One unfortunate symptom of the Western alienation from nature is the chasm between “wild” and “civilized,” a chasm that leaves the white mind fearful of wilderness. But in the Indian view of the world there was no fear of nature. Luther Standing Bear put it this way:
We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth as “wild.” Only to the white men was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was the land “infested” with “wild” animals and “savage” people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.
One other aspect of the human-nature disconnect is Western obsession with scientific thinking that prejudices Indian religious beliefs as mere superstitions. In Deloria’s experience, Whites consider Indian dances for rain, for example, to be mere superstitions, and songs to make corn grow as absurd. But Deloria points out that white people believe they can make plants grow with music, suggesting perhaps that Indian tribal religious practices integrate certain truths only recently acknowledged by science. It seems imprudent to think it absurd or superstitious that one can learn to hear the trees talk. For Deloria, naturally, “it would be strange if they did not have the power to communicate.”
For N. Scott Momaday, a Native American author of Kiowa descent, the Indian “con-conceives” of himself in relation to the landscape. Momaday sees the Native American ethic with respect to the physical world as reciprocal appropriation, “appropriation in which man invests himself in the landscape, and at the same time incorporates the landscape into his own most fundamental experience.” Momaday’s “appropriation” is about moral imagination. As Momaday sees it, we are all, “at the most fundamental level what we imagine ourselves to be,” a conception that seems to sit well with the notion of nature consciousness. The Indian thinks of himself as a being in relationship with the physical world. He “imagines” himself in terms of that relationship, an attitude evolved over many generations as an integral aspect of cultural memory.
In the 1930s, Luther Standing Bear described this aspect of cultural memory when he wrote: “The Lakota was a true naturist — a lover of Nature.” Lakota loved the earth “and all things of the earth;” the soil was “soothing, strengthening, cleansing, and healing.” In contrast to Lakota nature consciousness, however, the white mind does not feel toward nature as does the Indian mind, a discrepancy Standing Bear attributes to child-rearing practices. Growing up, Standing Bear would see white boys gathered in the city street “jostling and pushing one another in a foolish manner…..aimless, their natural faculties neither seeing, hearing, nor feeling the varied life that surrounds them. There is about them no awareness, no acuteness.” In contrast, Indian boys were “naturally reared…alert to their surroundings; their senses not narrowed to observing only one another.”
While Euro Americans and African Americans inculcated clock time through participation in capitalism, the vast diversity of Native American cultures dictated that the inculcation of clock dependent time consciousness occur at different times, in different places, and through a variety of complex, uneven and contingent ways. Some Native Americans inculcated a sense of clock time through interaction with missionaries and educators while others learned to tell clock time through participation in plantation capitalism.
Native Americans always possessed a finely honed sense of time. Graeme Davison’s astute insights into Aborigines and temporality in Australia are equally applicable to North American Indians. American Indians, like
Aborigines were not strangers to ideas of divided time. In some ways, their ideas of time were more precise than those of the Europeans. They were more alert to the subtle changes in foliage, wind direction, tidal movement, and bird migration that marked the passage of the year (Davison, 1993: 8-9).
Indians and Aborigines were “punctual people, for they were obedient to the time-signals that mattered to them” (Davison, 1993: 9).
Before widespread European contact, the environment provided such time signals. Natural time imparted a rhythm, an order, and a measure to Indian life. While sunrise and sunset organized the parameters of the day, the cycles of nature organized task-based labor. For the Lenape, nature scheduled the planting of corn: “when the leaf of the white oak [was] the size of a mouse’s ear” (Thatcher, 1833: 194), it was time to plant. The blooming of chokecherries signified to the Crow the appropriate time to plant their sacred tobacco while deep snow signaled to the Algonquians the close of hunting season (Voget 1995: 13; Hecht, 1980: 48). The cycles of nature directed Indian agricultural life.
Nature also scheduled rituals. For the Hopi, the winter solstice indicated the beginning of their Soyal ritual (Wedel, 1975, 134). The summer solstice scheduled the Kiowa’s Sun Dance ritual (Mikkanen, 1987: 7). The spring equinox instructed the Pawnee to inaugurate their First Thunder Ceremony (Hecht, 1980:48). “When the sun r[ose] over a certain point on Corn Mountain,” the Zunis began celebrating the Great Feast of the Winter Solstice (Merrill, 1945: 3).
