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Surviving Hard Times: It's not for sissies

Dan Namingha
Dan Namingha Deer Migration No. 6 Acrylic on Canvas 48" x 48"

Many American Indian traditions contain stories about how things were in the distant past and how the world came to be the way it is now. And many of these project into the future how things will come to be. In these stories we have some of the major prophecies. Two of these are probably the best known: the Hopi prophecies, because the Hopi elders made attempts over more than five decades to warn the world of the coming changes, and the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois, because as one of the most closely studied, they are also one of the most communicative. Both are instructive, although somewhat misunderstood.

Some cultures experience prophecies as something that happens to an individual. God, or some other supernatural force, designates someone, usually a male, to receive information about what is about to happen. That person becomes a prophet.

In American Indian cultures, it is usually the collective, the people, who are given the information, although sometimes a teacher or individual arises among them to become a prophet. Certainly in historic times American Indian cultures produced charismatic prophets. Of special interest, however, is an earlier kind of prophecy akin to the Hopi prophecy, which does not designate a prophet but becomes the teachings of a people.

In the ancient Hopi prophecies, we hear of worlds that once existed, of how people became corrupted and debauched, and how the powers of nature abandoned them. The people were forced to flee underground, only to emerge later to rebuild their world. The same thing happened three times, until emergence into this, the fourth world. But the fourth world, we are led to understand, is not permanent.

This kind of prophecy is about how things were in the past and how they will come to be again. The Hopi story is that things were just wonderful until people forgot their obligations to the forces of nature; then nature abandoned them to natural catastrophes, destroying their civilization. But the people survived and emerged to rebuild.

This story should be thought of not as a fantasy but as a collective memory. The archaeological and geological records show that past civilizations did exist in the desert Southwest, they did decline and disappear, and the people did re-emerge. The story is true.

Europe in the "new" world
When Europeans first began streaming into North America four centuries ago, they came from a continent that experienced persistent food shortages. A prevailing symbol of pre-modern Europe is the vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Famine, Disease, and Death. These images are not simply bogeymen. War was fairly common and often led to famine, which weakened the populations, leading to diseases and, of course, death. Waves of epidemic disease swept through Europe and the “known world,” Asia, Asia Minor, and Africa, for centuries. The climate of Western Europe was often unpredictable, too cold for crops some years, warm enough other years. Often there wasn’t enough food to eat, and it was not unusual that people in one place, say Bavaria, might be starving while people in another, say Tuscany, had a surplus. Not everyone was starving all the time, but almost every area experienced hunger some of the time.

But when they arrived in the Americas, Europeans found plenty to eat. We know now that the Indians were responsible for this, although they gained scant praise or acknowledgment at the time. The English arrived in New England at a time when the region had been experiencing epidemic diseases and population declines, which may have been ongoing for generations due to infections brought by the Spanish far to the south. But the Indian legacy to New England was a bounty to the English.

The Indians had managed their world to take advantage of nature's capacity for food production. Where berries would grow, the Indians encouraged them. Wherever Indians went, they planted food crops, especially nut trees. There is evidence that the walnut groves that the English immigrants encountered were planted by Indians as a food source.

And nature helped. Food sources existed in North America in some abundance, especially the chestnut tree, which once comprised one-sixth of the North American forest. In addition, the Indians knew which wild plants to use as food. For famine to arrive in the North American forest, you would need one of the four horsemen: war.

Disease and death, as I have said, preceded the arrival of the English. Some argue that the depopulation of the Indians accounted for some of the abundance of game, including the pigeons. But the forests had been managed in a way that encouraged, indeed helped feed, game populations. Indian land management, both at the village level and in the forest lands, encouraged food production. For the most part, the Indians didn’t plant foods that were already available in abundance. Instead of creating a garden of blueberries, they encouraged the productivity of blueberry plantations established by nature. They didn’t bring the blueberries to the village, the village went to the blueberries. During the nut and berry seasons, Indians were forever off somewhere gathering, drying, and preparing for storage foods that were provided by nature under the encouragement of humans. It was edible landscaping on a grand scale. The English, upon arrival, turned their livestock loose on the forest, and the blueberry and other wild food plants were destroyed. The English thought they were making "improvements" to the land.

In addition, Indians had pushed agriculture as far north as possible in the millennium prior to English arrival, and the English benefited from the existence of beans, squashes, and, of course, corn. While the English concentrated their agriculture on small plots and pastures, the Indians managed huge areas of forest, burning off the underbrush periodically to make way for grasses to feed the deer and elk and other animals. It was mega-farm development with nature as the guiding hand. The English thought the Indians were nomads, but the English never had a clue what the Indians were doing. Indians of the woodlands had learned to cooperate with nature, which is an admonition of the Hopi story. And, like the Hopi, they had learned that sometimes even cooperation with nature was not enough to avoid catastrophe.

The English arrived at an opportune time. The past 400 years had seen the nicest weather imaginable. It was certainly nicer weather than the ancient Indians knew. The English were at first a bit astonished at how violent storms could get even in this period of nice weather, and they would eventually encounter the tornadoes, blizzards, and hurricanes to which North America is prone. But the English have never seen North America at its worst, or even at its average.

