Voices in the Stones: Life Lessons from the Native Way

Voices in the Stones: Life Lessons from the Native Way

by Kent Nerburn


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“Do not begrudge the white man his presence on this land. Though he doesn’t know it yet, he has come here to learn from us.”
— A Shoshone elder

The genius of the Native Americans has always been their profound spirituality and their deep understanding of the land and its ways.

For three decades, author Kent Nerburn has lived and worked among the Native American people. Voices in the Stones is a unique collection of his encounters, experiences, and reflections during that time.

He takes us inside a traditional Native feast to show us how the children are taught to respect the elders. He brings us to an isolated prairie rock outcropping where a young Native man and his father show us how the power of ceremony connects the present with the ancient voices of the past. At a dusty roadside café he introduces us to an elder who remembers the time when his ancestors could talk to animals.

In these and other deeply touching stories, Nerburn reveals the spiritual awareness that animates all of Native American life, and shows us how we have much to learn from one another if only we have the heart to listen.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608683901
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 12/13/2016
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 193,249
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

A two-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award, Kent Nerburn is the author of thirteen books on spirituality and Native themes, including Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce (featured on the History Channel), Neither Wolf Nor Dog, and The Wisdom of the Native Americans. He lives in Portland, OR.

Read an Excerpt


The Indian and the white man sense things differently because the white man has put distance between himself and nature; and assuming a lofty place in the scheme of order of things he has lost for him both reverence and understandingLuther Standing Bear

I am standing on a lonely, peaceful prairie in the southwestern corner of Minnesota, not far from the South Dakota border. The two men standing beside me —Martin and his father, Raymond — are Tlingit men from the small coastal village of Yakutat in Southeastern Alaska.

Raymond is a quiet man in his late 60’s, carrying the burdens of a long life spent fighting for the rights of his people against cruise lines, oil tankers, and insults against the environment. He also carries the scars of difficult times in Viet Nam and the weight of childhood experiences in the Native boarding schools. He is a survivor with a deep gentleness in his heart.

Martin, his son, is a young man just coming into his own, carrying burdens of a different sort. He is trying to live in two worlds – the traditional Native world and the world of modern American culture. It is not an easy challenge, for the two do not easily fit together. But when someone masters the challenge, it is a beauty to behold, because their life embraces the richness and promise of the American experience in a way that those of us from a single cultural experience can only dream of understanding.

It is a warm September day. The three of us are walking through the knee high grasses toward a low rock outcropping that rises like the back of a humpback whale from the center of this windswept prairie. Low buffalo grasses and prairie flowers and miles of gently undulating earth stretch in all directions to the horizon. One can easily imagine the creak of wooden wheels and billowing tops of covered wagons moving across this landscape beneath azure blue skies alive with butterflies and tumbling cottonball clouds. It is a place of profound and infinite peace.

We have come there at Raymond’s request. He and Martin are visiting me in Minnesota. I had spoken to them of the petroglyphs – small scratchings of symbols and forms that stretch for acres over these low, barely visible humps of rock that rise from this quiet prairie landscape. No one knows quite why they are here or by whom they were made. Anthropologists and historians theorize, but can do little more than guess at the meanings or the purpose of these thousands of markings. A snake form here, a stick figure there, the outline of a hand, the back of a turtle. How many generations, even aeons, did humans stop here, and for what purpose, to make these scratchings into unyielding stone? They are older than Stonehenge, older than the pyramids.

I stand transfixed, somewhere between wonder and reverie, letting my thoughts flow across the undulating prairies, while Martin and Raymond walk together – father and son -- among the glyphs and markings, lost in their own thoughts.

Soon I see Raymond get down on his knees and bend over, as if perhaps kissing the rock. Then Martin does the same. I look more closely. They are not kissing the rock, they are bringing out an abalone shell and a pouch of sage, to make their own small offering to the spirits of the people who had made these markings, and perhaps to the very stones themselves. They are not trying to understand, they are honoring the presence and the mystery.

They invite me to join them. Honored by the invitation, I kneel beside them as Martin, at his father’s instruction, lights the sage and begins an invocation to the forces that float like the butterflies across this vast and peaceful land.

I follow their lead, opening my heart in prayerful awareness to the spirits that surrounded us. It is not my world -- I am too far separated by the cultural overlays of my Euro-American upbringing and heritage. But by the gift of their invitation, I am allowed to enter into this world that stretches, in unbroken tradition, from the hands that had marked these stones to the hands that are cupping the smoke and shaping the sage on the hard rock before us.

When we are finished, we all remain silent in the echoing presence of this ancient ritual. One by one, we stand up and wander off in separate directions, across the great rock, lost in our own private thoughts. I see Martin and Raymond at a distance, silhouetted against the afternoon sky.

Below my feet I feel the presence of the great rock, now alive with a new meaning. Among the markings, barely visible, I see the outline of an ancient hand, scratched there tens of thousands of years ago by an unknown. Without thinking, I get down and place my hand against the outline. It fits perfectly.

My hand is warm. The hand in the stone is cold. But in the touch, something is passed, and I am humbled beyond understanding.

Table of Contents


Prologue The Unseen Journey,
I. The Native Way of Living,
Welcome Home All People Must Find Their Own Spiritual Path,
The Feast Honor the Young and the Old, for They Are Closest to the Creator,
Stones for the Sweat All People Should Be Made to Feel Needed,
The Elder's Smile Keep the Sacred Always on Your Lips, for What Is on the Lips Will Make Its Way to the Heart,
II. The Native Way of Believing,
The Old Man in the Café Spirit Is Present in All of Creation,
Stopping the Blood We Are a Part of Nature, Not Apart from Her,
III. The Native Way of Dying,
Grief's Embrace Family Is All Those We Hold in Our Heart,
The Legacy of the Father Our Past Is a Responsibility, Not a Burden,
Donna's Gift Giving Is the Greatest Human Act,
IV. The Native Way of Knowing,
The Hip Bone We Are Children of the Earth; We Walk in the Footsteps of Those Who Came Before,
Voices in the Stones Everything We Turn Toward the Creator Is a Prayer,
Wind at the Bear's Paw Nature Is a Voice to Be Heard, Not a Force to Be Controlled,
Epilogue The Shadow and the Vision,
Author's Note,
About the Author,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Kent Nerburn speaks reverently of the bridge between our Judeo-Christian tradition and the spiritual gifts of the Native Americans. There is much healing to be had in our lives and for the land by crossing this bridge.”
— Richard Rohr, bestselling author of Falling Upwards and The Divine Dance

“Kent Nerburn reminds us that in the timeless Native American ways of seeing and being, the truth of life is not found in knowledge but in something closer to prayer. Even today, amidst coffee shops, graveyards, old cars, and cafeterias, the wisdom keepers Nerburn follows in his sensitively told narratives still follow the voices of stones, streams, and dreams, listening to the wind with open ears and open hearts, not knowing where it will lead, or what they will learn.”
— Evan Pritchard, director of the Center for Algonquin Culture and author of No Word for Time and Bird Medicine

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