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Reflections on Traditional American Indian Ways

Report prepared by Tracy Becker. Supervised by John Poupart. Technical Assistance by Cecilia Martinez, Ph.D.

The project Building Communities Across Cultures, a collaboration between the American Indian Research and Policy Institute, Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, and the University of Minnesota Extension Service, provided partial funding for this report.

A special thank you is given to the following individuals for their contributions in preparing this report: Dawn Scharnberg, Dr. Cecilia Martinez, Dr. John RedHorse, Don Eubanks, Nora Livesay and to the many Indian elders who offered advice but wanted anonymity.


This report is an attempt to capture the essence of some American Indian elders’ thoughts about the American Indian way of life.

Today’s generations of American Indians face many demands to survive and excel in the modern world. They also face the challenge of maintaining the American Indian way of life. Being American Indian today is possible because American Indian ancestors preserved the culture and spirituality. American Indians have a distinct way of life with their own stories, values and beliefs. In the past, American Indian elders handed down traditions to younger generations through the spoken word. Young American Indians were responsible for seeking out this knowledge from the elders. However, changes in contemporary life pose the risk that traditional knowledge will be lost. We hope this report helps people to understand the need for American Indian oral traditions to survive.

American Indian learning largely occurs through living oral traditions. European-Americans, on the other hand, generally learn from written formats that emphasize logical, linear thinking. This report highlights the difficulty of trying to integrate these two worlds. Holistic, American Indian perspectives are difficult to capture in a linear format. Moreover, it seems unnatural to write about oral traditions because they are more than just information. Much of the living essence of oral tradition is lost in the process of writing. While these written words cannot entirely capture what was shared by the elders, we tried to retain the oral tradition as much as possible.

During the winter of 1998, fifteen American Indian elders, representing the Ojibwe, Lakota, Dakota, and Ho-Chunk nations, generously shared their thoughts to make this report possible. The elders were both men and women. Some live on the reservation and others currently live in urban areas. John Poupart arranged the interviews through personal contacts and shared information with elders about the interview topic.

In the interview, elders were asked if they might talk about the way it used to be for Indian people, the changes they see happening in American Indian communities, and the future of American Indian communities. We also had potential questions that were utilized in some interviews and not in others, depending on the participant. Elders were intentionally allowed to share their ideas in an open-ended manner so as to allow them freedom in expressing their thoughts. This allowed information to come forward that may have been excluded by more standardized research methods. Elders shared their thoughts willingly and none suggested we should not do this project.

Notes were taken in 14 interviews and one interview was taped and transcribed. Therefore, the quotes taken from notes may not represent exactly what was said in the interviews. However, to ensure that we captured the essence of what the elders had to say, the report was mailed to them for their review and revisions prior to its completion. In this way, elders had the opportunity to amend what is presented here to more accurately represent their thoughts.

It is important to emphasize that this report does not answer the question, “What do American Indians think?” While many aspects of this report may be inter-tribal in nature, the information contained herein is not representative of all American Indian nations. As one elder states, “There is cross-over and connection [among the tribes] but there are also many differences in the traditional ways depending on the tribe. What people have to know is that there is no pan-Indian way of doing things.”

This report is intended to start describing some elders thinking about the traditional ways, rather than to provide any answers to the complex, contemporary situation of American Indians. Perhaps, as a result of this paper, more people will begin to see the significance of American Indian traditions.

In the old times, American Indians lived a traditionally Indian way of life. They did not call it “the traditional ways,” it was just the way they lived. Margaret describes, “I never considered them traditional ways, it was just a way of life, just the way I was brought up. Aunties and other family didn’t come and say, ‘Today we’re going to do it the Indian way.’ You lived that way all of your life.”

American Indian life centered around the seasons and the natural world. While there are differences among the tribes and clans, traditional American Indian value and belief systems were and still are based on a uniquely Indian way of life. Nancy states, “Traditions are not a discrete, intact thing. It’s all an intertwined way of life and way of looking at the world and can only be taught by example and some examination of it.” Simply put, American Indian tradition is alive in Indian people. It is not codified in a set body of knowledge that can be learned from a book, a CD-Rom or a video.

American Indians pass down the traditional ways. They learn and grow from each other through everyday practice and oral tradition. Joe states, “It is a way of life that is not explained, but that is lived. Everything in living is a lesson.” For this reason, the traditional ways of life have a dynamic quality. This is one of the reasons many elders do not want their interviews taped or videotaped. As Deb describes, “I will not be taped because it is one-sided.” Taping does not allow for an interactive learning process, a living learning process, between people.

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