Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Destruction of Native Culture

By Henry Niese


Imagine a society or culture in which most conflict was reconciled by the innate structure of the society. Imagine at the same time a culture in which personal freedom was absolute, yet every member lived within a strict cultural set of laws, or moral code. Imagine a society in which nobody was boss. Or had the power to order people around, and yet every need, every task was accomplished. Imagine a people or culture without prisons, poorhouses, orphanages, insane asylums, banks and bankruptcy, locks on doors, or a ponderous government bureaucracy. This is only part of what was lost when so many Native American cultures were destroyed.

In her book, The Lost Universe, [1] the anthropologist Gene Weltfish wrote about this. George Catlin, the 19th Century artist who lived with Indian tribes along the Missouri, witnessed this, as did others.

From the beginning of European contact with Indian tribes, the Europeans deliberately set out to destroy Indian society and the Indian way of life through the use of several strategies: 1. Devalue and destroy the religion; 2. Destroy the language; 3. Impose Christianity; 4. Destroy the culture. In Central America, great libraries were put to the torch, the Conquistadors saving a few books to be sent back to the Vatican to be deciphered and translated by scholars for the purpose of ensuring greater efficiency of the Conquest.

The libertarian, democratic Indian cultures were doomed for the most part in the face of unbounded greed and technology, although many of them still hang on, barely, to their language, religion and culture.

In this country, at least one of these cultures, The Iroquois Confederacy, has a constitution, called Gayanerokowa, the Law of the Great Peace,[2] which became in part the basis of the United States Constitution. Benjamin Franklin acknowledged this debt, one of the few such acknowledgments ever made. Americans are too busy with the ongoing destruction of the Indian way of life to reflect on how much Native Americans have contributed to their way of life, from chewing gum to many medicinal substances.

The Sacred Hoop was broken. The cultural structures which effected order and reconciliation all but destroyed. Can you imagine the rage and despair many people of all nations feel?

Indian languages - more than 200 of them - continue to disappear slowly, and with them the culture and religions. Language has been lost to all but a few of the Eastern tribes. Most of the tribes East of the Mississippi now have English as their only language. When the language disappears, the culture is gone. All the subtleties of meaning and culture are embedded in language.

Today among Indian peoples, alienation, racism, and divisiveness are commonly seen as the inheritance received from the dominant culture. Alcohol, drugs, and diabetes, another part of the inheritance, contribute to the very high death rate.

In this darkness, the light of traditional wisdom, reconciliation and culture is kept alive by a very few spiritual and political leaders - the medicine men and women. One of these leaders, a man I called Uncle Bill - Chief William Eagle Feather - Sundance chief and medicine man of the Rosebud Sioux, taught me a great deal.

He used to talk about the Sacred Hoop, that reconciliation of hatred was essential to preserving the Sacred Hoop of all people. He told the story of his own personal enlightenment and reconciliation with white people. He used to be a racist, he said. Hated whites. Then one day he had a vision. He saw that if you cut a white person he bled red just like an Indian. Same for black people and yellow people. THIS, he said , was the true Red Power, the gift of life that came from Above. It was then that he began to understand the meaning of Mitakuye oyasin - that we were all relations, & it didn't matter what color we were.

Uncle Bill's personal reconciliation with all his relations led to the development of his personality as one of the kindest, wisest men I have ever known. Kindness and wisdom can never grow from hatred & anger. Hatred and anger can literally blind a person. Here's a story illustrating this.

At the 1976 Sundance on the Rosebud Reservation, I was one of over 100 dancers. I was dancing next to a Navajo guy - maybe 6'4", 250 lbs. Because I looked white the guy hated my guts. You are out there to pray, to put all your strength and focus on your prayer. We dance for 4 days, no food or water from Wednesday evening to Sunday afternoon. It is very difficult -. "Wiwanyankwacipi - Staring at the Sun they dance." Sometimes I was so focused I didn't see that it was time to move, and this Navajo would take the opportunity to poke me in the ribs as hard as he could.

