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Value Change for Survival

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By Phil Arnold
Syracuse University

Celebrating its 40th year in 1985 the United Nations established the GLOBAL FORUM OF SPIRITUAL AND PARLIAMENTARY LEADERS ON HUMAN SURVIVAL. This forum was charged to promote dialog between religious and political leaders in order to turn the tide of the growing environmental crisis. Forum conversations and deliberations were dedicated to the survival of the planet and future generations. This international group of religious and political leaders included the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Senator Al Gore and President Mikhail Gorbachev, to name a few. From 1985 to 1991 they met in New York, Moscow, Oxford and Tokyo. Representing Native America was Oren Lyons, Joaguisho, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, which is the Central Fire of the Haudenosaunee and just a few miles south of Syracuse New York. Over the last 40 years Oren has been active in the UN to secure rights for Indigenous People and to advocate for environmental healing. Oren has said of the Global Forum’s final meeting in Tokyo that the group was called upon by the Executive Coordinator, Akio Matsumura, to summarize their work. They agreed that all of their work could be distilled into four words: VALUE CHANGE FOR SURVIVAL.

Now, nearly 20 years later, these words seem more urgent than ever. As a Historian of Religion, working with the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) who are erroneously referred to as the “Iroquois” or “Six Nations,” these words have focused my work around the development of collaborative inter-cultural events. The Roots of Peacemaking: Indigenous Values, Global Crisis, is the most important of these ongoing collaborations. Before I talk about it in detail, however I want to make some observations about the phrase VALUE CHANGE FOR SURVIVAL.

There is a lot of talk nowadays about ‘retooling’ our economy as ‘green.’ I am completely in favor of that effort. But some leaders talk as if becoming ‘green’ is just a technological shift, as if it is exclusively an economic, political or technological shift of the machinery. To put this transformation in terms of a ‘value change’ however interjects that what is needed is a fundamental shift in cultural priorities. If we can characterize where we must go to survive as ‘green,’ then the urgent question is what has characterized the values that got us into this current crisis? What were the cultural and religious ideas that we now see as opposite to the new ‘green’ values that we urgently need to embrace? I’ll call them ‘raider’ values. The reason why it’s important to distinguish these different values right now because there is a growing tendency for a variety of institutions to utilize the rhetoric of ‘going green’ while clinging to a ‘raider’ mentality. I’m sure you all have examples in mind.

The negative ‘raider’ values that need to be expunged for the sake of survival have been most evident with respect to the modern world’s treatment of Indigenous peoples. ‘Raider’ values don’t just refer to how consumer societies, such as the USA, have treated the natural world, but it also refers to our colonial past and the mistreatment of Native Americans and other Indigenous peoples around the world. The illegal theft of land from Native people has been justified by a variety of religious doctrines, missionizing activities, and educational practices that assumed that the only way Native Americans could have a future was to assimilate them. How we have treated Native Americans here in the USA, and Indigenous peoples around the world, is directly proportional to the degree to which modernity has embraced the ‘raider’ values of its own destruction. How Indigenous peoples are treated from now on reflects how well we have incorporated a new set of ‘green’ values. Our current world has to become more ‘indigenized’ in its values. Up to this current moment we have done everything we can to diminish the value of Indigenous peoples and their worldviews. Now our survival depends upon our ability to embrace indigenous values as our own.

Rhetoric of hatred for the ‘savage’ or ‘uncivilized’ Indian is only part of the story. As Charles H. Long and many others have pointed out, American history if full of moments where the survival of immigrant people was completely dependent on Native Americans. This is evident in upstate New York too. The Roots of Peacemaking event celebrates the indigenous roots of Western Democracy. At least 1000 years ago the Longhouse system of the Haudenosaunee, called the Great Law of Peace, was established by three men: the Peacemaker, Hiawentha, and the Tadadaho. In their efforts they managed to unified the various nations of the Haudenosaunee (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca) around a decision making process based on a matrilineal clan system. The Great Law of Peace was established at Onondaga Lake, which is right in the heart of Syracuse New York.

During the 18th century, Haundenosaunee chiefs sat in council with many who would become the Founding Fathers of the US. There seems little doubt that these meetings helped inspire the development of American Democracy. Indeed, in 1987 the US congress officially recognized the Haudenosaunee influence on the US system. But while many aspects of the Longhouse system were adopted, several other aspects of the Longhouse were not. For example, the role of women and the emphasis on ceremonially connecting the human community to Creation did not become part of the American democratic system. This last point is particularly key to the Longhouse practice. Indeed, The Great Law of Peace emphasizes that human beings only become fully functional when they can acknowledge their total dependence on the natural world. When a proper balance is achieved between human beings and all other beings in the world, then ‘raider’ values can be overcome and peace prevails.

Over the last 4 years we have developed a collaborative project between Syracuse University and the leadership of the Onondaga Nation called “Roots of Peacemaking: Indigenous Values, Global Crisis.” The event coincides with the UN international Day of Peace on 21 September. The event takes place on the shores of Onondaga Lake, which, as noted, is the birthplace of the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee and the Indigenous birthplace of the US Democracy. Today, however, Onondaga Lake is best known as the most chemically polluted lake in the country and the 2nd most polluted in the world after Chernobyl. No stronger metaphor could reflect our current state of affairs.

It is also an opportunity for intercultural exchanges between the Haudenosaunee and the rest of the world around issues of urgent mutual concern. The obvious immediate concern is the state of the lake, which Jane Goodall (our guest speaker in 2006) described as ‘sacred but filthy.’ But larger issues are involved in these gatherings too. We have had Buddhist nuns come to support the Onondaga ‘land-rights’ action, which has served as a catalyst for uniting people? a local group Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON)? Taiko drummers from Japan? Indigenous leaders from Alaska and other Haudenosaunee territories? UN representatives from the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. In September 2009 Susan Harjo will be joining us at the lake to talk about the importance of spreading Indigenous values. Come and join us!