Author’s note: Being half-Native American, I have a foot in both worlds, and though I live in one world, my Cherokee grandmother, whom I lost to cancer two years ago, instilled in me a love of my Native heritage. She shared all our stories and traditions with me when I was growing up, and took me to tribal ceremonies. My perspective is colored by everything she taught me from that world because I respected her immensely. This opinion piece is the third in a series of articles written for my Native American friend Trudy Silverheels' website: is wholly taken from the point of view of my Cherokee side, in honor of the history of our people that my grandmother taught me.
Native American Beliefs
The Native Americans sustained their civilizations for ten thousand years, living in harmony with nature before the Europeans forced them from their lands and ended their culture. The white man has been on our soil for barely three hundred years and has very nearly destroyed the natural environment, rapaciously taking from the land, giving nothing back. The endless woodlands are gone. The rivers and streams are muddied and polluted. The air increasingly brings asthma and other respiratory diseases to our children. Even whole mountains have been blasted away to extract the coal that dirties our air but powers our energy-intensive lifestyle.
It is difficult not to draw value judgments and wonder what happens to a civilization when it has finally used up nature. Will our overcrowded parks be enough to nourish our souls? Will we even remember what we have lost? The film Avatar recently struck the contrast between modern man coming to a world of primitives to strip the resources they wanted, destroying the native society in the process. It is a distillation of the story of the genocide of the American Indian. Except that, we didn’t win.
Another perceptive view of modern man coming to exploit the resources of a self-sustaining indigenous society living in harmony with nature can be found in the first book of the great C.S. Lewis cosmic trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet. What these two examples from popular fiction have in common is that the “primitive” inhabitants of paradise were able to drive their intruders out, while in reality, the Native Americans and the peoples of the First Nation were brutally displaced.
The Prophesy of the Rainbow Warrior
Native American legend has it that one day modern man will finally shred the fabric of his environment to the point where looming ecological catastrophe will turn him back to the Indians to teach him how to live sustainably with the world. It is a quaint thought. But if we cling to it, have the remaining Natives been so absorbed into the modern world that they too have forgotten their original path? We must at least remember the core elements of our ways, and if going back to the wilderness is not a practical option for our teeming millions, what have we left to teach the white man that he may better sustain his society while also sustaining his environment?
The best answer to this may not be in presenting a paradigm for the economics of a self-sustaining society. Such models have been set forth already by progressive conservationists across the green side of the political spectrum. What the Rainbow Warriors need to exemplify are the characteristics of the radically different world-view of the Native Americans as they were before the Europeans invaded. If modern man cannot embrace these core beliefs, then he will never divert himself from inevitable disaster. But it has been prophesied in another legend that he will.
The Legend of the White Buffalo
The Lakota have carried down through nineteen generations the legend of the White Buffalo Woman and her sacred gift to the bison hunters of the northern American plains. Centuries ago, the great herds of buffalo suddenly disappeared from their wide prairies one summer, and the Lakota faced starvation if the winter should come without the hunt for the great shaggy beast to provide for their needs. Indian Summer approached and no traces of the once vast herds were found. The tribal leaders were desperate for a sign of the return of the buffalo.
Scouts were sent in all directions, and one day, two of these scouts spied a white buffalo on the horizon. Upon their approach, the creature mysteriously changed in appearance to a beautiful young woman dressed in a white buckskin hide. One of the scouts, seeing her great beauty and desiring her for his own pleasure, approached the girl with lust in his heart, even as the other warned him that the unusual markings of her dress denoted she was a holy woman. Upon touching her, the desirous brave and the beautiful young woman were instantly consumed in a cloud which descended from the sky, and as the second scout watched, the swirling cloud disappeared into the ground leaving his companion a rotted pile of bones in the grass.
The remaining scout turned away with his eyes lowered, promising to withdraw, but the White Buffalo Woman reappeared and stopped him.
“Wait!" she said, and as he turned to face her, she told him not to be afraid, for she had merely given his companion what he most wanted, her body in carnal pleasure, a lifetime of desire consumed in but a single moment. “I understand why you are here," she said. “Your people are in need, and it is because your lives have grown out of balance. The buffalo have left your lands because you have not been respectful of what they have given you. This man’s actions have shown that your people have not learned respect for women either. He believed women are at the disposal of men to serve their pleasure. Your people must learn a new way of seeing the world."
She touched the medicine bundle slung at her shoulder, bound in white buffalo skin. “I come from the people of the buffalo, and I bring you a gift and the wisdom to use it to live in harmony with the earth-mother who provides everything in your lives," She told the scout to go back to his tribe and inform them that in three days she would come to their village to deliver to the elders her sacred gift.
