OREN LYONS, seventy-six, is a wisdom carrier, one of the bearers of a variety of human tradition that can’t easily be reduced to a couple of sentences. One reason he — and the tradition for which he is a spokesperson — isn’t more widely known is that he doesn’t actively seek forums from which to speak. If someone asks him, however, about the principles behind the particular Native American tradition of which he has, since 1967, been an appointed caretaker, he is glad to respond. He chooses his words carefully, and occasionally, these days, there is a hint of indignation in his voice, as if time were short and people generally willful in their distraction.
In an era of self-promotion, Oren Lyons represents the antithesis of celebrity. When he converses about serious issues, no insistent ego comes to the fore, no desire to be seen as an important or wise person. His voice is but one in a long series, as he sees it, and the wisdom belongs not to him but to the tradition for which he speaks. His approach to problems is unusual in modern social commentary because his observations are not compelled by any overriding sense of the importance of the human present. In place of a philosophy of progress, he emphasizes fidelity to a set of spiritual and natural laws that have guided successful human social organization throughout history.
The appeal of his particular ethics in the search for solutions to contemporary environmental and social problems can become readily apparent. It is importantly, however, not a wisdom anchored in beliefs about human perfection. It’s grounded in the recognition and acceptance of human responsibility where all forms of life are concerned.
Oren is a Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan among the Onondaga people of western New York. He sits on the Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee, or the Six Nations as they are sometimes known. (In addition to the Onondaga, these would be the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora.) The people of this “Iroquois Confederacy” share a philosophy of life given to them a thousand years ago by a spiritual being they call the Peace Maker. (He was named so partly because his instructions and warnings ended a period of warfare among these tribes, but his teachings about peace are understood to refer principally to a state of mind necessary for good living and good governance.)
When the Peace Maker came to the Haudenosaunee, he instructed them in a system of self-governing that was democratic in nature. (Benjamin Franklin and others, in fact, borrowed freely from this part of Haudenosaunee oral tradition and practice in formulating the principles of government upon which the United States was founded.) He emphasized the importance of diversity in human society to ensure sustainability and rejuvenation. And he urged a general tradition of thanksgiving.
The Peace Maker is sometimes called simply “the Messenger,” someone sent by the Creator. The clan mothers among the Haudenosaunee, along with sitting chiefs such as Oren, are regarded as “runners,” people responsible for keeping the precepts handed to them by the Peace Maker regenerating through time. As a council chief, Oren is said to be “sitting for the welfare of the people” and to be engaged in sustaining “the power of the good mind” in discussions with others on the council, all of whom are exchanging thoughts about the everyday application of the wisdom given them by the Peace Maker.
Oren has spoken often, recently, about a lack of will among world leaders, a failure to challenge the economic forces tearing apart human communities the world over, and the Earth itself. His response to the question of what society should do to protect life, however, is rarely prescriptive. Frequently what he says is, “It’s up to each generation. There are no guarantees.”
The Peace Maker’s advice included an important warning for the chiefs and clan mothers. Some of his instruction, he said, would apply to life-threatening situations that would develop before the Haudenosaunee were able to fully grasp their malevolent nature. While the insights needed to manage such trouble would emerge among council members, the people might initially adamantly reject the council’s advice. As decision makers, he said, the chiefs and clan mothers would have to be prepared to absorb this abuse. Oren recounts these words of the Messenger: “You must be tolerant [of harsh critics] and must not respond in kind, but must understand [their fear], and be prepared to absorb all of that, because it is not all going to be coming from your enemies. It is going to be coming from your friends and families. This you can expect.”
In public, Oren Lyons carries himself with the unaffected manner of elders in many of the world’s indigenous traditions — unpretentious, understated. His physical presence in a room, however, radiates authority. In conversations, you quickly sense that he takes life more seriously than most. He is an articulate and forceful speaker when it comes to discussing the worldwide movement toward civil society, a movement that would marginalize the sort of governance and commerce that today threaten life everywhere.
Oren Lyons, long a professor of American Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, is the publisher of Daybreak, a national Native American magazine. Before being appointed to the Onondaga Council by the clan mothers in 1969, he was successfully pursuing a career in commercial art in New York City. An All-American lacrosse goalie while a student at Syracuse University, he was later elected to the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in both Canada and the United States, and named honorary chairman of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team. He is the recipient of many national and international awards, and for more than three decades has been a defining presence in international indigenous rights and sovereignty issues.
