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The Lazy Native:
Is There No Aboriginal Work Ethic?
“Which of these is the wisest and happiest–he who labors without ceasing and only obtains, with great trouble, enough to live on, or he who rests in comfort and finds all that he needs in the pleasure of hunting and fishing?
“Learn now, my brother, once and for all, because I must open my heart to you: There is no Indian who does not consider himself infinitely more happy and more powerful than the French.”
Micmac Chief, 1676
Recently a friend asked me when I was going to retire. This was one of those rare times when I was at a loss for words, as I simply could not relate to her question. It had been 25 years since I held what most would consider to be a regular job, so in that sense was I already retired? I was doing what I enjoyed -- something many wait for retirement to do; was that further evidence that I was retired? Perhaps she rather meant “when are you not going to be so busy?” I was following my heart-song, fulfilling my reason for being; why would I choose to stop? For me it was not work, I was at play. I couldn’t imagine doing anything other than what I enjoyed; naturally I would wish to be involved in it until my last breath. Retirement, as she defined it, would to me mean death.
Work, as a concept, does not exist with Native Peoples. It is an invention of the civilized; “Go to work” is what people do who lead disjointed lives. With agriculture came work, as no longer was our food just there for the gathering. With urbanization came our isolation from the Earth; we now had to travel to connect with the means and ends of existence; i.e., “Go to work”. To support the religious-political-social hierarchical structure which of necessity evolved to manage our now-fragmented lives required the production of surplus -- more work.
If I make myself a bow it will likely be a fulfilling endeavor, as I’ll have specially gathered the materials, I’ll have a personal reason for the crafting, and I’ll have a long-term relationship with the bow to look forward to. If I have to make bows every day, all day, to support a fractured lifestyle, my crafting is liable to become monotonous; i.e., work. I can feel personally fulfilled helping another, but if I’m compelled to do it eight hours a day, 5 days a week (as a teacher, dishwasher, doctor, social worker...) it can become tedious; again, work.
If a Native could be brought to understand the concept of work he would still lack the motivation to work, as he has no need to produce surplus energy or goods to either support agriculture, bridge the chasm between hearth and Earth, or support an overriding hierarchy. I know Natives who are the seventh generation under the yoke of Civilization and still do not grasp the work ethic or its application. They may work until they have enough money for what they want, then quit their job. They see no reason to work any more than to gain what they were working for. Or they may arrive at the job site early or late depending upon how they feel or what is going on in their lives, as that is honoring the moment -- a cardinal precept of the Old Way. After all, is work not a part of life rather than life itself? And if the fish are running they may not show up at all. Why work to buy fish if they can go out and catch them directly? To disjoin the means from the ends of their existence for no obvious reason confuses them, and sometimes the thought of doing so humors them, even to this day.
Natives the world over are (usually unsympathetically) labeled by their Civilized overlords as lazy, irresponsible or unmotivated because of their seemingly tenacious grip on their holistic way of living. The work ethic-steeped masters, who seldom have an understanding of the way of Balance, are oftentimes quick, and sometimes ruthless, in dubbing their potential workforce as stubborn, belligerent, even revolutionary. At best they are judged, at worst they are enslaved or persecuted, the justification being the greater good -- in other words, “for your own good”
From whence emerged this “play ethic” that appears to be so diametrically opposed to the work ethic that they not be allowed to coexist? No matter where an Aboriginal population dwells, whether it be tundra, desert, or tropics, their members spend an average of but two hours each day gaining their material needs. The methodology, because it is personal, purposeful, and low-tech, is fulfilling and connected. So there’s little reason for the concept of involvement to evolve into the concept of work, much less basing a lifestyle ethic upon it.
This lack of reason is the primary reason Native People ever dwell in communion with the Circle of Life, and why, to this day, many under the influence of Civilization still resist tarnish. They are accustomed to providing for their needs, period. There is no demand or incentive for over-production. In fact, the surplus that would result, if some Native were to come up with the silly notion to do such, would be sanctioned. In a Native living situation, surplus gives so little benefit and adds such a burden in terms of storage and protection needs that the individual who comes up with such a foolish notion soon discards it and holds something akin to a Giveaway to dispose of the glut.
In this way she gains what is true wealth for a Native -- the respect and esteem of her peers. Now she again has the time and energy to partake in the genuine richness of Native lifeway, which is qualitative. It is the family, social, personal, and spiritual life gifted by the great amount of time and energy available every day beyond those two sustenance hours. This is the basis of the level of personal skill, awareness, spiritual attunement that nearly all of us are envious of, and nearly everyone who ascribes to the work ethic wishes they had time for.
All this is not to say that Aboriginal People cannot, or will not, work. On numerous occasions I’ve witnessed them performing tremendous feats — spearing fish all through a wet snowy night on a late winter lake, performing a ritual for days on end without food or sleep, expending superhuman energy to come to the aid of someone in need. Perhaps their low-stress and non materially-oriented lifestyles allow them the copious reserves of energy and spirit they have available to them to draw upon.
How can we, who seem to be so far away from living that awareness, embrace it? If we were to ask a native for advice, his likely reply would simply be something like, “Just dwell in harmony with the heart of life.”
“Easier said than done,” you say? Actually it is easier done than said, because it is our natural way of being. We have to go through unbelievable contortions of reality and suppression of spirit in order to conform to our culture’s work ethic. The cost is so high it is almost incomprehensible – billions of lost and lonely people blindly destroying the Mother-Planet that gives them life. All because we have chosen work over play.
There is a big playground waiting for us; it is called life. I’ll see you there.
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