“A lot of our greatest teachings come from our relatives.”
There were about ten of us, sitting in the dark in the sweat lodge, giving honor and offering prayers for the children, the babies, the future generations. But not just the human ones.
When it’s my turn to speak, I tell of my experience that week with hundreds of babies. When I first saw them on the stair of my back porch, I thought I was looking at dust or pollen caught in an old web. I looked closer and saw something I had never seen before—a whole cloud of newly-hatched spiders, so tiny that their legs were barely visible.
I have a particular relationship with spiders, I say in the darkness of the lodge. When the door opens between rounds and the sunlight spills through the small entrance, the young man sitting across from me stares my way with eyes as wide as twin moons; there are spiders climbing over me—one on my head, another on the towel draped over my legs… and, for good measure, one on the arm of the auntie sitting next to me. I oblige her request to remove it, though I’d really rather not; if you ask me, anything with that many legs is not for handling.
Most machine-domesticated humans regard spiders with a potent combination of Fear & Loathing, if not outright hatred. At best, people find them creepy. At worst, they will murder them on sight. This is a strange thing when you consider that most spiders are basically harmless to humans. Their bite might leave you with a painful and/or itchy welt, but in most of the world spiders with venom potent enough to endanger humans are rare. For example, the Bay Area is home to Black Widows, but I see them only occasionally. I mostly see Daddy Longlegs.
Our fear of spiders might be genetic. Though I’ve long forgotten where I encountered it, I distinctly remember reading about a study in which researchers put human infants in rooms, then put a spider in the room, shielded by glass. The infants displayed immediate signs of distress and agitation once they saw the spiders. What I find disturbing is that we live in a culture in which subjecting both infants and spiders to such institutional torture is considered an acceptable method of scientific inquiry.
I once visited a middle school in San Francisco that contained, in one of its study lounges, two glass aquariums, each of them housing an unreasonably large spider from somewhere in South America. The kind who eat birds. Accounting for legs, they were each the size of a softball. The aquariums, which each measured less than two cubic feet, would have stifled even a goldfish. To my horror, sadness, and a sense of acute injustice, one of the spiders was dead. It died from the cold of the stone building and Frisco winter, and from neglect. I’m thinking the people responsible for this should have just left them in South America.
Spiders are both hunter and prey. They know this, even if we don’t, which is why most of them will flee into hiding when presented with any stimulus that is not a potential meal. Even as hunters, they are primarily trappers; they spin webs and wait for flying insects to get caught in them, or they sit in holes covered by trapdoors made of webbing and dirt where they await the tell-tale vibrations of passing bugs. There are some kinds of spiders who crawl around stalking prey, but they are the minority. And despite what Hollywood might have us believe, they’re certainly not looking for us. I can only imagine what a huge and unfathomable force of nature we must appear to their many eyes.
I grew up in the suburban, semi-rural margins of the Bay Area. This was in the ‘80s and ‘90s, before vampiric developers transformed my hometown into an endless wealtharian hive. In my childhood, encounters and interactions with wildlife were common—skunk, raccoon, possum, deer, snake, mouse, mole, coyote, hawk, owl; a bewildering array of insects—the cricket and the wasp, the beetle and the butterfly, the silverfish and the praying mantis; there were thistle flowers, oaks and willows, creeks with their guppies and tadpoles and crawdads; and, of course, spiders. I was well into adulthood before I was able to fully respect these other forms of life… but they were always normal. Even as a child, I took it for granted that the hills and gullies belonged to them.
Not so for the city-dweller. Few wild creatures are able to survive in the modern jungle of electric towers and concrete. The most common ones—pigeons, rats, and roaches—are universally despised. They’re gross. They carry disease. We often poison them.
To live in a city is to exist entirely within the physically manifested confines of civilization’s abstractions—a synthetic, manufactured world. For all their potential cultural vibrancy, there is something about cities that is inherently cold and alien.
Since graduating from high school, I’ve lived most of my adult life in big cities, primarily Los Angeles (a certified dystopia) and Oakland. While I grew up immersed enough in the trappings of consumerism so as not to qualify as a complete hick, it didn’t take me long to figure out there was something wrong with big-city folk. However, it took me many years and a great deal of study to even begin to be able to articulate these thoughts. Now, it seems obvious; a psychotic, cybernetic environment produces psychotic, cybernetic people.
