Connecting with the Wisdom of Indigenous People

My experience of the Celebration of Unity in Pittsburgh during the Three Rivers Arts Festival last June has become woven into the fabric of my mind. It’s changed what I pay attention to in the external word, and internally, it’s created connections to experiences I’d nearly forgotten. At the airport I discovered a book, Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C Gwynne, a Texas journalist, about the rise and fall of the Comanches, the native tribe that inhabited much of Texas and the Southwest. I purchased it and began reading about places where I have lived or visited frequently, during the 20 years I lived in Fort Worth Texas. The contrast between the book’s account of four decades of war and brutality and the experience of the ceremony could not have been greater.

ceremony of unityThe ceremony honored the native people whose ancestors lived on the east coast of what is now the North American continent when Europeans first arrived. One of the native teachers, Tenache, taught us a chant, “Women have within them the wisdom of the universe.” The chant and dance that accompanied it was a reminder that the natural world functions in cycles, and that the twenty-eight day cycle inside women’s bodies prepares for, and brings forth life. This valuing of the Feminine, and people’s connection to mother earth are central to the wisdom of indigenous cultures.

The book contained the saga of a pioneer woman, Cynthia Ann Parker, a member of a prominent Texas family who was kidnapped at nine years old, and her half-blood son who became the last great chief of the Comanche tribe. There were some accounts of what the nomadic tribes did to protect their own women and children, but not much about respecting and valuing the lives of the white people who encroached on their hunting lands. In the historical accounts quoted by the author, it became clear how the warring tribes earned the label, “savages,” as they raped, scalped, looted and burned settlements. The white population behaved in like manner, often confusing peaceful tribes with warring ones, and continuing to push native peoples from their native lands.

A week later, at a Spirituality and Social Work conference in Washington, D.C., I heard Tenache’s song again. An indigenous Canadian social worker played a recording of native women prisoners in Kinston, Ontario singing a song she called “The Strong Women Song.” The words were in a native language I couldn’t understand, but the tune was the song Tenache taught us in the Celebration.

Since these experiences, of the ceremony and the book, I’ve come to the conclusion that war temps all peoples to give up their connection to all of life, and stray from their most valued wisdom. History is full of stories where oppressors and the oppressed wind up looking a whole lot alike. And that’s not the kind of unity we are looking for as we move forward together into the future, making decisions that will benefit those to come even unto the seventh generation.

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