In History, Names, Words

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of philosophical stuff from the mouths of Native Americans. People like Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Black Elk. And aside from making me wish that I’d been a bit more imaginative with my kids’ names (Send Plenty Snapchat has a nice ring to it), it’s convinced me that 2017 is to be the year that I develop a closer affinity with my inner brave. I’m guessing Adam Ant went though a similar epiphany circa 1980.

In a year when it looks like we’re going to get our ‘leadership’ in a maximum of 140 characters and mindfulness and mindlessness go head-to-head, a little Native American wisdom might just offer the protection we need. Eg.,

‘It is better to have less thunder in the mouth and more lightning in the hand.’ (78 characters)

‘The bird who has eaten cannot fly with the bird that is hungry.’ (63 characters)

‘Silence is the mother of truth, for the silent man is ever to be trusted, while the man ever ready with speech was never taken seriously.’ (137 characters)

Now that’s what I call a tweet!

Yet it was spoken by a man born nearly 150 years ago, a Lakota Sioux chief by the name of Luther Standing Bear, whose people had a ‘no tweeting’ policy. In fact, they had a ‘no writing’ policy, preferring to pass their wisdom from one generation to another by word of mouth. And what words they were! Wigwam, powwow, wampum, Wakan Tanka (the Great Spirit, not rhyming slang for Trump). All those double us… double-Us… double-ewes… Ws… blimey, never try to spell letters!

Of course, the downside to the oral tradition is that you leave yourself vulnerable to other people appropriating your vocabulary and applying their own spellings. Hence the proliferation of tribal names that were clearly written down by Frenchmen, like Cheyenne, Pawnee and Sioux.

Luther Standing Bear was one of the first of his people to get a European-style education and start writing stuff down, thus helping to open people’s eyes to the real Native American way of living, their plight at the hands of marauding white settlers and their knack of encapsulating the meaning of life in a pithy sentence or two. In 1902 he toured Britain with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, met King Edward VII and fathered what was believed to be the first Native American baby to be born on English soil. Alexandra Standing Bear was named after the Queen of the time but was less fortunate with her middle name – Birmingham – after the place of her birth. At least she wasn’t born up the road in Dudley.

But Luther Standing Bear was not altered by his exposure to so-called ‘civilisation’. If anything, it served to reinforce his Native principles.

‘”Civilization”,’ he wrote. ‘has been thrust upon me since the days of the reservations, and it has not added one whit to my sense of justice, to my reverence for the rights of life, to my love for truth, honesty and generosity, or to my faith in Wakan Tanka, God of the Lakotas. For after all the great religions have been preached and expounded, or revealed by brilliant scholars, or written in fine books and embellished in fine language with fine covers, man – all man – is still confronted with the Great Mystery.’

Take out the Wakan Tanka bit and that all seems pretty sensible to me.

Watch out for The Pocket Book of Native American Wisdom, in all good bookshops soonish.

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