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Native American Lessons On Relating To Nature


To conceive of the human being as a part of nature, and not as its master, is a more important perspective today than ever.

A Western point of view often puts the philosophies and world views of all indigenous peoples into the same drawer, whether they’re from the United States or anywhere else in the world. The truth is that on many key points, Native American views contrast sharply with our own anthropocentric visions founded as they are on humankind and reason.

In his book Secrets of Native American Herbal Remedies, Anthony J. Cichoke states that “almost every Native American culture believes that everything—every animal, living creature, plant, rock, tree, mountain, and even water—has a soul. Therefore, all of nature must be treated with respect and honored.”

In the Western anthropocentric view, nature is often seen as an obstacle, or as a category that includes everything that is not human but which can be exploited by humans, either as raw materials or as food. This point of view ignores the connection that other people have with natural cycles, with day and night, the seasons, and even with life and death.

E. Thomas Morning Owl is the coordinator of the language program at the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon. According to Morning Owl, as a child walking with his grandmother beside a stream, he took up a stone and threw it into the water. This is what happened next:

Immediately, my grandmother asked me, ‘Why did you do that? How long did it take that rock to get out of water? And you put it right back in there? Why did you put it back in the water? It wasn’t bothering you. You had no reason to do that, do you realize that?’

This simple story illustrates, in some measure, the worldview of Native Americans: it’s not a superstitious respect for inanimate beings. Rather, it’s respect for everything that exists (especially nature) and that everything deserves, simply because it was, before, and will be still, after humankind.

Part of the teachings of the elderly to the young is the idea of a close relationship with nature and its cycles. It’s an understanding that despite technological advances and social problems, human beings don’t form a separate category of nature, but their lives and destinies are closely linked.

This view, which might be defined as religious, or perhaps as spiritual, has a political component that mustn’t be ignored. It’s a social vision that doesn’t place human beings and their needs above nature, plants and animals, but it recognizes humanity as an integral part of a living whole, one in which everything, both visible and invisible, has a spirit that’s in communication with everything else. Observing nature as an obstacle or an endless source of supply is precisely why we’ve lost contact with it. Nature is reduced to a mere tourist pleasure. To build a close, fraternal relationship with animals, plants, and rocks won’t end problems like pollution and overpopulation, but it will help you the place of human civilization on the planet into perspective: we’re part of everything, but we’re not all that exists.


*Image: Wikimedia Commons

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