(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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Sometime between 16,000 and 20,000 years ago, large areas of the earth were covered with glaciers. That resulted in lower ocean levels which in turn opened up a land bridge across the Bering sea from Asia to present day Alaska. People from Asia migrated across that land bridge and spread by land and sea southward. They were America’s real first Pilgrims. By at least 11,000 years ago, these indigenous people, known as Clovis people, had settled across much of western North America and into Central and South America.
Moving with the Clovis from Asia and across the land bridge were buffalo. They too spread into the wide open areas of North America. At one time, bison ranged from Northern Canada south to Mexico, and east to west from California to New York and even south into Florida. Although buffalo are large animals and difficult to hunt, they were a vital resource for indigenous people. Many indigenous tribes moved with buffalo herds since they were so dependent on them.
Indigenous people hunted buffalo by surrounding slower ones, or by chasing some over cliffs. Every part of a buffalo was used – the skin and fur for clothing and shelter, the meat for food, horns and bones for carving into tools, and tendons and sinew for rope and sewing. Luther Standing Bear, a current member of the Lakota tribe, says that when buffalo roamed in the multitudes, indigenous people were “frugal in the midst of plenty.” They killed only what they could use. That allowed for the bison population to accommodate the relatively few taken by natives.
The relationship between bison and indigenous tribes therefore had a spiritual dimension. Natives believed spirits of their ancestors inhabited buffalo and other animals. All of creation, they believed, are animated by a great spirit. Indigenous people were part of a spiritually harmonic co-existence with the animals they hunted, the plants they gathered, the prairie and mountains on which they lived, and with the sun, moon and stars that directed their lives. And so buffalo, like all of creation, were deeply respected..
As recently as 1800, there were over 200 million buffalo on this continent. But then white Europeans began spreading across the landt and, with their guns and horses, initiated a mass slaughter of both buffalo and indigenous people.
Contests were held for killing the most number of bison in a short time. One settler in Kansas set a recored by killing 120 buffalo in forty minutes. Passengers on trains were encouraged to shoot buffalo – just for fun – from the windows as they rode. Most white hunters only took the skin – leaving the rest of the animal to rot. Wiping out bison was also seen as a way to eliminate indigenous people. One Army general said buffalo hunters did more to defeat indigenous people than did soldiers.
In a little over one-hundred years, from 1800 to 1907, buffalo were rendered nearly extinct. Only a few hundred survived in the first national park of Yellowstone.
A similar mass slaughter happened to indigenous people in North America. At the time of the white Pilgrims in 1620, there were approximately 18 million indigenous people in North America. By 1900, there were less than 250,000.
The near extinction of bison and indigenous American people offers, for me, a sobering insight into Thanksgiving values I should honor. The story of the first celebration of that holiday is one many of us know. A small remnant of English immigrants to North America had survived a difficult first year to then reap a decent fall harvest. Their survival was largely due to the help they received from local indigenous people, the Wam-pan-o-ag, who taught the Pilgrims hunting and farming techniques suited for the continent, and introduced them to a new crop – corn.
A feast of gratitude was held at which Pilgrims and Wam-pan-o-ag attended. The majority of food was provided by the natives. Thanks were offered by the Pilgrims for their own hard work, and for the blessings of God. If any gratitude was expressed to the natives, it was not lasting. Less than fifty years after that first Thanksgiving, the Wam-pan-o-ag tribe had been mostly eliminated by a war with the white immigrants and by diseases brought by them. Surviving Wam-pan-o-ag people were sold into slavery.
This November 24th, most of us will honor that supposed first Thanksgiving with a celebration of our own. Thanksgiving has largely remained non-commercial because it’s based on Pilgrim values of gratitude and giving. While those values are good, they overlook ones from the first true Pilgrims to this land – those of the Clovis people and their descendants – a people who have dwelled upon this continent for twenty-thousand years. White Europeans and their ancestors have been here for only 400 years.
It is Native American values, ones that continue today in all Indigenous cultures, that I believe ought to be honored at Thanksgiving. Their values are timeless ones that represent the highest aspirations of humanity – ones like respect, sharing, mutual cooperation, and reverence for nature.
White European values stand in stark contras to those of indigenous people. Indeed, those values determined what happened to Native-Americans and to the buffalo. Unrestrained individualism, for instance, has resulted in a dog-eat-dog ethos – every person for him or her self. The land, sea and air are abused for values of convenience and profit. Competitive values cause aggression, violence and prejudice. Values honoring the accumulation of great wealth foster inequality and poverty. Instead of valuing ethics of indigenous people like the inter-dependance of all things, sharing, and cooperation, people today often define themselves as separate from others – based on politics, opinion, race, nationalism, gender and spirituality.
I submit, therefore, that many of the values honored at traditional Thanksgiving meals are ones to question and perhaps abandon. We need a return to values practiced by people who lived close to the land and who survived and thrived not by competition, individualism and pursuit of wealth, but by selflessness, collaboration and, most importantly, by respect.
