8 Pieces Of Wisdom From Native American Culture To Live A Good Life


We’re often searching for the next productivity hack. In reality, sometimes the most valuable wisdom to live a meaningful existence has been accessible for generations.

Jay Shetty, former Hindu monk, said “There’s so much stuff that’s been said for years and we think we need something new. Ivan Pavlov famously said that if you want a new idea, read an old book. What are the parallels between timeless wisdom whether it’s 2,000 year-old Stoic or 5,000 year-old Vedic? Our problems haven’t changed at the deepest level because we still experience loss, fear, and anxiety in different ways.

Some of the richest history we’re not taught in our school system is of the Native Americans. DJ Vanas, author and revered leadership expert from the Ottawa Tribe of Michigan, has traveled around the country speaking with 500 tribal nations and corporations to distill tribal principals combined with some of the invaluable lessons he learned as a decorated Air Force Captain.

Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa Tribe notably fought during the Battle of Bloody Run and successfully defended their siege of Fort Detroit from British troops. This was a catalyst for the Proclamation of 1763 which led to the American Revolution.

In The Warrior Within: Own Your Power to Serve, Fight, Protect, and Heal — Vanas delivers a compass to live an extraordinary life. Through his lens of jumping out of airplanes, hiking the infamous Kalalau Trail on essentially one foot, spiritual and sacred ceremonies, this guide book motives you to take action and reminds you of the mental callouses you already posses. Below are eight pieces of timeless wisdom from Native American culture Vanas shares to make these lessons accessible which we also discussed during our interview.

A Warrior May Surrender, But They Never Quit

This is a critical distinction woven into the fabric of the book. Vanas says “When we quit, we just stop trying and putting forth the effort. We start talking ourselves out of the challenge, pointing out to why it won’t work, and finding selective proof that we’re right in our assessment.”

The mythical Sioux warrior, Crazy Horse, became a reluctant leader at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

During a raging blizzard in early January of 1877 along Montana’s Tongue River, General Miles and his troops opened fire on Crazy horse and his camp. He managed to return fire, but they were eventually holding off soldiers firing ammunition with their bows and arrows. While he was able to retreat 1,100 Native Americans to Fort Robinson, he never quit or lacked effort — but he eventually surrendered because his tribe was cold and hungry — and it was the best option to avoid all of them being hunted down.

Use What You Have

Tecumseh, the great Shawnee chief and warrior said, “When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies with yourself.” Vanas says that Tecumseh speaks to our ability to see the bounty in the first place.

He says that the Ottawa Tribe used birchbark for housing and the canoes that made them successful in trade and war. The Lakota used every part of the buffalo to make everything from clothing to bowstrings and canteens. Often when we have constraints it forces us to be resourceful. As Vanas explains, “When we see past our fear, resistance, and confusion, we realize we are all surrounded by an embarrassment of riches.”

Our Medicine Bag

“In Native American culture, a medicine bag is filled with sacred, meaningful items — such as herbs like tobacco and cedar, beads, bones, arrowheads, stones, and animal claws or teeth — that hold power of protection, strength, good luck, or healing for the person who carries it.” Vanas explains that people often wore it around their neck and they became meaningful during times of ceremonies, battles, or illness. He helps us visualize carrying our own medicine bag with things and experiences that makes us unique and powerful in our own way. We can draw from our medicine bags during good or tough times.

Prepare for Battle

Vanas took part in a vision quest ceremony which is a spiritual awakening over four days with no food, water, and shelter. “Just you, your prayer pipe, and a blanket in an area the size of a tabletop in the wilderness,” he stated.

While this sounds as torturous as Navy Seal training, Vanas told me that what we often forget is to focus on the learning that comes to us when we’re a place of quiet. “It’s that inner voice and intuitive side of who we are. It’s our creator-given radar, but we tend to neglect it because we’re too busy. That radar is asking us, are we going in the right direction?”

Vision Killers

“Sometimes the biggest challenges to seeing our vision through come from those closest to us.”

Vanas described how in the early 1800s, Sequoyah of the Cherokee Nation had a vision for his people to read and write — or what he’d call ‘talking leaves.’ They didn’t have a system then and people thought he was crazy to invest all that time to develop it. So much so that his wife threw his project in the fire. He was not deterred and by the 1830s he developed a written system that helped his tribe become one of the most literate groups in America.

When I shared my vision of starting a podcast with a close friend he told me it’d be a waste of time. Looking back, it was bad advice, and the podcast has been one of the best investments in my entire life.

Couting Coup

“Courage is not the absence of fear, it is acting in the face of it.”

Vanas talks about his “stand in the door” moment when he had to jump 5,000 feet out of an airplane to complete his intensive two-week training at the US Air Force Academy Jump School Program. “I had faced and conquered my fear,” he said.

“The Plains tribes had a tradition in combat that was more honorable than killing an enemy on the battlefield. It was called “counting coup.” Instead of striking their enemy down with an arrow, they’d simply touch them with a coup stick, a decorated staff resembling a riding crop, while in the heat of battle. This courages act of confronting the enemy face-to-face and in essence saying, ‘I’m not afraid of you.’ The ultimate act of bravery.”

This reminds me of Crazy Horse’s war cry during the Battle of Little Big Horn when his Sioux tribe defeated General Custer. “Hoka Hey!” He would say, which meant that today is a good day to die.

Overcome the Impossible

When Vanas received an invite to hike the Kalalau Trail he may have bit off more than he could chew. Dubbed by many as the “Kalalau Death Trail” which is eleven miles each way while traversing slick mud and steep, crumbly volcanic rock pathways. On the way in, his body was in such distress he went into exhaustion. On the way out, he broke his foot and toe crossing a river bed — while still having to hike out another ten miles! He said he just put one foot in front of the other and moved forward.

Vanas described some of the guerrilla warfare tactics of the tribal warriors and how they would take consistent action. “In battle, they would attack aggressively, withdraw, regroup, and then attack again until they defeated their enemies. With that relentless dynamic, our Native warriors were able to defend against, or defeat, larger and better equipped enemies,” he explained.

Keep Your Fire Lit

One of my favorite lessons was that of the fire keeper in Native American culture which was apparently a sacred duty. A good fire was the heartbeat of a village. Vanas said it provided the ability to cook food, shined light in the dark, warmed the village, and provided a place for people to congregate. Most importantly, it was a crucial component for ceremonies. Vanas teaches us that just like the fire keeper — we need to nurture our own physical and mental well-being so our fire doesn’t burn down to an ember, or even burnout.


Click here to hear the full interview with DJ Vanas





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