During Oct-Nov 2018, I visited the USA for 2 weeks. In addition to delivering a few lectures, I interacted with Indigenous American leaders and thinkers for a dialogue that I call the ‘Indian – Indian Dialogue’. I was trying to understand their world view, current situation, their struggles and how they see the world in the context of today’s climate change crisis. In this article, I highlight some of the salient aspects of the dialogue with the Native Americans whom I got to meet. This article is informed by my dialogues with native leaders, my own research, and my extensive conversations with my colleague and host, Reverend Sara Jolena Wolcott, Director of Sequoia Samanvaya, who is actively engaging in changing the way Americans see their history. A version of this article was first published in the April 2019 issue of The Vedanta Kesari, monthly Vedantic magazine published by the Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.
America has been a great country and presents itself today in a glorious manner and has become the aspiration for hard-working people throughout the world. The entire world has been impacted by American commerce, thinking, culture, language, and its way of living and working and shared this “American Dream.” Yet what is this dream, the “American Way of Life,” really built upon? The reality behind the “American Dream” story is incomplete without the mention of the original inhabitants of the land. These diverse peoples whose ancestors have lived on the North American continent for millenia are alternatively described as “Native Americans,” “Indigenous people,” “American Indians,” or just “Indians” within America; the term “Indian Country” is often used by Native Americans to refer to their own communities. In Canada, they are referred to as “First Nations.” In this article, I will use the term Native American and, where appropriate, refer to individuals by their tribes, or nations, of which they are a part.
Growing up in India, for me the Native American story is limited to the few images of ‘Red Indians’ that were copied from Hollywood movies in India and a few other comic strips. The little that I got to read about the wisdom of the Native American people as a young person and later with the advent of the search engine, led me to want to understand them more. After my conversations with them, I find that under the surface of false histories and deep historical wounds, America is also a land of myriad spiritual wealth and deeply generous, open hearted indigenous peoples who are still offering their wisdom, the possibility of sustainable lifestyles and their hospitality to visitors, immigrants, and settlers. It seemed to me that there is much in resonance in their culture to our own. It also occurred to me that we in India never get to read the real story of the Native Americans, their encounters with the Europeans, their repeated suppression, near annihilation, slavery, and their current situation, including their challenges as citizens of the new American State, their land, farming and food practices, sacred sites, wisdom, knowledge, livelihood, or any other aspect of their lifestyle.
With some understanding of the traditions of my own land, I wanted to experience and understand the American land from the Native American view point. It was particularly interesting for me to meet with them considering the harsh treatment of immigrants being meted out in the USA and the State’s policy towards refugees. Meeting several of the Native American leaders, discussing larger challenges today, whether it be continued status of neglect, suppression and marginalization in their society or their deep pride and wisdom about their past and spiritual tradition, was an insightful learning experience. That is what I outline in the rest of the article here.
During the famous Parliament of World Religions in 1893 when Swami Vivekananda’s universal inclusive message of harmony of religions gained global attention, it is said that there were no Native Americans present or invited to speak: ‘… despite sentiments of universal fellowship expressed at the Parliament, there were no Native Americans present except in the curiosities display of American Indians on the fair’s midway. For many visitors, these Indians were as exotic as Vivekananda. But no native elder or chief was invited to speak at the Parliament. Native American lifeways were not yet seen as a spiritual perspective. Just three years earlier, one of the great Native American leaders, Chief Sitting Bull, had been arrested and killed, the Ghost Dance had been suppressed, and 350 Sioux had been massacred at Wounded Knee Creek.’
What was not discussed in 1893 was the extent to which the Christian colonial legacy of America remained an unquestioned ethos of the land. To understand this omission, we need to perhaps go back another 400 years in history, wherein the Christian project of ‘enlightening the world’ (apart from quest for wealth of coruse) set sail from Europe with the singular mission of conquering all the lands that were not ruled by Christians and converting all ‘heathens’, or non-Christians, to Christians. Columbus was one such who set sail westward in search of India with a faulty understanding of the global navigation. He came from a family of slave-traders and entered what we now call the Carribean (he never set foot on the American mainland) with a worldview that saw darker skinned people as inferior to white-skinned, Christian Europeans. He was known for his arrogance and his greed. We can only wonder what our people, our ancestors, in India would have done with him had he actually come to our land.
