Last week, we were considering that the approach of Thanksgiving in America makes us mindful of the American Indians. They played a significant role in helping the Pilgrims survive in the New World. But the European immigrants who came to a new world seeking religious freedom lost, somewhere along the line, basic teachings of their faith.
Interestingly, the civilization they encountered among the Indians held teachings the new Americans needed to recover. Likewise, after several hundred years of settlement on this continent, we of European heritage still have much to learn from the Indians.
We were speaking about the concept of STEWARDSHIP, and the conflict we feel between caring for the land and exploiting the land. Indian culture had learned to blend with nature, using its fruits while allowing nature’s design to become their own. European culture had aggressively learned to employ nature like a slave for its own designs.
A corollary of the Amerind teaching about stewardship is the emphasis on place instead of time. White Americans live by the watch and the datebook. The result is mounting stress that shortens lives and makes the days less rewarding. The Indian considers places and events to be sacred, rather than time. Having memorized the names of places and stories of the events that happened there, he recites them under his breath like a litany as he works or plays. “Time” is not where life is lived. The sacred lessons of life are held in the arms of places. The moral values of the clan are captured in the stories that surround those places. This is closer to the biblical way of life than our Western obsession with a work ethic that finds meaning by accumulating the most goods in the shortest time.
HUMILITY. American Indians share with all of us the human trait in that being proud often degenerates to being prideful. Being courageous and brave can degenerate to being bold and confrontational. Humility in the biblical sense is the acknowledgement of absolute dependence upon God, and the Indian religion reminds us of that. A profound sense of awe and praise is inseparable from true humility. In the Indian tradition God is not as clearly defined as in the Hebrew-Christian tradition, where God wears the faces of Father and Son, Judge and Lover. Rather, for Amerinds God is “The Great Mystery,” awesomely manifest in Nature and worshiped with praise and thanksgiving. American Indians recall for us this concept of humility in their unashamed witness to being reliant upon the Great Spirit. They set the pace for Christians with a life of daily devotion and almost continuous thanksgiving to God for the gifts and the beauty given them. Few of us Whites greet the dawn with outstretched arms and a song of praise on our lips.
COMMUNITY. This is the third significant area in which those of European heritage can learn from American Indians. Of all the lost biblical teachings, community should head the list of life-ways that need to be recovered. Among the words that come under the heading of “community” are brotherhood, neighborliness, mutual responsibility, caring, and compassion. The compulsive individualism that marks Western Civilization is so out of control it overrides the injunction that we are to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The well-known phrases from America’s Declaration of Independence, regarding inalienable rights and the pursuit of happiness have overwhelmed the tempering of that phrase from America’s Constitution, “The general welfare.” We desperately need to recover the life of Community.
American Indians are tribal. They live in extended family bands and respond to cross-tribal kinships called clans for mutual support and loyalty. An Indian is never without support until torn from his or her culture and family.
In a Western culture that assumes individualism is superior to tribal community, Indians can become the loneliest and most isolated of people, depressed and hopeless. Christians often take the knowledge that God loves his children unconditionally and run with it in the direction of self-centeredness. However, such love demands to be passed on and never hoarded or used selfishly. Many citizens seem to have lost the balance of that teaching in which community is the only setting where God’s love and acceptance can be creative, relevant, and redeeming. Traditional Indian culture can teach us responsibility for each other in the Human Family.
It needs to be said that there are some things the Indian culture can learn from Christianity that would make their lives more fulfilled. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” is one of them.
The practice of forgiveness is hard to find among the Amerind teachings, and some tribes do not even have a word for it in their language.
At this time of the year when we celebrate Thanksgiving, let it be noted that most of us have a long way to go in perfecting the practice of loving our enemies and doing good to those who persecute us.
After we do that we might be in a better position to assume a teaching mode toward the American Indian.