European conquest destroyed Native American lessons
Published: Thursday, February 3, 2011
Updated: Thursday, February 3, 2011 23:02
Arduous as it was, the successful colonization of North America would have been exceedingly difficult—perhaps unlikely—without the help of Native Americans, who had inhabited the land for tens of thousands of years prior to European arrival.
In effort to establish themselves in the Americas, Europeans assimilated into trade and power networks, formed alliances and even engaged in diplomatic measures, like treaties. By accepting belief systems and social structures, some of which may have seemed esoteric, Europeans established a mutual relationship with the natives, a crucial step in their eventual conquest.
The sincerity of this cultural embrace is debatable, but it was undeniably short lived. As European colonies become independent, they began to break ties of allegiance that had sustained their early survival.
The practical skills bestowed upon early settlers, such as agricultural practices, architectural techniques, and hunting methods allowed them to become independent quickly. Native American practices, the majority of which were passed down orally through generations, were inherited by Europeans and accelerated the growth and expansion of permanent settlements.
It's a testament to the indigenous knowledge pertaining to the land that we continue to use today. There are, however, Native American values that we either never picked up or that have become diluted through increasingly detached generations of Americans. By "detached," I mean lacking a connection with the earth—many consider themselves to be independent of the natural world, rather than a part of it.
While Native American traditions are diverse and numerous, just like the people themselves, a common theme found in translated documents is connectedness with the environment. In many indigenous stories depicting the origin of the world, foxes, bears, turtles, muskrats and an assortment of other animals play a part in creating an Earth that is conducive to human life.
Presumably, these stories promoted a reverence for the earth and its inhabitants. A system of belief called Totemism, in which humans have a kinship with spiritual entities or "totems" that residue in plants, animals and non-living components of the environment, was present in many Native American cultures. I do not suggest that we replace our religions with this system, but there is a lot to be gained from it. Attaching value to each living and non-living object on the Earth helps avoid an anthropocentric, or human centered outlook.
An evaluation of reality exclusively through the human perspective, accentuates unjust distinctions between humans and the natural world. The fact that we lack a word to describe non-human organisms—we instead lump them all into one group called ‘animals' that we too belong to but consider ourselves exempt from—is indicative of our perceived supremacy.
One Native American tradition attests that the forests, soils, rivers and air are the lifelines of the people. If you asked a person today what their lifeline is, nine out of ten would say their cell phone or laptop. Most don't live primitive lifestyles in which they grow their own food, make their own clothing, and gather amenities straight from the woods.
We must consider these differences in perspective when deciding how much to value the natural world. It's human nature to show apathy towards something you don't know about. Similarly, if you don't know about something and have little experience with it, you will not consider it worth protecting.
In actively engaging with the land, Native Americans established an attachment to all parts of the environment. In valuing the land, they considered not just economic factors, but deeper spiritual benefits that could be obtained.
Our connection with the natural world has been weakened, but not lost, it emerges from the depths of our being when we go for a hike in the woods or look up to the sky and see a passing flock of geese flying in "V" formation.
When such a moment of Zen occurs, capture the awareness it gives you expand it to fit your daily life. You don't have to paint your face with mud and carry out a tribal dance under the moonlight to pay your respects, but it's important to get in touch with the natural world.