— Barry Lopez
Barry Lopez: Why is sovereignty such a crucial issue for Native American people today?
Oren Lyons: Well, sovereignty is probably one of the most hackneyed words that is used in conjunction with Indians. What is it, and why is it so important? It’s a definition of political abilities and it’s a definition of borders and boundaries. It encapsulates the idea of nationhood. It refers to authority and power — ultimate and final authority.
It’s such a discussion among native peoples in North America, I would say, because of our abilities at the time of “discovery” — and I use that term under protest, as if to say that before the advent of the white man in North America nothing existed. Where does that idea come from? Well, it comes from the ultimate authority of the pope at the time. I’m talking 1492. The Roman Catholic Church was the world power. Now it’s my understanding that in the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New Testament, there is no mention of the Western Hemisphere whatsoever — not the least hint. How could they miss a whole hemisphere?
So here we were in our own hemisphere, developing our own ideas, our own thoughts, and our own worldview. There were great civilizations here at the time. In 1492, Haudenosaunee — which is better known as the Iroquois by the French, and Six Nations by the English — already had several hundred years of democracy, organized democracy. We had a constitution here based on peace, based on equity and justice, based on unity and health. This was ongoing.
As far as I know, all the other Indian nations functioned more or less the same way. Their leadership was chosen by the people. Leaders were fundamentally servants to the people. And in our confederation, there was no place for an army. We didn’t have a concept of a standing army, and we had no police. Nor was there a concept of jails, but there were of course fine perceptions of right and wrong, and rules and law. I would say that in most Indian nations, because they had inhabited one place for so long and were a people for so long, the rules and laws were embedded in the genes of the people more or less, in the minds of the people certainly, but not written. Plenty of law, almost on everything, but unspoken. Unspoken unless transgressed. There was always reaction to transgression.
Across the water, in Europe, our brother was engulfed in great crusades. If you look at their histories and what is in their museums, no matter where you are — whether it’s Germany or France or England or Holland or whatever nation — in their great halls you’ll see paintings of battles. Always. That must have been a terrible way of life. Now I speak of Europe because they are the ones that came here. And when they came here, the pope said, If there are no Christians on these lands, then we’ll declare the lands terra nullius — empty lands — regardless of peoples there. And the question arose almost immediately, Were the aboriginal people indeed people? That was the big discussion. Why? Well, you can say a lot of things, but the issue is land — always has been and always will be.
The ideas of land tenure and ownership were brought here. We didn’t think that you could buy and sell land. In fact, the ideas of buying and selling were concepts we didn’t have. We laughed when they told us they wanted to buy land. And we said, Well, how can you buy land? You might just as well buy air, or buy water. But we don’t laugh anymore, because that is precisely what has happened. Today, when you fly across this country and you look down and you see all those squares and circles, that’s land bought and sold. Boundaries made. They did it. The whole country.
We didn’t accept that, but nevertheless it was imposed. They said, Let’s make us a law here; we’ll call it the law of discovery. The first Christian nation that discovers this land will be able to secure it and the other Christian nations will respect that. What does that do to the original people, whose land of course they are talking about? We just weren’t included. They established a process that eliminated the aboriginal people from title to their own land. They set the rules at the time and we were not subjects, we were objects, and we have been up to this point. That’s why indigenous people are not included in the Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. We are still objects in common law.
In today’s courts, in New York and Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, they talk about the pre-emption rights of the law of discovery. Today. Land claims are being denied on the basis of the law of discovery. It has not gone away whatsoever. You really have to get the case law and look at it, because they not only say that we don’t have land tenure, they say that we have only the right of occupancy.
And they don’t have to pay us anything, because we’re part of the flora and fauna of North America.
No wonder Indians wonder about what sovereignty is.
BL: Native elders are often credited with being informed about the environment, or knowledgeable about spiritual issues, but rarely credited with expertise when it comes to governance. Why aren’t native elders sought out for their wisdom about a good way to govern, a good way to serve people?
OL: Well, to put it simply, our worldview, our perspective, and our process of governance is contrary to private property. Private property is a concept that flies in the face of our understanding of life, and we would say of the reality of life. Private property is a conception, a human conception, which amounts to personal greed.