The Iroquois have a story about how the world was transformed. In this transformation the spirit of cold or ice is restrained, and the creator of good things--many of which are good things to eat--creates a world of plenty. The people are encouraged to be happy and grateful for this bounty, but they are forewarned that although things are productive and plentiful, they may not remain this way. Indeed, they will not. The Hopi and the Iroquois are consistent on this point: change will come.

You probably think this planet’s about you …
Human beings are hopelessly anthropocentric. To paraphrase the song: "You’re so vain, you probably think this planet’s about you, don’t you?" So when something happens, like a giant volcano or a tsunami, an event in the Earth’s history that has nothing to do with human beings, people rush forward looking for someone to blame. "God (or whatever) is punishing you because you didn’t do whatever it was I wanted you to do." That kind of admonition is almost always followed with a prescription that has little to do with the problem at hand. Either you are to throw virgins into the volcano, murder persons of some religious or sexual orientation, or turn over all your worldly goods to the person who’s exhorting you in the first place.

The real problem is that people have experienced a real climatic change over the past 12,000 years that enabled the invention of agriculture. Agriculture provided a much more stable food supply, but it is also very vulnerable to climate changes. Even when a relatively small change occurs, such as happened in 1815 when a giant volcano erupted in Indonesia, sending dust into the air and causing a "year without a summer," great suffering ensues. Whether climate change is sudden or gradual, whether it gets warmer or colder, change is bad for people who are dependent on agriculture.

The food systems of the North American Indians were more resistant to climate changes because, outside of the gardens, they promoted nature as the engine of food production. But those systems were destroyed by people who never saw them for what they were. And even very careful Indians, cooperating as well as they could with nature, experienced societal collapse in the desert Southwest and in desert cultures in Central and South America because conditions arose with which they could not cope.

Given the information that climate change is inevitable and that its arrival will be a tremendous challenge to our food production capacities, a rational society would at least try to take measures to prepare for the future. It may be true, as stated in the Hopi prophecy, that human greed and foolishness will trigger the changes (actually I’m inclined to think that is true), but whatever the causes, the inevitability of change is clear enough. Our species was given 12,000 years of warm weather to prepare for the day when things would change again. Perhaps it will become colder or perhaps warmer, or worst of all, perhaps it will first become much warmer, then get cold. The latter would be the worst because the impact on the biology of the world would be equivalent to a catastrophic cleansing. Plant and animal systems in the north would be invaded by species and diseases from the south in a giant wave of extinctions. There would be no cold-weather species left. Then it would get cold again. Not a good outcome.

Human beings are very adaptable, but they might not be that adaptable. The 12,000-year summer is probably coming to a close with either a super summer or a new winter. No one knows how much time is left. It would make sense to prepare for the future, but our systems of economics and politics are unlikely to move in that direction.

The good news is, they could. It would be a daunting task. Food production and energy production systems would need to be devised that assumed there would be no replacement parts. Food plants would be selected based on their capacity to grow using less water and shorter growing seasons. Survivability and profit may not always coincide. Ways of taking advantage of what nature has to offer—instead of finding ways to overpower nature—would drive priorities.

This kind of thing happened in the past. People made choices based not on what they wanted to do, but on what was possible to do. The earliest agricultural societies arose because when food became scarce, the group so affected could not migrate to the next valley because that valley was occupied by other people. So they were forced to plant crops. And the crops they planted were the ones that could be domesticated, which were probably not their favorites. So they planted grain crops, and in the early years they suffered. The first agriculturalists almost always shrank in size relative to their ancestors and the peoples around them. But over time they recovered, somewhat. Eventually they thrived, but now they were vulnerable to drought and sand storms and early frosts. And now, when they were hungry, they could not move to the next valley. Now, when hungry, they must live on stored surpluses or starve. It was a problem for a long time, and is still a problem in a lot of places.

Some of the very earliest human migrations took people out of Africa, through Asia Minor, and into Central Asia. There they established cultures that have survived tens of thousands of years in intensely hostile environments. Later, humans learned to survive in the arctic. And in rain forests. Humans can survive almost anything. But those were hunter-gatherers who evolved into herdsmen or moved on when things got difficult, not post-industrialists and refugees from a false utopian global economy.

The coming millennium is not for sissies, but our generation should do what it can to provide options for whatever conditions arise. We have the capacity to provide those options if we can be realistic and if we have the will. The problem is, we who undertake this task won’t make much money doing this, and until the fat lady sings, most of the people in the culture(s) around us are unlikely to be supportive.

Human beings have a tremendous capacity to recover from disaster through collective amnesia. Mount Vesuvius has a thriving population at its base, the beaches where the tsunami of 2005 wreaked havoc are being rebuilt, areas of South Florida that were destroyed by hurricanes are being repopulated. The Hopi warned that our capacity to forget the past should not overwhelm our obligation to learn from it. We should listen to their message.


John C. Mohawk, wrote this article as part of 5000 Years of Empire, the Summer 2006 issue of YES! Magazine. John was a columnist for Indian Country Today, an author, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and a YES! contributing editor.

He passed in December 2006. Read Bruce Jackson's obituary for John.

Photo of John Mohawk
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