Tracy Pender, lives in Sumter and is chairperson of the S.C. Conference Native American Committee. The Advocate asked questions related to Native Americans, particularly as their history relates to caring for the Earth.
When it comes to saving the Earth, what do you think we can learn from the Indian culture?
We can learn from Indian culture about the Earth. Indian people were in harmony with nature and understood its cycles. I often recall the commercial from the 1970s and early 80s where the Indian is riding on a horse and he sheds a tear because he looks out at pollution on the land.
Everything to Indian people involved religion. When you moved into a new area, you asked the Great Spirit, Grandfather God for blessings. When you killed an animal or plant, you thanked Grandfather and the animal or plant for freely sharing itself with you.
Leviticus, Chapter 25, Verses 23 through 24 states:
“The land must not be sold permanently because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.”
Indian people understood this. They have always said and maintained that you do not own the land. It belongs to Grandfather and all of us. We must provide for its redemption. This is yet another example of why Indian people questioned why whites did not live up to what was written in the Bible.
We have seven sacred directions. Four involved the cardinal directions. Yet, two of the seven are Father Sky or Sun and Mother Earth. Indian people say Grandfather God created our parents and we must honor our Father and Mother. For without them, we have no life. If we poison the Earth and sky, we have no life; we have not honored our Father and Mother, nor have we lived up to Leviticus.
Cathy Nelson said early Indians really understood the balance, doing such things as not killing or taking too much and by reseeding the oyster beds. Do you think that's true? Is it still true of Native Americans?
Yes, Indian people knew what it meant to maintain the balance. Only take what you need. Many of our storytelling gives examples of not taking more than you can use, creating negative consequences.
When wild rice was harvested, a section was always left untouched throughout the field to ensure there would be food for the animals and for the plant to maintain itself the next season. Gardens were not planted in rows. We spread the seeds all together. The corn grew up and provided stalks for the beans to climb on. The squash leaves spread out to provide moisture to the soil and keep off the hot sun. It all worked together – our three sisters (corn, squash and beans).
Also, and sadly, much of this is lost, we understood that the Earth provided healing agents in the plants. Many native problems could be cured, but when the Whites brought diseases not native, there were no answers. Many cures came from Indian people “discovered” by Whites.
Today, the older generations are beginning a stronger push to rekindle the old ways and preserve the Earth.
Even our young generations have the “me” concept. However, when I recently visited the Shonshi-Bannock tribe, I saw how they are enacting measures as a tribe to preserve and maintain their vast reservation. They own their property and you have to have a trespass pass if you are not a member of the tribe. They manage the land and open parts at times for outsiders to hunt and fish; yet, other parts remain closed. They have traditional hunts now and the Buffalo has been reintroduced. Traditional plants are being restored.
Native Americans believe God is the Creator, made everything, is in everything, correct? So coming from that beautiful theology, how do you see your role/duty to save the Earth?
Yes, Grandfather God made everything and his essence is in everything. We have a duty to revive the past and begin to teach the old ways again. One of the most important is how to treat the Earth. We also are teaching how to make traditional crafts that involve the harvest and preservation of natural elements that are needed. Nothing goes to waste.
Some people mistake Native American religion as “Earth-worship”? Is this true or is it “God-worship?
Here is a short response. A unique element of all native cultures in the United States is the belief in one God, and one God only. Our verbal stories have flood stories, a story about man who walks on water, and the Comanche painted crosses on the their horses and beaded them in their cradle boards prior to white arrival.
In truth, I think Indian people had this right. Early European culture, in its attempts to assimilate other groups, incorporated elements of paganism still found in religious practices. The Christmas Tree, the yule log, the hanging of the greens, and many of our Christmas traditions have a pagan origin. Even the Easter bunny and eggs are more pagan than most know.
Yet, none of these concepts existed in Indian culture. There was a basic worship, all the time, and special ceremonies. Harvest festivals and such are based on the seasons. Time was defined by the cycles of the moon. We had complex calendars and could track time. Yes, we believe everything has a spirit, an essence of God, but we don't worship such things. It is commonly said, Indians cannot be Christian and Indian at the same time because of our traditions. No wonder why so many Indians were confused about what was written in the Bible and how it was carried out. The two don't match.
There is no need to say one is right and the other is wrong. It is what we make of it. Good things can be turned into bad things and vice versa. Thus, if used for the right reasons, there is not a need to throw out everything that we have today because of its origins.
Do you think Native American are closer to the Earth than Euro-Americans and why?
Indians believed that all people are connected and related. We believed that there were other people (and that the Earth was round). Ironically, most of the traditional names of tribes (not Europeans’ names for us) mean “the human beings,” “the first people,” “the people of the land,” “the people of the water,” etc, depending on the tribe. I think this a further example of how we are tied to the land, but we are part of it, but not owning it.
Today, some Indian people are in touch with Earth and some are not, the modern world being what it is. In the past, the Indian people had a closer tie to the Earth. In many ways, I wish it were still the same. Perhaps, our environment would be cleaner. The new trend is green. This is nothing new to Indian people.
Talk a little bit about going off on the spiritual survival mission and how that equips the Native American for valuing the Earth? (The Gullah people also went off on a spiritual time away
and then were interviewed by the leader of the church to see if they were ready to join the church. Interesting).
Sweat Lodges still represent a way of purification. It is a way to clean your body, mind and soul. It is religious. It is still practiced. The Vision Quest is still done, but not like it used to be. In the past, it was more a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. It was an opportunity to prove you have learned the lessons that were taught. For if you made a mistake, it could be fatal. It also involves fasting and other ele
ments. It is not uncommon to receive a spiritual guide sent by God, but none knows who or what this will be. It is more complex, but this is a summary.