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Native American Wisdom Keepers

by Wendy Stokes

Early History

The native people of America were first called “Red Indians” by Christopher Columbus, when, upon arriving in North America, he thought he was in the East Indies on his way to India! There would have been 1,000 native languages in use at this time. Studies have suggested that people traveled during the ice age, perhaps as long as 30,000 years ago, from Mongolia, over the Bering Straits land bridge into Alaska, and down through the Americas. Shamanic culture that survive in Mongolia are thought to be similar to the native American shamanic practices. There is also some evidence that sailors left Europe in small canoes, surviving the frozen ice floes of the Atlantic Ocean to arrive on the Eastern sea board of the Americas. These early people hunted, fished, grew crops and flourished as very diverse and distinct indigenous people that include Alaskans, New Mexicans, Hawaiians, and tribal people of both North and South America. They developed stone weapons, the bow and arrow, war clubs and spears. It is known that 7,000 years ago food supplies would have included squashes, pumpkins, watermelon and maize and by 800AD beans and corn were on the menu.

Ways of Being

Each tribe was distinguished from another and it was taboo to marry within one’s own clan. In order to provide demarcation, clans took distinctive names, such as wolf, eagle, raven and blackfish and each had dress codes, tattoos and face paint to provide recognition and identity. Most of the tribes were nomadic, transporting easily erected homes from pasture to pasture, though some tribes lived in permanent wooden houses. An extended family would live together. Women would soak, scrape and rub hides until softened for making swaddling, clothes, moccasins and bedspreads. When a member of a clan died, the corpse was placed in a buffalo shroud and some corpses would be cremated or hung on a tree to feed nature. Generally, every person within the community found a respectful place within it. Elderly, infirm and young and others unable to provide sufficiently for themselves were cared for by those in a stronger position.

Water repellent clothing was made from leather and was used for shawls, blankets and rugs. The Inuit of the North hand crafted harpoons and used dog sleds and kayaks. The people of the North West Pacific lived in plank houses, and were known for their amazingly carved totem poles, and for the Potlatch Festival (where the status of their leaders depended on gift giving and was a means of redistributing wealth) and they made conical hats of cedar wood. Seminoles people of the South East made clothes of plant fibers and decorated them with bead work. The Californian tribes also lived in huts and were known for their sweat lodges, their elaborately woven baskets and boats made from sedge. The Cherokee of the South East built canoes, made beautiful pottery and decorated their clothing with elk teeth, porcupine quills, bear claws and shells. Feathers were frequently awarded for acts of courage and worn in a head-dress. The Algonquian of the North East lived in wigwams around the Great Lakes. Each home was made by specialist women who used many buffalo hides sewn with buffalo sinew and decorated with painted murals. They also made beaded belts called “wampum” that were used as barter, as a measure of length, and helped to recall the complex creation myths and ancient legends handed down by word of mouth. These people were trappers, known for making dream-catchers, and for their pow-wows (times of socializing, singing and dancing). The women wore around their waists a belt hung with a knife and a sewing kit. Women would keep a ‘time ball’, a length of thread, marking with a knot all the major events in their life. This thread would be buried with them when they passed in to the happy hunting lands. The Western Navaho lived in hogans. These were benders shaped like beehives that were consecrated to the Great Spirit. In the hot summers, they moved to open sided shelters. These were a warrior tribe and their teenagers were trained early in raiding, hunting and herding, even raiding other tribes for cattle and horses. These Navaho were famous for their weaponry and for silver-smithing and ceremonial art and sand-paintings. The Apache, also a warrior clan, lived in windowless tipis made to wooden poles and brushwood. When young, they were trained in the tribal arts by their grandmothers. Young people enjoyed play but also had important duties to perform at a young age. Boys would run until exhausted and a spirit guardian then came to them. Young girls would, at puberty, were thought to be possessed by a powerful spirit. These two tribes considered everything in the world sacred and that wells and trees, even stones possessed a spirit, and that four-legged, winged and the scaled people were all sent by the Great Spirit to help humankind. The Iroquois were traders of the North East who lived in long houses and used snow-shoes during the winter. They are known for their wooden ceremonial masks used in hunting to disguise themselves as their prey. These are the oldest surviving self-governing population of Native Americans.

Ways of Worship

The tribal elders were respected by the entire community. Worship took place with drumming, dancing and chanting. Problems in society were addressed by the elders who communicated directly with the spirits and communed with spirit helpers, often receiving wisdom in a dream. Theses spirit instructed them in sacred songs, taboos and power objects, and their insight provided advice, judgments, prophecy, nature quests (of fasting and isolation) dances and healing (such as bone setting, massage, herbal remedies and sweat lodges). Life itself was part of the Great Mystery which is chosen to complete our Earth Walk. They appealed to sea, land and sky spirits and to the Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka in Sioux language) for assistance in times of drought, war and pestilence. Children were taught games to stimulate self discipline and fair play and all adults were expected to take responsibility for their own choices and actions. Wrongdoing was punished, often severely. They had no written laws, each individual was measured and each act was measured on an individual basis. All life was regarded as sacred and revered and they did not hunt at mating or birthing times as they knew this would decrease the herd. Many tribes believed in reincarnation and that it is possible to be reborn as an animal so they treated the animals without cruelty. Many tribes, such as the Navaho and Apache were matrilineal and matriarchal and many tribes are non-hierarchical. Cherokee women owned the family property, and the Sioux women learnt to ride and hunt, and would fight alongside the men to protect their home and territory. Mainly women were chosen as healers in the Yurok clan. Women were thought to have been created before men and were usually the keepers of sacred knowledge while men hunted, went to war and raided other tribes. Elders, female and male, served an apprenticeship of 25 to 30 years of understudy and were chosen for their wisdom and brave deeds. Medicine healers knew a great deal about the uses of herbs and many allopathic drugs have been derived from their ancient knowledge. Smoking tobacco, a plant of the Americas, was used for ritual purposes and the elaborate peace pipe was offered as a form of relaxation and forgiveness. A left hand placed on the heart was also a sign of peace.

