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.
The list of websites I accessed researching “The Curse of Dead Horse Canyon: Cheyenne Spirits” is far too long to list. It included such subjects as where to report water contamination issues in Colorado, seasonal wild flowers, fracking risks, and drilling for oil. But by far, the most extensive research related to Native American history.
Quite frankly, I hadn’t given it much thought before. My experience with Native Americans had been limited, but positive. I was aware that reservations harbored numerous issues, but hadn’t considered why. The indoctrination I’d received in public schools as a child had never addressed their side of the story. I didn’t think of it as right or wrong, simply historical fact.
I grew up in the glory days of westerns and tales of cowboys and Indians. I never thought of the latter as bad, only different. Of course in history class they were portrayed as uneducated savages. Medicine men were somewhere on par with witches and sorcerers.
Then a few years ago I read a book that sensitized me to the harsh realities associated with colonization. It at least made me think. Then, as I was writing this book, Charlie Littlewolf came on the scene. That’s how it works in my novels. I get an idea and start writing, then the characters show up. I immediately knew there was a lot to learn about who he was and where
he came from, both genetically and geographically.
So I started reading. I ordered several books, most of which I read cover to cover. The quotes at the beginning of each chapter mostly come from “Great Speeches of Native Americans.” That book literally made me cry as the reality of how Indigenous Americans were treated began to register.
It was nothing short of shameful how many treaties were broken, largely because they weren’t ratified by Congress. The U.S. side of the agreement, which often promised food and other supplies, was never fulfilled, but what the Indigenous people brought to the table was long gone. One Native American noted how he couldn’t understand how there were so many “chiefs,” none of whom were authorized to sign such an agreement on behalf of the government.
The first book I read on spirit medicine was “The Making of a Healer: Teachings of my Oneida Grandmother” by Russell FourEagles. It was one of the amazingly beautiful books I’ve ever read. For the first time I realized the spiritual nature of Native American beliefs. I knew they believed in a “Great Spirit” but had no idea how that related to how they honored the Earth. If you happened to see the movie “Avatar” a few years back, then you got a taste of their view of life as well as the brutality of colonization, whether on this planet or a distant one.
By the time I’d finished writing the first version of the book I wanted a Native American to read it and tell me if anything was incorrect or culturally insensitive. That goal ultimately led me to my co-author, Pete Risingsun, a Northern Cheyenne who’s well-versed in his culture. He pointed out the many things I had wrong and not only helped me correct it but brought it to life.
Which begs the question, was all my reading prior to finding Pete a waste of time?
Without that background I don’t think we could have communicated as well as we did.
Knowing the history was essential to us being on the same page. The first thing Pete did was send me the book “Morning Star: Let Us Make a New Way” by Richard DeSirey, which told the story of the Northern Cheyenne. Northern Cheyenne traditions, rituals, and ceremonies are very specific and often differ from those associated with the Southern Cheyenne. His knowledge was worth his weight in gold.
Nonetheless, for anyone who wants to learn more about Native Americans, here are the books that I acquired and read to a greater or lesser degree before Pete came onboard.
Those with asterisks (*) are those I dub essential reads, plus the DVD course “Native Peoples of North America” from The Great Courses if you really want to know the part of American history you weren’t told in school.
Bennett, Hal Zina: Zuni Fetishes: Using Native American Objects for Meditation, Reflection, and Insight. ISBN 0-06-250069-4
Blaisdell, Bob, Editor; Great Speeches by Native Americans; Dover Thrift Editions; 2000. ISBN 978-0-486-41122-4*
Brinkerhoff, Val W.; The Remnant Awakens; Digital Legend Press; 2016. ISBN 978-1-7295451-9-5
DeSirey, Richard D.; Morning Star: Let Us Make A New Way; 2017; ISBN 978-1-976355-4-7*
FourEagles, Russell: The Making of a Healer: Teachings of my Oneida Grandmother; Copyright 2014, Quest Books. ISBN 978-0-8356-0927-2*
Lake-Thom, Bobby; Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories, and Ceremonies. ISBN 0-452-27650-0
Maryboy, Nancy C. and Begay, David; Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy; Rio Nuevo Publishers, Tucson, Arizona; 2010. ISBN 978-1-933855-40-0
Mose, Don Jr.: The Legend of the Navajo Hero Twins: Illustrated by Charles Yanito: Copyright 2013, San Juan School District, Blanding, Utah. ISBN 1-931489-59-9
Parnwell, E.C.; Translated by Marvin Yellowhair; The New Oxford Picture Dictionary English/Navajo; Oxford University Press; 1989. ISBN 0-19-434362-6
Sun Bear and Wabun; The Medicine Wheel Earth Astrology; Simon & Schuster; 1980. ISBN 978-0-671-76420-3*
Sun Bear, Wabun Wind, and Crysalis Mulligan; Dancing with the Wheel; Simon & Schuster; 1991. ISBN 978-0-671-76732-7
Waldman, Carl; Atlas of The North American Indian 3rd Edition; Checkmark Books; 2009. ISBN 978-0-8160-6859-3
Waldman, Carl; Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes 3rd Edition; Checkmark Books; 2006. ISBN 0-8160-6274-9
Native Peoples of North America; The Great Courses No. 8131 (c) The Teaching Company; presented by Daniel M. Cobb.*