Manataka American Indian Council
WITH GREAT RESPECT WE PASS ALONG THESE GREAT WORDS OF
WISDOM SO YOU MAY GIVE THEM TO YOUR CHILDREN’S CHILDREN.
"Is there not something worthy of perpetuation in our Indian spirit of democracy, where Earth, our mother, was free to all, and no one sought to impoverish or enslave his neighbor?"— Ohiyesa (Charles Alexander Eastman)
"We do not chart and measure the vast field of nature or express her wonders in the terms of science; on the contrary, we see miracles on every hand – the miracle of life in the seed and egg, the miracle of death in a lighting flash and in the swelling deep!" — Kent Nerburn
The following are excerpts from Kent Nerburns’ wonderfully fascinating book, "The Wisdom of the Native Americans" (New World Library, 1999). This collection does not rely on the wise sayings of our revered grandfathers and chiefs quoted throughout Nerburn’s book, but takes from the deeply moving, clearly written expressions of his own words.
THE GREAT MYSTERY
The attitude of the American Indian toward the Eternal, the Great Mystery that surrounds and embraces us, is as simple as it is exalted. To us it is the supreme conception, bringing with it the fullest measure of joy and satisfaction possible in this life...The worship of the Great Mystery is silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking... It is silent, because all speech is of necessity feeble and imperfect; therefore the souls of our ancestors ascended to God in wordless adoration… Our religion is an attitude of mind, not a dogma.
THE TEMPLE OF NATURE
There are no temples or shrines among us save those of nature. As children of nature, we are intensely poetical. We would deem it sacrilege to build a house for The One who may be met face to face in the mysterious, shadowy aisles of the primeval forest, or on the sunlit bosom of virgin prairies, upon dizzy spires and pinnacles of naked rock, and in the vast jeweled vault of the night sky! A God who enrobed in filmy veils of cloud, there on the rim of the visible world where our Great-grandfather Sun kindles his evening camp-fire; who rides upon the rigorous wind of the north, or breathes forth spirit upon fragrant southern airs, whose war canoe is launched upon majestic rivers and inland seas — such a God needs no lesser cathedral.
THE POWER OF SILENCE
We first Americans mingle with our pride an exceptional humility. Spiritual arrogance is foreign to our nature and teaching. We never claimed that the power of articulate speech is proof of superiority over "dumb creation"; on the other hand, it is to us a perilous gift... We believe profoundly in silence — the sign of a perfect equilibrium. Silence is the absolute poise or balance of body, mind, and spirit. Those who can preserve their selfhood ever calm and unshaken by the storms of existence — not a leaf, as it were, astir on the tree; not a ripple upon the shining pool — those, in the mind of the person of nature, possess the ideal attitude and conduct of life… If you ask us, "What is silence?" we will answer, "It is the Great Mystery. The holy silence is God’s voice." …If you ask, "What are the fruits of silence?" we will answer, "They are self-control, true courage or endurance, patience, dignity, and reverence. Silence is the cornerstone of character."
THE PRESENCE OF SPIRIT
Naturally magnanimous and open-minded, we have always preferred to believe that the Spirit of God is not breathed into humans alone, but that the whole created universe shares in the immortal perfection of its Maker… The elements and majestic forces of nature — lighting, wind, water, fire and frost — are regarded with awe as spiritual powers, but always secondary and intermediate in character. We believe that the spirit pervades all creation and that every creature possess a soul in some degree, though not necessarily a soul of conscious itself. The tree, the waterfall, the grizzly bear, each is an embodied Force, and as such an object of reverence.
POVERTY AND SIMPLICITY
We original Americans have generally been despised by our white conquerors of our poverty and simplicity. They forget, perhaps, that our religion forbade the accumulation of wealth and the enjoyment of luxury. To us, as to other spiritually-minded people in every age and race, the love of possessions is a snare, and the burdens of a complex society a source of needless peril and temptation… It is simple truth that we Indians did not, so long as our native philosophy held sway over our minds, either envy or desire to imitate the splendid achievements of the white race. In our own thought we rose superior to them! We scorned them, even as a lofty spirit absorbed in its own task rejects the soft beds, the luxurious food, the pleasure-worshipping dalliance of a rich neighbor. It was clear to us that virtue and happiness are independent of these things, if not incompatible with them… Furthermore, it was the rule of our life to share the fruits of our skill and success with our less fortunate brothers and sisters. Thus we kept our spirits free from the clog of pride, avarice, or envy, and carried out, as we believed, the divine decree — a matter of profound importance to us.
