Wild Justice: Fairy Tales that Celebrate the Natural Order


Wild Justice:

Fairy Tales that Celebrate the Natural Order

By Madronna Holden

This essay appeared in Parabola Magazine 33:4 (Winter 2008).

All rights reserved by Parabola and Madronna Holden.

Reciprocity governed almost every aspect of traditional Hopi life, from ceremonies in which they offered the sun appropriate gifts, and it sent the rain clouds to sustain their crops; to daily activities in which women’s work was a gift to men and men’s work, a gift to women. Accordingly, shortly after the U.S. government annexed Hopi lands they sent a gift package to Washington D.C. that included items with potent spiritual symbolism: honeyed cornmeal, tobacco and prayer sticks.  In turn, they expected the president to provide protection for their lives and lands. The president missed the point. [i] Indeed, the idea that reciprocity might ground equitable diplomacy with any native people was an alien one to the government currently pushing its borders to the Pacific Ocean.

But what the U.S. government missed, folktales from Siberia to South Africa elaborated, expressing a model of natural reciprocity that impelled generosity, compassion and humility. Such reciprocity made all subject to the consequences of their actions, regardless of their race, culture, or class.  At the same time that the Hopi bundle was traveling to Washington, the tale in which High John tricked Massa into imprisoning himself in a sack, turning the tables on master and slave in fine reciprocal fashion, was circulating in slave communities. What goes around comes around, such tales assured their audience—and no one escapes this ultimate justice. As Lower Chehalis (Washington State) elder Henry Cultee put it, “The eyes of the earth see what is in our hearts”—no matter how we might try to hide that from other people. And what nature’s eyes see of us inescapably apportions our lives.

Though the eyes of the earth see such things clearly, humans still have some lessons to learn in this regard.  If we seek justice, for instance, we must take care not to feed the beast that consumes it— the mistake Prince Ivan makes in a Russian folktale.  The beast may appear weak and harmless, as does Koschei when Ivan first meets him. That is how totalitarian regimes and abusive relationships look at the beginning, while they are in their seductive stage—before we understand them. But one senses from the first there is something wrong here. For one thing, Ivan finds this creature in a dungeon—in obscure depths where it is impossible to see clearly. For another, Ivan’s wife the queen, who has some experience with this monster, specifically warned him not to open the door to it. And then there is the fellow’s name: Koschei the Deathless.  All nature bends to the reciprocal interplay of living and dying, but this creature sets itself beyond all that—if only Ivan will give it a drink of water.  Of course, once it has one drink, it wants another. And another. And yet another.  Until finally it becomes strong enough to carry off all nurturance and love from the land, in the person of the queen who warned Ivan about this.

And how will Ivan bring her back after Koschei has emptied the world of safety and succor? Only compassion can stir the heart of the world back to its just balance. Fortunately, Ivan has such compassion.  In spite of his hunger, he responds to the plea of the lion not to kill its cub for food, the bird not to touch its chicks, and the bee not to rob its people of honey.  “Who knows”, each of them say as Ivan leaves their families intact, “You may have need of us someday”.  What goes around comes around, and Ivan will have need of them very shortly, when he faces the fearsome Baba Yaga. No one passes her ground alive without passing her tests—impossible tests but for the help of the lions, the chicks, and the bees. They also help Ivan procure a horse from Grandmother Yaga that is stronger than Koschei’s, on which he and the good queen escape that monster and reinstate just rule in their land.

In a Chuckchi (Siberian) story, the moment for discernment comes when an orphan submits to his adoptive father, knowing full well the latter intends to kill him. In this situation, a son might well think himself unworthy of life. But this son knows better. With the skill learned from a seagull, of “flying on a spear”, he intercepts and breaks the arrows his father shoots at him. Referred to in his story simply as “the orphan”, this young man lacks even a name to give him belonging and protection in human society.  But he belongs to natural society by way of being born to life: and he has nature’s protection, echoing a persistent theme in folktales.  Life does not abandon its children. Wild justice administers exceptional spiritual gifts to balance the oppression of the poor, the weak, the outcast, the slave, or the orphan.  In the Chuckchi story, a reindeer teaches the orphan to run, even as the seagull teaches him to protect himself.

After he flees the village of murderous elders, the orphan gets caught in a fierce battle between two warring clans: the one into which he was born and the other into which he was adopted.  But he climbs a tree to sit in a raven’s nest above the fray. From there he reminds the fighters, “Those who live by the spear will die by the spear”.  He proceeds to break their spears the same way he broke his father’s arrows—all but one, which he buries in the earth. That spear remains as the final arbitrator of human action. This is how, the tale concludes, the Chuckchi clans “became friends”.[ii] Indeed, this is how all people might become friends—by means of their shared membership in a community governed by reciprocity. Importantly, this reciprocity makes the vengeance exacted in an “eye for an eye” a self-defeating gesture.  Just as one who lives by the spear can expect to die by it, one who demands vengeance can only expect vengeance in return. Folktales suggest an alternative: the compassion Ivan expresses in the Russian tale.  Acting with compassion, we gather allies rather than multiplying enemies.

