Native American Day: Learning The Way of Earth
By Neenah Payne
Some calendars still call this holiday “Columbus Day” which teaches us to celebrate conquest. It does not teach us how to collaborate with other cultures or to survive on this planet. Fortunately, over 50 cities and states have adopted “Indigenous Peoples Day”. That encourages us to learn from these ancient cultures now at a very pivotal time on Planet Earth.
Dr. Zach Bush warns that we are in the Sixth Great Extinction and human survival depends on the urgent restoration of our soils (earth) to provide the nutritious foods we need to maintain our health. So, the world — led by the West — is in very grave trouble now. Where will we find the inspiration to change our relationship to the Earth on which we depend for survival?
There are 500 Native Nations in this hemisphere — many of which have been here tens of thousands of years. Can these ancient wisdom keepers be a source of inspiration and guidance now? Many Americans seem to think so as they flock to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca with shamans. However, although many of our states, cities, and rivers carry Native names, most Americans ignore the existence of Native America like a Big Pink Elephant in the living room, and thus know little about these cultures. However, our own survival may now depend on our willingness to understand them.
Native America’s Gifts To The World provides a glimpse into another way of seeing reality and living on planet Earth. It shows some of the profound gifts Native America has given the world over the last 500 years. It discusses the profundity of their languages and worldview. Philip P. Arnold, a member of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON) and associate professor of indigenous religions at Syracuse University, says: “How we in the larger society regard indigenous peoples — who have an ongoing relationship with the living earth — will determine our ability to survive.”
John Trudell On Rights vs Responsibilities
We are more closely connected to Indian America than most Americans realize. Even the name “American” was used only for the peoples of this hemisphere until the US colonists separated from England. The US Founding Fathers paid very close attention to their Native neighbors. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson studied with the Haudenosaunee (Six Nation Iroquois) for 30 years. The concept of The Land of The Free did not come from Europe. European colonists saw freedom in Indian nations and were inspired by their example to establish a radically different government from any in Europe.
The Bill of Rights established that “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. It is the envy of much of the world and in 1982 inspired the creation of The Canadian Charter.
However, the legendary John Trudell (1946-2015), Chairman of the American Indian Movement from 1973-1979, pointed out that Americans talk a lot about our rights, but little about our responsibilities. Is that the key to understanding the changes we must make now to withdraw from the brink of extinction? Native America can teach us to understand our live-saving responsibilities.
John Trudell grew up on/near the Santee Sioux Indian Reservation on the border of South Dakota and Nebraska. Until the 1860s, the Santees had lived in present-day Minnesota. After Whites invaded their territory, the tribe took refuge with the Teton Sioux. Skirmishes with Whites continued until 1890, the year of the Wounded Knee massacre which ended the Sioux’s military resistance. Trudell saw the legacy of the Sioux’s defeat. Reservations destroyed the traditional economy and culture. The Sioux had high unemployment, inadequate housing and health care, and few educational opportunities. Reservation Indians had become the poorest minority in the United States.
An inspirational speaker, acclaimed poet, national recording artist, actor and activist, Trudell was a spokesperson for the Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969-1971 and served as Chairman of the American Indian Movement (AIM) from 1973-1979. A few hours after Trudell burned the American flag during a protest in Washington, DC, a fire of unknown origin killed his wife Tina, three children, and his mother-in-law while they were sleeping.
It was through this horrific tragedy that Trudell began to find his voice as an artist and poet, writing, in his words, “to stay connected to this reality”. Trudell often spoke of the need for “coherent thinking”.
Trudell’s autobiographical DVD Trudell is an enlightening insight into America that is relevant today as COVID mandates are enforced on Americans who don’t need or want the experimental shots. The DVD is available on Amazon and the film can be streamed on Amazon Prime. I was privileged to hear Trudell speak three times in NYC.
In Take Back The Earth, Trudell called all peoples from the brink of destruction. His words are prophetic now as COVID is being used to introduce a “New Normal” in which the World Economic Forum has warned us that by 2030, “You will own nothing”.
Importance of “Going Native”
“Once John Trudell was asked about events surrounding the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America. He replied, ‘Columbus was lost. He didn’t have an idea what planet he was on, he didn’t have a clue where he was at. And then I think of the descendants of Columbus….they’re lost too. They don’t know where their lives are going. There’s a way to live and a way to exist. We’re here so we should be living, rather than just existing. That’s what Alcatraz and the A.I.M. were all about. We call it sovereignty, honoring treaties, but it really has to do with life.’
More than any man I know, John Trudell’s life is the expression of his beliefs. Most of us muddle through the day with our ideals in tow, but John’s politics, art and way of life perfectly reflect his passion and energy for the Native American cause. He was an inspiration to me in making the documentary film Incident at Oglala, about Leonard Peltier’s fight for justice, so much so that I cast him as the charismatic Indian leader in “Thunderheart,” a movie that deals with the government oppression of the contemporary Native American. There wasn’t an untruthful moment in his performance. ‘Sometimes they have to kill us,’ he told me, ‘because they cannot break our spirit.’ John is one of those rare unbreakable spirits.” — Michael Apted, Director.
The Reality of Freedom vs The Illusion of Freedom
In the film Thunderheart starring Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, and Graham Greene, Kilmer plays a half-Sioux FBI agent investigating a murder on a Sioux reservation. The script is based on events that took place on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975 in South Dakota involving an armed standoff between Indian activists and the FBI which culminated in the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier in 1977 – a case that Amnesty International lists as unfair.