NATURE AND SOLITUDE
As children of nature, we have always looked upon the concentration of population as the prolific mother of all evils, moral no less than physical. It was not, then, wholly from ignorance or improvidence that we failed to establish permanent towns and to develop a material civilization. We have always believed that food is good, while surfeit kills; that love is good, but lust destroys; and not less dreaded than the pestilence following upon crowded and unsanitary dwellings is the loss of spiritual power inseparable from too close contact with one’s fellow men.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRAYER
Prayer — the daily recognition of the Unseen and the Eternal — is our one inevitable duty… We Indian people have traditionally divided mind into two parts — the spiritual mind and the physical mind. The first — the spiritual mind — is concerned only with the essence of things, and it is this we seek to strengthen by spiritual prayer, during which the body is subdued by fasting and hardship. In this type of prayer there is no beseeching of favor or help… The second, or physical mind, is lower. It is concerned with all personal or selfish matters, like success in hunting or warfare, relief from sickness, or the sparing of a beloved life. All ceremonies, charms, or other incantations designed to secure a benefit or to avert a danger are recognized as emanating from the physical self.… The rites of this physical worship are wholly symbolic; we may have sundances and other ceremonies, but the Indian no more worships the sun than the Christian worships the cross. In our view, the Sun and Earth are the parents of all organic life. And, it must be admitted, in this our thinking is scientific truth as well as poetic metaphor…. our whole life is prayer because every act of our life is, in a very real sense, a religious act. Our daily devotions are more important to us than food…. We recognize the spirit in all creation, and believe that we draw spiritual power from it…. Thus we see no need for the setting apart one day in seven as a holy day, since to us all days belong to God.
THE APPRECIATION OF BEAUTY
In the appreciation of beauty, which is closely akin to religious feeling, the American Indian stands alone. In accord with our nature and beliefs, we do not pretend to imitate the inimitable, or to reproduce exactly the work of the Great Artist. That which is beautiful must not be trafficked with, but must only be revered and adored.
I have seen in our midsummer celebrations cool arbors built of fresh-cut branches for council and dance halls, while those who attended decked themselves with leafy boughs, carrying shields and fans of the same, and even making wreaths for their horses’ necks. But, strange to say, they seldom make free use of flowers. I once asked the reason for this.
"Why," said one, "the flowers are for our souls to enjoy; not for our bodies to wear. Leave them alone.
THE WAYS OF THE PEOPLE
From "The Wisdom of the Native Americans" by Kent Nerburn (New World Library, 1999).
THE TEACHING OF CHILDREN
… It is commonly supposed that there was no systematic means of education for Indian children. Nothing could be further from the truth. All the customs of our people were held to be divinely instituted, and customs involving the training of children were scrupulously adhered to and transmitted from one generation to another… It is true that we had no schoolhouses, no books, no regular school hours. Our children were trained in the natural way — they kept in close contact with the natural world. In this way, they found themselves and became conscious of their relationship to all of life…
We taught our children by both example and instruction, but with the emphasis on example, because all learning is a dead language to one who gets it secondhand. Our physical training was thorough and intelligent, while as to the moral and spiritual side of our teaching. I am not afraid to compare it with that of any race...
We conceived the art of teaching as, first and foremost, the development of personality; and we considered the fundamentals of education to be love of the Great Mystery, love of nature, and love of people and country...
THE ROLE OF THE ELDERS
… The distinctive work of the grandparents is that of acquainting the children with the traditions and beliefs of the nation. The grandparents are old and wise. They have lived and achieved. They are dedicated to the service of the young, as their teachers and advisers, and the young in turn regard them with love and reverence. In them the Indian recognizes the natural and truest teachers of the child…
A LIFE OF SERVICE
… The public position of the Indian has always been entirely dependent upon our private virtue. We are never permitted to forget that we do not live to ourselves alone, but to our tribe and clan. Every child, from the first days of learning, is a public servant in training… The young boy was encouraged to enlist early in the public service, and to develop a wholesome ambition for the honors of a leader and feast maker, which could never be his unless he proved truthful and generous, a well as brave, and ever mindful of his personal chastity and honor…
THE BEAUTY OF GENEROSITY
… It has always been our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome… Therefore we must early learn the beauty of generosity. As children we are taught to give what we prize most, that we may taste the happiness of giving; at an early age we are made the family giver of alms… Pubic giving is a part of every important ceremony. It properly belongs to the celebration of birth, marriage, and death, and is observed whenever it is desired to do special honor to any person or event… Upon such occasion it is common to literally give away all that one has to relatives, to guests of another tribe or clan, but above all to the poor and the aged, from whom we can hope for no return…
ORDER, ETIQUETTE, AND DECORUM
… No one who is at all acquainted with us in our homes can deny that we Indians are a polite people… a low soft voice has always been considered an excellent thing… Even the warrior who inspired the greatest terror in the hearts of his enemies was, as a rule, a man of the most exemplary gentleness... In the presence of a guest, promiscuous laughing or a careless attitude are not permitted. Rigid decorum and respectful silence are observed... The serving of food is always orderly and polite. Guests are offered food at whatever hour of the day they may appear...
