Saturday, July 13, 2013

Writing about Indians When You're Not One- PART TWO: BALANCE

Troy D. Smith

There is a Lakota expression that no doubt some of you are aware of: mitakuye oyasin. This phrase has traditionally been used in Lakota prayers, and since the Lakota language has, in the 20th century, become in some ways an unofficial lingua franca of the Pan-Indian movement (and Powwow Circuit), the expression is known and used by Indians of many tribes, and their non-Indian allies.
Its literal meaning is something akin to “all my relations,” another way of saying “we are all related.” Even though every Indian tribe, and every region, differs from others, there are some basic principles that practically every indigenous nation of North America shares (the same way that there are certain European cultural traits, even though specific European nations and regions might differ in significant ways.) One of these principles is eloquently summed up by mitakuye oyasin: everything is connected. Not just all human beings, but each human being and all other forms of life, and the earth itself. It’s like we are all strands on one big web; vibrations on one strand will affect the whole thing, one way or another.
Knowledge of this connectedness leads to an overarching need to maintain balance at all times, in every way, and this need is reflected in many aspects of American Indian religion, culture, and daily life. Failure to understand the concept of balance among native nations led many European settlers –and many non-Indian writers –to misunderstand the thoughts and actions of Indians. In Part One of this series, I talked about KINSHIP; this time around I’m going to expound on that sense of balance and how it has been (and continues to be) manifest in American Indian culture.
The most obvious manifestation is in regard to consumption and interaction with the physical environment. Most modern audiences are aware that, traditionally, Indians have been known for “not taking more than they need, and using everything they take.” This is the ideal (although, like all ideals, it has not always been lived up to.) This is why Indians of most tribes had rituals in which they thanked the spirit of the animals they hunted for providing them with food; failure to do so would upset the balance, and the spirit would punish the hunter –or his village, since Indians had a sense of community responsibility.
As I said, that was the ideal. Some scholars speculate that the “mega-fauna” that once proliferated in North America (mammoths, for example) may have disappeared due to overhunting –though others argue that climate change at the end of the last glacial period played a larger role. Some historians have suggested that the American bison may have already been on the road to extinction due to Indian hunting practices –whether that’s true or not, one can’t deny that the tactic of goading entire buffalo herds to plunge off cliffsides (when your tribe can only use a fraction of that meat) does not not fit the general idea of Indians as ecologists. Nor can it be denied that, once Southeastern tribes became heavily invested in the deerskin trade in the 18th century, deer were overhunted nearly to extinction.
Such practices, though, can probably best be described as aberrations from the cultural ideal of balance. Another, and related, application of balance pertained to agriculture and property. In most tribes, a person gained prestige –not by how much they accumulated –but by how much they gave away. A successful raid on an enemy horse herd might provide you with several new mounts that you could give as gifts when you got back home, gaining status in the tribe. Of course, if you were a young man, you could parlay those horses into a new wife –in which case your new father-in-law would have horses to redistribute and prestige to gain. Excess agricultural goods were often considered the property of the village in general, and were redistributed according to everyone’s relative needs. Among the Cherokees, for example, at the annual Green Corn Ceremony after the harvest, each family was given the amount of grain it was estimated they would need for the year, and everything that was left over was burned as a sacrifice to the spirits. Tribes in the Pacific Northwest redistributed wealth via a ceremony known as the potlatch.
The point is, balance requires that everyone be provided for equally. Early European colonists could not wrap their minds around this attitude, which they considered wasteful and unnatural. Conversely, when Sitting Bull traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, he was flabbergasted when he saw starving and homeless children in Eastern cities. How could this be possible? In his culture, either the whole tribe prospered or the whole tribe suffered. Either way, they did it together, as one community.
Thomas Jefferson understood that the secret to defeating the Indians was disrupting these traditional approaches. As early as the late 1700s, when Jefferson became the first U.S. Secretary of State, he was recommending that all tribes be removed west of the Mississippi; however, he believed it would be morally wrong to physically force them to do so, therefore he had an alternate plan. Establish government funded trading posts in Indian country, and introduce the natives to certain goods –sugar, coffee, manufactured goods –which would start off as luxuries but quickly come to seem like necessities. Then introduce the Indians to the concept of credit, which they’re not going to understand at first… once they are deeply in debt, call in that debt, and their only choice will be to sell off their lands to pay it (so much more civilized an approach!)
In other words… manipulate the Indians into abandoning their tradition of maintaining balance. The same approach was used when getting Southeastern tribes entrenched in the slave trade (raiding other tribes for captives they could sell as slaves to the English) and the deerskin trade.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Indian spiritual leaders preached that their people’s only hope was to abandon the white man’s way of doing things and go back to the traditional ways –including an appreciation for balance. Prophets from Neolin to Tenskwatawa to Handsome Lake to Whitepath to Wovoka made this call.
Balance also comes into play when discussing justice. If you kill another member of your tribe, you must forfeit your life; a kinsman of the victim can assume the role of Blood-Avenger and execute you. If you cannot be found, a close relative will do in your place. The blood price does not absolutely have to be paid by you personally, but by your family or clan –again, community rather than individual responsibility.
In most cases, the guilty party did not attempt to escape justice –knowing that to do so would doom a family member instead. Among the Choctaws, executions were very ritualized… the killer would appear at the appointed place of execution (he was given an extension if an important ball game was coming up- this was the South, after all), along with a second- usually a brother or close friend. The killer was dispatched with a single blow to the head –a bullet in later eras –and his second would catch him and gently lower him to his burial shroud, spread on the ground. Although technically illegal in the late 1800s, many Choctaws continued to do things the traditional way- one recorded account tells of a promising Choctaw baseball player, bound for the majors, who came home to Indian Territory to answer with his life for a drunken killing. Another tells of a Choctaw enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War who took leave in order to go home for his execution.
Balance must be kept.
Of course, some accused killers kept an eye to their own self-preservation; Cherokee James Vann was a creative example. Vann, the son of a Cherokee woman and a Scottish trader, was a prominent warrior during the Chickamauga Wars. While in his late teens, he killed the member of another clan during a drunken brawl, and was therefore liable for blood revenge. His mother’s brothers hid him out. Finally, when he ventured out one day with one of those uncles, a dozen or so members of the opposing clan closed in on them, prepared to take their revenge. Vann quickly drew his pistol –and blew his own uncle’s brains out. The other clan members were surprised and frustrated (though not as much as the uncle)… they immediately realized there was now nothing they could do, and no way they could touch the impudent young warrior. They had lost a member of their clan, and now a member of the killer’s clan was dead. Balance was restored. I imagine, however, that Vann had trouble finding traveling companions after that.
The same principle applied in war. If another tribe attacked you and killed five of your people, you were obligated to raid them back, and kill five of theirs. Of course, sometimes the young warriors in the retaliating party would go overboard and kill more than five of the enemy, so there would be a vengeance raid coming their way later. This is why many tribes were in a perpetual state of war –but suffered relatively few deaths each year. The goal was not to find your enemy then annihilate them –it was to restore balance (again, this was the ideal, and sometimes there were large-scale casualties. Especially after the arrival of Europeans, when tribes started jockeying for favored trading status and sometimes decided to get rid of their rivals –but these cases indicated the abandonment of traditional principles.)
Once tribes started interacting with European (and later American) settlers, cultural differences would lead to further friction. Let’s say some miners kill half-a-dozen Indians. Those Indians’ tribesmen were not necessarily going to go to the trouble of finding the specific miners who committed the deed; they were going to kill the first half-dozen or so white people they found. Conversely, if some Indians attacked a farm and killed a family, and the local white authorities demanded that the specific killers be handed over, they were usually not going to be met with cooperation. The idea of having no choice but to find the specific killers was foreign to the Indians. Guilt and responsibility belonged, not to the individual, but to the community –and so did the responsibility of maintaining balance.    
Next time - August 10 -my subject will be "Indians Are People."

