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Cornerstone Words

I’m gonna do a little preaching here.
Of all the words that Traditional People favor, Respect is the one used the most. It implies many things: values, morality, character, compassion, commitment, relationship, and more that is unspoken, but understood. We think it is the foundation of Traditional Life.
It begins with family and extended family, blossoming from an understanding of the importance of each generation’s contribution to the Peoples needs—physical, mental, and spiritual. By acknowledging the importance of each relationship—elder to child, child to provider, provider to elder, etc.—the balance of relatives maintain a civil and structured harmony.
The role each age group plays in the People’s life, with all its complex and interactive relationships and responsibilities, demands there be a formal process of recognizing, approaching, and acknowledging the contributions of each age group and relative. Indians speak in terms of those relationships. Personal names were seldom used, and even today the words which identify relationship within the family structure–aunt, uncle, cousin, brother, sister, grandmother, grandfather, husband, wife—are often used in place of common names. This is a measure of respect descended from the days when personal names were often unspoken, having greater meaning than the simple identification tags Europeans placed upon themselves. A name had Power. To respect that power and the individual who utilized it, our words for expressing relationship were used instead.
Respect extends into relationships in other ways: One does not touch
another person or their belongings without invitation. One does not walk in the space between someone and the fire without acknowledgement. One offers only a clean Pipe to another to smoke. One knows that sometimes it is appropriate to be silent and sometimes it is appropriate to speak. One knows when a gift is necessary to accompany a request.
These are simple examples of how respect allows for compassion, civility, authority, and relationship to maintain order and balance in our lives. Though specific forms may be distinct and individual to each Nation, the concepts are universal. Respect comes from the value we place upon each other’s gifts, contributions, and place in our lives. It comes from our gratitude for each other and from our love and desire for harmony.
Native communities have often been derided for being so accepting of their dysfunctional members. But traditional Native communities—founded on strict policies of personal independence, autonomous decision-making within families, and truly democratic leadership—depended on cooperation, compromise, and consensus for their very survival. Indeed, during the holocaust period we find numerous examples where hardheaded societies or individuals bucked the carefully nurtured system of conventions that required consensus, only to hamstring the decision–making abilities of the people at large, resulting in terrible tragedies to them all. The glue that holds Native people together is respect—and respect is not to be earned, as in western society, but is to be given freely. The community will provide shelter and sanctuary for all but the most dangerous and violent of its members. Western society has always dolled out its respect to members according to their wealth, importance, productivity, and appearance—but that acceptance is always temporary and conditional. Any misstep and you’re out! Western tradition asserts that one’s effort determines results. All shortcomings and failures are blamed on the individual. Native communities are more compassionate. They still believe they need every member, no matter what problems they might have, to remain a strong community. This is the radical difference that still exists between tribal communities and the isolated individuals of western society. Western society does not need the individual. The individual is expendable. Tribal communities may subtly criticize, they may even talk behind one’s back—but in the end, they cherish and give respect to every member.
Respect is learned by example. Many of our young People do not even know what it means. It has a much broader and more encompassing meaning than that of the one used by Americans today. See how some of us yell at one another—adult to child, teenager to adult, employer to employee, teacher to student, adult to elder, and on and on? Rudeness has become the rule.
The cliché says that respect must be earned. We believe respect must be given. These ideals are as far apart as the oceans that touch our eastern and western shores. Rude and divisive behavior threatens to drown our attempts at building the fire of harmony.
Respect is the Power that keeps the circle of the family from splintering into individuals, weak and alone.

