Native American Views US Values

Former Winnebago chief Reuben Snake compares `intuitive' thinkers to `scientific' ones.

TO the truckers traveling US 75 through the hilly Nebraska countryside from Sioux City to Omaha, the Black Hawk Community Center probably seems like just another one-story street-front building in yet another struggling rural community. To Reuben Snake, however, it's home - the focus of activity here on the Winnebago Indian Reservation, the center of his own earlier work as chief of the Winnebago Tribe, and a place from which to look outward on the values and ethics of the rest of the world.

What he sees both troubles and encourages him.

``By and large, the traditional [Indian] teachings are not occurring at a level at which they need to occur,'' he says during an interview at the one-room office of the tribe's weekly newspaper. ``Most of our children are bombarded by the media - they get their messages from the television.'' As a result, he says, ``it's real hard to be an Indian in this present day - a real spiritual person, the way that we're taught to be.''

The challenge, for Mr. Snake, arises because of ``this great struggle between the technologically oriented thinkers and the intuitive thinkers. There are a lot of us intuitive thinkers left, but at times I get the feeling that we're fighting a losing battle - because as each generation gets sucked into the use of technology; they get lazy.''

He worries that ``European people,'' preaching the dominance of technology, are eroding native patterns of thinking. ``What does it add to the quality of life to have a TV in every room, and drive four cars, and fly across the continent in three hours? It doesn't make me a better human being to be in contact with all of that.''

What spawned that technological thinking? Snake, whose first and last names reflect the mixture of Christian and Indian traditions in which he was raised, blames a literal interpretation of the Biblical teaching that God gave man dominion over the Earth. That idea, says Snake, has led people to think that ``they can control nature'' through technology. That gives them ``a false sense of superiority.''

By contrast, he says, ``the Indian is a part of the creation, and we're supposed to fit into and be harmonious with the creation, and not to have the thought that we can dominate any part of it.''

Born on the Winnebago Reservation, Snake grew up in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Kansas, attending mission schools and a federal boarding school. In 1965, he became chairman of the radical American Indian Movement, and was known for a time as the most militant Indian in Nebraska. But in what he calls a ``180-degree turn,'' he served on the American Indian Policy Review Commission, as president of the National Congress of American Indians, and as Tribal Chairman of the 10,000-member Winnebago nation for ten years.

Looking at the challenges facing the United States and the world, Snake sees the need for ``a major attitudinal shift'' in values. What values would he put forward from his own culture? In answer, he recalls the ethical education he received from his grandfather, who taught him that there were ``three things that made the enjoyment of human life possible - three things that people were supposed to exhibit in their everyday activities.''

Respect. ``The first one is respect for your fellow man. Each one of us is endowed by the Creator with His spirit. The spirit that makes you stand up and walk and talk and see and hear and think is the same spirit that exists in me - there's no difference. So when you look at me, you're looking at yourself - and I'm seeing me in you.''

Compassion. ``When you look at all the other parts of creation, all the other living creatures - the Creator endowed them with gifts that are far better than ours,'' says Snake. Compared to the strength of the grizzly bear, the sharp-sightedness of the eagle, the fleetness of the deer, and the acute hearing of the otter, ``we're pitiful human beings. We don't have any of those physical attributes that the Creator put into everything else. For that reason, we have to be compassionate with one another and help one another - to hold each other up.''

Honor. ``It's easy to point fingers at one another for our shortcomings,'' Snake recalls his grandfather saying. ``But to show somebody the feelings of pride that you have in them for what they do that's beneficial to their fellow man - that takes effort. But if you go to that kind of effort, then you're going to have that good feeling that we have to have one for another. And that's what makes life enjoyable.''

A DEEPLY religious man, Snake is active in the Native American Church, which is known for the ritualistic use of peyote, a hallucinogen derived from cactus. Federal law exempts the religious use of peyote from criminal narcotics laws, although the issue is now before the Supreme Court.

Snake notes that Indians share some of the key Biblical teachings about killing, stealing, and sexual morality - although they see them slightly differently.

``The Ten Commandments - `Thou shalt not kill,' `Thou shalt not steal' - to my way of thinking, I don't know of any particular group of people that really abided by those,'' he says. Indian communities are not free of warlike thinking: ``Probably the most serious shortcoming of tribal governments is their inability to effectively resolve conflict within the tribe and externally,'' he says.

Yet resolving conflict is essential to maintaining a sense of community, which is an important aspect of Indian thinking. ``A tribal person's mentality is different from that of a non-tribal person,'' he says. ``In a non-tribal environment, the well-being of the individual is predominant. ... [But] as a Winnebago Indian, I first of all think, of any of my actions, `How is that going to reflect on my people?'''

Native American society required its members to make whatever they needed, Snake says. This, in turn, was related to the codes governing the relations between the sexes. ``People were taught not to seek marriage until they were capable of going out and getting their food, building their own lodge, and making their own clothing - both male and female.'' He worries that the acceptability of divorce now threatens the very concept of family, which he regards as ``the root of every social order.''

What, finally, does Snake see as the need for the future?

``Well, you guys all need to go back to Europe,'' he says with a laugh. Then, turning serious, he notes that ``our ethics, our moral principles, come out of our spiritual and religious training.'' Central to the Indian teaching, he says, is a sense of oneness.

``Everybody - I don't care what color, creed, ethnic origin their roots are - we're all the same. We all have common roots. In spite of all of these technological achievements, we're beginning to understand that there is a oneness to the whole universe - there is a oneness.''

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