Today is Earth Day, reminding us to honor and appreciate our planet as well as treat her kindly. The concept of doing so only once a year is incomprehensible to Indigenous cultures. Native American reverence for all living things extends to the Earth herself. Taking what you need with respect and gratitude is expected; exploiting her resources for the sake of greed is abhorrent.
Every day was “Earth Day.”
For example, bison (erroneously called buffalo) were revered and respected. They killed only what was needed for food, then used the hide, horns, bones, and sinew for such things as clothing, tipis, and tools. Nothing was wasted. Killing for sport or simply for the animal’s hide (much less its tongue), was unheard of.
Then the white man came.
At the beginning of the 19th century 30 to 40 million bison were present on the Plains. By 1895 their numbers had been reduced to roughly 1,000. Upon completion of the Intercontinental Railroad, they were often shot from moving trains. Hide Hunters moved into Native hunting grounds and slaughtered bison, leaving their rotting carcasses behind.
In 1873, Army Lt. Col. Richard Irving Dodge stated, “Where there were myriads of buffalo the year before, there were now myriads of carcasses. The air was foul with a sickening stench, and the vast plain which only a short twelve months before teemed with animal life, was a dead, solitary putrid desert.”
Historian, Pekka Hämäläinen, noted the effect this had on Native Americans when she noted, “The buffalo was the foundation of their economy and the centerpiece of their cosmology, and the wholesale slaughter shook their existence at its core.”
Where might our country be today if it weren’t for such wanton destruction? But the real question is have we learned anything since?
Many indigenous people from various tribes have fought for their rights, whether on horseback or in the halls of Congress. Among them was a young woman named Bright Eyes, about whom plans are in work to make a feature-length movie.
It’s the true story of a shy, young woman of the Omaha Tribe whose love for her people and other Native Americans helped her overcome her fear. So, she spoke out against injustice and helped bring about the landmark court case of Chief Standing Bear vs. General George Crook where a Native American was first regarded as a “person” with legal rights!
Can you believe that it took until 1880 for Native Americans to be considered a “person?”
What’s wrong with this picture? Let’s take a look at the founding documents of the United States penned in 1776. How many times have you heard the following words from The Declaration of Independence ?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
“All men?” Really? Obviously that didn’t apply to First Nation peoples.
Did you know that in the early 19th Century slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for census purposes while indigenous people were not counted at all?
Then there’s the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified July 9, 1868, following the Civil War:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Did this apply to indigenous people? Obviously not.
Instead they were considered savages for fighting for their rights to land on which they were the original occupants. A country that shoved them out of the way, yet states in the Second Amendment to its Constitution, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
And why the Second Amendment? To defend our country from a tyrannical government or foreign invaders!
Seems to me that’s what Native Americans were trying to do when all other negotiations with the U.S. Government failed.
If more people understood the true history of how indigenous people were treated it could make a huge difference. As I’ve discovered the truth through research I’ve done writing The Curse of Dead Horse Canyon: Cheyenne Spirits and working with my Northern Cheyenne co-author, Pete Risingsun, I’ve been outraged by the hypocrisy and double standard.
The United States would be a wonderful country if only it followed its own declarations rather than the whims of greedy, powerful individuals who either warp or by-pass the law to their own benefit. And if you think things are improving currently, clearly you don’t understand what’s going on. Why are illegal aliens treated better than our nation’s first people? Everyone who belongs here is losing their rights at an unprecedented rate.
Perhaps it’s a case of “What goes around, comes around.”
I didn’t intend for this blog to turn into a rant, but it’s something I’ve come to feel very strongly about.
Back to Bright Eyes, this wonderful true story about an heroic Native American woman is being made into a feature film. I encourage you to watch the trailer here.
The producers are looking for crowd funding to make it happen. You can help bring this inspiring story to the big screen! Find out more on their website.
It’s Native American Heritage Month as well as Veterans’ Day, the perfect time to show appreciation for the many astouding contributions Native Americans have made to the U.S. Military. Their participation rate is higher, 19% having served in the armed forces versus 14% of other ethnic groups. Furthermore, even though they were exempt from the draft, many enlisted.