We often hear American politicians talking about families and family values, but they have constructed a society that does its best to splinter and alienate families from one another. Glorifying individuality in service to its own needs, as opposed to those of a People, demands that families pursue separate and unconnected goals. While some ethnic groups still manage to hold on to the supportive structures of extended families, by and large, the American Nation has lost its relationship, purpose, and compassion for each other.
The circle of the family is the essence of tribal life, necessary in times where survival is a day-to-day business, and procuring the necessities of life requires the cooperation of every individual to insure success. The modern circle of the family carries even a more expansive responsibility—as important as ever in these more convenient times.
Human beings acquire experience, perspective, wisdom, and Power if they age in a balanced and harmonious manner. Elders carry history, spirituality, ritual, custom, tradition, language, and a natural desire to pass these on. They live to perpetuate what they have come to love to the children. The children and teen-agers provide curiosity, entertainment, energy, innocence, and eagerness for life. Our older providers give us stability, protection, procreation, comfort, culture, and activity in our lives. Babies are to love, hold, and cherish. These four parts of the circle together give our lives meaning.
To break the circle and deprive the family of any one of these quarters diminishes the family in every way. Together, the family benefits from every experience, and every activity. Each shared moment adds to its strength.
When anthropologists finally ask why Indians survived the holocaust here in America, the answer will be simple. The greater tribal family is a powerful and tenacious force from which parts can be killed, separated, and isolated—but when tied to the land and centuries of Tradition, it does not die. This is especially true for a culture that considers all life related and familial. Our families extend beyond this world—backward, forward, and beyond.
Today we are in danger of finally losing those relationships as the combined forces of time and circumstance force us to choose paths that conflict with our connections to our lands and tribal relationships. Many of our people have lost compassion for each other, even within individual families. It is the result of so many years of suffering, so much lost with so little taken in replacement. Dependency has turned our minds inward and we still prefer not to venture out beyond the protective borders of our isolation.
Every Indian still feels, and is aware of, these relationships. We talk about valuing our Elders and we still love our children. We are not so far away from our past. For those relationships to be restored we have only to find excuses to gather and share. It will not be easy, and it will require a little imagination. Perhaps some adoption between tribes will be necessary so that groups divided may still find circles where they can be accepted. Indians don’t like to think outside their tribal affiliation and in many places it won’t be necessary—but for Tribes who are broken beyond repair, someone must choose to gather them in—if not their own, then someone outside. New blood never hurt any tribe, and common ground between Indians is easy to find.
The real challenge is to keep our families together. We have to resist putting away our Elders, like so many modern and civilized people do, and farming out our children. Home schooling or Indian run schools will help. A greater dependency on each other is fundamental to our success. If we rebuild our trust in true tribal relationships, our family circles will strengthen on their own. Our Nations depend on it.