Upon Columbus’ return to Europe, Spain and Portugal sought to gain wealth from land they did not previously know existed. The Pope of the time agreed, writing a decree, known as a Papal Bull. This Bull is worth quoting at length. It commended voyagers who ‘intended to seek out and discover certain remote and unknown lands, to the end that you might bring to the worship of our Redeemer and the Catholic faith their inhabitants… By the authority of Almighty God and of the new land that has been discovered shall belong to you and your heirs. Furthermore, under penalty of excommunication, we strictly forbid anyone else to visit these lands for the purpose of trade (or for any reason) without your consent. Should anyone attempt this, be it known to him that he will incur the wrath of almighty God.’
This Bull thus gave Spain and Portugal legal and moral permission to steal and enslave the people and the natural resources, (or, to use less Western terminology, the human and non-human beings). The language is deeply theological, and imparts a religious and cultural superiority that may seem shocking to us today, but which has shaped our world ever since.
Columbus himself is supposed to have said this about the natives: ‘They should be good and intelligent servants, for I see that they say very quickly everything that is said to them; and I believe that they would become Christians very easily,….’.
The Papal Bull, became a key document in what is today referred to as the Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine has a sway over the American land even today. As the noted elder from the Onondaga Nation in northern New York state, Betty Lyons, stated in a recent article, “the Doctrine of Discovery,…granting European nations sovereignty over non-Christian lands “discovered” by their explorers …continues to provide the legal underpinning of the denial of land rights to our peoples.” With the denial of land rights comes the denial of ways of life, including caring through the earth via traditional ways of farming, rituals for water bodies and health for the people. This is not new to us in India, we have seen how the denial of land rights, both individual and collective was the beginning of the loss of traditional knowledge in our context as well.
The vast “American” land that Columbus ‘discovered’ was inhabited by deeply spiritual communities. The image of the “savage Indian” that was on the cartoons I watched as a kid is utterly false. Instead, they revered their land as sacred, worshipped the spirits of the land, paid homage to their ancestors and had diverse rituals and customs associated with all of this across their many diverse cultures – just as in India. They were self-organized into Nations or regions inhabited by different tribes that were clearly demarcated and where the tribes and their customs ruled. The area had been a homeland to numerous groups of Native Americans with their own thriving societies, songs, and histories. Many in the Northeastern region, especially in Maine, called themselves People of the Dawn. For thousands of years, these peoples had managed to maintain their unique culture and lifestyle and to make their living. They were tall and healthy: every early colonial report remarks on their physical strength and beauty; their diet was far superior to the Europeans at the same time. They had complex political arrangements, vast trade networks, cities, arts, and had developed many of the foods we eat today, including corn and tomatoes. The New Jersey airport where I landed, not far from where many Indians from India who work in the tech industries today, was the land of the Lenape people. Instead of concrete, there were rich wetlands, with some similarities to the area around what is now Chennai.
‘The arrival of the Europeans meant a drastic change for the Native Americans. Together with diseases which decimated the native population, the English settlers also brought an alien culture and religion.” As Betty Lyons puts it, “we know that supposed discovery of the so-called New World has had its greatest negative impact on the tens of millions of indigenous peoples who lived here.” The colonial invaders looked at most of the landscape as “commodified” products that could be shipped back to Europe. Historian William Cronon cites the way the ecology of the land was viewed by the colonizers in the New England area, “Visitors inevitably observed and recorded greatest numbers of “commodities” than other things”. The Native peoples did not look at the other beings, from the fish to the land itself, as “commodities”. Their worldview was much more similar to the Indian village pre-colonial worldview. While trade certainly occurred, all beings existed in a sacred web of life, and “ownership” and “commodification” of living beings, be they animals or humans, was not the norm. Obviously, the worldviews of the English and Native Americans differed significantly.
The resulting conflict is sustained till today, this was echoed by Chief Perry, one of the Native American leaders I met in the Lenape land outside New Jersey, “Rich people everywhere are afraid of the spiritual people, we show the truth you see”, he said sharing the story of struggle to sustain their sacred prayer site with country houses expansion for millionaires all around that threaten him and his tribe from accessing their land. As we walked with him in the ground just outside New Jersey, it was interesting to observe a large new Hindu temple just a few hundred meters away.
