I thank you. Nyawenha skannon. That’s our greeting, which means “Thank you for being well. Thank you for being here.” And your answer to that is gwusha dogas, which means “Indeed, it is true.”
Onondaga—we are an old people: Haudenosaunee, the Confederation called Iroquois by the French and Six Nations by the English. We have been sustaining ourselves all these years, and we’re actually just a tiny group of people. The population of Indians in the United States is less than 1 per cent of the total population. And yet in the decade of the 1980s 33 per cent of all cases that went through the Supreme Court were about Indians and Indian lands. Thirty-three per cent, and yet we’re only one percent. What does this say? It says there is a lot of unfinished business, which has to do with land, with land claims because of lands taken illegally, and with indigenous rights.
In referring to the centuries of European tenure in this land, some of our leaders or grandfathers would say, “The white people have been here five days now, and look at all the harm they have caused.” A day can be a day or a year or one hundred years. And when we speak of seven generations, we mean seven lifetimes. A generation for us is eighty years.
I was one of a group of Indian leaders who went to Geneva in 1977, the first time indigenous people had ever gone to the United Nations. We were people from North, Central, and South America who had never met before, yet we were able to come to an agreement, were able to choose leaders and speakers and topics all in one day. Even though it was difficult, we did it. The reason is that we had a common understanding and belief. In the 1980s we wrote a draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, which was completed in 1994. On the 27th of November we’ll be heading back to Geneva, and we’re going to have a major discussion in the halls of the United Nations on that declaration.
Each generation has its own leaders, its own heroes. Each generation has the will and the backbone to carry on, and so here we are—in a transition of generation to generation, and the best we can do is offer our children good direction, positive direction, direction that comes from experience and observation—that’s what indigenous people have. We’ve been here a long time.
An old friend of mine, Red Erwin, was a great boxing coach. I was a boxer, and he was my handler. He worked professional boxing matches. I grew up with Red. He was from downtown Syracuse, where he worked in a sporting-goods store, which he later became the owner of. Red was one of those common men with good sense; he said, “Well, yesterday’s yesterday; today’s today. Get on with it.” I think that’s where it is with us. Yesterday we can talk about and probably will, but today is today. Today is about a common alliance, today is about the will. It is the will that drives people. You need to have that kind of will, and if you do, it’s insurmountable.
The settlers underestimated the will of the native people. Little did they know that here this day in 2004 an Indian leader would be addressing people in Massachusetts. They never thought such a thing would happen. They gave us ninety-nine-year leases, thinking we would never outlive ninety-nine years. Well, here we are!
There are, I think, many things that we have in common with you. One is common sense. Common sense is really what you’re going to have to rely on. It certainly isn’t coming from leadership in contemporary times. I don’t care in what part of the world you are, there is a real crisis in leadership, more specifically in ethical leadership and responsible leadership. In this country there is probably the most devastating leadership—directed against almost all common principles of survival, common sense, and decency—that we have ever had. It’s essential to raise new and better leaders with sound judgment, with good will, and with the interests of the future at heart.
There is a time to play, a time to grow up, and a time to lead. But instead of leading, there are grown people playing with toys that cost a hundred thousand dollars. You can’t do that. You need to be responsible. You need to do what you’re supposed to do. If everybody’s playing, what does that say to the children? You can’t blame them for what’s going on today because it’s the teachers who are lacking. If the teachers aren’t teaching, then there’s nothing to learn, is there?
We have to clean house here, make our house right before we go about the world preaching democracy. Democracy should begin in Florida; democracy should begin in the great justice system of this country. That’s where democracy should begin. What happened in Florida in the 2000 presidential election really hurt everything and everybody. It symbolized what’s wrong with the system.
If we are indeed responsible for seven generations to come, then we need to act that way, but the current fixation on market-driven decisions for everything leaves no room for that. If you’re going to make your decisions on the basis of profit and loss, then the loss is certainly going to be to your grandchildren, and that’s what’s going on today: profit is being made at the expense of your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren. It’s going to be a long, hard struggle to turn the direction of this nation around. My first message to you is that if this is to come about, the leadership must be changed. And it’s up to us the people. This is a great land, but it needs and deserves better. It is your homeland. We share it with you now, and we share much else. We share the blood of humankind. There is no black or yellow or white or red; we’re one species, one family. As a leader I’m no better than you are. We’re all only common people. Like the rest of the leaders, I just happened to agree to take on the job. That’s all I did. Nothing special, nothing extra. But I did learn a great deal. I have been lucky to have all that.
We Indians have had a lot of work to do; we’ve had a thousand years of it. We know how to operate. But I would say that in the context of American Indians in North America there are only three nations left that still follow a traditional form of government: the Onondaga Nation, which is just south of Syracuse; the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, which is east of Buffalo; and the Tuskarora Nation, which is near Niagara Falls. We are the last three traditional governments still in charge of land and people. So we Onondaga still operate by the old law. There is no Bureau of Indian Affairs in our territory. We do not have any state or local police presence. It is just Onondaga.
