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Stories That Light Up The Dark

The experiences of our ancestors offer us wisdom for surviving today's crises.
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Reconstituting Democracy

The stories of the Iroquois Confederacy look especially relevant as we confront the crises of governance that have led the United States to bail out banks, permit disastrously unsafe oil drilling in the Gulf, and allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on election campaigns. Renewal of sound governance is essential to addressing converging ecological, economic, and political crises.

The Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, have centuries-old wisdom on peacemaking and ethical governance. And despite a contentious academic debate about the Haudenosaunee’s degree of influence on the Constitution, the U.S. Congress in 1988 passed a resolution stating that the framers of the Constitution “most notably, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, are known to have greatly admired the concepts of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.”

The resolution goes further: “The confederation of the original Thirteen Colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the Constitution itself.”

As a faithkeeper, Chief Oren Lyons, 78, formally upholds the traditions, legends, and prophecies of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York—one of the Six Nations.

Lyons recounts an oral history of the Six Nations’ historic spiritual guide, the Great Peacemaker, who instructed the Haudenosaunee to “work with nature and be thankful.” Hundreds of years ago, perhaps even prior to the arrival of Columbus, the nations had been at war. But the Great Peacemaker “laid down the whole process of confederation,” urging them to eliminate conflict among themselves and be unified.

“He said our duties as leaders [are] to ... protect your relatives, your nation,” says Lyons. “Protect all life, in other words, [the] flower as well as the trees, as well as the people, as well as the animals. Everything, he said, we’re going to put into your hands, the welfare of all life, that’s your duty.”

The Haudenosaunee confederacy was based on three principles. Lyons explains:

The first point was peace and health. You can’t have peace without health. The names are interchangeable to us. Our greeting is “thank you for being well, thank you for being who you are.”

Number two was equity, equity for the people, because you can’t have justice if you don’t have equity. Equity is first, justice comes after. So, the Great Peacemaker said, equity for the people—be fair, work for their interests.

The third was the power of the good minds, unity, to be united. He said, ‘This is going to be your strength.’

In Sweden last year, I heard Lyons speak to a group of young leaders. He said that today, amid “a lot of abuse of positions of authority” among politicians, real community leaders need to emerge. New leaders, he said, need to be courageous and capable enough to help people organize and remain strong as the environment and society change.

Reseed your Own Stories

Indigenous stories offer us enduring wisdom, but Hykes Steere, Lyons, Edwardson, and many other indigenous elders have insisted to me that each of us needs to draw on our own ancestral cultures for guidance. When people learn their own cultural and family stories, they gain a deep respect for their origins and for future generations. They can then “know who they are and be who they are,” says Edwardson.

Over the past few years, I’ve distilled five tips for personal resilience from conversations I’ve had with indigenous people:

  1. Seek guidance from people who have overcome suffering with dignity.
  2. Learn from those who have maintained a sense of humor through difficult times.
  3. Converse with grandparents and great-grandparents about their stories of hardship and the lessons they’ve learned.
  4. Reflect on what’s necessary for you to develop more inner strength than you have. If this is hard to do, learn techniques, such as mindfulness, to help you listen to your heart.
  5. Connect with your own culture by developing an understanding of, and sympathy for, the experiences and stories that your ancestors handed down in your family.

For example, my family’s history stems from pre-partition north India. My late grandmother, Satya Khanna, who was born near Lyallpur, Punjab (renamed Faisalabad after the 1947 partition that divided India), knew a thing or two about gathering inner strength through difficulty.

Six years ago, she and Sudha Bua, my paternal aunt, survived a terrible accident. They took a summer evening walk together in Mill Valley, Calif., when a speeding motorcycle crossed over to the wrong side of the road and struck them.

The surgeons at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto didn’t think she’d make it. Once it was clear that she would survive, she endured several surgeries to mend her pelvis and internal organs.

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She told me that during her hospital stay, hooked up to tubes and a morphine drip, she remembered prayers taught to her in her childhood. In a mechanical bed, her face distended, blue, and bruised almost beyond recognition, she’d been in a trance, using the prayers she’d learned to visualize her body mending. Growing up, she’d come to believe time and space were surmountable by thought. In and out of the hospital, she appeared to use her spiritual skills to hasten her recovery.

In August 2008, at 91 years old, my grandmother participated in the first official Khanna family reunion, which my aunt organized and held at her and my uncle’s Mill Valley home.

I was feeling depressed at that family reunion. When you spend most of your time writing and researching on climate change scenarios and the downward direction of the economy, it’s easy to be overwhelmed.

One afternoon, I sat down with my grandmother when almost everyone else was on an excursion.

She saw straight through my unhappiness. She peered into me, smiled calmly, and said two words: “Bring gladness.”

In spite of the specter of rising seas, increased drought, human displacement, and inundated cities prognosticated by climate scientists, I needed to find ways to inspire gladness in myself and other people. It’s that simple.

Now I hope the inner strength I witnessed in my grandmother remains a seed within me. As times grow more difficult, I pray that her ability to heal mind and body is a quality I can develop and call on.

The changes wrought by peak oil, climate disruption, and economic instability will affect all of us. Yet, those who gather strength from stories of beauty, courage, love, kindness, generosity, and good will can, in a social environment of growing uneasiness, store and spread the seeds of human welfare.

MUG Sanjay KhannaSanjay Khanna wrote this article for A Resilient Community, the Fall 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Sanjay is a writer, journalist, futurist, and the director of Resilient People, which provides guidance on preparing for economic and climate shifts. His writing has appeared in Nature, The Huffington Post, and Grist.

Header photo by Hideyuki Kamon


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