Once, on a plane, a woman sitting beside me related how she lived on a farm in Wisconsin. Every morning, the sheep would come up to the porch to be petted as she and her husband sat in their rockers watching the sun rise. The couple kept a small flock of a dozen sheep as pets. They spoiled them, as she called it — shampooing them, brushing them, and keeping them as bug-free as possible. The sheep had names and were very affectionate.

The Wisconsin couple kept cows for milk, cheese and beef. The cows were shampooed and rinsed, brushed, and massaged. She said the loving care and treatment of them made the meat taste delicious when slaughtering time came. The humans felt sad but not regretful, resting in the awareness that all their animals had led comfortable and spacious lives full of love and affection. Her story left me with some hope that eating meat might not necessarily be irredeemably morally reprehensible.

A respectful attitude toward animals also inures in the case of traditional tribal people. They regarded the creatures who sustained human life with gratitude and respect. Men would pray before a hunt. They tracked, enjoying the beauty of nature. Tall prairie grasses swayed amid gentle breezes. Medicine plants still grew on the plains, opening various colored blossoms to the midday sun.

The hunters tried for a clean, one-shot kill. Usually, that meant hitting directly behind the ear of the animal. The deer or antelope would then fall right over and not have to endure a lingering death. The hunter next approached the animal and lay tobacco down, praying for the spirit of the departed animal as it continued its journey. He spoke to the spirit of the animal, thanking it for giving its life. It was at once sad, poignant, spiritual and life-affirming.

Cedric explained to me how Native people allowed all creatures to fulfill their natural purpose. The people used every part of the animal, wasting nothing. Meat was jerked for the journey or else salted and stored in caches for leaner winter months. Hides covered people or lodges, keeping them warm in harsh winters.

They weren’t exclusively meat-eaters, of course. Native people fished from the rivers and streams. The Mandans had corn, beans, squash and watermelon. Everything at that time was in balance: no wonder the people were so robust and healthy back then.

This month’s topic on veganism made me take a good, hard reflective look: I realized the world of the Ancient Ones has largely vanished. On the contemporary scene, animal husbandry is notoriously cruel. We have ravaged the environment of our fellow creatures. Factory farming has taken love and freedom for critters out of the equation. We might, out of habit, pray before eating, but we fail to connect deeply with the spirit of creatures sacrificed to ensure our longevity.

We do not love and respect animals as our traditional Native brothers and sisters did. They are fodder for our appetites. We like to be far removed from their suffering and demise. We want our personal worlds clean and sanitized. Realizing the present landscape, do I still feel right being a carnivore?

Realistically, I want to live ascetically, evincing respect for all living things. I desire in my heart the comfort, safety and protection of all sentient beings. I confess, though, that I still feel judgmental about people who kill just for sport — for the sheer “joy” of taking the life of an animal, keeping only its horns or antlers as a trophy to memorialize some misguided sense of triumphant conquest and dominion.

Still, there is no place for the condemnation of others; I am only required to find congruence with my Higher Self. I have not yet embraced the vegan lifestyle choice. In the meantime, I strive to treat all beings with kindness and continue to pray for highest enlightenment.

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Janet Michele Red Feather
Janet Michele Red Feather, J.D., M.A., is a ceremonial singer who has learned over 60 traditional songs in Mandan and Lakota and sings in nine different languages. Janet was a full-time defense litigator in California for nearly eight years. Her life changed significantly after she traveled to North Dakota in 1993 to fast and pray for a way of life. A regular columnist for The Edge, she has also appeared in Psychic Guidepost, FATE Magazine and Species Link. Her book, Song of the Wind (2014, Galde Press), dealt with her experiences as an empath, and her journey through Mandan spiritual culture. She is currently a full-time, tenured English faculty member at Normandale Community College, having taught Composition and Literature for a span of 20 years.

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