“The purpose of our simple teachings is to be the caretakers of Mother Earth. We are the environment and the environment is us. Western man has gone too far the other way. We deal with the trees and all of nature as if they’re all alive. When we go to the mountain, we go into the mountain. We become the mountain – never trying to overcome it, but always being a part of its energies.” (Johnson, 1998, p131)
These words, spoken by Cree Elder and medicine man Vernon Harper, reflect an innate sense of gratitude, respect, and even comradeship with regards to the entirety of creation central to the spiritual beliefs and practices of indigenous Americans. This sentiment is beautifully reflected in the Lakota expression mitakuye oyasin which, according to Janet McCloud, wise woman and Grandmother of the Tulalip tribe, means “…all my relations. When they say that, the way it was explained to me, it’s so beautiful. It’s so immense because it includes everyone who was ever born, or even unborn, in the universe, all the two-legged, the four-legged, birds, animals, rocks, and everyone who’s here today. The trees, plants, mountains, sun, moon, stars, and everyone who will ever be born! How immense can a statement be? All my relations. I marvel at the beauty of that word. It’s so powerful.” (Johnson, 1998 p61)
One sees as the impetus behind statements such as these an acknowledgement that not only is everything in the universe a gift from the Creator, but it is also alive, and more importantly, it is family. This is a world view where everything is done for the greater good of all; and no action is taken until its impact upon the next seven generations can be measured. The role of man is that of caretaker of Mother Earth and all her children. She feeds and nourishes him through her gifts of plants and animals, rain and sunshine, for which, and to which, he should be eternally grateful.
Also central in this world view is the acknowledgement that in the whole of creation, no living thing is less important than anything else. Morning Dove, Salish, sums this up succinctly when she says, “…everything on Earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission. This is the Indian theory of existence.” (Native American Wisdom, 1994, p31).
This sentiment clearly ecohes that of the words spoken by Black Elk, Lakota visionary, healer, and Holy Man. “…nothing can live well except in a manner suited to the way the Power of the World lives and moves to do its work.” (Niedhardt, 1993, p212) This manner of living inferred by Black Elk’s definitive statement is one of care and consideration for all living things. It is the realization that “…the hand that fashioned the continent also fashioned the man for his surroundings. He once grew as naturally as the wild sunflowers; he belongs just as the buffalo belonged.” (Native American Wisdom, 1994, p18)
One need not look too deeply to realize the broader implications of a spirituality which holds that everything is created equally, and exists for the service of everything else. Creation is a system maintained by a precise balance of give and take, and the highest good of all is not only the energy that fuels that system, but the very reason for its existence.
When one sees the whole of creation as family, one comes to learn respect and gratitude for the sacrifices made by his brothers and sisters, be they four-legged or otherwise, for the continuation of his own existence. Earth becomes his Mother, through whom his nourishment and shelter are provided.
This idea begs comparison with the Judeo-Christian view that man was given Divine Right of Dominion over all of the Earth. Here, animals, plants, and natural resources exist solely for the whims of mankind; and their exploitation, regardless of whatever may occur as a result, is man’s priviledge as deemed by his Creator. He is free to plunder, slaughter, strip-mine, brutalize, genetically modify, and pollute, without the slightest concern save that of his own needs, because his God has granted him that right.
It is precisely for this reason that indigenous tribes could camp for the duration of a hunting season and move on without leaving the slightest indication of their presence, while modern man has marked even the remotest areas of the world with hydroelectric dams, engineered crops, corportae logos, and disgarded junkfood wrappers.
It is also why thousands of species become extinct every year, why our rain forests, the very lungs of the planet, are being wiped out at an alarming rate, and why the very same indigenous peoples whose view of life holds that everything here was placed under the stewardship of man for the greatest good of all, have found their spiritual practices outlawed, their language often literally beaten out of them in so-called Christian boarding schools, and their way of life all but irradicated by disease, warefare, and a government that parceled them away on ever-shrinking plots of land, often too poor to sustain them, all in the name of Manifest Destiny and the cry of “Westward, Ho!”
For modern man, trees are often nothing more than the potential components of developments and office buildings; the Earth itself, simply that much dirt and rock to be hauled, blasted, drilled, and sifted to reach the natural resources it contains. Conversely, the native mind sees the Earth as a living storehouse of wisdom and knowledge, which is itself fed by the remains of those who have come before.. It is, in fact, as Shes-his, a Reno Crow tells us,
“ …the dust of the blood, the flesh, and bones of our ancestors…You will have to dig down through the surface before you can find nature’s Earth, as the upper portion is Crow. The land, as it is, is my blood and my dead. It is consecrated.” (Native American Wisdom, 1994)
As striking as the differences may be in the views of the Earth and its inhabitants between Native American spiritual teachings and those of the modern Western world, perhaps no less striking are the differences readily observed when viewing their concepts of the Creator.
In the Judeo-Christian world, whether the God in question is an angry, jealous, and vengeful creator hurling thuderbolts and doling out plagues and damnation, or the loving “Abba” refered to by Jesus in the New Testamant, He is still a creator removed, who handed the world over to mankind and stepped back to see what he would do with it. One prays to this God as if he sat in a lofty and remote place, with words quite often summed up by perhaps the most infamous and telling line in the Roman Catholic service, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…” Here, man is motivated to pray not out of love, but out of fear, and the guilt of having transgressed.
In the traditional Native American belief, it is not guilt, but humility and gratitude which are the central aspects of prayer. The Creator is often referred to as “Grandfather” or “Ancient One”, and prayer “…is much more like having an in intimate conversation with a trusted friend, who can either help us, or to whom we owe gratitude.” (Cornette, 2007)
At its core, Native American spirituality is a belief system which holds that all life is sacred, equal, and interdependant; that everything was placed upon the Earth for the greatest good of all, and that mankind was given the task of stewardship of the Earth by a loving Creator who asks only that each of us live together in humility and respect for our fellow beings.
One wonders at the changes a widespread embracing of a spirituality such as this would manifest upon the face of the planet today. For having fully embraced these tennants, how could we ever come to allow a world built upon sweat-shops, wildly unregulated corporate empire building, unprecedented starvation and disease, and mountains of unrecyclable garbage strewn across the surface of a planet whose waterways are choked with industrial waste, whose land is ravaged and broken by strip-mining and frenzied urban development, and whose people are in an almost constant state of war over religious ideology, political rhetoric, and an ever dwindling supply of natural resources?
Var. Elders. Native American Wisdom. (1994). Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers.
Cornette, D. (2007). Native American Spirituality and Metaphysics. Vancouver: International College of Metaphysical Theology.
Johnson, S. (1998). The Book of Elders – The Life Stories and Wisdom of Great American Indians. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Niedhardt, J. G. (1993). Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.