Water Man Spouts

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Rolling Thunder

{1} "The feathered and blanketed figure of the American Indian has come to symbolize the American continent. He is the man who through the centuries has been molded and sculpted by the same hand that shaped its mountains, forests and plains, and marked the course of its rivers.

"The American Indian is of the soil, whether it be the region of forests, plains, pueblos, or mesas. He fits into the landscape, for the land that fashioned the continent also fashioned the man for his surroundings. He once grew as naturally as the wild sunflowers; he belongs just as the buffalo belonged. …

"The white man does not understand America. He is too far removed from its formative processes. The roots of the tree of his life have not yet grasped the rock and soil. The white man is still troubled with primitive fears; he still has in his consciousness the perils of this frontier continent, some of its fastnesses not yet having yielded to his questing footsteps and inquiring eyes." – Land of the Spotted Eagle; Luther Standing Bear; Boston & New York; 1923.

This essay is not about Indians. At least not in the sense of what "we" should do to "save" the Indians. It is, instead, about what we might consider as we take steps to save ourselves and our communities. Just as the Indian has come to symbolize the continent, the truth is that what this country has done to Indians for 241 years is what it is doing to many of us today. And that is no coincidence.

When I was young, I used to help an elderly man collect herbs that he sold to white people. He was a strange man, caught half-way between the native world and the modern culture. He once told me, as we were preparing a small fire to cook on and stay warm, that "the white man makes a huge bon-fire, and has to stay back from it, and so his back stays cold; the Indian makes a little fire, and can sit close to it, and stay warm."

I think that describes our "consumer society." It’s a big fire, that requires a huge amount of fuel. But it leaves us cold, and so we throw on more fuel, mistakenly thinking that’s going to warm us. It’s a system that, as John Trudell notes, not only destroys the Natural World with toxin waste, but requires that human beings be polluted internally, in order to become part of that toxic culture.

In 1735, Handsome Lake was born in the village of Conawagas, near what is now Avon, NY. He was from the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation. The Seneca are the "western door" of the Iroquois’ Longhouse, and so his people didn’t feel the full impact of the white culture until after the Revolutionary War. After that war, we know that Handsome Lake began to drink heavily, in an attempt to ease the pain he felt in his life.

It can take more than strong drink to make a man or woman into a drunk. The communities that were Handsome Lakes’ world seemed at the mercy of distance forces over which the local people had little control. The adults saw their children suffering, and they felt hopeless and helpless.

Few people wanted to be around him, because he had been so obnoxious a drunk. As John Trudell said, people have to be poisoned within, in order for the system to become fully toxic. By 1794, Handsome Lake lay wasting from the diseases that alcohol both cause and contribute to. One of his adult daughters helped to care for him in his near-empty cabin, but he spent much time in isolation. There was a period of time he went in and out of consciousness, and he would later describe being taken on a journey by four beings.

In 1798, he began to tell of his vision, and of how his people needed to reform their way of life to survive. Today, this is known as the Gai’ wio’, or the Code of Handsome Lake. By 1802, he was a visitor to Washington, DC, along with some traditional leaders from the Seneca and Onondaga Nation. Those who study Thomas Jefferson are aware of his interest in and admiration of Handsome Lake.

You don’t have to be an Indian to appreciate the similarities between the deterioration of Handsome Lake’s culture in 1794, and that of our own, today. You can see most clearly from the margins of our society. "The thing that has been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun." – Ecclesiastes 1:9 (The Preacher).

{2} "They started unzipping them. I finally came to recognize one. It was my buddy, Richard. I won’t describe what I saw. Rage and revenge set in on me. …. I continued to drink myself numb. In combat, I was relentless. I was full of rage. In fire-fights, I would never put my head down. My urge to kill was overwhelming. It was with me the rest of my time in Viet Nam. The fear I used to have had become a thrill. Killing became thrilling. I didn’t have any fear.

"As I talk about this now, I know my memories of Viet Nam will be with me forever. They will never leave. Many different feelings come back to me from time to time – it doesn’t take much to trigger them. Sometimes when I hear the rain, I think of the monsoon season, . I meditate to relieve myself of the horror, of what I experienced over there. I can’t explain the memories. Sometimes I feel as though I am still over there ….as if it’s real. Sometimes I think about how hungry or how thirsty I used to get ….what it was like to witness the carnage and death of men – our own and the enemy. The smell of death was with me for a long time." Richard Thomas; from "Wounded Warriors"; Little Turtle Publications; 1995.

Clinical psychologist Doyle Arbogast authored the book "Wounded Warriors," to show how Indian spirituality helped 17 different people recover from the damage done by our modern society. It is the story of individual healing, and more: just as Trudell’s point about a poison system needs to poison individuals, a community/society that heals requires individuals who help remove that poison. Handsome Lake did this in 1798; Richard Thomas and the others in this book do it 200 years later.

