Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

Vietnam, No Reservation Needed

January 2, 2012

Story By Avery Old Coyote

Something about the pagoda made me feel incredibly comfortable.  Usually when I visit religious places back home, the formality and seriousness of the site makes me feel on edge.  In retrospect, I do not know if it was the pungent but pleasant smell of the blossoming flowers on the trees, the soothing music or the fact that I had to remove my shoes to enter the place of worship, but I felt at home.

As I walked from alter to alter I couldn’t help but notice the hundreds of burning sticks of incense sending smoke billowing up into the sky.  Suddenly, I had an epiphany.  Within my Crow and Salish heritage we, as Native Americans, pray with smudge, a type of incense, if you will.  Usually when we smudge, we burn cedar, sage, sweet grass or tobacco.  With great reverence for the sacrifice of the plant, we send our thoughts and prayers up to the heavens with the smoke of the burning plant.  It is with this same principle in mind that Buddhists in Vietnam burn incense.  It is for this practice, among others, that I believe Native American traditional ways exist in parallel to Vietnamese cultural practices, particularly through Buddhism.


The original Buddhism, Theravada, was introduced to Vietnam by Indians.  Not the Indians Columbus “discovered” but the Indians that inhabited the region he intended to sail to.  Although, he might be comforted to discover we share many similarities through culture. The views instilled by Buddhism in India and carried on to Vietnam are rooted in environmental respect and honoring nature.  A traditional Vietnamese person will move a piece of furniture always by picking it up and carrying it, never by sliding it noisily across the floor.  Even nonliving things are shown respect by the Vietnamese passed on in standards taught through Theravada Buddhism.

Being here in Vietnam has helped me consider my own roots.  Having no historical written language, we pass on our Native American cultural norms and lessons of morality through stories.  It is the lessons from this diverse oral tradition which taught young people in our Native American cultures how to live with nature as fellow citizens, humble and open to the natural wisdom of the land.  In several of Montana’s tribe’s oral histories, there are elements of the natural world that take on roles equal to those of human characters.  The sun, moon, and animals often speak and interact with humans in the stories through various types of relationships.  This connection says a lot about the relationship between us tribal people and the natural world and the way we indigenous people viewed our environment.  Similar to Buddhist beliefs, giving inanimate objects humanistic qualities shows a mutual respect.  Though we cannot survive without the natural world, nature will most certainly survive without us.  Nonetheless, symbiotic relationships in the oral traditions are important and show that one cannot exist without the other and exemplifies the respect we had for our environment.

Elders often talk of the 7th generation. The idea of seven generation sustainability is an ecological concept that urges the current generation to live sustainably and work for the benefit of children seven generations into the future.  This ideology is echoed in actions of Buddhist monks who ask for food similar to the way bees take honey from flowers without harming them.

Unfortunately, Vietnamese culture and Native American culture also share another trend of environmental respect, or lack thereof. The process of economic development by sovereign nations inside the United States and overseas in Vietnam threaten to destroy the environment.  The most obvious sign of this, apparent in both places, is the heaps of trash polluting the waterways and townships. Luckily, these two cultures provide good lessons for human beings on their ways of retracing their steps back to nature, but only through continual immersion of culture to the younger generation is this task possible.  However, both nations are experiencing a significant problem of culture shifts in the wrong direction toward western civilization.  I will be watching for ways to repair my culture while in Vietnam.  If I can reciprocate, that alone will have been worth the trip.

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