Compassion leads to spontaneous generosity toward friend and stranger alike—generosity that shows us how “all humanity is somehow together”, as Pablo Neruda observes in his essay, “Childhood and Poetry”.  In it, Neruda describes the worn wooly sheep, obviously much prized, passed to him through a hole in a fence by the boy his age whose face he never saw.  In return Neruda placed a treasure of his own in the hole, an adored pinecone. Inspired by this experience, the Nobel Prize winning poet has since “left… words on the door of so many people who were unknown… people in prison, or hunted, or alone.  This small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained… deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.” Here Neruda experienced the mythic reciprocity that carries us beyond ourselves: “[T]he affection that comes from those whom we do not know,…who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our danger and weaknesses…is something… that widens the boundaries of our being and unites all living things.” [iii]

Even as a spontaneous gift may “unite all living things”, help lent the smallest of natural creatures may take on substantial importance in the context of reciprocity. This is the lesson in another Siberian tale, one from the Nanai people.  In it, the hunter Mergen hears the voice of an ant petitioning him to free it from a trap. As in this tale, we do not know how a seemingly insignificant creature may one day save our lives.  We can only act, once again, with compassion—and with the corresponding humility that shows us how the needs and feelings of others are comparable to our own. The compassionate hunter Mergen frees the trapped ant, and subsequently, a beached sturgeon and a swamp-bound deer he might easily have killed and eaten. But instead he listens to their pleas and frees them from their predicaments. In turn, these creatures later free him from a tyrant’s grasp. What goes around comes around. And under the reign of wild justice, the freedom of each of us depends on the freedom of others.  The point is driven home when Mergen is offered the tyrant’s wealth and slaves.  He refuses, declaring, “From this day forward there shall be no servants.  Let us all be brothers and live in peace.” [iv]

In this way nature’s reciprocity creates equality among those who share her web of action and consequence. When a modern Westerner queried Nanai shaman Grandmother Mingo whether shamans might use their power to harm others, she was incredulous. She had never heard of such a thing. Rather than giving her power over others, her spiritual authority impelled her to take on their suffering, replacing their vulnerability with her own.  With her spiritual generosity, Grandmother Mingo helped rebalance nature’s web where an imbalance created disease.

Grandmother Mingo also emphasized that we should feed the earth that feeds us:  ritually sharing food with the spirits of place. In like fashion, Coos-Kalapuya (Oregon) elder Esther Stutzman asserted the need for reciprocal repayment for the earth’s gifts: “Always thank the earth.  Thank everything, living and non-living, and sometimes pay the earth”. Her granddaughter, following this injunction, gave the earth pennies in return for items she collected from it.  Stutzman elaborated her point, “If you take food or basket materials, say thank you. If you swim in the river, say thank you.” Such actions will make you a “better-spirited person”.  “You feel better about yourself inside, and when you feel better about yourself, you treat others in a better way”.

When we repay the earth that is “alive” and “has a heart”, to use Stutzman’s words, we strengthen the reflexive web that embraces us all. We do this whenever we pass on a heartfelt gift without thought of recompense, whether it be a gift such as Grandmother Mingo’s healing, the pennies of Stutzman’s granddaughter, or the toy that widened Pablo Neruda’s circle of care to all living things. Sharing multiplies our gifts in the miraculous manner of the biblical loaves and fishes. And holding them back is liable to sink us—as illustrated in the Abenaki tale, “Gluskabe and the Four Wishes”, related by Joseph Bruchac in a past issue of Parabola.  In that tale, four men make the treacherous journey together to Gluskabe in the hopes he will grant them their wishes. Once they present their requests, Gluskabe gives them each a pouch with instructions to open it only in the presence of their people. Three of the men cannot wait. Nature’s reciprocity ordains that a man who wishes to be very tall becomes a tree after he opens his pouch in a forest, and a man who wants to live forever becomes a stone after he opens his pouch in a boulder-strewn ravine.  Notably, this reciprocity is justice without recrimination: the story tells us we may still find the spirit of the one who reaches for the sky in a tree, and the spirit of the one who would live forever in a stone.  But the third man, whose wish is for material goods, drowns under their weight when he opens his pouch while canoeing down the river.  And in his case, there seems to be no natural community to commemorate his strivings. The situation of the fourth man is distinctly different from the others. He waits to open his pouch until he returns to the circle of his people, sharing his wish with them that they will never go hungry. From that day forward the forests and the meadows yield their abundance to his people.[v]

This tale illustrates the belief that nature shares with those who share with others. Among peoples who enact this aspect of natural reciprocity, the first kill taken by a hunter, fish caught by a fisherman or root dug by a root gatherer is not eaten by the one who procures it, but is passed on to others instead.  “The gift must always move”, Lewis Hyde observed in his discussion of this theme in European folktales. Traditional Polynesian and Melanesian islanders put this understanding into practice in their trading circles by giving away gifts. One who received such a gift in turn passed on another to someone else. Banking on the effects of reciprocity, they had faith a return would come to each of them in its own way and time. And so it did. This system effectively circulated trade goods between island communities hundreds of miles distant from one other.

These islanders understood another key point about the workings of natural reciprocity: it is something beyond human accounting. This is another way in which the simplistic “tit for tat” or “eye for an eye” differs from the mythic model of natural reciprocity.  Proper humility tells us the world is larger than our comprehension of it, and mystery intervenes between what we telegraph to the world as our desire and what we get back as a result.  As in the Abenaki tale, we may get exactly what we wish for—though not at all what we expected.   But however it does so, natural reciprocity consistently makes individual aggrandizement a self-defeating stance.  There is a tale whose variations are told throughout the world, in which the protagonist finds a millstone or bird or tablecloth or musical instrument that materializes every wish of its owner. This is a good thing as long as its owner is moderate and harbors no plans to enrich himself at the cost of others. But let a greedy man get his hands on such a thing and he seals his fate in the same way as does the man who drowns under the weight of his possessions in the Abenaki tale.  Abundance proves lethal to one who cannot utter the magic word enough.

