Note: all original writing (presented here) is copyrighted by the Library of Congress to Mary Magoulick. It may be used only according to copyright law and by permission of the author.

Native American Worldview Emerges

While there will never be and has never been one definitive worldview that comprises any one Native American culture (let alone hundreds), many Native people seem to agree upon certain values and ways of seeing and experiencing the world as characteristic. In presenting an emerging picture of Native worldview today it is helpful to consider ideas of past Native worldviews. M. A. Jaimes summarizes the prevailing markers of “traditional” Native American identity. She draws this view of “indigenism” from the work of Jerry Mander, who sees Native American worldview as corrective of our own, misguided, mainstream American worldview:

In terms of economics, the Native peoples tend to have communal property, subsistence production, barter systems, high-impact technology, and competitive production. In terms of political relations, Native people have consensual processes, direct “participatory” democracy, and laws embedded in oral traditions. On the other hand, modern society has centralized executive authorities, representative democracy, and written laws. In respect to their social relations, they differ, generally, in terms of matrilineality versus patriarchy, extended versus nuclear families, and low versus high population density. Finally, regarding differences in world view, the Native peoples are polytheistic, derive an understanding of the world from the natural order’s rhythms and cycles of life, and include animals and plants as well as other natural features in their conceptions of spirituality, which the cultural anthropologists call animism and totemism. (1995, 275)


The portrait painted here is a familiar and often repeated one of Indians as living communally, with participatory democracy, strong extended families, and a pluralistic religious life based on nature as living and sacred. While this image seems exaggerated and idealistic, and does not account for every society and every belief and action of members within any society, it nonetheless appeals to many people, including most Native Americans today, as accurate and to be emulated.

George Cornell, a professor at Michigan State University (who is also Ojibwe), supports this view of the Indian “perception of the environment”:

Generalizations about Native American philosophy / spirituality are also on firm footing when discussing the earth. Native peoples almost universally view the earth as a feminine figure . . . . The relationship of Native peoples to the earth, their Mother, is a sacred bond with the creation. . . . Native peoples viewed many of the products of the natural environment as gifts from the Creator. . . . Man, in the Native American conception of the world, was not created to “lord” over other beings, but rather to cooperate and share the bounty of the earth with the other elements of the creation. . . . (1993, 22-23)


Cornell presents quotes from various Indian people such as Oren Lyons, Chief Seattle, Tyon, and Black Elk to support such views of Indian relationships with nature. The veracity of some such sources have been questioned and criticized for emulating idealized, white notions of Indian identity (and having been invented by whites). Yet the image persists as valid and meaningful to Native people today. At Bay Mills Community College, for instance, the famous speech by Chief Seattle was often xeroxed and circulated among the students to teach them about their heritage.

The appeal of these images drawn of the Native American worldview is deep. Marsha C. Bol has edited volumes of scholarly work to help establish the authenticity and pervasiveness of this image of nature as “Mother Earth,” a positive force that influences positively housing types, dress, art and less material conceptualizations, such as notions of time (cyclical based on agriculture or hunting seasons). She examines museum exhibits and testimony of various Native people to help support this worldview. After reviewing literature published by Native Americans, many scholars agree with Robert M. Nelson that, “a powerful respect for place, in the sense of an actual and particular landscape, is characteristic of much of Native American poetry and fiction . . . to live with the land, holding and being held by the life that precedes and survives the life of any individual, as well as the life of any culture” (1997, 277). This respect for place stems from a deep sense of connection to place. Place in most Native American literature usually equates to nature.

The image of Native Americans as having a strong and positive connection to nature pervades the literature at many levels. The other positive aspects of Native American worldview outlined by Jaimes above are also often repeated overtly and symbolically as part of what it means to be Native American. Such messages wash over Native people today, and help to shape their values, experiences, and ways of living.

When trying to define just what it is that makes someone “Indian,” N. Scott Momaday formulates a poem to summarize:

You see, I am alive.

