8 Native American Culture Tips for Living the Good Life – An Interview with DJ Vanas – Forbes | Region & Cash

We often look for the next productivity hack. In reality, sometimes the most valuable wisdom for leading a meaningful existence is accessible for generations.

Jay Shetty, former Hindu monk, said: “There are so many things that have been said for years and we feel we need something new. Ivan Pavlov famously said: If you want a new idea, read an old book. What are the parallels between ageless wisdom, be it 2,000 year old Stoic wisdom or 5,000 year old Vedic wisdom? Our issues haven’t changed at the deepest level because we still experience loss, anxiety, and fear in different ways.

Some of the richest stories not taught to us in our school system are those of Native Americans. DJ Vanas, author and esteemed leadership expert of Michigan’s Ottawa Tribe, has traveled across the country speaking to 500 tribal nations and corporations to identify tribal leaders combined with some of the invaluable lessons he learned as a distinguished Air Force captain.

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

in the The Inner Warrior: Master your power to serve, fight, protect and heal – Vanas provides a compass to live an extraordinary life. Through its lenses like jumping out of planes, hiking the infamous Kalalau Trail essentially on one foot, spiritual and sacred ceremonies, this guide motivates you to take action and reminds you of the mental calluses you already have. Below are eight timeless wisdoms from Native American culture that Vanas shares to make those lessons accessible, which we also discussed during our interview.

A warrior can surrender, but he never surrenders

This is a critical distinction woven into the fabric of the book. Vanas says, “When we stop, we just stop trying and trying. We start talking ourselves out of the challenge, point out why it won’t work and find point by point evidence 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 snowstorm in early January 1877 on the Tongue River in Montana, General Miles and his troops opened fire on Crazy Horse and his camp. He managed to return fire, but eventually they held off soldiers firing ammunition with bows and arrows. Though he was able to pull 1,100 Native Americans back to Fort Robinson, he never gave up or lacked effort — but he eventually surrendered because his tribe was cold and hungry — and it was the best option to avoid killing them all were hunted.

Use what you have

Tecumseh, the great Shawnee chief and warrior, said: “When you get up in the morning, thank you for the morning light, for your life and your strength. Thank you for your food and your zest for life. If you don’t see a reason to say thank you, it’s your own fault.” Vanas says Tecumseh is speaking to our ability to even see the bounty.

He says the Ottawa tribe used birch bark for housing and the canoes that made them prosperous in trade and war. The Lakota used every part of the buffalo to make everything from clothing to bowstrings to canteens. When we have limitations, it often forces us to be resourceful. As Vanas explains, “As we move beyond our fear, resistance, and confusion, we realize that we are all surrounded by an abundance of riches.”

Our medicine bag

“In Native American culture, a medicine pouch is filled with sacred objects of meaning—such as herbs like tobacco and cedarwood, beads, bones, arrowheads, stones, and animal claws or teeth—the power of protection, strength, good fortune, or healing for the person who wears it.” Vanas explains that people often wore it around their necks and it became meaningful in times of ceremonies, battles or illnesses. He helps us envision ourselves carrying our own medicine bag of things and experiences that make us unique and powerful in our own way. In good times and in bad times, we can draw from our medicine bags.

get ready to fight

Vanas participated in a vision ceremony, which is a spiritual awakening over four days without food, water, or shelter. “Just you, your prayer pipe and a blanket on an area the size of a tabletop in the wilderness,” he said.

While it sounds as excruciating as Navy Seal training, Vanas told me that we often forget to focus on the learning that comes from being a place of rest. “It’s that inner voice and intuitive side of who we are. It is our Creator-given radar, but we tend to neglect it because we are too busy. This radar is asking us, are we going in the right direction?”

vision killer

“Sometimes the biggest challenges in realizing our vision come from those closest to us.”

Vanas described how Sequoyah of the Cherokee Nation had a vision in the early 19th century for his people to be able to read and write—or what he would call “talking leaves.” They didn’t have a system back then and people thought he was crazy to spend all that time developing it. So much so that his wife threw his project into the fire. Undeterred, he developed a system of writing in the 1830s that helped his tribe become one of the most educated groups in America.

When I told a close friend about my vision of starting a podcast, he told me it would be a waste of time. Looking back, it was bad advice, and the podcast was one of the best investments of my entire life.

Couting coup

“Courage is not the absence of fear, it is counteracting it.”

Vanas discusses his “standing in the door” moment when he had to jump 5,000 feet out of a plane to complete his intense two-week training at the US Air Force Academy’s jump school program. “I had faced my fear and overcome it,” he said.

“The tribes of the Plains had a tradition of fighting that was more honorable than killing an enemy on the battlefield. It was called “Counting Coup”. Instead of knocking down their enemy with an arrow, they simply touched them with a coup stick, an ornate staff resembling a riding crop, while in the heat of battle. This encourages confronting the enemy face-to-face and essentially 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 what that meant today is a good day to die.

Overcome the impossible

When Vanas received an invitation to hike the Kalalau Trail, he may have bitten off more than he could chew. Referred to by many as the “Kalalau Death Trail,” each 11 miles long, it traverses slippery mud and steep, crumbling volcanic rock trails. On the way in, his body was in such distress that he was completely exhausted. On the way out he broke his foot and toe crossing a river bed – while still having to hike another ten miles out! He said he just put one foot in front of the other and walked forward.

Vanas described some of the tactics of the tribal warriors’ guerrilla warfare and how they would act consistently. “In battle, they would attack aggressively, retreat, regroup, and then attack again until they defeated their enemies. With this relentless momentum, our native warriors were able to defend or defeat larger and better-equipped enemies,” he explained.

Keep your fire lit

One of my favorite lessons was that of the fire warden in Native American culture, which seemed to be a sacred duty. A good fire was the heartbeat of a village. Vanas said that it provides an opportunity to cook food, bring light into the darkness, warm the village and create a place for people to gather. Most importantly, it was a crucial component for ceremonies. Vanas teaches us that just like the Fire Warden, we must nurture our own physical and mental well-being lest our fire burn down to an ember or even burnout.


Click here to hear the full interview with DJ Vanas

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