitively realise that animals are conscious and social just like humans are. Their traditional religious beliefs also tell them that animals have a spiritual existence as well. This entails a deep level of respect for the game animals that the Native Americans must hunt to survive. Hunting is understood to be a sacred exercise – it involves the necessary end of one spiritual existence so that others may persist. It is believed that disrespecting these animals will lead to an unsuccessful hunt and a diminished relationship with the spirit world. The fact that Native Americans will make use of every part of the animal’s body – fat, organs, skin, bones – reflects this deep reverence for the animal. It’s like a form of justification for the inevitable suffering and death that they have to inflict on another sentient creature. Native Americans view the hunted animal as a gift and offer thanks for the favour of sustenance. In addition, if an area lacks sufficient game, the Native Americans will leave the land long enough for populations to develop.

Humans in the Western world, in contrast, do not display this kind of relationship. Not only do we hunt animals unnecessarily; throughout history we have been known to hunt them to dangerously small numbers, even to the point of extinction. The American bison would be one example, which in the 19th Century nearly became extinct due to over-hunting and slaughter. Like the Native Americans, we have no rituals, rules or reverence guiding the hunt. We are oblivious to the animal’s suffering and we fail to realise how damaging over-hunting is to the overall environment.

Native Americans retain this same conservationist attitude when it comes to plants as well. No patch of land will be stripped completely of its vegetation. They gather plants with the intention of preserving them and approach the gathering process, like the hunting process, with prayer and ceremony. The antithesis of this is the Western practice of deforestation and soil degradation, which includes soil erosion (the loss of soil) and nutrient loss (the loss of vital nutrients from the soil which plants need to grow).

Shepard Krech in The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1993) has the following to say about Native American culture: “If we describe a Native American as a conservationist, we do not mean that he calculates sustainable yield into the distant future…but rather that he does not waste or despoil, exhaust or extinguish, and [he] leaves the environment and resources like animal populations in a usable state for succeeding generations.” This is another way in which Native American and Western culture radically differs. In the West we consume natural resources in an extremely short-sighted way – we are blind to the long-term consequences of our actions. Moreover, we selfishly only care about the instant gratification of ourselves or we blindly only consider the positive effects that our actions have for our generation.

However, there is no logical argument which tells us that our generation’s well-being is any more important than the well-being of future generations. Native Americans perhaps realise this inconsistency intuitively and in response they are determined to leave the planet in the same condition in which they found it. They recognise that the planet is the one and only home that we have and that it is home to all creatures. To believe that it is exclusively our property and that we can treat it however we want is nonsensical and unethical.

In his essay, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, Lynn White, Jr. argues that it was the transition from animistic religions (i.e. Native American and Pagan religions) to Christianity that is partly to blame for our current ecological crisis. As he put it: “Popular religion in antiquity was animistic. Every stream, every tree, every mountain contained a guardian spirit who had to be carefully propitiated before one put a mill in a stream, or cut the tree, or mined the mountain.” When Christianity became the dominant religion of the Western world, this animistic worldview was lost. Nature became demystified and the spirits disappeared from the animals, plants, rivers, trees and mountains. The world was seen as something that man could take advantage of and exploit for his own needs.

There is even Biblical justification for this exploitative attitude. In the Genesis creation story, we find the line: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Moreover, unlike in Pagan and Native American religion, Christianity makes a distinction between Man, who is created in the image of God and is endowed with a soul, and animals, who have no soul and are therefore inferior. White Jr. argues that this Christian view of the natural world needs to be supplanted by an outlook that is closer to the Pagan outlook. Before applied science and technology can get us out of this ecological crisis, our fundamental ideas about the environment must change first. In my opinion, we can reject the supernatural beliefs of Paganism – the belief that natural things contain guardian spirits – whilst retaining their intense level of respect and worship for nature.

Bron Taylor, a professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida, is also interested in the relationship between Paganism and ecology. In his essay Pagan Environmental Ethics he points out: “In general, even though there are various Pagan traditions, there is a single theme that unifies them: the worship or profound honouring of, and respect for, nature.” Margot Adler suggests that the environment was the greatest concern for Pagans and religion scholar Graham Harvey argues that this is what attracts most people to Paganism nowadays. Pagans, because they view natural things as having spirit, often use phrases such as “friends” and “neighbours” to describe them, often perceiving the non-human world as being worth of “personhood”. Pagans feel a sense of inclusivity in a community of equals. This Pagan environmental ethic closely resembles the Land Ethic of environmentalist Aldo Leopold.

The Pagan respect for nature can be traced back to Greek mythology, in which the Earth was personified and given divine powers in the form of the goddess Gaia. The concept of the earth mother was also personified in Roman mythology, in the form of the goddess Terra. Paganism is also often referred to as an earth religion since they worship the earth. Connections are also made between earth religions and the Gaia Hypothesis, developed by scientist James Lovelock. Similar to Native Americans, planting and harvesting are imbued with sacredness.

