My friend Joe Broadmeadow, in his post ‘Myth (and hope) of indigenous Wisdom: Projecting Native American Philosophy into the 7th Generation’, has gotten me thinking. He reflects on the Iroquois Constitution that teaches: ‘Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people, 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.’ Iroquois tradition teaches that we are to consider the needs of those seven generations to come.
Imagine a world where leaders of communities consider the well-being of those seven generations to come. Imagine taking steps now to moderate the greed that has led to climate change. Imagine making decisions now to help ensure that ancestors living in 2191 have clean water, clean air, fertile soil.
The question of course is whether we can imagine living in such a way. Joe offers a pessimistic view: ‘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.’
To a degree, Joe is correct. Many religions, nations and tribes have sought to advance their own cause at the expense of another. The abuse and genocide by European nations of native peoples in the Americas is a shameful example. Yet, there are also examples of religions, tribes and nations (i.e. Iroquois) that have and do look towards the collective well-being of all people.
This is particularly true in many indigenous religious/cultural traditions, who understand stewardship of the earth as a sacred trust. Honoring and respecting the earth benefits all of creation. The Iroquois Constitution while sensitive to the people’s who make up that confederacy, also implies a deep reverence for the well-being of the earth upon which we all people live.
I think Joe misses this larger point when he writes: ‘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.’
I think it is precisely this ‘special connection to nature, and their place in the universe’, that empowers the Iroquois to look beyond their immediate needs to those 7 generations removed. Myths are a collection of stories told to explain nature, history and customs. Myths grow out from a community offering a collective sense of belonging, shared and religious experience and moral and practical lessons. For the Iroquois, their legal constitution grows out from their mythology which is foundational to who they are and how they live.
The word ‘myth’ is sometimes used in a pejorative way, to suggest superstition and untruths. I believe this is a profound disservice. Myths/traditions/legends/faith carry truths that guide our path and expand our imagination. Yes, myths/traditions/legends/faith can be destructive but can also be noble and life-giving.
For the Iroquois, their mythology teaches that they are people of the earth, that the earth is a gift from the Spirit and that we have a sacred responsibility for the health of this planet both now and generations to come. This is a universal truth to which all are invited to subscribe.