Lessons from Indigenous People

October 20, 2017

Elders and skilled practitioners of the ways and lore of indigenous populations can teach us a great deal. As described in his book Neither Wolf nor Dog*, Kent Nerburn was summoned to Dakota to spend time with a Native American, Dan, and write an account of their meetings and travels together.

These thoughts, paraphrased from that account, seem to reflect the wisdom of a spiritually mature human being. This Lakota Indian speaks of universal wisdom and truth, setting an example for us all.

Sacred: “When something is sacred, it does not have a price. If you can buy it, it isn’t sacred. And once you start to sell it, whether your reasons are good or not, you are taking what is sacred and making it ordinary.” What, if anything, do you hold sacred?

Promises: “When we make a promise, it’s a promise to the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka. Nothing is going to change that promise. We made all these promises with the white man, and we thought the white man was making promises to us. But he wasn’t. He was making deals…When I make a promise, I see my grandfathers looking over my shoulder. If I break my word, I disgrace them. How could I do that?” If you make a promise, do you always keep it?

Land: “For many people, when they talk about ‘land,’ what they really mean is ‘property.’ They think of it as something to own, and are not usually interested in sharing it with others. For us, it wasn’t land like we owned it. It was the land where we hunted or where our ancestors were buried. It was the land the Creator had given us. It was the land where our sacred stories took place. It has sacred places on it.

Our ceremonies were here. We knew the animals. They knew us. We watched the seasons pass on this land. It was alive, like our grandparents. It gave us life for our bodies and life for our spirits. We were part of it…We called her our mother. If she was angry with us, she would give us no food. If we didn’t share with others, she might send harsh winters or plagues of insects. We had to do good things for her and live the way she thought was right. She was the mother to everything that lived upon her, so everything was our brother and sister.

The bears, the trees, the plants, the buffalo…They were all our brothers and sisters. If we didn’t treat them right, our mother would be angry. If we treated them with respect and honour, she would be proud.” What is your tradition, and what is your relationship to the land?

Freedom: “Our old people noticed first that the white man lives in a world of cages…Everything was a cage. You turned land into cages…Little squares…Then you made government to protect these cages, making laws about what you couldn’t do. The only freedom you had was inside your own cage.

Then you wondered why you weren’t happy and didn’t feel free…We Indians never thought that way. Everyone was free. We didn’t make cages of laws or land. We believed in honour…Our guide was inside, not outside…It was more important for us to know what was right than to know what was wrong.” When facing important choices and decisions, where do you look for guidance?

Challenge: “Your people must learn to give up their arrogance. They are not the only ones placed on this earth. Theirs is not the only way. People have worshipped the Creator and loved their families in many ways and in all places. Your people must learn to honour this… It is your gift to have material power. Y

ou have much strength not given to other people. Can you share it, or can you use it only to get more? That is your challenge—to find the way to share your gift, because it is a strong and dangerous one.” How do you, or the politicians who speak for you, face a challenge like this?

Do what you must do: “There are spirits to help you. There are spirits to help us all. If only your people would learn to listen to them, to go into the sunlight and give thanks for the day, they would find them…The earth is deep, and its knowledge is great. Listen to the stones, and listen to the wind. Do what you must do to find the voices that will speak to you. They are there. They are calling. Do what you must do to find them, and share their words.” When did you last spend a little time in silent contemplation, thinking deeply through the big issues facing people today?

Read More