Seven Arrows of Truth

By W. Dougherty

Upon a first reading, Seven Arrows (by Hyemeyohsts Storm, Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., New York, 1972) speaks powerfully to us as a touching and personal history, seen through the mind and heart of a Northern Cheyenne, of last century's tragic collision of two radically different cultures. Until recently, the general public has had little access to any but the most biased accounts of the American Indian Wars. In part, Seven Arrows tells of these conflicts from the viewpoint of the Indian camp circles. Yet it is not a book written in anger. Nor does it accuse people today of what others did in the past. It is, rather, a story of life, of the present, and the approach to living that author Hyemeyohsts Storm has learned through his own experiences and through the ancient teaching stories handed down to him by his father.

These stories provide the background of truth which makes the book understandable as an organic whole. But, as Hyemeyohsts explains in an introduction to the reader, they have been passed down orally from generation to generation, not by written records. In this way the concepts could be preserved while the words used to express them evolved and changed with the language of the people. Hence, he cautions, we must, while reading the stories, always seek the meaning and avoid taking them literally. He writes:

The Stories are about both animals and people. You will find Stories about Mice, Wolves, Raccoons, Otters and Buffalo. These Stories are almost entirely allegorical in form, and everything in them should be read symbolically. Every story can be symbolically unfolded for you through your own Medicines, Reflections and Seekings. As you do this, you will learn to See through the eyes of your Brothers and Sisters, and to share their Perceptions.

Here Storm touches on the very central idea of Seven Arrows, that our real purpose in living is to broaden the base of our perceptions. "The Flowering Tree" is the name of a story which elaborates on this point. It tells of a little boy and girl who sneak down to the river and talk to the powerful person living in it. This person, it is said, can solve any problem. When the little boy and girl return to the camp and tell what has happened, the people become very upset and scold the children sharply. For even though everyone in the camp has already visited the river in secret many times, no one wants to talk about it because no one wants to admit, even to himself, that he or she really does have problems.

Storm later points out that the river in this story actually runs within ourselves, because the powerful person found there is our own spirit. That is why everyone who stole down to this inner current of being saw only the reflection of himself. The personal self which we are self-consciously aware of at present is the reflection in earth life of our powerful inward spirit, that eternal part of us which time and again puts forth a personal mask in order to expand and enrich its experience through life.

In the story the children learn of this truth through a conversation with Old Man Coyote and Old Woman Coyote. The coyote is called the gentle trickster of learning. His song represents the deep and abiding wisdom which we already embody, and daily reflect more fully, through living in harmony with all around us. Storm writes of this:

As the Coyote sings, his song is echoed by many other Coyotes. These songs, the Teachers tell us, are the songs of the many Reflections that live within all of us.

He says further that as we harken to this song we become "The Flowering Tree," that is, we realize that we are a mirror of the universe and at the same time one with it. Old Man and Old Woman Coyote give the little boy and girl these ancient wisdom teachings in the symbolic form of two coyote robes, and instruct the children to give these robes to the other people of the camp, so that they too may be able to "put on" this understanding. But the people continue to mock the children and deride the gifts they bring. Until finally a kindly man and woman step forward. They adopt the children and put on the robes. Immediately they tell the starving tribe that they see buffalo to the north, to the south, to the east, and to the west. In the stories, the buffalo symbolizes wisdom. The four directions represent the four ways of perceiving. To the north is perceiving within mind. To the south, within innocence and trust. To the east, within illumination. And to the west, within introspection.

The people become very excited because they too begin to see the gifts of these ways of looking. But they soon become confused and divided, because some want to rush off toward one way of perceiving and others want to pursue different directions. Eventually they decide to kill the troublemakers who started all this. But as they close in on the instigators, they find that the little boy and girl have become a flowering tree. The "Flowering Tree" represents that principle of growth, of blossoming perceptual enlargement, which allows us to see "through the eyes of our brothers." To see, in other words, that just as the universe is a Great Medicine Wheel, a great cosmic hierarchy of harmony and compassion, so each one of us is a personal medicine wheel within that great circle of being. Unfortunately, the people see this teaching, not as a grand and liberating thought, but as a hateful threat to their selfish preconceptions. In their blind anger, they strike at the tree, not realizing that they are only fighting within themselves. Next they turn to silence the young man and woman, but find only their tracks, the tracks of two lions. The lion stands for the teachers among the people, and hence represents the principle of balance.

The tracks lead them off to the north, and in a great circle back to the flowering tree; that is, their search leads them to a fresh confrontation with themselves. Exhausted by their journey, the people all sit down and begin to talk honestly to each other. They realize that they don't really want to hurt anyone. They find that as a result of having unwittingly united together in order to do something as a whole people, they can now hear the four harmonies of balance, symbolized by the songs sung by a white coyote from the north, a green coyote from the south, a yellow coyote from the east, and a black coyote from the west. The people, of course, represent the whole hierarchy of selves within each individual human being.

The story shows that our purpose here is to unify these many selves into one harmonious whole which will then enable us to live in peace and brotherhood with all around us. We do this by achieving a balanced perceiving within all of the four directions. If we perceive within only one, or two, or even three of these, we will be seeing and understanding life incompletely and hence will be out of balance within ourselves and with our brothers. This, then, is what Storm regards as the purpose and method of truly human living: to achieve, self-consciously, that balance within the four directions of perceiving which will enable that powerful person within us, our spirit, to "solve any problem," that is, to express itself fully to each of our selves and to all others.

This same fundamental outlook informs those stories which deal with the Indian Wars of the last century. Storm shows that the real battle was not of arms, but of two cultures. The Indian way of life, the Sun Dance Way, was orientated toward the spirit, which he saw as being not only within himself but also as being the real essence of everything. The Indian culture collapsed from within because it could not weather the impact of the white man's fundamental orientation toward the material side of existence. The white man's ingenuity in this realm gave him possessions and physical powers which astonished the Indians. Their own material accomplishments seemed puny by comparison. As a result, far too many turned away from the spiritual orientation that was their heritage, adopting instead the materialistic outlook of the white conquerors. Consequently, they began to view the white man as a foreign invader of their lands rather than as a part of themselves. As such, he became a mirror for their own fears and misunderstandings, even as the red man had long before become such for the white man. And so the two nations could not find it in their hearts to be brother peoples.

Yet Seven Arrows does not end with a disaster, but with hope. For the last story, set in the present day, shows that the same ancient wisdom teachings, which are reflected in the Sun Dance Way -- the American Indian conception of the soul's eternal odyssey -- are also buried deeply but securely within the foundation of our own racial thought and spirit. So deeply, in fact, that we find them even in the fairy tales we learned as children. The message is clear. It is time to wake up, time to cherish and heed the wondrous song of growth these children within ourselves bring us. 

 (From Sunrise magazine, December 1973; copyright © 1973 Theosophical University Press)

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