The Power of Storytelling: Cosmologies

People across cultures develop ways to describe how life came to be. Specifically, there are culture-specific cosmologies that explain how a particular people (culture) and their environment came into existence. Cosmologies are stories that are passed on from generation to generation as a sort of ritual or custom that offer explanations for how the universe came to be. Cosmologies are creation stories, and because they are shared from one generation to the next by means of storytelling, they are a form of transmitted culture. The term culture, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (n.d.), comes from the Latin term cultura meaning to cultivate or tend (the land). In other words, a particular culture is closely related to the land and environment in which it originally developed, and many cosmologies describe this connection while also shaping the worldview of the people who embrace the story.

The custom of storytelling about origins then, is a cultural universal and the individual creation stories are culture-specific, where the people and their environment shape each story. Thus, people’s creation of cosmologies is a cultural universal or cultural etic, and the individual stories are examples of cultural specifics, or cultural emics; these stories are shaped by and in turn influence a peoples’ worldview.

Below, Global Spirit TV presents Kay Olan (Mohawk) discussing (telling a story) about the Haudenosaunee Creation Story, which shapes a non-Western worldview.

 

In The Hadeshanownee [sic] Creation Story with Kay Olan (Global Spirit, n.d.), then, Kay Olan gives a brief overview of the Skywoman cosmology. In this origin story, Skywoman falls to the watery earth, and she along with various other Earth Beings shape the continent that we commonly refer to as North America as well as all the other Beings that inhabit it. According to Stephanie A. Sellars (Shawnee), scholar of Native American Women’s Studies, the Haudenosaunee as well as other Native American Peoples who share the Skywoman cosmology, are traditionally matrilineal societies, who trace descent through the mother’s line, as well as gynocratic nations (2008, p. 44). A gynocratic nation is a woman-centered social order that is shaped by a woman-centered cosmology and it is a social order where a gender-balanced worldview exists; in this worldview, gender is not perceived as binary opposites, but rather the notion of gender is related to complementary beings who co-create and maintain reciprocal and power balanced relationships in a rather egalitarian social order (Sellers, 2008, p. 51-53). Kay Olan, in her discussion, also tells of the importance of co-creation, reciprocity, and power-balance in the Haudenosaunee worldview. A worldview in which people value power balanced relationships is quite distinct and it stands in contrast to  mainstream U.S. culture’s Western worldview.

The Western worldview, on the other hand, is hierarchical and individualistic, in nature. Native American authors help me to understand how Western cosmologies shape the Western worldview. Thus, Christianity’s Adam and Eve story as well as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution dominate as origin stories in Western societies. Barbara Alice Mann (Seneca of Ohio) refers to the Euro-Western “metanarratives” of monotheism, sexism, and conflict” when discussing the Western worldview (2011, pp. 61-62).  In this narrative, Christianity’s Genesis story posits a single male creator who ordained man (Adam) to label and classify the world, subdue the earth and its creatures, and rule over women (because Eve sinned by disobeying God’s authority).  The Adam and Eve, God versus Satan narrative imposes ideas concerning a good versus evil dichotomy along with the notion of opposing sexes and this sets the stage for thinking about separateness and hierarchy. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, likewise, is an origin story, and it posits what Stephanie A. Sellers names a “hierarchy of existence” where at the bottom of the ranking scale and of least importance are the rocks and minerals, next in value are the plants, and then the animals reside at the top and this is where man sits at the very apex (2008, pp. 19-21.).  These stories, together, shape the overriding philosophy of the Western worldview, and they introduce notions of separateness (individualism) as well as the idea of hierarchy that often serves to exclude and oppress based on in-group/out-group categories.