The ecological messages found in Native American religion and in Paganism are commonly found in the psychedelic experience as well. The author Daniel Pinchbeck has written about this common psychedelic message in an article for the book Manifesting Minds, entitled Another Green World: Psychedelics and Ecology. However, I don’t accept his conclusion that these messages are a sign that these psychedelic plants are “emissaries”, “diplomats” or “teachers” who have been assigned to direct the path of humanity from ecological destruction to ecological harmony. It is a teleological viewpoint - it implies that these plants evolved with a purpose. Purposeful action requires consciousness and there is no evidence that these plants possess consciousness. During a psychedelic experience, the user may feel nature to be personified or intelligent and this experience may be extremely meaningful and beneficial for their ecological outlook. However, I do not think that the experience has any basis in reality. Too often, people will mistakenly extend what they experienced on a psychedelic drug into the sober and objective world. 

Nevertheless, it is interesting that the same view of nature – as alive, sacred and intelligent – is something shared by Native Americans, Pagans and the psychedelic experience. Many authors have written about the role that psychedelics play in the development of an ecological consciousness. In this special bulletin by MAPS several authors tackle this subject from different angles. A feeling of inter-connectedness with nature and the planet is a common aspect of the psychedelic experience. I am interested in the extent to which the ecological beliefs of Native Americans are influenced by their ritual ingestion of peyote (the cactus which contains mescaline). The ecological messages received in the peyote experience may be at the root of Native American views of nature or it may be an experience which serves to reinforce their already existing beliefs. Most likely it is a combination of both.

A feeling of being deeply connected to the earth is common in LSD and magic mushroom experiences as well, but even more so in ayahuasca sessions. It is common for people in the ayahuasca session to experience the suffering felt by all sentient creatures and realise the horror of ecological destruction. The user may realise the deep inter-connectedness of nature and feel sadness at humanity’s greed and abuse of natural resources. In fact, people will sometimes describe ayahuasca as ‘Mother Ayahuasca’ and claim they come into contact with ‘Mother Earth’ or ‘Mother Nature’ during the experience. So here again we have a correlation between the psychedelic experience and the beliefs of earth religions and animistic traditions such as Paganism. The indigenous cultures in South America, who have used ayahuasca for thousands of years, must look at the destruction of the Amazon rainforest with an incredible amount of sadness and disappointment. For these cultures, who have been convinced of the sacredness of nature through ayahuasca, the Western practice of deforestation must seem insanely disrespectful.

But why is there this similarity between Native American religion, Paganism and the psychedelic experience? Some may say that all three involve access to a spirit world which the Western mode of thinking is unable to tune into. However, this hippie, New-Age explanation is, in my opinion, far too unrealistic. There is a far simpler explanation which sheds light on this connection. The ecological messages found in Native American religion and Paganism seem to arise from intuition. The Native Americans, for example, who live in harmony with nature, come to realise through life experience that humans are not separate from nature but are participants. It is true that Native Americans and Pagans imbue nature with spirit, but I don’t think this supernatural view of nature makes their ecological outlook any less valid. Some academics even claim that earth religions were the very first religions, meaning that the worship of nature is in fact a very primitive and deeply ingrained human feeling. In his book Religion and Lust (1905) James Weir argues that man’s dependence on nature for survival is the origin of early religious feeling.

What the psychedelics do is allow humans to regain this intuitive ecological view of the world. In a sense, they allow the person to reach down into their unconscious mind and bring to the surface that primitive feeling of reverence for nature. Because the Western world is so separate and shielded from nature, and because our dominance over it is assumed, this intuitive connection is often lost. As Terence McKenna often stressed, psychedelics are 'boundary dissolving' substances. They dissolve the boundaries that separate your conscious and unconscious mind, they dissolve the boundaries that separate you from other people (nationality, gender, race, sexuality, religion, etc.) and they can connect you to other species and the rest of the natural world. The assumptions of industrialised modern life separate us from nature, but these can easily be dissolved with psychedelics. 

The psychedelics are especially powerful because they not only reveal the truth of ecological destruction, they reveal it in a very emotionally charged way. People may visualise the suffering of other species and the destruction of the planet by human influence. And there may be a feeling of horror, sorrow and disappointment at this confrontation with an obvious fact which we are unable to appreciate in our daily lives. This feeling of connection with the planet is often enhanced if the psychedelic experience takes place in natural surroundings. 

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I'm a freelance writer who is interested in a variety of subjects, especially those which are philosophical, complex and involve a multitude of perspectives. I created this blog in order to share my thoughts, and to encourage debate and discussion about the most fascinating topics I can think of. Get in touch: samwoolfe@gmail.com