Native American Lessons In Generosity


Today, our society, and the world, is filled with poverty, inequality, injustice. Within our society, there are rich people and poor people. Within the world, there are rich nations and poor nations. While there is no virtue in uniformity, or in the kind of equality that turns out to only be a form of tyranny, dragging everything down to the "lowest common denominator" - stealing the torch of the brilliant so that the night will not be offended, destroying and hiding great gifts so that the empty-handed will not be consumed by envy - neither can it be denied that massive levels of inequality, wherever they exist, tend to create tension, resentment, conflict, and strife. It is in trying to hoard treasures, that the greatest treasure of all - peace - is often lost.

It is important, at the outset, to emphasize that the reaction against inequality is not always about jealousy and petty resentment, as some defenders of excessive wealth attempt to argue. No, there is often something far more basic at the root of the protest - a feeling, in our hearts, that if we truly are one human family, one society, one community - brothers and sisters, as our great religions teach us - why is it that some of us have so much, more than we need, while others are struggling and hurting, sometimes dying, because they lack the barest necessities of life? It has been said, by different voices in search of a metaphor to express their passions, that poverty is not just some unfortunate condition afflicting people who do not matter - IT IS A FORM OF VIOLENCE, THAT CAN KILL PEOPLE JUST AS SURELY AS BULLETS. From the outside, this view seems incomprehensible; but from the inside, within the intensity of povertyís white-hot flame, the words ring true. And the wound of being left to die in the shadows of othersí happiness is so great, that it often leads to fierce responses which shake the stability of streets, and nations.

Christianity is filled with statements and exhortations on behalf of the poor, such as Matthew 25:31-46, in which our treatment of every man, no matter how poor, no matter how powerless, no matter how unknown to us, is seen to be a reflection of our treatment of the Lord. If we turn away the poor man, so do we close the door of our house to God. In the same way, Islam includes charity among its Five Pillars, and preaches compassion as a way to God. "Have you thought of him that denies the Last Judgment? It is he who turns away the orphan and does not urge others to feed the poor." ("Alms", tr. NJ Dawood.) And Judaism is not to be left out, through the many bold words of the Hebrew prophets spoken on behalf of justice, on behalf of the poor and needy, and against the sacrilege of hollow prayers: prayers not backed up by the lives we live. (Isaiah 1:15-17, & Chapter 58, etc.)

Today, however, it is my wish to refer to another tradition of generosity and compassion, that which existed in America before the arrival of the Europeans, imbedded in the culture and life ways of the Native peoples who were the original inhabitants of this land. Although America was never a paradise - no place on the earth has ever been - for there was violence and war, even then - within many Native American tribes, there existed a living ideal of solidarity and brotherhood, which has much to offer us today, in our own sterile age of dog-eat-dog. Although some critics claim that the price of this brotherhood was conformity, or mediocrity, the truth is that there was a great proliferation of individuality within Native American communities. However, unlike in our own day, the bond between individual and community was never cut. Likewise, there was also greatness and genius blossoming, every generation, and every day, from the midst of the Native nations; but the goal of individual talent, then, was not to take from the community, and to then escape from it into a private world of personal pleasure; the reason for having possessions was to be able to share what one had won with others, to be able to give it away to the needy, to enhance oneís ability to be generous. The famous potlaches, or giving-away ceremonies of some tribes of the Pacific Northwest are, perhaps, the best-known manifestations of this spirit. But there were many others. Following, are some excerpts which help to prove the point, and to provide some inspiration for our own self-centered civilization, whose egotism is growing every day more threatening, not only to our neighbors, but to ourselves:


The Huron: The Huron enjoyed giving and attending feasts. Generosity was an important means of winning the respect and approval of others and for this reason families worked hard growing the corn, obtaining the meat, and accumulating the presents necessary to entertain and oblige their friends and neighbors. The desire to excel at this was probably the main incentive for industry among the Huron. (Bruce Trigger, The Huron: Farmers Of The North , p 93.)

