We recognize the philosophy of the original Americans as coming from the earth we walk on, from those who preceded us. As we read the wisdom of these peoples, it is possible to feel a reconnection with our land and ourselves. This beautiful collection of the best of Native American wisdom features the thoughts of Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Black Elk, Ohiyesa, and many others on Native American ways of living, learning, and dying. Taken from orations, recorded observations of life and social affairs, and other first-person testimonies, this book selects a wide range of Native American wisdom and distills it to its essence in short, digestible quotes that are meaningful and timeless -- perhaps even more timely now than when they were written.
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Native American Wisdom
By Kent Nerburn, Louise Mengelkoch
New World LibraryCopyright © 1991 Kent Nerburn and Louise Mengelkoch
All rights reserved.
The Ways of the Land
"All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The Ways of Words and Silence
"It does not require many words to speak the truth."
The first American mingled with his pride a singular humility. Spiritual arrogance was foreign to his nature and teaching. He never claimed that his power of articulate speech was proof of superiority over "dumb creation"; on the other hand, speech is to him a perilous gift.
He believes profoundly in silence — the sign of a perfect equilibrium. Silence is the absolute poise or balance of body, mind, and spirit.
The man who preserves his 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 surface of the shining pool — his, in the mind of the unlettered sage, is the ideal attitude and conduct of life....
Silence is the cornerstone of character.
Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa)
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
I believe much trouble and blood would be saved if we opened our hearts more. I will tell you in my way how the Indian sees things. The white man has more words to tell you how they look to him, but it does not require many words to speak the truth.
Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father's grave. They do not pay for all my horses and cattle.
Good words will not give me back my children. Good words will not make good the promise of your War Chief. Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves.
I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises. There has been too much talking by men who had no right to talk.
How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.
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.
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 counsellors; 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
It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome. Its appeal is to the material part, and if allowed its way, it will in time disturb one's spiritual balance. Therefore, children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving.
If a child is inclined to be grasping, or to cling to any of his or her little possessions, legends are related about the contempt and disgrace falling upon the ungenerous and mean person....
The Indians in their simplicity literally give away all that they have — to relatives, to guests of other tribes or clans, but above all to the poor and the aged, from whom they can hope for no return.
Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa)
The Indians were religious from the first moments of life. From the moment of the mother's recognition that she had conceived to the end of the child's second year of life, which was the ordinary duration of lactation, it was supposed by us that the mother's spiritual influence was supremely important.
Her attitude and secret meditations must be such as to instill into the receptive soul of the unborn child the love of the Great Mystery and a sense of connectedness with all creation. Silence and isolation are the rule of life for the expectant mother.
She wanders prayerful in the stillness of great woods, or on the bosom of the untrodden prairie, and to her poetic mind the imminent birth of her child prefigures the advent of a hero — a thought conceived in the virgin breast of primeval nature, and dreamed out in a hush that is broken only by the sighing of the pine tree or the thrilling orchestra of a distant waterfall.
And when the day of days in her life dawns — the day in which there is to be a new life, the miracle of whose making has been entrusted to her — she seeks no human aid. She has been trained and prepared in body and mind for this, her holiest duty, ever since she can remember.
Childbirth is best met alone, where no curious embarrass her, where all nature says to her spirit: "It's love! It's love! The fulfilling of life!" When a sacred voice comes to her out of the silence, and a pair of eyes open upon her in the wilderness, she knows with joy that she has borne well her part in the great song of creation!
Presently she returns to the camp, carrying the mysterious, the holy, the dearest bundle ! She feels the endearing warmth of it and hears its soft breathing. It is still a part of herself, since both are nourished by the same mouthful, and no look of a lover could be sweeter than its deep, trusting gaze.
She continues her spiritual teaching, at first silently — a mere pointing of the index finger to nature — then in whispered songs, bird-like, at morning and evening. To her and to the child the birds are real people, who live very close to the Great Mystery; the murmuring trees breathe its presence; the falling waters chant its praise.
If the child should chance to be fretful, the mother raises her hand. "Hush! Hush!" she cautions it tenderly, "The spirits may be disturbed!" She bids it be still and listen — listen to the silver voice of the aspen, or the clashing cymbals of the birch; and at night she points to the heavenly blazed trail through nature's galaxy of splendor to nature's God. Silence, love, reverence — this is the trinity of first lessons, and to these she later adds generosity, courage, and chastity.
Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa)
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.
Excerpted from Native American Wisdom by Kent Nerburn, Louise Mengelkoch. Copyright © 1991 Kent Nerburn and Louise Mengelkoch. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Ways of the Land,
Chapter 2 The Ways of Words and Silence,
Chapter 3 The Ways of Learning,
Chapter 4 The Ways of Living,
Chapter 5 The Ways of Leading Others,
Chapter 6 The Ways of the Heart,
Chapter 7 The Ways of Believing,
Chapter 8 The Betrayal of the Land,
Chapter 9 The Ways of Dying,
Chapter 10 The Passing of the Ways,
Chapter 11 The Ways of the White Man,
Chapter 12 The Ways of Civilization,
Chapter 13 Heed These Words,
About the Editors,
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