The second afternoon, we were dancing facing South. The big Navajo really got into praying while staring at the sun. When we broke to rest he was blind and had to be led to the sweat lodge, where Uncle Bill, the Sundance leader, restored his sight. We resumed dancing.

That evening we came out of the dance arbor and went into the sweat lodges. By chance the Navajo and I were sitting side by side. Uncle Bill asked each of us to pray. The Navajo suddenly broke down sobbing, begging the Great Spirit for forgiveness for his acts of anger committed during the sacred dance. He turned to me, tears running down his face, took my hand, asking forgiveness, saying he didn't know what he was doing, and that now he understood why God had made him blind, so that he would understand how blind his hatred was. The reconciliation was accomplished. Harmony was restored. "Was blind but now I see", as in the song Amazing Grace.

This making and restoring of relations is critical to the development of harmonious life for all. The traditional ceremony of making relations, as well as the ceremony called "Give-away" is one of the great expressions of generosity, one of the four Lakota Sioux virtues. These two ceremonies came about through the resolution of an ancient conflict between two powerful Plains tribes - the Sioux and the Omaha.

The reconciliation of these two warring tribes came about when, tired of killing and stealing from each other, they met in council. They exchanged gifts and adopted each other as relatives. So, Wihpeyapi and Hunkapi - Give-away and The Making of Relatives ceremonies have been an integral part of life ever since. These ceremonies always involve the giving of gifts and food. A good feast, where everyone has a full belly, is a great way to promote peace.

In today's world, just as in older times, there has to be a reconciliation of old conflicts so that we can once again establish a living harmony. For years after WWII, I hated anything Japanese, but I no longer have anger in me. Too many Japanese people have shown me their kindness and generosity for me to be angry at a whole nation.

Conflict will always exist among people, not only on a national level but on a personal level, the kind of conflict and hatred you carry in your heart. The resolution or reconciliation of that conflict on a national level leads to the prospering of that nation. Reconciliation of old hatreds and wounds on a personal level leads to a similar prosperity, a psychological and emotional prosperity resulting in a clear and peaceful mind.

Mitakuye Oyasin -All my Relations!

Prayer for Generosity (Cebu City, Philippines)

Many a doctrine is like a window pane. We see truth through it but it divides us from truth. I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit. I existed from all eternity and, behold, I am here; and I shall exist till the end of time, for my being has no end.
Kahlil Gibran


Denny Lyon said...

What a wonderful post and learned a lot in the process too, thank you!

C said...

That statement by Khalil...

I just read it now...

Visit and read my most recent post, Walt, its called "Lifetimes" ...

Robin Easton said...

Dear Walt, This is very powerful. Mu husband is a Mohawk Indian and I have learned so much REAL history. The garbage they fed me at school was just that...garbage and lies and crap. But I have since had quite an education. Although my husband is an amazing man and although he sees even in his lifetime the still ongoing abuse and racism that he sometimes grew up with and still happens around the world...he has no bitterness and in fact teaches compassion and the fact that there are very few peoples on the planet that did not at one time or another create conflict with other groups of people.

However you passion and caring here AND you knowledge are remarkable and wonderful to read. You are a extensive wellspring of knowledge of ALL kinds. What mind you have and what a spirit you have to go with it. A wonderful combination that is not often seen.

If you ever get a chance to watch the DVD or video series 500 NATIONS do so, as it is quite impressive and eye opening...but also very very tragic. It's the real history, the one they never taught us at school.

Also thank you for taking the time to educate people, and to gather all this information together.

Hugs to dear Walt.
You are appreciated.

Simon said...

Hi Walt always a pleasure to read your posts.Khalil Gibran was a wise man,a Christian of the Marionite faith.The closest you will get today to the original Nazarenes.More and more people are studying the early faith which if it had been alive in the nineteenth century no conflict with other faiths would have existed since Jesus himself was an esoteric teacher and thus native Americans would not have experienced the brutality of bigoted so-called Christians.