Core Values Of The Indigenous Way Of Life

As Wabanaki people, we are taught that it is our responsibility to speak on behalf of the natural world.
Artwork: Jean Bartibogue, “The Seven Generations Tree of Wisdom” on the cover of Sacred Instructions

Skejinawe bemousawakon is the way of life that is held by my people, the Penawahpskek, and the other tribes within the Wabanaki Confederacy [comprised of five principal nations: Abenaki, Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Mi’kmaq]. This way of life is about living close to Earth, close to our kin, and remaining ever mindful of our responsibilities to the sacred agreements that we have with every living being. It is about the sustainability of Earth, our relationships, and our spiritual connections.

In today’s world, there are many diversions that call us away from this way of life. There are also a number of seductions that tempt us with a more simplistic path, but we have remained committed to holding and honoring this path that has been given to us by our ancestors. And we must remain committed and disciplined if we hope to preserve this way of life in the midst of all the distractions presented by the modern world.

Many people wonder why we stick to our traditional ways when it appears so much easier to assimilate and join the larger society and popular culture. They ask us: Why would you choose to walk a more difficult path? We are willing to do so because we recognize that it is this way of life that allowed our ancestors to survive the atrocities that they faced, and we understand that it is also the path that will lead to our survival in the future. We know that if we lose this pure and simplistic way of life, we will lose the thread that holds humanity together. Therefore, we honor what we know, and we take responsibility for preserving the way of life that keeps this knowledge alive for ourselves, our future generations, and all other living beings.

Following are some of the core values that guide this way of life.

N’dilnabamuk “All my relations”

Many people have heard Native people say “all my relations” after speaking or offering prayers. But what does it really mean? All societies organize around some sort of core principle. The core principle for Wabanaki societies is relationship. Our story begins with an understanding that we are related to all beings within creation. The two legged, the four legged, the winged, the beings that crawl and slide along the ground, the plants, the trees, and Earth are all our relatives. Everything is interconnected and interdependent; the well-being of the whole determines the well-being of any individual part. We recognize that connection in our prayers, and the understanding that the whole is shifted by every action of each individual. There is one life, one breath that we all breathe. Therefore, when we take any action out in the world, even when we pray for ourselves, we impact all life. This belief forms the foundational understanding that weaves through all of our other values. It’s the thread that ties them all together.

Mamabezu “He or she has enough”

Alabezu “We all have enough”

The value of enough means ensuring that everyone has enough to live their lives with dignity and a sense of security, and that the community has enough to thrive. This is connected to the belief that we are all responsible for one another. We have to be mindful that there is a finite amount of resources available to support life, and what we take for ourselves impacts what is available for others. If we take just the amount needed for us to have enough to live and feel secure, then we are leaving enough for others to do the same. Yet if we take more than what we need, we are depriving others of the ability to meet their own needs. Ensuring that everyone has enough is the best way to ensure the health and happiness of our societies. When people have their basic needs met, they are able to focus their energies on other tasks. They can develop and share the gifts that they carry with the rest of the world in meaningful ways. When they don’t have enough, and they’re struggling to survive, the drive for survival becomes their entire focus. There is no energy left for them to develop the gifts that they possess to strengthen the community or society in which they live.

Practicing the value of enough helps our communities become strong and vibrant. It provides an opportunity for everyone to bring their best self forward and contribute their best ideas and their best efforts. It also fosters more self-esteem within individuals. Those who feel that they are meaningfully contributing to their families, communities, and societies have a better opinion about themselves. When we deny people basic security, we are robbing them of their own potential and the ability to feel good about themselves. This also robs our communities and societies of the potential that they possess. When we practice the value of enough, we open space for each individual to become their best, which in turn offers greater success, innovation, and well-being for our communities.

Wolihkomawiw “Harmony”

Harmony is an inner state of equilibrium. It’s about finding and maintaining inner harmony, which is not always peaceful. It’s about trusting that the world is balanced even when it seems out of control.

Life will challenge you, it will knock you down, and it will surprise you in wonderful and terrible ways. Wolihkomawiw invites you to see the truth that exists in every moment of life and recognize that all life is a duality. When we understand the dual nature of the universe, we recognize that there is beauty in everything, even our most painful experiences.

I was taught that every difficulty that we face in life is directly proportionate to the amount of strength that it can provide us. The more painful the experience, the more love it can open within us; the uglier the situation, the greater the beauty that it brings forth; the deeper the darkness, the more expansive the light.

This teaching offers us the wisdom to seek the balance that exists within the duality. When we understand the harmonizing aspects of life, we understand that nothing is all good or all bad. One of my elders told me there is only the good and the not good; nothing is ever truly bad. I had a very hard time believing this, and at times I am incredibly challenged to find the beauty in some of the experiences of my life. When he told me this, he wasn’t trivializing the pain of the difficult or destructive experiences of my life; he was simply trying to help me see the true nature of life. When we come to know the true essence of spirit, and the source from which we all come, we realize that there is only love. All of our experiences and the experiences of others are teaching us deeper and deeper aspects of love, and countless faces of that love. Each experience has the potential to open us to a greater experience of that love, if we are connected to its source.

When we can remain connected to the source of life, and recognize that it is balanced and just, we develop greater compassion and patience for the darker sides of that duality. When we begin to live with that truth, we are living in wolihkomawiw, or living in harmony with the mind of the creator.

Kciye “Harmony with the natural world”

It is not enough to know that we are part of one living system. We must also take active steps to live in harmony with the rest of creation. This means that we cannot adopt attitudes or beliefs that place us above the natural world. We cannot see ourselves as having dominion over the land, the water, or the animals. We can’t even see ourselves as being stewards of Earth. We are only keepers of a way of life that is in harmony with Earth. Every day, we must act in ways that acknowledge that we are part of one living system, a unified whole.

This understanding is very different than the belief that human beings are chosen above all others. That view creates countless distortions that not only elevate man inappropriately, but also diminish the rest of creation. The world is one unified system. It cannot be separated into fragmented, saleable parts. The Eurocentric view of property ownership requires us to see the land as being disconnected from us. This view separates us from the source of life. The Indigenous view recognizes the land as kin, as part of the lineage of life that we are all connected to. Thus, we have an obligation to care for the land in the same way that we would care for our human relatives.

As Wabanaki people, we are taught that it is our responsibility to speak on behalf of the natural world. Not because we are superior to other living beings, but because we speak the language that other human beings understand. Human beings are the only species on the planet that has fallen out of step with creation. As a result, it is human beings that pose the greatest threat to life. The only way for us to regain our balance within creation is to once again find our balance with the natural world. Kciye is just a word, but it’s a word that reminds us of our deeper connections and our deeper obligations to life.

From Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change by Sherri Mitchell, published by North Atlantic Books, Copyright © 2017 by Sherri Mitchell. Adapted and reprinted by permission of publisher.

Sherri Mitchell was born and raised on the Penobscot Indian reservation. She received her Juris Doctorate and a Certificate in Indigenous People's Law and Policy from the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law and has worked in many capacities over the past 30 years helping to highlight and advance the position of Wabanaki peoples. Sherri is the founding director of the Land Peace Foundation, an organization dedicated to the global protection of Indigenous rights and the preservation of the Indigenous way of life.

See also:
The Movement We Need