The Iroquois (Ho-de-no-sau-nee): One of the most attractive features of Indian society was the spirit of hospitality by which it was pervaded. Perhaps no people ever carried this principle to the same degree of universality, as did the Iroquois. Their houses were not only open to each other, at all hours of the day, and of the night, but also to the wayfarer, and the stranger. Such entertainment as their means afforded was freely spread before him, with words of kindness and of welcome. [The agricultural abundance produced by the hard work of the Iroquois prevented this spirit of hospitality from ever becoming a burden to the hosts.] But it was in exact accordance with the unparalleled generosity of the Indian character. He would surrender his dinner to feed the hungry, vacate his bed to refresh the weary, and give up his apparel to clothe the naked. No test of friendship was too severe, no sacrifice to repay a favor too great, no fidelity to an engagement too inflexible for the Indian character. With an innate knowledge of [the value of] freedom and dignity, he has exhibited the noblest virtues of the heart, and the kindest deeds of humanityÖ [Lewis Henry Morgan, League Of The Iroquois, p. 327-329.]

Tribes Of The Great Plains: Greed, at least as it is understood in materialistic terms today, was seldom present on the Plains. Except in disciplinary instances, no Plains leader or influential group could appropriate the possessions of any villager; such an act was unthinkable. On the contrary, a leader could only receive and maintain his status by lavish generosity to the unfortunate. Charity, next to a fine war record, was the basis for achieving and maintaining a high standing. The Oglala Sioux had a society of chiefs enjoying superior prestige, but when a novice was admitted, he was immediately urged personally to look after the poor; especially the widows and children. Among the Blackfoot tribes a man aspiring to become a leader sought to outshine his competitors by his feasts and presents, even at the cost of self-impoverishment, for, once selected, he continued to give away with one hand what he had obtained with the other. The Omahas recognized two classes of meritorious tribesmen - "such as had given to the poor on many occasions, and had invited guests to many feasts," and those who, in addition, "had killed several of the foe and had brought home many horses." A Cheyenne points out that the aspect of such exorbitant generosity among his people often led men to decline an offer of chiefdomÖ

There was universal hospitality and charity within the tribe. Food was always shared. Those who did the actual procuring of an animal, such as a buffalo, might take some small special advantage, but that was all. Except in times of great scarcity, food could be had from a successful hunting party for the asking. So long as there was any food remaining in the lodge, every visitor received his share without the slightest hesitation. Childhood friendships were likely to last throughout the lifetimes of the person involved. In battle and in cases of special need, friends would often give their lives for each other. Tom Necomb, a scout for General Miles in the early [1870s], who later lived with the Sioux, stated that he never saw more kindness, charity, and brotherhood anywhere than he did among the Sioux. [Thomas E. Mails, The Mystic Warriors Of The Plains, p. 69-70, 77-78. ]

Crazy Horse: He was a small man among the Lakotas and he was slender and had a thin face and his eyes looked through things and he always seemed to be thinking hard about something. He never wanted to have many things for himself, and did not have many ponies like a chief. They say that when game was scarce and the people were hungry, he would not eat at all. [Black Elk, with John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, p. 72.]

Sitting Bull: [The four cardinal virtues that the Lakota man was supposed to possess] were bravery, fortitude, generosity, and wisdomÖ Generosity reflected a true appreciation of the tribeís values. People were what counted, not property. Mere possession of property conferred no prestige, indeed could be viewed as disgraceful. The prestige came from giving away the property. An elaborate system of gift-giving, among individuals, families, bands, and even tribes, afforded constant opportunity for the practice of this virtue. As one Lakota observed, "A man must take pity on orphans, the crippled and the old. If you have more than one of anything, you should give it away to help those persons." This imperative applied to the measure of wealth, the horse, and the prime staple of the diet, the buffalo, as well as to all other possessions.

