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The Masks of the Imperial Gaze

Photograph of a two Alaska Iroquois Indian masks on display, ca.1900. Both are probably constructed from carved wood and have natural looking hair on top of their heads. The one at left has round disc-like eyes and rounded teeth in a horizontal mouth. The one at right has squared teeth in a broadly grinning mouth.
Two Alaska Iroquois masks on display, ca.1900. California Historical Society

“From very early—around four or five years old—I was fascinated by American Indians, and that became my real studying. I went to school and had no problems with my studies, but my own enthusiasm was in this maverick realm of the American Indian mythologies.”

—Joseph Campbell (The Hero’s Journey 6)

The maverick realm of Native American mythologies ignited the transcendent passion for mythology that Joseph Campbell is known for. The Native American spirit inspired Campbell to study myth and beyond; it revealed to him a world of wonder and philosophic insight. After all, as Aristotle famously put it, “a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant (whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of Wisdom, for the myth is composed of wonders).” (Metaphysics 982b19)

Native American Mythologies extend their wonders and wisdom far south of the border, spreading mythography across three subcontinents: North, Central, and South America. If we were to travel with native leaders across these native lands, we would experience a variety of rituals and customs, strange languages and symbolism, all bearing testimony to the rich creativity of the indigenous mythological imagination. At the same time, we would also be struck by a fundamental sense of agreement, a common-sense wisdom, everywhere shared by indigenous peoples across the Americas—and beyond.

The wisdom of the peoples

Struck by this remarkable archetypal sympathy among Native peoples, Chief Oren Lyons—a faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan, esteemed member of the Onondaga Council of Chiefs, Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy)—gives testimony to this profound accord of Native American Wisdom. When he visited the Maya in Central America, despite not knowing the language, the specific dances, or rituals, somehow “I know what’s going on,” said the Iroquois Chief. “It’s always the same,” he continued, “Thanksgiving to the creation. Thanksgiving to the life-giving forces of the earth” (“Tree Media: Oren Lyons on the Indigenous View of the World" 15:20-52). There is a shared font of wisdom that unites indigenous peoples across the earth. Rather than a secret anti-rational or “mystical” doctrine reserved for the privileged few, however, the Wisdom of the Peoples gives itself out as the plainest of rational common sense. Otherwise it would not be of the people.

There is a shared font of wisdom that unites indigenous peoples across the earth

As Chief Lyons reiterated, it comes down to the most elementary lessons of human coexistence, such as the principle of sharing, about which the Council of Iroquois Nations found themselves in “profound agreement,” summing up their treaty in the emblem: “one dish, one spoon.” Everyone deserves one dish, one spoon. No one should go without. Food and shelter, healthcare and education, are all human rights and not privileges for those who can afford them. Understand, we are all in the same boat, etc. Such are the simple lessons we used to pass to our children: don’t think only about yourself, learn to share; don’t fight, make peace. Be grateful to the earth. Respect the natural environment and its biodiversity, your elders, etc.

These lessons seem so childishly simple, and yet, as Chief Lyons observes, everything in our capitalist culture is hell-bent on giving us the “opposite instruction”: think only about yourself; care only for your private gains and benefits; amass more wealth and power; be content to serve your corporate masters, and do not concern yourself with the fate of others. “And they’re rewarded for that” (14:00-15:07), says the Chief Elder, thus underlining the madness of so-called Western civilization. For the sake of this narcissistic lifestyle, representing the triumph of hyper-individualism, our society rewards sociopaths, liars, thieves, and scoundrels.

Dismantling the colonial gaze

This is not a controversial claim. All native people across the globe are in full agreement with a growing consensus among young people: our system, in its current shape, causes a lot more harm than good. Placing profits over people, it is committed to the destruction and ruthless exploitation of our environment, our labor, and our very souls. There is nothing that is not for sale within the frameworks of global capitalism, including the human soul. Rather than promoting “democracy” and “freedom,” the interests of a tiny minority takes precedence over the common good—nay, even over the survival of entire peoples, life forms, and ecosystems.