And then there’s the spiritual side that you mention. You can’t see the spiritual side . . . well, you get glimpses of it. Any hunter will tell you, you see it in the eyes of the deer, that bright spark, that life, that light in his eyes, and when you make your kill, it’s gone. Where did it go? It’s the same light that’s in the eyes of children, or in the eyes of old men, old women. There’s a life in there, there’s a spirit in there, and when you die, when your body gives up the ghost, as Christians say, spirit leaves. We believe that.
We believe that everything we see is made by a Creator. Indeed that’s what we call the ultimate power. Shongwaiyadisaih. The maker of all life. The giver of life. All powerful. We see the Creation — everything — as what the giver of life has produced here. And if we believe that, which we do, then we must respect it. It’s a spiritual Creation, and it demands that kind of respect. So when I see people, they are manifestations of the Creator’s work, and I must respect them. It doesn’t matter what color they are — anything alive.
A thousand years ago, when the Peace Maker brought to us the Great Law of Peace, Gayanahshagowa, he set as our symbol for the confederation of Haudenosaunee a great tree, and he said, “This is going to be the symbol of your work and your law: a great white pine, four white roots of truth that reach in the four directions of the world. And those people who have no place to go will follow the root to its source and come under the protection of the Great Law of Peace and the great long leaves of the great tree.” And then he admonished the leaders and the people, and he said, “Never challenge the spiritual law. Never challenge it because you cannot prevail.” That’s a direct instruction to leadership.
BL: It seems to me that the federal government in the United States is reluctant to invite Indian people to the table because, as you’ve just said, you can’t have effective leadership without spiritual law, and you can’t talk about good governance without environmental awareness. Yet we need — all of us need — the counsel of minds that successfully addressed questions of social justice long before Western culture, arguably, complicated them with the notion of industrial progress.
OL: After the Peace Maker gathered five warring nations — the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Cayugas, the Senecas, and the Onondagas — and after great efforts and great cohesive work, the power of the unity of the good minds brought together this confederacy based on peace. And after he had taken the leaders and sat them under this great tree on the shoreline of Onondaga Lake and instructed them on the process of governance, on the principles of governance, on the importance of identity and the importance of rule and law, he said, “Now that we’ve planted this great tree, in your hands now I place all life. Protection of all life is in your hands now,” and when he said all life, he meant literally, all life.
And it’s an instruction that we carry today. We feel responsible for animals, we feel responsible for trees, and responsible for fish, responsible for water. We feel responsible for land and all of the insects and everything that’s there. And when he spoke of the four white roots reaching in the four directions, I think he was talking to all people. Not just Haudenosaunee. This is an instruction for all people.
But after all of that, a woman said to him, “Well then,” she said, “how long will this last?” And he answered, “That’s up to you.” So it’s completely up to us if we want this Creation to continue, and if we want to be involved in it, a part of this whole recycling, this whole regeneration of life, and we want to be celebrating it, and we want to be enjoying it, and we want to be preserving it, carrying it on, protecting it for future generations.
In one of his many instructions he said, “Counselors, leaders,” he said, “now that we have raised you here, now that you are who you are,” he said, “when you counsel for the welfare of the people, then think not of yourself, nor of your family, nor even your generation.” He said, “Make your decisions on behalf of the seventh generation coming. You who see far into the future, that is your responsibility: to look out for those generations that are helpless, that are completely at our mercy. We must protect them.” And that’s great counsel in today’s times, if we want the seventh generation to be here, and to have what we have.
BL: What do you think is the great impediment to the implementation of that wisdom?
OL: Human ego is probably the biggest impediment — the amazing ability of any human to perceive themselves as almighty powerful, no matter what. That is a big problem. We were instructed long before the Peace Maker to be respectful, to have ceremonies, to carry out thanksgivings for everything. We have an enormous amount of ceremony and thanksgiving still going on in North America. Indian nations across the country are still carrying on those ceremonies in their languages and through their dances. We’re trying.
And we’re told, as long as there is one to speak and one to listen, one to sing and one to dance, the fight is on. So that is hope. To not give up. To try, and to use reason. Peace Maker said, “I’m going to throw your weapons of war into this hole.” He uprooted that great tree and instructed all the men to bring their weapons of war and to cast them into this hole. That was the first disarmament. And he said, “I’m not going to leave you unprotected and helpless.” And he gave us the great tobacco plant. And he said, “This will be your medium to speak to me when you need to.” And he gave us a very special plant, which we still use, still speak to him with.
We believe. And I think as long as we’re doing that, there is a chance.
