Respect for ourselves and each other; respect for our Creator and all things in our universe are key elements in traditional Native American philosophy. This respect is based on the recognition that all things are connected. When we realize this, we come to see that we do ourselves harm when we do not follow this basic principle. When we violate this basic law of respect, we put things out of balance and then something must be done to set things right. Native American traditions are full of examples that reflect this principle.
Traditionally when the people went out to take food, it was done in a respectful way, in recognition of the life, whether it be plant or animal, that was taken. This reminds us that we cannot take things in a reckless manner, or soon there will be nothing left to take.
Respect for each other and for ourselves is a basic law, in traditional Native American philosophy, that is seen to be the roots of good relationships. We believe that bad actions and bad thoughts do harm to others and do harm to ourselves as well, just as good thought and good actions bring good medicine for ourselves and others. Traditionally, some tribes make payment to compensate for harm or insults done to others. This payment is seen as setting things right and bringing things back into balance. Many of the traditional ceremonial dances are based on bringing people together to put things back in order and to make things right.
Native Americans recognize our responsibility to one other. That is why generosity is such an admired quality in our culture. Many of the Coyote stories teach us what happens when we think only of ourselves.
Today, these teachings of respect and generosity are as important as they ever were. They are the principles which can help all people live together in dignity.
Respect for Elders
A Native American tradition holds that when a young person walks away after stopping and talking, with respect, to an Elder, the Elder says, "May you live as long and as good a life as I have lived and when you grow old may the young ones treat you with honor and respect."
Our heritage has always had a respect for Elders. Native American philosophy is based on all things moving in a circle. Any point in the circle is as important in the circle as any other point. Everything and everyone is connected. The Elders are the ones who teach us the ways of the Ancient Ones. They are the ones who have lived through many changes, and see things through wiser eyes. They are the ones who can look back on the years and say, "After all is said and done, this is what is really important in life."
When we treat our elders with honor and respect, we also teach the young ones how to treat us when we reach that stage in life.
Native Americans spring from a heritage of singing and dancing. The dances are a gift which bring us together, remind us of who we are, and bring us strength. It has been said that as long as we sing and dance together, our people will flourish.
Tribal dances are done for many reasons; some are for prayer, some are for making the world right, some mark the passage of a stage in life, some are for thanksgiving, some are for healing, some are for emotional well-being, and some are purely social. Dances are good medicine for everyone. The ones who come to watch are as important to the dance as those who sing or dance. Those who cook and feed the people are part of the backbone that makes all things work together. The friendship and sharing that takes place is part of the good medicine of the dances. When we all move together in perfect accord with the Creator and the earth, we put things in balance. Dances affirm our connection to the Creator, the earth, the past, present, and future of each other.
Traditionally the Native American family is very large. It includes parents, children, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles, great great relatives, and many, many cousins. It extends back through the years and to the generations to come. Native Americans are traditionally very conscious of the ties of the extended family. We have been very careful to maintain these ties because the family is where we can turn for friendship and support. If we maintain our family ties we will never be alone. We can depend on each other in times of triumph and times of need.
The family has always been one of the most important social units in the Native American community. Traditionally the worst thing that could befall a person was not death, but the loss of family. Native Americans have always had compassion for someone who was lost or separated from their family. We have always been quick to open up our homes and offer friendship and support to those in need. This is a true Native American tradition that brings good medicine to our people.
Without the family we are nothing, and in the old days before the white people came the family was given the first consideration by anyone who was about to do anything at all. This is why we got along. We were taught to leave people alone. We were taught to consider that other people had to live.
That is why we were good people and why we were friends with the white people when they came. But the white people were different from us. They wanted to take the world for themselves. My grandfather told me that the white people were homeless and had no families. They came by themselves and settled on our property. They had no manners. They did not know how to get along with other people. They were strangers who were rough and common and did not know how to behave.
Anonymous Indian Man, quoted in B.W. Aginsky, Ed., An Indian's Soliloquy (The American Journal of Sociology 46:43-44, 1940).
The Native American community has a tremendous social support system that can bring friendship and support to all who participate in it. Elders, children, babies, and all ages in between have a place at Native American social gatherings. It is a system that brings people together. It is not a system where the old people stay at home or in a rest home, the children go to a baby-sitter, and the teen-agers and parents go off in separate directions. Native American gatherings bring all people together for a time of friendship and sharing.
At the pow-wows, hand games, stick games, card games, potlucks, and many other gatherings where we come together, positive feelings affirm our relationship to one another. It is a time when people from all walks of life can come together, joke, laugh, cheer, tease, talk, watch, or participate, and then leave with the feeling that something good has happened. Native Americans have always been quick to lay aside what they were doing and come together for a "doings" because we recognize the good medicine of fellowship.
The Talking Feather--also called the Talking Staff--was used around the turn of the century to bring people of different tribes together to communicate with one another. Within the circle of the Talking Feather they learned to come together in a peaceful way to exchange opinions, ideas, and to discuss directions and plans for the future. They learned to communicate to promote the interests of the Indian people, to create unity. It was also used within tribes to bring communities together, as a tool of communication and exchange.
The Talking Feather Circle has been used five times recently--usually once a month--to bring local people together. It has begun to gather the Ohlone, Costanoan, and other local native peoples, to introduce them to one another.
The emphasis at this time is to see California Native Americans come together and communicate, but by no means is it limited to only those people. It is both inter-tribal and inter-racial. We ask both Indian and non-Indian people to help us develop local traditional ways, such as the songs, culture, and the study of herbs and historical research.
The rules of the Talking Feather are simple. No drugs or alcohol are permitted. Each meeting of the circle is begun with the Native American prayer of the Four Directions.
Each month the Talking Staff is kept by a person selected by a consensus of the people of the circle. That person should be someone in good standing in the Indian community and have participated in the Talking Feather circle a reasonable length of time. They are responsible for sending out invitations to the next circle and must see that food is provided for all who attend--usually potluck.
The head of the circle is made up of the head man, head warrior (a young person), elder man and elder woman, and the spiritual advisor. The rest of the circle consists of the people, with the men seated on the right and the women on the left.
The staff is then handed clockwise, one person at a time, with the women speaking first. When the staff reaches you, it is your turn to speak and not until then. You must respect the viewpoints and ideas of others, not interrupting or talking out of turn.
The first passing of the staff is used to introduce ourselves and give a description of our activities in the Indian community. The second passing is to express opinions and ideas and what actions you believe should be taken within the circle.
Reactions to unpopular opinions should not interrupt the speaker. Rebuttal, if any, must wait until the staff reaches the person or persons having differing ideas. This allows each person uninterrupted time to express ideas, or justify actions or opinions, and results in a peaceful exchange.
If any individual disrupts or distracts the circle's intent, he will be asked to refrain from doing so. If he continues, then he will be asked to leave.
Official statements regarding actions taken by the Talking Feather circle will be the responsibility of the head people. Only they may be spokespersons for the circle to the public.
At the end, at the discretion of the head people, presentations may be made, such as chants, songs, dances, etc.
The general attitude of the people of the circle should be one of truth, respect, and sincerity in order to promote its growth and the coming together of people in a friendly and cooperative manner.
After the formalities are over, the food is served and we socialize and generally enjoy each other's company. Songs and dances may be shared and we hope that all will come away with a good feeling--one of closeness and unity.