In addition to scheduling tasks and rituals, Indians used nature to measure the passage of time. Most Natives “reckoned time by nights” rather “like the whites by days” (Thatcher, 1833: 192). Indians spoke of traveling “so many nights” to reach a certain destination (Nilsson, 1920: 15). Larger temporal distinctions were reckoned in a number of ways. The Comanche and the Pawnee “reckoned time by the cold and the warm seasons” (Nilsson, 1920: 59) whereas the Algonquians measured time by the passage of the budding of spring, earring of corn, highest sun, corn gathering, and winter (Hecht, 1980: 48). Other Indian nations such as the Lenape and the Blackfoot for example, measured time through the passage of winters comprised of 13 lunar cycles. The naming of the lunations, however, was contingent on geography. When the Lenape lived in Pennsylvania, they referred to the Euro-American month of March as “the shad moon” for this was the time at which the shad fish “began to ascend the fresh-water rivers from the sea” (Thatcher, 1833, 193). Upon their removal to Ohio, the same month was referred to as the Moon of “the sap-running” (Thatcher, 1833, 193). Native Americans relied on nature to organize their civilizations and direct action and inaction.
Indigenous people meticulously measured changes in nature and left physical evidence of their linear and cyclical time measurement. Plains Indians, like those who inhabited the Bighorn Range in Wyoming, used medicine wheels to craft lunar calendars to mark the passage of time and to measure time. Designed to “measure the Sun’s position exactly” in order to reflect “[c]hanges in the position of the stars and suns,” medicine wheels told “ancient Native Americans when to plant crops or hold religious ceremonies” (George, 2004: 9).
Native American calendars also marked and tracked the passage of time. Linear in nature, these calendars tracked days, months, years, and the occurrence of important events. Natives of the Northwest often measured time through the construction of string records. The Salish of British Columbia, for example, marked the passage of “[d]ays, weeks, months, and years . . . by different knots or marks” while the passage of each moon was indicated by bead markers which “occurred every twenty-eight knots” (Leechman, 1921: 13, 6). Other Indians recorded their histories using a calendar stick. On William Clark’s famed 1804 voyage west, he visited the Santee and witnessed how they measured time. According to Clark, the Santee calendar stick was “a slender pole about 6 feet in length, the surface of which was cared with small notches” (Merrill 1945:2). These notches, an elder told Clark, represented particular battles, events, and births. In short, they “represented the history of [the] tribe for more than a thousand years” (Merrill, 1945: 2). The Pawnees used their calendar stick “for the computation of nights or even of months and years” (Nilsson, 1920: 14, 15). The Ho-Chunk nation’s calendar stick measured only part of the tribe’s history. Notches in the stick represented nineteenth century lunations and permitted the Ho-Chunk to track time and its important events (Merill, 1945: 1). Sioux Iron Shell diligently paid attention to time. “[W]hen the moon first rose, Iron Shell made a nick in a long pole he kept by the bed for that purpose. Every night he made another nick, until the moon finally disappeared. . . . He got a new stick each year, cutting it in the Moon of the birth of the Calves” (Hassrick, 1964: 11).
Other nations opted to record their histories in the form of winter counts. The keeper of the winter count measured time by recording one significant event each winter or, in Euro American terms, each year. The Dakota and Kiowa winter counts reveal the co-existence of linear and cyclical time. Chronological in nature, the counts allowed Indians to calculate their ages. Black Elk recalled that he was born in “the Winter the Four Crows were killed” during “the moon of the popping trees” (Elk, 1984: 101). He then counted the characters between those of his birth and those of his present to determine his age.
While winter counts permitted Indians to think linearly, they also allowed Indians to conceive of time cyclically. Visually the Kiowa organized their Dohasan Calendar “in a continuous spiral, beginning in the lower right-hand corner near the center” (Mooney, 1898: 43). Indians, therefore, understood winter counts specifically, and time generally, as simultaneously linear and cyclical; in short, as multiple and dictated by the cycles of nature.