THE MORAL STRENGTH OF WOMAN
… In the woman is vested the standard of morals of our people. She is the silent but telling power behind all of life’s activities… She rules undisputed in her own domain. The children belong to her clan… she holds all the family property, and the honor of the house… Possessed of true feminine dignity and modesty, she is expected to be the equal of her mate in physical endurance and skill, and to share equally in the arduous duties of daily life. But she is expected to be superior in spiritual insight…. There is nothing artificial about her person, and very little insincerity in her character… her profoundly religious attitude gives her a strength and poise than cannot be overcome by ordinary misfortune.
SACREDNESS OF HONOR
… A sense of honor pervades all aspects of Indian life. Orphans and the aged are cared for… He sets no price upon either his property or his labor. His generosity is limited only by his strength. He considers it as an honor to be selected for a difficult or dangerous service, and would think it a shame to ask for any other reward… He is always ready to undertake the impossible, or to impoverish himself for the sake of a friend… Where the other person is regarded more than the self, duty is sweeter and more inspiring, patriotism more sacred, and friendship is a pure and eternal bond.
RESPECT FOR JUSTICE
… Before there were any cities on this continent… Indian people had councils which gave their decisions in accordance with the highest ideal of human justice… the [Indian] made no attempt to escape or evade justice… and hence did not hesitate to give himself up…
… Among our people, friendship is held to be the severest test of character… to have a friend, and to be true under any and all trials, is the truest mark of a man!… the highest type of friendship is the relation of "brother-friend"… It is the essence of comradeship and fraternal love without thought of pleasure or gain, but rather moral support and inspiration.
BRAVERY AND COURAGE
… As to our personal bravery and courage, no race can outdo us… Even our worst enemies, those who accuse us of treachery, blood-thirstiness, cruelty, and lust have not denied our courage… Our conception of bravery makes of it a high moral virtue… his courage rises to the heights of chivalry, patriotism, and real heroism.
THE MEANING OF DEATH
… Our attitude toward death… is entirely consistent with our character and philosophy… We never doubt the immortal nature of the human soul or spirit, but neither do we care to speculate upon its probable state or condition in a future life… we were content to believe that the spirit which the Great Mystery breathed into us returns to the Creator who gave it and, and that after it is freed from the body it is everywhere and pervades all nature. Thus, death holds no terrors for us… The idea of a "happy hunting ground" is… invented by the white man…
"We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers.
The rocky crests, the juices of the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and human beings all belong to the same family... The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors...
The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. . . The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath--the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. . The air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.
The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh... What are human beings without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, human beings would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts soon happens to all human beings. All things are connected. This we know.
The earth does not belong to human beings; human beings belong to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth. We do not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves."
-(Attributed to) Chief Seattle, Suqwamish and Duwamish
WORDS OF OUR GRANDFATHERS
Iwas born in Nature’s wide domain! The trees were all that sheltered my infant limbs, the blue heavens all that covered me. I am one of Nature’s children. I have always admired her. She shall be my glory: her features, her robes, and the wreath about her brow, the seasons, her stately oaks, and the evergreen — her hair, ringlets over the earth — all contribute to my enduring love of her. George Copway (Kahgegagahbowh), Ojibwe
The old Indian stills sits upon the earth instead of propping himself up and away from its life giving forces. For him, to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply and to feel more keenly; he can see more clearly into the mysteries of life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him. - Chief Luther Standing Bear, Teton Sioux
Great Spirit – I want no blood upon my land to stain the grass. I want it all clear and pure, and I wish it so, that all who go through among my people may find it peaceful when they come, and leave peacefully when they go. - Ten Bears, Yamparika Comanche
You ask me to plow the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s bosom? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stones! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men, how dare I cut my mother’s hair? I want my people to stay with me here. Their spirits will come to their bodies again. We must wait here in the homes of our fathers and be ready to meet them in the bosom of our mother. Wovoka, Paiute
You must speak straight so that your words may go as sunlight into our hearts. Cochise ("Like Ironweed") Chericahau Chief
Silence was meaningful with the Lakota, and his granting a space of silence before talking was done in the practice of true politeness and regardful of the rule that "thought comes before speech."
