According to the United Nations, there are currently more than 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries worldwide. In total, they belong to some 5,000 different indigenous groups and speak more than 4,000 languages. Many of these groups have distinct social, economic, and political systems, as well as distinct culture and beliefs. Sadly, they are often marginalized or directly threatened by more dominant powers in society — despite having been the original inhabitants of the land they occupy.
Indigenous peoples often have a strong attachment, understanding, and respect for their native lands, be it the great plains of the United States, the Canadian prairies, or the Amazon rainforest. This connection is frequently apparent in the wise words of indigenous leaders both past and present. Today, with many indigenous communities on the frontlines of the battle to protect our natural world, this wisdom is perhaps more important than ever.
The following quotes span the centuries and the globe, from the words of famous Native American chiefs to the current leaders of indigenous peoples still struggling to protect their lands, their heritage, and the planet.
Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.
— Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee, who tried to unite several Native American tribes before his death in the War of 1812.
This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
— Chief Seattle of the Duwamish and Suquamish, after whom the city of Seattle is named.
When a tree grows be it ever so strong and large; it rots away gradually and down it goes at last, but through time another young tree shoots forth from there, and as it grows, it gathers beauty and strength.
— Chief Peguis of the Saulteaux, Canada. Peguis initially helped European settlers, saving some from starvation, but became increasingly concerned about illegal settlement on tribal lands.
The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect all rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases.
— Chief Joseph of the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of Nez Perce, who led his people through a tumultuous period of forced removal from their ancestral lands by the United States federal government.
The American Indian is of the soil, whether it be the region of forests, plains, pueblos, or mesas. He fits into the landscape, for the hand that fashioned the continent also fashioned the man for his surroundings. He once grew as naturally as the wild sunflowers, he belongs just as the buffalo belonged.
— Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux was an author, philosopher, and actor who fought to preserve his heritage.
Love is something you and I must have. We must have it because our spirit feeds upon it. We must have it because without it we become weak and faint. Without love our self-esteem weakens. Without it our courage fails. Without love we can no longer look out confidently at the world.
— Chief Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation of Canada was an actor, musician, poet, and author.
Even though you and I are in different boats, you in your boat and we in our canoe, we share the same River of Life. What befalls me, befalls you.
— Oren Lyons, Onandaga Nation Chief and member of the Indigenous Peoples of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations.
Cows run away from the storm while the buffalo charges toward it — and gets through it quicker. Whenever I’m confronted with a tough challenge, I do not prolong the torment, I become the buffalo.
— Wilma Mankiller was an American Cherokee activist and social worker who became the first woman elected as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
It is the early morning in the Amazon, just before first light: a time that is meant for us to share our dreams, our most potent thoughts. And so I say to all of you: the Earth does not expect you to save her, she expects you to respect her. And we, as Indigenous peoples, expect the same.
— Nemonte Nenquimo, Waorani leader of the Ecuadorian Amazon. In 2020, she was the only indigenous woman on the Time 100 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
The struggle, like life itself, should be joyful.
— Miriam Miranda, of the Garífuna community of Honduras, bravely continues her fight for human and environmental rights despite facing numerous hardships.
Stand up for what you believe. Just having that strong determination can make other people join you in your struggle.
— Silvia Carrera is the cacique general of the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca indigenous territory of western Panama, known for her ongoing battle against mineral mining.
We get a lot of strength from many principles including reciprocity (you are me and I am you) and that gives us strength as women and this connection with life and the web we have among each other.
— Aura Lolita Chávez, a women’s rights activist and member of the Council of K’iche Peoples in Guatemala, is a prominent global leader in the struggle to preserve natural resources.