Learning from Native Americans
From my earliest childhood, I admired the way of life of American Natives. My father was a fanatical hunter and camper so we moved to Alaska in 1961 when I was 6 years old. We went hunting and camping as often as we could. My childhood dream was to learn how to live off the land so I read every book I could find on the Mountain Men, Pioneers, and Native Americans. As a teenager I read the book “One Man’s Wilderness” by Richard Proenneke and I was enthralled by it. It’s the story of how the author was dropped off by a float plane in bush Alaska. He lived there alone for a full year by the sweat off his own brow. He built a log cabin, shot moose and caribou, put in firewood for the wood-stove and was fully self-sufficient. I longed to have an adventure like that. As a young man I backpacked all over Alaska, taking many week-end and multi-day cross-country trips. In my early twenties a group of us flew into Sheenjik River Valley in the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle (in what is now ANWR). We spent 6 weeks there, floating down the river and taking long backpacking trips, hunting and foraging for much of our food. Those were the happiest times of my life.
But like so often happens, I “grew-up” and got married, got a job, had kids and struggled to make ends meet. There just wasn’t enough time or money for camping, so it gradually dropped out of my life. Life kept me so busy that I didn’t consciously miss it, but at the deeper levels of my soul, I was screaming out for contact with nature. My life became an endurance contest; I was just surviving, getting by doing the things society told me to do. When I was 40, I got a divorce and moved into a box van which gave me much more contact with nature, but not enough. I had been religious most of my life but it had failed me, so I found myself going through a spiritual crisis. I started to look to world religions for answers to living. I studied all the major religions and took a little bit from each. The principles of Zen Buddhism were very helpful to me, but the spiritual system that spoke to me the clearest was that of the Lakota people of North America. What appealed to me the most was that it wasn’t a religion with a holy book, rules, and dogma; it was a way of life that couldn’t be separated from the every-day lives of the people. Most of all it is a way of life that speaks to me in a very deep, intuitive, and profound way as simply being “right”. In it humans lived in harmony with nature, God, and each other.
Today there is a huge resurgence of interest in the ways of Native Americans. In fact many people have suddenly found a Native American in their background so they claim to be partly Indian. It’s amazing how many of them were Cherokee! Often they adopt Native American customs and rituals:
- Wearing pony-tails and turquoise jewelry
- Going to Pow-Wows
- Smoking a peace pipe
- Vision Quests
- Sweat Lodges
It’s a very good thing to admire and want to learn from Native Americans, but it’s all too easy to cross a line and let that become disrespectful and offensive to them. A wonderful book that describes Native American ways and how we can properly relate to them is “Neither Wolf Nor Dog, On Forgotten Roads With An Indian Elder” by Kent Newborn. (See review at end of this page.) The book is an account of how the author went to live near Dan, an Indian elder, to collect his ideas and turn them into this book. He kept a tape recorder with him and recorded their conversations.
“For white people there are only two types of Indians. Drunken bums and noble Indians. In the old days we used to be savages, but that’s gone. Now it’s drunks and noble Indians. I like the white men better who think we are all drunks. At least they are looking at us as people. They’re saying what they see, not what they want to see. Then when they meet one of us who’s not a drunk, they have to deal with us.” “Neither Wolf Nor Dog, On Forgotten Roads With An Indian Elder page 185
It’s tempting to think that by admiring Native American’s ways and adopting some of their lifestyle we are flattering them. But anytime we stop seeing an individual with all of his/her good qualities and faults, we have entered the realm of stereotyping and that is always wrong because it de-humanizes them. They stop being individual people and become just an idea of what we want them to be.
“These Indians I am talking about go around selling Indian culture to white people…. I’m not talking about Indians who are trying to share our culture. I am talking about Indians who are selling the sacred truths of our ancestors. It is alright to show dances or tell legends that can help people. I think white people need to hear these things to understand us better. What I think is wrong is when an Indian sells his birthright as an Indian by taking money to make other people feel like Indians….”We know that white people have an endless hunger. They want to consume everything and make it part of them. Even if they don’t own it physically, they want to own it spiritually…. The white people want to own us spiritually. You want to swallow us so you can say you are us. This is something new. Before you wanted to make us you. But now you are unhappy with who you are, so you want to make you into us. You want our ceremonies and our ways so you can say you are spiritual. You are trying to become white Indians”. Ibid p 125-126
I feel like he is speaking directly to me. My own life had become so unhappy and so spiritually bankrupt that I searched everywhere to find something to fill the void. The ways of the Lakota people are by far the best I found in my long search. But I can’t find spiritual healing for myself, by taking it from another people. I am not an Indian, and I must not pretend that I am. I have been tremendously impacted by the teachings of Taoism and Zen Buddhism, but I didn’t have surgery to have the slant of my eyes altered, nor do I wear the robes of a Buddhist monk, because I’m not one. But on a very regular basis I try to meditate in my own way, and remember and live by the teachings of the Tao and Zen. Some of their teachings didn’t resonate with me, so I didn’t adopt those. I am not a Taoist or a Buddhist, but I am a great admirer of theirs and try to follow many of their teachings. In the same way I am not an Indian, but I believe they live the way we evolved to live and the way the Creator intended us to live. So I have tried to adopt many of their ways into my daily life.
