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Refocusing Our Values

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Diversity is a prime feature of Native America. This is evident in the impressive assemblage of Native nations that continue to exist, the many languages we speak, the stunning geographical variety that is North America, and the rich cultural mosaic that is in abundance. That said, as indigenous peoples, many would agree that historically we generally acted from a common set of values that transcended individual nations. These principles were derived broadly from an understanding of human nature that was focused on reciprocal kinship, not only with our human relatives but with the living earth and all the related species and natural elements of the lands and waters.

The notion of reciprocal kinship fundamentally and organically connected us to all of life’s forces. We were, in other words, who we were related to. And it was in the act of growing, maturing, and experiencing all these relational affairs that we learned how to live, how to love, how to play, how to fight, and how to die with dignity and grace.

If our admittedly oversimplified view of indigenous human nature and one of our foundational values is correct, and if, as it appears, we have become exponentially more diverse in the last two generations as a result of a series of powerful events that are pushing us in many directions—including technological developments; economic modifications via gambling operations and other revenue sources; and federal programmatic demands that turned many native political figures into a managerial class of elites who in some cases were more closely aligned with their federal funding partners than their native colleagues—then what is to be done?

As we see it, Native America has become so profoundly fragmented that it is no wonder we are not able to individually or comprehensively address our major needs in all the spheres that desperately need attention–environmental, political, youth issues, domestic violence, increasing class conflict, geographical tensions (rural/reservation vs. sub/urban), blood and identity topics, federal and state intrusions, among others.

Indigenous peoples, of course, are not sitting idly by while these problems fester and proliferate. Each Native nation is doing what it can to combat the problems it confronts, and we have a multitude of well intentioned and generally effective interest groups that work very hard at the specific issues they are charged with addressing–whether that be legal problems (e.g., Native American Rights Fund and the Institute for the Development of Indian Law), educational topics (e.g., American Indian Higher Education Consortium), natural resource issues (i.e., Council of Energy Resource Tribes), or specific social and political concerns (i.e., National Congress of American Indians, Survival of American Indians Association, etc.).

But it seems to us that, despite our shared ancient history on this land, that we now lack a set of commonly agreed upon values, effective sets of respected institutions and leaders, and a series of concentrated actions that might help us bridge the ever widening chasms that have appeared in recent decades; chasms that not only segregate but also create active and debilitating contention in Native America along the lines of gender, race, political affiliation, age, educational attainment, class, culture, and the ever bedeviling topic of identity.

It may be that we are culturally and politically past the point of no return in trying to forge or rekindle—and then rigorously adhere to—a set of core values that have the potential to alleviate some of the ongoing issues that clog our intellectual, spiritual, environmental, and emotional arteries. But we believe there is no harm and possible real benefit in at least broaching the subject.

What might those values be? Each Native nation, of course, acts under its own set of “core” values, but we are convinced that indigenous peoples throughout the Americas and across the world share certain intellectual and emotional understandings that once held them in good stead and that might again serve as the basis on which to construct stronger Native societies and governments.

We would suggest the following four as a foundation: personal sovereignty, interdependency, sacred character, and maturity. Briefly, personal sovereignty, sometimes referred to as personal autonomy, is the inherent power that is vested in each and every individual by the sheer dint of their existence as human beings. The task before each autonomous individual is to discover their true talent and act upon it in a way that benefits themselves, their relatives, clans, as well as their nations and lands.

Interdependency is a more inclusive term than even reciprocal kinship as it conveys not only relationships across peoples of all species but also a degree of accountability, responsibility, and reciprocity between the members of all groups. Indeed, we believe that our ancestors recognized that our very survival was fundamentally contingent upon how we conducted ourselves via the interdependency cultural framework.

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The sacred character of all that we are organically connected to is self-explanatory and at one time was, without question, a cornerstone of our identity as original peoples. When we make cultural, economic, political and decisions, whether as individuals or as national bodies, and are guided by the perspective that we live in a sacred environment, our choices create profound linkages to not only our human forbearers, but also to all our organic relatives of all species who expect nothing less from us.

Operating from such a paradigm encourages and fuels “all of our relatives,” and they then feel compelled to imbue us with their knowledges, gifts, and talents to help us navigate the world we inhabit.

Finally, maturity is a crucial value that holds great promise. As discussed by Vine Deloria, maturity in an indigenous context was “the ability to reflect on the ordinary things of life and discover both their real meaning and the proper way to understand them when they appear in our lives.” Maturity, when exercised throughout a lifetime, tended to produce wisdom, a characteristic we seldom see in abundance these days.

These four values are symbiotically interrelated and, if adhered to and acted upon, would provide the kind of comprehensive and integrated outlook that would be of real benefit to our nations and the environment. A personally sovereign individual will act in a manner that vividly recognizes their interdependence on all they are surrounded by, while at the same time realizing that the sacred character of all that is can only be grasped and understood if we act with an increasing measure of maturity. Maturity, of course, is not solely age-based, as there are countless examples in our histories of individuals of all ages, including the very young, exercising the ability to ponder, act, and reflect upon the beauty and power of life.

There are, of course, other values that one could list as being “core” for Native peoples. But we think this short set of interconnected concepts provides a strong foundation and is a reminder to ourselves of what was once so distinctive about our peoples.

Outfitted with these four important values, next steps should include actions and institutions that forge linkages and alliances between and within our increasingly disparate nations. Such actions might entail a series of local, regional, national, and, at the appropriate time, international gatherings that would include representatives and delegates of not only the usual cast of characters—Native governing officials, Washington beltway insiders, academics and educators, interest group leaders, among others—but would also include the less privileged and frequently marginalized groups within our borders: youth, the physically and mentally disabled, the economic have-nots or have-littles, elders, LGBT, and spokespersons for the various animals, fishes, plants, and the earth herself.

These gatherings would be designed to elicit the views of the many voices within our respective areas with the idea being to chart out a plan of action for each individual nation and for all the nations that fully incorporated the perspectives of every segment of our communities.

Historically, our ancestors operated from just such a holistic paradigm. They paid attention to virtually every detail of the community and the environment they lived within. Thus, their decisions were always made in full compliance with all the knowledges and substances available.

If we can expand such an incorporative dimension at the regional, national, and eventually the international level then we will be better positioned to address both the internal and ever increasing external demands that are perpetually nipping at our heels.

David E. Wilkins is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Victoria.