This is another way Prince Ivan might have identified the dangerous character of Koschei:  by his insatiability.  A simple cup of water did not suffice him.  Nor did even a single bucketful.  We see a similar theme elaborated in the Scandinavian tale of the magic fish who bequeaths a lovely cottage, a large house, a castle, and finally an entire kingdom to a woman who requests each of these in turn. But then she wants to be queen of the sun, the moon, and the stars.  The magic fish, like nature’s own abundance, allows her to draw more and more from it in the short term, but when her desires continue to escalate and she makes no return on what she receives, the fish simply swims away.  She is left with the broken-down hut she began with and her own empty hands.

In a world of reciprocal balance, we cannot have it all. In attempting this, we will only drain the well that reciprocity otherwise primes.  Indeed, in the context of nature’s reciprocal interplay of life and death, we each have our limited time on this earth.  And we who consume others may expect to be consumed in our turn.  Baba Mhlanga, contemporary Shona (Zimbabwean) elder puts this point directly:  “When a wild animal kills someone, we accept it and tell ourselves…I am also healthy because I ate another animal.”[vi] An Apache elder expressed the grace with which we might accept this, stating she would be thankful at her death for the opportunity to repay the gift so many other lives had given to sustain hers.

Indeed, wild justice does not abandon us at the point of our deaths. Natural reciprocity works on our legacy in the same way it works on our lives. Whenever we give something out to the world—whether it be an action, a thought, or an object—a bit of ourselves goes with it. And if we give of ourselves with generosity and genuineness we seed a living thing, symbolized by the “life tree”, or kilembe, the protagonist leaves behind in an African tale. Partaking of nature’s nurturance, this tree roots in the earth and grows tall, standing in the light on his behalf when he falls into darkness and despair. Clyde Ford speculates that this tale, known to many slaves, may have given them a way to set their oppression in a larger redemptive context.  In a powerful moment in the story, the hero’s life tree is recognized and watered by another—reviving the suffering one in spite of the physical distance between them.   In discussing this idea, Ford treats the multi-generational passage of African-Americans from slavery through racism to justice.[vii] As in this case, a great injustice may take more than one lifetime to remedy.  But telling the stories of those gone before is a way both of watering their life trees and harvesting their fruit.  By contrast, those who oppress others leave behind only a brittle twisted thing no one can eat from—and surely no one will stop to water.

There is certain justice in the way life works upon and then returns to us what we give to it.  We cannot know how the results of our actions will come back to us—or to those who follow us onto the vast canvas of life and time. We only know that natural reciprocity makes such a return inevitable.

And under the watch of wild justice, life is generous with those who are generous with it.

[i] Peter M. Whiteley, “Ties That Bind: Hopi gift culture and its first encounter with the United States”, Natural History, November 2004.

[ii] Ibid, pp. 50-54.

[iii] Robert Bly, ed., Neruda and Vallejo:  Selected Poems (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1971), pp. 12-13.

[iv] James Riordan, collector and translator, The Sun Maiden and the Crescent Moon, Siberian Folktales (New York: Interlink Books, 1991), p. 101.

[v] Parabola  10:4. .

[vi] Chenjerai Hove and Ilija Troganow, Guardians of the Soil, (Munich, Germany: Baobab Books, 1996), p. 25.

[vii] Clyde W. Ford, The Hero with an African Face (New York: Bantam, 1999), pp. 41-43.


84 Responses

  1. I can not see how this process of reciprocity does not touch every aspect of life. I can see it everyday. Even in small daily choices such as attitude and language, a positive or negative circle can be set in motion. It is funny how easy it is to forget though. I can easily see, when I think on it, how caring compassionatly for the earth will come back to me in loving sustinance from her. I can see how kind words and a possitive attitude towards my daughter plants seeds and gives back to me the same. I can see this in money matters, and in consumerism (most often over-consumerism). So the puzzle piece for me is once I identify that this is a fact of nature, and my life, how do I consciously keep it at the forfront of my mind as a way to guide my actions? There are so many negative competeing forces. Selfishness, fear, greed, etc. Maybe the use of sticky notes on the mirror, as they do with self esteem exercises, is not a bad place to start.

    • Thanks for your response, Shawna. You ask an excellent question. I do think it would help if we told more tales of the type that remind traditional peoples about the importance of these values. I think that you have made a substantial beginning in being consciousness of reminding yourself of the importance of recirprocity–and asking the question about how to keep this practice vital in our lives.

  2. I really enjoyed the concept of wild justice so beautifully illustrated in this article. The idea that reciprocity makes all subject to the consequences of their actions is consistently challenged in our society. We try to convince ourselves that we are invincible and that our actions do not have consequences. We try to sever our ties to each other and to the rest of nature in an attempt to create some false reality in which everything exists to serve us. We are cruel to another being thinking that we are not also tearing ourselves apart. But, as made evident in this reading, we do not and cannot know how even a seemingly insignificant action will come back to us or anything else. Only by acting with compassion and humility will we realize “how the needs and feelings of others are comparable to our own.” Help others and we help ourselves. Give and see that generosity returned. Love and the world will love you back. I can only imagine how the world would change if everyone lived in accordance with this wild justice—but every time we act with compassion and humility we experience what that world might be and become one step closer to living in it.

    • Thank you for your wonderful response, Kirsten. I love the vision in your last sentence, “every time we act with compassion and humility we expereince what the world might be and become one step closer to living” that vision.