As Kilmer’s character reconnects with the Sioux and recovers the memories of his indigenous heritage, he discovers the FBI is actually there to protect a uranium mine that is poisoning the water and killing all life on the reservation. Near the end of the film, his FBI colleague says, “He’s going native!“. In remembering his native roots, Kilmer’s character becomes a protector of the river and the Earth. He is everyman — reminding us that we must all “go native” to remember the importance of protecting the Earth before we destroy all life on the planet.
In a pivotal scene, when asked why he’s such a threat, John Trudell’s character delivers a riveting performance cited by many as the film’s highlight. He explains:
“Sometimes they have to kill us because they can’t break our spirit. We choose the right to be who we are. We know the difference between the reality of freedom and the illusion of freedom. There’s a way of Earth and a way not of Earth. We choose the way of Earth. It’s about power, Ray.“
In Return of the Bird Tribes, Ken Carey points out:
“It seems that humans have been so long trained for subservience that they now feel insecure under their own initiative!…The challenge before us is to reawaken ourselves and then to join with others to show through our example the beauty and power of the new way. We are called to organize in this time, not around leaders, ideologies or belief systems, but around love: Love for God, love for one another, and love for our sacred world….The new frontier is consciousness. This blessed world…needs you and me to become all that she can be. We have an opportunity to bring to her a great gift…The gift of ourselves. Awakened. Whole.”
John Trudell On Becoming Human
“In the race to midnight, it is well after 11.”
European Tribes and Native America’s Gifts
In the video What Happened to the Tribes of Europe, Trudell explains that Columbus and other conquistadors were so cruel because they had lost their humanity through the brutal Inquisition of the Catholic Church. Psychologists know abused people often become abusers.
Trudell explains that Columbus was carrying the “virus” of cruelty Europeans had suffered for 300 years during the Inquisition. When most Europeans lost their tribal roots, they lost their connection to their humanity, wisdom, compassion, and the Earth. So, they could not understand the tribal cultures of the Americas. Why We Celebrate Christmas The Indigenous Way shows that the traditional Sami of Scandinavia still maintain their indigenous culture. They are dependent on reindeer for food, transportation, housing, clothing, etc. much as the Plains Indians depended on the buffalo.
Trudell points out: “I’m just a human being trying to make it in a world that is very rapidly losing its understanding of being human”. In the video Take Back The Earth referenced above, he explains that our real power is in our connection to the Earth. He calls on us to recover our humanity by remembering that our primary responsibility is to be caretakers of the Earth on which we depend for survival. He points out that when we take care of the Earth, the Earth takes care of us. Just uncommon common sense.
Indian Givers: How Native Americans Transformed the World by Jack Weatherford explains many ways in which the peoples of the Americas transformed the world — and the great debt the world owes Native America for foods, medicines, concepts of religious and political freedom, philosophy, etc.
Cornell University held a conference in 1987 on the link between the Iroquois Confederacy and the U.S. Constitution. In 1988, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution recognizing the influence of the Iroquois League on the formation of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Chief Oren Lyons of the Haudenosaunee is co-editor of Exiled in the Land of the Free: Democracy, Indian Nations, and the U.S. Constitution. This book, written into the Congressional Record and adopted for courses at 12 universities, presents the strongest case ever made for Native American sovereignty and has major implications for relations between Indian nations, the United States, and other nations.
Chief Lyons reinforces Trudell’s message about responsibility toward the Earth rather than our rights.
The Haudenosaunee (Six Nation Iroquois) come to Manhattan every spring to hold their Drums Along The Hudson festival in Inwood Park.
The festival begins and ends with Mohawk elder Tom Porter giving a short version of the traditional Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address in English. He explains the response expected from the people present and thanks them for coming. Then he thanks everything from the sun, moon, stars, rain, air and birds; oceans, lakes, rivers, and fish; trees, food plants, medicinal herbs; animals; enlightened teachers; and the Creator. It is a very powerful experience of acknowledgement of our dependence on all of Nature.
The one-hour version of the Mohawk Thanksgiving Address is given before and after every major meeting of the Haudenosaunee. What would be the impact if the Thanksgiving Address were widely adopted by Western cultures? Would it help us take the time to understand our dependence on Mother Earth and better consider the impact of our decisions on the Earth and the next seven generations?
This is a short version of the Thanksgiving Address.
Mitakuye Oyasin: “All My Relations”
The Lakota (Sioux) Prayer “Mitakuye Oyasin” means “All my relations”. It recognizes not just family members, or the members of the tribe, all Indians, or even all people. It includes all animals as well as the trees, rivers, and stars — everything. It recognizes that we are connected to and dependent on everything. Mitakuye Oyasin is a simple, but profound concept that leaves no one and nothing out.
To Westerners, “relative” means a blood relation. We have not been taught to consider how we are related to all of creation and dependent on everything. Adopting this profound perspective changes our outlook on life and creates a different world. The reality is that we depend on bees to pollinate 30% of our food supply. We are also dependent on earthworms that till our soil and the global mycelium network beneath our feet that connects all of life and gives us medicinal and other mushrooms.
When Chief Oren Lyons spoke at the United Nations in 1977, he spoke as the representative of the world’s indigenous peoples. He could have focused on their rights and needs. Yet, with the understanding of our dependence on the Circle of Life, Chief Lyons said other species need representation as well. He told the U.N. delegates:
We are impoverished by ignoring these profound ancient cultures and enriched when we take the time to learn from these Wisdom Keepers. Perhaps they can rescue us from The Sixth Great Extinction now.
Neenah Payne writes for Natural Blaze and Activist Post