Respect for Aboriginal Culture and Elders

As in so many parts of the world, the history of the interaction between aboriginal peoples and European colonists on the North American continent has been a bloody and complicated one. The violence, injustice, racial prejudice, and deception that ultimately characterized much of this cultural interaction continue to reverberate uncomfortably in the United States and Canada today, all bound up with stark facts of massive disease mortality and large-scale forced relocations—often to completely unfamiliar territory.

Much has been lost of indigenous North American culture: Too many tribes and languages are extinct, and others are so depleted as to be functionally so. Economic and racial inequalities continue to adversely affect aboriginals; many sacred landscapes have been paved over, privatized, or otherwise degraded.

That said, all is not bleak: After all, millions of First Nations, American Indians, and Alaskan Natives still call the continent home, all of them—whether they’re directly in touch with their traditional culture or not—adding immeasurable value to modern U.S. and Canadian society.

As in any culture, a young Lakota, Yupik, or Naskapi may not be terribly interested in the history and mythology of her nation, but increasingly tribes are recognizing the preciousness of the elders among them still fluent in the native tongue and age-old traditions. Indeed, all North Americans—of European, African, Mexican, Asian, or any other heritage—have much to learn from aboriginal culture and should show it the utmost respect.

Consider, for example, the relative depth and breadth of North American aboriginal history and heritage compared with those modern-day countries we call the United States of America and Canada. Native peoples have inhabited the continent for tens of thousands of years, and while their societies were far from static many demonstrated remarkable long-term sustainability. One cannot reside in the same place for millennia pursuing ecologically destructive practices; in short, North American tribes of relatively consistent geography and customs must have been doing something right to remain viable on the landscape, just like any other biological entity. The lifestyle of modern Americans and Canadians (including, of course, that adopted by many modern American and Canadian aboriginals), a couple of centuries old at most, hasn’t yet proved sustainable. And given the state of the continent’s watersheds, airsheds, and native species as well as the precariousness of many of its settlement patterns, things aren’t necessarily looking promising.

Thus aboriginal elders and societies in general can be hugely instructive: They can tell the rest of the continent’s inhabitants, far more naïve to native ecosystems, “This is how you stay alive here. These are the ways in which you integrate yourself with other forms of life and the elements in this particular place.”

Beyond ecological wisdom, aboriginal elders represent a vital component of the globe’s grand diversity of human worldviews and languages—worth listening to and preserving for its own sake. Trends toward homogeneity tend to weaken; we certainly should celebrate the newly emerged global culture, interconnected as never before, but we mustn’t lose authentic voices and lifestyles in the rush toward an international melting pot.

The stories and myths of aboriginal North America—from dramatic sagas of flood and fire to bawdy Trickster tales starring Coyote or Wolverine or Raven—sprang out of these mountains, these canyons, these plains, these bottomlands. So did those day-to-day traditions of food-gathering, home-making, and nourishing spirituality. Those cultures that still know some of their own backstory—and the surviving elders of those cultures with their invaluable memories and perspectives—are international treasures. Beyond their intrinsic right to exist and the practical advice they can lend, they simply make North America—and, by extension, the planet—a more interesting and lively place.

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