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 "Ancient Footprints"          Gary R. Varner 

There are many similarities between Chinese and Native 
American spiritual belief and philosophy. While there is no 
conclusive evidence available that can tie the two together we 
can at least explore the possibility. It is important to understand 
that there is not one “Indian” philosophy or belief. But many 
tribes had similar traditions expressed in different ways. In this 
comparison I will employ a simplification of these beliefs. 
Taoism, the Chinese philosophy of perfect peace and the 
man-nature harmony, is very similar to various Native American 
traditions. Did a transfer of ideas result from early cross cultural 
contact or did these traditions and beliefs originate 

The concept of humankind co-existing with Nature and 
thereby with the divine is an age old one and one shared 
universally among indigenous peoples. But this concept was 
never illustrated so simply and graphically until the Taoist and 
Native American philosophy came into being. 
Both philosophies have the same message: the binding unity 
of humankind with the Earth. 

Man is only able to survive with the Earth’s cooperation. The 
Earth provides humankind with food, shelter and a meaningful 
education about life. But the Earth must be cared for as well. It 
is a give and take relationship. 

To many, at first glance, Taoism seems contradictory. It is a 
philosophy of opposites that Western man has difficulty in 
grasping. However, it is only ambiguous in its simplicity. 
The Tao states: 

“That which shrinks 
Must first expand. 
That which fails 
Must first be strong. 
That which is cast down 
Must first be raised. 
Before receiving 
There must be giving. 
Ancient Footprints 

“This is called perception of the nature of things. Soft and 
weak overcome hard and strong.” 

Hyemeyohst Storm, a modern Plains Indian, wrote of 

“All the things of the universe wheel have spirit and life, 
including the rivers, rooks, earth, sky, plants and animals. But it 
is only man, of all the Beings of the Wheel, who is a determiner, 
our determining spirit can be made whole only through the 
learning of our harmony with all our brothers and sisters, and 
with all the other spirits of the Universe. To do this we must 
learn to seek and perceive. We must do this to find our place 
within the medicine wheel.” 

The concept of universality is a central theme in Taoist and 
Native American thought. The Ying Yang principle of opposites 
making up the whole is really just a cause and effect 
relationship. Ying Yang is only a way of saying transformation. 
The Chinese have a saying of “Ten thousand things—there is an 
infinity of all created things. Dark to light, hate to love, rain to 
give food.” 

Ying Yang is comparable to the Indian “Cosmos” thought. All 
things are because of the existence of other things. Cosmos is 
all. Cosmos is God, time, and nature. The seasons and life cycles 
are very much a part of the cosmos. The birth, death and rebirth 
symbolized in cosmos is almost an exact re-phrasing of Ying 

Circular symbols are also important to both traditions. The 
Sioux saying “The year is a circle around the earth” and the 
Plains concept of “Universal Wheel” are similar to the Chinese 
Ying Yang. 

Similar are the ideas concerning the creator and heaven. In 
Tao God is a universal, ruling power, a power personified only 
through the wind and the mountains and in nature itself. A 
similar concept among Native Americans. 

Ceremony is also very important. In Tao the only way o the 
Universal Good, called Li, is through ritual and ceremony. If the 
ceremony is done with sincerity then everything goes as it 
should. Among Native Americans ritual and ceremony is also 
very important. Everything with consequence was accomplished 
through ceremony such as puberty, naming children, birth, death 
and curing. In both Native American and Taoism ceremony was 
done for the honor of an individual or group or, more 
importantly, to honor and placate the spirits. 

To carry this concept further we realize in Tao that ceremony 
is what separates humankind from animal kind. Ceremony is the 
total essence of humanity. One must master it, and thereby Li, 
to become totally human. The lack of ceremony equates one to a 
subhuman level. Ceremony is a show of faith to both traditions. 
Natural harmony is also a connection between Taoism and 
Native Americans. Harmony with nature is to exist to the fullest. 
The Indian could only survive by cooperating with the Mother 

Harmony to Taoists is given the following description: 
1. Heart is with learning 
2. Feet planted firmly on the ground (symbolizing stability) 
3. No longer suffering from perplexity (symbolizing serenity) 
4. Know the bidding of heaven (symbolizing renewed 
5. Hear with a docile ear, and 
6. Follow the dictates of the heart. 

Through all of these, Tao asserts, the individual has achieved 
harmony with rightness. The Indian would put it more simply: to 
see, to understand natures interaction with man and to give back 
to the Mother Earth what one has taken from it. Harmony is 
simply a loving respect for all things. 

