Since time immemorial, warrior societies have been tasked with protecting their homelands. As a result, Indigenous homelands were an ecological paradise that could sustain life forever, if left in that managed condition. Warriors had an honourable duty to defend a system that practiced and promoted balance and harmony in nature. Unfortunately, their role is not regarded that way by society today.
The mainstream media manufactures a distorted view of warrior societies. They present warriors as thugs and their societies as street gangs, criminal organizations and lately, as terrorist groups. In reality, true warrior societies are very different from these groups. A warrior society is an organization of warriors who are spiritually obligated to protect their homeland and the future of the generations yet unborn. Labels that vilify warriors serve a political purpose that furthers colonialism.
In my travels and discussions with other Indigenous warriors from as far away as Ecuador and the Caribbean, I have learned that while each Indigenous nation produces different kinds of warriors they are variations of the same theme. At the core of their teachings, warriors from all over the Americas believe in some form or another of a sacred responsibility to protect the life and territory of their homeland.
To understand warrior societies you have to understand their sacred responsibility. Here in Sto:lo territory, sacred responsibility is expressed in the teachings around Solh Temexw (This is our land). The teachings assign the Sto:lo people the task of being “responsible for all life in it.”
This responsibility implies stewardship for all life in the land. “Stewardship” means to manage something on someone’s behalf. That definition captures the relationship of responsibility the Sto:lo have over their territory. The Sto:lo are managing this land on behalf of the generations yet unborn.
The Sto:lo are responsible for all life in their territory. “All life” is understood to be life in all forms, including animals, birds, plants, fish, and insects; as well as the life of the lands, mountains, rivers, and skies. “All life” is believed to be part of an overall life-system of interconnectedness in the territory.
Management of the territory includes protection. If someone seeks to damage or destroy this homeland or the life within it then there are people who have the responsibility of physically protecting it. These are the warriors.
The Coast Salish word for warrior is Stomiish and it means “those who protect the territory and defend the family names, with honour and discipline.” Warriors were defenders of the life of this land. Warriors were expected to engage in physical battle to protect the land to which and the people to whom they had a sacred responsibility. They were spiritually prepared and physically trained from a young age to fulfill this role. This particular role and way of protecting was seen as a source of honour.
To understand warriors you have to understand honour and justice. In the warrior societies that I work with, honour is defined as “The moral strength to do what is just.” “Just” is defined as “morally right” and morality is rooted in belief systems. Indigenous belief systems are founded on the principle that nature is sacred. When nature is in balance and harmony it is at its best to create and sustain life. When nature is in balance and harmony all life will exist in abundance. The conditions that create this state of natural balance and harmony are the result of proper relationships amongst all living things. It is this state of natural balance and harmony that we are supposed to hand over to the next generations. Our system of morality is founded upon the relationships that exist in this state of natural balance and harmony.
The dynamics in the relationship are observable. They can be witnessed, understood, practiced, and taught in human existence. In Indigenous culture, these observations translate into beliefs, customs, ceremonies, rituals, norms, and protocol; their culmination is what we call natural law. Natural law is passed down in our teachings, stories, songs, dances, expected behaviours, and social rituals.
Warriors not only follow natural law. Warriors are the protectors and enforcers of natural law. This gives warriors the additional responsibilities of natural justice. Warriors are assigned an ancient sacred purpose with deep meaning, secret ceremonies, secret teachings, and trainings. This necessary secrecy lends to the current misunderstandings of what warriors are; however, understanding the warrior is really about knowing how our relationship to the land generates a sacred responsibility and how this responsibility is linked to honour and justice.