Intelligent Design and Ancient American Thought
by Jack D. Forbes

Monotheism, meaning "one-maker-ism" or "one-deity-ism," has been promoted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims since these three religions of the desert Middle East triumphed over the "Queen of Heaven" (Ishtar, Ashteroth, a female spirit power) and other popular or local Semitic deities.

The Jewish Bible reveals a continuous struggle on the part of male priests to wipe out the "worship" (honoring) of the Queen of Heaven (although archaeology has revealed that many homes in Palestine continued to possess an image of her in spite of priestly attacks).

The majority of other religions of the Earth have not embraced "one-maker-ism" but rather possess a more complex view of the spiritual world. This group includes Hinduism, Chinese religion, Buddhism, most Indigenous people's beliefs, and most or all Native American traditions.

"Intelligent Design" seems to be an attempt of some Christians to insert the Jewish bible's view of the creation of life into the public schools and into biology or science classrooms. "Intelligent Design" uses two Latin words to try to say "smart doing" or something like that. In actuality, however, "intelligent" means essentially "to choose among or between" while "design" means "to mark out" or "to make a sign." In our modern Englatino speech we can translate the above two ideas together as "smart planning." Note that "design" does not refer to the execution of any plan but merely to its "marking out."

Thus the concept of "Intelligent Design" leaves us with a plan but not with a doing or a doer! When we pick up a beautiful sand dollar shell at the beach we see a wonderful design of pedals going out from a central core. But we do not see anyone who actually placed the design on the sand dollar shell.

Probably the pattern is imbedded in the instructions which each sand dollar passes on to its progeny via DNA. Designs or markings appear everywhere in the natural world of rocks, plants, trees, insects, animals and other living things but no artist can be found except for the workings—mysterious as they are—of an inherently artistic universe (See my poem: Beauty is the First Law of Physics).

Of course, monotheists will argue often that a "smart plan" requires a "smart planner," but the Universe presents us with a vast number of plans. There is no single plan unless one simply lumps together all of the billion's of designs. And, of course, one can argue that large numbers of plans were ultimately not smart (not "intelligent") but might even be called mistakes or "dumb plans." (For example, mistakes in allowing the Dodos to lose their ability to fly, thus making them easy prey and leading to their ultimate annihilation.)

Native Americans generally have realized that we live in "a Universe of Many Plans" and that the built-in mistakes (as it were) are actually parts of a very complex interplay of forces and generations.

For example, death and illness are not mistakes but rather a necessary aspect of making room for new life, providing food for others, challenging each species, and, of course, creating soil fertility for trees and plants. Our departed relatives make up a great part of the rich "soil" of Mother Earth. Together when we die we are building a richer Earth (if we don't use "permanent" tombs!).

Thus, "Intelligent Design" seems to be a non-starter. The Universe presents us with many designs—billions of them—and there is no specific evidence that all stem from a single planner. Also, of course, there does not seem to be proof of single doer, maker, or executor of these plans.

Native Americans have hundreds of nations, each with its own stories about the making of things. I think, however, that we can see a few common ideas. First, there is a tremendous love for Mother Earth, for all life and for the creative power inherent in the birth of all things. This love is closely intertwined with a sense of profound gratitude, indebtedness, and thankfulness.

Ancient Americanism commences thus not with arguments about metaphysics or how the Universe originated but rather with our profound debt and love for the grounding of our existence.

In the Lenape language we also speak of manito and wemi manituwak. Manito refers to "spirit-power" (literally, that which exceeds). Wemi manituwak means "all-spirit powers." But Lenape prayers are also directed to Gishelemokong (Creator or Maker of us all), Keitanitowit (That which is a Great Power), Ketchi Manito (Great Spirit power) and Mohumsena (Grandfather of us all), among other terms. Lakota-Dakota-Nakota speakers (Sioux) speak of Tunkashila (Grandfather), Wakan Tanka (Big Holy, Great Sacred, or some say, Great Mystery). Aztec-Toltec-Mexica people speak of Ometeotl (two-spirit power) which gives origin to many other spirit-powers, as manifestations of the Creator.

Ancient Americanism tends to view the Universe as being comprised not only of "Many Plans" (multiple designs) but also of many doers. The ultimate creative power (Great Spirit) is not alone but is aided by many other beings, some of whom made mistakes (such as Coyote and Nanabush). Creation is an evolutionary process, with changes occurring over time.

Thus the idea of one single "Intelligent Design" (Smart Plan) fails to consider American (Native) thought.

© Jack Forbes, Powhatan-Lenape, began writing about religion in 1951 as a student at Glendale College. He wishes to thank Professor Ellis Levine and Mrs. Levine for serving as his first audience.

from News From Indian Country August 21, 2006