Cultural appropriation and Native American wisdom.

“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that their sources are extremely hard to verify.”
-Abraham Lincoln

And see, there are so many things out there like that where some bit of human wisdom or snippet of humor is attributed to somebody, or anybody, or George Carlin, or Mother Teresa, or Bill Cosby, or Rameumptom X. Analemma, or “Native American Philosophy.” Particularly in the latter case, it becomes more of an issue than a simple misattribution, because cultural appropriation can be more than insulting, it can actually be harmful to the original culture.

Disclaimer: I’m writing as a white man, a descendant of Italian and British immigrants. I claim no authority to speak for other cultures, but I’m sharing my own experiences and perceptions.

Here’s a good example:


While it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility, I’d bet a steak dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT in Beverly Hills that no “Old Indian” ever said this. But somehow, slapping a few pictures of Native Americans or Teepees or such things on a list of ideas lends a certain cachet of traditionality and wisdom to an otherwise bland list of platitudes. And I feel as though they must seem dismissive of the native heritage, much of which is sacred and not designed for sharing with outsiders – particularly those who stole the land, shoved the natives into reservations, and used the native culture for attention, advertising, and financial gain.

What prompted these thoughts were just such a list which I found, and which I liked. They are good ideas, and worthy of consideration by any culture.

1. Each morning upon rising, and each evening before sleeping, give thanks for the life within you and for all life, for the good things the Creator has given you and for the opportunity to grow a little more each day. Consider your thoughts and actions of the past day and seek for the courage and strength to be a better person. Seek for the things that will benefit others (everyone).

2. Respect. Respect means “To feel or show honor or esteem for someone or something; to consider the well being of, or to treat someone or somethin with deference or courtesy”. Showing respect is a basic law of life.

3. Treat every person from the tiniest child to the oldest elder with respect at all times.

4. Special respect should be given to Elders, Parents, Teachers, and Community Leaders.

5. No person should be made to feel “put down” by you; avoid hurting other hearts as you would avoid a deadly poison.

6. Touch nothing that belongs to someone else (especially Sacred Objects) without permission, or an understanding between you.

7. Respect the privacy of every person, never intrude on a person’s quiet moment or personal space.

8. Never walk between people that are conversing.

9. Never interrupt people who are conversing.

10. Speak in a soft voice, especially when you are in the presence of Elders, strangers or others to whom special respect is due.

11. Do not speak unless invited to do so at gatherings where Elders are present (except to ask what is expected of you, should you be in doubt).

12. Never speak about others in a negative way, whether they are present or not.

13. Treat the earth and all of her aspects as your mother. Show deep respect for the mineral world, the plant world, and the animal world. Do nothing to pollute our Mother, rise up with wisdom to defend her.

14. Show deep respect for the beliefs and religion of others.

15. Listen with courtesy to what others say, even if you feel that what they are saying is worthless. Listen with your heart.

16. Respect the wisdom of the people in council. Once you give an idea to a council meeting it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the people. Respect demands that you listen intently to the ideas of others in council and that you do not insist that your idea prevail. Indeed you should freely support the ideas of others if they are true and good, even if those ideas ideas are quite different from the ones you have contributed. The clash of ideas brings forth the Spark of Truth.

17. Once a council has decided something in unity, respect demands that no one speak secretly against what has been decided. If the council has made an error, that error will become apparent to everyone in its own time.

18. Be truthful at all times, and under all conditions.

19. Always treat your guests with honor and consideration. Give of your best food, your best blankets, the best part of your house, and your best service to your guests.

20. The hurt of one is the hurt of all, the honor of one is the honor of all.

21. Receive strangers and outsiders with a loving heart and as members of the human family.

22. All the races and tribes in the world are like the different colored flowers of one meadow. All are beautiful. As children of the Creator they must all be respected.

23. To serve others, to be of some use to family, community, nation, and the world is one of the main purposes for which human beings have been created. Do not fill yourself with your own affairs and forget your most important talks. True happiness comes only to those who dedicate their lives to the service of others.

24. Observe moderation and balance in all things.

25. Know those things that lead to your well-being, and those things that lead to your destruction.

26. Listen to and follow the guidance given to your heart. Expect guidance to come in many forms; in prayer, in dreams, in times of quiet solitude, and in the words and deeds of wise Elders and friends.

Now, whenever I see such a compilation, I ask myself where they really came from – and as I mentioned above, it’s often difficult to trace things of this nature back to an original source. But in this case, it appears that the list above is based in fact, although it was embellished somewhat.

The list below, found at the website of Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools¹, was gathered at a conference held in Lethbridge, Alberta in December, 1982. Indian Elders, spiritual leaders, and professionals from across Canada offered these fundamental elements that they considered to be common among Canadian Indian philosophies. That seems to be about as authentic as one can get.

  • Wholeness. (Holistic thinking). All things are interrelated. Everything in the universe is part of a single whole. Everything is connected in some way to everything else. It is only possible to understand something if we understand how it is connected to everything else.
  • Change. Everything is in a state of constant change. One season falls upon the other. People are born, live, and die. All things change. There are two kinds of change: the coming together of things, and the coming apart of things. Both kinds of change are necessary and are always connected to each other.
  • Change occurs in cycles or patterns. They are not random or accidental. If we cannot see how a particular change is connected it usually means that our standpoint is affecting our perception.
    The physical world is real. The spiritual world is real. They are two aspects of one reality. There are separate laws which govern each. Breaking of a spiritual principle will affect the physical world and vice versa. A balanced life is one that honors both.
  • People are physical and spiritual beings.
  • People can acquire new gifts, but they must struggle to do so. The process of developing new personal qualities may be called “true learning”. There are four dimensions of “true learning”.
    A person learns in a whole and balanced manner when the mental, spiritual, physical and emotional dimensions are involved in the process.
  • The spiritual dimension of human development has four related capacities:
    • the capacity to have and respond to dreams, visions, ideals, spiritual teaching, goals, and theories;
    • the capacity to accept these as a reflection of our unknown or unrealized potential;
    • the capacity to express these using symbols in speech, art, or mathematics;
    • the capacity to use this symbolic expression towards action directed at making the possible a reality.
  • People must actively participate in the development of their own potential.
  • A person must decide to develop their own potential. The path will always be there for those who decide to travel it.
  • Any person who sets out on a journey of self-development will be aided. Guides, teachers, and protectors will assist the traveler. The only source of failure is a person’s own failure to follow the teachings.

Wisdom belongs to humanity, regardless of the source. If that wisdom is shared for the betterment of all, it seems entirely appropriate and legitimate. If it’s used for financial gain to the detriment of a minority culture, that’s when it becomes questionable.

The first list above may not be entirely authentic, but both consist of good thoughts which, if adopted by humanity as a whole, would lead to a much better world for everyone. Hence I feel comfortable sharing both of them.

The Old Wolf² has spoken.

¹ Lots of other good information at this link as well.

² It is not lost on me that the persona I have adopted for this blog and in other circles has a native/shamanistic aspect. No disrespect is intended to any culture; all I can say is that it resonates with me and encourages me to turn my efforts toward the betterment of humanity as a whole.

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