Why? Why read a book about traditional Native American values? Why should anyone care about what Native Americans thought and did hundreds of years ago? Why think about this subject at all? The answers to these questions, I suggest, are these:
- First and foremost, to become motivated to examine and more sharply define the personal values, virtues and principles by which we choose to live our lives; to reflect on the meaning and purpose of our lives and the destiny of humankind. At a time when the people of our country are sharply torn, and the sides actively combative, about issues of race, gender, ethics, morality and the environment, it appears that our culture is sorely in need of more life sustaining and life enhancing values, purpose and direction. It is my hope that, by considering the values and principles espoused and practiced by traditional Native Americans, we can learn something about ourselves and how we should live our lives.
- Secondly, to dispel the erroneous perceptions and stereotypes about Native Americans by which we have been indoctrinated by literature and movies, and to enhance our understanding and appreciation of their culture.
The White invaders of this continent thought of, and treated, Native Americans as "ignorant savages". In the early 1500s, there were documented debates in Europe as to whether these "creatures" were in fact human, or some kind of wild beast. The attitude of some was "the only good indian is a dead indian". Some, more benevolent types, believed that is was the White Man's responsibility to: first "civilize" them (teach them to dress, talk, act and think like Whites), and then, "save their souls" by teaching them the "one true religion". In fact, most of the Indigenous People were intelligent, aware, self-sufficient, moral and deeply spiritual human beings who had much to teach Whites. But the Whites, convinced of their own superiority, would not listen. Perhaps there is value in "listening" now.
Perhaps by examining the traditional values and philosophies of these Indigenous Peoples we can learn how to make our lives more meaningful, less stressful, more satisfying, maybe even more spiritual. In our search for useful and meaningful values and principles, one could do worse than to look at those basic to the cultures of those peoples indigenous to this continent. Our culture tends to see differences as a threat. If we can get over that hurdle, understand and appreciate the value of what the Indigenous People had to share, our perspectives may become more life-affirming.
A word about context: I will be focusing on values and virtues developed from the time before Columbus stumbled upon this continent, and the early period of interaction between the two cultures. In discussing culture and spirituality, I will use the past tense, because the views on which I want to focus are those considered "traditional", i. e. those held before the influence of White culture. Some, (a minority of), modern Native Americans attempt to honor these "old ways" today. What we know about these subjects we have learned from modern era descendants who were entrusted with keeping alive the traditions, values and philosophies from that period, as handed down from generation to generation. The descriptions herein should not be construed to represent the views of all modern Native Americans. Geographically, I will focus on North America. I will refer to the pre-contact inhabitants of North America as Native Americans, Indigenous Peoples, or simply as "The People". (None of the names by which we refer to the Native American tribes are names they called themselves. Many of the names by which they referred to themselves translated into English as "The People", or some version thereof). I will refer to the Europeans and their descendants who later occupied the territory as Whites. When speaking of spirituality, I will focus on how religion affects how one lives one's life, not on creeds.