LOOK OUT – HERE COMES THE SPIDER-MAN (A LAKOTA TALE OF THE COMING WHITE-MAN)
When I was young I heard a story about a little chicken running around and telling other animals that the sky was falling. They all get scared, the fear spreads, they’re disorganized and eventually wind up accepting shelter inside the mouth of a fox. They’re eaten, or in some modern story-book versions he sneezes them out again, but either way the sky doesn’t fall and nothing really changes on the farm.
The story of Chicken Little seems very timely today. Obviously the disorganized fear and getting swallowed by a fox is a good metaphor for the 2016 presidential election. And for a lot of people on the coasts, the sky is falling in natural disasters that our government still refuses to admit are a result of pollution. And then we barely get a moment to focus on these natural-disasters in the news cycle, because of the national-disaster, which is like its own weather system – tweet drizzles, bridal-showers with Moscow, storms of bullets and the sub-zero temperature of compassionate conservatism (just those words give me a chill in my bones). And every time I read or hear the news, it’s essentially “the sky is falling, the sky is falling.” If Chicken Little was around today he’d get a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Or at least his “tweets” would have a lot of followers.
Recently while reading Native American stories I came across a legend from the Brule Sioux tribe of the midwest that reminded me of Chicken Little. Except it was a shape-shifting trickster called Iktome, the Spider, who goes darting around, warning the various tribes about the coming of a new nation. And, not to give away the surprise, but the European arrival was an absolute disaster for the Sioux – an end-of-the-world apocalyptic nightmare that could be compared to the collapse of the sky.
But what really fascinated me about this story was the way he described the coming nation. He said, “There is a new generation coming, a new nation, a new kind of man who is going to run over everything. He is like me, Ikto [Spider], a trickster, a liar… He has knowledge in his legs, and greed.” The Native Spider describes the invader in Spider-like terms, “White Spider Man, the Daddy-Longlegs-Man, The Long-White-Bone-Man.” In Native American creation stories from all over the continent, the Spider is a symbol of inginuity and technology. The Cherokee tell of a Spider-woman who was able to dart across the water and carry back the first fire by weaving a bowl of webbing. The Lakota teach that the Spider was the first to cook meat and tan buffalo hides. The Hopi say that it was a Spider-woman who made the first people, by mixing dirt and saliva and wrapping them in coccoons of web. The Spider is a problem-solver, a tool-maker and engineer, a teacher (and sometimes a prankster). But these abilities generally come from benevolent desires, from a wisdom about cooperating with the land.
So what can it mean that this new creature has “knowledge in his legs”? Maybe inginuity, technology, has become a motivating force. It’s the riddle of modern science – we get so focused on ‘can we do it? Can we make this explosion bigger? Can we make this screen smaller? Can we make this drug stronger? Can we make this machine think and act like a person?’ We get so focused on ‘can we do it?’ that we can lose sight of that more important question – ‘Should we be making bigger bombs, smaller phones, faster guns and smarter machines?’ The Western man’s ego always wants to overcome limits and boundaries – but is this always for the best? I think the chicken would say no – we keep making meatier chickens, and if Chicken Little feared the sky was falling today he wouldn’t even be able to walk.
The Spider continues with his warnings, “This new man is not wise, but he is very clever. It is a man without grandmothers or grandfathers.” This approaching creature is several times described as “new,” but lacks what is old: wisdom. Saying that he has no grandparents is a sign that, in his search for newness or renewal, he has abandoned his own history. This coming creature must be clever to survive, must be inventive, because he’ll always be throwing himself into new, unknown situations. And always with a denial of the past. In the case of the first European settlers, the grandmother-wisdom they’d abandoned and forgotten was their own tribal origins – the ancient peoples of Europe had once been socially egalitarian and environmentally sustainable before the rise of militaristic Empires and otherworldly religions.
Europeans coming to the Americas had left their elders and homelands behind, and all the wisdom of their European ancestors became worthless as they explored the new frontier. We deal with this still, as our children go exploring further and further into technological and digital and opium frontiers, and the passing of wisdom from one generation to the next is lost. How do you teach compassion to someone who’s busy on a phone catapulting birds at pigs? When I’m seventy, will I have to set up a twitter account and try to get my grandchildren to “follow” it? And how do you explain Snodgrass family history over twitter anyway? The name takes up half the message!