BL: When you meet with people — Desmond Tutu for example, Gorbachev, other people who’ve sought your counsel and the wisdom of the Six Nations — do you sense a possibility that these cultures that are driven by issues of private property, social control, and capitalism can be guided by your example of how to conduct a civilization without warfare?
OL: Indian people have as much dissension among themselves as anybody. I think that our understanding is simply that dissension begins with each individual. You don’t need two people to have that tension; you have it within yourself. As a human being, you have a spiritual center, and if you go too far to the right or too far to the left, you’re out of balance. And that occurs every day.
In the creation story that we have, we talk about the twin brothers, one good, one evil, and we talk about the battles that they went through, enveloping the Earth itself. It’s a story to the people, to explain that within each of us we have these tensions, and that on any given day any one of us can be the world’s worst enemy.
And that’s why you have councils, and that’s why you have rule, and that’s why you have community and law, because that is part of humanity. And there is no ultimate authority. But of course over time people have found standards of moral right, and I think that’s where the real law lies. It lies in morality. A balance.
The only thing that you can do is have custom in usage, and a good example. That’s why grandpas and grandmas are so important. They are the transition people. They move the children into the next generation. Peace Maker said, “Make your decisions on behalf of seven generations.” He’s telling you to look ahead, to not think about yourself. If you can stop thinking about yourself and begin thinking about responsibility, everything is going to get better. Immediately everything will change. But that is not the makeup of the human mind. There’s always the evil twin. And there’s always the good twin. It’s a daily battle.
BL: My own problem at the moment is a frustration that my fate, the fate of the people I love, and the fate of my family are in the hands of men who see no reason to listen to counsel from outside the circumscribed world of their own knowledge. I live in a country in which people take pride in never having had any kind of experience with other cultures, who believe that they have perfected the ways of life to such a degree that forcing them down the throats of other people is an act of benevolence. They don’t want people who speak for the integration of spiritual and material life at the table because these people are disruptive when it comes to issues of consumerism, economic expansion, and international cooperation. To me, this is fundamentally not only unjust, but stupid.
OL: I see it that way too. We’re being placed in an untenable position by greed and force and authority. If I was sitting on the moon looking back on North America, on the democracy that was here when Haudenosaunee was meeting and the Peace Maker was bringing these ideas to us, I would have seen this light, this bright light. I’d see it grow. And then in 1776, when the Continental Congress came as close to Indian nations as they ever would in their style of thinking, that light was growing again. The idea of democracy and the idea of peace were there.
But it began to dim almost immediately, as they began to take away peoples’ rights in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution institutionalized the idea that only men with money or property could vote. They said it was okay to have a slave or two or three or ten or twenty. The light began to dim. Haudenosaunee chiefs shook their heads and they said, “You’re courting trouble.” And then it really got dim in 1863, and 4 and 5 and 7 and 8, when they had a great civil war in this country over the issues of power, authority, slavery. That was a very intense war. That was brother against brother.
And so it goes on, this idea of private property, this idea of accruement of wealth. And now we have corporate states, corporations that have the status of states — independent and sovereign, and fealty to no one, no moral law at all. President Bush has said, “Let the market dictate our direction.” Now if that isn’t about as stupid as you can get. What he said was, let the greed of the people dictate the direction of the Earth. If that’s the basis of a country, then it’s really lost what you would call a primary direction for survival.
This is really the danger today — this empty, senseless lack of leadership. But it doesn’t mean that responsibility isn’t in the hands of the people. To come down to the nut of the whole thing, it’s the people’s responsibility to do something about it. Leadership was never meant to take care of anybody. Leadership was meant to guide people; they take care of themselves. People should be storming the offices of all these pharmaceutical companies that are stealing money from them. They should be dragging these leaders, these CEOs, out into the streets and they should be challenging them. They’re not doing that. They’re just worried about how they’re going to pay more.
It’s the abdication of responsibility by the people. What was it that they said? By the people and for the people? That was the Peace Maker’s instruction: Of, by, and for the people. You choose your own leaders. You put ’em up, and you take ’em down. But you, the people, are responsible. You’re responsible for your life; you’re responsible for everything.
People haven’t been here all that long as a species on the Earth. We haven’t been here all that long and our tenure is in question right now. The question arises, Do we have the wisdom, do we have the discipline, do we have the moral rule, the moral law, are we mature enough to care for what is our responsibility? That question can only be answered by the people.