The Wisdom of the Native Americans, by Kent Nerburn: Introduction



INTRODUCTION (a small portion. . . ~J)

In 1492 Columbus and his crew, lost, battered, and stricken with dysentery, were helped ashore by a people he described as “neither black nor white . . . fairly tall, good looking and well proportioned.” Believing he had landed in the East Indies, he called these people Indians. In fact, they were part of a great population that had made its home on this continent for centuries.

The inhabitants of this land were not one people. Their customs differed. Their languages differed. Some tilled the earth; others hunted and picked the abundance of the land around them. They lived in introduction different kinds of housing and governed themselves according to differing rules.

But they shared in common a belief that the earth is a spiritual presence that must be honored, not mastered. Unfortunately, western Europeans who came to these shores had a contrary belief. To them, the entire American continent was a beautiful but savage land that it was not only their right but their duty to tame and use as they saw fit.

As we enter the twenty-first century, Western civilization is confronting the inevitable results of this European-American philosophy of dominance. We have gotten out of balance with our earth, and the very future of our planet depends on our capacity to restore the balance.


We are crying out for help, for a grounding in the truth of nature, for words of wisdom. That wisdom is here, contained in the words of the native peoples of the Americas. But these people speak quietly. Their words are simple and their voices soft. We have not heard them because we have not taken the time to listen. Perhaps now the time is right for us to open our ears and hearts to the words they have to say.

Unlike many traditions, the spiritual wisdom of the Native Americans is not found in a set of “scriptural” materials. It is, and always has been, a part of the fabric of daily life and experience. One of the most poignant reflections of this spiritual message is found in their tradition of oratory.

Traditionally, Indians did not carry on dialogues when discussing important matters. Rather, each person listened attentively until his or her turn came to speak, and then he or she rose and spoke without interruption about the heart of the matter under consideration. This tradition produced a measured eloquence of speech and thought that is almost unmatched for its clarity and simplicity.

Indian reasoning about governmental and social affairs was also carried on with the same uncompromising purity of insight and expression.


It is from these orations, recorded observations of life and social affairs, and other first-person testimonies that the materials for this book have been drawn. The wisdom has been available for some time, but much of it has been recorded only in imposing governmental documents and arcane academic treatises.

The Wisdom of the Native Americans gathers three of New World Library’s volumes of Indian oration into one collection. In addition to the short, distilled passages of Native American Wisdom, a smaller volume I compiled with Louise Mengelkoch, this book includes the thoughts of one of the most fascinating and overlooked individuals in American history: Ohiyesa, also known by the Anglicized name of Charles Alexander Eastman.

Nerburn, Kent (2008-09-25). Wisdom of Native Americans (p. 2). New World Library. Kindle Edition.


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