Passing of the Way

Native AmericanAn acquaintance from the gym that I work out at saw the reading material that I tend to consume while doing my cardio and leant me a book called The Wisdom of the Native Americans.  It is a rather short book with compiled sayings from different Native Americans over the centuries.  A couple of the quotes that really caught me were:

We are afraid if we part with any more of our lands the white people will not let us keep as much as will be sufficient to bury our dead.  –  Doublehead (Creek Chief)

The white man leaves his fathers’ graves, and his children’s birthright is forgotten.  –  Chief Seattle

Old age was simply a delightful time, when the old people sat on the sunny doorsteps, playing in the sun with the children, until they fell asleep.  At last, they failed to wake up.  – James Paytiamo (Acoma Pueblo)

I have attended dinners among white people.  Their ways are not our ways.  We eat in silence, quietly smoke a pipe, and depart.  Thus is our host honored.  This is not the way of the white man.  After his food has been eaten, one is expected to say foolish things.  Then the host feels honored.  – Four Guns (Oglala Sioux)

I couldn’t even begin to capture all of the quotes that struck me as I was on the elliptical.  It reminded me of a truth that I am often reminded of: we are constantly looking forward and upward for progress and innovation, but rarely focused backward and inward for introspection and a return to our roots.  There are many great practices that we have forgotten.  As the Native Americans would say, we have forgotten the face of our fathers.  To our own detriment, our European (and elsewhere) ancestors came to this land and completely overlooked the beautiful culture and ways that preexisted them.  Ways of silence, respect, and dignity were plowed over to make way for success and manifest destiny.  Looking down over the mighty Mississippi or the muddy waters of the Missouri, we are reminded that it was not our trailblazing pioneers that gave them their name.

I was recently talking with JW and she was telling me how funerals were conducted in her native Ireland.  She mentioned the way that the body would be brought home because where you lived is where you should be in death.  Folks would gather from the community to pay their respects at the deceased’s home and then the body would be carried through the estate (neighborhood) on the shoulders of the local men so that all could bid their final farewell.  Finally, the men would make their way to the cemetery while the women waited at home until the next day.  The men represented their families as they sent off their loved one.  (Let me know if I got any of this wrong, JW!)

Our conversation reminded me of the way we do funerals in Japan with many similarities.  Friends and family pay their respects as the body lies in state in his or her home.  After a few days, everyone gathers at the crematorium and pushes the body of the deceased into the “oven.”  While the body is being cremated, everyone gathers and eats, drinks, and tells stories of the one who has passed.  Then, after about 45 minutes, everyone gathers where the remains have been scattered on a high table made of stone and steel and partner up to put the bones into an urn with long chopsticks called saibashi.

The conversation also reminded me of how my in-laws reminded me that I was the family representative when I went to the Buddhist temple to hear the dharma talks.  I went to temple quite often thinking of it as an individual endeavor that I was doing for my own learning.  When they said that I represented the family and ancestors when I went to the temple I was hit with a huge sense of responsibility and honor.  It makes me aware how easily we “forget the faces of our fathers.”

In our own cultures and in those around us, there are practices that had great meaning which now have gone away with the passing of generations.  It is right and good for us to make progress and to seek our own enlightenment.  But it would behoove us to remember the faces of our fathers – to return to the practices of our ancestors and to experience the appreciation for the land that our predecessors once possessed.  To rediscover the practices is to rediscover the meaning behind them.  Once we reclaim them, we can carry on the legacy of a flame that was lit long ago and teach our young a new appreciation for life and wisdom.

5 Responses to “Passing of the Way”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    An excellent and necessary reminder B, not just for our own familial experiences, but also for our country’s lost experiences.

    Imagine how different our country might be had the Native American traditions been embraced, if not in whole at least in meaningful part.

    Apart from the differing funeral experience, many lifetime experiences and milestones would presumably have evolved otherwise.

    One example reminds of the Lakota and its rite of passage from boyhood to manhood where the developing mature teen was not to speak to his mother for a 2 year period, after which he would then be re-introduced to her (and the whole village) as a young man, complete with ceremonial meaning and spiritual awareness.

    When I was a kid I loved the Billy Jack movie, and Tom Laughlin’s frustration with the “white man” cultural departures from his (half-breed) Indian ancestry. Of course, in my youth I was most impressed by his barefoot, Green Beret can of whoop-ass that he opened up to defend the defenseless kids at the progressive school that his companion (and pacifist friend) Jean led.

    “It’s funny, isn’t it? Only the white man wants everything put in writing. And then only so he can use it against you in court. You know, among the Indians a promise is good enough.”

    Imagine if our word was still our bond, as it was among the Indians. Our whole Anglo-Saxon centuries old system of jurisprudence is predicated in large part upon the expectation that promises won’t be kept.

    But apart from the more romanticized attraction to this original anti-hero, I was also taken by how his character’s internal struggles to abide by the better (more pacifist) angels of his nature, and how he retreated to the Indian sacred place to undergo his mystical & spiritual test.

    Perhaps it was inevitable that with the progress of the Industrial Revolution much would be lost from cultural heritage, but indeed we are the lesser for it, especially when it comes to the Native American experiences.

    My guess is that James Cameron meant to pay homage to it in creating Avatar, as its (Na’vi) sentient beings respected all creatures — ally or prey — and especially valued the life source this is nature — like the Tree of Time/Voices depicted therein.

    Such cogitation hopefully prompts us to reclaim a bit of that cultural history from time to time in our lives, and eventual departures from this corporeal world into the spiritual & mystical next … .

    • You’re definitely right, brother. We sacrificed a lot within for our progress without. I’ve heard of Billy Jack, but have admittedly never seen it. I’ll have to find it online. The Lakota are a perfect example of a culture with wonderful traditions that were swept oaway in return for a lot of empty promises. Much healing still happens and is needed today in the Lakota Nation. We say that we learn from our past, but I’m not so sure that we do. Instead, we just find better more egregious and destructive ways to make the same mistakes. Such is our plight . . . .

      • John Lovestrand Says:

        Maybe it’s our plight, but people like you help to keep hope alive, and so more than just a half full glass — we need to remind ourselves that our cup runneth over … with joy and kindness, love and compassion. As you beautifully wrote earlier today in the Three R’s post, if we can help water the seeds of consciousness in our children, they can lead the way. Thanks. JL

  2. Scott Nowlan Says:

    I know I will be honored by my children. Maybe not my wife.

    Sent from my iPhone


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