A Few Extracts [ page 1 ]
A few excerpts from “Neither Wolf nor Dog. On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder” by Kent Nerburn
The tobacco is like our church. It goes up to God. When we offer it, we are telling our God that we are speaking the truth. Whenever there’s tobacco offered, everything is wakan — sacred or filled with power.
That’s a lot of why we Indians got into trouble with the white man’s ways early on. When we make a promise, it’s a promise to the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka. Nothing is going to change that promise. We made all these promises with the white man, and we thought the white man was making promises to us. But he wasn’t. He was making deals.
We could never figure out how the white man could break every promise, especially when all the priests and holy men — those men we called the black robes were involved. We can’t break promises. We never could.
A lot of them were private — we didn’t need a priest to make them happen. But they were real. They were promises to the Creator to do something. So we thought we were seeing the same thing from the white man. Especially when he swore on the Bible or used the name of God to make a promise. But I guess it was a lot like their church. It was only important on some days. The rest of the time it didn’t matter.
On Land and Property
Let me tell you how we lost the land. It wasn’t our land like we owned it. It was the land where we hunted or where our ancestors were buried. It was the land that the Creator had given us. It was the land where our sacred stories took place. It had sacred places on it. Our ceremonies were here. We knew the animals. They knew us. We had watched the seasons pass on this land. It was alive, like our grandparents. We were part of it. The land was part of us. We didn’t even know about owning the land. It is like talking about owning your grandmother. For us, the earth was alive. To move a stone was to change her. To kill an animal was to take from her. There had to be respect.
We saw no respect from these people. They chopped down trees and left animals lay where they were shot. They made loud noises. They seemed like wild people. They were heavy on the land and they were loud. Then these new people started asking us for the land. They wanted to give us money for the land. Our people didn’t want this. Then these people said that we didn’t belong here anymore. That there was a chief in Washington, which was a city far away, and the land was his, and he said they could live here and we could not.
We thought they were insane. These people would ride across the land and put a flag up, then say that everything between where they started and where they put the flag belonged to them. That was like someone shooting an arrow into the sky and saying that all the sky up to where the arrow went belonged to him. We thought these people were crazy. They were talking about property. We were talking about the land.
Your people came from Europe because they wanted property for their own. They had worked for other people who had claimed all the property and took all the things they raised. They never had anything because they had no property. That was what they wanted more than anything.
Everyone believed that whoever had a piece of paper saying they owned the land could control everything that happened on it. The people came here to get their own property. We didn’t know this. We didn’t even know what it meant. We just belonged to the land. They wanted to own it.
Your religion didn’t come from the land. It could be carried around with you. Your religion was in a cup and a piece of bread, and that could be carried in a box. Your priests could make it sacred anywhere. You couldn’t understand that what was sacred for us was where we were, because that is where the sacred things had happened and where the spirits talked to us.
Your people didn’t know about the land being sacred. You were killing all the animals. The buffalo was gone. The birds were gone. You would not let us hunt. You gave us blankets and whiskey that made our people crazy. We were put in little pens of land that were like tiny islands in your sea.
The worst thing is that you never even listened to us. You came into our land and took it away, and didn’t even listen to us when we tried to explain. You made promises and you broke every one. You killed us without even taking our lives. You killed us by turning our land into pieces of paper and bags of flour and blankets, and telling us that was enough. You took the places where the spirits talked to us and you gave us bags of flour.
To us the land was alive. It talked to us. We called her our mother. If she was angry with us, she would give us no food. If we didn’t share with others, she might send harsh winters or plagues of insects. We had to do good things for her and live the way she thought was right. She was the mother to everything that lived upon her, so everything was our brother and sister. The bears, the trees, the plants, the buffalo. They were all our brothers and sisters. If we didn’t treat them right, our mother would be angry. If we treated them with respect and honor, she would be proud.
For your people, the land was not alive. It was something that was like a stage, where you could build things and make things happen. You understood the dirt and the trees and the water as important things, but not as brothers and sisters. They existed to help you humans live.
You took the land and you turned it into property. Now our mother is silent. But we still listen for her voice.