Don Jacobs / Four Arrows
In May, Rick Santorum claimed that white Europeans came to the continent and “birthed a nation from nothing.” He went on to say that there isn’t much Native culture in U.S. culture. The evidence shows otherwise.
Felix S. Cohen, lawyer for American Indian rights, wrote an essay in 1952 where he noted the many Native crops and lifeways that puzzled the elites of the old world but became integrated in American life. Crops included corn, potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa beans (chocolate), and peanuts. Amusements included rubber balls, chewing gum, and tobacco. Attitudes encompassed self-governance, individual autonomy, welcoming diversity, and discomfort with hierarchical dominating authority.
Before Europeans arrived on the continent, Native communities were flourishing as true democracies, apparently seeding democratic ideals in our founders. As documented by a number of scholars, Roger Williams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were impressed with the Native people with whom they spent time; their discourse about their experiences in turn inspired European philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke.
There are additional Native features that could turn around today’s struggling U.S. First, America’s original democratic societies met the basic needs of community members. Humanity’s basic needs are numerous. They include food, shelter, and sleep, as well as autonomy and at-ease movement in the natural landscape. As mammals, humans also need trust, belonging, love, positive touch, and play. Human beings need community support, to feel like they matter, and freedom to self-actualize. The original American democracies provided for their members’ basic needs but also for strangers, which helps explain why early on thousands of European settlers joined Native communities, whereas no records show Natives willingly joining European settlements.
Second, the nurturing and honoring of children was fundamental. Like every animal, human beings evolved a system for raising the young that meets basic needs and optimizes healthy development. These practices were conserved across generations because they helped our ancestors survive, thrive and reproduce. Many components of humanity’s evolved nest are over 70 million years old, adopted through our social mammalian heritage. In traditional Indigenous societies around the world the whole community provides the evolved nest, which begins with soothing prenatal and perinatal experiences and breastfeeding on request for several years.
Children receive much affection with no negative touch, with responsive caregiving by mothers and others who keep the baby calm during rapid brain growth. Add to this a welcoming social climate, social free play, and nature immersion.
Converging evidence indicates that each of these practices is vital for health and wellbeing in the short and long term. In contrast, the U.S. is known for its taboo on tenderness, even toward young children. In light of the recent insurrection, a quote from 1940 by the French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin has been circulating: “America is in even greater danger because of its cult of toughness, its hatred of sensitivity, and someday it may have to pay a price for this because atrophy of feeling creates criminals.”
Third, the original American societies showed respect for women and the feminine principle. Women had equal voices in decision making. Variations in gender identity were accepted as a natural part of diversity. These elements shocked the European men who explored, missionized and settled the Americas, and who subsequently turned upside down the longstanding complementarity of the genders within many Native communities.
Such egalitarianism distinguished hominids for at least a million years from other primates who exist in dominance hierarchies. The maintenance of egalitarianism takes effort, requiring coalitions to control inflated egos and those who seek more power.
After the mob action in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, it seems appropriate to quote Felix S. Cohen.
“The real epic of America is the yet unfinished story of the Americanization of the White Man, the transformation of the fear-ridden, intolerant men that came to these shores with Columbus and John Smith,” he wrote. “Something happened to these immigrants. Some, to be sure, remained European, less hungry, perhaps, but intolerant and equally submissive to the authority of rulers and regulations. But some of these immigrants became Americans, tolerant and neighborly, as strong and self-reliant men may be, and for the same reason disrespectful of all authority. To such Americans, a chief who forgets that he is a public servant and tries to tell other people what to do has always been an object of ridicule.”
Fourth, is the idea of freedom.
Founders may have been inspired by the freedoms Native communities had. They did not have rigid schedules, uncomfortable clothes, mandatory religious meetings, or punishments.
Individuals were not ruled by top-down authorities. Freedom-from-tradition has been attributed to the American way of life. Traditions of dogma and monarchical authoritarianism were tossed out in the American constitution.
But Native individuals didn’t just “do their thing.” They were grounded in the laws of the earth. That is, their traditions were centered around respect for and partnership with their fellow biocommunity members, even predators, astounding observers like Frederick William Beechey, an English captain who observed the Ohlone peoples on the Pacific coast. He noted the lack of fear among foxes, bobcats, mountain lions and coyote who coexisted peacefully and in great numbers with the Ohlone.
There are many other Indigenous practices and the Indigenous worldview that could be taken up to heal the country, such as establishing restorative justice (relational healing) for delinquency, taking up a more holistic science that respects natural law and ecological systems, and fostering nature connections to honor instead of destroy the rest of the natural world.
We can only hope that newer inhabitants will finish their education from the cultures of the original inhabitants.
Darcia Narvaez and Don Jacobs / Four Arrows’ forthcoming book, “Restoring the Kinship Worldview: Indigenous Quotes and Reflections for Healing Our World,” will be published with North Atlantic Books.