November is National American Indian Heritage Month, a time to recognize the contributions of native peoples to our culture and our history.
Tragically, relations between Europeans and native peoples have been far from perfect. In fact, they have often been abhorring. From the beginning, native people were at best vastly misunderstood. At worst, they were victims of genocide.
Our colonial history is replete with the horrid subjugation of the native peoples and European historians often used the phrase "heathen savage" to describe the people they found here.
In reality, the people who were here before the Europeans had a very complex religion that came to terms with every aspect of a person's life. Death was not something to be avoided but to be embraced, a return of a loan, if you will, of one's corporal body to the Mother Earth which had given it life.
The patriotism of native people in our nation's history is without equal. As former President Bush noted in a 2001 proclamation, "Almost half of America's Native American tribal leaders have served in the United States Armed Forces, following in the footsteps of their forebears who distinguished themselves during the World Wars and the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf."
Most, if not all, American Indian tribes embrace the concept of a warrior society, making military service a rite of passage. Indeed, Ira Hayes was one of five Marines and a Navy corpsman immortalized in the Marine Corps Memorial depicting the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima.
The native peoples of the Americas have much to teach us. If we return to their core beliefs, these are some of the lessons we could learn:
n Education - Elders acting as storytellers could be a model for the 21st century classroom.
n Respect for the elderly - The elders were held in high esteem. As we face the inevitability of a large number of Americans in elder care, perhaps we could learn something from their example.
n Religion - Everything is sacred. This would generate a greater respect for the religions of others around us.
n Environment - The earth is our mother, and by defacing the earth we are defacing the person who bore us.
n Health - Native people who follow their traditional diet have a much lower incidence of cancer than other populations.
So, as you can see, we have much to learn from the traditional ways of our native peoples - not just this month, but always.
Just as they have given us place names that dot the landscape, so have our native peoples left certain values that many of us are only starting to discover.
So let's give them the respect and attention they deserve.