You see, I stand in good relation to the earth.

You see, I stand in good relation to the gods.

You see, I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful.

You see, I stand in good relation to you.

You see, I am alive.  (1989, 14)

Momaday develops each image (line) of the poem in his discussion of being Native today. He summarizes his general feelings about Native Americans and their presence and lives today:

I believe that the American Indian is possessed of a vision that is unique, a perception of the human condition that distinguishes him as a man and as a race . . . the sense of place, of the sacred, of the beautiful, of humanity – the Indian has had and continues to have a singular and vital role in the story of man on this planet. There, in the center, he stands in good relation to all points in the wide circle of the world. (1989, 26)


Momaday’s positive outlook on his people and their place in America centers around several concepts, “place, the sacred, the beautiful, and humanity,” each a line in his poem “I Am Alive.” Of his generalizations regarding identity, Momaday says, “there is a synthesis of other, more general experiences, I believe. In such things there is an evocation of the tribal intelligence, an exposition of racial memory” (1989, 14).

In particular, in regard to the Indian relationship to “the landscape,” Momaday feels the Indian has always “centered his life in the natural world. He is deeply invested in the earth, committed to it both in his consciousness and in his instinct. In him the sense of place is paramount. Only in reference to the earth can he persist in his true identity” (1989, 14). He contrasts this idealized relationship with nature with the mainstream American attitude that sees the land as a commodity, “an object of trade and utility.” In contrast, the Indian does not have a sense of ownership of land, he says. The well-being of individuals and communities depends upon this worldview. In a sense Momaday projects a romantic image of the Indian worldview here. Yet I believe he does so consciously, as a means of centering Native people, reminding them of how to think and act. His affirmative “You see, I stand in good relation to the earth” intones this as fact and ideal.

Momaday is equally passionate about the sense of the sacred he identifies as part of the Indian worldview. He states: “The Indian exerts his spirit upon the world by means of religious activity, and he transcends himself in a sense; he expands his awareness to include all of creation. And in this he is restored as a man and as a race” (1989, 25). Once again, implicit in Momaday’s discussion is the direction to foster such a sense of the sacred. For such an attitude is restorative, “in this he is restored.” In discussing the Indian’s aesthetic sense, he invokes art (inspired by nature), rituals, his languages, and oral traditions, now expanded even into the written language (1989, 25-26). Finally, the Indian sense of humanity grows out of his other sensibilities. There is little question that Momaday wrote this introductory entry to the National Geographic Society’s publication, The World of the American Indian (first published in 1974) as a corrective to previous visions of Native Americans, and as an inspiration for other Native people. He gives us “his best idea of himself” and of humanity generally (1989, 26).

Part X

Worldview Confirmed

The Nature Connection

How effective or realistic is Momaday poetic portrayal of the Native worldview? When trying to pinpoint the practices and discourse of the Native American worldview, other writers and scholars also settle upon these same qualities as characteristic: a different or stronger connection to nature or place, a strong family / community life (sense of community), a strong ceremonial life (sense of the sacred), and a developed aesthetic (a sense of beauty). For instance we have already noted some of the writers and scholars who remark upon the Native American worldview as ecological. Likewise, when I spoke to Native people in the Upper Peninsula, they generally offered me similar generalizations or examples of the Native American worldview today.

When discussing her personal view of spirituality, Ogimakwe reveals it as tolerant and nature based:

 I have no problem believing that Jesus Christ was a great man, a great healer and a great prophet, but so was a lot of other people I know. Was he the son of God? Sure, we all are. And right there I’ll get into problems with Christians I know [laughing]. But ah, is he the only way, to ah, Gizhemanido [the Great Spirit]?  Kaa! [No!] There’s many ways, many roads.


Mary: When you were growing up what kind of understanding of Gizhemanido did you have?


Ogimakwe: I had a very natural understanding of things as far as, I mean, it was very Nature connected.. . . . Creation has many languages, it used to have one, but it has many now. Who’s to say, you know, that the Creator doesn’t have you speaking to the trees.