The contrast in the world view between the settlers and the indigenous peoples comes out strong even today. For example, when Chief Hawk Storm, from the Schaghticoke First Nations introduced himself, he said ‘I am water, I come from a tribe in which we consider ourselves water, today we are all polluted, as the water around us are polluted, so do we consider ourselves polluted.’ Rarely do we see modern “Americans” identifiying with their elements so strongly! However we do see such identification here in India. His sentiment deeply resonates with the sentiments expressed by Swami Swanand a.k.a. Prof. G.D. Agarwal, the environmental scientist, teacher and philosopher who gave up his body protesting against the unsustainable building of dams across the Ganga in India. It was only a few days after the passing away of Swami Swanand that I spoke to Chief Hawk and was able to witness the same concern and wisdom stemming from an ancient culture from the other end of the world. It was not merely fascinating: the resonance was reassuring. When listening to him, I felt that we and our struggles in India are not alone. As we proceeded to discuss the current concerns of humanity as a whole, he made another statement that highlighted the wisdom of the Native people: ‘When we are ill, the body rejects the disease and so does the planet; today we humans are the illness of the planet.’
To continue the history, the visitors and the natives discovered the vast differences in the world view resonate in various areas of life. The Natives not only had an active production and commerce, they also had systems of governance and methods to resolve conflicts coming from their wisdom and respect for the land. A few hours north of the Lenape land is situated the Iroquois/Haudenosaunee land (northern New York). It is here that five Native American nations came together. They taught the US government how to be democratic. ‘The Gayaneshakgowa, The Iroquois Great Law of Peace, is… the earliest surviving governmental tradition … based on the principle of peace; it was a system that provided for peaceful succession of leadership; it served as a kind of early United Nations; and it installed in government the idea of accountability to future life and responsibility to the seventh generation to come.... All of these ideas were present prior to the arrival of the white man.’
Among the several stories regarding the peaceful aspiration of the people is the story of the Peacemaker and the Kanien’keha:ka. One of the Native American leaders narrates the same as follows:
‘Centuries ago a Natural World people gathered together at the head of a lake in the center of North America’s then virgin forest, and, there they counselled. The principles that emerged are unequalled in any political document that has yet emerged. They evolved a law that recognized that vertical hierarchy creates conflicts, and they dedicated the superbly complex organization of their society to function to prevent the rise internally of hierarchy. The authors continue to establish laws around hunting and fishing that eased conflicts and ensured freedom and a right to protection for anyone entering the country of the Haudenosaunee, under what the peacemaker called the “Great Tree of Peace” which was a white Pine tree.
Coming from southern India, I was struck by the similarity of justice being provided under a tree. In many of our villages, we do the same thing. Our version of the White Pine tree is our native pipal tree. The sacredness of the tree itself provided the authority for the decisions as much as it bound the community to protecting and living with the natural order. However, these nuances of understanding and living with the Natural order was lost on the new arrivals from Europe, who wanted to make a quick profit.
There are several narratives of the first encounter from the Colonizers point of view. We ask, how did the natives see the Colonizers? What did they perceive to be the motives and the intentions of the new arrivals? Unfortunately, only a few narratives are available from the Native American point of view and these are only oral traditions; but, some imageries that are perhaps passed on through oral tradition, presented by one of the authors, who illustrates the nature of the first encounters -
‘On the coast…Native hunters find that several of the traps that they had set are missing…in the place where these items had been is smoothly polished upright timber crossed near the top by a second piece of wood, from which hangs the carved effigy of a bleeding man. …In the Indian dwelling, a women tells her granddaughter about the first meeting between the Natives and Europeans. One day, she says, a floating island appeared on the horizon. The beings who inhabited it offered the Indians blocks of wood to eat and cups of human blood to drink. The first gift the people found tasteless and useless; the second appallingly vile. Unable to figure out who the visitors were, the Native people called them ouemichtigouchiou, or woodworkers.’
Americans tend to originate their own nation on the east coast of what is now the United States. They act as if Columbus was one of their Founding Fathers, although he never set foot upon America. However, as Sara Wolcott explained to me, between 1492, when the Taino people first encountered Columbus, and 1620, when the Algonquin-speaking people first met the Pilgrims of the Mayflower, were 128 years and much happened during that time which significantly influenced the development of the United States. While initially friendly and hospitable, Native peoples throughout the Carribbean, meso-America, South America and North America came to be highly suspicious if not outright resist the colonial invaders. The colonists often enslaved, raped, pillaged and massacred the peoples of the islands and meso-America. They turned the rich, bio-diverse landscapes of the Caribbean into the monoculture of what became sugar plantations. The horrific transatlantic slave trade brought Africans to forced labor work in the plantations, which, combined with gold that was stolen from the native people in Mexico, created a surplus of wealth for Europe, which is part of what enabled the capital for the global colonial expansions and the industrial revolution that subsequently shaped the global colonial enterprise.
