Native Rules of Respectful Behavior

Sacred Medicine Ways – Part 12

A Teaching by Ghost Dancer

I would now like to speak with you on the importance of showing respect when around Native people. You may be at a powwow or visiting a reservation or someone’s home, and knowing a few key rules of respectful behavior can mean the difference between being embarrassed or enjoying a pleasant experience. Most people don’t even understand it is offensive to take a Native’s photo without their permission.

1) Showing respect for sacred items: Sacred items could include drums, rattles, pipe, eagle feathers, hawk feathers, turkey feathers, claws, staffs, regalia, or offerings. You never touch any item that belongs to a Native unless it is offered to you to do so.

2) Feathers: Say if you went to a pow wow or Indian day celebration, stomp dance, or any ceremony, and for some reason or other a feather is flying around loose and it comes to you. What do you do? Handle it with respect, but try to find who it belongs to. Now some may say it came to you so it belongs to you. But no, this could cause you a lot of trouble. the person the feather came with may just want it back. Remember respect and honor always. If you are at a dance and you see a feather fall off a dancer. Do not, do not touch it. Only certain ones are permitted to pick it up. 

3) Remember the federal laws as well. Unless you are ready to face legal criminal charges, do not pick up eagle, hawk, or owl feathers anytime, anywhere. This is a federal offense and if you are caught with one without the proper paperwork you could be in real trouble. You may have been personally gifted one of these by someone who is federally recognized as a Native American in which case you should have been given a paper signed by that person stating the feather was presented to you. If you travel with the feather, you will need the paper work with you as well.

4) All traditional people will look at you crazy and worse if you don’t know the simplest things such as gift offering out of respect. If you visit an elder, clan mother, or micco, always make a gift offering of something. It could be tobacco, a sandwich, cold drink, piece of fry bread, just at least something, as long as you are making them aware of an offering of thanks for all they do, or have done.

5) Hair: Never touch a male Native’s hair unless you are asked to. Only his women family members, his mate or girl, or a brother, son or closely related member can do this. Our hair is sacred to us. It is an extension of our senses and spirit. The same applies to a woman’s hair as well.

6) Circle: If you are at a circle and gifts or sacred items are being passed around, each item must go all the way around to complete the circle first. Then they are passed on to the person(s) they are to go to.

7) Now I know ladies love it when they see a beautiful necklace or some gorgeous beadwork, especially when it is on a warrior. But do not touch any of this unless you are given permission.

And men, do not touch a woman’s jewelry or any part of her unless you are given permission. Personal space and respect for these medicines they are wearing is very important.

8) Unlike people in some other cultures who all seem to be talking at once, this is not our way. Only one person speaks at a time. After that person is finished, then another can speak.

9) Most Native languages have no curse words. This is for a reason. Words have power. We don’t say negative things or put people down because we would be bringing that energy, that power into existence. Those who truly know power are very cautious in using it, because like all energy the negative words are never ending and will flow for all time. So be careful what you say and who you say something to, and how you say it. As the old ones say: Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

10) Now traditionally, among all Native people, no one is ever supposed to do harm to another member of the people. This especially applies to members of your own town or band. That is our true way. Now days on some reservations it is not that way among many of the young ones. If you plan to visit any reservation, my advice is to know someone there well enough to feel safe with them or limit your visit to daylight hours. Why? Because so many of the young ones have lost their traditional values and have taken on the ways of thugs. Some reservations now have gangs, of native blood, native crips, native gd, native pride, bear killers, wild boys, warrior society, and so on. These gangs prey on their own people, their own families. They kill, rob, rape, and terrorize. Now, this is mostly reservations west of the Mississippi and not all reservations are like this. I’m just telling you like it really is. If you don’t know your way around and the proper protocols it could be bad for you or your family. Now traditionally, Native people do not behave this way and where I am I constantly remind these young ones of this. But so much of life on the rez has changed and the old ways have been lost, so this is how it is now.

11) I have visited many reservations to trade. These are some things I learned. When you are meeting to negotiate a trade there are different protocols you must be aware of. With some tribes, you never look them in the eyes. This is taken as a direct challenge. In some you never speak to any of their females. In some you never will get the person to speak directly to you. Rather they speak to someone else and that person relays what they say even though they are standing right in front of you. Some you never speak directly about what you want or need or want to ask about. You need to always converse about their health and family first.  Some will even try to marry you to a member of their family. Why? Because by their tradition they expect you to take care of the whole family and they do nothing until someone else gets married. You need to know tribal laws, tribal customs and religious beliefs when going there. Always have gifts for the leaders, and elders, when you go and show respect.

12) Be careful about things that they are superstitious of unless you know how to do this properly and in your own way be wise. Having this knowledge opens doors and allows you to have access to things most don’t. For instance, I know some Southwestern tribes fear a wolf. So, I took the wolves with me when I went to do any trade dealings. If I thought they were trying to get one over on me, I would look at my brother wolf and he would change his eyes to look another way and they could see that. He would lift and curl his lips back and they would decide to give me a better deal.

13) I love the art of trading and it is a time-honored ritual amongst Native peoples, but it takes skills too, so both sides are happy. Trading with Natives is never a hurry up thing; it shows you respect their ways when you don’t argue and you aren’t in a rush. Never show that you really want something. That is not good manners. Trading is always trading something of equal or greater value, but more value to whom? For example, if your people are turquoise rich, then turquoise really doesn’t mean that much to you, but let’s say you don’t have the sabia, crystals which your tribe needs for ceremonies, for your homes and personal use. Now I know you have turquoise and you know I have the sabias, but I’m not acting like I’m really interested in trading for turquoise, but you are acting like you want the sabias. So after a long discussion on numerous other trivial items, we will get back to the trade you really want and not only will I get the turquoise but also the jewelry you have made or traded for that is turquoise and sterling silver and onyx. But see, I know you will go trade the sabias to your people for more items at a big profit. I have plenty of sabias but now I have items to trade to other people and tribes where they don’t have the turquoise and silver. All this time I have continued the ancient cultural ways of trade and opening cultures with other tribes and nations.  Who knows, I may make a gift of some of these items to other tribal leaders, elders, and spiritual teachers.  I always provide things freely to the spiritual leaders of tribes and always look for things they need. Then I either deliver it to them on my next time through or mail it to them for I encourage and support the spiritual teachings for every tribe.

14) Now anytime you hear that an open drum is now going, what does this mean? Well it means that anyone who would like to come to the drum can come sit and join in. If they say it is a closed drum, that means only the ones on the drum are allowed.  I would recommend that each of you travel to Albuquerque, NM and participate in the Gathering of Nations each year. This will give you a firsthand look at nations and tribes from everywhere. Just remember that the traditional Southeastern tribes are very different than the Western tribes always.

These few small things are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to all the different customs of respect we all need to know about.

Respectfully, Ghost

Ghost Dancer © August 2017

Published by Sings Many Songs

I'm an 80-something child of the great depression and WWII. Throughout my life I have been a seeker, an outsider, never quite belonging anywhere, still always looking through cracks in the fences of life, questioning, challenging, learning, trying to make sense of the world and its conventions. A lifelong student with many interests and a love of writing and editing, my elder's path led to encouraging and assisting some remarkable people to write out their amazing stories. This calling became the magic elixir that keeps me growing, keeps me alive.

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