Ogimakwe’s states that her spiritual life is centered on nature, and in other discussions and stories she tells, she further demonstrates what she means by this. Spirituality is very important to her, and in its Native manifestations is based on nature.

At one point I ask her explicitly about how nature fits into her worldview and experiences as a Native person:

Mary: How important is this for, you sort of talked about this a little bit, but for the Earth in general? I mean how important is nature in traditional Native life, and in what’s being developed now, in this new hoop?


Ogimakwe: It is of the greatest importance. I mean we, it, it has to be, you know. In order for us to be, it has to be. It ah, everything goes back to that. Our most basic teachings are those of the Earth, you know. You can’t separate the two, you can’t separate it from anything. It is our life blood, it is, it’s our way of life, it’s our thought, it’s our heart, it’s everything.


Mary: Do you worry about the fact that it’s so imbalanced now, and – 


Ogimakwe: Oh yeah


Mary: Do you think that’s a general concern among Native people?


Ogimakwe: Very much so, yeah. I don’t think we’re doing enough, but whatever you can do, do the best you can, is what my motto is. But even I falter in that area too. Every once in a while I’ll throw a cigarette out. Now I know it takes two hundred years for those damn filters to dissolve in the Earth, but most of the time I put ‘em in my pocket, you know. I see someone throw a Styrofoam cup out the window – especially Native –  I’ll get irate. I usually get dead off in their face.


Another thing that irritates me is powwows, huh huh huh [laughs] There’s eighty thousand trash cans at powwows and then you look around at the end of the day and there’s nothing but trash everywhere. But then to balance that out, you know, I see a little old lady wandering around at three o’clock in the morning picking up trash, with a bunch of her grandchildren or something.


So you know, the other day we were driving by a clear cut area, back in these woods. Well first we’re driving by and it was all beautiful and I know this is ironic, I know this is a paradox, because we’re driving in a car, we’re polluting the air, right? We’re driving along through road that’s been slashed through, you know.


But then again you do the best you can with things you have you know. But we went through.


In some ways, Ogimakwe’s experiences and concerns here are very similar to non-Native concerns and experiences regarding the environment. She struggles with enacting an idealized conception of a Native relationship with nature that she believes, and a reality in which she and many other Native people she knows, participate in modern life and thus contribute to the destruction of nature. Even while appreciating it (and thus fostering her sense of herself as Native), she realizes there is a problem in enjoying it by modern terms (a car).

She goes on to explain that she felt a strong physical response to environmental problems:

But it’s the connectedness that was conveyed through that, through this experience. We were driving along looking how beautiful everything was, and how awesome everything was, and all of a sudden it dawned on me, you know, we came across a clear-cut area, you know. And it’s like I could almost feel like a wound or something, like if I had a wound on me and it was like, it hurt, I don’t know if you’ve ever had a cut, but you can, you know, you’re all too aware that it’s there, you know. And I got real sad, and you know, kind of choked up a little bit about it, and when I got home I was kind of talking to Jimmy [her foster son] about it and he said, “yeah,” he felt the same thing, you know. And you feel that connectedness with the Earth and it makes you, that’s good, because then it makes you more aware of what you can do, you know.


Although this hearkens back to the idealized images from television ads against pollution in the 1970's, it serves an important purpose in helping Ogimakwe understand and shape her own identity. Her vision helps her to act differently and project an image of herself to the world (much as Momaday and other Native writers do explicitly and in their fiction). She believes that her response to pollution and environmental destruction comes from a deep, literally physical connection to the natural world. Her Native identity, she believes, gives her a “connectedness” that “makes you more aware of what you can do.” So the worldview her identity as a Native helps foster is “good.”

Ogimakwe explains how she implements her vision and ideal of a better relationship with nature:

In my prayers, in the sweat lodge, in every place I’ve ever gone, we always pray for the Earth, but I pray for the people too. Cause I know this Earth will heal herself. All of us know that. Yeah, eventually she will heal herself. But it’s the poor people I worry about.


