10 things Native Americans have taught me

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Today is Columbus Day in the United States. It’s the day that has been traditionally celebrated as the day that “Christopher Columbus, an explorer from Europe, discovered America”. As kids growing up in American schools, we are taught that this is a significant day. In fact, Columbus Day is a national holiday… even now.

For US Americans, it has been a day that has stirs national pride because, for white Americans, Columbus Day represents the day that “our great nation was discovered”. And so begins the history of our country… Right?

The thing is, there were already people living in America. Natives had been living on what is now US soil for thousands of years. So, I’m not exactly sure what Europeans “discovered”. Oh yes, it was new to them. But it was already home to many.

In actuality, Columbus Day has become a day of celebrating what turned out to be the occupation of America. The forced entry of white people on the native people who already lived here, bringing with them disease and violence and a new set of rules + beliefs that these “savage” people must adhere to if they want to survive.

So, many people have changed their views of Columbus Day over the past years – and many have not. But once we open our minds + look at history through the lens of others’ perspectives, then we began to understand that what “we” saw as an amazing journey of exploration, was actually the beginning of the end for many beautiful people who called the “new” land their home for years before “we” invaded.

“When the last red man shall have become a myth among the white men, when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, upon the highway or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities are silent, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The white man will never be alone.” // Chief Seattle, Suquamish/Duwamish 1790-1866

So, today, I want to celebrate not the explorers, but Native Americans.

native november

I’ve always felt a magical pull towards Native American cultures. With no real explanation. Perhaps it’s because I lived just 30ish minutes from the Cherokee reservation. Because of that, I was exposed to Native culture as a child. I learned the story of the Cherokee people and their Trail of Tears at a very early age. My parents took me to reenactments, plays, and villages set up on the reservation meant to preserve + share the old traditional ways of the natives of western North Carolina.

I saw teepees, totem poles, and was mesmerized every time I watched a pow wow (traditional dances).

Everything the Cherokee did seemed to have meaning. Every aspect of their life was infused with sacredness.

And as I learned more, I discovered that their way of life was an inspiration to me, that there was much about how they lived their lives, as I understood it, that reflected how I wanted to live mine.

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I’ve had the privilege to visit other reservations in addition to the Cherokee reservation that I lived near. When I worked as a minister in a church, I took a group of about 12 teenagers  on a road trip across the US. We drove to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming where we spent a week volunteering + helping out.

The exploitation of Native cultures + tribes in the US sadly continues to this day. Once the US government moved them to their reservations, life took a turn for the worse. Many of them received the shittiest land in the area in which to build their reservation. And most of them still struggle, living with high unemployment, drug + alcohol abuse, depression, and in poverty.

The Wind River Reservation struggled with all of those things. For the week that we were there, we helped by repairing and painting homes, having a camp week with the children, and just interacting + talking with the natives who lived there. It was a humbling and incredible experience. Frustrating and infuriating also… that their lives have been such a struggle.

So, I just can’t, with good conscience, celebrate Columbus Day. I mean, why would I? Why would anyone? It is amazing + wonderful that Europeans came across a new land filled with possibility + promise. But, how they used it… how they approached it… that was completely and utterly wrong.

So, today, I have been thinking a lot my love for Native American cultures. And I want to honor them and some of the values + beliefs that I have learned from them… ones that inspire me to live a slow, mindful life. 

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// RESPECT: For all living beings. Plants. Animals. People. Respect for the dead. Honoring and giving thanks for the gifts of the earth and the animal kingdom.

There is a road in the hearts of all of us, hidden and seldom traveled,
which leads to an unkown, secret place.
The old people came literally to love the soil,
and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of
being close to a mothering power.
Their teepees were built upon the earth
and their altars were made of earth.
The soul was soothing, strengthening, cleansing and healing.
That is why the old Indian still sits upon the earth instead of
propping himself up and away from its life giving forces.
For him, to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply
and to feel more keenly. He can see more clearly into the mysteries of
life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him.
(Chief Luther Standing Bear)

// SYMBOLISM: Signs. Colors. Words. Sounds. All conveying beliefs, messages, or telling a story.