The Spanish entered present-day New Mexico (1540), Texas and South Carolina in 1540 – long before the English even began to sail overseas. The settlement in South Carolina was overthrown by the black slave rebellion. Natives continually worked to oust the Spanish, cumulating in the successful 1680 Pueblo rebellion in Santa Fe. The Dutch West Indies Company, a sister company to the Dutch East Indies company, were in present day New York City before the English – they called it New Amsterdam. The Lenape peoples themselves called it Manhattana, alternatively translated as the “place of many hills”, or the “place to gather wood for bows and arrows,” or the “place of the meeting of many peoples”, from which we have the present day term Manhattan. While the steel, horses, guns and other forms of weapons certainly impressed the Native peoples, it was the diseases which the Europeans did not even really understand that they carried (at least at first) that decimated the Native peoples. Estimates vary between 30% to 95% of the millions of people who lived in the Americas were decimated by various European diseases, including small pox. By the time the famous Mayflower ship landed in Plymouth, village after village had been decimated, vastly shifting the local politics and the people’s capacity to engage (including to resist) the foreigners, according to Rev. Sara Wolcott.
Symbols of the Native American tribals were either usurped or slowly changed with the influence of the culture. ‘From the 1500s to the early 19th century, the idealized image of ‘America’ was transformed from a dark-skinned, full bodied woman wearing a feathered headdress and a skirt of feathers or tobacco leaves, the symbol of fecundity, to a (white) Greek goddess.’
Unlike the European arrival in India, where the initial purpose was seeking trade relations and much later began the colonization project, in the American land the purpose was conversion to Christianity and rule over the Natives from the beginning. Hence any resistance was put down violently. While estimates vary, several sources indicate that as high as 50 million Native Americans were intentionally killed by the invading Europeans between the 16th and 17th century. Indeed, when one looks at the values celebrated by Modern America and what the modern Americans think they represent in the world, especially democracy, equality, and fairness, one can resonate with the question raised by one of the Native American writers, ‘North America had its own genocide against the First People – violent, devastating, effective. It was driven by a sense of racial and religious superiority, and the prize was land and resources. How could it be that the people so dedicated to democracy and freedom could have been so cruel to another people? What attitudes, beliefs, myths and misunderstandings give rise to and fuel this kind of conduct?’
Official records today place these number as 573 different tribes across the contemporary boundaries of the United States, separate from Mexico and Canada, although those boundaries are made by the colonists, not the indigenous peoples and do not make sense to the Native mindset. Thus, traditionally, some of the drylands on the border of Mexico and the United States were homelands of people who often travelled across those lands and did not treat them as wholly separate places, as contemporary politicians insist that they are today.
The Native Americans today constitute about 5 million people across the continent. They are dispersed all over the region starting from Canada in the north all the way to Mexico in the south. In the US, about half are on reservations: inhibit smaller patches of what once was their own land. Many live in urban centers, and you can’t necessarily tell by looking at someone if they are Native American or not. Many of them have the copies of the documents that were signed by the Europeans and keep reminding settlers that their land has been illegally (according to their laws) taken over. One study places the amount of land taken over between 1887 to 1934 at about 90 million acres. Some of them have multiple citizenships today as the US law permits them to have citizenship of their tribal nation apart from that of the USA.
The Nation of United States of America as it stands today was fundamentally land leased from the Native Americans through treaties. Today 374 such treaties govern the nation of USA. Much of these treaties have never been respected by the American government who signed them. Often land was violently taken and retained by the governments (US and Canada). The Native Americans were restricted to ‘reservations’ set-up exclusively as captive spaces for them and their sacred spaces violated completely. For five consecutive generations, from roughly 1880-1980, Native American children in the United States and Canada were forcibly taken from their families and relocated to residential schools. In these schools, they were ‘educated’ and ‘civilized’ so that they no longer dress, behave or remember the culture of the Native American tribes and instead adopt the European lifestyle. The stated goal of this government program was to ‘kill the Indian to save the man.’ Half of the children did not survive the experience, and those who did were left permanently scarred. The resulting alcoholism, suicide, and the transmission of trauma to their own children has led to a social disintegration with results that can only be described as genocidal.
Alluding to the educating of their children and the shift in their mind-sets subsequently, Chief Perry summarized the plight of the youth in the community when he said, ‘Our children could narrate the history of 10 generations; then they were forced into school and today they don’t know anything about their past.’ The image of what a Native American child looks before being ‘schooled’ and after is a striking testimony of what happens in schools, where ones’ own traditions are shown in poor light and that of alien in better light. The most absurd length to which to which this can be extended is when even the “conquest” of the Native is celebrated even today. The modern American holidays such as ‘Thanksgiving’ and ‘Columbus Day’ are being increasingly opposed by people who are aware of its historical background; they want the Colombus Day to be commemorated as day of mourning and day of Indigenous people respectively. Today about 90 cities across the United States have already declared the national holiday of Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s day.
