I was taught by one of my cultural teachers, Vi Hilbert / taq-se-blu of the Upper Skagit people, that among the Puget Salish tribes of Western Washington there is a concept called “sweeping the floor.” This is the act of sweeping the ceremonial floor with cedar boughs of anything that might impede the ceremony, such as stones or debris. This activity also refers to how people should communicate regarding important topics. We must make sure that crucial things are discussed beforehand so that they may not impede our conversation.
With this in mind, I present a few points that hopefully will help illuminate a Native American perspective on the topic at hand, “the good life.”
First, you must know that I was born in the city. I was not raised in my culture, so it seems my life has been a backwards journey to learn the ways of the Native S’Klallam people. I am therefore pretty familiar with the demands of the modern world and its expectations of how a person should live in it. I therefore speak to you from a place somewhere in the middle between two very different worlds.
It is important to consider how a culture defines value-based concepts like the good life or a good person or the meaning of life. There is no universal definition that applies to all people. For example, a few years ago I heard some Masai men from Kenya speaking at a gathering in North Seattle during a trip they had made to visit the United States and Canada. They were dressed in their tribal clothing and despite the frigid winter weather outside, they were wearing simple woven toga-like coverings under their jackets and sandals with no socks. They explained that since they are mountain people they found our weather similar to their own.
They were asked, “What do you find most curious about American culture?” They looked at each other and smiled, obviously having asked themselves the same question.
One of them responded by pulling a dollar bill from his coat pocket. He said, “We find it strange that you think this is wealth.” He waved the money in front of the audience. “You think this is wealth. We believe wealth is cattle and children.”
Another more local example is the potlatch, a ceremony conducted by most Northwest Coast tribes from Alaska to the Puget Sound. The potlatch serves a number of purposes within these cultures, including announcing important events like a marriage or inheritance, with the host paying those in attendance with gifts to remember the announcement. It also allows a redistribution of wealth and was central to traditional tribal economies.
What makes this distribution of gifts special is that the hosts prove their wealth and prestige by giving away all of their possessions. There is a S’Klallam song sung as the guests leave the potlatch house that translates to, “I know how to give everything away.” Wealth is not to be accumulated by the individual and kept for him or herself; it is to be shared and given freely among the people.
In his book, Millennium: Tribal Wisdom in a Modern World, the author David Maybury-Lewis presents his findings and observations as he looks at the impact civilized cultures and their city centers have had on local tribal cultures; one important critique he makes is that cities, by their very nature, destroy them. The things that make civilizations function are the things that tear tribal cultures apart. The individual is more important than the group. Competition supersedes cooperation. Material wealth over social balance.
He boiled everything down to a simple universal observation: In tribal cultures, people are more important than things; in civilized cultures, things are more important than people. As we watch some members of Congress propose to eliminate programs that serve our neediest – poor children, mothers and the homeless – all for the sake of a balanced budget, we must ask ourselves what this culture values. Money over people?
With all of the above in mind, I asked several local Native people from different tribal groups their thoughts on what makes a good life. I did not share my thoughts in asking the question, as I wanted to hear their philosophies and ideas independent from my own.
They were as follows:
“When I have a job that allows me to be with my family. One that doesn’t take me away from them. That is a good life.
I once had a pool table, but I only wanted it so my family could do something together. Kids, being kids, they trashed it eventually. I put a sheet of plywood over it and covered it with a blanket. It became another table in our house.”
-Toby Joseph Apache/Southern Ute filmmaker
“Probably the good life was when I lived off the land in Wrangell, Alaska. I hunted and fished and ate crabs and clams. I lived a subsistence lifestyle. There are times when I get close to the good life, but I have to pay bills and the rent.
Money is an exchange of energy. I make my art and I’m happiest when I make a new coastal design no one has seen before. But to make art, I have to make money. Selling my art is like an affirmation that my community supports my work.”
-Gary Stevens Tlingit artist
“Family is first in my definition of a good life. Family helps in the development of an individual’s identity. Parents need to help their children develop their identities and places in the world.
I think it’s interesting that people will move thousands of miles from their families for a job and be away from their families. They have developed substitutes for being there. Telephone calls and e-mails or sending money.”
-Jacki Swanson Muckleshoot/Wasco elder
“My good life is enjoying my children. Raising them and watching them grow. It is a challenge to raise children in the best way possible.
I also think it is finding beauty and fun in the small things. Things that are free of marketing. And learning not to want things unnecessary to your life.”
-Robert Free Tewa human rights advocate
“To be contented in life is a good life. Being happy with who you are. I’m still searching. Everybody is looking for a home and the good life is when you find that home.
The society we live in tells us all the half-truth. It teaches you to want more and not be happy as you are.”
-Luke Black Elk Oglala Lakota elder
In hearing the thoughts, beliefs and philosophies of these and other Native people, I had my own ideas about the good life reinforced. People, especially family, are more important than material wealth and personal satisfaction. If my family and people are happy, then I am happy.
Of course this is what most people, Native and non-Native, might say. Family is important, but we now live in a time when civilized culture demands we sacrifice our human connections for the good of this culture and its economy. iPhone, iPad, Myspace —all speak to the individual isolated and disconnected from family and community. Are we easier to control when we are disconnected?
It is a struggle these days to be a human being. Do we modern folk live lives of quiet desperation? I remember a line from an English writer that said, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” These sentiments seem to be from a human being who recognizes the struggle we face as we try to make sense of a relatively new social order called civilization. I am simply hoping that as civilizations continue to develop, they can remember what it means to be human, factoring that into their social fabrics to the point where people become more important than things. Another one of my teachers, the late su-bi-yay/ Bruce Miller of the Skokomish people, told me, “It’s very simple. Go out and lift people up. Tell them how good they are, how important they are to their people, how much we appreciate them. Praise them and tell them how much we need them. If you can do this, you have done enough.”
So my take on the good life is that it must involve others. And since I am an artist and storyteller in the service of my people, then I lead a good life—I do work that I believe is beneficial to my culture as a whole and might keep it alive for our descendants. For as surely as I am connected to my ancestors, I am connected to the ones who will be.