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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Indigenous Mindfulness: An Extremely Brief Introduction

Image courtesy of njaj at

by Catharine Hannay

It was quite eye-opening looking through stock photo sites for something to illustrate this post on indigenous mindfulness. 

I expected it to be a challenge. No photo can truly represent an abstract concept like mindfulness. And no single image can truly represent the multitude of indigenous cultures around the world.

What I didn't expect was the number of stereotypical, inaccurate, or downright offensive images. The oddest was a photo described as a "beautiful Indian chief" which actually showed a young white woman wearing, I kid you not, a feathered headdress and a miniskirt. 

I decided to go with the above photo of a weaver in Peru for reasons both literal and metaphorical. Can you imagine what would happen if a weaver weren't paying attention to the overall pattern and to the precise movements needed at any given moment? And it's fascinating to see the ways indigenous people weave together mindfulness practice with their own spiritual traditions. 

For example, Gary Hutton, an Indigenous Mindfulness Program Project Coordinator in Vancouver, is of Nehiyaw (Cree) descent.
"I encountered mindfulness practice when I became friends with a young man studying to become a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition. We had a kind of exchange of worldviews and cultural practices; my learning meditation and Buddhist philosophy, and his coming to sweat lodges and spending time learning from my Elder.  
My life since that point has involved weaving these two things together into an upward spiral of growth, like the two wings of a bird carrying me to greater heights than each could alone." 

Mr. Hutton is quick to point out that mindfulness can be practiced without a Buddhist perspective: "Mindfulness has long been integral to the Indigenous worldview, as well as our traditional cultural and spiritual practices." (A Mutual Exchange Of Teaching: Indigenous Mindfulness Program)

Unfortunately, as Dr. Michael Yellow Bird explains at

"During different periods of European and American colonization many of the sacred and secular practices were deliberately destroyed, leaving many communities without the cultural approaches they had used for millennia to heal and restore well being." 

This has been changing in recent years, and there are myriad ways that indigenous people engage with mindfulness and other contemplative practices. In this post, I'd like to share a brief sampling of the many possible approaches. The details can be quite different in different cultures, but the general themes are the same: meditation, mindful movement, social-emotional learning, and an integrated approach to wellness.

First of All, Who Are Indigenous People?

Here's a very brief overview of the multitude of indigenous cultures throughout the world:
  • may be called Tribal Peoples, First Peoples, Native Peoples, or Indigenous Peoples
  • more than 4,000 + unique languages
  • around 477 million people  belonging to 5,000 different groups in 90 countries worldwide: 
    •  70% in Asia and the Pacific
    • 16.3% in Africa, 
    • 11.5% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 
    • 1.6% in Northern America, and 
    • 0.1% in Europe and Central Asia 
  • Examples of Indigenous Peoples include: 
    • the Inuit of the Arctic,
    • the White Mountain Apache of Arizona, 
    • the Yanomami and the Tupi People of the Amazon, 
    • traditional pastoralists like the Maasai in East Africa, and 
    • tribal peoples like the Bontoc people of the mountainous region of the Philippines. 

Indigenous Approaches to Meditation

Medicine Wheel Meditation

2-minute video

explanation of mindful breathing

The Medicine Wheel is a traditional symbol of "health, healing and balance" used by indigenous groups in North America. It can have different forms or colors, but the general idea is the same:

 "The wheel represents a series of interconnected relationships. It is in these relationships that we find our place in the world and acceptance from within. When one is balanced and follows the teachings of the Medicine Wheel, it is easier to live harmoniously with “all our relations.”" 

(source: Empowering the Spirit)

50-minute video; 
the practices begin around 21:30

Brenda Salgado has received training from indigenous elders in traditional medicine and healing ceremony in the Purepecha, Xochimilco, Toltec and other indigenous lineages. In the above video, she shares her approach to some of the Toltec teachings. 

Mindful Movement with the Breath

Hikitia te Hā is a breathing exercise based on te ao Māori  (the Maori world view). You can see more explanation at

The following videos from All Right? show a few different approaches to Hikitia te Hā breathing: 

Hikitia Te Hā

5-minute video 

Taiaha (Maori staff) version 

5-minute video

Yoga Version
4-minute video

Tai Chi Version

4-minute video

Wellness in Schools

Here are a couple of examples of how indigenous teachings can be respectfully integrated with school programs in mindfulness and social-emotional learning.