I believe respect is the basic law of life – and indigenous Americans agreed. While there were and are many indigenous tribes each with their own spirituality, all of them believe respect is a foundational value. For indigenous Americans, respect means treating every person with decency. Extra respect is shown to elders, parents and teachers. People must avoid hurting the feelings of others – much like they avoid a deadly poison. One should be humble at all times since all are equal. Every person’s privacy must be honored. Respect means, to indigenous people, to never intrude on another’s quiet moments or personal space. It means speaking in a soft and non-threatening voice. It means never interrupting others, and never demeaning someone in their absence. Respect includes honoring the beliefs and opinions of others, listening to others with courtesy, and following the wise advice of others. Indigenous people believe that the respectful sharing of ideas brings about what they call the “Spark of Truth.” An essential component of the search for truth, most indigenous people believe, is to respect decisions made by leaders, councils and meetings. Even if a decision is a bad one, natives believe the mistake will make itself known – and be corrected – in due time. Respect, therefore, does not mean agreement with others, but rather the honoring of a cooperative decision making process. In other words, indigenous people understood the merits of collaboration.
Also, very important to indigenous people is a respect for the earth. Since all people come from and are nurtured by the earth, it must be honored as our mother. One should equally respect all of earth’s creatures – and rise up to defend them against abuse. As many Native-Americans believe, special scorn should be heaped upon those who literally or figuratively spit upon their mother – and the earth is our ultimate mother. Disrespecting her is the greatest of misdeeds.
Above all else, indigenous values define who they were and are as a people – and how they live. White Feather, a current Navajo leader and Medicine Man, recently said, “Native-American isn’t blood; it is what is in the heart. It is the love for the land, the respect for it and all who inhabit it. It is the respect and acknowledgement of the spirits and the elders. That is what it means to be Native-American.”
While few of us can claim indigenous heritage, we can nevertheless adopt values to which Native Americans adhere. In truth, we already do so if we do our best to live by the Golden Rule. Respect, for me, is all about treating others as we wish to be treated. Echoing my belief, Black Elk, a past indigenous American leader said, “All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves.” And the Pima indigenous tribe’s motto is, “Do not wrong or hate your neighbor. For it is not he or she who you wrong, but yourself.”
Such expressions enhance the overall ethic of the Golden Rule. All creation is interconnected in a way that the well-being of one affects the well-being of all. Since that is true, if I hurt you, I hurt myself. If I bless you, I bless myself. We cannot be human unless we are equally blessed or equally oppressed. We stand or fall together.
Indigenous spirituality, like almost all other forms of spirituality, understands that logic. Since all people and all things come from the same source and all are made of the same elements, then all things are worthy of dignity. Respect is therefore the law of life.
What I lament is the current proclivity to not practice that essential law – this Golden Rule for all things. People today often think only in terms of “me” and “I.” You hurt me. Or, you are different from me. Or, you disagree with me. You want food and things that I want and so I must oppose you. Because you are against me, I must hate you and even try to eliminate you. Only I am responsible for my well-being.
The white European value of individualism has thus run amok. What began as an Enlightenment value promoting the natural rights of individuals, has become instead a philosophy of selfishness, arrogance, and abuse of others. That was the ideology of the first white Pilgrims and all who followed. Arriving on a wide open continent where nobody owned any of it, they arrogantly presumed to take for themselves all that they could get – the land, the water, the animals. And they cruelly eliminated the people who stood in their way – people who from centuries of mostly peaceful coexistence, could not imagine deception, hoarding of wealth, violent arrogance, and individual ownership of land. Indeed, their attitudes of cooperation, sharing and mutuality seemed simple-minded to white Europeans – and was all the more reason to kill them.
This Thanksgiving, I encourage us to ponder the greater meaning of respect – a meaning that the first real Pilgrims to this continent understood. To be true to ourselves, we cannot just look at obvious examples of disrespect – people with open arrogance, bigotry and hate. I want to blame the hateful passions swirling in our nation on far right politicians and white supremacists and yet, if I am honest, I know such divisive passions can also come from me. How have I disrespected those I disagree with? How have I failed to cooperate, affirm and support my family, my friends, my church, my community and nation? How do I abuse nature, pollute her and disrespect that of which I am part?
Like any of us, Indigenous Americans were not perfect. There were fights between tribes and some natives were selfish. But across the broad spectrum of their many cultures, were values that came directly from a basic respect for the earth and for each other. For me, I want to abandon many of the values of our current culture to honor instead values of the true first Thanksgiving – one celebrated fifteen thousand years ago when a small band of Asiatic immigrants ventured upon this continent, saw its teeming abundance and breathtaking grandeur, and then vowed to worship and respect it……and one another too.
I wish you all much peace and joy.