Can young children tell us how to see wildlife and the environment?

Waiting for cake
With the teachings of creation stories and ceremonial practices that are a part of the everyday life of Native Americans, children learn to blend and associate themselves with the natural world.

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“The hearts of children are pure and therefore the Great Spirit may show them many things older people miss.”  
– Black Elk, 1949

In this crazy time in our history, we are all seeing ourselves separated by our varying ideals and beliefs. We have come to think that we are all so different from each other, we are not unified but divided more so now than ever.  The pandemic taught us we need to unify to physically heal, yet we are more torn apart and more disconnected to what matters than ever before.

But what if there was one thing that we all have in common? One thing that has the capacity to unite all people and heal all things­––our ability to understand the natural world and cohabitate in a way that protects, heals and encourages our health and success. This most important concept must be taught and cultivated in today’s youth as they are the very future of our planet and our existence. 

Playtime in South Dakota for Native American children
Playtime in South Dakota for Native American children

Almost every Native American culture believes that everything, every animal, living creature, plant, rock, tree, mountain, and even water has a soul. Therefore, all of nature must be treated with respect and honored. Native children are not only are taught these principals, but also encouraged to see the magic in nature. 

Part of the teachings passed down by the elders to the young is the concept of a close relationship with nature and its cycles. It’s an understanding that human beings don’t form a separate concept of nature, but instead see their lives and destinies intertwined with the natural world.

It’s a social vision that doesn’t place human beings and their needs above nature, plants and animals, but it recognizes humanity as an integral part of a living whole, one in which everything has a spirit that’s in communication with everything else. A cyclical understanding of the connection of man and nature through the seasons and presence of animals.

A community event in the Dakotas
A community event in the Dakotas

With the teachings of creation stories and ceremonial practices that are a part of the everyday life of Native Americans, children learn to blend and associate themselves with the natural world. Children are taught to see Mother Earth as a parent, and therefore the creator of all things. Despite technological advances and social problems, today this very concept is the life blood of native teachings and the medicine to heal.

I came upon an article in the New York Times Teaching My Child To Love A Dying World by Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman. In this surprising story, Rabbi Friedman, a mother of a young two year old child, takes her son out to visit with nature during the pandemic, as there are no other children to play with. 

The young child does not see the trees and nature any differently than he does another person or child and offers to hold the “hand “ of the tree, offering kindness as he feels the tree is sad. A startling and emotional realization for the child’s mother; she is teaching her child to love and respect nature, but her child is teaching her what he innately understands about nature already… from innocence and purity there is healing.

As nature is the spiritual kingdom for indigenous culture, Rabbi Friedman spoke of her understanding of nature in her spiritual teachings. There is no stronger or more powerful connection than that between nature and man. It is said Native culture has been the keeper of the original teachings from creator, but if you dig a little deeper, you will see that all religions circle back to nature and the relationship she has with man, recognizing humanity as an integral part of a living whole with the natural world.

So you see, we are all really more alike than we think. It is the understanding of the teachings of nature that is passed down through native elders that perhaps innately lives in the child in all of us, awaiting to be reawakened by our children­––our children who hold the future in their hands.

Tree planting to help the world
Tree planting to help the world

photos and story by Karla LaRive

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