After the passing of my great-grandparents well over a decade ago, my Mom decided to collect some keepsakes from their dilapidated three-room mountain cabin in the Appalachian Mountains. Though my great-grandparents were people of little means, she managed to collect a beautiful hand-made quilt by Great-Great-Great Grandma Kate. As Mom shares the story of Kate, she recalls, she was said to be of the local Cherokee tribe and married into the family as her second marriage. Unlike her first husband who is said to have shot Kate’s eye out rendering her with a glass eye, Kate’s second husband, Watson, was said to be a kind man who could cure thrush and other ailments of children around their mountain view home. Kate was known for her long raven colored hair and colorful handmade quilts. I could almost envision her right in front of me, but this was all Mom could recollect.
There had to be more to Kate’s story though! And so, like Kate's patchwork quilts, I have been trying to patch together her lineage as I educate myself of the deep history and culture of her people: the Native or Indigenous Americans.
And so, I’d like to preface the remainder of this article that I stake no claim to be a Native American Historical or Cultural expert. I am humbly and respectfully an eager learner and admirer of our Native forefathers and mothers, their culture, and history. In general, other cultures outside of our own host exceptional and robust opportunities to learn to be more open, well-rounded, and healthy tenants of our human experience as we evolve and grow. Thus, it is my intention to celebrate the Conscious Lessons of Native Americans that I have learned about during this Native American Heritage Month.
Today we refer to Eco-Spirituality as “a manifestation of the spiritual connection between human beings and the environment.” Though not the first ever historical account of this concept, Native Americans may be the most current example we have for existing generations to understand what it is like to "be one with nature." Native American author, singer-songwriter, and teacher, Brooke Medicine Eagle said,
“Being Indian is an attitude, a state of mind, a way of being in harmony with all things and all beings. It is allowing the heart to be the distributor of energy on this planet. To allow feelings and sensitivities to determine where energy goes, bringing aliveness up from the Earth and from the sky, putting it in and giving it out from the heart.”
Brooke Medicine Eagle’s statement points out that to be one with Mother Earth, one must honor and respect all of her energies. This foundational belief known as animism, that all living things, places, and objects hold a unique spiritual essence, is alive in Native culture as they attribute that we are one with all things: earth, animals, weather patterns, human creations, and even words. As such, when we tend through action to our inner worlds, we also tend to our outer worlds. “Ecospirituality incorporates an intuitive and embodied awareness of all life and engages a relational view of person to planet, inner to outer landscape, and soul to soil.” This intrinsic connection to nature is infused into Native culture.
Values and Symbolism
Totem poles were erected as historical or mythical accounts of stories of that which impacted the tribe, and are to be passed down to generations by their elders. Animals are a sacred part of Native life, taking on symbolism like bravery of the eagle, stealth of the owl, strength of the bear or family of the wolf. Their dances offer celebration of harvest and hunts, or act as simple thanks during rituals or special ceremonies. Drums, flutes and powerful voices uplift and serve to unite the tribal people like a war cry for both social and culture causes. Woven tribal and family patterns with vibrant, meaningful colors and shapes adorn their clothing and ornate jewelry. Elders of the tribe are revered individuals who provide wisdom and leadership for their tribes by exuding grace, wisdom, and gentleness in their daily words and actions.
The Navajo people call themselves Dine', which means "The People,” and I wish to express gratitude to the woman who gifted me a pair of “Sun” earrings a few years ago as I traveled through the reservation to Monument Valley. She told me that the circle represented the sun, red was Earth, and blue was sky. Native Americans view the sun as warmth, growth, and goodness, Mother Earth as grounding and protective, and Father Sky as transcendence and omnipotence. I do not take this gift lightly. The values and symbols that Native Americans have gifted us is that of living in true consciousness with the world around and within us.
Though traditionally known for introducing corn to the Europeans, Native’s have such a rich history in ancient medicine and holistic healing practices. Medicine Men of tribes would use locally-grown herbs, flowers, plants, weeds, shrubs, and trees to concoct potions and salves to heal wounded warriors, ailing children, and sick elders. Shamanic healers, usually known for their spiritual guidance and leadership, may have also been medically-inclined to heal tribal people multidimensionally.
Just like animals, Native people believe herbs like cedar, sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco to be sacred, as they could be used to treat a wide array of illnesses. Yarrow can help with minor pain and nose bleeds. Valley oak acorns can be made into a soup to cure intestinal issues. Today, even modern medicine incorporates chemical compounds similar or same to their herbal ancestor. Elderberry is known to lessen symptoms of cold and flu. Today it is sold as Sambucol on pharmacy shelves. Though modern medicine has its place in society, Native’s believe that Mother Earth provides a first resort in healing and treating the human body. Learn more.
Strength and Resilience
A legend, not a myth amongst the Piikáni (Blackfeet) people is Pi'tamaka, or Running Eagle. She was the only woman of her tribe who partook in a four-day inner quest to suffer, dream, fast, and find her medicine. In Native Culture, these quests were often used as a rite of passage for young adults or warriors, of which only Mother Nature could provide the stillness and solitude. Stories of Running Eagle’s courage and bravery marks her down in history as the only woman of her tribe to live as a hunter and warrior. Learn more.
Running Eagle is an example of the unbreakable fabric that makes up Indigenous people. Of course, we cannot deny the traumatic occurrences that ensued as a result of European settlers. Broken treaties, forced relocation, mass murder, war zones, massacres, and even disease have dematerialized and diminished Native communities for several centuries. Despite that, tribes still managed to pass down traditions and the wisdom of their people to younger generations to preserve through turbulent times and rise once again. Singers, songwriters, historians, artists, dancers, healers, teachers, and elders of the tribes evolve with time, to not only use their voice within their community, but to speak it for others around the world to hear. I, for one, believe that the power of the Native voice is one worth never forgetting.
This buzzword has been circling around since the technological boom of the late 80s but it is built into the Native way of life. Mindfulness is the ability to dial down the continual thought stream of the mind in order to be consciously aware and present, absent judgment and analysis. Warriors, healers, and other tribal leaders are often required to go on a spiritual journey known as a Vision Quest. This sacred ritual calls forward spiritual healing, personal growth, inner development and guidance from the spirit world. Whether the Vision Quest is held ceremoniously with drums, rattles, and flutes, or independently in the tranquility and stillness of Mother Nature, mindfulness is a key component of the journey.
As tribal men and women harness the power of stilling the mind through meditation it is said that this allows one to transcend beyond the physical world in order to tune into the wisdom of the Divine. Understanding the connection between Mother Earth and humanity is a foundational piece of Native culture. In order to connect the dots, Natives have historically tasked themselves as the vessel of mindfulness practices that allow them to show up in the world as conscious, spiritual beings. This willingness and awareness allows the oneness that Natives teach us about to be a true example to live by.
Native Americans are a beautiful, undying culture worth celebrating every day, and I give thanks to them for making this world a better place.
Want to learn more about Native culture? CLICK HERE or visit your local tribal lands to tour and pay respects to sacred lands, join a POW WOW open to the public or simply follow some influential Natives on social.
Want to celebrate your culture or learn more about others around you? Wellview would love to support your journey. Click HERE to learn more about the services available to you.
– Casey Edmonds, MPH, CILC, CHWC, CPT