Once, the oldest grandparent down to the smallest child on this continent were filled with Spirit. They saw magic and mystery everywhere in the natural world. They demonstrated their reverence for life in every act they performed, and in every word they said. Spirituality was not a religious activity limited to attending church services or reading from a book. It permeated their life, guiding their every decision and action. Every moment they were aware of their spiritual responsibility to the Earth, to each other, and to themselves. With awe and wonder they lived their life, full of the awareness that the Powers were observing every thing they said, thought, and did. In many locations, it is impossible to find distinctions between social and spiritual interaction. All singing, music, and dance were expressions of the Sacred. Some Tribes did develop some separation between the two, but reverence was a pervasive spirit encompassing the Nations.
Today, much of that sense of magic and mystery has been lost. Institutional Christianity, for the most part, has failed to adequately fill the spiritual void left by the loss of our old beliefs. The bible story does not view the world in the same way. Its limits magic to only those events it recognizes as part of its own doctrine, and by conforming only to its institutionally accepted translations—dogmatizes the mystery of life. For all the discussions and finite assertions we have presented here on politics, social issues, dependency, preservation of culture, economic progress, unity, etc., the only real solution we have faith in is the renewal of true spirituality in our lives.
Anglo-Saxon Puritan Christianity has often failed to provide comfort for our People. For those who have fully embraced it, that approach to God seems to emphasizes only an individual relationship with the Creator. We perceive original Indigenous spirituality to be community based, emphasizing a continual expression of gratitude and wonder for the mystery of life. It does not focus on sin and punishment, but on beauty and renewal. We are immersed in it. It is not a once a week affair. Appreciating the Earth and celebrating our relationships together make up a large part of the earthly responsibility we share. It binds us and gives us a unified purpose. Without that sharing, the word “Tribe” loses its meaning and we only pick at the bones of these other issues.
The one identifying characteristic, other than our racial and ethnic identity, that sets us apart from the modern and civilized Peoples of the world is that, from generation to generation, we share binding ties in the passing of spiritual life and responsibility within the circle of our families. Those “ties” imply a group spirituality that provides an opportunity to share love, hope, faith, sacrifice, and commitment for each and every member of the Tribe. These ties are the cornerstones of a Nation. They include all the moral and ethical teachings and values we cherish.
The Hopi prophecy may express it best. Do we choose the road of the Creator or the road that leads into the whirlwind? It is our opinion that there is a purpose to life greater than gathering wealth, power, fame, or glory. It is in the life of the People–in praying and fulfilling ceremonial obligations that teach children or grandchildren our cherished beliefs. No matter what religion we profess, first and foremost among our Nations there must be a continuous expression of gratitude. The world is a beautiful but dangerous place. Our environment is always changing. No civilization is guaranteed forever. A genuine and comforting belief in the Powers and the Creator can give us a rock to cling to when the world shakes and we are afraid. But to remain hopeful, to appreciate this gift of life, and to be ever thankful—that is our family Tradition.
Morality relates not only to the actions of human beings toward other humans but toward the entire planet. In the Indigenous world, the earth is a living being. Every physical form upon it is comprised of the same elements moving and interacting. Earth, fire, air, water, rocks, trees, animals, and human beings are built from the same blocks. All these forms share this inner life for differing purposes in our global family. The rock does not speak because that is not its purpose. Indigenous people do not ascribe to humanity any superiority or greater value than our environment—because we could not sustain our lives separate from it. If we depend on it, how can we be superior to it? To be very frank, some of our Elders predicted these circumstances a century ago because they recognized the selfish belief that considers humanity to be the preferred species of the earth rather than as an integral equal part of the whole.
We are asked to possess three characteristics: respect for Creation, responsibility to act in the best interests of Creation, and gratitude for that Creation. Indigenous people revere Creation. It is all Sacred. We view death as a natural process. Just as we eat, so we are eaten—and give back our spirits to Creation. We know that the basic elements of creation are everlasting and cannot die. No guilt—no blame. As the volcano pours its lava into the villages below, we are assured that someday flowers will sprout in the enriched soil of that destruction. That is what separates natural violence from the violence of men. Natural violence will always result in new creation. However, the horrors men put upon each other do not guarantee that from those horrors new flowers of great beauty will sprout. There is a difference between the mysterious order and purpose of natural destruction in Creation and the willful and calculated violence of human beings purposely destroying the very relationships that should give their life meaning, purpose, and joy. Amoshi says that it is the fear of death, the fear of judgment, the fear of loss, and the very selfish fear of personal extinction that leads men to evil.
In our family, we think that it is part of man’s purpose to search for a balance between fate and choice. Those who have chosen war and conflict will not be convinced or changed. My Pomo friend, Clayton Duncan, says an Elder once told him that Americans are—“the people of ruin, everything they touch they ruin—that has become their purpose.” In America, one would expect that people would be overwhelmed with gratitude for our many blessings and overflow with compassion. For our leaders to act with attitudes of arrogance, superiority, and a willingness to exercise a violent spirit can only lead to our losing these blessings. We cannot expect to move away from revenge and violence toward morality and gratitude until we acknowledge the absence of the sacred in this modern path—until; once again, we revere Creation.