“I tell you Nerburn, being an Indian isn’t easy. For a lot of years America just wanted to destroy us. Now all of a sudden we’re the only group people are trying to get into….I think it’s because the white people know we had something that was real, that we lived the way the Creator meant people to live on this land. They want that. They know that the white people are messing up. If they say they are part Indian, it’s like being part of what we have.” Ibid p 60-61
I know to the very core of my being that the modern, Western way of life is wrong. If I ever question if that is true, all I have to do is turn on the TV or buy a newspaper and there is all the proof I need that the white culture is in full decay. We are busy destroying ourselves, the Sacred Mother Earth, and each other in new and creative ways. Many of us can see the problem and want to make changes but we aren’t willing to let go of the comforts and technology we have become dependent on. So we celebrate Earth day, and try to live as green as we can. When we can fit it into our lives we spend time in nature or go camping. But, we are just so busy….. Maybe we read books on Native American ways and go to Pow Wows and dance. We do what we can. But is that enough? Are we living two lives and not doing either of them well?
“See, Nerburn, I want you to understand this. White people don’t know what they want. They want those big houses and all kinds of things, then they want to be close to the earth, too. They get cabins, they go hunting, they go camping, they say it makes them close to the earth. But they really think it’s okay only because they have all those other things. We Indians, we live in cabins and hunt, but it’s not okay because we don’t turn around and go back to big houses and big jobs. We don’t need two lives like white people.” ibid p. 184
For me, no minor changes were going to be enough, I had to make as much of a total break with Western Civilization as I possibly could. I sold my big house, got rid of my stuff, and moved into a van. I still lived in a city, but I was much closer to nature than I was before. After I retired, and my kids had grown up and left home, I left the city behind and now live full-time on public land. What a difference that made!! My mind slowed down and I found peace. A sense of joy started to take over my life. Stress and loneliness ebbed away and disappeared. I was home!
Dan goes on to tell us exactly how to live like an Indian:
“You want to know how to be like Indians? Live close to the earth. Get rid of some of your things. Help each other. Talk to the Creator. Be quiet more. Listen to the earth instead of building things on it all the time. Don’t blame other people for your troubles and don’t try to make people into something they’re not.” Ibid p 185
Dan gave us a checklist to see if we are living like an Indian:
- Live close to the earth.
- Get rid of some of your things.
- Help each other.
- Talk to the Creator.
- Be quiet more.
- Listen to the earth instead of building things on it all the time.
- Don’t blame other people for your troubles, and,
- Don’t try to make people into something they’re not.
I can’t define these thing for you. Each of us must incorporate them into our lives as we each see fit, there is no right or wrong way. For me, it means living in a 6×10 cargo trailer with as few things as I can get by with. It means living on public land (mountains in the summer, desert in the winter) and going for long walks twice a day every day. It means setting up these websites and their forum and tying to inform people of the options they have for an alternative, earth-based lifestyle. It means going for days on end alone in nature, just me, my dog, and the earth. It means holding a pipe ceremony every morning to greet the sun and talk to my creator. It means following an animal spirit guide for direction in my life.
Above all, it is a way of life that honors the Earth as the Sacred Source of everything in our lives.
“This is what you have to understand. To us the land was alive. It talked to us. 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 or 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 honor, she would be proud.” ibid p. 50
Buying drums, pipes, jewelry, and performing rituals doesn’t mean you live like an Indian. How you treat the sacred Mother Earth determines if you are living like an Indian. Those things can be an excellent outward sign of an inward way of life, but it is your attitude, and above all else, your actions toward the Earth that tell the true story. It is my deepest prayer that this website can help you follow the path of the true human beings, those who honor the Earth and all our relatives.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog, On Forgotten Roads With An Indian Elder” by Kent Nerburn
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Of all the books I’ve read on Native American ways, this is by far the most honest and raw. Their ways are described extremely well without flinching from the tremendous harm done to them by the dominate white culture. It is not an easy book to read. Many times you can feel the pain inflicted on the First People of North America. It doesn’t offer easy solutions, but is an incredible step toward healing the rift by being totally honest and open.