Cause there are some prophecies that say, “we will all be gone,” you know. That there will be none of us left, that we will not take heed quick enough, or good enough, or fast enough, or whatever, and we’ll just all go away. She’ll shake us off, you know, like a dog who scratches the fleas and knocks ‘em off. But there are those that, that’s the bleakest case scenario [laughs], and then it goes, travels up a little bit better from there, but, but no I can’t uh, this is everything to me. I mean I couldn’t live in a city any more, just for the simple fact that there’s no water, you got to travel, well you know, how many miles to get to a river or a lake and then what’s there? Oh, McDonald’s, Hudson’s [a department store], ah you know, garbage floating by [laughing], dead cow, you know. Eighty thousand million people, you know, in this one little cram-packed space. There’s no, it’s not, I can’t get from it what I came there to get, when everybody’s doing all that stuff.


Ogimakwe expresses feelings of idealized hope about the potential for an improved relationship with nature that might come from focusing on Native identity similar to what Momaday expressed. She feels strongly that nature is part of her identity, and has changed her life (she moved from Detroit back to the Sault area) to fit that need for a stronger connection to nature. She hopes her prayers will be efficacious, but she also realizes that development is all-encompassing and pervasive. So in the end Mother Earth may have to heal herself, and we people are thus the more appropriate object of concern.

Ogimakwe then goes on to explain a teaching she received from nature:

I was looking one day [looks and gestures outside] and I was noticing all these trees they reach out and they touch each other, that’s how they grow. They don’t grow straight up, you know. They grow tall into the sky towards the Creator, but they also reach up to touch each other. And they, all the little ones, they’ll grow right next to the big ones. See all these empty spaces? And they hug ‘em, they protect ‘em, you know. I don’t know there was just like, there was a teaching in that about how the people should be towards each other you know, and towards Creation, reaching out and helping each other, protecting each other, you know, in times of storms, you know, they have more protection when they’re closer together, and ah, it was just, it was just really cool, cause like everything was shifted and I was seeing everything like almost like I don’t know, colors were different, everything was really sharp and clear, and then there were other teachings that were springing off of that in my mind, and I’m like “hey that’s cool” you know! [laughing]. So [sniffs in deeply] you can smell, ah, and just some simple little things like that. Well that’s simple, yeah, but in my mind it, I, take you days to go off into everything else that came out of that one little simple teaching right there, you know. But I wouldn’t have that if I didn’t have that to look at. I mean yeah you can see that in people, in mankind, but not, not like this, this is always, this is pure, you know, you’ll never see this different. They’ll always be reaching out to each other, they’ll always be looking out for each other, they’ll always cover and protect their young. Even if it’s of a different species. Even if that birch tree is climbing up underneath that, that pine up there, it’ll still protect it. See you got that birch tree over there and that other tree, that pine’s still protecting it, even if it’s two around it, three, see? . . . . That’s why I need that, ‘cause it’ll always be like that. That’ll never change. They’ll never be cruel to one another and mean to each other. They’ll survive, there’s a natural way of doing it, but not cruelty. Not meanness to each other. There’s not blatant murder, you know. Everybody shares the same space. How many things out here share this little space? Billions of things. Nobody’s killing the other one off. “Get out of my section of town, buddy!” [in a gruff voice – and then she makes a crashing noise]. But you can get those teachings there [in nature], but if you look just to mankind for that, forget it! You’ll be lost, you know, because there’s things that are just too wrong with it, too out of balance. So that’s how important that is, that’s life right there, everything.


So by living near nature and shaping her identity to be attuned to it, she feels she has grown as a person, better understands her world, and better interacts with other human beings. Hence she evinces as part of her worldview another of Momaday’s markers of Indian worldview, an idea of humanity: “You see, I stand in good relation to you.” Ultimately, the good relationship with nature is not just about saving nature, but as much about letting nature teach and save us.

