Learning from Native Americans

The goal here is to find out if inherited emotions and behaviors were still in place. Answering this question has turned out to be a challenge. Why? Because tribal languages differed profoundly with English and European languages. The only information to trust had to come from the Native Americans themselves. Jeannette C. Armstrong, speaking for the Okanagan, explains the culture difference.

“In Okanagan … the word for seeing a dog means ‘happening upon a small thing’ and ‘sprouting profusely (as in fur.)’” She continues, “When you say the word ‘dog,’ you don’t ‘see’ a dog image, you summon an experience of a little furred life, the exactness of which is known only by its interaction with you or something. While I may see a dog, the Okanagan sees her or his past connections with all “small sprouting profusely” things. That culture that all things, organic and inorganic, are interdependent changes the way visual images reach the brain.”

Think about that: “…all things, organic and inorganic, are interdependent.” Our current culture has treated oceans and rivers as sewers and ignores nature’s demands. The Native Americans’ language and culture viewed humans and animals and plants and rivers and the moon and the sun – all things as interdependent. No wonder those first Europeans and American explorers saw them as ignorant savages. They were indeed different, in that they viewed life from a very different perspective, but looking back, their perspective actually made a lot of sense.

After seeking information from centers for Apache, Seminole, Lenape, Iroquois, Abenaki, Shawnee, Chinook, Crow, Osage, Blackfoot, Navajo, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Cherokee, Pawnee, Comanche, Chickasaw, Sioux, Caddo, Pueblo, Ojibwa and Kootenai tribes, this thoughtful letter from the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki was received: “Many tribal members consider knowledge about traditional religious practices to be private information transmitted among individuals who have long-term, personal relationships.”

The writer’s term “long term, personal relationships” refers to an often-forgotten common thread across the tribes. The tribal stories, often long and complicated, moved from generation to generation by way of a few chosen people, sometimes called shamans. No written record: true. But the content of these carefully-learned stories may actually have begun way, way back in history.

Digging, trying to stick to only Native American authors, the author finally accumulated some reports of first behaviors. Even though the many tribes were widely separated in terms of location and conditions, those stories had common themes. From today’s perspective, that common theme might be called religion — but NOT the kind of religions with which you are familiar. For Native Americans, behaviors and religion are inseparable.   Native American beliefs and behaviors define their religion; their religion defines the beliefs and behaviors.

To speak of the people is to speak of land – remember how the dog was viewed: “small sprouting profusely”? Without land there is no life; to sustain the land, a responsible social and cultural outlook by humans must exist. Why? Because, like the people before them, they were responsible to guard the land for those who would follow. Each generation had the responsibility to do the same. Although different words and examples are used, this general sense of the interdependence of earth and life and creation and living and religion seems be persistent, at least in a general sense, in all tribes.

Simon Ortiz, speaking for the Pueblos, summarizes nicely thoughts found in nearly all the tribal reports. He says, “If anything is most vital, essential and absolutely important to Native cultural philosophy, it is the concept of interdependence: the fact that without land there is no life, and without a responsible social and cultural outlook by humans, no life-sustaining land is possible.”

The “sweat lodge,” used in different tribes, sometimes with different names, is a good example. One person’s needs (perhaps due to sickness) leads to a healing ritual. However, the healing process focuses not on the individual but on the entire family and village, the crops, the air, water, and everything conceivably attached to that patient’s world. The god to whom they appeal was not in a distant place but was here, now, at this location.

Can you see that this belief is consistent with the emotions and behaviors passed onto homo sapiens? Generally speaking, in our cultures, the importance and needs of the individual take precedence over needs of the group as a whole. The Native American theme displays a distinctly different culture. So, for them, the definition of “religion” is something like, “the proper way to live.” The land provided to them is heaven. What has been and what will be is now; this land, this location.

This summary is based on the information gathered. Here are some examples. As you read, see if you can identify themes.

An interesting beginning quote from Leslie Marmon Silko speaking for the Pueblos: “The remains of things — animals and plants, clay and stones — were treated with respect, because for the ancient people all these things had spirit and being.” Continuing, “Survival depended on harmony and cooperation not only among human beings, but also among all things — the animate and the less animate, since rocks and mountains were known on occasion to move.”

For Lenapes, life was suppose to be spent in harmony with the environment and with the world around them. Along the same general theme, the Iroquois worship concentrated on what existed, such as thunder, maize and other regular parts of life. Interpretation of dreams was very important. Ceremonies were related to the activities of life. The Abenaki (at times spelled Abnaki) also believed that what happened on earth was clearly connected to religious beliefs.

Crow People’s religious beliefs are deeply rooted in the earth; the earth is alive and so is everything related to it. The Blackfoot connected religious believes to the rains, the wind, and the earth. Animals of the Earth, especially the buffalo, bear, raven, wolf and beaver, are given respect but are not part of a religious belief. The Lakota Sioux view as sacred these seven elements: land, air, water, rocks, animals, plants, and fire. (Think back now to first life on earth. The implication here is that first life appeared when the organic and inorganic separated. Inorganic remained important to the Native Americans.)

Navajo religion also concentrates on balance and harmony. Maintaining good health is more than avoiding illness; it involves maintaining balance with the earth and the people around you. The spirituality is maintained by healing ceremonies. Similar report on Pawnee early religion, which was tightly connected to maintaining a balance with nature, with worship directed from the stars to the corn itself. (“…involves maintaining balance with the earth and the people around you.” Would earth be approaching the sixth extinction if that theme had remained dominant?)

For the Comanche, what is written supports that the idea that everything has a spirit and the main emphasis is on maintaining harmony in the universe. Dreams and visions played a role. Similarly, Apache ceremonials concentrate on the Sun, the rain, the crops and the harvest, a duality connecting religious force connect to here, this earth, and now.

The Ojibwa also focus on the community. The culture was fashioned from rocks, rivers and lakes, trees and roots, and the sun, moon, and stars. If one loved nature, nature would love in return. Life and religion were inseparable. The requirements of personal behavior had mostly to do with personal interactions with others and nature. Religious rituals usually focused on thanks for nature’s gifts.

The creation stories are passed from generation to generation. They would not belong in this section except for one thing: anyone who carefully read the How Did We Get Here? event thus far will recognize that the great floods, extended darkness, life beginning in the water, a frozen world actually did happen!   As you read this, think about:

Did those first Native Americans, way, way back, actually somehow recall these stories, perhaps in dreams, and then pass them from generation to generation? Remember, they were isolated for a long time AND they maintained these stories orally from generation to generation long before writing appeared. So many of the tribal creation stories seem to contain these happenings – connections to the deep, deep past…

Next week, we’ll explore some of these stories.