Hastily I moved down the scenic backcountry road along the ancient river of my ancestors. They say the German physician turned explorer for the English, John Lederer, wandered these trails during the late seventeenth century to encounter the Saponi near the confluence of Otter Creek. In a colonial British reference, the river bearing their name is now reprised as Staunton. By contrast, the Saponi had taken their name from the land referencing the rivers as the place were the waters break sharply out of the mountains.
Caught in the modern world, ensconced in my metal chariot, removed from the natural surroundings I sped along the old byway with only hints of our aboriginal practices in the ancient sacred place. The modern world held my concern as I attended to the ideological orientations of the day. Suddenly ahead of me, just past the bridge over Plum Creek, there was someone in the road. Near the centerline, he or she stared hard back at me with fixed intensity and a devil may care attitude.
It was a golden eagle tearing away at its road kill prey. With unrelenting daring, he or she glared at me as if I were a nothing person of no account having no place in this sacred ecosystem. Under the circumstances I would have to agree, particularly with what our species has done to the natural world in quest for economic greed and anthropocentric power. Despite the technological force surging in the wheels beneath me, I knew he or she was correct with his or her assessment of modern humanity. Yes, I could callously force the accelerator to the floor and charge my chariot directly into this pride of the avian world, however to do so would be a high crime against life itself beyond the pale of evil. There is no virtue in humanity’s victory over the wild, surely the killing of such a person would be as egregious an act of immorality as the killing of an innocent of any species. No, as I caught his or her magnificent eye, I looked back mesmerized, thunderstruck with the reality of the Sun’s own bird in the roadway ahead of me. Removing my foot from the accelerator, I turned into the oncoming traffic lane giving this avian monarch a wide berth in slow and cautious passage as if he or she were a highway crew attending the public road. The eye contact alone was withering as it shivered down my spine giving me a stealthy respect as I moved ahead to the side of the road some twenty yards distant.
In the glove box there was tobacco so that I moved carefully to open it and take the bag in my hand as I exited the automobile. Giving care as if confronted by a grizzly bear, I moved to an open space where I knelt along the side of the roadway to take a pinch of tobacco between my fingers. While giving prayer to this celestial king of birds, I asked for his or her pity and help in the coming days of my life and I gave thanks to the Sun’s own bird. It was my prayer of homage before the spirits or nature persons who had guided my ancestors from time immemorial. In that moment of great reverence allowed me on this day and age when the modern world stands starkly divorced from organic meaning and respect for wild nature, I knew the reverence of the ancestors. In this sharing of life eternal, the nature persons were again my guides and I was overwhelmed with the gift.
My mind drifted back to childhood when Granddaddy after telling the creation story of our Monscane world declared:
“Son, the eagle is the Sun’s own bird. You must see the world as the eagle sees it.”
It is a speaking that has stayed with me – shaping my value choices – throughout my whole life. But what does it mean?
“The Sun’s own bird.”
“See the world as the eagle see it.”
In the meditation of my travels, I was wont to reflect upon the countless moments within my experience of forests, prairies, deserts and mountain solitudes where nature had in some magnificence spoken to me when revealing her secrets of life and honoring my enduring vision of indigenous organic unity with the wildness of primal creation. Creation unfettered by human anthropocentric desire and command, but creation that surely has claim upon our human morality as any Kantian ethic of personhood.
Although I was engaged along the side of a modern roadway where the traffic had killed the eagle’s prey, I was at the same moment in the time of my ancestors along their river of life and in that singularity of time immemorial I was taken with the wildness of it all. Not that I would not have preferred and knew it better to observe a wild landscape free from the clutter and terror of human intervention. The power of the moment nonetheless held sway and I was captured in the speakings of the oral traditions of my ancestors. Surely Grandfather was speaking of organic relationship and reciprocity in the combined tenets of ecology as its veneration gave power to our indigenous way of life. “We are all related,” they say and it is surely an expression of the philosophy of ecology.
In this respect, the eagle soars high – high above into the heavens unto the Sun – and all below look up to it while it looks down upon the world to see all the interconnections interfacing with life and the organic union of great mystery. In being there it is the experience of awe beyond the pale of any anthropomorphic deity, it is the Great Mysterious or Unity in which we live. This day that is what I see in Grandfather’s words and the tellings of so long ago. We are all related!
Jay Hansford C. Vest, Ph.D.
Enrolled member Monacan Indian Nation
Direct descendent Opechanchanough (Pamunkey)
Honorary Pikuni (Blackfeet) in Ceremonial Adoption (June 1989)
Professor of American Indian Studies
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
One University Drive (P. O. Box 1510)
Pembroke, NC 28372-1510 USA
Top photo by Michael Lane. Bottom photo by Roblan.