[Sitting Bull as a young man] enjoyed acclaim as a warrior, hunter, and holy man, and in addition he drew wide admiration for his character. Among the most pronounced traits were kindness, generosity, and humilityÖ Sitting Bullís kindness, especially to children and old people, was a legend in his own time. [A young woman discovered, after the tribe had crossed the Yellowstone River, that her favorite horse had been left behind, on the other side. But in the night, after the crossing had been made, a fierce storm had broken out, causing the riverís waters to rise dramatically, and rush forward in dangerous, swift currents. Nonetheless, Sitting Bull, moved by the girlís crying, risked his life to swim across the river, reach the horse she loved so much, and swim back across the river with it.] If quarrels broke out in the camp, Sitting Bull worked to end them. He constantly gave meat to the needy, and even to dogs. If a hungry dog looked in the tipi while Sitting Bull was eating, One Bull recollected, he cut off a piece of meat and threw it to himÖ Generosity, in Sitting Bull a natural outgrowth of kindness, also drew [strong approval from the tribe]. Stories of Sitting Bullís generosity were legion. Bear Soldier told of a formal communal hunt in which the hunters wiped out an entire herd. Sitting Bull had dropped four of the beasts, as shown by the distinctive markings of his arrows. He summoned the hunt leader, his old friend Red Feather, and had him proclaim that Sitting Bull had more than he needed and would give a buffalo to anyone who had failed to score a kill.. A man who had been thrown from his horse claimed the gift and thanked Sitting Bull. Then Red Feather repeated Sitting Bullís offer. An old man who had broken his bow at the outset came forward, and received the second animal. "The example set by Sitting Bull," Bear Soldier testified, "was followed by other good hunters by their donations to the less fortunate ones." [Robert M. Utley, The Lance And The Shield: The Life And Times Of Sitting Bull, p. 11-12, 33-35.]

[After surrendering to the US government, and passing some time on the reservation, Sitting Bull - who the whites viewed in a completely different manner than his own people, noting only his "stubbornness" and "resistance to change" - was allowed to accompany "Buffalo Bill" Cody on his Wild West Tour, which was a traveling, circus-like show that visited a number of US and Canadian cities, attempting to thrill audiences with recreations of gun-slinging cowboys and "savage Indians". While on the tour, Sitting Bull befriended American sharpshooter Annie Oakley, who came to be a great admirer of him. In the streets of the cities where the show played, sometimes outside the venue itself, they would frequently encounter poor children, begging for money. Sitting Bull could not believe that in a society so rich, filled with so many possessions, fine homes, and so much abundance, children could be neglected in this way, left, dirty and hungry, to the streets. In the end, he did not come away with too much money from the highly successful show, because most of what he made] as Annie Oakley [bore] witness, [was given away, ending up in] "the pockets of small, ragged boys." Nor could he understand how so much wealth could go brushing by, unmindful of the poor." He formed the opinion that the whites would not do much for the Indians [who they had promised to help support on the unfruitful lands of the reservation] when they let their own flesh and blood go hungry. Said he, "The white man knows how to make everything, but he does not know how to distribute it." [Stanley Vestal, Sitting Bull: Champion Of The Sioux, p. 250-251.]

Lame Deerís Testimony: [For many Native peoples, the years following conquest were heartbreaking and overwhelming. The white civilization which had won the battle for America not only forced them to live on reservations, which were often barren and unproductive wastelands, but tried to destroy their culture and their religion; to take away their dignity and self-respect; and to indoctrinate them to think and act like white men. Old tribal values of group solidarity and generosity were seen to stand in the way of economic achievement, and were, therefore, challenged. But for many Natives, the old values were not easy to kill. Following, are two entertaining, yet meaningful stories, told by Lame Deer, a Lakota holy man (in spite of many wild years, which enriched his soul). They give some idea of the strange results which the meeting of cultures has sometimes brought about]:

I knew a well-educated Indian who had come back to his reservation after working for many years in a big city. With his life savings he opened a cafeteria and gas station. All day long the cars lined up. "Hey, Uncle, fill her up. I canít pay, but you are rich; you let me have it free." And the same thing over at the cafeteria: "Say, Uncle, let me have one of them barbecued-beef sandwiches. Donít bother to write up a bill for a relation of yours."

The owner had done very well living and working in the white manís way among white people. But now he was an Indian again, back among Indians. He couldnít say "no" to a poor relative, and the whole reservation was just one big mass of poor relatives, people who called him Uncle and Cousin regardless of the degree of their relationship. He couldnít refuse them and his education couldnít help him in this situation. We arenít divided up into separate, neat little families - Pa, Ma, kids, and to hell with everybody else. The whole damn tribe is one big family; thatís our kind of reality.