Colonial Arrivals

When the early colonists arrived from Spain in the early seventeenth century, the indigenous people had no immunity to common infectious diseases and many tribes were close to extinction through epidemics of small-pox, chicken-pox, measles and influenza which were carried along trading routes. Sheep and horses were introduced at this time. The nineteenth century wave of colonists hunted bison to near extinction, with only 500 of the species alive on the plains. The loss of the traditional source of food, shelter and clothing adversely affected the capacity of the tribal people to survive. Many suicides by poison took place, women would abort children, and this was prior to the appalling oppression of the settlers who restricted the natives’ languages and religions, forced them to relocate to reservation lands, enslaved them as unpaid servants, and placed children into boarding schools to force Christianity upon them and to cleanse them of their ancient heritage. The potlatch ceremonies and customs were outlawed. On the plains, the Sun Dance, an initiation of young men into maturity and a thanking and praying for renewal was prohibited by the Government. They danced the ‘Ghost Dance’, a dance where the ancestors joined them to banish the white settlers who had brought them such immense distress. For this dance they wore specially consecrated garments that they prayed would give them special protection against bullets and canon-fire. In order to break up tribal allegiances, US Government insisted they conform by force if necessary. Their traditional life of fishing, hunting, growing crops, performing their sacred chants and dances, were restricted and left the people dispossessed, depressed and dysfunctional.

When gold and silver, gemstones and other valuable resources were found on native land, the people were victimized, bribed to move or slaughtered. After numerous betrayals, the Sioux had been promised food in return for the sale of their land to the US Government. Only 500 bison remained on the plains and the people were starving. Gold had been found in the pine covered Black Hills (known as the Paha Sepa) but the Sioux Nation refused to sell as this was the spiritual centre of their world, where the people withdrew from the hot summer plains to fast, pray and to establish communion with their ancestral spirits and renew their spiritual strength. On 15th December, 1890, the great Chief Sitting Bull who had been instrumental in the success against Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn was murdered at the Standing Rock Reservation by natives who had joined the police to arrest him dead or alive. The Sioux, under threat of extermination, agreed to remove themselves to a reservation. When 500 US Cavalry with mounted canon surrounded the Sioux encampment to confiscate all weapons and remove the people to the reservation, a deaf man insisted he was paid for his gun. They prepared for the Ghost Dance. A battle ensued and all the natives, approx 350 were slaughtered, most of whom were women and children. 500 soldiers lost their lives and many were awarded the Medal of Honor by the US Government.

Recent Developments

It has been discovered that Native Americans smelted iron long before the Europeans arrived. They were an advanced tribal people, with far superior ethical standards to the white settlers. They ecologists, in that they respected the land and only took from it what nature could replace because they knew each species is dependent on all others. The great tribes of the Americas, had withstood many waves of infectious diseases, the near extermination of the bison, the attacks on their lands and people, enslavement, the reservation culture of displaced and disempowered people who had turned to alcohol, and enforced intermarriage.

In 1924 the US granted citizenship to the tribes in gratitude for the many acts of considerable courage shown by the tribes during the First World War. The Sioux Nation want the Medals of Honor awarded during the slaughter of their people in the Black Hills to be withdrawn because 64,000 of the Sioux Nation fought in the Second World War, and during these four years, only three such medals were awarded to them.

When oil was discovered in the Great Basin, the tribes fought and won a lawsuit for compensation. Not until the 1950s, was it legal for the Native American tribes to rediscover their heritage, retrace their language, religion and conduct codes. Antique craftwork is highly sought after with major museums competing for pottery, painting, carving, weaving, leatherwork, sculpture, needlework, shell and stone work, beadwork and basketry, all of which fetch record prices at major auction houses. They increasingly celebrate the old ways of their ancestors, by handicrafts, vision quests, sweat lodges, and communal dances. Acona and Zuni tribes have moved back to their ancestral lands.

Common Expressions

There are many expressions that have entered the English language that have their roots in the lives and the culture of the Native American peoples. At night, the Northern tribes used to hunt racoons with hunting dogs. When the racoons heard the dogs approaching, they hid high in the trees where the dog could not climb. Sometimes, the dogs were mistaken as to which tree the racoons are hiding in and would “bark up the wrong tree”. This expression is used today to mean a ‘mistaken cause’. When Native Americans want to put an end to a conflict, they bury their weapons of war in the ground. Our expression ‘to bury the hatchet’ means to declare peace!

Well known Native American sayings

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish caught, will they realise, they cannot eat money.”

Wakan Tanka Nici Un – May the Great Spirit Walk With You.

“It is less a problem to be poor than be dishonest.” Anishabe

“It is better to have less thunder in the voice and more lightening in the hands.” Apache

“Take only what you need and leave the land as you found it.” Arapaho

“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” Cherokee

“Cherish youth, but trust old age.” Pueblo

“The frog does not drink up the pond in which it lives.” Sioux

Suggested reading:

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions by John Fire Lame Deer.

Shamanism by Mircea Eliade

Wendy Stokes is the author of 'The Lightworkers' Circle Guide - A Workbook for Spiritual Groups' published worldwide by O Books and available on Amazon. For more information, visit: http://www.wendystokes.co.uk

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