An American Indian Cosmogony

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Paul Russell, Tihanama elder, in 1996.

Paul Russell, Tihanama elder, in 1996.

An American Indian Cosmogony from the Tihanama Language
Donald N. Yates

Philosophy is not a concept often applied to Native American traditional knowledge except in a loose sense. Yet it seems a fruitful approach for understanding what has sometimes been called an American Indian “system” of wisdom or spirituality. In interviews conducted with the Potawatomi-Shawnee-Cherokee-Tihanama elder Paul Russell during the summer of 1996, one can identify many of the earmarks of a full-fledged philosophy expressed in a native tongue, including a cosmogony, logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, peculiar terminology and description of the role of the practitioner.

Keywords: Epistemology, Native American, Cosmogony


In 1996, the author conducted informal interviews with Paul Russell, born 1938, Saginaw, Michigan, a Native American spiritual practitioner living at the time in Hartsville, Tennessee (on whom, see Crawford and Kelley 2005: III 1043). The subjects ranged from tribal affairs and personalities to music, dance, crafts and ceremonies (Panther-Yates 2011). Permission was granted to take notes and publish. Whenever appropriate, Russell, also known as Chief Two White Feathers, used words in the near-extinct Tihanama language to explain his meanings (on which, see Panther-Yates 2012). Time and again, he emphasized that he had been taught such stories and traditions by his teachers, who had been “gifted” them in turn by an unbroken chain of narrators back to the “old days”; that the basis for everything he imparted was oral tradition, not books; and that it would only make full sense in the Tihanama language, with spiritual “permission” to share and understand. He frequently disputed the accuracy of books vis á vis oral or “seer” tradition. Like many indigenous storytellers, he privileged the spoken word instead, considering it bound by sacred communal rules and taboos, and giving it primacy of authority over the medium of writing (cf. Smith 2012: esp. 19-39; Einhorn 2000). He also maintained that some of the stories were tribally specific to the Tihanama or Cherokee or Shawnee, but that many, if not most, were of general circulation and of universal applicability among Indians, from Alaska and Arizona to Panama and South America.

The purpose of this report is to provide samples of Russell’s teachings for content analysis and critical study by specialists in philosophy. Does the body of knowledge evident in his words deserve to be called a philosophy? Many experts are undecided on this issue (Hester and Cheney 2001; Deloria 1997, 1994). What are its sources, influences, themes and motifs, as a folklorist might say? How derivative or original is it? How culture-bound or universal is it? To what extent has it been influenced by the processes of memory, translation, transcription, social pressures, print or other media such as film, radio and television? These and numerous other questions can be raised, if not fully answered once a representative fixed “text”— in this case, an oral one—has been established. Many other candidates for a discussion text of this nature, such as Chief Joseph’s famous speech, as well as anthropologists’ specimens, are problematical (see, e.g., Coward 1999).

Kiyanawa, Washasa and Tisa Baka

In the beginning was a nameless void, which came to be called Kiyanawa in the Tihanama language. This name can be translated as something like Great Shining Vibration. Each of the syllables is what the elders call a paragraph word. No simple gloss will capture all their meaning.

Kiyanawa is not the same as Great Spirit, God, or Creator. He is neither male nor female, neither good nor evil. He includes everything that exists, that once existed, and that will ever exist, in all places, in all dimensions of the universe, including nothingness, for “nothing” also has an existence, if only in thought and speech. Only by convention is Kiyanawa addressed as a male. The element kiyan is the name for North. It is composed of ki “light” and yana “honor.” Wa stands for “great.” Another interpretation of the name is therefore Great Source of Honor.

Kiyanawa is invoked in prayers, although “he” is said to be indifferent to them. One of the oldest drum-songs is the Honor Song, whose entire words are:

Ya Ya Yana

Ya Ya Yana

Ya Ya Yana


(Translation: “Aye, aye, let there be honor in our hearts”)

A common saying on the Eighth Arrow path is: “Our grandfathers have taught us always to remember that a life without honor is not life.”

When we die, our spirit goes to Kiyanawa. All that has ever come into existence emanates from him, including evil.

Great Spirit or Wabasa (literally, “Grandfather”) came from the North, the First Arrow, land of fire and ice, councils of chiefs and spirits. He went straight to the South, the Second Arrow, where he created people. The name for the second numeral is ganiha (ga “man” + ni “woman” + the plural operative ha). He faced them and taught them sign talk, spirit language (shashoda). Different people put different sounds together with the signs, but Tihanama is the original spoken language, now known only to a few medicine people. Some parts of it can be picked out in powwow vocables like hey-ya.

