When Europeans came to North America they found Native attitudes towards The Land confusing. Folks here did not own the land; rather, the land was shared. Occasionally, especially when game was scare, there would be disputes over hunting territories, but generally the land was open to appropriate use for all people. Nor did Natives understand the concept of purchasing and owning land. This led to all kinds of misunderstandings and conflicts.
Underlying these divergent approaches to the land were essential philosophical differences. The Europeans imagined themselves to be conquering the land on behalf of the King and God, and more or less that order. Europeans were extending Empire, bringing religion to the infidels, and taming the wilderness. Native people were making a living by cooperating with the ecological dictates of large, diverse, and interconnected biological, cultural, and spiritual realms and communities. Of course, neither side was immune to acting in ways that were way out of balance.
Underlying these ideas were more fundamental concepts of self. In very broadly painted strokes, Native people believed, and to a large extent continue to believe, we were here at the behest of Mother Earth and the Creator. Mother Earth gives our spirits physical form, lives filled with opportunities for learning, and often, plentiful larders. Life was good, many tribes doing just fine with people working four hours per day. Generally, men hunted and women hunted, gathered, and cooked, owned whatever belongings were needed for daily life, decided who their partners would be, and made major tribal decisions. Elders, children and the ill or disabled were well cared for and loved. Folks lived long, satisfying lives.
In the Native view the purpose of life was to have experiences, learn from the Creator, and give to the community. My teachers often talked about this world as a sort of Promised Land, or Eden. They said Mother Earth welcomes us into the world and holds us as we return to the Spirit World. She is there to sustain, nurture, and comfort us, asking only that we be grateful and generous with her.
There is a question, most consistently attributed to Chief Joseph, that asks, “How can one own one’s mother?” From a Native perspective it is a good, well phrased question. But from the European perspective it might not make much sense. Europeans, as a group, thought humans were created by God to have dominion over the Earth, and they might, if they were well placed, own their mothers.
These ideas of self and life remain in deep, and probably irresolvable conflict. One is based on power, the other relationship. One is about fear, loneliness,and greed, and the other on community, generosity, and gratitude. The gulf is pretty wide. Prophecy has long maintained the children of the Europeans would come around to the Native view of the world. Certainly many have. Then again, some Native people have gone over to viewing the world from the other side.
When folks come asking for help I try to remember this clash of cultures, a conflict I inhabit as a person of mixed descent. It’s interesting. I try to be careful to avoid imposing my beliefs on them. Yet the paradigm I work from is decidedly Native. I believe we are here as guests of Mother Earth, Pachamama, and life is a dialog with loved ones, community, and the Creator. I imagine we are surrounded by, and engaged with, innumerable ancestors and spirits, and are irrevocably connected to All That Is. What we do to one another and the Earth really does matter, and our grandparents and elders are going to ask us hard questions about our actions when we cross over to spirit.
I also believe families and communities work best when folks realize we borrow our lives from Pachamama and the Creator and will have to give them back. It’s useful to understand we can’t own anything for long, and we have no business owning our children or partners. I also believe gratitude and empathy for self and others help in healing.
These large cultural conflicts are ongoing. They play out through politics, environmental degradation, and family and community violence. They show up at healing ceremonies and in the therapy office; when we seek healing we find ourselves in the middle of them. At such times it is good to be humble, thoughtful, and generous. It is helpful to imagine we are on a pilgrimage we call “life”. It is healing to be compassionate and courageous, and to be open to the gifts of the spirits and our fellow voyagers. This is indeed “a good road”.