In the whole of North America, we are the last to still have traditional standing chiefs. Not to say that the Indian nations across the country don’t have their traditional leaders. They do, but their leaders are not in charge. Instead, there’s an elected government that was imposed in 1934, and that elected government is what rules. It’s called the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I see the same thing building in Iraq: the Bureau of Iraqi Affairs, the same process exactly, taking leaders and imposing them on the people. It’s a formula that works. It works because it is backed up by force. If you have a government backed up by force, what does that say about you? What does that say about your government? You’re not free unless you’re free. You have to think about these things. You have to think about the military, about who’s in charge and who isn’t.
We have been around a long time, and we’ve had much to do with your earlier leaders and your history. You know, there was a great time in 1776 when this was a nation that was acting independent and free. The leaders were acting like Indians! We were there. If you go to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, you’ll see the green in front of it that belongs to the Onondaga Nation, to Six Nations. How often we camped on that green and talked with those leaders. Held their hands, so to speak. Talked to them about democracy. We shared our instructions with your leaders, and I think it’s time to do that again. We are willing, and I think gatherings like this are so important because you have to renew among yourselves. You have to gain your own energies back. You have to say to one another, I’m glad to see you here, I’m glad to see you’re healthy, and how’s your farm coming along? How are the plants doing? what kind of a summer did you have? You need to talk about the things that are important. We have to be friends, we have to be neighbors, and we have to be respectful of one another.
Democracy didn’t come across on the Mayflower. Indeed not. Nor with the Niña nor Santa Maria. Certainly not. Democracy was here. It was in full flower. It was rampant. It was all over. All nations were free, and that includes the buffalo nation, that includes the fish nations and the nations of trees. They were all free. That’s what was here. Not to say that people always got along. That’s why we had great councils to keep the peace. And that’s what the Haudenosauneeshone leadership is about. We are not actually chiefs. Chief is an English word. We are hoyaneh, which means the peacemakers. We keep the peace. That’s what the leadership is about. That’s our work, that’s our job. To keep the peace and promote peace. I think people wonder about Native leaders and what we do. Some of the activities we’re involved in carry us to many places in the world, and our leaders have always been on the move.
We are fortunate. A thousand years ago there came to us a spiritual entity called Great Peacemaker. He brought to us his whole concept of democracy, laid it before us. It is an epic story of how he brought the five warring nations together. (The sixth nation was added in 1713, long after the Confederation was founded.) Look at Kosovo: the intensity, the bitterness of the fighting there; look at the atrocities one human commits against another all around the world. We were in a like situation. And then the Peacemaker brought peace.
After the Peacemaker planted the great tree of peace, the great white pine, he said, this is a symbol of your confederation, of your nation—the great white pine with four roots of truth going in the four directions of the earth. Those people who have no place to go follow the root back to its source and come under the Great Peace. That’s why those roots are out there.
When the Peacemaker set us up a thousand years ago, he said to the leadership, among many other instructions, When you sit in your council for the welfare of the people, think not of yourself or of your family or of your generation. He said, Make your decision on behalf of the seventh generation coming. That was the instruction of a thousand years ago. It’s good instruction for leadership. And when the Council of Chiefs at Onondaga meets, we actually do try to see seven generations ahead. We try, and let me tell you, it’s pretty murky. I can remember a time when I thought I could see seven generations, but not now. And it keeps getting harder to see.
In 1992 the Secretary General of UNCED (the UN Conference on Environment and Development) asked me to explain to him the instructions concerning the seventh generation, which I did. When he later addressed 192 nations of the world, he closed with the Peacemaker’s statement of those instructions. As I sat there listening, I thought, there’s the root. He’s talking about the root of the great white pine. And thus the Peacemaker’s voice still resonates, and it will continue to as long as there is an Onandaga Nation. Our people say, As long as there is one to speak and one to listen, one to sing and one to dance, you will survive. We are survivors. We have no idea of giving up. We never did, never will.
They say it took the Peacemaker a hundred years to gather the five nations. On the northeast shore of Onondaga Lake he sat the leaders down, and he told us how to run a democratic government. He said the first principle will be peace; the second principle will be equity, equity for the people; and the third principle will be the power of the good minds, which is to say unity, to be united. That was our power. To illustrate the third principle, he took an arrow and said, This is a nation, and he snapped the arrow in two. Then he took five arrows, and he bound them strongly with the sinew of the deer. He said, Here is your strength, and he showed the nations the strength of unity. He said, Whatever you do, do not fall out with one another.
Then he laid down the principles of how to be representatives of our people. That’s where the leadership came from. The first thing he said was, The women—like the earth—are the substance of your nation, and therefore your nation will be matrilineal. The backbone of the nation is the mother, etenohah, the one who mothers, who is in charge. And that’s how our lineage is: we follow the mother, not the father. When a baby girl is born and presented, we say, Here we have a land owner; when a baby boy is born, we say, Here we have a lacrosse player.
The women have a great responsibility. Peacemaker said, The center of your family is the woman. And it always is. Anywhere you go, I don’t care where it is in the world, that’s a common law. No one can say not. Then he said, Your women will now choose all the leaders. The clan mother will be responsible for choosing the leaders of her clan, two of whom will be representatives who sit in council for the clan: the chief and his deputy. That’s the origin of the principle of representation in government. And he said, You’ll have two houses, one of the elder brothers and the other of the younger brothers. That is bicameral government. He also said, You shall come to consensus. We don’t vote, we come to consensus, which means everybody, or almost everybody, must agree. That’s pretty hard.
