It makes sense for all of us to give thanks to the American Indians on our national day of thanks. Let's briefly review some of the many contributions of the Native Americans.
The European immigrants were not treated to any sort of welfare or foreign aid package, in the way we practice such today with newcomers to the United States, or with foreign countries. The new settlers to America were helped in accord with the old Chinese axiom: "Give a man a fish and he eats for one day; teach him how to fish and he eats for life."
They taught the newcomers how to identify and use the native vegetation, such as wild berries (cranberry, crabapples, et al.), wild roots (Jerusalem artichoke, wild onions, et al.), wild gourds, wild leaves to make teas, wild herbs to make medicines, strange new foods from the sea (including marine life and seaweeds), and such delicacies from nature as maple syrup;
They taught many methods of hunting and trapping North American game.
Of course, the bow was ubiquitous around the world, including North America. The natives' easily-portable bows and arrows were far more efficient in the dense Northeast coastal forests than the huge, heavy firearms the pilgrims had brought. Once the pilgrims ran out of their black powder, they quickly learned to make and use archery equipment.
The pilgrim pioneers watched closely and copied the natives' unique snare-making, deadfalls, blow gun use, throwing spears and knives and tomahawks, the canny use of poisonous plants to stun fish in ponds and lakes,
They also uses for those animals' skins and body-parts entirely. For example, the stomachs and skins were used for making bags. Or pouches. Or drum heads.
American Indians of the Northeast and Canada built log cabins and large lodges without metal axes. On hunting expeditions, these natives were well-skilled in building temporary shelters (such as snow shelters and lean-tos) that were both safe and warm.
For starting fire, the natives practiced numerous methods, such as the bow and drill, the use of pitch and punks, and the carrying of small iron-rich rocks that they'd strike together to make sparks fly. The pilgrims gratefully resorted to such methods in severe conditions when they were unable to make use of their steels that they'd brought from the Old World.
In the past, people had to dry everything. Drying was the universal method of food storage. Sometimes foods – such as meats and fish – were also smoked. Typically, the meat would be sliced and laid on racks and dried in the sun, or a smoky fire would be built underneath.
Jerky –which you can now go to Trader Joes or any supermarket and buy – is a ancient method of meat drying that is now done in factories. The term jerky is actually Charqui and it comes to us from South America. Now you have all sorts of jerky in the stores –fish jerky, beef jerky, turkey jerkey….
Pemmican is also a Native method of food storage. And pemmican is not a chocolate candy bar. If you go to a backpacking store, there are some chocolate products called pemmican. Original pemmican was the dried meat – the jerky –which is then ground up. It is put into an intestine – as you’d do when you make sausage – and melted fat from meat is poured over it. You end up with something that is a high protein trail food, and lasts a good while without refrigeration.
USES OF WOOD
The natives made ingenious use of wood. From the birch tree, for example, they used the bark to write upon, as well as for making snow-glasses (to prevent glare), cups and eating utensils, baskets, and emergency shoes. Large pieces of the bark were made into light, easily portable canoes.
When the Europeans' illness-remedies failed, they eagerly sought to learn the "medicine" systems practiced by the Indians' holy people. This included herbs, the sweat lodge, and a largely misunderstood body of chants and rituals that "worked" although the pilgrims didn't comprehend why.
And though today's Western "religious establishment" is reluctant to admit it, those Indian "medicine" traditions made significant inroads into the Christianity-based religions brought here by the pilgrims, and survive to this day as an integral part of America's mainstream spiritual life.
Many of the native ways were scoffed at by traditional western thinking as superstitious or backward or primitive. Yet, the traditional healing ceremonies of Native America contained many elements of Science, meaning that if the correct elements are present, healing occurs.
THE OLD WAYS
I’VE shared a lot of specific details about Native Americans, and how their culture has enriched our culture today.
There’s a term we often hear with older cultures, and especially with tribal cultures. The Old Ways. What are the Old Ways? Does it refer simply to the ways that people did things in the past, when there was no other option?
When some people think of Native American culture in general, all they think of is beads and feathers. But the Old Ways is rather complex, and yet a complete state of mind and state of living. I’d strongly recommend books such as Vine Deloria’s “God is Red,” and “Black Elk Speaks” for clues to some of these details.
But briefly, the Old Ways are the traditions that keep societies strong, and together, and supportive. It includes a focus on family, focus on Home, respect for elders, respect for our surroundings, respect for sacred spots, cooperation, the ability to adapt, keeping your word, and more.
Great leaders and politicians came to us from the Native tradition, such people as Handsome Lake, Wovoka, Sequoyah, Chief Joseph, and Hiawatha and Deganawide, who forged the “Great Peace” and the Iroquois Confederacy.
Reseach has shown that Benjamin Franklin and other founders were aware the Iroquois Confederacy and even copied some of the details from the oral constitution of the Iroquois Confederation in creating the U.S. Constitution and system of government.
THE EVER-REPEATING PATTERN
The newcomers took and used what was deemed worthwhile from the American indigenous people, and gave what they could in return. That sharing enabled the pilgrims to survive. But (sadly) as is always the case with human beings, once they've survived a near-death situation, and then grow strong and healthy and begin to accumulate wealth and live in comfort and safety, they "forget" those values that began it all.
DEATH & DECLINE
By the early 1800s, 80 percent of the American Indians had died from the European's smallpox, measles, venereal diseases, tuberculosis, influenza, and from his insatiable lust to move westward and take the Indians' lands.
Today, the American Indians, both on and off the reservations, have become our "forgotten minority." Povertousness, alcoholism, suicide, dependency, and unemployment have become the modus vivendi for these once self-sufficient, powerful, ingenious, independent peoples.
Of course, some of you will feel that I looking at the American Native tradition with rosy colored glasses and am overlooking the alcoholism, poverty, unemployment, etc., that plague the Native Americans, especially on reservations. I am well aware of the full picture. Yet, on this unique American holy day, shouldn’t we give more than a passing acknowledgment to the people from whom the early European pioneers learned so much?
We should find ways to support those American Indians on and off reservations who are actively attempting to survive by means of organized self-sufficiency projects such as organic farming, crafts shops (to create jobs and salable products), solar energy projects (to make the reservation energy self-sufficient), et al.
Giving thanks is good, always. But let’s not just eat a turkey and congratulate ourselves that we are well-off. Let’s find ways to giving a helping hand to those whose hand this nation once so eagerly took.
[Note: For details about the local WTI event on Thanksgiving Day, go to www.wtinc.info.]