There is something absolutely crazy about the system, something that runs against the exercise of reason and common sense. It is no wonder that its ideological matrix profits from the irrationalist “mythic” core of our belief systems and pet theories. Power centers do not want a population to think rationally, to think critically, structurally, about the economic logic of the system that determines and shapes our entire society. It does not want us to see through the basic ideological fantasy that underlies it, namely, the Hobbesian idea that human beings are fundamentally selfish and greedy, and badly in need of a Master.

Enemy of the state

If we are true seekers of Native American wisdom, however, we cannot get on board this irrationalist bandwagon which opens the door to a narcissistic appropriation of myth as a tool for our success in a capitalist system. We need to be critically aware that this narcissistic appropriation of the other is an extension of the colonial gaze that already frames our study of mythology. As we approach native cultures, we must wrestle with our own unconscious prejudices and beliefs, powerful ideological fantasies that have been driven into us since we were children playing cowboy and Indians. This objectifying and exoticizing gaze is itself derived from hegemonic power structures and material conditions which we take for granted in the West. These economic and political structures have a powerful ideological or “spiritual” hold over Western readers, who are in every way predisposed—or “educated”—to side with imperialist projects of any description. Smuggling the colonial gaze into the study of Native American Wisdom, we do not notice the fatal contradiction inherent in the “metaphysical” violence of our objectifying quest.

The patronizing adoration of indigenous culture, the dismissal of their common-sense wisdom as childish or archaic—all speak to the symbolic violence of this colonial gaze. But this violence of cultural appropriation is only an offshoot of the quite real, murderous violence that has always accompanied colonial projects throughout their history. Placing Native bodies in the killing fields of genocidal conquest, the colonial gaze is by definition in full support of imperialist domination over Native peoples and their lands. As the all-seeing eye of “Western interests” with its well-funded capacity to unleash hell on earth, the imperial gaze is ready to annihilate anyone standing in its way—not excluding women and children, schools and hospitals. Accelerating climate catastrophe and socio-economic breakdown, supporting genocidal wars and courting nuclear holocaust, this disastrous mindset is driving us today, full force, to the literal brink of extinction.

In the ideological matrix of cultural capitalism, Native American wisdom can only appear as the enemy. Chief Lyons expressed as much when he said that “the American structure” is everywhere giving us “instructions” to go directly against the principle of sharing, that is, against the communitarian sense and socialist vision of the Wisdom of the Peoples. Within the hegemonic space of this selfish culture, “you have an instruction that’s contrary—very contrary to this concept [of sharing]” (15:08- 15:17). How do we subvert and dismantle the colonial cage? Not without a revolution of thought and vision.

MythBlast authored by:

Norland Tellez, a man with dark hair in a suit jacket and button up shirt, in front of an image of the Americas

Norland Téllez is an award-winning writer and animation director who currently teaches Animation and Character Design courses at Otis College of Art and Design, Cal State Fullerton. He is also conducting a Life Drawing Lab at USC School of Cinematic Arts. He earned his Ph.D. from Pacifica Graduate Institute in 2009 with a dissertation on the Popol-Wuh of the K’iche’ Maya, which he is currently translating and illustrating in its archetypal dimensions as the Wisdom of the Peoples. You can learn more at

Red background with a mandala and Masks of Eternity on the image.

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 6, and The Hero's Journey


Latest Podcast

Red Cover of the Pathways Podcast with Ep. 31 The Psychological Basis of Freedom across the cover.

Welcome to the fourth season of Pathways with Joseph Campbell! This episode entitled, "The Psychological Basis of Freedom", was recorded at Bennett College in North Carolina in 1970. Host, Bradley Olson introduces the episode and gives commentary after the lecture.


This Week's Highlights

"Black Elk was a Lakota Oglala Sioux who had in his youth a mystical vision of the destiny before his people. He saw “the hoop of his nation,” as he called it, as one of many hoops, and all the hoops interlocking, and all of them expressing the same humanity. The hoop of his little nation had to be opened out and become one of many, many hoops of many, many nations."

-- Joseph Campbell, Myth and Meaning, 24



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