Over a period of time we have come to understand that it is rare to have consensus. Somebody is going to stand separately over there, no matter what. The idea is that this person not sway the rest in what they want to do. In our process of trying to reach consensus, when we have problems in the council over a very difficult issue, we ask the person who raised an objection to present his argument. We give the person three opportunities to bolster his position in the council on that particular issue, and if he cannot convince us to change our minds, then the council will override his objection. We don’t allow obstinacy to stop the whole thing.
When we raise leaders—and this was part of the instructions—we go through all of the laws that rule the Confederation, and there are many. Then we go through the duties of the leaders, the clan mothers, the faith keepers, the hoyaneh. Finally and most important, we go through the duties of the people, and there are many. In fact, the people have most of the duties. It’s the job of leaders to guide, to guide the people as they go along, to keep them from going the wrong way, but it’s the people who do things. It’s the common person, hodisskenhgidenh. We don’t have—and don’t need—a word for lawyer; that comes from Europe. We have hodisskenhgidenh. And what does that mean? It means those who carry the bones of the ancestors on their back.
The Peacemaker said to build our nation on peace, equity, unity, and health. I began this talk by saying Nyawenha skannon as a greeting. Thank you for being well. Skannon. Skannon means peace as well. Health and peace, the same word. The Peacemaker was very fundamental. He said, You can’t have peace without health, you can’t have justice without equity, you can’t have continuity without unity. And there has to be reverence and respect. Those are words that we have to bring back again. He gave us very sound principles to build a nation on.
I’m an unlettered person, When I quit school in the seventh grade, the truant officer chased me around till he caught me. I was a truant, that’s what he told me. I said no, I’m an Onondaga. He said, you’re a truant. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was just a kid who understood I was being pressured by people in the school who didn’t like me, and I didn’t like them, so I would stash my shotgun and my fish pole, and I’d walk away from school after the bus let me out. I did learn enough to be able to write a note with my mother’s signature. I remember standing there as a kid, maybe thirteen years old, and I remember the truant officer. I still see his face clearly. That man inspired me. He said, Look at you, you dumb Indian. He said, you can’t even talk, you can’t even tell me why you’re standing here. You’re so stupid. And he put me in jail.
I didn’t go back to school. I was learning another way: I was going out with my shotgun and my fish pole. I had to learn because we hunt and we fish for survival. At fourteen I was feeding my family, thanks to that shotgun. It was 1944, and you couldn’t buy a box of shotgun shells. Everything had gone to the war. So I had to bargain with my good friend Red, who worked at the sporting goods store. He always had a few bullets here and a few shells there, and I would always be able to get some. When I went out with three shells, I had better come back with three somethings. And I did. I was a very good hunter. I rarely ever missed–I couldn’t afford to. I was feeding a family. Eight brothers and sisters. I remember them, faces looking out the window, waiting for me to come back. I always took the whole day unless my shells ran out early. They were waiting to see what I would be bringing back. Two rabbits and a pheasant, three pheasants, three rabbits, two squirrels and a rabbit. Maybe a coon, and with great luck, a deer.
In those days, in 1944, there were not many deer. They were almost all gone. They’d been hunted almost to extinction by 1900, just like the buffalos, just like the Indians. In the year 1900, a hundred and four years ago, there were fewer than 250,000 Indians, down from somewhere around fifteen million. How many deer were left? Practically none. How many buffalos were left? I think thirty-seven in the Bronx zoo. Seventy million buffalos killed, billions of passenger pigeons gone forever. Only a small number of Indians left. Who’s responsible?
The passenger pigeons aren’t going to come back. And there are many more species we’re going to lose because we’re destroying them. The cod have been depleted. Cod fishing is a fraction of what it was. You know, the first recorded cods that were caught weighed four hundred pounds apiece. Four-hundred-pound cods. What do we get today? Bottom fish. Fishermen are catching them right where they spawn. You can’t do that and have a future. Fish in the world are disappearing fast. Herring is just about gone. You’re eating roughy, fish that you called trash fish twenty years ago. Your children and your grandchildren aren’t going to see fish. There will only be pictures of them. Future generations won’t know how good a fresh fish tastes. They won’t know—unless we do something about it. There is species extinction, but there is also the threat of extinction that can be reversed. The Indians were down to almost zero, and then we came back up again. We haven’t given up yet. We’re still here. Things can be brought back.
Chief Seattle in Washington state said, Brothers, one day you are going to suffocate in your own waste. He was a great visionary leader. He spoke of the web of life. He said everything is connected—which it is. You cannot destroy one thing and expect nothing else to happen. We’re in that position now, with too many people, six billion people and probably two billion more within the next ten years. We’re having trouble feeding people now, but really, the trouble is not that there isn’t enough food. It is a lack of equity. Some people have too much while at the same time there are people in the world who have nothing to eat but grass and bark. That’s not fair. This country consumes 25 per cent of all the natural resources of the world, yet it has only 5 per cent of the population of the world. And it’s telling the rest of the world to aspire to be like us.
In 1992 the elder President Bush went to the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. Everybody was waiting to hear what he would say. He gave a five-minute speech, and do you know what he said? His opening statement was, The standard of living of the United States is not up for discussion here. That was his statement. And four minutes later he sat down. He didn’t have much to say to the world. And yet in a way he said a lot. He said, We’re going do what we’re going to do. Are we? I think it’s up to you. This still is a free country, but it won’t be for long. The leaders are giving it away, and we Indians can tell you that because we’ve seen it happen again and again.