The “warrior tradition” of Native American tribes was mostly squashed once they were exiled to reservations, yet their love for their country and willingness to defend it remained. They already dealt with the consequences of one “foreign invader” stealing their land. The prospect of things getting even worse with another one was not an acceptable option.
It’s ironic that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries Native Americans were forced by the U.S. Government to leave their traditions behind, including their languages. Fortunately, however, their many dialects survived, a fact that was a major factor in U.S. victory during World Wars I and II.
During that time their unique, unwritten languages were perfect candidates for development into code. If you’re unfamiliar with the “Code Talkers,” here’s a brief summary, courtesy of Wikipedia:
“…there were approximately 400 to 500 Native Americans in the United States Marine Corps whose primary job was to transmit secret tactical messages. Code talkers transmitted messages over military telephone or radio communications nets using formally or informally developed codes built upon their native languages. The code talkers improved the speed of encryption and decryption of communications in front line operations during World War II.
“There were two code types used during World War II. Type one codes were formally developed based on the languages of the several tribes, including the Lakota, Crow, Comanche, Hopi, Meskwaki, Seminole, and Navajo peoples. They used words from their languages for each letter of the English alphabet. Messages could be encoded and decoded by using a simple substitution cipher where the ciphertext was the native language word. Type two code was informal and directly translated from English into the native language. If there was no word in the native language to describe a military word, code talkers used descriptive words. For example, the Navajo did not have a word for submarine so they translated it to iron fish.”
Several tribes were represented during the course of various wars and campaigns, including the Navajo, Comanche, Hopi, Meskwaki, Cherokee, Choctaw, Cree, Mohawk, Muscogee (Seminole and Creek), and Tlingit. Military and government honors have been bestowed on them for their contribution, in some cases years later because it couldn’t occur until the program was declassified.
If you’re a history buff, especially as it relates to intelligence encryption, you’ll want to check this out further. Wikipedia has a comprehensive article at here and Military Times published an outstanding piece which includes interviews with former Code Talkers here.
Clearly this honorable tradition is continuing today for both Native men and women. The first Northern Cheyenne to graduate from West Point was Micah Highwalking. As of her 2010 graduation date, she was one of only five Native Americans to accomplish that honor. You can read more about her on Facebook here.
On this special day all former and current members of our military deserve our respect and gratitude, but especially the many Native Americans from all tribes who willingly fought beside those who had previously been their foe. It’s notable that on Veterans’ Day 2020 the Smithsonian Institute dedicated the National Native American Veterans’ Memorial. You can learn more about it here and watch their virtual message in the following video (17:25 min).
The Navajo Codetalkers
Video Introduction to the book (3 min)
Wyoming PBS Special on Native American Veterans (27 min)
Help Native American Veterans
If you’d like to show your appreciation for their service by helping Native American veterans, Native American Veterans’ Assistance (NAVA) does exactly that. Their website is here and their donation page is here.
Q: How did you meet Marcha Fox? You live in Montana and she lives in Texas.
A: I wrote a detailed article about sweet grass, a sacred medicine plant the Cheyenne use in all of our spiritual ceremonies. Marcha read the article in the Soaring Eagle Newsletter, then wrote me a letter and we eventually talked on the phone. She liked the way I wrote the article.
Q: What happened next?
A: We did an interview on the phone. My questions were:
Why are you writing a book about Native Americans?
What made you decide on a Cheyenne character?
How do you want this book written?
Will I be paid for my work?
She called back the next day and said, “I want the book written accurately so when another Cheyenne reads the book they will not be offended.”
After that, she received an A for the first three questions and an A+ for the fourth question.
I told her I had to read her book first to determine if I could help her. She assured me it would be easy.
I read her draft of The Curse of Dead Horse Canyon. I told myself, “Wow. If you decide to help Marcha you are going to change Charlie Littlewolf into a traditional Cheyenne. You will make him a Cheyenne medicine man and warrior and the grandson of an honored and respected medicine man.” I pondered it for a week, thinking it could help my grandson’s college fund.
