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An important part of daily life among many traditional American Indian people was-and for many still is-the maintenance of harmony and balance. Living a good life, one free from sickness and conflict, requires that one strive to maintain social and spiritual harmony and balance. In traditional Native American cultures, harmony and balance exist on four different levels: internal, social, natural, and spiritual.
Internal Harmony and Balance:
Internal harmony and balance allows individuals to be at peace with their bodies, their thoughts, their emotions. Many religious traditions utilize various forms of meditation to achieve this.
When an individual is out of internal harmony and balance, according to traditional cultures, the individual experiences sickness. While this might be a physical illness, it might also manifest itself as a psychosis.
One of the areas that is important in maintaining internal harmony and balance is sexuality. Unlike the European cultures, most of the American Indian cultures recognized that sexuality was a continuum. Sexuality was not male or female, but included a full range of feelings and expressions. Thus, individuals who did not fit into the male or female concepts were not only accepted by society but were able to maintain their internal harmony and balance.
Social Harmony and Balance:
Social harmony and balance is necessary among the people and this allows them to work and live together. Social harmony and balance can be seen in action in many of the traditional (before European interference) tribal governments. Matters that affected the tribe or band would be discussed until there was consensus. While this can be viewed as a type of democracy, there was never a vote: issues were simply discussed until there was harmony, that is, until all were in agreement as to the course of action. Harmony and balance are seen in the need to maintain the egalitarian nature of the society and thus leadership was by persuasion and oratory.
In the process of the discussion, which could take place over several days, those who found themselves out-of-step with the majority would simply leave. In this way, they would preserve the harmony of the group. This practice of expressing dissent by withdrawing from public debate caused confusion when the American government attempted to force its governmental model on many of the tribes. After the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in 1934, tribes were to vote on whether or not to accept the reorganization of their tribal governments. In many instances, such as that of the Hopi in Arizona, a majority of the tribal members expressed their opposition by not voting. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), on the other hand, failed to understand this simple principle of harmony, and assumed that the tally of votes was the expression of the people. This lack of understanding has caused, and continues to cause, problems for BIA-controlled tribal governments.
The principle of social harmony and balance which is expressed in traditional tribal governments has its roots, in part, in the strong belief that no individual has the right to tell another individual what to do. Harmony and balance are maintained by talking.
Traditional Indian law is often based on the need to re-establish harmony once a crime has been committed. One of the most heinous crimes for most tribes was the murder of one tribal member by another. This was, and still is, an act that tears at the very social fabric and destroys far more than the individual who has been murdered. While European law focuses on retribution and punishment for this crime, usually by imprisoning or killing the murderer, the traditional Native American approach was quite different. Taking into account the great disharmony created by the crime traditional Indian leaders, acting as judges, would attempt to restore harmony and balance. This most frequently took the form of the payment of goods by the murderer’s family to the family of the victim. The idea here was to “cover the death” rather than to punish the individual or family which had inflicted the damage.
Natural Harmony and Balance:
Natural harmony and balance is necessary between human beings and the natural world: the world of the animal people, the plant people, and all of the natural features which surround us.
In many Indian cultures, it is important to maintain harmony and balance with the animal people as well. In many tribes, before going out to hunt, the hunter would explain to the master spirit of the animal that the human people had need for food, for clothing, for all that the animal could provide. In a respectful way, the hunter would ask the master spirit of the animal to allow an animal to be taken. After the kill, there would be a song or words of thanksgiving. Asking permission and then giving thanks are ways of maintaining the natural harmony and balance.
One aspect of the harmony and balance with the animal people comes from the concept of reincarnation. Among many Indian cultures, it is felt that the animals which they kill will be reborn. Thus there is a two-fold need to maintain balance. First, for the animals to continue to flourish, they have to be hunted in a respectful way so that they will be reborn and in this way be available for future generations of human hunters. Without hunting, the balance between humans and the animals would be broken, and in addition, the cycle of reincarnation would be broken. Breaking the cycle of reincarnation would result in the extinction of the species.
There is a second important part of reincarnation as it relates to the harmony and balance of hunting. If one failed to kill an animal, such as a deer, in a respectful fashion, then the deer might be reincarnated as some other animal. Thus, at some later time, the hunter might encounter a bear or a rattlesnake which had once been that deer which had been killed in a disrespectful fashion. This would also mean that the bear or rattlesnake would have a resentment against the hunter and would seek revenge for the disrespectful killing.
Among many Indian tribes, such as the Cherokee, disease was caused by the animal spirits who had been disrespected or offended. Curing focused on restoring harmony between the sick person and the spirit of the animal.
The coming of the fur trade often disrupted the harmony between Indian people and the animals. With the fur trade, some Indian hunters began taking animals only for their fur or hide. In their pursuit of trade skins, they often omitted the important ceremonies of thanks to the animal spirits and left much of the dead carcass to rot. Many spiritual leaders attribute the devastation of Indian people which followed the fur trade to this loss of balance.
Traditionally, many Indian cultures feel that it is also important to maintain harmony with the plant people. Indian people gathered and used many wild plants. Doing this was not just a matter of walking into the woods, or out onto the prairie, or up on the mountain and gathering up the wild plants growing there. In order to maintain harmony, Indian people cared for these plants both physically and spiritually. In many parts of North America, Indian people would nourish and purify the land for the plant people with fire. By burning the gathering areas regularly, the plants grew back in abundance. In this way, the people helped to maintain the natural harmony.
For many Indian tribes it was, and often still is, important to be in harmony and balance with the natural cycles of the world. This begins with the solar cycle which divides our lives into day and night. For most tribes, there is no inherent evil associated with the night and with the night animals (such as owl and bat). There is recognition that there should be different activities associated with night and day in order to maintain the balance between the two.
There is also recognition of longer cycles, including the 28-day lunar cycle, the 18.5 year lunar cycle, the seasons of the year, and the cycles of various planets, such as Venus. For some cultures, there is an analogy between the seasons and the human life cycle.
Spiritual Balance and Harmony:
Spiritual harmony and balance needs to be maintained between human beings and the spiritual world. One concern for many tribes was how to maintain harmony and balance with the dead so that ghosts would not return to cause harm to the people. In some Indian cultures this is done by not speaking the names of the dead.
Among the Iroquois who follow the teachings of Handsome Lake, the Ghost Dance is performed by women to prevent and to cure illness by satisfying the spirits of the dead. According to the teachings of Handsome Lake, each person has two spirits: one which goes to the eternal after death and the other, the “ghost spirit”, remains behind. Unless satisfied the “ghost spirit” may disturb people and cause illness. The dance is performed to the music of the water drum and the horn rattles.
Harmony and balance, for traditional Indian people, are not abstract philosophical concepts, but are formulas for daily living. Among the traditional Creeks, for example, it is stressed that people must strive to maintain a balance by paying strict attention to the rules and ceremonies that have been handed down by the ancestors. As with other Indian cultures, the focus of the Creek view of balance and harmony is on the present, rather than on some future life or some existence after death. As with other Native American spiritual concepts, the practice of harmony and balance is simply something that one does in one’s daily life so that life will be good.