  3. This article brought to mind the saying, “kill them with kindness.” I remember when I was little and I would have problems with others being mean or what not, my mom would always tell me to kill them with kindness. At the time it didn’t seem like very helpful advice, but looking back I think it was some of the best advice she could’ve given me. Now, when my child has similar problems, I tell him the same thing, and I can see the wheels turning in his head. It’s amazing what a six year can grasp. I also think “Kill them with kindness” goes hand in hand with “pay it forward.”

    • Thanks for sharing your mother’s wisdom concerning difficulties faced by her daughter (you!), Amber. It will be interesting to see how you son acts on this advice. Isn’t mothering a joy?

  4. Madronna, Thank you for the stories woven together in such a delightful way! You make it sound so simple: Give and you will get in return! But, this takes an incredible amount of faith in these times. Long ago when we all lived closer to the land and we saw reciprocity directly in action, it may have been easier to have the faith that what you give will be returned to you (for good or bad). These days, we are so disconnected from pretty much everything that it is difficult to notice connections when they do happen. Ah! but for those of us who know the truth of the beauty that natural reciprocity can bring to one’s life, there is no other choice but to have faith in it!

    • Faith can be seen in many ways. I like your sense here, since what it is really about is meaning– creating the story of our lives as it persists across generations. Thanks for your feedback!

  5. “What goes around comes around”. “It is better to give than to receive.” “Karma.” How often do we hear these terms, yet most of us do not live its premise. There is a shared responsibility that comes, not with having an abundance of material possessions, but by having an abundance of heart, of possessing an abundant spirit, an ever-giving energy that gives and gives, whatever little, to another who is equally deserving of life.

    • A generous stance, Hannah–and one certainly in keeping with this ancient idea of reciprocity.

    • Although I am not overly superstitious I don’t need to be to know that “karma” is very, very real. “What goes around comes around” is demonstrated all the time, whether it is the relationship between robbing a bank and getting put in jail or the relationship between poisoning the air you breath and eventually getting cancer. Every action has a consequence!

  6. If it were not for the folktales of different tribes and nations we would not have the beautiful stories told to us by elders of the past. If not for the idea of what goes around comes around- we would not have so many willing to do just acts, and stay above society’s brutal attacks. Many would not have kept their heads held high during oppression or would have let the hard times of life get to them and commit acts to damn themselves. This is what they did. Nations of people took oppression or pain and turned it into a struggle of virtue and strength. They willingly stayed true to themselves and kept their hopes of a wild justice. The hopes that nature would play its course and there good deeds and strength of character would not go unnoticed in the universe. It does pay off, it can take years and years but we have seen justice prevails in every walk of life.

    • I very much like your insight that “millions of people took oppression or pain and turned it into a struggle of virtue and strength”– to me this says everything about what we are capable of– and what traditional stories do for us in the lessons they teach us as they model how to “keep our heads” in the worst of times. Thanks for your eloquent comment, Aimee.

  7. Reciprocity in nature is key in our relationship. Our domination/ patriarchal-minded society tends towards a one-sided relationship that is much more take than give. Without reciprocity, we cannot expect the world we take so much from to continue to support us. Even at the most basic and logistical level, if we use up all the resources, there will be nothing left to sustain us. Beyond that, there is a healthy balance in reciprocity with nature that involves giving back to the world that supports us and helping nature regenerate itself. We nurture ourselves by taking care of nature; nature can take care of itself by nurturing us. Doing something selfless fosters reciprocity– this is something that we often lack. In our drive to dominate it is essential that we realize the potential ramifications of our actions. If we continue along the path of domination we are likely to leave ourselves with a “nature” that has nothing left to give us.

    • Great points here about the ways we take care of ourselves by taking care of nature, Ellie. I think you have related the central “dominator paradox” here: if we do away with the world we depend on, we not only have nothing to dominate, but nothing to live on and with.

  8. This is such a beautiful way of discussing reciprocity. I like how it’s said that whenever we give of ourselves, a little bit of us goes with it. In today’s society, we tend to be selfish and want to be recognized for doing good deeds, but if we understand this thought, there is no need for applause. Reciprocity can be a beautiful thing. With generosity, humility, and compassion, we can conquer the world. Good works spread like wildfire when they are done with love. Thank you for the wonderful essay!

  9. I agree with your statement that in a world of reciprocal balance, we cannot have everything we want. Every animal but humans knows that when it is no longer hungry it must stop eating. We on the other hand tend to consume and amass what we want even when we have had more than what is needed for us to survive. If we were to swallow our pride we could learn the lesson from other animals that taking only what is needed to live and nothing more keeps things in balance, and is the key to long term survival.

  10. I was going to add to that that the indigenous cultures already know this which is the reason why some have endured to this day after thousands of years of living in the same lands.

  11. Not surprisingly, this article reminded me of the classic children’s tale – well known in the US by kids of all backgrounds – about the lion with the thorn in his paw, who relies on a simple mouse to remove it. Unfortunately, despite the extensive range of stories provided here, this was the only tale I was able to think of that most children in our culture are likely to be aware of. It has such an important message – all living things must work together and look after one another, no matter what our perceived roles in life, in order to ensure both our own well-being and the continual well-being of others in our local community – that’s it’s disheartening to think that we do not usually share more stories like this with our children.

    • Hi Lauren, this is actually an Aesop’s Fable– not a folktale proper, since it had a single author, but the point is well taken.
      Sharing such stories with our children has multiple benefits for both them and ourselves (see the Folklore and Mythology page here).

