Today as I was scrolling through my Facebook front page, I noticed that one of my friends had posted an image that looked like it was cobbled together with MS Paint. The majority of the image was a plain, mustard-yellow background with a painting of a Native American Chief in the upper left corner, a black and white meme font in the upper right reading “The 10 Native American Commandments” and then a list of ten sentences in a sort of maroon font below that. These ten commandments were as follows:
- Treat the Earth and all that dwell thereon with respect.
- Remain close to the Great Spirit.
- Show great respect for your fellow beings.
- Work together for the benefit of humankind.
- Give assistance and kindness wherever needed.
- Do what you know to be right.
- Look after the well-being of mind and body.
- Dedicate a share of your efforts to the greater good.
- Be truthful and honest at all times.
- Take full responsibility for your actions.
When I first read through these commandments, I thought “Well aren’t those lovely ethical guidelines. Certainly you could do worse than that!” My next thought, though, was that they didn’t sound particularly Native American.
A little bit of searching led me to the origin of this document. Unfortunately, it is not flattering. The fact of the matter is that these commandments were created in 1989 (and again when it was reprinted in 1993), by the company Viesti Associates (still in business, though now focusing on selling stock images) who then sold a poster displaying the image of a Native American man, the captions “The Ten Indian Commandments”, and the above sentences. It was sold under the pretense that the tribal communities lived by a 10 commandment code that my have predated those carried by Moses. Effectively, it does no more than perpetuate the stereotype that our Native cultures are mystic peoples who do nothing more than live in harmony with nature.
Yeich. Talk about a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, I do not want to contribute to the continuation of this stereotype (or using the now politically incorrect term ‘Indian’), on the other, I really do like these commandments. If someone held a gun to my head and said I had to imitate the “Hobby Lobby” style of Display Christianity and decorate my home with weirdly crafted aspects of my religious beliefs, I’d be darn proud to embroider these commandments onto a sampler. Even if these precepts do have a troubling origin, I kind of think the best thing to do here is roll your eyes and say “Whatever. They’re just commonsense rules,” and embrace them. It’s not like the pagan community hasn’t done this with other parts of our religions.
Maybe the Pagan community should issue their own “10 Pagan Commandments” poster (maybe swapping out “Great Spirit” for “your Gods”). That would probably be way more culturally appropriate…and the plagiarism would definitely be keeping with our community’s sense of “open source spirituality”.