Lakota Wisdom: Why Native American Truths Can Heal the World
Joseph M. Marshall III
The word wisdom is used frequently every day, whether it is spoken and heard or written and read. Yet it is debatable, in my opinion, if most of us know what it is. In most dictionaries it is defined as “the quality or state of being wise, sagacious, discerning and insightful.”
There are wise people in the world from all walks of life, from many nations and cultures. But there is one unalterable reality: No one who is truly wise is young. By the same token there are many old cultures on this planet of ours. Therefore, if we universally regard elders as repositories of wisdom, than those old cultures would have much to offer.
Many indigenous cultures were already populating every nook and cranny of what came to be called North America when the migration of Europeans began, roughly 500 years ago. Those peoples that greeted the newcomers with varied degrees of curiosity and apprehension had, by then, lived on and with this land for thousands upon thousands of years. Consequently they had evolved societal values and ways that enabled them to not merely survive, but thrive for all those millennia. Without going into the sad and difficult details and consequences of the interaction between Europeans and indigenous North Americans, it is important to note that the indigenous people were deeply and traumatically impacted; to the point where our cultures were diminished and, in some cases, entirely lost. The good news is that some of us have survived: just over 480 ethnically identifiable native tribes or nations in the United States.
A popular axiom says that “whatever does not kill you will make you stronger.” If that is true, native societies have endured much to survive to the present day, so we should be among the strongest people in the world. That strength is not physical, however, and certainly has nothing to do with military might. That kind of strength has to do with the experiences we had and the insights we gained from it.
Furthermore, all of us, as indigenous cultures and nations, are older than any of the modern nations of North and Central America. As societies, therefore, as with individuals, we have acquired wisdom. It would be accurate to say that we are among the elders in the global village.
When I was a teenager, my paternal grandfather made an interesting observation. He said that native peoples of this country (meaning the United States) needed to hang on to their ways and their values, but not only for themselves. He said that we might have to save this country from itself with our ways and our wisdom as native peoples. Unfortunately, he did not elaborate beyond that. It would have been extremely helpful for him to have laid out a blueprint as how we should that. But as I get older the more I see the truth in his observation.
I know little of the specific traditions, customs, languages and values of other native tribes and nations. But I do know something of the Lakota third of our nation that also includes the Dakota and Nakota. What I have learned is that the foundation of our wisdom is all the realities of the physical world. Some are obvious: the sun comes up in the east and goes down in the west; there are four seasons in the yearly cycle — winter, spring, summer and autumn — and each has its own whims and characteristics. Others are a bit more subtle, but no less unrelenting, such as the knowledge that it is impossible to survive without knowing those realities, and living within them. That is why we did not place our villages on a known flood plain, therefore precluding having to blame the river when it flooded. Furthermore, because all our values, traditions and customs are based on reality, the wisdom derived from practicing them is real, and not based on myth and legend.
Therefore, what is wisdom? There are many answers. Here are a few:
Wisdom always takes the path of reason.
A wise person never speaks before immersing himself or herself in a long and thoughtful moment.
Wisdom is the most effective antidote to fear and the absence of reason.
The wisest man or woman is also the most humble.
Perhaps my grandfather was, and is, right. However, I do know that we Lakota (as well as other indigenous peoples) have much to offer to the world at large. Among our ancestors there were some values that were held very high, among them humility, compassion, courage and generosity. But all values lead to the one we consider the greatest: wisdom. And it is our hope that one day wisdom — rather than might, arrogance and bluster — will rule the world.
Joseph M. Marshall III is a teacher, historian, writer and a Lakota craftsman and archer. He has won multiple awards for his screenplays, fiction and historical books, including “The Lakota Way” (Viking Compass, 2002), and is the recipient of the Wyoming Humanities Award. His most recent book is “The Lakota Way of Strength and Courage: Lessons in Resilience from the Bow and Arrow” (Sounds True, February 2012).