How the Ancestors Live On

By | November 14, 2011

It is common knowledge that in long-standing traditional cultures, ancestor worship is practiced. Many of us have heard the phrase “Honor the ancestors” spoken by American Indians. However, what we hear may not be exactly what they intend to say. We who record our history and have noun-based languages tend to view our ancestors as actual people, where Native people, whose history is oral and generally have verb-based languages, relate not so much to their ancestors as to their ancestral way.

Part of our misunderstanding arises from the way we perceive culture. The United States has a composite culture, formed from older civilizations having many different languages and traditions. Native people, on the other hand, belong to continuum cultures, where there is little difference in cultural practices from generation to generation. There is little reason to distinguish one historical era from another, or to hold particular ancestors in regard. Instead, the ancestral way is respected—it gives continuity to life by drawing to mind what has worked for untold generations and is thus likely to work now. These vital teachings are not about the people of the past, but about the way they lived—the ancestral way.

There is still cultural change, to be sure; however, it usually occurs slowly and against the backdrop of a long-standing, stable culture.

The continuum perspective carries through to visions of the future. When making major decisions, many traditional American Indians consider their legacy by taking into account the effect of their actions on the seventh generation to follow them. Future generations will likely never know the name of a person who long ago made a decision that now affects them, yet they will know that this long-ago ancestor honored the ancestral way, and that this is why they are benefiting.

We Westerners do things a little differently: we created a me-generation culture that takes from the past what will benefit us in the here-and-now, and we consider our contribution to the future to be the personal material gain we amass in the here-and-now. Rather than honoring our fellow people and the traditions we share, we exploit them to amass the stocks and bonds and real estate our descendants will inherit. Correction: might inherit. In this day especially, our material legacy might not survive long enough to be seen by coming generations. Yet whether it survives or not, we will give them the planet we helped rape to create our wealth. Along with the struggle between the haves and the have-nots we helped ignite.

Can a noun-based culture such as ours become a continuum culture? It has yet to happen, probably because of what they have thrown at their problems: guns and money—both nouns. A continuum culture addresses its problems with heart.


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