Black Elk said that.
“…the Power of the world works in circles.” This power came to a tribe, to a people, circularly: in the form of “the sacred hoop of the nation”; and its living center, nourished by the circle of the four directions, was a flowering tree. As long as the sacred hoop remained unbroken, the people would flourish. In his greatest vision Black Elk had seen an untold number of mythical multicolored horses dancing and congaing in a circle around their chief and four mystical virgins in an unearthly and powerful ceremony (the Sioux also sang and danced in a circle in their sacred rites). At a particularly transcendental moment in his vision Black Elk had seen the shape of the entire earth; it was an expansive, incomprehensible circle, “the hoop of the world,” with the highest mountain at its center.
In looking at the natural, non visionary world, Black Elk also saw the power of the circle: wind in its greatest strength — the tornado — whirled; the sun and the moon (both round) scanned the sky in an arc; the seasons, coming back year after year, formed a circle in time and revolution; even birds built their nests with leaves and twigs arranged in a circular pattern. The Sioux — like the birds, Black Elk tells us — lived in a world of circles, real, felt, imagined. Besides the floors of their dwellings, besides the magnificent imagery and symbols (along with the rainbow, the eagle, sounds, lightning, horses, thunder, wind, seasons, directions, colors) of their mythical, psychic, ritual, and inner worlds, or perhaps in harmony with all of these, they camped with their tepees arranged in a large circle, reflecting in the microcosm of their human world the expansive encircling horizon of the Great Plains, the circular dome of the sky, and the great macrocosmic “hoop of the world.” To be forced into a physical and psychological world of squares, into a foreign architectural space of boxlike huts and shacks, helped destroy the universe of the Sioux. Their “sacred hoop of the nation” was broken, and with it, their power was gone forever.
David Reck, “Music of the Whole Earth” — page 401
The Americanization of the world has spread a peculiar and specific set of ideas about space, time, and sound to cultures and societies far away from the Sioux. Easy to grasp, filled with superficially obvious conveniences, these ideas have gone “viral” to people everywhere, to such an extent that they often cannot even imagine what life was like before.
There’s no denying the importance and transformative value of scientifically-rooted knowledge: basic hygiene, for example, has saved millions of lives. Advances in agriculture have made billions more lives possible — a state of affairs which is hardly an unmixed blessing, given that our metastasizing numbers are matched by an equal increase in our demand for the energy locked in fossil fuels, with dire consequences for the planet.
But the expansion of contemporary Western culture into traditional societies around the world isn’t just about disseminating information about hand washing and more efficient farming practices. It’s also about replacing circles with squares, spheres with boxes, cyclical time with linear (non-recurring) time, curves with angles, diversity with uniformity, and the richly ambiguous poetry of traditional myths, legends, and visions with the impoverished and one-dimensional chatter of fashion and celebrity gossip. This is cultural mono-cropping, and just as monocropped agriculture is much more vulnerable to the disruptions of a transforming climate, a uniform culture is weakened and less resilient.
Cultural diversity isn’t something we can just declare; it has to develop over time in a sped-up version of biological evolution. And like complex ecosystems, that beautiful and effulgent variety is easily erased by the forces of uniformity.
Need I remind you that those forces are powered by the relentless consumption of fossil fuels?
Musicians! We are urgently needed to help rebuild the hoop of the world!