      • I was also reminded of the Aesop’s fable, as well as several episodes of the Twilight Zone – no doubt influenced by many similar folk tales. There are countless tales similar to the greedy woman and the fish – where someone tries to bargain for more than they deserve and their gluttony gets the best of them. Even the folk tale of the monkey’s paw – where being given a wish for anything turns out to be tainted with disaster and you should be grateful for what you have.

        • Hi Anders, thanks for your comment. Which Aesop’s fable? Just a small fyi, Aesop’s fables are not properly folklore, since they are written literature of a single person– though they may have been inspired by folklore (as Twilight Zone episodes and many Star Trek episodes as well) and even become folklore as they are passed around orally.
          The ability to be granted such a wish seems an apt metaphor on the judicious use of human power (to create technology, for instance). I just heard last night that indigenous traditions had songs that went with gambling ceremonies whose purpose was to keep the participants from losing themselves in the game. Seems we could use a few such songs– how about one to protect us from being caught in a consumptive cycle of “too much”?

  12. Natural reciprocity should be simple to understand since parents have been teaching children to share, say thank you, and respect your elders. The Bible teaches about the loaves of Bread and the fishes as stated here where if one gives what he has, it will multiply. I think having minds like children are so essential in our basic thinking so as be thankful for the blessings that the earth has provided for each living soul. It is not hard to for me to see that God is within each living creature on this planet. I just think that us as humans have to be reminded where we come from and how each one of us affects someone or something else one by what we do.

    • Lovely comment, Tina. It is obvious you have much to pass on to your children! The ways in which you have shared here that you are learning from them is also part of this process.

  13. The long tradition of “eye for an eye” is deeply woven into our lifestyles. It seems automatic to strike once struck to seek revenge when wronged. This concept in my opinion is a behavior we learn at a very young age and is only overcome though lifetime experience or education. The idea of thankfulness in all that we do is not a new one. It is a concept practiced by many devout religious people. The idea of offering the first part of the day for prayer or seven times out of the day for communication with the Almighty is very common in many of today’s religions. The idea of reciprocity is alive and well to in today’s religions. Many people decide to tithe giving the first ten percent of their earning to their Deity in an act of thankfulness. This is not done with the intentions of expecting something in return but instead it is intended to be an act of gratitude and trust.
    I think the disconnect between the types of reciprocity shown from native peoples and from those in some of today’s mainstream religions comes from the idea of God himself. To native peoples God or gods in many cases is deeply intertwined and apart of the environment, landscapes, and all living thing. To many mainstream religions the idea of God has mostly been that of an outsider looking down on us and occasionally making an appearance. As many religions today try to regain the concept of thankfulness of what God provided us we relearn lessons from Native peoples showing us the importance and spirituality of gratefulness and care for the Earth God provided.

    • Great point in this discussion, Phillip: substituting the idea of revenge (and the license involved in that) for gratitude for all we have been given in this wondrous earth.
      It seems that however we conceive the Creator/Spirit of Life, we do that Spirit a grave injustice to project our own petty bickering on it.
      I agree that we have much to learn indeed from the concept of reciprocity that is expressed among so many of the world’s cultures.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    • Phillip,
      Eye for an eye makes everyone blind. As an ex tithes payer, I was told by my bishop that if I didn’t pay tithes, I would not be cared for by God, so I paid out of fear of God’s wrath. At a potlatch I know my tribal leaders give to care for us because we are worthy by being of value as a universal family where every species has value. One does not have to pay more than the other to receive the tribal potlatch blessings. 10 percent of camas isn’t given back, to the earth, what all the familial species needs is. There is no controlling govern measuring what is given in reciprocity in indigenous cultures, to then being the entitled to say whether the gift of reciprocity had enough value or not. It is so hard to describe when very few live in a partnership or non-patriarchal society in the western worldview. I totally appreciate how you connected this with your ending “try to regain the concept of thankfulness of what God provided us we relearn lessons from Native peoples showing us the importance and spirituality of gratefulness and care for the Earth God provided”.

      • I have always thought Ghandi’s assertion on non-violence makes an essential point. I remember once unexpectedly arriving at a potlatch and how generous I felt as the gifts piled up on my lap. I think that acting with generosity toward others has this effect of stimulating our own gratefulness and sharing. Thanks for this comment, Val.

    • An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. And the idea of such revenge has already began to blind our society in a way that companionship and a good hearted helping hand can be hard to come by at times, it’s a sad thought.

  14. Natural reciprocity has many fine tales similar to what we read in this great article. I love reciprocity, it is part of my gifting culture, part of the medicine wheel of right thought, relationships, respect, and reciprocity, the four R’s. Reciprocity can be found in lessons of the caddisfly who leave their lovely casings on river rocks for Native girls. And reciprocity is found when digging lovely camas, Kalapuya women leave some of the best bulbs for the deer and elk as a gift of reciprocity for giving their lives to feed them. Deer and elk love camas flowers and eat them like candy, making them nice and big and healthy. The creator provides for us when we think of others as well as ourselves, that is why subiyay says that the forests was his walmart.

    • Thank you for adding these wonderful examples from our own valley to this topic, Val. You likely also know that though camas grew throughout the Northwest, Kalapuya wheels of dried camas were considered prime and were traded throughout the region. Most peoples had something special that distinguished them–and in the case of these Kalapuya it was the quality of their camas, nurtured, as you note by also generously nurturing other lives.