Q: What convinced you to coauthor with Marcha?
A. Well, I felt confident that I could help. My question was how we would accomplish telling the story.
I began to understand she needed a Cheyenne medicine man to be a main character in the story. Still I had no answer on how. Then I knew: Ask the grandfather spirits for guidance.
I went to the sweat lodge alone and entered. I called the spirits and waited a long time before they came. The grandfather spirits spoke the truth to me. “You help this woman, she wants to do good things for our Cheyenne people. Tell her your story, only in the spirit of truth. You cannot do this for money, you will fail. Grandson, you have been chosen by Maheo to speak for your people.”
I then had a purpose to tell my story for my people. I went home feeling happy. I thanked the grandfather spirits for their guidance with wisdom and became the coauthor.
Q. You are from two entirely different cultures. Did you experience any challenges because of the cultural differences?
A. The greatest challenge was communicating the details of our Cheyenne spiritual ceremonies. The ceremonial sweat lodge requires detail and protocol. Ceremonial sweat lodge keepers have completed their vows for many ceremonies to earn their right to be a lodge keeper. So therefore they have high expectations of individuals who enter to focus on the purpose and protocol for the ceremonial sweat.
The Sacred Mountain fasting ceremony requires four days and nights on a buffalo robe with a sacred red pipe and the guidance of a painter who earned their right to guide you to complete your vow to fast at the sacred mountain.
The fasting ceremony requires a year of preparation with family support to set up camp and be there when your painter brings you down. Your vow is a commitment to fast without water and food for four days and nights for a purpose.
I came to understand and realize that I had not explained to Marcha who, what, why and how a medicine man became who he is. A medicine man inherits his medicine from his grandfather from a lifetime of teachings. A medicine man has great spirit powers with Cheyenne medicine to heal and clean people of their wounds, illnesses, curses, and call back lost spirits.
I realized how important it was for me to explain and continue to clarify my communications when the main character in the story was to become a medicine man.
We then were able to begin transforming Littlewolf into the grandson of Eaglefeathers, a true medicine man with great spirit powers.
Q. What agreement did you and Marcha have as authors of “The Curse of Dead Horse Canyon?”
A. We did not agree on a plan, we just did it. Marcha offered to hire me as a subject matter expert and sent a payment in good faith. We did the hourly rate arrangement for a short time. I then offered the Cheyenne way. I told her, “I will help you write your story and when we are done you can give me a gift of your choice, to show what my work meant to you.”
Cheyennes gift a nice comfortable blanket. So we decided to do this, since Marcha felt this was fair. My grandfather spirits said for me to tell my story in the spirit of truth for my people and not for money. We became a team of good faith to tell a great story.
a. A circle divided into four parts, each of a different color representing Earth’s four races.
b. A large circular structure oriented with the four cardinal directions defined by stones that was used anciently as a calendar.
c. A complex philosophy that promotes self-reflection, personal growth, and spiritual progression.
d. All of the above.
2. Where can you find ancient medicine wheels?
a. Lovell, Wyoming
b. South Dakota and Wyoming
c. Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
d. All of the above
3. How old is the medicine wheel?
a. 20,000 years
b. 7,000 years
c. 300 – 800 years
4. What are medicine wheels used for?
a. A calendar.
b. Institute peace and understanding.
c. Personal introspection, meditation, and personal growth.
d. All of the above.
1. What is the medicine wheel?
Answer: d – All of the above.
a. Many tribes define it as a circle equally divided into four sections of different colors, i.e. black, white, yellow, and red, which represent the four races of man.
b. Pictured above, the most famous physical medicine wheel and type site for such configurations in North America is at an elevation of 9,642 feet in the Bighorn Mountains in Lovell, Wyoming. It’s 75 feet in diameter and comprises a roughly circular alignment of rocks and cairns. Within the primary circle lie 28 rows of stones that extend out radially from a central cairn.
c. The medicine wheel is both an archaeo-astronomical entity with ancient roots supported by archeological evidence and a philosophical one for personal growth and spirituality intended to strengthen a community, one individual at a time.