It wasnít long before this Indian businessman was broke and in debt. But this man was smart, white-educated. So he found a way out. He hired a white waitress and a white gas-station attendant and spread the world that he had been forced to sell the business to white owners. From then on he did well. Everybody paid, because they knew white men donít give anything away for free.

I once heard of an Indian who lost a leg in an industrial accident. He got about fifteen thousand dollars in insurance money. In no time his place was overrun with more than a hundred hungry relatives. They came in old jalopies, in buckboards, on horseback or on foot. From morning to night a pick-up truck was making round trips between his place and the nearest store, hauling beef and bread and crates of beer to keep all of those lean bellies full. In the end they bought a few scrub steers and did their own butchering. The fun lasted a few weeks, then the money was gone. A day after that the relatives were gone, too. That man had no regrets. He said he wished heíd lose his other leg so that he could start all over again. This man had become quite a hero, even to other tribes, and he was welcome everywhere.

I made up a new proverb: "Indians chase the vision, white men chase the dollar." We are lousy raw material from which to form a capitalist. We could do it easily, but then we would stop being Indians. We would just be ordinary citizens with a slightly darker skin. Thatís a high price to pay, my friend, too high.

The anthropologists are always saying that there is still too much of the old buffalo hunter in us. Share your food, share your goods, or the tribe will perish. That was good for yesterday. Today itís saying "No, no, no" to a poor cousin. Thatís the practical thing to do. Trying always to remake people in oneís own image is a white manís disease. I canít cure that. I tell those anthros, "Youíve got [dollars] on your brains. If we Indians were such filthy savages as you tell us, we should have eaten you up when you first came to this turtle continent. Then I could have some peace and quiet now." That shuts them up for a while.

They are also wagging their fingers at us when we have a give-away feast. What they are trying to tell us is that poor people canít afford to be generous. But we hold onto our otuhan, our give-aways, because they help us to remain Indians. All the big events in our lives - birth and death, joy and sadness - can be occasions for a give-away. We donít believe in a family getting wealthy through inheritance. Better give away a dead personís belongings. That way he, or she, will be remembered. [John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes,  Lame Deer Seeker of Visions, p 34-37.]

Lessons?: I think this body of observations and anecdotes is more than self-explanatory. Our modern sense of community, our modern sense of generosity and sharing, are emaciated, without color, compared to how those concepts were perceived and lived in the past, by Native American peoples. Over the years, we have withdrawn ever more into selfishness, into self-absorption and emotional disconnection from others, and changed the meaning of those sacred words to drive away our guilt, to flatter ourselves, to acquire self-respect without making the sacrifices necessary to deserve it. Todayís generous man is but a shadow of who he was yesterday, the gesture of a hand, rather than the beating of a heart. What, exactly, is it, that we are offering to the world over the ruins of the cultures we destroyed to launch our own? Abundance? If so, for who? And at what price?

Of course, it cannot be denied that modern Western civilization has brought many new and valuable things into the world. And yet - what of those things that have the most value to us - peace; community; nature; spirit; the feeling of being cared for, of being a cherished part of something, not just an interchangeable, expendable piece in some cold machine? Out of this loneliness and abandonment, a deep and constant pain is gushing, able to take the form of sickness, hate, crime, or war. Underneath the shining triumphs of our way of life and thinking, there is darkness, blood, and emptiness.

Surely, it is time to look beneath the surface of how we live, and to gaze upon the gaping wounds that need healing. The wounds through which we are slowly bleeding to death.

Surely, it is time to seek ways of returning to the promise that we left behind, in the blindness of our success.

Once upon a time, this land which we live in was filled with a great spirit - a spirit of courage and compassion - not unflawed, or perfect - but far truer than what we have offered in its place. A time when friends were friends, and "community" was not just an empty word. The land, itself, has not forgotten this: it whispers of the generosity that used to be, and says "Come back. Come back to me, before it is too late." For he who you will not open your arms to as a brother, is destined to become your enemy.

"Come back," the land is saying. Over and over again. We need to listen, because time is running out.


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