Mindfulness Education Group in New Zealand shares A Maori Perspective:

"For Māori, mindfulness practices for healing and wellbeing enhance the connection to Te Ao Wairua (the spiritual world) and Te Ao Turoa (the natural world). [...] Maori cultural practices that support mindfulness include manaakitanga (respect, generosity and care for others); aroha (love, compassion and deep affection); kaitiakitanga (look after, care for and protect) and karakia (recite blessings, forgiveness and compassion.)"

Empowering the Spirit has lesson plans on "The Seven Sacred Teachings" of some of the First Nations in Canada:

"To cherish knowledge is to know WISDOM;
To know LOVE is to know peace;
To honor all of the Creation is to have RESPECT;
BRAVERY is to face the foe with integrity;
HONESTY also means “righteousness”, be honest first with yourself – in word and action;
HUMILITY is to know yourself as a sacred part of the Creation,
TRUTH is to know all of these things."

(See Seven Grandfathers Teachings for more background and the lesson plans.)

Indigenous Music

3-minute video 

In the video above, Karin and Kathy Kettler explain and perform a culturally-unique practice that has been handed down through generations of Inuit women. It requires full attention to one's own breath and to the sounds and rhythms performed by another woman.

8-minute video 

Eli Patterson explains how playing the didgeridoo can be a powerful mindfulness practice: mental focus, as well as  focusing on the breath and physical sensations.

The videos below give a couple examples of the sounds of the didgeridoo.

Lewis Burns 

traditional Didgeridoo Rhythms

3-minute video 

contemporary approach to Didgeridoo

For anyone interested in contemporary indigenous music: I've included a few songs in the Playlist on Identity, Diversity, and Empathy.

Interconnection of All Life

A few years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Maggie Dunne, the founder of Lakota Children's Enrichment. She explained how the idea of mindful awareness fits in with traditional Lakota teachings: 

"The Lakota prayer, Mitakuye Oyasin (All My Relations or We Are All Related) is a reflection of a traditional holistic approach to life.  From your neighbor to Unki Maka (Grandmother Earth), we are all related and we all have an obligation to help each other and treat each other with respect."

(See: Mindful Teaching of Native American History and Life)

This holistic approach is common among indigenous cultures, and includes paying attention to the natural world and not wasting resources.

In his poem 'Empty Kettle,' Creek poet Louis Little Coon Oliver says: 

"I do not waste what is wild
I only take what my cup
can hold"

(quoted in Native American Literature: A Very Short Introduction)

In "A Blessing," Luci Tapahonso, the inaugural poet laureate of the Navajo Nation, reminds graduates and their families:

"We gather in gratitude for all aspects of sacredness: the air, the warmth of fire, bodies of water, plants, the land, and all animals and humankind. [...] May we remember that holiness exists in the ordinary elements of our lives. [...] May we always recognize the multitude of gifts that surround us."

Cecilia Rose LaPointe (Ojibway/Métis) describes what it feels like to be the only Native student in the school cafeteria:

"I pay close attention to the birds outside. No one else is paying attention to them. That is how city folk are. They are moving and going and walking and talking nonstop. So I tune out the loud conversations, laughter and gossip and listen to the birds."

("I Am the Only American Indian" in #Not Your Princess: Voice of Native American Women (p. 77)

The Hawaiian word Aloha encompasses concepts related to mindfulness, compassion, and interconnection. 

"To a tourist, Aloha is a salutation. It is used to say both hello and good-bye, but the actual spirit of Aloha goes well beyond anything you’ll find in a dictionary. In its simplest form, Aloha is love. It is energy, a life force and an entrance in to the collective whole. Here in Hawaii, we take the Aloha spirit VERY seriously.

As any native Hawaiian will tell you, we don’t just say Aloha; we live it, breathe it, and we treat our visitors to true Aloha spirit every chance we get. Translated, Aloha means “Presence of Breath” or Breath of Life”. The ancient Hawaiians likened the ability to truly live the spirit of aloha with attaining spiritual enlightenment.
It is an interconnectedness that binds together the love that we have for one and other, our respect for the earth and all of its inhabitants, with our daily expression of gratitude,   compassion and humility. Here in Hawaii, we strive to live in unity with our neighbours and our environment."

(source: Hawaiian Hideaways. I almost didn't include this because it's from a luxury travel site, but the explanation is obviously from someone sincerely engaged in traditional Hawaiian culture.) 

Gary Hutton sums up the indigenous approach to mindfulness: 

"Moving through the world with the perspective that everything in nature is your relation, as well as sacred and imbued with spirit, requires a deep inner stillness and a mindfulness of your outer movements and interactions in order to live up to your beliefs and values."

