The Myth (and Hope) of Indigenous Wisdom: Projecting Native American Philosophy into the 7th Generation
There is a commonly invoked, albeit inaccurate, quote attributed to the Constitution of the Iroquois Nation.
“In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”
Like many of the myths and misconceptions about the indigenous tribes of America, this one is not quite accurate. What the Iroquois Constitution does say, while not quite so poetic, is still worth considering. We should make it mandatory reading, and part of the oath of office, for Congress.
In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.
Here is a more concise version, think ahead and consider everyone.
The mythical image of indigenous people having some special connection to nature and a better understanding of their place in the universe is quaint but mistaken.
If we study these philosophies and their implementation, explore the history of those who developed them, we find the truth offers something better.
We hold the same hopes for our children and grandchildren, be it seven or seventy generations hence. Our many differences make us all human.
Marcus Tullius Cicero said,
“Time destroys the speculation of men, but it confirms nature.”
I thinks Cicero was warning us of the dangers in speculating about the future. Ignoring the future is unwise, predicting it impossible.
All peoples, throughout history, have based decisions on the future. Whenever humans consider the future, they do it through the prism of now.
Therein lies the problem.
A generation is commonly held to be 25 years.
It is now 2016; seven generations ago, the year was 1841. What kind of consideration could that generation, born in 1816, make for my daughter’s generation?
What decisions can we make that have a chance of being the least bit practical for the year 2191?
The words from the Zager and Evans song now echo in my head,
In the year 2525, if man is still alive
If woman can survive, they may find
In the year 3535
Ain’t gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lie
Everything you think, do and say
Is in the pill you took today…
The idea that we can measure the effect of our decisions 175 years in the future is nonsense.
History is replete with examples of decisions made for the good of the future that, in retrospect, turned out to be disasters.
One could argue all religions think of the future and mold their decisions in terms of centuries. They do this out of a sense of self-preservation, not a concern for the well-being of future generations.
The Iroquois held no special skills in decision-making. Taking time to consider the consequences of our actions is another step on the road to a truly advanced civilization.
Perhaps the Iroquois understood this better than others did.
Until all philosophies evolve to embrace the vast wonder of the universe, without seeking to impose one over the other, considering the future is an exercise in futility.
The sad fact is that many of the past decisions made about the future sought the destruction of one culture in favor of the survival of another. The corpses of failed hegemonies litter history, staining blood red the world they once sought to subvert to their will.
We need to think about the future. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that thinking about the future and knowing what it will be are two very different things.
“We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible” George Santayana