And in the midst of sorrow, sickness, death, or misfortune of any kind, and in the presence of the notable and great, silence was the mark of respect. More powerful than words was silence with the Lakota.
His strict observance of this tenet of good behavior was the reason, no doubt, for his being given the false characterization by the white man of being a stoic. He has been judged to be dumb, stupid, indifferent, and unfeeling.
As a matter of truth, he was the most sympathetic of men, but his emotions of depth and sincerity were tempered with control. Silence meant to the Lakota what it meant to Disraeli when he said, "Silence is the mother of truth," for the silent man was ever to be trusted, while the man every ready with speech was never taken seriously. Chief Luther Standing Bear, Teton Sioux
How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right. Black Hawk, Sauk
A treaty, in the minds of our people, is an eternal word. Events often make it seem expedient to depart from the pledged word, but we are conscious that the first departure creates logic for the second departure, until there is nothing left of the word. - Declaration of Indian Purpose, American Indian Chicago Conference
Why should you take by force from us that which you can obtain by love? Why should you destroy us who have provided you with food? What can you get by war?
It is better to eat good meat, be well, and sleep quietly with my woman and children; to laugh and be merry with the English, and be their friend; to have cooper hatchets and whatever else I want. King Wahunsonacook, Powhatan
No person among us desires any other reward for performing a brave and worthy action, but the consciousness of having served his nation. - Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), Mowhawk
We have men among us, like the whites, who pretend to know the right path, but will not consent to show it without pay! I have no faith in their paths, but believe that every man must make his own path! - Black Hawk, Sauk
We do not want churches because they will teach us to quarrel about God, as the Catholics and Protestants do. We do not want to learn that. We may quarrel with men sometimes about things on this earth. But we never quarrel about God. We do not want to learn that. - Chief Joseph, Nez Perce
No tribe has the right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers… Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? - Tecumseh, Shawnee
Some of our chiefs make the claim that the land belongs to us. It is not what the Great Spirit told me. He told me that the land belong to Him, that no people owns the land; that I was not to forget to tell this to the white people when I met them in council. - Kanekuk, Kickapoo prophet
Suppose a white man should come to me and say, "Joseph, I like your horses. I want to buy them." I say to him, "No, my horses suit me; I will not sell them." Then he goes to my neighbor and says to him, "Joseph has some good horses. I want to buy them, but he refuses to sell." My neighbors answers, "Pay me the money and I will sell you Joseph’s horses." The white man returns to me and says, "Joseph, I have bought your horses and you must let me have them." If we sold our lands to the government, this is the way they bought them. - Chief Joseph, Nez Perce
We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of the land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy — and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s graves, and his children’s birthright is forgotten. - Chief Seattle, Suqwamish and Duwamish
Tell your people that since the Great Father promised that we should never be removed we have been moved five times. I think you had better put the Indians on wheels so you can run them about wherever you wish. - Anonymous Chief (1876)
Civilization has been thrust upon me… and it has not added one whit to my love for truth, honesty, and generosity… - Chief Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Sioux
The more I consider the condition of the white men, the more fixed becomes my opinion that, instead of gaining, they have lost much by subjecting themselves to what they call the laws and regulations of civilized societies. - Tomochichi, Creek Chief
NATIVE AMERICAN WISDOM
By Kent Nerburn (Editor), with Louise Menglekock
This book isolates the essence of Native American wisdom: the essential harmony of natural and human worlds--in short, accessible bits of philosophy. A major percentage of the profits will be donated to organizations supporting Native American causes. The compilers of these fascinating quotations have placed side by side both familiar and obscure pieces of Native American philosophical and religious thought. Arranged by topic, the quotations give the general reader or the serious student a layered depth of insight into Native American ethos. Growing up, learning, everyday living, faith, morals, ecology, as well as Western civilization receive comment from historical and contemporary Native American political and spiritual leaders. Readers will be challenged intellectually and touched emotionally by these succinct remarks. Teachers will find the arrangement of the book very convenient for reference and starting discussions. Serious students will find the historical and biographical notes most helpful. New World Library, September 1991, Hard Cover, 109pp. $21.95
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