Seen from high above, the Cahokia landscape had mythic dimensions. Stretching for six square miles, more than one hundred mounds rose from the earth with monumental presence. At the center lay four vast plazas, honoring the cardinal directions, to the north, east, south, and west (fig. 42). At their crossing the great Monks Mound towered more than a hundred feet in the air. At other points woodhenges (large circular areas marked off by enormous red cedar posts) enclosed large circular plazas or ceremonial areas.
A whole city aligned with the cosmos! The idea reverberates with expressive power. The stars in the heavens shine radiantly; they are constant in both position and movement; they appear with reassuring regularity generation after generation. The North Star orients a hunter in the forest so he can find his way home. The moon lights his way in the darkness. The Pleiades promise a frost-free growing season. Our orbit around the sun brings four seasons, from spring to winter, echoing the life cycle of a person from youth to old age, with the promise of continuity in new generations.
The Native Americans of Puget Sound have been known as Puget Salish and Southern Coast Salish, and by various spellings of tribes and reservations such as Duwamish, Nisqually, Skagit, and Snoqualmie..Lushootseed comes from two words, one meaning "salt water" and the other meaning "language," and refers to the common language, made up of many local dialects, that was spoken throughout the region...
For Lushootseed people, the world is full of spirits. Objects and places that appear inanimate, like rocks or weather, are known to be living beings with their own spirits, just like plans, animals, and people. These spirits have played a central role in the lives of Lushootseed people, providing the skills and knowledge necessary to survive and flourish.
The number of spirit powers in the world is limitless. Some are called career spirits, since they help with everyday work. Clam or Duck, for example, help in hunting, while others support the making of baskets or assist in gambling. Loon and Grizzly were among the spirits for warriors, while Wolf and Thunder boosted the careers of undertakers and orators respectively, and humanlike beings provided wealth. In addition to career spirits, curing spirits like Otter, Kingfisher, and a giant horned serpent could be obtained by men and women destined to become doctors...
While Lushootseed people knew the spirits were the ultimate source of the land's abundance, they also played a large role in shaping the landscape. Far from "noble savages" leaving no trace on the "wilderness," Lushootseed people were environmental managers, transforming their world through their own ecological knowledge. Each year, for example, prairies were burned to renew the bulbs that grew there and to keep the forest at bay...
The house was the center of Lushootseed community. These cedar structures could reach five hundred feet in length and housed several families, each with their own fire hearth sending smoke up a hole in the roof. More than simply shelter, Lushootseed houses symbolized the people's bodies, their prized canoes, and their world as a whole. The way Lushootseed people talked about their houses revealed these connections. A house's frame was seen as a body on its hands and knees, with the front of the house being called the face. Similar words were used for human skin, house walls, canoe hulls, and the edge of the world, while the roof ridge of a house was imagined as a spine, a river, and the Milky Way. Cedar posts holding up the roof, painted or carved with the power spirits of the leading family, were described both as human limbs and as pillars supporting the sky. Within this universe, cleaning a house, bailing a canoe, and curing an illness all were ways to set the world right.
At the beginning of the European invasion, there was not a single Native American religion, but rather there were 500 religions. What this means is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to make broad generalizations about traditional American Indian beliefs about death.
For many American Indian cultures, the focus of religion, particularly the ceremonies, was on maintaining harmony with the world. The focus was on living in harmony today, not on death. For many Indians there was an awareness of death and a vague concept of something happening after death, but this was not dogmatic. They felt that they would find out when they die and in the meantime this is something they have no way of knowing anything about and therefore they should not waste time thinking about it.
Among many of the Indian nations in Massachusetts there was the idea that after death, the soul would go on a journey to the southwest. Eventually, the soul would arrive at a village where it would be welcomed by the ancestors. In a similar fashion, the Narragansett in Rhode Island viewed death as a transition between two worlds: at the time of death, the soul would leave the body and join the souls of relatives and friends in the world of the dead which lay somewhere to the southwest.
Among some of the tribes, such as the Beothuk and the Narragansett, it was felt that communication between the living and the dead was possible. Among the Narragansett, the souls of the dead were able to pass back and forth between the world of the dead and that of the living. The dead could carry messages and warnings to the living. Among the Caddo on the Southern Plains, the living could send messages to their deceased relatives by passing their hands over the body of someone recently deceased, from feet to head, and then over their own body. In this way messages could be sent via the deceased to other dead relatives.