[Troy D. Smith is Assistant Professor of History at Tennessee Tech, where he teaches American Indian history.]


  1. Interesting concept--balance. And also interesting how another culture can throw things out of kilter. I was aware that a clan had the right/duty to kill the killer, but wasn't aware that someone else in his family group would do as well.

  2. Fascinating information. Enjoyed your touches of humor too.

  3. Troy, this series is providing quite an education, thanks to your generous sharing of knowledge and perspective. I can't avoid thinking your students must have a blast in your classes.

    Imagine how different the U.S. would be had the early European immigrants adopted Indian culture instead of forcing Indians to assimilate into Anglo culture. There are echoes of the notion that everyone is responsible for everyone else in some American social programs, but without the underlying tenet of balance, the echoes seem warped.

  4. Great info, Troy. If you ever have any 'slack' i'd like you to look over what I've written on the Little Bighorn fight (much of it Lakota/Shahiyena POV)-that third book is still under construction, so if I'm going far astray I can fix it. And if you're swamped, as most of us are, I completely understand. Not looking for a free edit, but rather a check for glaring cultural errors.

  5. Wow! Love those history lesson posts. I didn't know there was so much that I didn't know.
    Thanks Troy.

  6. Troy, I had a slight understanding of balance and their culture, but your post helped to solidify my knowledge. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us. Doris

  7. Very good article, thanks for sharing.

  8. Troy,

    Great article about cultural differences between American Indians and European immigrants.


  9. Troy, as always, another great post! I am really enjoying these teaching posts of yours--it makes me wish even more that I lived closer and could attend your classes. Very interesting stuff, Professor!

  10. Great article,Troy, and one to come back to for sure. Reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was lifechanging for me.

  11. Troy, thanks for the mini lessons. I love history, and your posts are always interesting.

  12. I don't know if it's true, but I've heard the Blackfeet have an expression similar to the one (Lakota) you mentioned: Oki Ni-Kso-Ko-Wa which, as I understand translates to "greetings to all my relatives" which can be applied to anyone deserving of respect.

    Nice post, Troy. I especially was relieved to learn about the compassionate side of Thomas Jefferson. Yep, a real wizard at "community" relations.

  13. Fascinating post, Troy. I love this concept of inter-connectiveness. It is similar to Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy and TCM, and to concepts in quantum physics. A meeting of philosophy, science and religion,

  14. Yes, Keith, I agree.... there are a lot of similarities to both Daoism and Japanese Shinto.