We have to do something. We have to do it collectively, and we have to do it for the right purpose, which is the welfare of the generations coming. We’re here only a short time, so while we’re here, it’s incumbent on us to see that the next generations are cared for.
I’ve been studying a great deal. I’ve been working in Sweden the past seven years, making a regular track going back and forth. I talk with the Sami people there. I have good relations with almost everybody, including the king. We talk about common things. I like Sweden because the Swedes are quiet, they’re industrious, and they share—like Indians, who continue to share as a common value. This country has been trying to teach us otherwise. The Swedes also have nice farms. You look at a farm, and you see that it’s well taken care of. That shows respect for the land.
At Onondaga we have land in common. We don’t own this land. We can only take care of it. The land is held by the Nation because it belongs to the future. We cannot buy or sell it outside of the Nation. We can exchange it inside, but we have only the use of it. We can’t put up a no-trespassing sign because the land belongs to everybody. People can go across our land; they can pick berries there, pick nuts there, get water there—because it belongs to everybody. The woods are also common to all of us. We protect the woods as our great resource, full of life.
We have the Great Law of Peace. When the Peacemaker gathered us together, he said: Now you have a confederation of the five original nations. Now you are one. You will share one dish, one spoon. — That’s good instruction. Remember that. It means you’re responsible for your brother, you’re responsible for your whole family, you’re responsible for your neighbor, you’re responsible to the animals, who depend on you. Animals live in a state of grace; they do no wrong. They do only what they’re supposed to do. They try, they persevere. In New York City I saw geese going overhead, flying the same path they flew a thousand years ago. They have to fly higher, but they’re still going over. Hawks go right by, the same way. Fish travel in the same waters. They’re still doing what they can, the best they can, despite the bad air and the bad water around them. That’s what we did to them. Now we have to do better. However, being survivors and who we are, we may be the last to go. Then we’ll be lonesome without them.
John Mohawk, whom I consider to be the resident intellect of the Iroquois, says, You know, human beings are still a biological experiment; in the context of time, we haven’t been here very long, and we may not be here much longer. I remember that as a child it used to frighten me to think of the end of the world. My brother Lee, my next younger brother, used to say, Sonny (that was my nickname), the world’s coming to an end! I would go into a fit. Ohhhhhh! Lee would laugh. I had no picture of what that meant, but it was something terrible. Today I don’t think that way anymore; I know better. I’ve found out that the world is not coming to an end. The world will continue.
Whatever happens to us will not have a lasting impact on the world. In time, the world will regenerate. It will come back green, and the waters will be clean again. It’s just that there won’t be any people here. That’s all. We’re not needed. We’re parasites. We don’t help the Earth, we take. So if all the people disappear, then the Earth is going to regenerate because there’ll be peace here again.
What’s ahead for us will be misery, let me tell you, that you don’t want to see. Misery beyond misery, and it’s going to pass to your children and your grandchildren. They are going to look back and say, Grandpa, why didn’t you do this? Grandpa, why didn’t you do that? Grandma, why did you let this happen to me? — Our responsibility is to them, not to ourselves.
I said earlier that my first message to you is that the kind of leadership we have must be changed. The second message I bring you is that global warming is real. It is imminent. It is upon us. It’s a lot closer than you think, and I don’t believe we’re ready for what’s coming. We’re not instructing our people, we’re not instructing our children, we’re not preparing for what is coming. And it surely is coming. We’ve pulled the trigger, and there is nothing we can do now to stop it. The event is underway.
What I say to you today is that the ice is melting in the north as we speak, trees are tipping, the roads are buckling, buildings are falling in. From what? From the permafrost melting. Perma. Permanent frost. No, not so permanent. It’s melting right now. Four million acres of spruce killed two years ago by beetles. This was caused by global warming, which allowed two cycles of beetles instead of one. The second cycle killed the trees. You can’t negotiate with a beetle. You are now dealing with natural law. And if you don’t understand natural law, you will soon.
The founding fathers of this country—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin—all talked about natural law. It was common-day usage for them. It was part of their vernacular to talk about natural law, and they knew what they were talking about–because they learned from us! Natural law prevails. Either abide by it or suffer the consequences. I haven’t heard any reference to natural law coming from an administration in a long time. That’s how far we’re drifting from reality. We’re drifting, and it’s costly. We have to get back on course. The chiefs, and I personally, feel that we have not passed the point of no return. Not yet, but we’re approaching it. And the day when we do pass that point, there will be no boom, no sonic sound. It will be just like any other day.
One of the many prophesies we were told was that there are two things to watch for that will tell you when the earth is degrading. Watch for the acceleration of the winds. The second is to watch how people treat their children. When people mistreat their children, that means a degradation of the earth is taking place. And when children are fighting in wars, that’s an unacceptable abuse. There are two million children on the streets in San Paolo, thirty-five thousand children on the streets in Bogotá, forty-six thousand in New York. That’s a sign that society is degrading and not taking responsibility. Well, we can change that, can’t we?
