American Indian Wisdom

“Jack, you have shown yourself to be a great source of inspiration, creativity, intellect, and wisdom in my life. … I feel I have been given a glimpse into a ‘Beautiful’ mind, an old soul … someone who is light years ahead of his time … The Great Spirit and Native ancestors have touched your spirit with an amazing ‘GRACE.’” ~Nicoletta Goumenis






What is life? It is a flash of a firefly in the night. It is a breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
~Crowfoot, Blackfoot Tribal Chief
So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.
Trouble no one about their religion;
respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours.
Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.

Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend,
even a stranger, when in a lonely place.
Show respect to all people and grovel to none.

When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living.
If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.

Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools
and robs the spirit of its vision.
~Chief Tecumseh (Crouching Tiger), Shawnee

Hold on to what is good,
Even if it’s a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe,
Even if it’s a tree that stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do,
Even if it’s a long way from here.
Hold on to your life,
Even if it’s easier to let go.
Hold on to my hand,
Even if someday I’ll be gone away from you.
~A Pueblo Prayer
Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the Earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves. This we know — the Earth does not belong to man — man belongs to the Earth. This we know.
~Chief Seattle
I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
~Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk), a Wichasha Wakan (Medicine Man or Holy Man) and Heyókȟa (sacred clown) of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux)
Look at the faces of my people. You will find expressions of love and despair, hope and joy, sadness and desire, and all the human feelings that live in the hearts of people of all colors. Yet, the heart never knows the color of the skin.
~Chief Dan George, Tsleil-Waututh Nation
Still I would not forget that the pale-faced missionary and the hoodooed aborigine are both God’s creatures, though small indeed their own conceptions of Infinite Love. A wee child toddling in a wonder world, I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.
~Zitkala-Sa ‘Red Bird’ (Yankton Dakota, Sioux)
Oh Great Spirit,
Whose voice I hear in the winds,
And whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me!
~Chief Yellow Lark
Earth teach me stillness as the grasses are stilled with light.
Earth teach me suffering as old stones suffer with memory.
Earth teach me humility as blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth Teach me caring as the mother who secures her young.
Earth teach me courage as the tree which stands alone.
Earth teach me limitation as the ant which crawls on the ground.
Earth teach me freedom as the eagle which soars in the sky.
Earth teach me resignation as the leaves which die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration as the seed which rises in the spring.
Earth teach me to forget myself as melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness as dry fields weep in the rain.
~A Ute prayer [photo: Carlos Nakai, a flautist of Navajo/Ute heritage]
We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us their children. It teaches us to be thankful, to be united, and to love one another! We never quarrel about religion. ~Chief Red Jacket
If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian, he can live in peace. Treat all men alike. Give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The Earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself, and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.
~Heinmot Tooyalaket (Chief Joseph), Nez Percé Leader
The first peace, which is the most important,
is that which comes within the souls of people
when they realize their relationship,
their oneness, with the universe and all its powers,
and when they realize that at the center
of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (the Great Spirit),
and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.
This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this.
The second peace is that which is made between two individuals,
and the third is that which is made between two nations.
But above all you should understand that there can never
be peace between nations until there is known that true peace,
which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men.
~Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk), a Wichasha Wakan (Medicine Man or Holy Man) and Heyókȟa (sacred clown) of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux)
There is a road in the hearts of all of us, hidden and seldom traveled,
which leads to an unknown, secret place.
The old people came literally to love the soil,
and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of
being close to a mothering power.
Their tipis were built upon the earth
and their altars were made of earth.
The soul was soothing, strengthening, cleansing and healing.
That is why the old Indian still sits upon the earth instead of
propping himself up and away from its life giving forces.
For him, to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply
and to feel more keenly. He can see more clearly into the mysteries of
life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him.
~Chief Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Sioux
When you are in doubt, be still, and wait;
when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage.
So long as mists envelop you, be still;
be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists
— as it surely will.
Then act with courage.
~Ponca Chief White Eagle
May the warm winds of heaven blow softly on this house and the Great Spirit bless all who enter here.
Oh Great spirit, grant that I may never find fault with my neighbor until I have walked the trail of life in his moccasins.
~Cherokee prayer
This we know.
The Earth does not belong to us;
we belong to the Earth.
All things are connected
like the blood that unites one family.
Whatever befalls the Earth,
befalls the children of the Earth.
We do not weave the web of life;
we are only a strand of it.
Whatever we do to the web,
we do to ourselves.
~Chief Seattle (Ts’ial-la-kum)
Suquamish and Duwamish tribes
Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thought nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keeping what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.
~Shoshone insight [photo: Alex Rice as Sacagawea, a Shoshone teenager]
My heart is filled with joy when I see you here, as brooks fill with water when the snow melts in the spring; and I feel glad, as the ponies do when the fresh grass starts in the beginning of the year. I heard of your coming when I was many sleeps away, and I made but a few camps when I met you. I know that you had come to do good to me and my people. I looked for benefits which would last forever, and so my face shines with joy as I look upon you. My people have never first drawn a bow or fired a gun against the whites. There has been trouble on the line between us and my young men have danced the war dance. But it was not begun by us. It was you to send the first soldier and we who sent out the second. … The white man has the country which we loved, and we only wish to wander on the prairie until we die. Any good thing you say to me shall not be forgotten. I shall carry it as near to my heart as my children, and it shall be as often on my tongue as the name of the Great Father. I want no blood upon my land to stain the grass. I want it all clear and pure and I wish it so that all who go through among my people may find peace when they come in and leave it when they go out.
~Chief Ten Bears (1792-1872), Yamparika (Comanche)
Behold, my brothers, the spring has come;
the Earth has received the embraces of the sun
and we shall soon see the results of that love!
Every seed has awakened and so has all animal life.
It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being;
and we, therefore, yield to our neighbors, even our animal neighbors,
the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.
~Sitting Bull (Ta-Tanka I-Yotank), Lakota Sioux