The Navajo Way

The following passages are from a series of novels by Anne Hillerman featuring Bernadette Manuelito and Jim Chee, a married couple who are both officers with the Navajo Police. 

You may be surprised that I'm quoting from detective novels, of all things.  But as you read through the selections, I think you'll understand why I've included them: Bernie and Jim are indigenous people who derive strength and guidance from their heritage and traditional teachings.

Connection to the Land 

"[Jim Chee] had offers to move away from Dinétah [the Navajo homeland] to places where he could earn a higher salary [...] But to live on the land between the four sacred mountains meant more to him than money.[... It was] the place the Holy People had given them. For all its challenges, this harsh, breathtaking landscape would always be his home." (Cave of Bones, p. 52) 

"The beauty of Dinétah spoke to him, the vertical red stone against the blue done of the sky lifting his spirits. Why was it, he wondered, that those polls on well-being focused on income and home ownership and never asked about the view?" (Rock with Wings, p. 275)  

Stewardship of the Earth

"One of the things that made [Bernie] proud to be Navajo was the way her creation story honored plants as well as the Insect People and the Animal People." (Cave of Bones, p. 242)

Mindful Speech

"[His sister-in-law] Darleen, always a talker, went into overdrive when she was angry or sad or discouraged. Most Navajo people he knew believed that words should be used sparingly and selected them with care to say only what was meant in the clearest way possible. Despite Mama's best teaching, Darleen subscribed to the more-is-better approach. Chee steadied himself for an evening of serious listening." (Cave of Bones, p. 60)

"Bernie considered words precious, not to be used in excess. [...] She wasn't good at small talk, but she had learned something about it, dealing with so many white people." (Song of the Lion, p. 229)

"[Bernie] knew that words had consequences; that was why the Holy People had taught the Navajo to use them wisely and with restraint. Talking about the negative, as she had [just] done, brought it into the forefront, like inviting evil into the hogan [sacred home], into your living room. She was only talking, not thinking. Talking too much, a little too proud, a little too full of herself. All behaviors the Holy People warned against." (Cave of Bones, p. 206)


"A new car, or at least a different car with lower mileage and a working air conditioner, topped [Bernie's] wish list. But something always happened to divert whatever savings she managed to put away. When it came to a choice between replacing her car or helping relatives, there was no choice. And if she or Mama or Darleen needed a hand, her extended family came through for them. That was the Navajo Way."  (Song of the Lion, p. 22)

Restorative Justice

"One of the basic principles of the Navajo Way was to treat your fellow creatures with respect, and he knew that the world would certainly move more smoothly if everyone followed that. [...] 
Peacemaking [at the Navajo Justice Center] was a concept society could use more of. Chee knew that the program grew from the belief that families and friends were responsible for one another. 
If a person abused his wife, stole from a neighbor, or otherwise failed to follow the Navajo Way, his inner circle called him on it, challenged him to do better, and gave him a way to make amends and get back into harmony that did not involve jail time. " (Song of the Lion, p. 41; p. 72)


"The Navajo language was interesting[...] there was no simple way to say 'Sorry.' Perhaps the ancestors realized that each offense left different damages, and each required a complicated making amends. A trite phrase didn't cut it." (Rock with Wings, p. 104)



I'd like to end on a personal note: As an American of European descent, it's been fascinating to read the Chee & Manuelito series and other stories presented from indigenous points of view. As in, 'we' are Navajo, and 'they' are Bilagaana (white people).

I do have one indigenous ancestor, an unnamed 'Indian woman' on the family tree, married to a man of French origin. This doesn't give me any claim to indigenous identity; my heritage is Scottish, English, and German.

I'm also a Mayflower descendent, which means my English ancestors wouldn't have survived if it weren't for the generosity of the Wampanoag Nation. (The Wampanoag helped a group of immigrants of a different ethnicity and culture who made a dangerous voyage seeking religious freedom.) 

I think it's important for all of us to consider our origins and how that our approach to mindfulness and compassion, as well as the ways we perceive, and are perceived by, members of other groups. It's also essential to treat the sacred practices of all traditions with respect and not make assumptions that our own practices are necessarily what's most helpful to everyone.

This post is part of a series about Religious and Spiritual Perspectives on Mindfulness. I'm not trying to convince anyone that they should or shouldn't participate any particular type of meditation or contemplative practice. I'm just trying to share accurate information about the wide range of approaches and perspectives.

There are hundreds more posts here at Mindful Teachers about practicing and teaching mindfulness, including:

About the Author

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance. (Sales of the book help me continue to run with no sponsorship or advertising.)