When I was in Sweden in 2001 I heard a very simple television announcement that was made by the University of Bergen in Norway. It said that the University is monitoring the currents of the waters, and the Gulf Stream is slowing down; if it continues to slow down at its present rate, it could conceivably stop altogether within fifteen years.
In 2000, as our elders were meeting in Chippewa country in Michigan, along comes an elder walking down the path. It was early August, and clearly this was an Eskimo man. He had no shirt on, but he was wearing his leathers; he had his sealskins on, and he was carrying a large flat drum. Stocky and with a beard, he looked to be in his mid-fifties. We sent a runner out to see who he was and what he wanted. He said he wanted to address the elders, he had a message. So of course we brought him in. He was from Greenland, and he said, “The ice is melting in the north. The ice is melting in my country.” He began to tell us his story: fifteen years ago there was no melting in the area where he lived, except that people noticed for the first time in anybody’s memory a trickle of water coming down a glacier.
Four days ago when he left his country, there was a torrent, a river pouring out into the Atlantic Ocean. He said, We’ve lost several thousand feet of our glacier already, and it’s disrupted everything. It’s disrupted the hunting and the fishing. He said the bears are starving, the great white bears are starving, and there’s nothing we can do to help them. Our hunters can’t travel out on the ice any more, they’re afraid. They have to go way around, which takes more time. He said the seals have moved, they have followed the fish. The birds are not coming in at the right time either. He said, It’s a major disruption in our life and our lifestyle, and I bring this message to you elders. What can you do to help us?
It just so happened that I had received an invitation from a convocation of religious leaders from around the world who would soon be meeting at the United Nations, more than a thousand of them. Bawa Jain, the Secretary General of the event and a founder of the World Movement for Non-violence, had asked me if I could find spiritual leaders among the indigenous people to go to the convocation. How many, I asked? He asked, How many can you get? I can bring lots if you’re going to pay for it. And he said, We will. So I gathered about 65 people, from as far away as the Andes and Peru, as far away as Norway and Sweden, even Australia. We all went, and we decided that the message we were going to give was that the ice is melting, that this is indeed a spiritual event, that it is caused by human beings, and that there is a consequence to all our activities.
We prepared a statement, which I delivered at the United Nations and which had a profound effect. When it was time for me to speak, I called all of our people to appear with me. There they stood, with feathers and all. It’s powerful when you see such diversity, so many people in all their array of dress. Then I delivered the statement, which was very direct and not long. The most amazing thing happened. We were asked to do it over again at the end of the convocation. Of course we said yes. First time I ever had to do the same speech twice at the same event. What I said was that you can pontificate and you can talk, but the ice is melting as you talk, and you’re wasting time. What are you going to do about it?
Global warming is being tracked scientifically all over the world. How does our government react to it? Two or three months ago the Pentagon released a report with the title Global Warming Challenges Security. Why in the world would an administration that is ignoring global warming call attention to it? I couldn’t figure it out. After thinking it over, I realized that the answer was right there in that title. Very clever. Security is the big issue of this administration, and nothing can be allowed to interfere with security issues. Meanwhile, the winds are coming, meanwhile the fires are burning, the climate is changing–which has nothing to do with security. How do you deal with that? You would have to buy a full-page ad in The New York Times, but it’s too late; the damage is done. Attention was diverted to the issue of security, and that’s what is being talked about now instead of global warming. But reality, according to the scientists, is coming, and it’s coming very fast.
I called a scientist at Woods Hole, and I said, You’re being awfully quiet there. Whatever I hear about global warming is coming from Europe. He said, We did issue a report, but it was buried away, as usual, on a back page. But yes, global warming is coming. He told me that in 1964, before the glaciers began melting into the ocean, there was no fresh water in the Atlantic Ocean. It was all salt water. The two natural pumps off of Greenland that make the currents flow are salt water trying to freeze. I asked him to give me the science on this to help me understand what it means. He said, Well, the salt water trying to freeze gets heavy, and it sends the current down. But snow and ice are fresh water, which dilutes the salt water, making it lighter, and the descending current slows down. The more melting ice is added, the slower the current will move, and eventually it will stop. The report from Woods Hole said that this potential shutdown will eventually cause the waters of the mid-Atlantic to become warmer, and the warmer the water gets, the stronger the winds. It ‘s not going to get better, it’s going to get worse. If anybody here is in the insurance business, I recommend that you change your business. The insurance companies are worried because they have to pay the price.
I was in Norway in 1992 for an event about Columbus, and we got into a discussion about the ozone layer without coming to any conclusion. The man who was in charge, Eric Bye, who’s the head of television in Norway, said, Chief, do you want to stay till tomorrow? I just found out that the NASA plane which looks at the ozone has landed in Staranger. Do you want to go and talk to the person in charge? I said, Sure, let’s go. So we flew from Oslo to Staranger, and there was the 737 plane sitting on the tarmac. The man in charge was named Brian Toon. He told us that there are a lot of holes up there. He said they can repair themselves if we give them a chance, but it takes a long time. What I want you to remember, he said, is that from the time the exhaust leaves your car until it reaches the ozone takes twenty years. Nothing can change that. Even if we decide to cut back emissions now, it will take twenty years to make a difference.