You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.

In the old days all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation and so long as the hoop was unbroken the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion.

Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle. The sky is round and I have heard that the Earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.

The life of a man is a circle from childhood- to-childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tipis were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.
~Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk), a Wichasha Wakan (Medicine Man or Holy Man) and Heyókȟa (sacred clown) of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux)

Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other, then we will have no more wars. We shall all be alike — brothers of one father and one another, with one sky above us and one country around us, and one government for all.
~Heinmot Tooyalaket ( Chief Joseph), Nez Percé Leader
I do not see a delegation for the Four Footed. I see no seat for the Eagles. We forget and we consider ourselves superior. But we are, after all, a mere part of Creation. And we must consider to understand where we are. And we stand somewhere between the mountain and the Ant. Somewhere and only there as part and parcel of the Creation.
~Chief Oren Lyons, Oneida, in an address to the Non-Governmental Organizations of the United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, 1977
I am a red man. If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place. He put in your heart certain wishes and plans, in my heart he put other and different desires. Each man is good in his sight. It is not necessary for Eagles to be Crows. We are poor … but we are free. No white man controls our footsteps. If we must die … we die defending our rights.
~Sitting Bull (Ta-Tanka I-Yotank), Lakota Sioux
Out of the Indian approach to life there came a great freedom, an intense and absorbing respect for life, enriching faith in a Supreme Power, and principles of truth, honesty, generosity, equity, and brotherhood as a guide to mundane relations.
~Chief Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Sioux
Our wise men are called Fathers, and they truly sustain that character. Do you call yourselves Christians? Does the religion of Him who you call your Savior inspire your spirit, and guide your practices? Surely not. It is recorded of him that a bruised reed he never broke. Cease then to call yourselves Christians, lest you declare to the world your hypocrisy. Cease too to call other nations savage, when you are tenfold more the children of cruelty than they. No person among us desires any other reward for performing a brave and worthwhile action, but the consciousness of having served his nation. I bow to no man for I am considered a prince among my own people. But I will gladly shake your hand.
~Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant), Mohawk
These (sacred) ceremonies do not belong to Indians alone, they can be done by all who have the right attitude…and who are honest and sincere about their beliefs in Wakan Tanka (Great Spirit) and follow the rules. Survival of the world depends on our sharing what we have, and working together. If we don’t the whole world will die. First the planet, and next the people.
~Fools Crow, Lakota (Teton) Sioux spiritual leader, Yuwipi medicine man, nephew of Black Elk
See, I fill this sacred pipe with the bark of the red willow; but before we smoke it, you must see how it is made and what it means. These four ribbons hanging here on the stem are the four quarters of the universe. The black one is for the west where the thunder beings live to send us rain; the white one for the north, whence comes the great white cleansing wind; the red one for the east, whence springs the light and where the morning star lives to give men wisdom; the yellow for the south, whence come the summer and the power to grow. But these four spirits are only one Spirit after all, and this eagle feather here is for that One, which is like a father, and also it is for the thoughts of men that should rise high as eagles do.
~Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk), a Wichasha Wakan (Medicine Man or Holy Man) and Heyókȟa (sacred clown) of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux)
Learn how to withhold judgment. Learn to listen. Get in touch with your own inner self. Look at life with joy. Don’t ever cry over something that cannot cry over you.
~Cheewa James, Modoc
I am going to venture that the man who sat on the ground in his tipi meditating on life and its meaning, accepting the kinship of all creatures, and acknowledging unity with the universe of things, was infusing into his being the true essence of civilization.
~Chief Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Sioux
All men were made brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born free should be content when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases.
~Heinmot Tooyalaket ( Chief Joseph), Nez Percé Leader
I am an old woman now. The buffaloes and black-tail deer are gone, and our Indian ways are almost gone. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I ever lived them. My little son grew up in the white man’s school. He can read books, and he owns cattle and has a farm. He is a leader among our Hidatsa people, helping teach them to follow the white man’s road. He is kind to me. We no longer live in an earth lodge, but in a house with chimneys, and my son’s wife cooks by a stove. But for me, I cannot forget our old ways. Often in summer I rise at daybreak and steal out to the corn fields, and as I hoe the corn I sing to it, as we did when I was young. No one cares for our corn songs now. Sometimes in the evening I sit, looking out on the big Missouri. The sun sets, and dusk steals over the water. In the shadows I see again our Indian village, with smoke curling upward from the earth lodges, and in the river’s roar I hear the yells of the warriors, and the laughter of little children of old. It is but an old woman’s dream. Then I see but shadows and hear only the roar of the river, and tears come into my eyes. Our Indian life, I know, is gone forever.
~Waheenee, Hidatsa (North Dakota) [image: Hidatsa mother]
It is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost.
~Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk), a Wichasha Wakan (Medicine Man or Holy Man) and Heyókȟa (sacred clown) of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux)
I know that robes, leggings, moccasins, bear claws, and so on are of little value to you, but we wish you have them and to preserve them in some conspicuous part of your lodge, so that when we are gone and the sod turned over our bones, if our children should visit this place, as we do now, they may see and recognize with pleasure the things of their fathers, and reflect on the times that are past.
~Sharitarish, Pawnee chief
The idea of full dress for preparation for a battle comes not from a belief that it will add to the fighting ability. The preparation is for death, in case that should be the result of conflict. Every Indian wants to look his best when he goes to meet the Great Spirit, so the dressing up is done whether the imminent danger is an oncoming battle or a sickness or injury at times of peace.
~Kummonk, Quiviokta (Wooden Leg), Cheyenne
For us, warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another’s life. The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.
~Sitting Bull (Ta-Tanka I-Yotank), Lakota Sioux
The Indian loved to worship. From birth to death, he revered his surroundings. He considered himself born in the luxurious lap of Mother Earth, and no place was to him humble. There was nothing between him and the Big Holy (Wakan Tanka). The contact was immediate and personal, and the blessings of Wakan Tanka flowed over the Indian like rain showered from the sky. Wakan Tanka was not aloof, apart, and ever seeking to quell evil forces. He did not punish the animals and the birds, and likewise, he did not punish man. He was not a punishing god. For there was never a question as to the supremacy of an evil power over and above the power of Good. There was but one ruling power, and that was Good.
~Chief Luther Standing Bear, Oglala (Teton) Sioux
If this earth should ever be destroyed, it will be by desire, by the lust of pleasure and self-gratification.
~Lame Deer, Lakota Sioux holy man






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