For every word in Tihanama there is a corresponding sign in Indian sign talk. For instance, the word tiik “chief” is shown by holding up your index finger before your heart and pointing with it slowly upwards, as though to show how a great man becomes prominent. With sign talk, you can communicate with the spirit in everything, including someone of a different language. But when you address trees or rocks, you must speak first to the spirit in them (sha), and then to the being in them (sa). The sign for South is to point your hand directly in front of you, whatever direction you may happen to face. This echoes the blessing given by Great Spirit to the first people.

The name for the Second Arrow is diba shu (“place of red”). As mentioned, North is called kiyan shu “white place.” The People (Iinya) have always been identified with the South, especially Red People, or Indians. Its chief representatives are Deer (denshi), Bird (doquasa), and Air (aki). Turkey and deer are the principal foods of the people. Most Indian maps are oriented to the South as the principal direction, just as it is North that white people set at the top. The directions are called arrows (namag) – “whirring stone-point, singing arrow.” The arrows are in turn differentiated by color. South is the Red Arrow; North is the White Arrow; and so on to the Eighth Arrow (tihanama).

After creating the First People in the South and instructing them with language, Grandfather began the next spoke in the wheel. He continued in a counter-clockwise direction and went as far as he could on his heart-hand’s side until he reached the East. This is the third arrow or direction. Its numeral is three (skaiha, the “balance” number), and its color is yellow (kizi). Its totems are the wolf (miinya), the turtle (totu), and earth, or stone (baka, mag).

Resuming his counterclockwise path, Wabasa next traveled as far as he could go in the opposite direction and created West. In this way, he traced an Indian star, all the while dispersing his energy and filling the entire world with it. West is represented by the color black (pisha), the numeral 4 (naha, the harmony number, its very shape an Indian star, facing up or south), water (tuush), otter (shami), and bear (maka). West is also the place of the ancestors (monnkin), of all relatives (makin), the land of the Grandfathers and Grandmothers, of medicine (shiin), ceremony (waanji), dreams, visions, and death.

The colors of the rainbow (tuushna-uuukte) express Great Spirit’s first work of creation. Thus, red (south) is the first color we see nearest the Sun. Yellow (earth) is between it and the following color. Blue, shading into darkness, is the third color. All three together compose white, Great Spirit’s signature hue. They progress in a counter-clockwise, expansive fashion in the sky. These are also called the Medicine Colors.

Till now, all was still two-dimensional. So the second phase of creation began, and it was woven together with the first.

Grandfather returned to a place corresponding to North where he began and created the Sky, the Fifth Arrow, whose number and color is shaida and whose effect is strongly positive. Next he whirled in a clockwise fashion to fix the down direction, earth, whose color is green (nava). Six is the number of Earth (bakaha).

After earth, continuing in a clockwise fashion, Grandfather made the Seventh Arrow, Spirit, which corresponds to South but is positive, and from there he ended his second creation by establishing the Eighth Arrow, with a high negative charge, which corresponds to West. Turquoise is the color of Spirit, the Seventh Arrow, as seven is the spirit number (shaha). The color of the Eighth Arrow, Tihanama(g), is flesh, brown, skin tone.

Two additional paths were opened. On the Earth Walk, our higher nature becomes embodied on earth. Through the Eighth Arrow, Spirit becomes contracted within the godlike in us. This is the Medicine Way. Anyone seeking to rise and have true existence must necessarily travel these four directions, for they reproduce Great Spirit’s double-knot of creation.

When Great Spirit was finished, he went back to the northern sky from whence he had come, leaving in a counterclockwise fashion. This is why the sign for spirit (sha) is to make a counterclockwise spiral over your head. The sky and all beings above us move from east to west in a counterclockwise fashion. Clockwise is earthwise. It is negative, female and concentrative. In many of the old dances the men encircle the women and move in a contrary movement. The effect marries active with passive, positive with negative, centripetal with centrifugal. To participate in creation and reenact it, individually and collectively, we must honor the male and female equally. And to travel the paths of creativity correctly we must sometimes emphasize the male, sometimes the female.


The Indian Star and Tihanama Cosmogony.

The Indian Star and Tihanama Cosmogony.

Many North American Indians consider that a ceremonial circle is not complete until the four directions are represented. They also honor the four sub-directions and speak of eight as a sacred number. Many sacred songs are sung eight times.