Sharon, another Native student from the tribal college, explained to me one day how her relationship with nature influences her sense of the aesthetic. She makes ribbon shirts (to wear at powwows or other ceremonies), and always leaves an “opening” in them, which she thinks of as “mistakes.” She explains why:

You have to leave an opening, or a mistake, I call it a mistake, but it could be an opening, but you always leave something. You make a mistake intentionally because we’re not, we’re never supposed to be perfect.  You cannot, you cannot, you cannot create anything perfect. There’s no such thing, really for there’s no such thing as perfect, and the only thing that is perfect is mother, your mother nature, and the creator, and if you start trying to be perfect, for perfection, that’s greediness comes out of that. And if you do, and not, and try to get as perfect as you can and you don’t leave an opening or make a mistake, evil spirits will come. And whoever’s wearing that garment, evil spirits will get into.


The sense of humility Sharon has learned form immersing herself in a sense of Native identity (based on an idea of Mother Earth) helps influence her way of crafting shirts. Out of her sense of goodness to her fellow humans, she makes her shirts reflect her worldview. She also explains that she never considers a shirt finished until it has been “smudged” with sacred smoke to purify it.

Yet another consultant told me that we must be attentive to nature because it will provide teachings (in this sense her idea of nature corresponds to Ogimakwe’s). Wabagoni says:

So we need to be very, very aware.

When you are walking in, in the woods

This is where you’re gonna feel it

You’re back in the woods

and you’re going to be able to listen,

you know to the animals,

And this is where the, where the elders are getting

a lot of this information [teachings and prophecies].

They’re, they are able to sense

what the animals feel in

The sound of the birds

when they sing

The sounds of the wolves

when they howl

And these type of things.


The Earth teaches Native people, who interpret the messages of wolves, birds, and so on, to inspire people to “clean up their act.” The wolf and coyote stories discussed in Chapter 3 are some examples of specific teachings that are passed on. Wabagoni continues her discussion of the urgency of listening to such messages:        

They’ve used those for, you know for centuries,

because Native people have lived here for thousands of years,

And are able to keep this area

in harmony, you know, for centuries,

But now, you know, they’re kind of at a loss,

They can’t keep up with what’s happening, you know and,

In our lands, you know, because of the pollution.

And because of what’s happening within our, our communities,

You know we need to bring that back.

Here she explicitly addresses the need for renewal, “within our communities we need to bring that [strong relationship with nature and its teachings] back.” She feels this so acutely that she continues with an apocalyptic warning / vision to inspire people to listen to nature and its teachings:

What’s going to happen, they say, is

after everything is burned and taken,

what needs to be burned,

you know the gas

and the radioactive materials that are going to be seeping through

that are buried, you know,

under, under Mother Earth,

Once those burn out and the ones that survive,

Are the ones that are going to be able to bring everything back in harmony

Wabagoni believes that Native people have a stronger connection with nature (in being able to interpret its messages), and will have a role in saving or rebuilding all creation based on this different worldview. Although the outlook is grim in the immediate future, she feels confident that there will be “ones” who “are going to be able to bring everything back in harmony.” We can infer that those ones will be Native people, since they are the ones who know how to enact this harmony.

Wabagoni expresses as well a very positive and affirmative view of nature and our potential relationship with it. She performs this song during part of our interview.

As you’re driving across [a bridge] I just kind of spray some tobacco out as far as I can, out. Some of it might fall on the bridge, but most of it will fall on the water, for the water spirits, and I usually sing my song and this is the way it goes:


[She sings both versions]


Kii she mondo

Ass gii, giizhuk


giimaa gai tai, aiin

enday gai tai ha yaan


Oh great spirit

Earth and sky and sea

you are inside

and all around me


This is the song I sing whenever I go near water or whenever I feel kind of eerie and have –  The children from Bawating school know this song and they, we sing it just about every –  either the closing or the opening ceremony at our school.