The scout returned and told the people of his village what had happened, and they prepared a sacred altar and a ceremonial lodge for their guest, and in three days the White Buffalo Woman appeared before the gathered tribe. She knelt on the ground at the altar and unrolled the white medicine bundle, drawing forth a small stone bowl and a hollowed wooden stem, which, when joined together, formed the sacred prayer pipe, the first ever seen by the Lakota. She explained that the stone bowl represents the feminine in nature, the sacred earth mother and creative force of the world, while the stem, made from wood, symbolized the male, coming forth from woman as the tree comes forth from the earth.
Joining the prayer-pipe together, she pinched some sacred herbs from a pouch in her bundle and placed them in the bowl. “Breath is the essence of life. It is your spirit," she intoned, as she lit the prayer-pipe. She drew in the smoke and blew it out over the sacred altar, watching the smoke permeating the air and enveloping those around her. “When you say a prayer with the pipe, your breath becomes visible in the smoke. Your prayer thus becomes visible to the Spirit Father. You can now see your prayers rising to the Creator in the smoke."
She passed the sacred pipe around to the members of the tribe, and while they shared the pipe, she bestowed upon them her gift of wisdom. “The balance of your lives has strayed from the vision of your first fathers, and your spirits have become impoverished. The thrill of the hunt has become more important to you than the respect shown for the sacred act of the buffaloes’ sacrifice for you, and so they have abandoned you. Your vision has become clouded, and you no longer respect the life-giving power that is the very spirit of the sacred femme.
"You do not honor the balance between the male and the female, and believe the woman to be inferior because she is weaker in strength. But you forget the power she holds as the bringer of new life. You treat her as servile, and as merely a means for giving you pleasure. The pipe will be a constant reminder of the importance of woman as a sacred being who is like the Earth Mother, the source of all life. When you embrace the spiritual, and honor the life the buffalo gives up for you and understand the esteem with which you must hold the women of the tribe, then will balance be restored to your lives, and then shall the buffalo return to your lands."
She then taught them the seven sacred ceremonies which they must perform using the prayer pipe: Purification, Naming of the child, Healing, Adoption of a blood-brother, Marriage, Vision-quest, and the Sundance ceremony, to pray for the well-being of the people. She gave them her White Buffalo medicine bundle and bade them keep it sacred through the Four Ages bound up in her existence. At the end of each age, she would look back upon the people to observe their well-being, but at the end of the fourth age, she would return as the White Buffalo to restore harmony and spirituality to a troubled world. As she bade her farewell and withdrew from the Lakota, she changed back into a buffalo, resting four times in her departure, to rise each time dressed in garb of a different color. These changes represented the four races of the world: black, yellow, red, and finally, she arose again as the White Buffalo and vanished from the world.
After centuries, and the passing of the Four Ages, the White Buffalo has returned to the Lakota, and they see it as the sign of the coming renewal of the world, as the white man at last sees the folly of his ways, and widens his vision to embrace the spirit of the Native American and walk the true path.
When the white man arrived in the New World, the first impression they made on the Indian was that they were a poor race who had no respect for the land and could barely keep themselves alive in the harsh elements of the natural world. They brought disease with them, which ravaged the indigenous population, and their main motivation in coming to the New World was exploitation and colonial expansion. The white man, it seemed, had no respect, for either the people they found already living in harmony with the natural world, or the natural world itself. Both were merely obstacles to be conquered, which, since the Reformation, has been the religious and geopolitical doctrine of western civilization.
Putting aside the socio-economic differences between a civilization which derives its motivations from resource extraction and mass commoditization, and one which only seeks to preserve a balance with the world as it is found, the characteristic which clearly defines the moral difference between the two cultures is respect for things different from one’s own sphere of understanding. The Native American survives through the respect for all aspects of the world. Tribal life is inclusive, not exclusionary. We embrace all the different members of our society and understand that each of those differences brings something useful to the tribe.
Homogeneity is not a virtue with us, as it seems to be in western civilizations. We respect our own integrity, but we respect the importance and purpose of everyone and everything around us that is different from us without arrogance or condescension. Our spiritual beliefs before the white man came and imposed his religion upon us were animistic, not authoritarian or hierarchical. Animism is the belief that there is a unique and inherent ‘spirit’ in everything around us, and that the spirit of something, even if ineffable, defines its core nature, determining its meaningfulness in relationship to the rest of the world.
