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3 Wise ancient practices from American Indian culture that can change our lives

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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 06/06/23

The ancient ways have something valuable to teach us, and when I listen and learn about them, my life is changed for the better.

I’m not Native American (in fact, my parents and grandparents are immigrants to the United States), but I really love reading and learning about American Indian culture. 

I believe that knowing about the daily lives and traditions of those who inhabited my homeland before me helps me understand what it means to live well with deep roots in this particular place on earth. 

Besides reading books by Native authors, I enjoy attending lectures by American Indian speakers in my area. These talks leave me with a lot to think about!

These are 3 wise practices from American Indian culture that I think can change our lives for the better. I’m working to integrate them into my life this summer.

1Respect for elderly people

I’ve written before about how deeply respect for elders runs in American Indian culture. They are called elders, not elderly, and their opinions are sought after and respected.

Respect for elders is an important message from Pope Francis, too. He speaks frequently about the need to value and appreciate elderly people, saying, “Where there is no honor for the elderly, there is no future for the young.”

What can respect for the elderly look like in practice? 

  • Call an elderly relative to chat about their day
  • Mail a thoughtful card to your grandparents
  • Visit a senior residence and spend some time listening to the residents’ stories

2Respect for creation

Many American Indian speakers and writers describe the profound appreciation and gratitude for creation that is part of their culture. I learned a lot about this notion of connected interdependence with the rest of creation from the book Braiding Sweetgrass

In a similar way (but not exactly the same), Catholics believe that the created world is a gift we are called to steward with care. Physical creation can help us understand spiritual truths: It’s not a coincidence that so many of Jesus’ parables are about nature: mustard seeds, sowing on fertile soil, the lost sheep, and so on.

What can respect for creation look like in practice?

  • Gardening and planting around our homes
  • Spending time outside with our family and friends
  • Reduce plastic waste by using reusable materials

3Respect for babies and children

I learned a little about the beautiful practice of respectful, caring discipline in the traditional Oceti Ŝakowiŋ people from a post on a Facebook page called Native American History & Cultures.

The post reads,

This is a picture of Standing Holy, who is listed as Sitting Bull’s daughter. It brings to mind the traditional Oceti Ŝakowiŋ style of parenting. The first time that Sitting Bull traveled and observed non-Native people spanking their children, he was shocked.

There was never a need to continually scold a child, belittle them, or strike them. They cuddled their children from birth to about seven because they believed crying wasn’t good for children.

Often, if a child did not stop crying, some grandmothers would cry along with them to help them get over whatever had made them sad.

At an early age, they begin to take on the responsibility of their clothing and bedding. Our people traveled with the buffalo and had to be mobile. By the age of 10, most of our children knew how to take care of the materials needed for travel.

Love, teaching, structure, and community raised our children.

Colonization tells us that physical discipline helps shape our children and turn our boys into men. Yet, without ever being spanked, we produced the greatest warriors that ever walked this land.

Our lifeways and ceremonies through the different stages of life were more valuable than anything colonization offered.

Love, teaching, structure, and community are what every child needs. As a mother, I find this discipline style resonates with the way I want to raise my children. 

I am learning from this parenting style and trying to implement it in my home as much as I can. I’ve enjoyed learning more about it from the book Hunt, Gather, Parent, which features indigenous Inuit parenting practices among others. 

These three lessons from American Indian culture impact my life, and I’m very grateful for the members of these communities who have taken the time to share their stories and experiences with me.

Ancient ways have something valuable to teach us, and it’s a joy to listen and learn about them.

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