  15. I love the way this article presented the idea and I completely support the idea of thinking nature endeared for everything that you consume it was the way my grandmother did it at her grandmother before her. I plan from now on to keep in mind how everything is derived from the elements and nature and whenever possible to form someone not just my friends about why they should do the same.

    • Lovely response, Arnulfo. You received quite a gift from your grandmother and her ancestors; it is great that you treasure it.

    • I agree that it is something we need to make a better effort to practice in our lives. I too plan to teach my kids the ways that I am learning to respect and care for nature, I hope that they pass it on for generations just as your family has.

  16. What goes around, comes around. I, myself am a firm believer in karma and have been since childhood. Whenever I did something wrong, or a bad decision my mom would always remind me that my actions have consquences, and with those consequences I learned the concept of karma. The oldest line, and one we’ve all heard since our first years, “Treat others the way you want to be treated” is genuinely one that should not only be told, but acted upon. Wouldn’t it be nice if that’s really how we all acted?

    • It certainly would, Chamae. I am currently reading a book written by the Dalai Lama on the ways in which the core concepts of all world religions (including what he terms “secular religions” that have no concept of God or spirit, but do have a concept of moral standards) come together in the sense of reciprocity and compassion. He grounds this in the goodness of human nature expressed in our being nurtured by our mothers–which model should spread out to be repeated in our treatment of all sentient beings with the same “loving kindness”.

  17. I liked the story about Ivan, it has a great lesson to teach about life in general. It is somewhat of a combination of good karma and not burning bridges because you never know what the future holds. By letting the animals live, they are able to respond in a helping way. I think that compassion and empathy along with selflessness are some of the most important traits any person can have.

    • Compassion is the truest way to safeguard our future in many wise belief systems. Thanks for your comment.

    • I think this also relates to our current state of over consumption. As the article states the one glass of water was not enough(Ivan) or the hut was not enough(Magic Fish), they wanted more and more. I think this is a big problem in our current society and has a large impact on our current worldview, contributing to idea of looking out for oneself.

  18. The natural reciprocity idea I think is alluded to in many Western stories, or phrases such as “do unto others as you would do unto yourself.” Whether or not, this was always so human centered or not is something that I am curious about. It seems that most religions have something of this sort written, yet because the morals are hidden within larger worldviews and beliefs of the world, they get misconstrued and can become antagonizing just because of the package. If the natural reciprocity were extended from in-groups to out-groups, from human to other creature and plants as well, we could get a lot further!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response here, Lindzy. There are many examples in this article of extension of the values here toward more than human lives. Do you think the issue is so much that worldviews are unconscious (which they often are) but that in Christianity, for instance, there are very different trends, depends on one’s class, social history–and personal values?

  19. I found this to be a beautiful statement and I think the grandest gesture of reciprocity, compassion and selflessness. Completing the circle of life, giving back what was given to you:

    “An Apache elder expressed the grace with which we might accept this, stating she would be thankful at her death for the opportunity to repay the gift so many other lives had given to sustain hers.”

  20. It’s interesting that this lesson about not asking too much of the universe is common to so many different indigenous peoples. I wonder why this story is not prominent in folk tales of Western origin. I can’t think of a Western folk tale similar to to stories prortrayed here… but then, it’s been a long time since I read the brothers Grimm!

  21. I like how you focused on identifying insatiability in Koshei, it ties him in with the concept of the “alpha male.” Almost like a tornado tearing everything apart in its path, he just consumes.
    It amazes me that I have always thought about these ideas, reciprocity in human behavior and ecological sustainment, but never tied them together before. I came at them separately trying to do what I could to improve my environment. This personal revelation is definitely going to help me channel energy to be more effective.

    • Interesting point about Koshei as representing an “alpha male”, Michael. This is an insight I had not thought of–but it makes absolute sense.
      A “tornado of consumption” is an apt metaphor indeed for his behavior.
      I appreciate your personal integration of environmental and social ethics in the model of reciprocity. Thanks for your comment!

  22. This article is truly amazing, so many ideas are weaved into the overall theme of reciprocity, it does play such an important part in many aspects of our lives, in the context of our relationship with the earth, with the universe, with other people, and within ourselves. Reading this had me thinking back to my early 20’s were a series of choices had me literally on my knees begging for strength to get through, and at the time I was weak. What is interesting is that the problems kept coming. I feared for my sanity. One day an older woman told me, “Never pray for strength because the universe will send you adversity to strengthen you, instead pray for patience.” Revealing a hard truth, that I had been receiving exactly what I was asking for in more ways then just strength The reciprocal nature of life, and forces I still do not understand were at work to mold me into someone who could withstand, and have compassion for others.

    • Thank you sharing your personal story about reciprocity and strength. Congratulations on seeing your way through that difficult time–and becoming stronger and more compassionate as you did so.
      I am touched by your insight here.

  23. I really like the quote about receiving affection from people we don’t know and how that reciprocity carries us beyond ourselves. This pieces together with a saying I have been hearing a lot. If I do something good for me, then I help no one. But if I do something good for you, then it helps me, and you in turn will do something good for someone else, which will also help me. We hear a lot about the concept of “paying it forward” which is similar to this idea of reciprocity. Pay it forward is to act in a way that benefits another with no thought to how it benefits yourself. We want to think that by doing something nice for someone else, they will learn from it and pass that forward to another person. Eventually, we could reap the benefits of helping the first person. This idea could be used for sustainability as well, making sure to supply the earth with something it needs knowing that in time we will assuredly reap the benefits. Reciprocity is an amazing concept that will continue to be used in terms of sustainability, which will in time be the leading factor in regaining our natural earth.

