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The Wisdom of the Native Americans
Includes the Soul of an Indian and Other Writings by Ohiyesa, and the Great Speeches of Red Jacket, Chief Joseph, and Chief Seattle
By Kent Nerburn
New World LibraryCopyright © 1999 Kent Nerburn
All rights reserved.
THE WAYS OF THE LAND
"All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth."
— Chief Seattle
Suqwamish and Duwamish
I was 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.
And wherever I see her, emotions of pleasure roll in my breast, and swell and burst like waves on the shores of the ocean, in prayer and praise to Him who has placed me in her hand. It is thought great to be born in palaces, surrounded with wealth — but to be born in Nature's wide domain is greater still!
I would much more glory in this birthplace, with the broad canopy of heaven above me, and the giant arms of the forest trees for my shelter, than to be born in palaces of marble, studded with pillars of gold! Nature will be Nature still, while palaces shall decay and fall in ruins.
Yes, Niagara will be Niagara a thousand years hence! The rainbow, a wreath over her brow, shall continue as long as the sun, and the flowing of the river — while the work of art, however carefully protected and preserved, shall fade and crumble into dust!
— George Copway (Kahgegagahbowh)
What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.
— Chief Seattle
Suqwamish and Duwamish
I love that land of winding waters more than all the rest of the world. A man who would not love his father's grave is worse than a wild animal.
— Chief Joseph
The character of the Indian's emotion left little room in his heart for antagonism toward his fellow creatures.... For the Lakota [one of the three branches of the Sioux nation], mountains, lakes, rivers, springs, valleys, and woods were all finished beauty. Winds, rain, snow, sunshine, day, night, and change of seasons were endlessly fascinating. Birds, insects, and animals filled the world with knowledge that defied the comprehension of man.
The Lakota was a true naturalist — a lover of Nature. He loved the earth and all things of the earth, and the attachment grew with age. The old people came literally to love the soil and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power.
It was good for the skin to touch the earth, and the old people liked to remove their moccasins and walk with bare feet on the sacred earth.
Their tipis were built upon the earth and their altars were made of earth. The birds that flew in the air came to rest upon the earth, and it was the final abiding place of all things that lived and grew. The soil was soothing, strengthening, cleansing, and healing.
This is why the old Indian still 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
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, but how dare I cut my mother's hair?
I want my people to stay with me here. All the dead men will come to life again. 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.
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
I love the land and the buffalo and will not part with it....
I want the children raised as I was ... I don't want to settle. I love to roam over the prairies. There I feel free and happy, but when we settle down we grow pale and die.
Kiowa ChiefCHAPTER 2
THE WAYS OF WORDS AND SILENCE
"It does not require many words to speak the truth."
— Chief Joseph
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 ever ready with speech was never taken seriously.
— Chief Luther Standing Bear
In my opinion, it was chiefly owing to their deep contemplation in their silent retreats in the days of youth that the old Indian orators acquired the habit of carefully arranging their thoughts.
They listened to the warbling of birds and noted the grandeur and the beauties of the forest. The majestic clouds — which appear like mountains of granite floating in the air — the golden tints of a summer evening sky, and all the changes of nature, possessed a mysterious significance.
All this combined to furnish ample matter for reflection to the contemplating youth.
— Francis Assikinack (Blackbird)
Because we are old, it may be thought that the memory of things may be lost with us, who have not, like you, the art of preserving it by committing all transactions to writing.
We nevertheless have methods of transmitting from father to son an account of all these things. You will find the remembrance of them is faithfully preserved, and our succeeding generations are made acquainted with what has passed, that it may not be forgot as long as the earth remains.
Treaty negotiations with Six Nations
You must speak straight so that your words may go as sunlight into our hearts.
— Cochise ("Like Ironweed")
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 a logic for the second departure, until there is nothing left of the word.
— Declaration of Indian Purpose (1961)
American Indian Chicago Conference
How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.
— Black Hawk
My father, you have made promises to me and to my children. If the promises had been made by a person of no standing, I should not be surprised to see his promises fail. But you, who are so great in riches and in power, I am astonished that I do not see your promises fulfilled!
I would have been better pleased if you had never made such promises, than that you should have made them and not performed them....
— Shinguaconse ("Little Pine")CHAPTER 3
THE WAYS OF LEARNING
"Knowledge was inherent in all things. The world was a library...."
— Chief Luther Standing Bear
Look at me — I am poor and naked, but I am the chief of the nation. We do not want riches, but we do want to train our children right. Riches would do us no good. We could not take them with us to the other world. We do not want riches. We want peace and love.
— Red Cloud
You who are so wise must know that different nations have different conceptions of things. You will not therefore take it amiss if our ideas of the white man's kind of education happens not to be the same as yours. We have had some experience of it.
Several of our young people were brought up in your colleges. They were instructed in all your sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger. They didn't know how to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy. They spoke our language imperfectly.
They were therefore unfit to be hunters, warriors, or counselors; they were good for nothing.
We are, however, not the less obliged for your kind offer, though we decline accepting it. To show our gratefulness, if the gentlemen of Virginia shall send us a dozen of their sons, we will take great care with their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them.
Treaty of Lancaster
Children were taught that true politeness was to be defined in actions rather than in words. They were never allowed to pass between the fire and an older person or a visitor, to speak while others were speaking, or to make fun of a crippled or disfigured person. If a child thoughtlessly tried to do so, a parent, in a quiet voice, immediately set him right.
