Native American Appreciation of Nature
Potawatomi Chief Simon Pokagon (1830-1899) was well educated and comfortable speaking before a large audience, as he did at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. He often wrote about nature and forests; his novel entitled O-gi-maw-kwe-Mit-i-gwa-ki (Queen of the Woods) was published soon after his death. He particularly regretted the disappearance of many trees in Michigan during the nineteenth century Settlement Era, writing:
In early life, I was deeply hurt as I witnessed the grand old forests of Michigan,
under whose shades my forefathers lived and died, falling before the cyclone
of civilization as before a prairie fire.
In those days, I traveled thousands of miles along our winding trails, through
the unbroken solitudes of the wild forest, listening to the songs of the woodland
birds as they poured forth their melodies from the thick foliage above and about
Very seldom now do I catch one familiar note from these early warblers of the
woods. They have all passed away. . . .
I now listen to the songs of other birds that have come with the advance of
civilization . . . and, like the wildwood birds our fathers used to hold their breath
to hear, they sing in concert, without pride, without envy, without jealousy --- alike
in forest and field, alike before wigwam or castle, alike before savage or sage,
alike for chief or king.
Chief Pokagon obviously missed the "unbroken solitudes of the wild forest" where he listened to the melodies of the birds "from the thick foliage above" him. The chief, often referred to as "the Indian Longfellow," shared his sentiments about trees, birds, and other elements of nature with other Native Americans. Some tribal leaders objected to white settlers selling timber to foreign countries for profit; others, such as the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, felt that the Great Spirit had made the air, the sea, and the earth for the use of all of his children, and therefore, land could not be sold.
Oglala Sioux Chief Luther Standing Bear explained the spiritual element between man and nature, comparing the viewpoints of whites and indigenous people. "Indian faith sought the harmony of man with his surroundings; the other sought the dominancy of surroundings. In sharing, in loving all and everything, one people naturally found a due portion of the thing they sought, while, in fearing, the other found need of conquest." Standing Bear stated his people's beliefs that man's heart becomes hardened when away from nature, and that a lack of respect for growing and living things could lead to a lack of respect for humans, too.
In contrast to Chief Luther Standing Bear, Chief Pokagon converted to Catholicism while helping his tribe obtain tribal reservation land in southwestern Michigan. He also served as an advocate for Native Americans, meeting with President Abraham Lincoln in Washington (twice) while seeking fair compensation to indigenous people who had been displaced by the U.S. government. His observation (above) of the "advance of civilization" demonstrate his ironic recognition of change, as the birds that replaced the Michigan woodland birds of his youth sing before savage, sage, chief or king alike without the negative human traits of envy and jealousy. Quotations courtesy of The Wisdom of the Native Americans edited by Kent Nerburn.
Sue Devick, M.A., Fullersburg Historic Foundation