Relationship is another key to Tribal survival. Some Elders have likened it to the glue that holds the Universe together. The philosophy of maintaining balance in a world filled with difficulty and pain is based on recognizing and being responsible to the interconnected reliance between all life, and our Earth, as well as the spirit world, and Our Creator. Relationship is more than just emotional attachment; it is an understanding of the dependencies we share.
Deciduous trees do not drop leaves just before winter simply because their genetic code calls for it. They drop them to lay down a protective covering mulch for the more fragile plants beneath them, and to provide enrichment for the soil in the spring. Little birds sit on the backs of rhinos, whispering warnings and eating their pests. Acacia trees use the wind to tell their neighbors of leaf-eaters on the way. Carnivores and herbivores take life in order to survive, whether green-growing or blood-being. These sacrifices to each other, animal to human, plant to animal, plant to human, must all be viewed within the context of interconnected Nations supporting each other in the quest for life. Death is a natural occurrence, a termination of physical presence only. It does not imply the loss of any spirit or energy other than a transformation from one form to another. The Creator, in maintaining the balance of this world, gives human beings a special status. By being gifted the ability to perceive beauty and harmony we are obligated to be grateful, to recognize the sacrifices of those who give their lives for our well-being, and to care take our Grandmother Earth, who is the source of everything physical in our lives.
Just as the tree does not consider why it drops its leaves, conservation, and balance was never an ideal that was consciously discussed or perceived by Tribal Peoples. It was ingrained in our way of life. Our Old Ones shared a sense of belonging to their world. They had an affection for rocks, trees, plants, animals, earth, water, rain and Spirit that went far beyond a conscious spoken affinity or altruistic New Age babble about relationship or communication with other forms of life.
Phrases of our generation like “loving the land” and “being one with the earth” imply an intellectual understanding of the natural principles of balance and harmony, but are often more romantic yearnings than a true subjective emotional attachment.
Relationship implies kinship, support, responsibility, and commitment. It would be incorrect to imply that every tribal member from our past was a sterling example of intellectual purity and pristine ecological practice. We were human beings, and like any other Peoples, we had our faults and imperfections. But it is also true that we shared a common view of ourselves as an integral part of our surroundings, neither inferior, nor superior to the Earth and all the other forms of life we share her with.
The power of that philosophy sustained our relatives through the loss of their world. It is only in the last few generations that our Peoples have begun to lose their direct tie to the land, and see our balance erode farther and farther away. One attribute of that philosophy is the ability to sense our relationship with the Universe and its Powers, and to feel a true sense of belonging in our world. It is a feeling of relationship that goes beyond “human”, to encompass all life, and to extend the definition of life beyond animate objects. When one has a solid grip on that balance, one is never alone in the world.
No matter what problems human beings have between each other, our relationships with our “other” relatives can provide strength, comfort, and consolation. Communication with these relatives does not imply a form of direct conversation. A simple knowledge of their attributes, characteristics, and properties contributes to a bond of relationship that transcends speech.
In our constant quest for inner and outer harmony, the Earth, and our other non-human relations provide consistent lessons in how life should be pursued and lived. We strive to be as fulfilled as the rock or the tree, accepting what we are given without complaint and relentlessly holding to what we are, pursuing our lives until we pass on to the next reality.

Because our minds grasp these concepts and we can communicate them to our young through action and language, we have a responsibility to uphold the position of leadership we have enjoyed for many thousands of years as the dominant species. We define dominant as having the power to disrupt or destroy the natural order, and do not imply a superior spiritual, intellectual, or physical importance. Whether or not the Creator Mystery intends that we should continue this “leadership” is unknown, but what is certain is that many human beings have lost their connection to stewardship of the land and emotional attachment to the natural world. Many of our children do not even know that such a relationship is supposed to exist. They have no “feeling” for the land, or their relatives. It is dead to them. Today, many of us do not even have common affection for our human relatives!
It is not a condition easily changed. Change begins with consistent vocal and public demonstrations of gratitude, and with education to the real underlying powers of our ancestors. History, heritage, culture, and ceremony, infused with the attributes of gratitude and recognized relationship, can gift back to our children their natural ability to find peace, balance, and harmony in a tragic and difficult world.
Once we did not have to speak of our relationships to each other and our Earth. We did not need to speak for ecology and frugality, or of waste and pollution. We did not need to speak for our relatives, the trees, plants, animals, rocks, or for the purity of water and air. We did not have to voice our affection for all our relatives because it was a natural feeling. But the world has changed, and perhaps it is time that we speak openly of such things, to retake our place as a protector of these lands.
The abrogation of our responsibility toward maintaining the balance of our world has led humankind to the door of destruction. Prophecy is real, carved in rock, protected by original caretakers. Though yearly Dances of Renewal continue, human beings must choose the path of balance, harmony, peace, relationship, and gratitude—or continue toward the Whirlwind.
We fear that the majority of us are choosing poorly.