The Sioux Spider’s warning continues: “He is going to make a dark, black hoop around the world… I will now reveal to you his name. You shall know him as washi-manu, steal-all, or better by the name of fat-taker, wasichu, because he will take the fat of the land. He will eat up everything, at least for a time.” This clever creature has strong tools and sharp ideas, but no connection to the past or to the land. And this causes a profound emptiness inside. So he takes – he takes the land and the animals, he takes the minerals and the waters, he tries to claim it all, wrap it up in his black net bag. When the Spider describes the white man, the ‘Fat Taker,’ he doesn’t say he’s motivated by meanness or evil – he’s just hungry, empty, disconnected, lost. He takes because that’s what his tools tell him he can do. He destroys because he feels no relationship with his surroundings. In these descriptions he is barely even human, he’s more like a plague of insects. Or billionaire shareholders, or Senators or Holiday-shoppers.
Time went by and the Spider-man’s nightmarish prediction faded from memory, but then one day as two women were out gathering berries a black smog descended upon the land. “Out of this blackness they saw a strange creature emerging. He had on a strange black hat, and boots, and clothes… When he spoke, it did not sound like human speech. No-one could understand him… This strange creature, this weird man, carried in one hand a cross and in the other a fearful firestick which spat lightning and made a noise like thunder.” He offered them a bottle of whiskey, and disease passed from his skin to theirs. “Then they realized that the wasichu had arrived, that finally he was among them, and that everything would be changed.” Even when the Fat-Taker finally appears in the story, we do not learn his motivations. He has tools, the cross and the rifle, but his words cannot be understood. We can infer things about his personality – if he loves the cross and the rifle, we know who he would have voted for. But in the story his motives remain mysterious. He has whiskey and sickness, but we the listeners aren’t told if he’s aware of the damage they will do in this new world. He’s a “strange creature,” a stranger, even to himself. And in his hunger and confusion he would change the world.
When examining these Sioux fragments about the invaders being like the Spider-man, I can’t help but be reminded of America’s own cultural myth of a Spider-Man. For sixty years the Spider-Man has appeared in comic books, cartoons, movies and games (and yet he’s still a teenager – I barely survived my teens and he’s been doing it for sixty years. Amazing!). The one constant moral of the Spider-Man story comes from his connection with his Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility” – he can do things other people can’t do, but in every incarnation and every generation he must renew his resolve not to let this power corrupt him, and this is what makes him a hero. Compassion and connection with his elders keeps him from getting lost and out of control. Similarly the “White Man” in Native folklore has powers of inginuity and technology. But if he can’t learn to use this power responsibly, it can lead to destruction.
Well, the white man has come. And damage has been done and is being done. I am in some ways a beneficiary of the Fat-Taker’s confusion and greed – I live on stolen land, and I pay the US Government to protect me from the horrors it has inflicted on other peoples, and continues to inflict on other peoples today. My taxes pay the military to bully people all over the globe to send their natural resources here so I can afford a loaf of bread and a gallon of gas. And the exhaust from my car will become part of a black hoop around the world.
I am not a Native American but I know what it’s like to feel you’ve been swept up in a whirlwind of destruction, I know what it’s like to look ahead and see your culture destroyed by the white man. I’m part English, but I have no more control over the US Government than any Navajo or Iroquois. New York elects Democrat representatives, but they’re not even allowed in the Senate Chamber when decisions are made. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a colony of Texas
But I refuse to lose hope – I’m not some chicken here to say the sky is falling. The so-called “White Man” has done a lot of damage, but I can’t apologize for stuff I didn’t do, and I don’t have the political or economic power to stop it or fix it. What I can do is model the kind of “white man” I want others to see. I can take this stuff I hear about the “white man” and prove it’s not true by my own words and actions. And I can listen to what other cultures have said about him, and not get defensive and loud – but I can listen and learn and think about it – if this creature is driven by emptiness inside, what is he looking for? He doesn’t seem to find it in gold, or stocks, hair implants or real estate, people who get that stuff never seem to be satisfied by it, they just want more. More gold, more hair, more gold hair!
The old Sioux story of warnings about the White Spider-Man ends with him showing up and the destruction begins. But that doesn’t have to be the end. I think the story of the coming of Wasichu is still being written, and it’s not just up to the Sioux tribe, it’s up to all of us to change this tide. In his list of warnings, the Sioux trickster does, at one point, pause to say “Maybe a time will come when you can break his dark hoop. Maybe you can change this man and make him better, giving him earth wisdom, making him listen to what the trees and grass tell him.” We’ve tried the whole “white man shouting” thing and we know it doesn’t fix anything. What about listening? I would like to think that maybe someday the trees and the grasses, the earth and the elders can teach the Spider-Man that with great power comes great responsibility.
Quotes from Leonard Crow Dog (Brule Sioux, 1982) in Erdoes, Richard and Alfonso Ortiz, ed. American Indian Myths and Legends (Pantheon, New York 1984) p. 491-495