By Regina P. Donovan, grade 12

2011/2012 Reconnecting The Circle Essay Winner

Regina P. Donovan

Regina P. Donovan

Long before Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, North America was the cherished home of millions of Native Americans for centuries.  Diverse cultures, customs, and languages flourished in the many unique tribes that spanned the continent, yet as European settlers came to these lands and American pioneers expanded westward, these indigenous peoples were often brutally forced off their lands almost without a second thought.  Lumped together as “Indians”in the minds of the settlers, they were stripped of both their identities and their ancestral homelands.  This lack of understanding and lack of respect still exist today, with a majority of Americans knowing little of Native American history and life.  While many people question the need to understand Native Americans and their culture, I would argue that we cannot afford not to.  Just as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin played important roles in our country’s history, so did Native Americans such as Squanto and Sacajawea.  Is there a plausible explanation, then, as to why we should so regularly learn about the former in our years of education but hear little more than a passing mention of the latter? For the significant role Native Americans played in our country’s creation, and in recognition of the fact that they still live among us today, it should be expected that we are taught in some depth about their cultures and customs.  Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”[1]  I believe that as long as a tacitly approved ignorance of Native Americans and their ways persists in American education, we as a nation will never truly be united nor able to reach our highest potential. Reconnecting the circle between races is needed for the sake of all people. There is much we can benefit from in learning the values and traditions many tribes share.

Within our society many non-Native Americans possess little knowledge of their country’s original inhabitants.  This is partially due to the limited success many Native Americans have had integrating into American society.  The majority of today’s Indian reservations are isolated far away from major cities, towns, and centers of activity, and this separation, combined with the fact that scarcely any Native American history is taught in schools, leaves few opportunities for fostering understanding of Native American cultures among non-Native Americans.  Much of the “knowledge” many people have about Native Americans consists of inaccurate generalizations and stereotypical assumptions, stemming from movies and stories. While these errors are both insulting and humiliating to Native Americans, they damage the sensibilities of people who mistakenly believe such ideas. In forgetting and refusing to learn about Native American life, we suffer ignorance and develop a false sense of understanding. By reconnecting the circle, we will find that Native American traditions and values still have much that is good to offer the people of America today.

An example of this is the value Native Americans place on the importance of family – not just the nuclear family, but the extended family, as well. Within Native American families, roles are largely without boundaries; aunts, uncles, and grandparents are as equally involved in a child’s parenting as the mother or father.[2] Respect is another value held in high esteem among Native American people – one is always expected to show respect for one’s elders, nature, and the community on a day-to-day basis.[3] The majority of Native American ideals draw focus to the importance of the group over personal ambition. Imagine how differently our society would function if Americans took a long range view of consequences to family and nature when developing large cities, putting chemicals into the earth, consuming natural resources, and encouraging competition. In relation to many of humanity’s most pressing social and environmental issues, incorporating Native American ideals and attitudes of honoring nature and promoting the group, rather than focusing on personal ambitions, may prove effective in generating responsible and life-enhancing behavior.

Prioritizing listening over speaking is another Native American trait our society could benefit from. Native Americans don’t have a need to chatter and fill every silence with words; instead they listen more and respond concisely and to the point.[4] Surely Congress would operate on a much more efficient level if government leaders listened more and talked less, respecting the views of each other’s parties instead of entering into biased dialog when trying to reach a consensus.

Adopting Native American values into modern society would be beneficial to both Native Americans and non-Native Americans alike. The holistic ideals of Native American culture could help bring balance to our society as it struggles in the face of social, economic, and environmental problems. Through a sharing of values, we can come to understand and appreciate one another better, and in doing so, the circle can be reconnected.  By reconnecting the circle with Native Americans, there is much to be gained by all.

[1] King, (Jr.), Martin L. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Letter. 16 Apr. 1963. African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania. Web. 2012.

[2] Good, Linda. “A Response to Your Question.” Message to the author. 09 Jan. 2012. E-mail.

[3] Schultz, Marylou. “Contrasting Values.” Literacy works. Web. 09 Jan. 2012.

[4] “Interview About Native Americans” Telephone interview, 05 Jan. 2012.

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