Creating better futures through honouring the past
One of my first engagements was with Mr. Mindahi Crescencio Bastida Munoz, Director of the Original Caretakers Programme and also Director for the Centre of Earth Ethics in Union Theology College, New York. Hailing from the Otomi people, an ancienti indigenous community in Mexico, Mr. Mindahi, after a brief ceremony to sanctify the meeting of our two civilizations, invoked the holy spirits of his civilization through the blowing of the sacred flute (whistle) and invoking the ancestors of the two civilizations to guide the process of dialogue and engagement. He explained the salient components of the indigenous view. Among other things, he acknowledged that one of the key aspects of the culture is the honouring of the ancestors; according to him, ‘honouring the past is important to create the future.’ Having just left India after the month of Mahlaya when families in Tamilnadu and elsewhere make offerings to their elders, this sounded familiar to me.
This was one of the key aspects reiterated by Chief Perry whom we meet in the Lenape Sacred land outside the city of New Jersey. A longstanding Chief of his community and a voice of wisdom, when he talks of what needs to be done in the current world, he talks not from the sense of anger or frustration of being denied access to his own people’s land, but, with a sense of responsibility towards all of humanity.
He says, ‘the important ways to change things today are –
- Honour the lineage
- Strengthen the local communities
- Perform ceremonies that honour nature and elements, accommodate and accompany others’ ceremonies as well
- Cleanse the earth
- Think beyond our lives.’
After an evening walk around the sacred site and prayers, we asked him before leaving, what was the one thing that he liked to see changed in the world today. After a pause, he replied, ‘If there is one thing that I would like to change in the world with which I think many things can change, I will change the world from the Patriarchal one to one of Matriarchy.’
The denial of access to their land and natural resources resonates in utterances of many of the Native American leaders whether it be in personal conversations or in larger gatherings. Chief Stacey Laforme highlights this in his statement, ‘I was born into a generation of abuse: alcohol abuse; abuse of your spouse, abuse of your children. It was just sort of a common way of life when I was born — I'm sure a lot of it had to do with losing our place in society, losing our sense of who we were. It was rampant and everybody knew about it, but they also didn't say anything.’ This, ‘not saying anything’ or not having the courage to stand up to injustice is a recurring discussion as well whether it be the engagement with the Native Americans or even in the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto in early November 2018, which had the Indigenous People as one of its theme.
But there is always hope in these dialogues. The people I spoke to had a strong sense of looking forward to a better world, and the possibility of things improving for the better. This optimism is in contrast to the general sense of frustration and defeated mind-set of many non-Native Americans and also many other European countries. Chief Alina la Flamme, a Chief who evokes response through drumming, calling herself the ‘daughter of the drum’, says, ‘We are in this womb world, we are preparing ourselves to come into the sacred life, it is a tough journey to be born there, it is not easy.’ The same sentiment is resonated in another dialogue with the Hereditary Chief Phil Lane Jr.: ‘Now is the time for everyone to work together, it is not time for divisions, the earth mother calls us all to work together.’
In each of these dialogues and discussions, there is a reverence when they speak of the East Indian land, of our land: ‘You come from a sacred land’, ‘We are honoured that someone from your country is coming to meet us’, ‘Your civilization and ours needs to work together to create a better world, these two have a great wisdom within them’ – all statements made with great sincerity and gratitude. During these conversations, I often remembered Swami Vivekananda’s words that every word is uttered with blessings behind it.
In times of difficulty, every civilization retains that which is core to itself, its fundamental ethos as though protecting it for a future time on behalf of all of humanity. Human history is the history of dominance of the world culture by people of various ethos. In the current times, when the accelerated destruction of natural resources and its consequences on human life has become a major concern of all thinking people, the unconscious collective mind seems to be reaching out to those people and ethos that hold in their midst the possible solutions for these times. Creative solutions are held by the indigenous people everywhere. I felt that perhaps some of the Native American leaders sense this invocation and have started to articulate their wisdom with a keen sense of responsibility for all of humanity.
It was a fitting tribute to their wisdom and Canada’s recent efforts towards Truth and Reconciliation, that the Parliament of World Religions 2018 started with a ceremony by the people of the First Nations. As the sacred fire was lit and tobacco, sage and other sacred materials offered to the fire next to a traditional tepee in the middle of the cloudy, drizzling and crowded city of Toronto, all Religious leaders joined the Native Americans.