Profiles in Wisdom: Introduction

From Profiles in Wisdom: Native Elders Speak About the Earth

© Copyright 2000 by Steven McFadden

Profiles in Wisdom: Native Elders Speak about the Earth

Profiles in Wisdom: Native Elders Speak about the Earth

In 1983, after three days and nights of praying and fasting on a mountaintop, I snapped a twig with my fingers and had a revelation. I saw that my simple action had changed the world, and that it would never be the same again. I could never put that twig back together the way it had been. This was a small change, but an important change nonetheless.

As the sound of the snap reverberated within my mind, I understood how everything I said and did changed the world. What came with the snapping twig was not an abstract idea or a philosophical insight, but a living experience of how all my actions influence creation. Since then, the lesson of this experience has guided my life in a world where, until recently, it seemed as if most people were oblivious to the way their lives inflict deep wounds upon the Earth, the air, and the water.

The realization I came to on this summit is something many Native American people have known throughout their lives: that all things are related, and each action in the web of life influences everything else.

Modern science has finally glimpsed this principle with Superstrings and other unified-field theories, but many Native Americans received the lesson in childhood as part of their cultural heritage. They have tried to live their lives in accord with it, making sure that, to the extent possible, their actions arise out of respect for the spirit in all creation. Now is a time when all of humanity desperately needs to learn this basic lesson.

Few people would argue with the premise that most modern people have lost their connection with the Earth. The distortions and abuses resulting from this lack of connection are plain. Millions of people are finally waking up to notice the obvious: that the human relationship with the natural world is greatly distressed. Some observers call this The Great Awakening. This awakening is good news. But what will it lead to? How will we respond? Where do we go from here? These questions are just coming into focus.

Because they have lived on the Earth with conscious respect for thousands of years, Native American people are the keepers of ancient wisdom that could be of enormous value to people who are wrestling with contemporary environmental and cultural questions. Dozens of books have presented native wisdom from the mythic or historic perspective, but many people have discounted this information as anachronistic — wistful descriptions of a simpler world to which we can never return.

We are not going back to tribal culture, nor should we. This book in no way advocates a return to a romanticized past. It is, rather, a journalist’s account of contemporary men and women who are concerned with the modern world. Coloring their concern is a deep reverence for the wisdom tradition of the past, the wisdom tradition that is the gift of their culture to the world. But their focus, and the focus of this book, is on the present and the future.

In our times, we have the privilege and the responsibility of creating a new culture, especially since our modern culture has proved itself unworkable. This is true not just for communists. Capitalism also has many tragic failures, especially evident in its ravaging of the Earth and in the many thousands who have been left hungry and homeless. Equally tragic is the fact that, even among those who are warm and well fed, many thousands lead aimless lives. They do not know why they are here, or what the purposes of their lives are.

Through the eyes of the elders who are profiled in this book, we can look to the roots of wisdom on this land. What do the ancient ones who have been trained in the sacred traditions of this land have to say to us as our existing culture mutates and we experience the first, tentative birth pangs of a new culture? We cannot simply adopt the Mohawk or Cherokee or Algonquin customs and ceremonies. They are not appropriate. They will not work for us. We must create new forms in response to the living spirit of our times. Yet we can learn much from looking to the spiritual roots of this land, and from listening to the contemporary elders who have access to these roots

Profiles in Wisdom: Native Elders Speak about the Earth is a collection of true stories about contemporary native elders who are, in various ways, keepers of wisdom. For the purposes of this book, elders are defined as those who have gone beyond midlife and who have demonstrated wisdom in the way they have lived their lives. Two subjects, AmyLee and Willaru Huayta, are just entering midlife; however, as their stories make clear, their circumstances make them worthy of exception.

This book gives the elders an opportunity to relate their diverse teachings about the human relationship with the Earth. Each of the elders has a personal story, character trait, or insight that can help us get in touch with our own innate wisdom. Their teachings are in response to a series of critical questions asked of each of them: What is your personal story? What do you see happening in the world now? What do you see ahead? What specific advice do you offer to those who will listen? What have you come to know about living in balance on the Earth? How could other people apply these lessons?

One cannot make sweeping generalizations about Native Americans. Even at this late date, over 250 Indian languages are spoken in North America, and each language represents a different tradition. There is hardly a homogenous point of view, and this book does not purport to convey any official or even representative view. These profiles constitute only a small sample of some people who are Native American.

