Years ago, my little brother and I were playing cowboys and Indians.
As the older brother, I dictated the play session (of course), so I decided that my brother was supposed to die when I shot him. Of course, he was the Indian. The cowboy kills him, right?
Bang. There goes the Indian.
This might sound insensitive, but when you consider the fact that I was 5 at the time, you begin to realize that it was less about a lack of awareness or sensitivity and more about a widespread misconception about Native American culture and “American’s” relationship with them.
Growing up in the U.S., my understanding of Native American culture was vague at best.
To start, we grew up calling them Indians. You’d think that 500 years after Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas we’d have stopped calling them Indians. I guess not.
Next, all we ever thought “Indians” did was build teepees, carve arrow stones, hunt animals, at times fight each other, and dance.
And while they did do those things, what we knew was nothing more than a surface understanding of Native American culture.
I’ve always been fascinated with how wisdom transcends time and space. Completely separate countries, cultures, and time periods point us directly towards the same universal principles. I consider them the most important principles to live by. The foundation of how we should live our life, let’s call it.
A few months back, I started researching Native American wisdom in my efforts to continue pulling together the wisdom traditions of the world to find those common themes.
What I found blew me away. The depth of wisdom that has and still exists within the Native American culture today is astounding.
There was no known system of writing within any of the ancient Native American cultures (not until 1821), so the wisdom of these beautiful people continued for hundreds of years (if not longer) by word of mouth.
Luckily, just as the words of the Buddha were passed down by word of mouth for 400 years until they were written down by anyone, the wisdom of the many Native American cultures has now been written down and recorded for everyone to experience.
I hope you enjoy these beautiful pieces of Native American wisdom.
10 Pieces of Native American Wisdom That Will Inspire the Way You Live Your Life
1. Enter the Sacred Space
Wakan Tanka, Great Mystery, Teach me how to trust My heart, My mind, My intuition, My inner knowing, The senses of my body, The blessings of my spirit. Teach me to trust these things So that I may enter my Sacred Space And love beyond my fear, And thus Walk in Balance With the passing of each glorious Sun.
- Lakota Prayer
According to Native American wisdom, the Sacred Space is the space between the in-breath and out-breath.
If you’ve studied Eastern philosophy of any kind or are at all familiar with meditation techniques, you’ll immediately recognize this as significant.
Paying attention to the space between the in-breath and the out-breath, or inhalation and exhalation, is a meditation technique that’s been practiced for thousands of years. This is because the space between the two has much spiritual significance.
The space between breaths is said to be where we enter back into our natural state, where “I” falls away and we exist as “one” with the world around us.
It’s in releasing the ego, the sense of a separate self, which thinks it’s independent when it’s really interdependent, that we transcend fear and realize true love.
Also, the phrase Walk in Balance refers to having spirituality (referred to as Heaven) and physicality (referred to as Earth) in harmony.
This as well is profound. This old Lakota prayer is telling us what Eastern wisdom (and our own intuition) has told us for thousands of years: that Heaven and Earth are not separate.
They can at first feel as though they’re separate, but with practice we realize they’re really two aspects of the same thing, therefore balance between the two is balance within our lives.
2. Realize “Oneness”
And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell, And I understood more than I saw; For I was seeing in a sacred manner The shapes of things in the spirit, And the shape of all shapes as they must Live together like one being.
- Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks
The sense of our “oneness” is something spoken about across all cultures. This sense is very much intuitive, and can be developed with practice.
Here, Black Elk speaks almost Zen-like in referring to seeing more than he can tell. A very deep insight into the nature of existence, and it’s clear here that Native American wisdom was very deep and very profound.
In our everyday lives, we encounter this same intuitive feeling of “oneness” as well, albeit most of the time it’s far more subtle. During these moments, it’s important to not identify this feeling as nonsense and realize that it’s our ability to connect with the greater truth of existence on a deeper level.
We are one, like a large organism. And in the same way that organs, tissue, veins, nerves, and the other parts that make up our body can sometimes seem separate, but are always very much an inseparable part of the same one greater system, we too are intrinsically connected and should live in a way that we become more and more aware of this interconnected nature and seek to express it in our daily lives.
And this always results in more love, compassion, kindness, and greater peace.
3. Serve, respect, and live without fear
So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; Respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.
Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, Even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none.
When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.
Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools And robs the spirit of its vision.
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled With the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep And pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.
- Chief Tecumseh (Crouching Tiger) Shawnee Nation 1768-1813
To say anything here I think would be to complicate the already perfect message that this communicates. So I’ll leave it at that: serve, respect, and live without fear.
4. Gross National….Peace?
I do not think the measure of a civilization Is how tall its buildings of concrete are. But rather how well its people have learned to relate To their environment and fellow man.
- Sun Bear of the Chippewa Tribe
For some reason, after reading this it instantly reminded me of the country of Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness”.
For those that don’t know Gross National Happiness, or GNH, was a term coined by Bhutan’s then current king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, and used as the nation’s new metric for determining the prosperity of the country. It was created to promote the development of the countries Buddhist spiritual values (i.e. happiness) as opposed to the Western materialistic centered GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
Essentially, it was them saying, “Hey, we want to value the well-being and happiness of our people instead of material ‘stuff’.”
Pretty cool right? Well, to me, Sun Bear is backing up this very same ideal, except perhaps in a slightly different sense. In this way, he’s describing more our ability to live in harmony with the world around us- both nature and humanity specifically.
Placing that as the major guiding principle of any nation (or our own individual lives), to me, is both a powerful and revolutionary idea.
