American Indian Ethics image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Showing respect is a basic law of life, says a Native American traditional code of ethics.

This might sound soothing to Americans watching the hyper-polarization and mean-spirited castigations rampaging across the nation these days over politics, abortion, war and inflation.

American Indians, also known as the First Americans, are among those who can lay claim to a history of terrible suffering and carnage. If suffering brings wisdom, American Indians can lay claim to that, too.

It shows in the Native American Indian Traditional Code of Ethics. The original version was printed in 1982 in the book, “The Sacred Tree,” by the Four Worlds Development Project, dedicated to eliminating alcohol and drug abuse by Canadian natives. It can be found at The “Inter-Tribal Times” adapted and reprinted the original version in 1994.

I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this code as being traditional, since native Americans in the United States alone consist of 574 federally recognized tribes, about half of which are associated with 326 Indian reservations. They have inhabited the United States at least 15,000 years. Their tribal customs and beliefs differ.

But the code’s sentiments seem worthy of consideration, offering a peaceful perspective. This is a shortened version of that code, presented as it appears on the website where it is found:

Each morning upon rising, and each evening before sleeping, give thanks for the life within you and for all life, for the good things the Creator has given you and for the opportunity to grow a little more each day…Seek for the things that will benefit others (everyone).

Respect means “to feel or show honor or esteem for someone or something; to consider the well being of, or to treat someone or something with deference or courtesy.” Showing respect is a basic law of life.

  1. Treat every person from the tiniest child to the oldest elder with respect at all times.
  2. Special respect should be given to elders, parents, teachers and community leaders.
  3. No person should be made to feel “put down” by you; avoid hurting other hearts as you would avoid a deadly poison.
  4. Touch nothing that belongs to someone else (especially sacred objects) without permission, or an understanding between you.
  5. Respect the privacy of every person, never intrude on a person’s quiet moment or personal space.
  6. Never walk between people that are conversing.
  7. Never interrupt people who are conversing.
  8. Speak in a soft voice, especially when you are in the presence of elders, strangers or others to whom special respect is due.
  9. Do not speak unless invited to do so at gatherings where elders are present (except to ask what is expected of you, should you be in doubt.)
  10. Never speak about others in a negative way, whether they are present or not.
  11. Treat the earth and all of her aspects as your mother. Show deep respect for the mineral world, the plant world and the animal world. Do nothing to pollute our mother. Rise up with wisdom to defend her.
  12. Show deep respect for the beliefs and religion of others.
  13. Listen with courtesy to what others say, even if you feel that what they are saying is worthless. Listen with your heart.
  14. Respect the wisdom of the people in council. Once you give an idea to a council meeting it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the people. Respect demands that you listen intently to the ideas of others in council and that you do not insist that your idea prevails. Indeed you should freely support the ideas of others if they are true and good, even if those ideas are quite different from the ones you have contributed. The clash of ideas brings forth the spark of truth.

Once a council has decided something in unity, respect demands that no one speak secretly against what has been decided. If the council has made an error, that error will become apparent to everyone in its own time.

Be truthful at all times, and under all conditions.

Always treat your guests with honor and consideration. Give of your best food, your best blankets, the best part of your house and your best service to your guests.

The hurt of one is the hurt of all, the honor of one is the honor of all.

Receive strangers and outsiders with a loving heart and as members of the human family.

All the races and tribes in the world are like the different colored flowers of one meadow. All are beautiful. As children of the Creator they must all be respected.

To serve others, to be of some use to family, community, nation and the world is one of the main purposes for which human beings have been created… True happiness comes only to those who dedicate their lives to the service of others.

Observe moderation and balance in all things.

Know those things that lead to your well-being, and those things that lead to your destruction.

Listen to and follow the guidance given to your heart. Expect guidance to come in many forms, in prayer, in dreams, in times of quiet solitude and in the words and deeds of wise elders and friends.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or


About cbukro

Casey Bukro was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for outstanding contributions to Chicago journalism, after a 45 year career with the Chicago Tribune. Bukro retired from the Tribune in 2007 as overnight editor. He had pioneered in environmental reporting and in 1970 became the first full-time environment specialist at a major metropolitan newspaper in the United States and covered major developments on that beat for 30 years. He won the newspaper’s highest editorial award in 1967 for a series on Great Lakes pollution. The Society of Professional Journalists awarded Bukro its highest honor, the Wells Key, in 1983 for writing that organization’s first code of ethics. He is a past president of SPJ’s national ethics committee and a past president of the Chicago Headline Club. Bukro graduated with bachelor and master degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In 1998, he received the Northwestern University Alumni Association’s alumni service award for 17 years of volunteer service to the university. He has lectured in environmental journalism and journalism ethics at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, Columbia College, Columbia University and others. Before joining the Tribune staff, Bukro worked at the former City News Bureau of Chicago and the Janesville Gazette, Janesville, Wis.

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