Doug George-Kanentiio: Some required reading for Indians

During this time of changes it is helpful to take a look back and recall who we were as Native people. Much of what we believe has been somewhat distorted by the media, formal educational systems, books, movies and popular music. We now identify with symbols of our Indian status rather than actually living according to our ancestral values.

But it was only a generation or two ago when the American Indian defined life by its beauties rather than its material potentials. An important book to read which summarizes Native society was written by the naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton. He was, in the first decades of the 20th century, the foremost advocate for the preservation of the Natural world and a staunch defender of the Indian as custodian of the earth.

Seton was also a founder of the Boy Scouts of America, a youth organization he modeled after the Iroquois. He was a friend of our own teacher Ray Fadden-Tehanetorens who in turn formed the Akwesasne Mohawk Counselor Organization, a group which revived Mohawk traditions and inspired an entire generation of young people to defy the status quo and actually take pride in their heritage.

Seton’s book on Native morals is entitled “The Gospel of the Redman” and was published originally in 1935, then reissued in 1966 by his widow, Julia M. Seton. The book is only 108 pages but contains such a positive view of the Native that it should be required reading by all Indian students. After skimming through its pages the Native reader will surely emerge the stronger for having been reminded of who he was and as yet might be.

Divided into chapters such as “The Indian Creed”; “Status of Women”; “Physique”; “Bravery” and “Kindness” the intent of the book is to challenge the popular images of Indians as simplistic primitives without true intellect. It is important in reading “The Gospel of the Redman” to remember Indian people have been hammered with negative images of themselves for so long recovery from this low self esteem will take time.

By reading the “Gospel” we can at least glimpse those truths which defined us as a people. Particularly enheartening is a chapter called “Laws of the Lodge." In this short essay about Indian hospitality values Seton writes, in part, the following:
Always give your guest the place of honor in the lodge and at the feast serve him in reasonable ways.
Do not trouble your guest with many questions about himself; he will tell you what he wishes you to know.
Speak softly, especially before your elders or in the presence of strangers.
Let silence be your motto till duty bids you speak.
Never come between anyone and the fire.
Never worry your host with your troubles.
In another man’s lodge, follow his customs, not your own.
Always give your place to your seniors in entering or leaving the lodge. Never sit while your seniors stand.

Seton also writes about the “Indian Creed” which states:
There is but one Great Spirit, the Creator, Ruler of all things, to whom we are responsible. The first duty of man is the attainment of perfect manhood which he must achieve in the Body Way, the Mind Way, the Spirit Way, and the Service Way. Having attained high manhood, he must consecrate that manhood to the service of his people. He must, above all, be a good provider for his family, a brave protector, a kind and helpful neighbour.

About dying Seton wrote: The soul of man is immortal but when it comes time for him to die he should remember he is going on to the next world. He should not approach death with fear and trembling... he should rest assured he has done his best with the gifts and limitations that were his.. therefore, let him sing his Death Song and go out like a hero going home.

Seton also cited the twelve Indian commandments:
1. There is but one Great Spirit.
2. Thou shall not make a likeness of the Great Spirit
3. Hold thy word of honour sacred.
4. Thou shall keep the feats, learn the dances, respect the taboos and observe the customs of your (nation).
5. Honor and obey they father and mother
6. Thou shall not commit murder.
7. Be chaste in thought and deed.
8. Thou shall not steal.
9. Be not greedy for riches.
10. Touch not the poisonous firewater.
11. Be clean.
12. Love your live, perfect your life, beautify the things in your life, glory in your strength and beauty.

Seton emphasizes the need to work for the people as a cardinal rule of indigenous America. He cites hospitality as a universal custom, along with generosity, honesty, friendliness and patience. He praises the Native tradition of simplicity and how they avoided becoming encumbered by material possessions.

Above all, Seton notes, was the Native attitude of respect for all living things as expressed through the many social and private rituals of thanksgiving. Humility was valued as an essential characteristic of all true leaders. He also noted the resources of any given Native community were directed at providing for the needs of the young and old.

Seton also had great respect for the Iroquois, citing the Great Law of Peace as an example of what the Native mind had accomplished prior to European colonization. Seton concludes his book by observing “the civilization of the whiteman is a failure; it is visibly crumbling around us. It has failed every crucial test. No one who measures things by results can question this fundamental statement. Apparently, the money-madness is the main cause of it all.”

Wise words from a man who was fortunate enough to know us as we once were.

Doug George-Kanentiio, is an Akwesasne Mohawk. He is the co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association, a former member of the Board of Trustees of the National Museum of the American Indian and the author of "Iroquois On Fire". He resides in Oneida Castle with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.

He may be contacted by calling 315-363-1655, via e-mail: Kanentiio@aol.com or via surface mail: Box 450, Oneida, NY 13421

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