Everything has a purpose. If we don’t immediately see it, our duty is to learn what it is, but not to dismiss it out of our ignorance. As an example, an interesting facet of tribal culture in the Americas before the white man arrived is the fact that there was no such thing as homophobia. When the Europeans arrived and began to encounter Native Americans, they found homosexuality and cross-gender identity among us. This to us was normal. To the white man, it was a shocking abomination that offended his sensibilities to such an extent that many homosexual Indians found their way into the records of history as noteworthy curiosities.
The Europeans gave a name to the members of our society who displayed ‘gay’ behavior – berdache. It was a French term with a pejorative meaning, but until the white man arrived, the Native Americans attached no shame or disrespect to such cross-gendered individuals. They were seen as having two spirits, both male and female, and often attained a higher rank as shamans, artists or medicine-men because of their broader insights and greater abilities. One of the great failings of modern civilization is that most of the dominant theologies not only reject the duty to respect those minorities with differences, but they barely even tolerate their existence. To the Native American, we are all one tribe. When we have respect for the right to be different, we are less likely to dismiss our moral obligations to treat those who are different with the same respect we treat those we identify as being like ourselves.
Among the world’s economic systems, socialism is perhaps the most ethically reflective of true Christian values. From each according to his ability to each according to his need, reflecting Christ’s primary prescriptive norm for a concern for the welfare of the poorest and neediest among a society. So naturally, the Christian society that conducted the genocide of the American Indian inexplicably espouses the more selfish, and non-altruistic system of capitalism instead. Native American societies are more inherently socialistic by nature, in the altruistic sense, but since there was no great infrastructure, industry, or commoditization among the Indians, their economic system can more properly be described as communitarian rather than capitalist or socialist.
Individual handcrafts were made and bartered (or gifted), but the services provided by the hunters, the gatherers, the planters, the warriors, the artists, the healers, or the shamans were provided by individual members of the tribe according to his abilities for the common benefit of the whole community. There was no Indian concept of money or currency until the white man arrived. Exchange was made in useful personal items like tobacco, corn, pelts and furs. The closest thing the Natives had to currency was wampum, which started out as a commemorative device preserving stories, records of events, ceremonies, treaties etc. in symbolic designs of shells and beadwork, strung together in various meaningful patterns.
These had a commonly accepted value as records of tribal activities since there was no written language, only a tradition of oral story-telling. The shells and beads, which were used to string wampum became increasingly valuable because the technology to drill the holes for the strings was primitive, and it took many hours to produce them. When the Europeans came and began trading with the Indians for furs and pelts, they recognized wampum as something they could produce far more cheaply than the Indians could, so the Dutch colonists began manufacturing wampum in a factory in Passaic, New Jersey to buy valuable commodities from the natives with a currency that to them was next to worthless.
Soon, the market became flooded, however, and the value of wampum decreased with inflation. By this time, the French and English were forming alliances with the tribes of the eastern woodlands and began arming them with guns with which to battle other tribes aligned with the opposing side of a colonial war. The European colonists used the pressures of diminishing lands to create and intensify enmity between the tribes that had not already been displaced by colonial expansion, and the colonists succeeded in pitting the Indians against their own best interests to fight each other in the service of opposing colonial factions.
The Native Spirit
The Native Americans were deeply spiritual and saw influences affecting their world from the ‘anima’, or living spirit of everything around them. Their cosmologies came from stories based on the various innate characteristics of the spirits of animals, rocks, the trees, the wind, water, and everything else surrounding them. Through sleep and food deprivation, along with other tests of their physical and mental endurance, they envisioned separate realities through dream-journeys or vision-quests. Dreams and visions were extremely meaningful to the natives, and they adopted guides and ‘familiars’ as spirit-helpers to interpret and lead them through the unfamiliar territories of alternate realities.
Each journey into the inner self would reveal one of these guides in the form of an animal, whose basic nature would be most beneficial in leading the individual towards the truths he most needed to understand. The Indians of the Southwest used psychotropic plants to stimulate these inner journeys into the unknown. The realms of their experience thus extended beyond the natural world into what could be deemed the metaphysical, and the mind-body connection was very pronounced in both medicine and philosophy. The Native Americans believed in a holistic approach to treating illness, which has always eluded Western medicine. The power of the mind was much more accessible to those who were more closely in touch with both themselves and the hidden forces of the world around them. Rituals of purification were performed to cleanse the body and the spirit.