In the Northwest Coast area, Gitxsan writer Shirley Muldon reports: “We believe in reincarnation of people and animals. We believe that the dead can visit this world and that the living can enter the past. We believe that memory survives from generation to generation. Our elders remember the past because they have lived it.”
"Oren Lyons is the Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan, Onondaga Council of Chiefs of the Hau de no sau nee (ho dee noe sho nee), of the Onondaga Nation of the Hau de no sau nee (meaning People Building a Long House)...As Faithkeeper, he is entrusted to maintain the customs, traditions, values and history of the Turtle Clan and uphold Gai Eneshah Go' Nah, the Great Law of Peace of the Hau de no sau nee while representing the people's message from the Hau de no sau nee to the World Community in every aspect as deemed necessary by the Onondaga people."
A long time ago, when we first began the process of our governance and we were given this government, the Peacemaker (we call him the Great Peacemaker) came amongst us, brought peace amongst the Mohawk and the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga and the Seneca. And he laid down the rules at that time. We don't know how long ago. Maybe a thousand years ago, maybe two...
The Peacemaker was a spiritual being. He was a messenger, we would say, the best we could say. He brought a message, the Great Peace. And it was a long process of how he changed the minds of all of these men who at that time were leaders by strength and by force. Then he stepped in there and changed that whole process to deliberation and thought. And he convinced these warriors at that time (who were the leaders) to join with him. And he changed their minds...
He said, `When you become afraid or when you become weak or when you become not able to carry,' he says, `it's the spiritual law that will stiffen your spine.' He said, `That's where your strength is. So you must make your laws in accordance with those spiritual laws and then you will survive.'
He called that council the Council of the Good Minds. He said the Hoyanni -- that's what it means, the all-good, the good, peacemakers. So that's what he set up. And when he uprooted this great tree and he asked the Nations to come forward and cast their weapons of war, he says, `We now do away with the warriors and we do away with the war chiefs. And in their place we plant the Council of the Good Minds who will now counsel for the welfare of the people.' And he said, `I shall not leave you defenseless.' And he gave us a spiritual strength, Oyenkwaohweh, the Great Tobacco. He said, `This will be your medium for communication, directly.'
We had a third message from Gunyundiyo, who people call Handsome Lake. Handsome Lake was taken on a journey, shall we say, for four days. During that time he was shown the future of what was going to happen. And he was given instructions on how to deal with the white man...
...The central message is there is going to be a deterioration and a falling away of life as we know it. There is going to be destruction. There's . . . well, for instance, how these things were told, and I have to be quite careful about how I do this because we're on national television. I don't have the authority and the right to begin discussing things at large without the consent of the Nation or the people. I'm not free to do that.
But it's clear enough and people have known enough. For instance, for water, [they] talked about water, he was shown things in vignettes. And he said [that] they would ask him, `What do you see?' He said, `I see a river.' And they said, `Pick up the water to drink.' And he reached his hands in and picked the water up and he said, `I can't. It's filthy.' They said, `We think what you say is correct. At some time the water is going to be that way.'...
So we can say, "Well, it looks bad from here." And from there they say, "Well, it's looks tough, but it isn't lost." And that's the law that they were talking about from Gunyundiyo, when he said, `Don't let it be your generation.' And the law prevails, what we call the Great Law, the common law, the natural law...
The law says if you poison your water, you'll die. The law says that if you poison the air, you'll suffer. The law says if you degrade where you live, you'll suffer. The law says all of this. If you don't learn that then you can only suffer. There's no discussion with this law.
Schooled in nature
"There’s a way to teach children without colonising their minds: the lifelong way of the indigenous people of Mexico"
He spent an hour gently unfurling each word. Abjectly poor, his worn-out shoes no longer even covered his feet and his clothes were rags, but he shone with an inner wealth, a light that was his gift, to respect the connections of the world, between people, animals, plants and the elements. He spoke of the importance of not losing the part of ourselves that touches the heart of the Earth; of listening within, and also to the natural world. Two teachers. No one has ever said it better.
‘Your spirit is your maestro interno. Your spirit brought you here. You have your gift and destiny to complete in this world. You have to align yourself in the right direction and carry on.’ And he melted away, leaving me with tears in my eyes as if I had heard a lodestar singing its own quiet truthsong.