By John Crier
Lately, the prevailing paradigm known as western philosophy has come under scrutiny and been found wanting by people who are looking for a new world environment.
During this time of uncertainties, alternative philosophies have been “discovered” and have been presented as being harmonious and desirable as a new environment. Among these recently discovered worldviews are the traditional indigenous philosophies of the North American continent. I believe that the revival of our indigenous philosophy may be our way of contributing efforts to save ourselves, our home, from threat of societal destruction, to ensure the survival of human beings, or if not, at least the survival of Indigenous Peoples.
Traditional indigenous philosophy is recognized for its harmonious relationship with nature. The resulting beliefs of Indigenous Peoples lead towards a way of thinking and behaving which is consistent with being in harmony with Mother Earth. The ancient indigenous populations of this continent were largely hunting and gathering tribes. This way of life, this way of survival created a philosophy in which a harmonious relationship with all of creation is central. This relationship with nature created a way of life in which values other than economic ones became the guiding principles.
These traditional values may provide alternative perspectives to the present western philosophy. Therefore, it is equally important that both Indigenous Peoples and European people become aware of the important role that traditional philosophy may play towards saving our world.
Where is traditional indigenous philosophy today? What of the relationship with nature? In the past, traditional indigenous ceremonies were practiced openly as community events since there were no fears of reprisal for doing so. Daily interaction and becoming congruent with nature was a way of survival; therefore, the Indigenous People became part of the natural environment.
However, the process of “civilization” from European take-over of the continent meant that the Indigenous People were displaced onto reserves. They were prohibited from leaving these reserves, effectively cutting them off from the land, from their historic and sacred sanctuaries. Their ceremonies were banned, which meant that these ceremonies went underground. The ceremonies were no longer visible in public and largely unavailable to the community. As a result, the ceremonies and their practitioners became very secretive; open and public influence of these ceremonies became non-existent. Christian missionary practices were publicly proclaimed as the way of salvation for the savages, whose indigenous spiritual practices were labeled as superstitious and false.
Today, the effects of this process are visible: there are a great many Native people who proclaim Christianity as their faith and denounce traditional spirituality as the work of the devil. Since the reserves still exist, and the colonizing process is also ongoing, a state of confusion exists for many young Native people. A large number of Native people remain disconnected from the land, and consequently from nature. Many of the ceremonies traditionally were related to nature but because most practitioners themselves were also disconnected from the land (nature), their ceremonies became disconnected also and as a result became meaningless to a large degree.
The traditional Indigenous Peoples’ philosophy may be misinterpreted if based on what is visible of Native society today. Negative results are inescapable if a society has been virtually imprisoned in its own land. Even in the 2000s, there is a constant pressure, a constant message that a way of escaping this prison is to accept western philosophy as a way of life, in order to make progress away from a way of life portrayed as inferior.
Many have accepted this; many Native youth have innocently tried to escape this prison without knowledge of the consequences if they make this transition. Many leaders have preached that Indigenous People should take over this system and run it themselves. Many more have given up and died within the walls of this prison. However, it has also become increasingly evident that even an admitted concession to and acceptance of western philosophy is not a guarantee of success or acceptance from the system that runs the prison.
In traditional teachings there is a direction of purpose, such that a person would seek to eliminate boundaries between self and nature. In order to survive, one must commune with the world around the self. There is a great mystery in which all in creation are part of each other; all are related and all are spiritual beings, and therefore, all of life is spiritual.
There is an important relationship that all beings in creation share with one another, a reciprocal relationship. This relationship changes the concept of Mother Earth to that of an animate being. Mother Earth gives gifts and takes gifts from you: you give gifts and take gifts from Mother Earth. Only after this teaching is understood, after this relationship is established, and after the spiritual significance of Mother Earth is accepted does a human ego being begin to suspect and understand how insignificant he is compared to all of creation. This becomes the basis of respect and reference from which he offers his “giveaway” and his then humble prayer to creation.
Indigenous masters of survival understood this relationship. The Okihcih-tawahk people could travel the land with little more than personal sacred pouches; they relied upon and accepted the reciprocity of the universe. Everyone had to learn how to survive; some became masters of their world. The masters learned that one of the primary lessons was to become the best with what talent they were given. The Ontawahtaw journeyed inward for their talent, accepted all of selves good and bad. They then had to master and accept the dominant and awaken dormant energies within and they (energies) became allies of the Ontawahtawin.
Since pursuing inward pathways became a lifelong journey, the masters continued to grow spiritually and mentally. In order to be in integrity with all of personal selves, the Okihcih-tawahk chose and committed to act with loving benevolent intention and lived as if the intention was already carried out, and then the universe reciprocated from energy acted upon it.
The majority of traditional ceremonies are established rituals in this process of reciprocity with Mother Earth or with other animate beings of creation: the giving of gifts, paying respect to and honoring of other animate forms who give themselves as gifts to human beings and ensure their survival. These ceremonies are the established paths to connectedness with Mother Earth, the areas of transition, interaction and form of communication between human beings and other animate beings of creation. In the past, congruency with these teachings, ceremonies and their practices ensured survival for the Indigenous People.
Within the communities of human beings, the established social laws and family relationships derived from the philosophy about Mother Earth. The recognition of success and wealth was based not on the amount of accumulated material goods but on how well a human being understood, accepted and practiced the teachings and ceremonies. Old masters of the ceremonies taught that the consequence of human beings living life in a good way also received material blessings to ensure survival. Thus, a human being was deemed wealthy if he was blessed with an abundance of love and happiness in his life as a consequence of his relationships with Mother Earth. In other words, if he achieved harmony with nature, his survival and that of others with him was assured.
Every year this commitment to being in harmony was practiced through various ceremonies. As with creation evolving through the seasons, the human beings also did their part to be congruent by physically going through the ceremonies of the seasons. Every fall they made preparation for the coming winter, every winter they “hibernated”, every spring they awoke from their sleep, and every summer they looked for and brought home a new tree of life for the community.
Our work today is to interpret what this commitment will look like for present-age practitioners. Our work is to empower ourselves from the ceremonies, to rediscover and nurture the skill of building a harmonious relationship needed to survive in our modern environment. We are entering into a new world; we cannot physically hide, deny or return to what the old people had, but we can learn from them. We can awaken and learn that creation still exists as it existed for them.
Indigenous People cannot flee to another country or to another world; this is our mother land. Many other people living on this land may also share the same fate; many people are also choosing to become part of the land, to become part of creation, to accept and practice what survived the old people long ago. Thus, the spirit of the ancestors is being revived not only by us Indigenous People but also by other people sympathetic to and accepting of that ancient way of life.
Our escape from this burning toxic dream is to awaken and become part of the land again instead of living in a hypnotic trance of captivity. I believe that the trickster has put us in a trance, a bad dream where we have forgotten who we are. Thus, if we arouse from our sleep, we allow us to save ourselves.
Our Mother land and our societies are in a toxic state; from this destruction, there can be regeneration. Are we willing to open our eyes and accept each other? To be what creation has given us to be? Creation will survive; this land will create common ground for all people again. We can choose to shift our paradigm to be more attuned and harmonious with Mother Earth.
This is where the traditional indigenous philosophy may contribute to spiritual survival and to human survival. If we will not renew harmony with Mother Earth, we will not survive.
John Crier is Dean of Indigenous Studies at Maskwachees Cultural College in Hobbema, Alberta.
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