It is basic knowledge to indigenous peoples that we are related to the space we inhabit. As Vine DeLoria Jr. thoroughly explored in his masterwork God is Red, indigenous humans are just as much a part of their environment as any of our many other relations. Our cultures, spirituality, and life-ways grow from this reality. Thanks to European invaders, with their profound hatred of nature and alienation from the physical, most of our non-human relatives have been decimated, and our relationships have been fractured. The land is buried, suffocated by what Frank Black Elk called “lakes of asphalt.” Many surviving natives have, like my own ancestors, been scattered into a diaspora, severed from our traditions and amputated from our lands.
The material and moral differences between the cultures of indigenous nations and those of European invaders are manifest; the First Nations lived on this continent for many thousands of years in relative harmony with other lifeforms, while Europeans and their descendants have damn near sterilized it in a couple of centuries. Instead of bird flocks big enough to blot out the sun, and the thrashing bodies of spawning salmon spilling over the banks of rivers, we have a coast-to-coast culture of murderous high-tech idiocy. We have plastic wrap and toxic waste. We have TikTok.
Some of us in the diaspora get lucky and find our way back to the remnants of native traditions. This happened to me, in a way that seems to hold more than a touch of destiny. I was introduced to the sweat lodge and the Sun Dance by a cousin who my family didn’t know existed until the mid-2000s. She was unknowingly fathered by the youngest of my maternal uncles, and given up for adoption by her mother. She sought us out as an adult; unfortunately, by that time my uncle had already departed for the happy hunting grounds. As it turned out, my newfound cousin had been attending Sun Dance and been actively engaged in the native community for many years, with no knowledge whatsoever that she had native ancestry, or that her biological father had likewise been involved in native ceremonial life. As she might put it, she always thought she was just a regular white-trash Oregonian.
If you look in a Lakota-English dictionary, it will tell you that the word for spider is iktomi. This is a banal, utilitarian, and barely competent translation. In English, the word spider summons an image of a miniature wall-crawling menace; scary, ugly, and dangerous. For the Sioux Nations, the word iktomi summons a bevy of colorful associations, jokes, and stories; Iktomi is a trickster, by turns hero and villain, a keeper of stories, and the star of many hilarious tales. For the peoples of West Africa, this role is fulfilled by Anansi—another spider—who among other things acquired all of the world’s stories by swindle. In the Lakota ways, Iktomi is a common totem/helper/avatar of the heyoka, the holy clowns.
Don’t you have cousins who tell ridiculous stories, provide you with drugs, show up at your house unannounced, tell selfish lies, and sleep with your girlfriends? Spider might be a terror to some, but he’s still my family.
And it makes sense that spiders are storytellers; they’re everywhere. On every continent except the ones (currently) covered in ice, you’re never more than a few feet from a spider. Feel how you want about them, but the earth loves spiders.
Around the age of 9, I first met Spider wearing blue and red spandex, in the manic contorted poses drawn by cartoonist Erik Larsen in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man—by far my favorite superhero. Of course I had no idea at the time that Spider-Man’s wise-cracking antics were a resonant note from a much older song.
I met Spider again in my late twenties, when I traveled to Australia. During my three weeks riding in a camper van through the land of the Dreamtime, I was haunted by recurring dreams of spiders—tiny ones crawling all over me, giant ones in caves speaking to me in a language I could not understand, human-shaped ones who guided me over deep chasms on crumbling bridges. In my waking hours, I traveled to distant mountain campgrounds, and entered wooden outhouses with walls covered in three-inch-wide spiders.
In 2013 I moved to Oakland, and soon thereafter I got a tattoo of a spider on my back. At one point during the session, I experienced a moment of intense deja vu. Later that afternoon, while smoking a cigarette outside of the tattoo parlor, I met the young man who would introduce me to the local hip hop scene, leading to my first gigs in the Bay, and eventually a six-year career as a hip hop activist and educator.
Spiders tend to make dramatic appearances in my vicinity when there are things in my life I should be paying attention to, or important events happening, or cosmic jokes being played. The biggest spider I’ve ever seen in my house showed up in November 2019—just a few months before the onset of the covid pandemic. To borrow a line from one of my elders, I’m not superstitious… I’m just ‘stitious enough.
A lot of people are deeply concerned about climate change, but I don’t think that most of them actually give a shit about the earth or her non-human children. I suspect that, if not for finite material limits, the denizens of Starfleet would gladly continue harvesting dilithium crystals and playing on the holodeck forever. Their concerns are profoundly narcissistic. That’s what happens when you’re divorced from the land and reared in abstractions.
In the last few centuries many foreigners have come to live in America, but they will never be at home on Turtle Island until they learn to develop a healthy relationship with the land, and all her peoples of many species. That’s not going to come from digging mines, clear-cutting forests, and saturating the soil with pesticides; it’s not conducive to dams and pavement; it can’t be tweeted.
The only alternative to a healthy relationship is extinction.