The different Native American tribes had a culture that expressed a deep respect for nature. They had an animist view of the world and were firmly convinced that there was a connection between all things.
It is estimated that when Europeans arrived there were about 300 cosmologies, so the attempt to understand the traditions and ways of thinking of the Native Americans inevitably leads to a simplification and distortion of that vast and rich variety.
However, many of them believed in the “Great Spirit”, which can also be translated as “Great Mystery” or “Great Medicine”, a creative deity that was absolutely present in all forms of life and in nature. Therefore, they strove to be united to this Great Harmony, taking care, respecting and loving their environment. Undoubtedly, this idea refers to the concept of “Tao” which is the basis of many Buddhist philosophies.
Their way of understanding the relationship with ourselves is also interesting and connects to some of the principles of modern psychology. The Native Americans knew that there is no separation between the material and the spiritual part and they worked to be in contact with their most intuitive part. They trusted more their sixth sense and the emotional side, relegating to a second level, so to speak, the rational part, which was characteristic of the “white” man.
Many of the pearls of wisdom of this culture, as well as their languages, rites and narratives, were lost due to the invasion, conquest and genocide committed against these peoples. However, those who approach their history find great teachings that are fully valid today and may not only help us live more fully, but are also excellent moral guides.
Sayings and phrases of the Native Americans
1. We go forward and transform ourselves into what we think – Donm Coyhis, Mohican
Most of the Native American tribes believed that words and thoughts had enormous power over the world. In fact, they believed that some knowledge was so powerful that it could become dangerous, so that its transmission required a process of education and initiation. Today we know that our mind has a powerful influence on our reality. What we give for sure ends up becoming our reality, simply because we close ourselves to other options. Therefore, we must be very careful with our thoughts because they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
2. Everything on Earth has a meaning, every herb heals an illness and every person has a mission – Mourning Dove, Syilx
The Native Americans thought that all things were interconnected and, as such, they had a reason for being in what we might call the “universal plan”. Many times we are not able to grasp the meaning of the things that happen to us, and this causes us confusion and suffering. Instead, we should learn to trust a little more and flow with the course of life. All experiences contain a lesson that we must make our own, this is its purpose, even if sometimes, at the mercy of anger or pain, we are not able to understand it.
3. You cannot wake up a person who pretends to be asleep – Navajo
We can only help those who let themselves be helped. Trying to do the opposite is like swimming against the current. Native Americans knew that every person had to follow his own path, we cannot do it for him. Therefore, we can help a person lift his weight, but we should not feel obliged to take it on our shoulders in his place, we would not even do him anything good because we take him away the opportunity to grow and learn from that experience.
4. When you doubt, stand still and wait. When the doubt dissipates, move forward with courage – Chief White Eagle, Poncas di Wichita
The patience of the Native Americans is proverbial. Unfortunately, it is one of the qualities we have lost, sacrificed on the altar of immediacy. But we also know that making decisions driven by haste will make us commit errors that we will end up paying hardly. Consequently, faced with indecision, the smart thing to do is wait, open your mind to get all the signals you need and only when you are sure, make a decision.
5. Strength, no matter how hidden, always generates resistance – Lakota
We cannot get anything good by force because it always generates an inverse force, a resistance. That resistance can take many forms, but it always implies the breaking of something and the negation of the dialogue since force has burned many ships on its path. Most of the things always return to their natural course, so in many cases it is only necessary to be patient. And when this is not possible, dialogue and persuasion are better tools.
6. Do not judge a person until you have walked two moons in his moccasins – Cheyenne
Sometimes we are easy at criticism and slow understanding. However, most of the criticisms often hide an absence of empathy, the inability to put ourselves in other’s shoes and understand the reasons that led him to make that decision. All criticism, to be constructive, must start with empathy, because only by understanding surge valuable advices for that person. We should not forget it.
7. Do not come behind me, maybe I cannot guide you. Do not go in front of me, maybe I do not want to follow you. Walk by my side to be able to walk together – Yuta
The Yuta were excellent warriors and, even if only men fought, women played an important supporting role in all battles. This proverb that has resisted the passage of time conveys a very important message for life, especially for our closer relationships: we must learn to accompany without invading and love without possessing. When we truly love and value a person, our place is by his side, we do not have to try to overcome him, but we must not stay behind him too.
8. Think about whatever you want, but do not forget that you have to live with your thoughts every day – Sioux
This proverb reminds us that we can harbor every kind of thought in our mind. But we must not forget that we cannot escape those thoughts, they will accompany us day and night, and they can transform our lives into a real nightmare or, on the contrary, open the door to a more peaceful and full existence. The thoughts marked by hatred, resentment and negativity are more damaging to those who feed them.
9. It is better to have less thunders in the mouth and more light in the hands – Apache
Many Native Americans believed that participation was more important than the individual beliefs of each member of the tribe. In fact, if something surprised Europeans it was the absence of indoctrination on the existence of an absolute truth. Although cosmological questions were discussed, the main request to the members was that they participated in the ceremonies and contributed with their daily work. This denotes a more pragmatic vision that under certain circumstances is useful to us, because we must remember that we are not what we say but, fundamentally, what we do.
10. We will always be remembered by the footsteps we leave – Sioux
Native Americans did not believe they were owners of anything, not even the earth they trampled, but they were aware that they had the mission to protect these things for future generations. The presentism in which we are impregnated in the last century has made us forget that we too have that mission. We must remember that, both on an individual and social level, what will survive will be the footprints we leave. Therefore, we must make sure to leave footprints in the world, not scars that are difficult to heal.
11. If we asked ourselves questions more often, the gift of knowledge would come spontaneously – Arapahoe
When we were young, we all went through the “why” phase. Then, perhaps because we did not find the answers we were looking for or those that fully satisfied our curiosity, we stopped asking questions. The problem is that to stop asking means also to stop looking and, therefore, close the doors to knowledge. Instead, we should recover the attitude of the child, always ready to ask, to question things and question the reason of being of everything.
12. It does not take many words to tell the truth – Chief Joseph, Nez Percé
The lie needs many ramifications to be able to sustain itself, it needs to be sustained with many words and empty of meaning. However, often the truth does not even need words to be expressed and understood. If we learn to relate using the right words, which express our truth exactly, we could avoid many misinterpretations and daily conflicts.
13. Anyone who wants to do great things should not try to do it alone – Seneca
A great idea, a great project or a great passion, always needs other people to support them in difficult times, to give us new perspectives when we are stuck or help us in all areas that we cannot face alone. The networks of social support have proved to be fundamental not only for achieving great results but also for our well-being. Therefore, we must never forget that we need the others, and that the others need us.
14. Humanity has not interwoven the web of life. We are just a thread inside it. Whatever we do within this network, we do it to ourselves because all things are connected – Chief Seattle, Duwamish
Even if we are not always aware of the connection, the truth is that our actions always have consequences, and in many cases we will suffer these consequences ourselves. In Hindu philosophy, this idea is expressed through karma, so that everything we project onto the world is eventually returned to us. In the field of psychology it could be connected to self-fulfilling prophecies; the decisions, thoughts and attitudes we assume end up triggering reactions in the others that we will eventually suffer our own.
15. When you get up in the morning, thanks for the light, your life and your strength. If you do not find a reason to be grateful, it’s your own fault – Tecumseh, Shawnee
One of the secrets of happiness, supported by dozens of research in the field of psychology, is the feeling of gratitude. A profound sense of contentment and well-being arises from gratitude. This Shawnee’s shaman reminds us that there are many reasons to be grateful, but we must find them on our own, no one can do it for us.