by Louise M. Segreto
We have much to learn from Native Americans regarding our relationship with nature. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet with several Ojibwe and Dakota elders. All told stories about humans’ place in the natural world. They spoke quietly with a sense of reverence, respect and humility. Most Native peoples have an oral tradition, and it is through these stories that wisdom is passed from generation to generation. Additionally, art, dance, ceremony and rituals are other traditional ways of passing down knowledge and cultural norms. These traditional ways of teaching can convey a far deeper sense of spirituality than the mere written word. Listen carefully, and you will begin to understand the natural world and our place in it from a Native American Perspective.
Creation stories of many Native peoples begin with Nanabozho, the first Man-Spirit Being. It is taught that Nanabozho was the last of all living beings to be created in the world. He was introduced into a fully formed world of animals, plants, water, fire, wind, water and sky. Before Nanabozho’s arrival, the ancient world was in perfect balance and harmony. The Creator instructed Nanabozho to “walk through the world in such a way such that each step was a greeting to Mother Earth”. Nanabozho’s steps were to be gentle so as not to hurt the earth upon which he trod. Nanabozho spoke to the animals that he encountered. He learned how to survive in the world from his animal brothers and sisters. For example, wolves and foxes gave him tips on how to hunt, spiders taught him how to weave fishing nets, bears explained how to get through winter. The Creator expected that Nanabozho learn the names of all living beings. The Creator further guided Nanabozho to observe the animals and plants in order to learn both how-to live-in harmony and survive. It was in this way, that Nanabozho discovered the abundance of “gifts” that the natural world could provide to meet his needs.
It is a Native American perspective that humans play just a small role in the greater web of life. This belief fostered the belief that we, therefore, should live in kinship with other living creatures and the physical world. This perspective was foreign to early European settlers. In stark contrast, the fur traders, loggers, and white settlers brought with them a mindset of exploitation to this vast and seemingly endless bountiful land.
After these two very different cultures collided, our Native American perspective was almost totally lost. The removal and cultural genocide of Native Americans in Minnesota occurred over a relatively short period of time. Three generations of Native American children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were prohibited from speaking their Native languages or participating in traditional Native American cultural rituals, ceremonies, dances and arts. By the early 1900s, Native Americans had lost their lands through a series of dishonorable Federal treaties and discriminatory Native American federal acts & policies. The Ojibwe and Dakota lost their tribal lands and were pushed into Reservations. Compounding this tragic history, life on the reservation was hard and isolated. Poverty, combined with limited economic opportunities and broken families, led to deep social problems. Native American perspectives were largely invisible to most Minnesotans for many years.
Native Americans have a deep sense of connection to the place where they live. Even today, Native Americans will identify what Tribal Band and Reservation they are from when they introduce themselves. But this connectedness goes beyond self-identification. Traditional Native Americans are said to be “indigenous to place”. This means in large part that they possess a heightened understanding and awareness of the natural world that surrounds them. For example, Native wisdom on how to track animals is legendary. And we are just now beginning to catch up with what Native Americans have known about the medicinal value of plants. Tinctures and poultices for treating sickness have been passed on from generation to generation of Native American medicine men. Scientists now know that there is in fact a chemical communication of sorts that occurs between trees. No surprise to Native Americans, they have long known that trees talk to one another. Even how Native Americans name plants and animals reveals a sense of familiarity and connection: chipmunk berries, partridge berry, trout leaves. Compare these descriptive Native American names to the two-part clinical scientific Latin genus and species taxonomic names that Westerners use for the same plants and animals. Naming practice belies the stark contrast between Native American perspective on nature compared to Westerners.
Native Americans lived sustainably off the land for generations before the European settlers arrived. Prior to European settlement, Native Americans lived an inextricably intertwined existence with wildlife, plants, and their natural world. Native Americans’ survival depended upon animals, plants, trees and natural resources being available year after year to sustain them. There was a rhythmic seasonality to their hunter-gatherer subsistence existence. Spring meant a move to “sugar camp” to tap maple trees for syrup and sugar. Birch bark pails were fashioned and used to pour sap into large shallow log troughs hollowed from basswood trees to freeze and cooked down to produce sugar and syrup. Fall was a time to harvest “Mahnomen”- sacred wild rice. Wild rice has always been sacred to Native Americans. Its sustainable harvest was central to their survival in Minnesota. This sustainable way of living was in stark contrast to the exploitive practices of the harvest and extraction of natural resources by the fur trappers, buffalo hunters, loggers, miners, white settlers and farmers.
Prior to the arrival of settlers, food was not purchased by Native Americans from a store. Instead, it was harvested by hunting, fishing, and gathering- wild berries in summer, nuts and wild rice in the fall and maple syrup in the spring. These foods were regarded as “gifts” from Mother Earth. Making use of these “gifts” demanded a harvester’s obligation not only to receive, but also to reciprocate. An “honorable harvest” is based on accountability to both the physical and metaphysical worlds. This “take only what you need” mentality is in sharp contrast to our economic mindset “take everything you can get”.
It was not until recently that Native American culture and perspective have been rediscovered and embraced by Western culture and science. Scientists now acknowledge the complex ecological connections between all life on earth, and the important role that diversity plays in creating a stable and healthy environment. And, finally, there seems to be a growing sense of collective conscience of Native Americans’ contributions and perspectives across the United States.
We would all benefit to incorporate a Native American perspective into our relationship with nature. The next time you look up at the dark sky to star gaze, view the sky as a Native American and try to find Big Bear, Wolf or Loon. In the Spring, when out walking our Minnesota woods searching for the delicate blooms of ephemeral wildflowers, pause and admire the shapes and colors that inspired Native American weaving and beading. Walk gently upon Mother Earth. Honor and respect nature and all its inhabitants. I think that our lives would not only be richer, but the world would be a better place if we remember Native Americans and their perspectives on nature.
Miigwech! (“Thank You”) for reading!
*Note: Louise M. Segreto, the author of this article, is not Native American
Minnesota River Valley photo by Paul Raymaker
Hyland Prairie at Sunset by Paul Erdmann