As we were leaving, Brian said to me in an off-hand way, I’m an Indian too, you know. I said, Really? (Today you can’t tell Indians by looking at them.) Where are you from? He said, I’m Muskogee, I’m from Oklahoma. I said, Gee whiz, glad to meet you. Have any kids? He said, Yes, and I asked, What do you do to protect your kids? He said he made them wear a big hat, dark glasses, and plenty of sun block when they go outside. That’s how serious it is. That’s the best he could do, even being in charge. We’re up against big systemic changes, and they’re on the move right now.
I asked a scientist in Sweden what he thinks is going to happen. Well, he said, the earth has its own system, so it will begin its own cooling. I asked how that would take place. He said, It will just start snowing. That’s all. One day, it will start snowing and continue twenty-four hours a day for one hundred years. —Think of the disruption for us now when we have just a couple of days of snow. Twenty-four hours a day for a hundred years. That’s the reality of what is coming. Now, you can’t not tell the people. People have to know. They have to know so they can act and do something about it. Anything we do now, we do for our grandchildren. At one time I thought it was too bad that I won’t be around so that I could be of help. I don’t know about that any more.
The acceleration keeps increasing, and that’s what you’re not ready for. That’s my news. But nevertheless, do not give up. I’ve been a teacher for thirty-four years; the kids in my class are not giving up. I’m not giving up either. I’m not giving up on my children or my grandchildren. You know, when I told my grandson about this—he’s twenty-one years old—he just looked at me for a while, and he asked, Grandpa, what’s going to happen to me? That question is directed right at us as our responsibility to answer. We have to do something about it.
It energizes me to see you here. I’m glad you took the time to come. We are here today in common thought and common cause. Thanks to the Schumacher Society for providing this place to gather. You may think you’re alone, but you’re not. Most people think the way we do. They’re just afraid now. What helps them not to be afraid is when people stand up and speak out. That inspires them. Then they say, I’m not alone. This country is a leader, like it or not, for better or worse. I think the way the future is going to turn out is up to us. It’s in our hands, and I say we can do it. I say, why not? As Red said: “Yesterday’s yesterday, today’s today. Let’s get on with it.” Thank you. Nyawenha skannon.
Question & Answer Period
(Questions were inaudible; only the answers follow.)
We received our instructions at a ceremony we still celebrate today. Thanksgiving is coming up soon. We celebrate our harvest for six days. That is a wonderful time. We present newborns then. They are given their names, and they’ll hear about land and lacrosse players, about leaders and common people.
In our ceremonies we have speakers and we have listeners, we have singers and we have dancers. In our ceremonies of thanksgiving we have an enormous variety of dances and an enormous number of songs. Just to give you an idea, in one of our medicine ceremonies, which is an all-night ceremony, there are almost four hundred songs, songs that are specific to that particular ceremony. Dancing and singing are good for you. They are a way of celebration.
I’m going to confess to you that I used to be a zoot suiter at one time. But I’m also a very good dancer of my own dances. I can do almost all them. I sing a lot of songs. We wouldn’t be able to raise the new chiefs or the new leaders of our nation without song, without dance. It’s part of the work, it’s part of the process. It’s fundamental.
In Sweden, in Bavaria, in Italy, in the mountains of Switzerland, in almost all of the European villages the people, especially the old farmers, know what I’m talking about. They understand; they have the kind of memory we have. Africa is also amazing in that regard. I’ve never been to China, and I’ve never been to India, but I know people from both places, and they also have this common understanding.
Council and elders are so important. You need an elders’ council in your community—one with power, not an advisory one. You can introduce that. It’s not a new idea, it’s just that today everything is based on politics. You have to get beyond politics.
At Onondaga we of course have the process. Benjamin Franklin was taken with it. He said, Their process, as far as I can see, is going to live forever. It’s indissoluble. He said, I cannot find a seam in the way they transfer power from one generation to the next.
In your government, every four years you have some tumbling going on and then out with the old, in with the new. I’ve been to Washington, D.C., when somebody was moving into an office, and there was not one piece of paper that was transferred to that person. The one moving out took everything because the one moving in belonged to the other party. So the newcomer had to generate everything from scratch. There is no continuity. That’s because of the competition between them.
The Peacemaker set our positions up for life. Or for as long as we behave—the clan mother has the power of recall. It’s her responsibility to remove a leader who is not performing well. If the people complain about someone, then it is her job to remove that person. But she can’t just go ahead and do it; there’s a certain process for it.
I was enrolled into the Council of Chiefs at Onondaga in 1967. I’ve been sitting in that seat for thirty-seven years. I have a lot of experience, and there is no substitute for experience, but I’m getting old now. I’ve been fighting the idea, but I have to give in to it. I don’t think there’s an older chief in our council now than myself and Chief Powless. We just lost Louie Farmer, who was 92. Earlier, when I would turn around, I always had someone behind me for help. Now I look back, and no one is there. It’s just me. So I have to try to remember everything myself.
The circle is probably the commonest symbol in the world. A circle means many things, but basically it means regeneration. The law of regeneration goes around and around and around. As long as you obey the law of regeneration, life will continue as you want, but you have to get into the rhythm of that regeneration. You can’t change it. If you try to change it, you won’t succeed.
By the way, one of the things I noticed on my trips to Sweden is that people get together in circles. They meet as a common group and talk things over. You can go to almost any community and find a meeting two or three or four times in the week. I recommend doing that. Start with your friends and expand out into the community.