5. Touch the Earth
There is a road in the hearts of all of us, hidden and seldom traveled, Which leads to an unknown, secret place. The old people came literally to love the soil, And they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of Being close to a mothering power.
Their teepees were built upon the earth And their altars were made of earth. The soul was soothing, strengthening, cleansing and healing.
That is why the old Indian still sits upon the earth instead of Propping himself up and away from its life giving forces. For him, to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply And to feel more keenly. He can see more clearly into the mysteries of Life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him.
- Chief Luther Standing Bear
At first glance, his words may seem to communicate something mystical- and in fact it does refer to something very deep- our ability to come in touch with our true nature when touching the Earth- but it’s also referring to something very concrete which we can easily do in our everyday lives:
Touch the Earth.
You’ve probably heard someone- a friend, or loved one perhaps- mention before that being in nature helps them clear their mind and think more clearly.
This isn’t just hearsay, you can test this for yourself. On an especially hectic day, go to a nearby park or hiking trail and take a moment to relax among the trees or walk the trail and feel as your mind begins to clear and your stress and tension begins to dissipate.
No matter what you believe or don’t believe about the healing and demystifying powers of being close to the Earth, or why exactly you think a natural environment clears our mind, it can’t be argued that being close to nature has an impact on our well-being.
And this may even extend to the physical body. The practice of “earthing” is the act of walking barefoot or placing our bodies on a natural surface, and while the science is still young there’s been promise in the findings to support that connecting directly with the Earth in some way can result in better sleep, less pain, reduced stress and tension, and improved immune function.
6. Show kindness to all
Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other, Thus should we do. For this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the World.
- Black Elk
Another simple but very powerful message. The message couldn’t be simpler: show kindness to others.
Anything said other than that would be to complicate things, so I’ll keep it at that.
7. Meditate to gain clarity, then act with courage
When you are in doubt, be still, and wait; When doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage. So long as mists envelop you, be still; Be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists, as it surely will. Then act with courage.
- Ponca Chief White Eagle (1800's to 1914)
This verse almost seems to suggest some form of meditation- sitting in silence- so it was particularly surprising to me.
When clouds exist within our mind, we have no way of knowing what the right action is to take. When we act during moments such as these, it can lead us to a lot of trouble.
Clarity in life is priceless, as without it you’re “flying blind” and are subject to the winds of chance. It’s wise to devote a part of your life to cultivating and maintaining great clarity, as this itself is what will lead you to peace and happiness.
And when you get there? Don’t hesitate. Know that you have the truth within you. Know that you’re ‘right’, and that what you’re doing is good. Stand up, move forward, and act with courage.
8. Learn from the Earth
Earth, Teach Me
Earth teach me quiet ~ as the grasses are still with new light. Earth teach me suffering ~ as old stones suffer with memory. Earth teach me humility ~ as blossoms are humble with beginning. Earth teach me caring ~ as mothers nurture their young. Earth teach me courage ~ as the tree that stands alone. Earth teach me limitation ~ as the ant that crawls on the ground. Earth teach me freedom ~ as the eagle that soars in the sky. Earth teach me acceptance ~ as the leaves that die each fall. Earth teach me renewal ~ as the seed that rises in the spring. Earth teach me to forget myself ~ as melted snow forgets its life. Earth teach me to remember kindness ~ as dry fields weep with rain.
- An Ute Prayer
The connection that Native American culture has had with the Earth is stunningly beautiful.
As much as any other culture on Earth, the Native American culture shows us clearly how nature, including the example set by nature, gives us everything we need to live in peace and harmony.
9. What we do to others, we do to ourselves
Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.
- Chief Seattle, 1854
The idea that all things are connected once again draws direct parallels to Buddhist and Hindu wisdom.
To understand deeply our interconnected and interdependent nature is to understand that we’re all woven together deeply, like one great big tapestry.
To truly understand just how intricately we’re woven together can seem almost impossible, but the idea is simple: what we do to others, we do to ourselves.
This includes not only our actions towards others but also the thoughts and feelings we express in our mind towards others.
Stop separating “I” and “them” and you’ll see that greater peace and happiness will follow.
10. Light up your corner of the world (by realizing the first peace)
The first peace, which is the most important, Is that which comes within the souls of people When they realize their relationship, Their oneness, with the universe and all its powers,
And when they realize that at the center Of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (the Great Spirit), And that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this.
The second peace is that which is made between two individuals, And the third is that which is made between two nations. But above all you should understand that there can never Be peace between nations until there is known that true peace, Which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men.
- Black Elk, Oglala Sioux & Spiritual Leader (1863 - 1950)
In Buddhism, it’s understood that the best way you can help others is by working on yourself.
This is what’s sometimes called “lighting up your corner of the world”, and it refers to the way you can inspire those you meet by the example you set and how this is more powerful than anything else you can do to help others. And it’s here that Black Elk is affirming that understanding through Native American wisdom.
But this doesn’t mean, “earn a bunch of money, gain a lot of power, and achieve greatness”, this refers to awakening to your true nature and finding true peace within, something that Black Elk understands clearly.
And again we’re brought back to realizing the ‘oneness’ of all things. He even draws a direct parallel to the Eastern wisdom of, “the center which is everywhere and in everything” (the way in which each of us feels like we’re the center of the universe, the universal perspective) in saying:
And when they realize that at the center Of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (the Great Spirit), And that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.
Native American wisdom is both vast and immensely beautiful. I hope you can use these insights to inspire your life in the same way that they’ve inspired mine.