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Image by Elena Ray

Lakota Narrative on SILENCE
from Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ

“We Indians know about silence. We are not afraid of it. In fact, for us,
silence is more powerful than words. Our elders were trained in the ways of
silence, and they handed over this knowledge to us. Observe, listen, and
then act, they would tell us. That was the manner of living.

With you, it is just the opposite. You learn by talking. You reward the
children that talk the most at school. In your parties, you all try to talk
at the same time. In your work, you are always having meetings in which
everybody interrupts everybody and all talk five, ten or a hundred times.
And you call that ‘solving a problem’. When you are in a room and there is
silence, you get nervous. You must fill the space with sounds. So you talk
compulsorily, even before you know what you are going to say.

White people love to discuss. They don’t even allow the other person to
finish a sentence. They always interrupt. For us Indians, this looks like
bad manners or even stupidity. If you start talking, I’m not going to
interrupt you. I will listen. Maybe I’ll stop listening if I don’t like
what you are saying, but I won’t interrupt you…

People should regard their words as seeds. They should sow them, and then
allow them to grow in silence. Our elders taught us that the earth is
always talking to us, but we should keep silent in order to hear her.

There are many voices besides ours. Many voices…”

Deer Women and Elk Men: Lakota Narratives of Ella Deloria (1889–1971),
educator, anthropologist, ethnographer, linguist and novelist of Yankton
Lakota heritage.

Our culture is full of busy minds and talking, with too little listening. We “already know,” and we think that is intelligence. We are taught to “have an opinion,” take a side, speak our mind. Our culture is extroverted, full of show-and tell. Quiet children are used to being corrected for being withdrawn or shy, or worse, introverted, as if that was an unpardonable sin, a kind of mental illness.

My mother was a quiet person, an artist. My father was an inveterate talker. If he was awake he was holding forth. Like a lot of extraverted talkers, he repeated himself a lot. I was in my twenties before I met people his age who listened. I began to notice how rude and unreflective the big talkers are. They seem to need to fill the airwaves with the sound of their own voice even if they have to go around in endless circles saying the same things a million times. You get the impression they can’t bear to listen to others speak. It’s a strange neurosis.

It’s interesting to hear about cultures that actually listen, not just to speech but to the earth, to the silence within. Our busy talking mind that never falls silent muffles the messages from life within and around us. It’s unfortunate to miss those messages.

Cultures that listen encourage human beings who can listen. Noisy cultures like ours make it difficult to hear the song the Earth is singing. The inner being we carry forth into the world suffers from not being heard and learned from. We have to grow counter to our culture if we want to value listening as the teacher it is. Our great teachers were all listeners. Listening is how they distinguished the wheat from the chaff in life, how they were able to see what was essential and what wasn’t.

Our society has no lack of people willing to tell us what’s what, people who don’t deserve their status. It’s not hard to find people who repeat clichés they learned in kindergarten. Our task is to think for ourselves. Our job is to listen and learn.

Or to put it another way, our job is to observe, listen and then act.

Written by

I occasionally write fiction and also about creativity, loving, language learning and travel. I’m a longtime painter and reader.

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