For Our Children:

1. An environment of hardship and disappointment develops courage and character.
2. In order to serve each other and the earth we understand that there will be inequality and need among the people.
3. Hope requires that we face constant insecurity and uncertainty in our lives.
4. To have faith we need to acknowledge that we don’t know everything and our beliefs can change.
5. In order for there to be truth there must also be lies and errors in judgement.
6. In order to be idealistic we must continually reach for what is better and more beautiful.
7. To be loyal we must risk betrayal and desertion and stay true to loyalty.
8. To be unselfish we should resist the temptation to be honored and recognized.
9. In order to embrace good we should chose conscience and sacrifice above self-gratification.
10. In order to find contentment we must face the pain and suffering of life bravely.

Our Old Ones reassured us that there is a next world, and that some form of our life continues after death. Since we owe all that we have to their wisdom, we trust that their Vision is truthful. They braved the ending of a world, and did not give up. If for no other reason than to honor their sacrifices, we should fight to live.
Be comforted.

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James BlueWolf

3 comments to Cornerstone Words

  • mistermuse

    James, I hope that your “preaching” (as you call it) will be not just to the choir. It more than warrants being taken into consideration by anyone who happens upon it.

    Since I have no reason to take issue with the merits of your ‘sermon,’ I will respectfully quibble with the “wisdom” expressed in your last paragraph. NO ONE — not even those who believe in a Creator, as I do (but not necessarily in the God of man’s religions) — KNOWS “that there is a next world, and some form of our life” that “continues after death.” Yes, we can hope — but is honoring the sacrifices of “Our Old Ones” sufficient reason to trust that their Vision is valid, except in a non-literal sense? And in that sense, is it any different than the faith in life after death that religious people have everywhere, based on what has come down from their “Old Ones”?

  • James BlueWolf

    mistermuse–No, it’s not any different, but it is understood by other Natives that there is a great deal of mystery in our world, Myself, I need no such assurance in an afterlife to live out my mortality. However there are those that “need” that assurance for comfort and what harm does it to affirm it? My son is dead and my wife would suffer greatly if she were reminded of your point of view. Indeed, her remaining desire to live would be challenged. To accept that his presence and form is forever denied to her, her only son and closest friend and confidant, would only serve to emphasize the cruel nature of Nature. I can accept that possibility and envision more complex and philosophical forms of immortality that don’t acknowledge an afterlife, but she cannot. She also knows that many of our Elders visions and prophecies have come true. She has an innate ability to perceive unknown events and future circumstances that I cannot. But I have witnessed them first hand and do not question her mysterious abilities. Many of us witnessed “miracles ” in healing and manipulation of natural systems in our youth by our Old Ones who still had their contact with the Earth and mysteries currently lost to us. However I would never expect, or ask you, or anyone not Native, to accept or believe in those events. I only believe what I have seen. You, and others who have not had these experiences should not be asked to accept them. I should have made it clearer at that point that I was speaking to a particular audience and not the general populace. Thanks for the quibble, it reminds me that differnces need not be divisive and we can discuss these differences rationally. james

  • mistermuse

    James, I did not mean to imply (if that’s what you thought I did) that anyone is obliged to take a second look at the thing that gives them comfort, just because I question whether it stands up to the point(s) I raise. We may ‘all be in this together,’ but that doesn’t mean we all must get through it together the same way. To be honest with ourselves and each other is about the most that flawed human beings can expect (or at least ask), and you have my complete respect in that regard.

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