I heard others singing this song sometimes in the community. As she states here, Wabagoni teaches it at the charter school on the Sault Tribe’s reservation, so it is a common expressive element of the culture that helps children and others feel connected to nature, and to see nature as a traditional part of their spirituality.

John offers his opinion about the strength of the Native relationship with nature compared to that of non-Natives. He is explaining why non-Native people are always so curious about “Native spirituality”:

Because they look at it as a mystery, and something, um, mystical about the whole, the whole Native spirituality. And it's nothing mystical or strange about it. It's a way life, for all people. And the idea of spirit, spiritualness, like I said before, was to be in tune (sighs) with the creation, with Mother Earth and all things around you.

According to John’s explanation, the heart of the Native worldview is “to be in tune with the creation, with Mother Earth and all things around you.” And such a relationship is not exotic or mystical, but translates into “a way of life.” I think he sighs because he does not want this to be just an easy platitude and assumes others might hear it that way (yet he finds no other way to say it).

Ted explains his memories of the importance of nature when he was growing up in a Native community in the Western U. P. He said it wasn’t a conscious effort that you hear about now (no offering prayers or tobacco), but then again he says,

I never saw any wanton destruction of stuff. I saw people who’d go out and catch more fish than they could eat and they'd go to elders’ homes (or other people) and give them away. I didn't see any obvious waste (catching for trophy). I think maybe that's what environmentalism is, that things are to be made available to us, but not to be wasted. Maybe the next step above that is to maybe appreciate that and to pay some respect for [gifts from nature], which some of our people are now learning.


Ted elaborates upon these ways of paying respect to Nature that people are learning, including commercial fishermen who have ceremonies to give away their first catch,  pray before they go out fishing, and catch only enough to make a living, not to get rich. Ted thinks this creates a sense of balance, too, to survive as a business person, “not eking out, but enough to take care of your dependents.”

I ask about the community in the Sault and whether they show the same awareness. He thinks so, has not “seen any real egregious things occurring.” He does not see a lot of selfishness. But he thinks it may be looming with per capita distribution of gaming (for which some people are calling). “But,” he says, “as long as this tribe can stay away from that, it'll be in good shape.” Thomas Vennum notices similarly hopeful trends in Native American communities today, based on “traditional” relationships with nature, and in spite of overwhelming forces and results of the dominant, mainstream American culture. For instance he notes, “successful wildlife management efforts on many reservations have demonstrated Indians’ ability to produce sustained annual yields without succumbing to the temptation of short-term gains” (1988, 34). Vennum admits that Indian attitudes about and relationship with nature were not perfect, and were based on using it for their needs. The crucial difference centers around an idea of communal rather than personal ownership (1988, 27). This still manifests itself today in practice: “this explains why Indian land claims in court today are pressed by sovereign Indian nations, not individuals” (1988, 27).

Other manifestations of a Native environmental ethic are also discussed by Vennum. He mentions, for instance, efforts to reestablish bison in the Plains, and cooperation with the Department of Natural Resources and universities in various ways. He lists several examples: “developing walleye hatcheries to restock lakes, studying the threats to wild rice beds from exotic plant species and fish, seeding lakes with wild rice, reintroducing a number of bird species, exploring pollution control and easement possibilities along vital streams, and conducting a general education campaign through public forums” (1988, 34). Such vague attitudes about wanting to foster a more environmentally sound and respectful relationship with nature were evinced directly or indirectly by many people I knew on the reservation. Many Native American stories and novels like The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich present symbolically similar worldviews.

In the words of consultants, writers, scholars, and poets, we find certain consistent themes regarding Native American worldview, practices, and discourses. In imagining and enacting their identity, many Native people agree on what is important in coming to this way of life and on what that life entails. People rely on elders, ceremonies, the language, each other, their own visions and dreams, and sometimes even education and books, to help imagine themselves. In their imaginings they tend to see themselves as living in a good way, in a strong community, with an aesthetic and spirituality inspired by nature as a good and beautiful force.