The other aspect of the circle is the partnership between male and female. The male is half a circle, the female is half a circle. When you put them together, you have a complete circle, and that represents partnership. Men have work to do, women have work to do. Sometimes we work both sides, sometimes we do common work, but we do have our work to do, and we work as partners. I think the partnership and the respect that goes along with it are what you really have to pay attention to.
The leaders do the decision-making, but we depend on the clan mothers a great deal, and we’re glad that they are there. I’ll tell you, when we see women come in to the council meeting and sit down in force, we listen. They don’t come unless they see that we’re drifting, and then they let us know it. The idea is for them not to need to come in!
When you’re a leader, your family suffers because you’re away. You’re gone much of the time. Somebody else will fill in, and everybody tries to help, but no one can replace a father or a mother for the child. Our idea is not to choose leaders who are raising children. We have had people who can do both, but it’s a tremendous strain on the mother, who’s trying to hold the family together, trying to hold the union together.
Leadership is a burden on the individual. One of the instructions in that regard is, serious though things are, not to take yourself too seriously, because you can do only what you can do today. Tomorrow never comes; yesterday is yesterday; today is now. No matter what you project—such as, Here comes global warming—it’s a big extra burden to carry. Why don’t you work with what you have today? That’s enough. Don’t try to carry the whole future; if you do, you’ll just burn yourself out. And if you’re worried about the past, all you can do is look back and reflect on it and take counsel from it. But today is the day that you live. There’s no guarantee that any of us are going to see the sundown today, there’s no guarantee at all. We’re told that death sits on our left shoulder all the time. Just look, he’s sitting right there, waiting patiently. So we’re also told to be ready for that every day.
Informing the people, informing the public all the time, is important. When people are satisfied with leadership, you don’t see them around. They just go on about their business and are satisfied that things are being taken care of. When you see people gathering and beginning to wonder what’s going on, then there’s something lacking, which is information. You need a process to inform the people all the time.
In our process we cannot close a door at a meeting. We have no such thing as a private meeting. Absolutely not. The chiefs cannot hold a meeting in private, there is no executive meeting. That door is always open. Anybody can come in, anybody can listen, and anybody can speak, including children. We’ve had children address our council. They know it’s their house, and they bring serious issues. There’s no lock on the long-house door. Come in and sit.
One of the things you’ll notice about Indian nations is that there are a lot of groups to a nation. The seven nations of the Lakota Sioux, for example. We have learned that the leadership has to know everybody or just about. You don’t let your nation get beyond the point where that is possible. If it does, then you break off and you begin another one, so that you have knowledge of everybody in the community. It’s not like New York City, where there are eight million people. How can you know everybody there?
We keep track of our seeds. We have organic seeds. We don’t use hybrids, as far as I know. We’re careful about that. We keep almost all seeds, especially the potato. You know, the old potato—the new potato doesn’t get big, and it won’t keep all year. The old potato will keep for two years. If you go for its appearance, then it loses its strength.
Everybody should be saving seeds. Take care of yourself. If you’re saving, then you own your seeds, then you’re secure. La Hontan, a French soldier and historian back in the seventeenth century, asked one of the Indian people from around here, What is this freedom you keep talking about? What are you talking about, free? What does it mean?—And the Indian went inside his home and came back out holding a handful of corn. He said, this is our freedom.
You have to be able to feed yourself. If you don’t, you are not free. You are dependent. And that’s exactly what today’s market is all about. It wants you to be dependent. You have to fight it. This is a big country, you’ve got enough land—enough of our land—to do something good with it. Do something positive to maintain yourself.
The famine in Ireland was for one reason only. People planted only one kind of potato. They didn’t use the different varieties that we do, so if one variety of potato fails you, there are others that won’t. When their crop failed, they had no back-up, and they starved. That’s why there are so many varieties of beans, of corn, of potatoes. It’s natural to have a blight every now and then, so you have to prepare for it.
We’re very spiritual people. Christianity was so successful among us because our people were already spiritual and imbued with the idea of ceremony. We understood. We were impressed with the missionaries because of their zeal. We thought there must be something behind it. See how fierce they are! And it convinced many of our people. We have a lot of Christians.
But organized religion is not necessarily spiritual, and I think that’s a problem you’re facing today. It’s become a business, one of the most powerful. The Roman Catholic Church has so much money. We have a lot to say about the Roman Catholic Church and what its followers did to our people. But they are not the only ones. The settlers in Plymouth said, This is our land, and if the blood gets ankle deep in order for us to prevail, so be it; the land belongs to us. —Can you call that a spiritual dimension?
In the name of religion people often use words that belie their actions. To illustrate this: Some Christians had an Indian tied to the stake in Florida, and they were getting ready to burn him because he was such a heretic. They said, You can save your soul if you will just agree to receive Christ. Even though we’re going to burn you alive, you will still be saved, and you’ll go to heaven. But they pleaded in vain; the Indian asked, Are you going to be there? Yes, they answered, we will be there. Then light the fire, said the Indian.