// TRIBE: Relationships.  The love of family, which extends to all people, is of the utmost importance. It provides security and support. Community.

// NATURE: A close relationship with Mother Earth. An understanding of the cycle of life. The soil, the air, water, fire. Worshipping + celebrating stars, the sun, the moon. Living close to nature, with nature. Honoring + worshipping the animal kingdom.

// SOUL: The care of one’s soul is central to living life. It is a lifelong journey of living out one’s destiny, one’s unique path which allows one to develop + grow throughout life.

The first peace, which is the most important,
is that which comes within the souls of people
when they realize their relationship,
their oneness, with the universe and all its powers,
and when they realize that at the center
of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (the Great Spirit),
and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.
This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this.
The second peace is that which is made between two individuals,
and the third is that which is made between two nations.
But above all you should understand that there can never
be peace between nations until there is known that true peace,
which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men.
(Black Elk, Oglala Sioux & Spiritual Leader (1863 – 1950)

// MYSTICAL: There is much that is unexplainable about life, and understanding is left to experience + spirit. There is magic and mystery all around. Divine moments scattered in everyday life. We may not be able to know with facts, but we know with our soul.

autumn tree

// COEXISTENCE: Living in harmony with all living beings + nature. Creating peace. Practicing tolerance. Living with acceptance.

help me always
to speak the truth quietly,
to listen with an open mind
when others speak,
and to remember the peace
that may be found in silence.
(Cherokee Prayer_

// SIMPLICITY: Using only what is necessary. Leaving no trace. Living slowly + intentionally, aware of what is happening around us and within us. Giving thanks. Creating + making things on our own.

// SACRED: Every moment of life is holy. Rituals, celebrations, and dances mark important moments. Meaning is infused throughout everything that we do and are. And, not only us, but every part of the earth. All is sacred.

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I have no idea if all of these are true, hard core Native American beliefs. But, for me, they are values that have seeped into me via my experiences with Native cultures. Living a slow, wild, spiritual, peaceful, meaning-filled life of truth is the highest form of living, in my opinion. For me, that is enlightenment. And, for me, Native, indigenous peoples all around the world are the ones who come the closest to it. They are heroes to me.

What kinds of contact have you had with indigenous cultures? What cultures seem to make you feel at home in your soul? Do you find yourself being drawn to a certain way of living?

Here is a Native American understanding of how to live life. I just love it.

Lakota Instructions for Living

Friend do it this way – that is,
whatever you do in life,
do the very best you can
with both your heart and mind.

And if you do it that way,
the Power Of The Universe
will come to your assistance,
if your heart and mind are in Unity.

When one sits in the Hoop Of The People,
one must be responsible because
All of Creation is related.
And the hurt of one is the hurt of all.
And the honor of one is the honor of all.
And whatever we do effects everything in the universe.

If you do it that way – that is,
if you truly join your heart and mind
as One – whatever you ask for,
that’s the Way It’s Going To Be.

– passed down from White Buffalo Calf Woman

Share with me your thoughts on how you want to live your life…

xoxo. liz.

4 thoughts on “10 things Native Americans have taught me

  1. Hi Liz, I enjoy the thoughtful and meaningful words you write and I must admit I never knew America celebrated Columbus Day. I have recently read a book called ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name’ by Margaret Craven – perhaps you have already read it – but its certainly a story that resonates a lot of these wisdoms and is beautifully written. Well worth a read. Hope you are having a good week. x

    1. Thank you so much for the tip! I will most definitely look it up. Hope all is well with you, dear Rachel. xx

  2. One of the cool things I’ve learned since moving to SD is that the state has officially changed the name of the holiday to Native American Day. Good move, SD.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your reflections and getting to read the words of those Native thinkers you quoted. Beautiful. 🙂

    1. That is fantastic, Carissa! As it should be. 🙂
      By the way, you little man is just such a cutie pie!

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