    • Very important points to consider here, Jamie. And perhaps, in the end, we might say that what I do for someone else, I actually do for myself as well (for an enlarged sense of self that is not limited to my exclusively individual desires in the moment)?

  24. Hi Jamie,

    I have also heard very recently of “Paying it forward” – there is the idea on one of the bank commercials that show a person doing a good deed for another and the reciprocal effect of seeing this happen. I have also seen it happen where a person is at the drive thru at Starbucks and the person in front of them pays for their drink and so the next person “pays it forward” by doing a good deed for someone else. This is such a beautiful thing to offer to people and I love hearing the stories as I think this is a huge step for people – getting back to the compassion within us all. I like to think that for us, today, this is a first step and when we start showing compassion to other people then maybe, at some point we can begin showing our compassion to the earth and nature as well. Change our relationship with our neighbors and then change our relationship with nature. I am hopeful! Thank you for your thought provoking comment!

    • Thanks for sharing your personal hope in the wake of the “pay it forward” attitude, Michelle. This can not only a kindness to others, but fun.

    • Hi Michelle. Have you watched the movie, “Pay it forward”? It has Helen Hunt in it. The concept is a great one, if only more people lived by it. I have a few times been the person at starbucks you refer to. When I am having a good day I want to share it and when I am having a bad day I want to change that and by making someone else’s day a little brighter I feel better.

      • Lovely. Pay it Forward had quite an influence on its audience. I understand there are still those paying for the orders of those behind them in line (just one small evidence of “paying it forward” of the many that are being done).

  25. “Compassion leads to spontaneous generosity toward friend and stranger alike—generosity that shows us how “all humanity is somehow together”.

    This statement really makes sense to me. I believe in helping others with no dues needed in return. The golden rule of life is something we should all live by. Recipriocity is definalety something to live for. If only every person in the world would live by this concept, we would all be at great ease in life.

    • Hello Danielle, I know you are generous with your time and energy and care toward others. Thank you for this, since when you help others, you help us all who share this earth-community.

  26. I loved reading about the different folk tales from around the world. How wonderful it is that even though miles separate us, a basic sense of compassion is so relatable. Reciprocity is essential in life! It is seen in almost all cultures that “what comes around, goes around” and it is so important to not be greedy and take only what is needed from whatever the source and give thanks and repayment to nature.

    • Thanks for the kind insightful responses: it seems that world folktales trace something of our basic human values–and the ones to which we owe the vibrancy of our communities, not to mention, our very survival.

    • I agree Denise, that these tales remind us all about how important that basic sense of compassion is in our daily lives. I often wonder about how these cultures all became to understand it so deeply that these tales would be handed down for many generations. This type of understanding usually comes from learning the downside, the warning part of the story. I wonder what life was truly like 10,000 years ago and prior to that. What kind of unwritten or hidden histories there are that would explain the need to keep these life stories an important part of a culture. They are similar world wide. It seems as if humans have been down this road before perhaps. Once the stories no longer hold meaning the lesson must repeat itself.

      • Some of this understanding came from seeing the downside, as you put it, of what might happen if we do not understand the dynamic of reciprocity- which the natural world expresses to us.
        Other knowledge comes from intimacy with the world– from careful and loving connection and observation and also from learning info from the past.
        These are better ways to learn necessary lessons– we can save ourselves and other lives considerable suffering by learning our lessons the easy way.

  27. We don’t learn a lot about reciprocity behavior in the U.S. and we are getting farther and farther away from even knowing what nature is and a lot of complaining about nature. It is even easier to see in this time of Facebook for sure. It rains and suddenly there are hundreds of posts complaining of the rain, even though it fills the water table for us to use in drinking, bathing, cooking, etc and that it fills the ponds and lakes so that we may fish, swim, and see beauty. Then, there is no rain, perhaps it stopped raining because thousands of people wished there would be no rain. Now there are droughts, dead flowers, and a high water bill because no rain came to the gardens and your grocery bill became higher because there was no rain for the crops that feed not only you but also livestock that people also feed on. Then, during these droughts, you see people wishing and praying for rain by the thousands. Then, we see floods. Could it be a coincidence or could nature really respond to the thousands of collective thoughts out there? Who knows but if we were grateful for when the rain came and then grateful for all that comes out of it the world may be a different place. Instead of wishing for rain whenever it does not and wishing for dryness whenever it rains or for the summer heat during the winter cold we could express gratitude for everything that happens now knowing that it brings a little gift with it. My girl has always loved rain but she also loves to mimic so now she often hears others complaining about the rain so she began to. She would say ” ugh, its raining, I wish it wasn’t raining.” And then I begin to question her ” Do you love the flowers and trees? Do you love strawberries? What do you most often to ask for to drink? Do you love to swim?” She says yes. I say to her ” well, then, I think you love the rain too”. Now she questions those that complain about rain.

    • And those who complain about the weather today (as in floods and droughts) forget how much of the current weather instability is the fault of human-caused climate change. And we can do something about this: in fact, we know precisely how to do it, though the effects won’t be instant repair, we do know how to stop it from getting worse. It’s just a matter of place other values over money interests.
      Thoughtful point about complaining about the rain– those undergoing drought conditions all over the world certainly would not complain about this. However, we are too often interested in our own convenience first.
      Thanks for your comment.

