Ever since I read Sherri Mitchell’s book Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change, I have thought a lot about the values underlying the dominant white culture’s view of right and wrong, proper behavior, relationships, and what we should aspire for. For example, the notion that children, when they grow up, should move out and often far away from their families of origin. Why? Why is that considered the right choice?
Mitchell, who is also known as Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset (She Who Brings the Light) in her Penobscot tribe, did indeed shed a lot of light on the matter for me. Our individual and collective decisions are often based on a set of values which we are mostly not even aware of.
We don’t all have the same values, of course. And we can interpret those values differently, and to vastly different extents. Over the weekend, I heard a radio report about a man who had built the world’s biggest private house. The details were outrageous, including the fact that this private house has a garage built for 50 cars! To me, that’s repulsive — but don’t I also want to own my home, and have a variety of personal comforts? Have we internalized the same basic values, perhaps with different checks and balances? I can scoff at that man with his 50-car garage, but what do I need to see and perhaps shift within my own self?
Some of this is ridiculous, like the “rule” that you mustn’t wear white shoes after Labor Day. But other values may be limiting our capacity to be happy, sapping our souls, harming our communities, and may even lie at the heart of our failure so far to adequately address climate change. Why, when climate change is an obvious and existential threat, why aren’t we doing what needs to be done?
Maybe it’s our values. And maybe we need to look at, and change some of those values.
This is why, on Indigenous Peoples Day 2021, I am grateful: in her book, Sherri Mitchell makes it easy to see and understand both the dominant cultural values (what she calls “Euro-American Values”) and what she calls “Native American Values.” The light that she shines allows us to learn, grow, and perhaps make better choices.
I don’t want to romanticize the relationship between Native Americans and nature because a) that feels like stereotyping to me and b) what do I know anyway? Instead, I will just say, I find Mitchell’s listing of the often conflicting values to be compelling. She suggests that “the contrast in these basic values has influenced the conflicts that we’ve experienced, and … the values held by the larger society have led to division, breakdown, and destruction of our key relationships, including our relationships with Mother Earth and the rest of creation.”
I won’t list all the values, because that is Mitchell’s creation and her intellectual property. Instead, I urge you to get a copy of her book (from the library, perhaps), and read it for yourselves. But I will share just a few:
— Native American value, cooperation; Euro-American value, competition
— Native American value, harmony; Euro-American value, conquest
— Native American value, sharing; Euro-American value, saving
Mitchell doesn’t just list these values, she explains her thinking with evidence, experience and wisdom. I, for one, was convinced that my/our values need closer examination and an overhaul. It is knowledge for which I am grateful, and which I wish to hold up to the light on this day.