2. Where can you find ancient medicine wheels?
Answer: d – All of the above.
Between 70 – 150 ancient medicine wheels have been identified in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
3. How old is the Medicine Wheel?
Answer: d – Unknown
Some sources indicate that the Lovell Medicine Wheel is part of a much larger complex of archeological sites and traditional use areas that indicate 7000 years of Native American occupation. Others estimate it was built between 300 – 800 years ago.
The modern medicine wheel philosophy proclaimed by Sun Bear and Wabun Wind (see references below) originated in the early 1970s.
4. What is the Medicine Wheel used for?
Answer: d – All of the above.
There are 28 “spokes” in the Medicine Wheel, which coincide with the Moon’s cycle of approximately 28 days. Some stones align with the Sun’s rising and setting on the equinoxes and solstices, marking the seasons.
At different times in the 20th Century archaeoastronomer, Jack Eddy and astronomer, Jack Robinson, independently determined that some of the stones aligned with the heliacal rise of certain stars. These served to divide the seasons into months.
The dawn or heliacal rising of a specific star pinpoints a date exactly. This is the day a star is first seen, just before its extinguished by dawn, after it has been hidden by the Sun’s light for an entire season. If you’re familiar with astronomy, you know that certain stars are only visible specific times of the years. Others never set, such as Polaris, a.k.a. the North Star, and the constellations such as Ursa Major and Minor which include the Big and Little Dipper, that surround it. They are always visible, but they rotate around Polaris and thus change positions during the year.
b. Institute peace and understanding.
The estimate of the medicine wheels’ age of between 300 – 800 years old coincides with the 15th Century AD when Native American nations were in a state of constant war with each other.
At that time a great Iroquois Chief later known as Hiawatha urged the tribes to cease killing their brothers and formed a great alliance known as the Confederation of Nations, which proclaimed Indian peoples were more alike than different, in spite of speaking different dialects. Their basic belief systems and traditions were similar.
The Medicine Wheel became part of this commonality and was decorated in special symbols, colors, and stones, to let people entering the tribe know about its tribal members. The wheel instructed individuals on their strengths and weaknesses as well as what they needed to learn and share with others. Each was expected to work on themselves, or leave the tribe. Within a few generations, people lost the concept of blame and anger which resulted in the longest peace in modern history of 150 – 200 years.
c. Personal introspection, meditation, and personal growth.
The medicine wheel has interpretations that are similar to those espoused by Western Astrology. Sun Bear (Ojibwa), whose visions revitalized the medicine wheel for this purpose, claimed, “We attribute any similarities between the Medicine Wheel and astrology or any other way of self-knowledge to the fact that all truths come from the same source.” (The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology, p. xix).
Similar to an astrological natal chart, a person’s birth date determines their location within the medicine wheel. That placement is associated with a special moon, power animal, healing plant, color and mineral. As a person progresses through life and experiences challenges, answers and inspiration can come from “visiting” other locations on the wheel and meditating upon the qualities they need to learn and grow.
According to USA Today, if you live in Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin – plus the District of Columbia and more than 130 cities, then you observe Indigenous Peoples Day instead of (or in addition to) Columbus Day. To the others, including the U.S. government, it’s still Columbus Day.
When I went to the post office in my small Texas town to mail some books on that day it was closed. I mentioned this to a friend, but referred to it as Indigenous People Day. His response was a crack about revisionists. That got me thinking.
There’s been a lot of ruckus this year about discrimination, racism, and the darker side of United States history. Destroying national monuments and tearing down statues because some group finds them offensive as part of a violent protest of the past reflected in the present displays generations of anger and righteous indignation.
But it doesn’t change a thing.
Most law-abiding white people see only violence, disrespect, and lawlessness.
They don’t get the concept of generations of visceral resentment.
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
It’s important to consider the context of those times. With 20:20 hindsight it’s easy to see how events and situations that were acceptable centuries ago are now recognized as barbaric and reeking of white supremacy.
More often than not, this is a factual statement.
By today’s standards they were wrong.