In respect to the Divine there is a slight difference between 
Taoist and Native American thought. In Tao “gods,” per se, do 
not exist. Tao, the “thought,” is itself the creating force and the 
universe exists because of the associated Ying Yang actionreaction 
principle. Man is part of that creation, and the Tao 
assets, there is no “god” but for a universal consciousness. In 
contrast, most Native American traditions have conceived of a 
Creator. The following Pima poem illustrated this general godhead 

“I have made the Sun! 
I have made the Sun! 
Hurling it high 
In the four directions 
To the East I threw it 
To run its appointed course” 

The Aztec verse: 

“The flowering tree stands in Tamoanchan: 
There we were created, there he gave us being 
There we wove the strands of our life, 
He who gives life to everything” 

To Native American’s the concept of “God” is a spirit that may 
be found in any form, a spirit that resides everywhere. The Spirit 
is, in this beautiful concept, everything from a rock to a soaring 
eagle. In the Native American world all things have a direct 
linkage to the “Spirit.” The eagle, for example, was a great omen 
and deservedly so with its power and beauty. 

Tradition itself is held in esteem by both Taoists and Native 
Americans. Tradition is the order of things. It is an established , 
working way. In Tao, order is a longing for innocence which is 
continually being sought. It allows no excess which would disrupt 
its order. 

Tradition is similar to harmony. The Tao would say “Knowing 
harmony is constancy. Knowing constancy is enlightenment.” 41 
To the Native American tradition is life. There is no greater 
teacher than the ways and laws handed down from generation to 
generation. The Indian has found that to break or lose traditional 
ways and skills is to lose their unity, their livelihood and their 
honor among each other. 

Tradition follows harmony and the Taoist Li results from both. 
They are one together with knowledge. The Tao states: 
“The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It 
cannot be ruled by interfering.” 

This is truly a Native American concept as well. Cooperation 
is an instinctive feature of Native American life. 
Alfonso Ortiz, a doctorate in anthropology, stated before a 
Native American symposium on “American Indian Philosophy”, 
his observations on the Indian belief of non-interference with the 

“…I have never ceased to be impressed by…how difficult it is 
to find a [Navajo] Hogan, how they are set off nicely in a little 
pocket and blend right in with the landscape. Again, the 
magnificent knowledge…” 

Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius and keeper of the 
imperial Chinese archives in the sixth century, had a very simple 
way of telling man that “progress” was destructive to order and 
harmony. In the Tao, Lao Tzu said: “the further one goes, the 
less one knows. Turning back is how the way moves.” 

Taoism can be classified as “the way of the Universe…the 
ordering principle behind all life.” To this the Native American 
concept of cosmos is again comparable. To the Native American 
the workings of the universe, nature, and humankind were all in 
order and nothing could be justified that would upset this 
delicate balance. 

To most Native American’s every individual is his own 
conscience and does what he/she believes is best. Individual 
age was unimportant as everyone was believed capable of 
rational thought. Parents never refused a reasonable request of 
their children. Children were separate and equal to their parents 
and other adults as long as they could demonstrate sound 
reasoning. The Taoist saying “Who knows what is good or bad?” 
applies here. No one can determine for another if their actions 
are right or wrong as that determination belongs to the 

The dominating theme of Native American religions is “at 
oneness.” To know yourself, to know the Earth and the Earth’s 
life-forms, to know that the cosmos was created for all life 
equally. This is true in Taoism as well. 

The philosophy of Taoism has been defined as the 
“acceptance (of) what is in front of you without wanting the 
situation to be other than it is. Study the natural order of things 
and work with it rather than against it, for to try to change what 
is only sets up resistence. Nature provides everything without 
requiring payment or thanks, and also provides all without 
discrimination—therefore let us present the same face to 
everyone…we will come to appreciate the original meaning of the 
word ‘understand’, which means to ‘stand under’. Te—which may 
be translated as ‘virtue’ or ‘strength’—lies always in Tao—or 
‘natural law.’” 

To most traditional Native Americans the usage of spoken 
language is a serious thing. Each word spoken reduces the power 
in the speaker because words hold great power in themselves 
and are taken as literal truths. 

Throughout the Tao Te-Ching we find evidence of similar 

“He who boasts achieves nothing. 
He who brags will not endure.” 
“A good speaker makes no slips.” 
“In speech, be true .” 
“More words count less.” 
“Great eloquence seems awkward. Stillness and tranquility 
set things in order.” 

To know the importance of the simple things we take for 
granted is an important concept in both Taoist and Native 
American thought. To live and abuse nature or man was rarely 
heard of in Native American society. In effect, the Native 
American is perhaps a more perfect practitioner of 
Taoism than most Chinese. 

The similarity of Native American and Taoist thought can be 
illustrated in the following quotes: 

“Interference has gradually caused Nature to turn her face. 
When the sun rises and sets blood red, the people know that 
Nature is out of balance.” (Hopi) 

“The world is ruled by letting things take their course, it 
cannot be ruled by interfering.” (Tao Te Ching) 

“Through our ceremonies, it is possible to keep the natural 
forces together.” (Hopi) 

“Ceremony is all that is human. It is harmony with nature.” 
(Tao Te-Ching) 

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Comment by shawn on July 14, 2015 at 10:34pm

great blog, thanks

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