The masters of spiritual journeys were the shamans. They served as the soul guides to the tribe and mastered the techniques of purification of both the spirit and the body. One of their tools was the smudge stick. This was a specially prepared bundle of dried herbs and plant fibers, usually consisting of white sage, cedar, cilantro, mugwort, juniper, yarrow and other sources of fragrant vapors when burned as a punk. Using a smudge-fan, composed of the feathers of many different bird species, the shaman would permeate and purify the air in a ceremonial space with the incense of the smoldering smudge. This was intended to clear the mind and facilitate the spiritual paths of the ‘journiers’.
Another plant frequently burned by the Native American for its calming characteristics was sweet-grass. Some erroneously believe this is a native colloquialism for marijuana, but sweet-grass is actually a brittle, dried grass of the variety Hierochlöe odorata, also called Bison-grass, and zubrowka (by the Poles who distill it with their vodka as a flavoring) commonly found growing in low-lying wetlands. When dried and burned, its psychotropic tendencies are mild, and it is not a regulated substance, although it is generally only traded and used by Indians.
One of the tools for the purification of the body was the sweat-lodge. Insulating skins were stretched over a framework of sticks and poles forming a lodge, within which fire-heated stones were placed to create super-heated air inside the sweat-lodge. Members of the tribe would enter the lodge naked and expose themselves to the intense heat, forcing them to sweat out all the impurities in their bodies. When I was sixteen, I participated in a sweat-lodge ceremony and it is grueling! It is not a test that can be taken lightly, nor without great care and attention, as deaths have resulted from performing the ceremony without careful monitoring and supervision.
The extreme tests of endurance that members of the tribe exposed themselves to all served to strengthen the mind and the body to withstand the rigors of life in the natural world. But the spiritual benefits of such quests for the boundaries of endurance cannot be dismissed. These stretches of both the mind and body are almost unknown among Western civilizations, where conformity to the narrow limits of thinking imposed by Judeo-Christian dogma is nearly universally unquestioned.
Among the most sacred of ceremonies are those involving the prayer pipe. The calumet has come to characterize the American Indian in the mind of the white man, who has erroneously called it a peace pipe, but little is known among outsiders of the depth of spiritual meaning this device holds to the Native American. It does not merely represent the sacred. It is sacred in and of itself, for it manifests the living spirit, the breath of the spoken prayer, made tangible and real in the visible smoke. It is a bond between brethren who share in the ceremony of the pipe.
The covenants made in such ceremonies are inviolable, and the very honor of the members of the tribe who participate in this holy communion is at stake, should any action betray the commitments made therein. Treaties sworn to by the Native Americans by the “peace pipe”, as the whites called it, were considered a sacred contract. As these treaties were violated time and again by the white man, the Native American learned that his white brother had no honor. Honor and respect, then, are at the core of the relationship between the Native American and his world, and so that is what the Rainbow Warrior most needs to impart upon those whose hubris have led them to the edge of a precipice.
Even now, modern man is polarized between those reactionaries who struggle to keep their society in denial of the inevitable coming of a sea-change in historical eras, and those who realize the change in eras is upon them. What the reactionaries hold sacred has served their civilization in the past, but now threatens them with extinction, for it is not sustainable. Rather than embracing the challenge of accepting a progression to a new world, in which man must live in harmony with his planet instead of exploiting it, we are being blindly led through the political and economic power of vested interests to cling desperately to the ways which have nearly destroyed us through the destruction of our environment.
Now is the time that the Rainbow Warrior stands ready to show the way to a sustainable existence through a change in world-views, and a return to honor and respect, but the message is lost to those who allow themselves to be misled by those who profit from exploitation. What is sacred to the Judeo-Christian world-view is the prospect of salvation in some promised afterlife. To the Native American, what is sacred is his duty to honor and respect this world, and live in it in balance, so it is preserved for his progeny. This sense of humility and duty is then what the Rainbow Warrior must impart to humanity as he faces the end of the world which he has polluted and despoiled.
Myths and story-telling
Our tradition of passing on to the next generation the stories and myths that have come down to us from our ancestors is the means by which we sustain the continuity of our culture. The meanings and allegories of our stories are the core of our connection to a way of life that is sustainable. They are the heart of our wisdom and impart to us the values that keep our lives in balance. Our myths teach us the inimitable spirit of everything around us in nature, the wind, the water, and the earth. Without a belief in the living spirit of the world of which we are only a part, we are doomed to lose respect and despoil it, robbing from our children the only meaningful gifts we can ever truly give them. The story of the White Buffalo is a story of hope, and the message that we can only hope to save ourselves by learning respect, and living in harmony with our world, and each other.
(c) 2015 Bethany Ariel Frasier