Everything Tries to Be Round


Black Elk once said: “You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation and so long as the hoop was unbroken the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion. Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle. The sky is round and I heard that the earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.”


In our culture, as in other cultures, we are born essentially round. We are born vulnerable to the process of death and rebirth. But we fear death, and very quickly, we are weaned from roundness and taught to be linear or angular.

Through linearity and angularity, we deny the reality of death. We deny the connection between the sacred and the secular. Then, we grow older. When the fear of death has thoroughly complicated our lives, we spend many painful years trying to regain our original roundness.

There is something heady and exciting about this linear, angular approach to things. The linear and angular has its own kind of power: It can provide abundantly for our basic needs– food, clothing and shelter. It can create time and space for leisure activities. It can discover cures for illnesses that used to kill thousands or millions. It can send a rocket to the moon and a probe into outer space.

Yet there is something dangerous about this linear, angular approach. We can become self-centered, selfish, greedy. We can begin to make idols of our individual selves. We can delude ourselves into believing that we are not interconnected, we are not dependent upon each other and all living things. We begin to foul the world, including our own nests.

Despite these dangers, we continue to wean our children from a round view of the world. We teach them the linear, angular view. We want them to grow up to be like us adults, for we see the world objectively and analytically.

In self-defense, we want them to learn that there are boundaries between them and ourselves. We want them to grow up and stand separate from us. We want them to be independent and self-sufficient.

I got an inkling of how we wean ourselves from roundness one Sunday some years ago. I was walking across campus at the University of Montana, where I was teaching writing and literature. That was a number of years before my call to ordained ministry became clear to me. But I was beginning to wrestle with the question of my own mortality and the ultimate roundness of all that is Divine in the world.

It was a beautiful spring day. The last snow had fallen, we all hoped. Everything was bright green, the kind of early spring green that has a lot of transparency and sunlight in it. The trees along side the stone buildings were about ready to flower.

On the walk in the Oval, there was this young couple with their child–a toddler. The child was beautiful. She had light hair and a frilly, pink dress and white shoes. She was dressed for everybody to see, except for one thing: her dress was riding high over her round, exposed tummy. She had this impish look on her face, as if she knew the dress ought to be pulled down to cover her up.

I remember distinctly that the child’s parents were in front of her, looking over their shoulder back down at her. Her father, dressed in a dark suit and tie, was standing tall, the center of gravity of his being in his powerful shoulders. It was not in his tummy or thin hips. He was looking back over his shoulder. He was looking down on the little child. He said, “Pull your pretty dress down…shame…shame.” He drew his shoulders even higher, to communicate with his body as well as with his words what the desired posture was.

But the little girl, impish look bright on her face, started toddling away from her parents, toward me, her little tummy fully exposed. Her tummy said, “Hi,” to me. It was as if she were looking at the world–all that greenness–with her round tummy.

Her father scolded her. Her mother scolded her. They came to retrieve her. Walking away, I felt freshly aware of my own abdomen. It was looking out at all that greenness and thinking: That’s what we do with our children. We want them to grow out of balance. We want them to forget their tummies. We want them to look at the world with their eyes and their shoulders. We want them to lean forward, not with vulnerable tummies but with powerful shoulders. We want those shoulders to manipulate the world into a death-denying environment.

The round tummy is the home of relatedness. It is the home of pain and sorrow and laughter. It is the home of the stories we tell to make ourselves whole, says one of the native characters in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. It is in the belly of an old man that the life-giving stories are nurtured and still growing.

Yet we want our children to move the center of gravity of their being from the round tummy to the shoulders, the eyes, and the head.

Raised by Hawaiians, the Native Americans of Hawaii, my mother was reared in wise native ways. I remember that she was always concerned about our opu or belly. When she asked, “Is it good?” she meant how has all that good food–poi, laulau, lomi salmon–warmed our bellies–the intestines, the gut.

The Hawaiians believed the intestines, the gut, to be the seat of our intelligence and emotions. They thought and felt with their bellies!

The Hawaiians also believed that “Eating together in leisure and relaxation makes the unconscious a little more accessible.” By eating together we made ourselves vulnerable and open to each other. After feeding us, my mother wanted to know the truth about our lives! It was as though we were at the communion table with her.

Needless to say, my mother loved eating. When she ate, she sat at the table for a long time. It was the process of eating that mattered. I did not know until later that this was a particularly Hawaiian trait.

The revered teacher of things Hawaiian, Mary Kawena Pukui, says that Hawaiians have no word for time, but have the word ‘ai to designate different kinds of food and eating. ‘ai can mean eat, to eat, or eating. ‘ai can also refer to food such as poi or taro or sweet potato or breadfruit. One could eat for someone else. ‘ai akua was eating for a spirit. The akua or spirit could belong to one’s dead father or one of the Hawaiian gods. Food and eating had greater value for the Hawaiians than the passage of time.