Consequently, the elders are presented here as individuals who stand for themselves, not as designated spokespersons for their cultures. While all the elders would surely agree on the need to respect the Earth as our mother, they might well disagree on many other less important points.

Unfortunately, many times throughout history the teachings of native peoples have been distorted or misrepresented. To prevent that from occurring with this effort, each elder was sent a copy of the chapter dealing with his or her story. That way they had an opportunity to check their stories and make corrections. Also, my approach was minimalist. I interviewed the elders, framed their responses for flow and coherence, and generally kept my own commentary to a minimum so that the elders might speak as directly as possible to readers.

In learning the stories of these elders, we must be careful not to place them on pedestals. While they may have amazing or seemingly exotic circumstances in their lives, they are human beings with human failings. Likewise, Native American society, like all society, has a long way to go to perfect itself, and there are many failings and disagreements among its people. For example, not all Native American people feel their teachings should be shared with the world, especially since the world has proved itself so eager to take their land and their lives. However, certain teachings are common in Indian society, and all of the elders profiled here exemplify these teachings: reverence for the Earth as the basic source of our livelihood; recognition that we are in a spiritual relationship with all of life; and tolerance of other beliefs or attitudes.

Much of the Western world celebrated the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America on October 12, 1992. That celebration commemorated the explorer’s landing on a Caribbean island, meeting with the natives, and ostensibly proving that the Earth was round, not flat as some Europeans had thought.

But for thousands of years before his voyage, many Native Americans, including the Maya, taught that the Earth was but part of a solar system, and that the solar system was but part of an immense spiral galaxy. Columbus was the first of many thousands who attempted to destroy this knowledge, and who engaged in atrocities that cumulatively became a campaign of genocide against the people and culture of this hemisphere — a campaign that continues today in many places. For the most part, our dominant culture has ignored this genocide. We have also ignored the sacred knowledge of the Native Americans, especially their Earth wisdom. Now, when the well-being of the Earth is so gravely threatened, we need to recall and employ these teachings.

The scope of the book is North America, the continent long called Turtle Island by Native Americans. The Natives of North America have, however, long been in contact with the natives of South America. For that reason, the book includes a spokesperson from South America, Willaru Huayta, who addresses the relationship of the two continents.

Clearly, our collective life on Turtle Island has not yet jelled. We have no whole or wholesome culture. We are still in ferment, still a melting pot. Can this melting pot produce anything worthwhile without being strongly seasoned with the traditional wisdom of the land? I think not. I believe that we are being called to create social and cultural forms imbued with ethics and aesthetics for the twenty-first century and perhaps the millennium. Those forms must be based on an ecologically informed culture with awareness of sacred time and sacred place. Our culture must gratefully and gracefully embrace the rainbow colors and beliefs of humanity. As I hear it, the message of the elders is that this is necessary and possible.

One connecting theme in this book is the belief of most elders that, many times before, civilizations have existed on Earth and then been destroyed, primarily because technology was developed and then used without wisdom. Obviously, we are again in a period when technology dominates life and is generally applied without wisdom. We still have much to learn.

Most of the elders profiled in this book believe that we are now moving into a new epoch of history, a new age. However, their understandings of this transition are different. Some say we are moving from the Third World to the Fourth World; others say the transition is from the Fourth World to the Fifth; and yet others say we are moving from the Fifth to the Sixth. As I listened to the elders speak about this point, their differences began to seem less and less important. While different tribal groups have different systems for reckoning time, most do agree that we are moving into a new time, a time that their ancestors foresaw long ago. In anticipation of the new time, the ancestors offered guidance through prophecies.

Many of these prophecies are woven into the text of this book, not to titillate, but to remind us that with common sense and wise action we can avoid the harsh consequences of the Earth changes that the ancient ones foresaw. Most of the elders agree that we are now experiencing some of those Earth changes, as we are living in a time when the Earth is cleansing itself of harmful influences with intensified storms, volcanoes, earthquakes, and other upheavals. Unless we wake up, they caution, the cleansing will become more vigorous.

Years ago when I was a teenager, I read and was deeply inspired by the late President John F. Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage. In that now classic book, President Kennedy explored the quality of courage in the lives and decisions of several political figures. In so doing he brought an abstract quality — courage — to life. In this book I have tried to follow his lead by bringing the quality of wisdom to life through the stories and words of some seventeen people who are keepers of a true wisdom tradition, a tradition desperately needed in this raucous time of transition.

If we but ask respectfully and then listen, the native elders of America will have much to teach us.