Please pause a moment to watch the following video of Marlon Brando saying it far more eloquently than I ever could.
When I was in school many decades ago history class provided biased information. Any journalist knows that a story must contain who, what, when, where, why, and how. Back then history textbooks left out a critical element:
We were taught to regurgitate events and dates, perhaps the location, but that was it. BORING! Furthermore, we were not taught to think about what happened, much less why, but simply to accept it as fact.
Let’s talk about facts.
We had one side, that of the victors. The Baby Boomer generation grew up thinking Native Americans were savages who were simply in the way. This was further reinforced by movies and westerns on TV to say nothing of backyard games of cowboys and Indians.
History books failed to mention that Native People were here first, had no understanding of the principle of property ownership, often held higher moral and spiritual values than their conquerors, and were defending territory given to them centuries before by the Great Spirit.
Can you begin to see how offensive a holiday celebrating Columbus’ “discovery” of American would be to First Americans after generations of oppression in the supposed “land of the free and the brave?”
At the time of westward expansion–Manifest Destiny, if you will–these atrocities reflected the prevailing attitudes of the western world. The deeds and behavior now recognized as evil were considered normal, even heroic. And sadly, still are, in some parts of the world.
In many cases, Native American cultures were more advanced back then than the United States is today. Granted some were barbaric by western standards, such as the Maya and Aztec, but it’s important to remember that we invaded their land. Most tribes in North America were far more peaceful.
Treaties with First Americans were (and still are) broken as a matter of course. Chiefs would sign a document in good faith, often having no idea what it said, only to have what they thought was agreed upon never occur because Congress refused to ratify it. As far as they were concerned they had agreed to its terms and couldn’t understand why the white men who signed the document didn’t have the proper authority to guarantee their side of the agreement.
And it’s obvious that when indigenous people refused to give away their country, then genocide became the logical alternative.
Did you know that the Pope granted explorers permission to kill or enslave indigenous people? To the Catholic Church’s credit, this opinion eventually switched to missionary and education efforts, except the intent initially was to annihilate their culture and Anglicize them by forcing Native Americans to cut their hair and punishing them for speaking their own language. Thankfully, that has changed. Today’s curriculum includes respect for their culture and history as well as retaining their native languages. The private schools today are doing penance for the past, which is more than can be said about anyone else.
Indigenous people in the United States were murdered and those that remained driven off their land, usually to reservations in locations no one else wanted. At least until gold or silver was discovered, in which case they were driven off again. Many today live in conditions comparable to those of a Third World country.
How is this okay?
Consider this: The USA helped Europe defeat the Nazis in World War II. Our troops decimated Germany in the process, but we helped them rebuild. Adolph Hitler was a vile threat and avowed enemy. We bombed the hell out of them.
Then stepped in after the war and helped them recover! And did the same thing for Japan, who attacked our fleet at Pearl Harbor!
Yet, for First Nation people, from whom we literally stole this country, we do little to nothing. Rather, we continue to steal and desecrate their sacred sites, then hover somewhere between ignoring their situation and the typical narcissistic response of placing the blame on them.
“Sorry, guys. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
How would today’s Americans respond to Chinese hoards swarming their borders? How would you respond? Would you welcome them with open arms? Or defend your country by embracing your 2nd Amendment rights?
Columbus should be remembered. The sea voyage alone at that time was incredible. He led the way for Europeans to be free and escape oppression. Ironically, this came with a price that imposed far worse circumstances on the First Americans, when millions were slaughtered and brushed aside as vermin. Columbus belongs in the history books, but the effect his “discovery” had on the First Americans needs to be told and acknowledged (as well as some of his less than stellar personal deeds).
The USA has a long way to go before they quit being defensive and admit this behavior was antithetical to what was supposed to be a Christian nation espousing “liberty and justice for all.” We must balance the history books and acknowledge the darker side. It takes a big person (or country) to admit when they were wrong. It doesn’t change the past, but it could heal the present and certainly the future.
Meanwhile, the least we should do is eschew Columbus in favor of Indigenous People Day.