Even though Kiyanawa and Wabasa are not gendered, except for convenience’ sake, many will see in them the Greek and Hindu principal of Chaos and Order, or the two Biblical godheads in the account of the creation in Genesis in the Old Testament, Jehovah and El, or the Romans’ deposed father god Saturn followed by a younger, more vigorous Jupiter, and so forth. Our creation story also suggests the Chinese principals of yin and yang and Jewish mysticism’s concept of a male and female divine half (Adonai, or the Holy One, and Shekhinah). The Kabbalah, rooted in rabbinical texts from Mesopotamia, Egyptian magic and Pythagorean numerology, maintains that “with the appearance of light, the universe expanded, and with the concealment of the light, the things that exist were created in all their variety…this is the secret of the act of Creation…and before anything emanated…Ein Sof (infinity) was all that existed…similarly, after it brought into being that which exists, there is nothing but it…” (Matt 2009: 24).

Like the Big Bang theory, the Tihanama creation story describes an expansion from an original dimensionless point of infinite unity. And like the principal of brahman in the ancient Indic Upanishads, the One becomes Many and “fullness from fullness proceeds.” Brahman is the beginning of creation and the highest aim of metaphysical inquiry in the Vedic worldview. Furthermore, human nature (atman) is identified with cosmic nature (brahman), another belief which Eastern thinking shares with the American Indian, pointing perhaps to a common source.

In Hopi traditions, the sky divinity Cotukinungwa is “Chief of All.” Its name and attributes evoke Kiyanawa, a he-she deity almost completely removed from the world’s affairs. And Cotukinungwa is not the same as the Creator. This role is occupied by Masau’u, also known as Great Spirit and Executive Supreme. When Masau’u establishes the Hopi world, his movements replicate the Indian star:

Masau’u first traveled south, then circuitously to the eastward until he reached his starting point. He called this area his land. The exact limits are unknown, but it is surmised he started from a point about where Fort Mojave now is situated, thence south as far was the Isthmus of Panama, skirted eastward along the Gulf of Mexico and northward by the line of the Rio Grande up into Colorado, thence westerly along the thirty sixth parallel or thereabouts to the Rio Colorado, meandering along its course and so on southward to his starting point at Fort Mojave. This was Masau’u’s land originally (Stephen, Hopi Tales, qtd. in Tyler 1964: 34).


The Three Mountains

The smallest circle is three of something or three persons, the number of balance (skaiha). You cannot have a circle with only two people, for there is no balance. A two-legged pot will not stand. So all life, all existence, is built on the Three Mountains. These are mind (kus), heart (ho), and spirit (sha). Most people forget entirely the third one, spirit. All of us overemphasize one or the other. Those who emphasize the mind have a tendency to be skeptics about nearly everything. Their mind is active all the time, to the exclusion of their heart and spirit. The mind has its seat in the head with most of the senses. There are people who are really nothing but giant heads walking around on two legs. Another extreme of the mind is greed and acquisitiveness. It is the mind that always schemes to get more and have more. The pleasure center of the body is located at the base of the brain. It makes all sorts of bargains with the mind to stimulate the senses and satisfy the appetites.

Those who overemphasize the heart fall into one of two pitfalls. Either they are so generous and sensitive they give everything away, or they are cruel and violent. Anger, fear, sorrow, courage, giving, joy—these are all of the heart. The word for “good” in Indian sign talk (tchajo) is to move the hand out from the heart palm-down in a steady, even, calm, level fashion. Truth is “speaking from the heart” (shoda-ho), as teaching is “reflecting the heart” (tchojoho). The word “maybe” is “split heart” (ghiyan-ho). With these things, Indians show they are “people of the heart.” Many Indians have a tendency to overemphasize the heart, just as many white people err in favor of the mind.

The ones who pay too much attention to spirit either become foolish or arrogant and proud. They may think the rules don’t apply to them after they reach a certain point on their spiritual path. Or they may live in spirit to such an extent that they even forget to take care of their basic needs. Spirit is only one of the mountains, the Mountain of Universal Love. It is not everything. We are spiritual beings, but we are also emotional and intellectual beings. There is also the Mountain of Truth, and the Mountain of Respect.


This story is one of the key lessons for pursuing a spiritual path through self-help and self-reliance according to Russell, who received it, he told the author, from Gray Dog (Jumpishha Achomi), the chief who preceded him,. Gray Dog got it in “chief training” among the Seminoles from his teacher, and so on in turn, back to the “old-old times.” It is, in fact, part of the traditional medicine of the Tihanama people, a gift that formerly caused them to be regarded as a service tribe, one to whom other tribes would turn in spiritual matters and life-change events such as naming, coming-of-age, and funeral ceremonies.