The terms worldview and culture are related, yet they have distinct meanings. Kathryn A. Johnson, Eric D. Hill, and Adam B. Cohen of the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University explain the relationship between the terms culture and worldview. Thus, “[c]ulture, broadly defined, refers to a shared system of knowledge, language, social norms, values, and behaviors” whereas “[a] worldview involves how an individual knows and thinks about what is in the world” and “how he or she relates to the persons and things in the environment (Johnson et al., 2011.).”  There is some conceptual overlap with these terms, however, worldview refers to individual or collective “psychological, cognitive, and affective determinants of behavior and not the artifacts, technologies, or institutions that may be included when discussing [the collective nature of] culture (Chiu & Hong, 2006 as cited by Johnson et al., 2011.).” Thus, worldview better describes a person’s psychology or the study of mind and human behavior; and the traditional Haudenosaunee psych, if you will, is more egalitarian and collectivistic than it is hierarchal and individualistic, which describes the Western worldview.

Culture, or the shared language, knowledge systems, values, social norms, and behaviors, then, shapes worldview. Johnson et al. (2011) confirm this assertion when they cite Snibbe and Markus (2005) referring to the process of worldview formation as

sets of assumptions that are widely (though not universally) shared by a group of people, existing both in individual minds and in public artifacts, institutions, and practices. At the individual level, these cultural models provide implicit blueprints of how to think, feel, and act (p. 704).

Furthermore, according to what we commonly refer to as the Whorf hypothesis, language or a particular way of using words, shapes one’s worldview and thus one’s perceptions concerning reality.  That is to say, there is evidence that “people’s language predisposes them to focus on some things rather than others (Spradley & McCurdy, 2012, p. 49.).”  We can conclude, then, that the sharing of cosmologies (which can be thought of as blueprints for cultural schemata) simultaneously shape and express particular worldviews while passing theories on the origin of the universe from one generation to the next.  Cosmologies, therefore, are a source of legitimate knowledge in that they inform us of the foundations of a particular society’s worldview – the ways in which they understand reality. Thus, cosmologies are artifacts of culture, and when expressed through the practice of storytelling, they provide blueprints for shaping how people think and feel, as well as how people ought to relate to others.

Native American academics, such as Stephanie A. Sellers, tend to think that the woman-centered, gendered balanced, power-balancing Skywoman cosmology is an important factor in shaping the (traditionally) egalitarian social order of the Nations of the Haudenosaunee Peace Confederacy. However, there is a lack of scientific evidence that proves this.  Johnson et al.( 2011) report that although there is research concerning worldview, “interactions between religion and national cultures as transactions of different worldviews” is under-emphasized in the literature. Interestingly, cosmologies, in the context of ‘great religions’ are given status as components of “religions”, whereas cosmologies in Native American belief systems are often given a lower classification as being “quasi-religious” or simply labeled as folk or children’s stories. Some researchers, such as Bagele Chilisa (2012) and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) assert the classification system that places indigenous knowledge-keeping systems and traditional ways of life lower on a hierarchical scale (i.e. primitive) characteristic of the power dynamics involved in colonization practices and they call for decolonizing research methodologies as a way to correct the power imbalance. Johnson et al. (2011) call for expansion of psychological research in the realm of religion as a factor is shaping human behavior. This proposed research should include folk tales that are components of “quasi-religions,” as well. Perhaps with time, empirical research will find a way to “scientifically” confirm what Native Americans assert about the power of story to shape people’s attitudes and behavior.

References:

Chilisa, B. (2012). Indigenous research methodologies. SAGE.

Johnson, K. A., Hill, E. D., & Cohen, A. B. (2011). Integrating the Study of Culture and Religion: Toward a Psychology of Worldview. Social & Personality Psychology Compass5(3), 137-152. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00339.x

Mann, B. A.  (2011).  Iroquoian women:  The Gantowisas.  Peter Lang.

Online Etymology Dictionary-Culture. (n.d.). Retrieved February 11, 2016, from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0

Sellers, S.  (2008).  Native American women’s studies.  New York:  Peter Lang.

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed Books.

Spradley, J., McCurdy, D. (2011).  Conformity and conflict: Readings in cultural anthropology.  Pearson.

The Hadeshanownee Creation Story with Kay Olan. (n.d.). Retrieved February 11, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjylR_8EWl4

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