Native American Traditions Affirm Kinship With Nature
While Native American traditions reflect each tribe’s specific geographical roots, and unique spiritual vision, certain themes are widespread among them. Kinship with the environment is a sacred and unifying force, binding humankind in the Native American view.
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” ~ Chief Seattle, 1855
Sacred Ways, Unbound to Paper
Unlike Western, Asian, or Middle Eastern religions, Native American beliefs are not based on holy texts, written prophecies, or documented moral codes. They are embodied in sacred ways — simultaneously spiritual and pragmatic — passed from one generation to the next via oral teachings.
Native American teachings seamlessly weave together the themes of kinship, tribal identity tethered to geographic place, intimate knowledge of the local environment, and creation mythos.
In Native American culture, economic and spiritual considerations cannot easily be teased apart. Traditional reverence for the natural world is based on the notion that all aspects — plants, animals, water, rocks, sun, sky, and wind — are animated by spirits whose origin is the same as that of human beings.
The relationship of Native American people to nature, therefore, is the same as that between family members: intimate, supportive, interactive — not without conflict, but often negotiable, especially in their local environment.
In her article, Indigenous Traditions – North America, Melissa K. Nelson calls this “kincentric ecology,” a phrase coined by ethnoecologist Enrique Salmon who explains:
“Indigenous people view both themselves and nature as part of an extended ecological family that shares ancestry and origin.”
Dialogue from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Animal Dreams, captures this respectful familiarity in contemporary terms:
Loyd: “It has to do with keeping things in balance. It’s like the spirits have made a deal with us. We’re on our own. The spirits have been good enough to let us live here and use the utilities, and we’re saying, ‘We know how nice you’re being. We appreciate the rain, we appreciate the sun, we appreciate the deer we took. Sorry if we messed up anything. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble, and we’ll try to be good guests.'”
Codi: “Like a note you’d send somebody after you’d stayed in their house?”
Loyd: “Exactly like that. ‘Thanks for letting me sleep on your couch. I took some beer out of the refrigerator, and I broke a coffee cup. Sorry, I hope it wasn’t your favorite one.'”
Every Family Has Troubles
This is not to say that all traditional practices have always led to an ideal environmental outcome. The Plains Indians routinely killed entire herds of buffalo by forcing them over a precipice, not allowing any escape to “warn” other buffalo away from their people.
Similar potential overkilling can be seen in northwest tribal practices, like the First Salmon ceremony. Rather than allowing any salmon to evade capture, the skeleton of the first fish caught and eaten was ritually released back to the ocean to be reborn, thereby relaying the spawning route to next year’s harvest.
Nevertheless, the kinship between Native Americans and the environment provides a model of affectionate respect that modern society should consider emulating. Clinging to an attitude of entitlement and domination has led to far greater environmental disasters than tribal societies ever faced, when left to their own devices.
Spiritual Forces Abide Wherever Indigenous People Reside
John A. Grim aptly sums up the profound understanding underlying Native American traditional approaches to the environment. In his article, Indigenous Traditions and Ecology, Grim perceptively recognizes the unifying and guiding forces abiding in the Native American perspective:
“. . . wherever indigenous peoples have endured, they have maintained a loving experience of place and an understanding that spiritual forces capable of leading humans into both utilitarian and self-understandings abide in all of these places.”
(Image Notes: “The Gift” by Ernest L. Blumenschein, public domain. Read about this famous painter of Native American Indians in Ernest L. Blumenschein: The Life of an American Artist By Robert W. Larson, Carole B. Larson)
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