There are many poisons in our culture: the violence within families; abuse of illegal drugs and addiction to legal ones; poverty; crime; and many more. Sometimes we do not fully appreciate the fact that the "leadership" in our society is just as sick as the margins of our society. Maybe sicker.

Arbogast recognized that the healing that the individuals and communities in Indian country required wouldn’t happen as a result of some action taken in Washington, DC. In fact, it could only come in spite of the poison that comes from Washington, DC. He saw that it wasn’t coming from any one "religion," but rather from the powerful force he calls "spirituality."

For many of those individuals who have been poisoned by the toxins of modern society, it includes participating in a 12-step program. It is interesting to note that Handsome Lake formed the first "support groups" to help individuals maintain sobriety. Becoming healthy again takes place one day at a time. As an individual heals, he/she helps to heal their family and their community.

The idea of healing the ills of individuals and communities as the building-block for building a healthy nation is not the exclusive property of Indians. When we examine the programs and goals of the groups that were considered "black nationalists" in the 1960s, we find over and over attempts to pull people out of the gutter, and to exert local, community control.

Doyle Arbogast opens his book with a quote from "The Realms of Healing," by Stanley Krippner and Albert Villodo: "The spirit is returning to the Indians and is extending to young people across the country. Many of them are becoming spiritual warriors. That doesn’t mean they are going to make war. Being a spiritual warrior means becoming a complete person. It means having consideration for other people, and finding spirituality through truth and beauty."

{3} "Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door1’ "
(The New Colossus; Emma Lazarus; 1883)

When Bill Moyers interviewed Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons for PBS in the 1980s, he asked, "You’ve said on other occasions that there has to be a spiritual change if we are going to face these environmental issues. What kind of spiritual change?"

Oren responded, "We don’t preach here in this, our country. You know, we don’t proselytize. As a matter of fact, we try to protect what we have from intrusion. And yet at a meeting that was held in Hopi in 1969 when we sat there with many Indian leaders from around the country, spiritual leaders, they talked about these young people who were sitting on our doorsteps every day when we got up. They had come from all over the country, and they had come to learn something about us. And we said this is a very strange phenomenon, you know, that our white brothers’ children are coming to our doorstep, and wanting to be part of us. What do we do with this?

"So one of the Hopi elders said, ‘Well, we have a prophecy about that. It is said that there would come a time that they’re going to come and ask a direction. Maybe this is what’s happening.’ So it came under discussion by the elders, and it was agreed upon that this may be true. And if it is, then we should be more responsive to the questions. "

Moyers asked Lyons about how this could be done, and the Onondaga Chief explained that Indian society was based upon community. And that community is defined by mutual support, about sharing, and about working together to reach common goals.

Again, there is no new thing: during the mid- to late-1700s, men like Jefferson and Franklin were in frequent contact with the Iroquois nations’ leaders. They were influenced by Iroquois political philosophy. Read Franklin’s 1754 Albany Plan of Union, or the 1777 Articles of Confederation, and you see the Iroquois’ influence on the leaders of the Revolutionary War.

The "leaders" in Washington DC tend to be a lot closer to King George than they are to Franklin or Jefferson. They are not going to bring about any meaningful change in the direction this culture is headed in on their own. The few who are advocating a revolutionary change in direction, such as Al Gore, are making it clear that this can only be accomplished by changes at an individual level on the part of the average citizens.

Luther Standing Bear wrote that "it is now time for a destructive order to be reversed … The Indian can save America." The power to change the "destructive order" is within the grass-roots. It’s only going to be accomplished by starting at the community level. And it requires Wounded Warriors to take the positions of leadership.


At May 28, 2007 at 8:10 AM, Blogger Rocci said...

A friend emailed me your blog entry, "Rolling Thunder." This is so right and true.

I am especially moved by the story of Handsome Lake. I am a social worker and I cannot tell you how many times I have heard Native men tell me that nothing worked for them, not AA or recovery programs or clinics, or medicine until they went into the sweat lodge.

I have been doing a sweat lodge once a year and it is one of the most significant spiritual events of my year.

As a recovering Catholic, practing Zen Buddhist, storytelling, sweat lodge sitting, shamanistic, taoist,Christian I have come to believe that I know for certain very little. However, I do know at least one thing.

I know is that the only thing in this universe over which I have any capacity to effect change, is myself. However, changing myself can and does change the world.

I have a 17 year old daughter. I see her trying to make a determined and deliberate effort to make sure she is not like me. But every once in a while I will see her do something or hear her say something that comes straight from my example. Not something that I formally taught her to do or say but something she learned to say from watching me and listening to me. They are always watching and listening, and sometimes for the good and sometimes not so much, they are always learning.

The change that must and inevitably will occur must begin with each individual. Gandhi said that you must be the change you wish to see and this is a much more eloquent expression of this thought.


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