Expressions such as "excuse me," "pardon me," and "so sorry," now so often lightly and unnecessarily used, are not in the Lakota language. If one chanced to injure or cause inconvenience to another, the word wanunhecun, or "mistake," was spoken. This was sufficient to indicate that no discourtesy was intended and that what had happened was accidental.
Our young people, raised under the old rules of courtesy, never indulged in the present habit of talking incessantly and all at the same time. To do so would have been not only impolite, but foolish; for poise, so much admired as a social grace, could not be accompanied by restlessness. Pauses were acknowledged gracefully and did not cause lack of ease or embarrassment.
In talking to children, the old Lakota would place a hand on the ground and explain: "We sit in the lap of our Mother. From her we, and all other living things, come. We shall soon pass, but the place where we now rest will last forever." So we, too, learned to sit or lie on the ground and become conscious of life about us in its multitude of forms.
Sometimes we boys would sit motionless and watch the swallows, the tiny ants, or perhaps some small animal at its work and ponder its industry and ingenuity; or we lay on our backs and looked long at the sky, and when the stars came out made shapes from the various groups.
Everything was possessed of personality, only differing from us in form. Knowledge was inherent in all things. The world was a library and its books were the stones, leaves, grass, brooks, and the birds and animals that shared, alike with us, the storms and blessings of earth. We learned to do what only the student of nature ever learns, and that was to feel beauty. We never railed at the storms, the furious winds, and the biting frosts and snows. To do so intensified human futility, so whatever came we adjusted ourselves, by more effort and energy if necessary, but without complaint.
Even the lightning did us no harm, for whenever it came too close, mothers and grandmothers in every tipi put cedar leaves on the coals and their magic kept danger away. Bright days and dark days were both expressions of the Great Mystery, and the Indian reveled in being close to the Great Holiness.
Observation was certain to have its rewards. Interest, wonder, admiration grew, and the fact was appreciated that life was more than mere human manifestation; it was expressed in a multitude of forms.
This appreciation enriched Lakota existence. Life was vivid and pulsing; nothing was casual and commonplace. The Indian lived — lived in every sense of the word — from his first to his last breath.
— Chief Luther Standing Bear
What boy would not be an Indian for a while when he thinks of the freest life in the world? We were close students of nature. We studied the habits of animals just as you study your books. We watched the men of our people and acted like them in our play, then learned to emulate them in our lives.
No people have better use of their five senses than the children of the wilderness. We could smell as well as hear and see. We could feel and taste as well as we could see and hear. Nowhere has the memory been more fully developed than in the wild life.
As a little child, it was instilled into me to be silent and reticent. This was one of the most important traits to form in the character of the Indian. As a hunter and warrior, it was considered absolutely necessary to him, and was thought to lay the foundations of patience and self-control. There are times when boisterous mirth is indulged in by our people, but the rule is gravity and decorum.
I wished to be a brave man as much as a white boy desires to be a great lawyer or even president of the United States.
I was made to respect the adults, especially the aged. I was not allowed to join in their discussions, or even to speak in their presence, unless requested to do so. Indian etiquette was very strict, and among the requirements was that of avoiding direct address. A term of relationship or some title of courtesy was commonly used instead of the personal name by those who wished to show respect.
We were taught generosity to the poor and reverence for the Great Mystery. Religion was the basis of all Indian training.
— Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa)
We send our little Indian boys and girls to school, and when they come back talking English, they come back swearing. There is no swear word in the Indian languages, and I haven't yet learned to swear.
— Gertrude S. Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa)
Yankton SiouxCHAPTER 4
THE WAYS OF LIVING
"Our fathers gave us many laws, which they had learned from their fathers. These laws were good."
— Chief Joseph
Praise, flattery, exaggerated manners, and fine, high-sounding words were no part of Lakota politeness. Excessive manners were put down as insincere, and the constant talker was considered rude and thoughtless. Conversation was never begun at once, or in a hurried manner.
No one was quick with a question, no matter how important, and no one was pressed for an answer. A pause giving time for thought was the truly courteous way of beginning and conducting a conversation.
— Chief Luther Standing Bear
This is a happy season of the year — having plenty of provisions, such as beans, squashes, and other produce, with our dried meat and fish. We continue to make feasts and visit each other, until our corn is ripe.
At least one of the lodges in the village makes a feast daily for the Great Spirit. I cannot explain this so that the white people will comprehend me, because we have no regular standard among us. Everyone makes his feast as he thinks best, to please the Great Spirit, who has the care of all beings created.
— Black Hawk
When you begin a great work you can't expect to finish it all at once; therefore do you and your brothers press on, and let nothing discourage you till you have entirely finished what you have begun.
Now, Brother, as for me, I assure you I will press on, and the contrary winds may blow strong in my face, yet I will go forward and never turn back, and continue to press forward until I have finished, and I would have you do the same....
Though you may hear birds singing on this side and that side, you must not take notice of that, but hear me when I speak to you, and take it to heart, for you may always depend that what I say shall be true.
My young men shall never farm. Men who work the soil cannot dream, and wisdom comes to us in dreams.
If you ever get married, my son, do not make an idol of your wife. The more you worship her, the more she will want to be worshipped.... My son, this also I will tell you: Women should never be watched too closely. If you try to watch them, you will merely show your jealousy and become so jealous of your wife that she will leave you and run away. You yourself will be to blame for this.
Excerpted from The Wisdom of the Native Americans by Kent Nerburn. Copyright © 1999 Kent Nerburn. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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