The Wisdom of the Native Americans


Kent Nerburn?s The Wisdom of the Native Americans is intended to give the reader a glimpse at indigenous thought and belief around the time when white people were settling and taking land. The book?s first part consists of quotations from various Native Americans (Chief Joseph, Chief Luther Standing Bear, and many others) and covered different ways of native life, such as silence, learning, and the land. The second part features three essays written by Ohiyesa (1858-1939) covering his native thinking about spirit, people, and the impending settlements by the white people. The final part of the book contains transcripts of three speeches by Chief Joseph, Chief Red Jacket, and Chief Seattle.

It?s not the words uttered by these indigenous people that bother me. Nerburn?s choice to make quotations 33% of the book?s content bothers me. Like cherry-picked biblical passages, quotations are also taken out of context. I hate pouring cold water over things I enjoy, but I cannot help point out again that the context is just as important as the quotation (or biblical verse) itself. I believe the context gives birth to the quotation in the first place. Nerburn offered these quotations with no contextual information other than the person?s name and tribe. It does a tremendous disservice to the person being quoted to simply ignore what is driving them to make such a profound statement. I would have preferred to have fewer quotations and more essays.

With all of that being said, one cannot deny the impact of the words in this book. Here is a passage from Ohiyesa about Jesus Christ:

This lust for money, power, and conquest did not escape moral condemnation at our hands, nor did we fail to contrast this conspicuous trait of the dominant race with the spirit of the meek and lowly Jesus.

I remember the words of one old battle-scarred warrior. I was at the time meeting with groups of young men?Sioux, Cheyenne, Cree, Ojibwe, and others?in log cabins or little frame chapels trying to set before them in simple language the life and character of the man Jesus.

The old warrior got up and said, ?Why, we have followed this law you speak of for untold ages! We owned nothing, because everything is from the Creator. Food was free, land as free as sunshine and rain. Who has changed all this? The white man. And yet he says he is a believer in God! He does not seem to inherit any of the traits of his Father, nor does he follow the example set by his brother Christ.? Another of the older men, called upon for his views, kept a long silence. Finally, he said, ?I have come to the conclusion that this Jesus was an Indian. He was opposed to material acquisition and to great possessions. He was inclined to peace. He was as unpractical as any Indian and set no price upon his labor of love. These are not the principles upon which the white man has founded his civilization. It is strange that he could not rise to these simple principles which were so commonly observed among our people.? (129-130)

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