The Validity of Religion and Belief in the Age of Science #17: Tribalism, Spirituality, Conflict and Canyon De Chelly

The Validity of Religion and Belief in the Age of Science #17: Tribalism, Spirituality, Conflict and Canyon De Chelly

Stephen Friberg

“Religion … must go hand-in-hand with science.”

The Baha’i Writings

July 24, 2011. Two weeks ago, I visited three of the spiritual centers of the great American desert – Taos pueblo, Zuni pueblo, and Canyon de Chelly – learning from them spiritual lessons for the age of science.

What I have learned can be summarized as follows:

In a desert land of scarce resources, people organized themselves together as tribes with their own languages, traditions, and religions.  Conflict, trade, and spirituality were constant and ever present aspects of human society.

The lessons I draw are as follows, made all the more evident by the recent senseless slaughter of innocents in Norway:

Science and technology have changed everything.  And the resources needed by all are readily available.  But the heritage of tribal ways have become embedded in all aspect of our nation-states, in our large corporations, and even in our world-embracing religions.  These ancient and outmoded tribal ways, along with the lack of real and shared spiritual values, have kept us from addressing humanity’s pressing needs.  A new and world-embracing spirituality is required.

I have reached this conclusion by what I have seen and learned as described below:

Here, Now, and Always

Hopi Basketry Plaque 1930, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture

Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts & Culture works closely with southwestern native peoples to showcase their skills – their supreme artistry in basketry, weaving, and jewelry – and their rich spiritual and cultural traditions.  The museum focuses on the Pueblo, Apache, and Navajo nations who currently live in the New Mexico.  These and other Indian nations (Utes, Comanches) shared with, fought, and sometimes worshiped together with, Spanish colonists.

Living in the deserts, mountains, and plains of the great American southwest was not easy, and the competition for resources was intense. Warfare and violence were endemic, with Indian nations contesting not only with each other but also with rapacious European and American colonials for domination and ascendency.  The Comanche, to give an example, moved from Utah to New Mexico in the 1600s, acquired horses and skills in war, raiding, and trading, and then dominated much of New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas for 150 years. They nearly wiped out the Apache nation, their traditional enemies, in the process.

The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hamalainen

Modern scholarship – see the Pekka Hamalainen’s excellent Comanche Empire – has rescued southwestern history from tales of European dominance and American Manifest Destiny, revealing how powerful the Indian nations were as they raided, fought, captured horses and people, and traded them at great trade fairs like Taos.

Yet, the violence and warfare – as hard as it may be for us to comprehend – was balanced by a spiritual  shared culture, at least among the native peoples.  Hamalainen summarize these values as follows:

Regardless of their universal features, the actions and policies of Comanches remained embedded in a system of reality that was distinctly non-Western in nature …

Unlike Euro-American, Comanches did not separate trade from large social relations but instead understood it as a form of sharing between relatives, either real or fictive. They considered theft a legitimate way or rectifying short-term imbalances in resource distribution rather than an antagonistic act that automatically canceled out future peaceful interactions. 

They killed, waged war, and dispossessed other societies, not necessarily to conquer, but to … appease the spirits of their slain kin through dead enemy bodies.  Capturing people from other ethnic groups did not necessarily signify a passage from freedom into slavery but a move from one kinship network to another.

The spiritual life and principles of the people balanced and weighed against the struggle and the contests of war.

Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly

It is said that in the desert, all things are laid bare and nothing is concealed.  This certainly true at the Canyon de Chelly National Monumenty, Navajo Tribal Trust land administered by the National Park Service.

What the 1000 foot deep canyons of the monument show is the desert at its most spectacular, a place of sanctuary, intense spirituality, and stunning beauty.

White House Ruins, remains of a fortified cliff dwelling from 1000 years ago in Canyon de Chelly

What it also shows is a cross-section of the history of the native peoples, their wars, and their struggles across a 2000 year swath of history, ranging from the fortified cliff dwellings of the Anasazi 2000 years ago to the arrival of the Navajo’s seeking refuge 250 years ago, to slaughter of Navajos by Spanish troops 210 years ago, to the capture of the Navajo nation by Kit Carson and US Army troops in 1863.

Nowhere better can you see mix of struggle and spirituality that is at the core of southwestern Indian experience.


The story of the struggle for resources and survival – and the countless stories of kinship and help – that are the history of the American southwest, show in a microcosm a theme constant throughout history.  Peoples and tribes struggling to stay alive and thrive, and accomplishing it through the transcendent spiritual and cultural resources.

towards Monument Valley, Navajo Reservation, Arizona

In light of the lessons from this desert land, it is easy to read all the history of the world and its conflicts.  How else can we understand the ruinous wars of the last century except as monstrous, world-embracing tribal conflicts carried out with weapons of mass destruction?  And how can we understand our economic policies with their winner-takes-all record of exploitation except in the light of an “us-versus-them” tribalism?

Even though the fighting stopped 130 years ago in the American southwest, it continues unabated in the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, central Asia, and southeast Asia.  And the spiritual traditions that alleviated the pain, terror, and suffering no longer are strong enough to meet the continuing challenge.

Lets learn from this heritage of the past!  Things are different now.  We are possessor of science, of knowledge, and technology.  We are no longer fighting the zero-sum battles for survival battles of the past.

Lets develop a universal spirituality and apply it for the whole world!


This is the 17th in a series of blogs on religion in the age of science. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. He did extensive research in quantum optics in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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