In 1974 a Mohawk leader came to us. He had a red book in which the Great Law was written, and he said, I’m going to tell you what the Great Law is. He was talking to the Grand Council of Chiefs, who also understand and know that law. But this one was a different version, and he read it from the book. It took about 45 minutes. Then he said, Now you should be satisfied, now you’ve heard the Great Law. After some discussion, the chiefs responded. They said, There are many written versions of the law. None of them is correct, and we will not correct any of them. The version that is spoken here in this long house is the one we believe, and it’s the only one. This is the only place you can hear it, so no, we don’t accept what’s written.
If you take a law that’s written and change it into another language, you’ve mitigated it right there, and then it comes up for interpretation, with everybody interpreting it in a different way. It’s not up to us to correct that. It’s up to us to maintain it. And we do that in the long house. Our tradition is oral.
Oral tradition is such that when you reach a certain age, you realize that you haven’t yet told your children everything. When you get to an age that is near departure, your children also realize there are things you haven’t said, and so there is an intense period when you begin to make that exchange, to make sure things are passed on that won’t be if you know there’s a book over there. You can put it in a book, and I can look at it whenever I want to, but that’s not our way. There’s a great dynamic of energy among us to keep the oral tradition alive so that we won’t lose our heritage. It’s hard today to keep our language at all, but we’re doing it.
Right now the chiefs are resting, but tomorrow we are going to be moving to the village of Newtown, to Cattraugus, the Indian reservation where the Seneca Nation’s Long House is. We are going to meet from Sunday until Thursday, and we are going to be talking about guywiio, which means the good word. That was our third instruction which we received as a Nation. We will go through the whole instruction, which tells about what’s coming to us. There is a great deal of prophesy in that one. It re-energized our Nation back in 1799 when we received it. We were told at that time that the third instruction was going to be the final message. You’re not going to get any more, the spiritual beings told us. This is it. It’s clear to us, they said, that we didn’t inform you enough about what your brother was bringing from across the water, so now this is our instruction. And they instructed us for four days on what was coming. That is what we have worked with ever since.
If you can, think back to what was happening in 1799. Those were hard times for Six Nations. We had come through a revolutionary war, big fights were going on, and we were in disarray. Our people were drinking heavily. One of the instructions given us in 1799 was, Don’t drink. And from that time on the word went out, and it had a great effect. A trader who ran a fur market in Geneseo near Rochester, a Seneca village in old days, wrote in his journal about an extraordinary event in 1802 or 1803. Here come the Indians, bringing their furs, coming in to his trading post and stamping the snow off their feet. He knew them all, they were his friends, and there was a great ritual they went through, in which he would grab a jug of rum. They’d all sit around in a circle, and he would set it in the center. They would all take a pull on the jug. Then they would begin negotiating over the furs. But this time one of the leaders said, We don’t do that any more. The trader couldn’t believe what he was hearing because he knew how much they enjoyed that jug. But they repeated, No, we don’t do that any more. And so he put it away. That was the result of the instructions we received in 1799.
We don’t lead by telling people what to do. If you want people to pick things up off the ground, you start picking them up yourself, and pretty soon somebody’s going to help you. You lead by example. That’s the best way to inspire, by example. There’s no short cut.
You try to teach all the time. Teach on a daily basis and however it arises. When you have your little child by the hand, walking through a park, and you see a dead squirrel, you explain right away, Oh, there’s a dead squirrel. And you say, There’s no more life in that body. Then you give a little instruction, the kind of information they can absorb. You don’t go into detail about it, just say, That’s what happens, and someday you will be the same way. Some day you’ll be a shell, but your spirit will move from it, and off you’ll go. — You take advantage of all the things that happen on a daily basis to instruct as much as you can. Hope for the best. You’re the teacher.
From birth to age twenty you’re a child. From twenty to thirty, you may have children, but you’re still a novice in learning. Then from thirty to forty you’re a teacher, and from forty to fifty you become a leader in your community. From fifty to sixty you may become a national or international leader.
Indigenous people have a very strong belief in the Creation. We have certain ceremonies that deal with the other side, so to speak, with which we have communication. It’s a big world, and a lot of things go on that we don’t know about. We believe there’s one Creator for all of the earth, and we believe that everybody is subject to that. Whether people comprehend it or not, the reality is there, and so is the spiritual law. The spiritual law prevails. We know what that law is, and we have to abide by it, but we’re instructed to respect everybody’s beliefs.
When we say our greetings and in every opening statement, we give thanks for all the trees and all the work they do, for those trees we know about and those we don’t. We always make allowance for the other side, which we don’t know about but which we know is there.
Well, I must say that this afternoon has been very enlightening. Everywhere I go, I always learn. I learned a lot this afternoon. Judy Wicks brought to the discussion an example of what you can do practically and how to go about it. Obviously it’s possible. It can be done if you apply yourself and use your energy in the direction of bringing about change.
You have to meet the challenges, and as you move along, it’s like crossing a stream on stones. We’ve all done that. You can see some stones and you can’t see others, but at a certain point you have to make the run. And as you jump from one stone to the other, you’re always looking for the next jump. Most of the time you make it. Not all of the time. Sometimes you come to the kind of situation where there’s not going to be a safe move at all. You’re not going to get an answer. People want answers, but there aren’t really many answers except to keep on the lookout and to become active. If you stick to the principles that you have to guide you, that’s about the best you can do.
Just remember, as we sit here, the ice is melting in the north.