"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.
There must be giving.
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”