THE PRIMAL MIND: Vision and Reality in Indian America by Jamake Highwater

THE PRIMAL MIND: Vision and Reality in Indian America

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Novelist-art critic Highwater tries for the Grand Synthesis, an all-encompassing statement of the Indian world-view stressing its challenge to and promise for the dominant white culture; and, not too surprisingly, he fails. Highwater (of mixed Cherokee, Blackfoot, and French Canadian blood) is intelligent and very well read, but his project is simply too ambitious; and so, instead of new insights, he ends up giving us either paraphrases of familiar ones or amateurish speculation. His troubles begin with the title: here and innumerable times throughout the book he substitutes ""primal"" for ""primitive,"" thereby avoiding some invidious overtones--and confusing or irritating the reader. His central purpose is to validate the ""Indian mind,"" not just ethnographically or aesthetically but philosophically. Thus he argues that in contrast to the unitary and often reductionist mode of Western thought, ""The Native American grasp of the solidarity of life is an expression of kinship and not a conviction of unity."" Similarly, and far more dubiously, ""linear and aggressive languages,"" such as English, categorize reality in objective, impersonal fashion (""This is bread""), whereas Indian languages, such as Wintu, frame human observer and observed world in symbiotic wholeness (""I call this bread""). More credibly, Highwater praises the peculiar ""timelessness"" of the Hopi language, but he's merely echoing Benjamin Lee Whorl. Elsewhere, Highwater continually slips into exaggerations and distortions: ""Greek architecture is a symbol of Western man's attempt to escape from nature,"" individualism was ""born in America,"" the whole Western world shares a ""self-serving and slanderous"" disdain of ""both primal peoples living today and ancient humanity."" Highwater has important things to say, but his treatment of this staggering topic is--inevitably--hasty and superficial.

Pub Date: Aug. 4th, 1981
Publisher: Harper & Row