There is no word for body in Tihanama. Consequently, there can be no “mind-body” problem. The three mountains are really one group: They lie close to each other and are formed of the same material.

When in balance, the three go together to create what is called our “nature” (ghenu). White Feathers calls ghenu “one of those paragraph words.” Depending on its context, it can mean “essence, being, life, permanence, identity, pride, mystery, existence, way, purpose, destination, goal, striving, dedication, devotion, coherence, unity, pureness, expression, concentration, consciousness, conscience, integrity, uprightness, godliness, secret, what is deep within.”

The Three Barriers to a Balanced Life

White Feathers has another teaching which deserves to be mentioned briefly here. He says there are three barriers to spirituality. He calls these Fear, Power and Old Age. “Fear, that’s the obvious one,” he says. “Most people are afraid of what they experience. Their God is usually the Jehovah of the Bible. But does a loving father or grandfather do things to his children to make them scared of him? Does he get angry at us? Does he punish us? I can’t tell you how many students I’ve had who ran from what they saw. It scared the hell out of them! Ninety percent of people on the spiritual path turn back because of fear.

“You don’t always encounter these barriers in the same order. It’s not like you get past one and that’s it. You come up against all of them repeatedly. But the most common one is fear. The second one is called power. This is when you forget where your power is coming from. You think it’s your power. You get arrogant and egotistical. You try to use it for selfish purposes. After a while you no longer have it. You may pretend you do, but you don’t. You’re faking it. You are stuck in the second barrier, which is Power. Ninety percent of those who overcome their fear fall prey to power. They can’t progress because they claim to be further along than they are. No one can help them. You can’t tell them anything because they think they know all the answers. Since they’ve proclaimed this by their actions, no one bothers with them. Once you have power you must use it wisely.

“The third barrier is called Old Age, but this is not what you think. It has nothing to do with age. You can get past fear and you can get past power but Old Age gets you almost every time. Another word for it might be taking things for granted. You might notice there is always some ‘down time’ on the spiritual path. You can’t be on a spiritual high all the time. That is the barrier of Old Age. But if you did not have these barriers you would not have any progress. You would not be aware of how far you have come or how far you have to go.”


“People come to me,” says Two White Feathers, “and ask me, ‘Have you read this book?’ or say, ‘You would enjoy this book,’ or else they give me a book to read. They don’t realize that is insulting. Or they go from medicine man to medicine man comparing. That also shows a lack of respect, a lack of faith. Or they corner me at a gathering and ask me what to take for some ailment. Do you catch a doctor at a party and try to get him to write you a prescription? Or they come to swap notes and pick my brain. These I just ask, ‘Well, how do you use that herb or what do you know about it?’ Then they also refer to me as a practitioner. I tell them, ‘Would you trust your health to someone who is still just practicing?’”

In the Tihanama language, there are two words for “knowing”: shodaho “truth” and gheli, a lesser kind of truth that can probably be translated best as “hearsay, second-hand information.” Shodaho is experience confirmed by the heart; gheli is “I’ve been told but do not know for certain.”

Concerning the two words for “knowing,” it is worth remarking that they both involve actually speaking something, that is, framing knowledge in words. In other words, knowledge is not considered knowledge until communicated to another. It can have no private sense, only a social and communal one. The auditory operative shoda means both to speak and to hear, just as the visual word katu can be used either of seeing or being seen.


Coward, John M. (1999). The Newspaper Indian. Identity in the Press, 1820-1890. Carbondale: U of Illinois P.

Crawford, Suzanne J. and Dennis Francis Kelley, ed. (2005). American Indian Religious Traditions: An Encyclopedia. 3 vols. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. (1992). God Is Red. A Native View of Religion. The Classic Work Updated. Golden: Fulcrum.

———– (1997). Red Earth, White Lies. Golden: Fulcrum.

Einhorn, Lois J. (2000). The Native American Oral Tradition. Voices of the Spirit and Soul. Westport: Praeger.

Hester, Lee and Him Cheney (2001). “Truth and Native Epistemology.” Social Epistomology 15:319-34.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (2012). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd ed. London: Zed.

Tyler, Hamilton A. (1964). Pueblo Gods and Myths. Norman: U of Oklahoma P.

Yates, Donald N. (2012). Echo the Heart.TheTihanamaLanguage.Word-list,English Glossary and Specimens.Cherokee Chapbooks.Phoenix:Panther’sLodge.

cover art for memoir of chief two white feathers audiobook smaller————– (2011). A Memoir of Chief Two White Feathers: Portrait of a Spiritual Practitioner. Cherokee Chapbooks. Phoenix: Panther’s Lodge.

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