  28. The idea that saying thank you to the earth for everything that it gives you is something we do not do. Our lives are so fast paced that we do not stop and smell the roses as some may say. We never take the time to be thankful of all the beautiful gifts the world provided us. I remember that when I was younger my grandma had many chicken. I remember one day she was going to make chicken soup. I remember her saying something to the chicken, but i could not figure it out so I asked her what she said. She told me that she was thanking the chicken for the meal that it was going to provide for her family. I was confused at the time and just did not understand why we had to thank our food. Now I understand that everything is a gift. I realize that saying thank you is the acknowledgment of this gift.
    Sometimes I wonder at what age do we forget all that we have been taught about sharing and being kind to one another. When do we stop saying thank you? It is a shame that we forget what we are taught and replace it with a sense of ownership and domination.

    • I really love what you have to say on this matter, it is wonderful to be thankful for what we are given (or rather what we take) but not enough people truly do this nowadays. Yes some people still say Grace before they eat but it isn’t many and unfortunately when you say Grace you aren’t really thanking the earth for the plentiful bounty set before you but you are thanking God, a being that is not known to exist or be the bringer of food. It is of the utmost importance for us to remember that the earth is substantial and tangible and deserves to be thanked and presented with gifts in return for what we take from it.

      • Thank you for your kind feedback, Kelsey. Gratitude is a conscious-raising practice, as you indicate.

      • An excellent point, Kelsey. Gratitude often is lost in the ‘rules’ of what we do, like teaching a child to ‘say thank you’ or ‘say you’re sorry’ but never teaching them to appreciate, or empathize, or why those things are important. I’m not sure when we lose this, because it is innately in us, but it is lost more often than not.

        • Good point: gratefulness should be something from the heart rather than a rote activity- though saying “thank you” is always better, I think, than not saying it.
          The fact that so many different cultures recognize the importance of gratefulness does seem to indicate that this stance is an important part of our makeup as humans– and we perhaps “lose” it because it is trained out of us when we grow up with a worldview that devalues it.

    • Thank you for sharing your personal story of your grandmother, Laura. If we were to say “thank you” to those lives that support ours, this would certainly remind us to treat them with more consideration.

    • I started apologizing to spiders that I kill in my house. I don’t know why. I guess it’s because I know I’m making a choice of taking a life, much like your grandmother did with the chicken. It instills a sense of balance, and gratitude is an important part of that.
      Thank you for sharing that story. I’ve heard of native American traditions that thank animals for a life given to provide food, but I did not realized it existed in such recent generations, especially if your grandmother is American.

      • I had a neighbor who would not let me thank her for the flowers she brought me, since they came from the earth, not from her– and she came from a European background.

  29. This article is very thorough in its examples of folktales. I find the stories to be fantastical examples of a socialistic society, which I do not believe will ever be a part of modern western culture. Americans have been self-preserving from the beginning. For example, in the founding days of Jamestown, VA, one of the first colonized towns, the government tried to enact a socialist-type system, where each man labors for every man and takes only what he needs. The result was only a handful of people did the work, as so many were ready to slip out of their duties, and their wasn’t enough food to go around and the settlers resorted to cannibalism.
    This story is dire, but it is true unlike the fairy tales above, and I think it is a good indicator of the types of people and mentalities upon which this country was founded, and how equality and reciprocity is not a deep, culturally ingrained way of life for us, like it is for the native Americans in some of the above stories.
    I’m not saying this is the best or right way to live, but it is the way we live. Reciprocity may remain only a fairy tale, until modern society ends a new one begins.

    • As you might guess, I have a different idea than that which labels a story “only a fairy tale”– such stories express the worldview that is, like it is in all cultures, “culturally ingrained in us” (to use your words) and thus guide their lives and values.
      Further, stories are not told only in “socialistic” societies– though they may be signs of strong community. Storytelling is growing among modern US folks as well– and one of the lessons at Jamestown seems to me to be that one cannot have a working community without reciprocity, just as one cannot have a working ecosystem without it. For that failed effort in Jamestown, there are plenty of successful ones, such as those in Scandinavia. And if sharing dooms a society to failure, I would say we are all in trouble.
      What I do think the Jamestown story also illustrates is that those of us raised with a worldview based on competition and individualism might not be very good at sharing without some experience and training.
      And if you want numerous examples of successful sharing communities in the present day, look at YES magazine– or the examples in the essay here, “How can you not plant a rose in wartime?”
      Thanks for your comment, which allows me to address these issues in more detail.
      And just as an aside, I never heard this reason attributed to the failure at Jamestown– I thought it was because they had so little knowledge of the land, they didn’t have food to make it through the winter.

  30. One of the first things I noticed about my wife when we met was that she was so kind and appreciative and mindful of everyone and everything she comes in contact with. She is sincere, and generous, and it has made me think about everything I do now, and to show appreciation to those people who help me, whether it’s someone in a store, or a stranger that holds the door, or someone who asks ‘how are you’ I don’t just say “fine thanks” and keep moving on, I ask how they are as well. It’s this little thing, that means so much to that other person. It makes us feel better inside, and it makes us appreciate each other when we take that moment to be with the other person. I love to talk to my plants in the garden, and I do thank them for my harvest. I picked 2 banana peppers and 3 jalepenos yesterday morning. 🙂 They were nearly bigger than their plants! I am amazed on a daily basis what our earth makes for us. I have an acorn squash growing out there right now, and it’s like a prized possession! I check on all of our foods each day, and we are counting the days until we get to pick them!

  31. […] Wild Justice: traditional tales that celebrate the natural order […]

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