Day 6: The Leadership of Indigenous People

Today is Monday, Tanna, and this particular Monday is an observed national holiday. Like many things taken for granted when I was a child, there is considerable contention surrounding this second Monday in October.

Long recognized as “Columbus Day,” it celebrates the historic voyage by Christopher Columbus across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492. His destination was the far east and he gambled they would not sail off the edge of the world. And he was right. Earth is spherical. However, it’s much larger than he conjectured. He assumed he’d landed in India, when in reality, he anchored his ship in a cove off a Caribbean Island, the one we recognize today as Cuba.

But, in my school days, we all learned, “Columbus discovered America.”

The irony of this misleading historical fake fact is that he, himself, never set foot anywhere on the North American continent. He gets credit for discovery, however, even though the islands and the continents of the western hemisphere were occupied already by well-established cultures of native people.

Those he met at the end of his voyage must surely be residents of India, he reasoned. And so, though they were already known to each other by many other names, the First Peoples of North America came to be known as Indians.

This misappropriation became ludicrous in my mind the year I actually visited India and met genuine Indians. Since then, I resist the notion to call our indigenous nations by that term. Ojibway, Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, Kaw, Ponca, Apache, Lakota, Arapahoe, Tlingit, Haida, Hopi, Navajo (to name but a few)—each group formed its own nation with its own economy, culture, and government. The influx of Europeans ignored the autonomy of natives. European arrogance and entitlement have led to centuries of conflict and bloodshed.

Today there is a movement to recognize the dignity of the remaining indigenous populations, not only here, but indigenous people around the world. And that traditional holiday celebrating Columbus is now recognized in many hearts, and a few states and municipalities, as Indigenous People Day.

Our recognition and respect go far beyond one day, though. As the plight of our planet grows ever more dire, indigenous people raise their cry of dissention—and many others join them. Books on the native ways are available. Panels of indigenous leaders offer international online seminars in which the panelists share thoughts, concerns, ideas, and suggestions for moving forward.

I am listening. Perhaps in your day, Tanna, the Columbus celebrations will have retreated to a distant corner, like a demoralized dog, head down and tail between its legs.

Native peoples on every continent lead the way in our infant efforts to bind ourselves intimately with the natural world. Thomas Berry recognized this in his writings. “We have even forgotten our primordial capacity for language at the elementary level of song and dance.” He went on to point out how native Americans revere our wild neighbors through their musical and chanting ceremonies.

“One of the significant historical roles of the primal people of the world,” Berry wrote in The Dream of the Earth, “is to call the entire civilized world back to a more authentic mode of being. [Native peoples] are emerging as one of our surest guides into a viable future.”

Tanna, I struggle for words to describe what’s in my heart when Berry refers to native music from the wild places. One panel I experienced during the heat of this COVID summer included indigenous women of all ages, and from varied locations in the western hemisphere. The Ecuadorian woman, Patricia Gualinga, mentioned how the meetings her people hold always start with music, to create harmony, and that all participants—male or female, young or old—are treated with the same respect and consideration. All are equal in their councils.

Strangely, this draws my mind to our District 79 state representative race. Ken White, the man challenging the conservative incumbent, is a musician. He shows up at campaign events with a guitar strapped to his shoulders. And I think to myself, It wouldn’t hurt to bring a little music to ease the tension in our statehouse.

Happy Indigenous People Day, Tanna! I hope that in your time, it is without question or contention the focus of an October holiday. To the leaders of the people so long abused by our national and state policies, I say, “Lead on. It’s your turn now.”

And I truly hope they help us find the way back to a thriving relationship with the natural world.

Pardon me now, as I head off on my own private walk in celebration of Indigenous People Day, an effort publicized online as the Rising Hearts Run/Walk, located anywhere on Turtle Island.

With enduring love,

Your Seventh Generation Grandmother

Day 4: Hot Buttons and Getting Hotter

Dear Tanna,

The top priority in changing the course of our nation for some people is to abolish abortion. But I don’t think it’s that simple. Abortion is not an either/or issue, not simply “yes” or “no.” It’s not black and white. There are many shades of gray. There always are with complicated issues.

For me, the environment is the hot button issue. Exploitation, degradation, and destruction of the natural systems we all rely on for basic necessities are the biggest problems we face. Environmental destruction will destroy us, if we don’t hearken to the urgency. And then it won’t matter if women can govern their own bodies, or if we can shop for the latest fashions, or a new car, or even if we have enough to eat.

It. Won’t. Matter.

My love of the natural world goes back to my childhood. We traveled and camped every chance we had, all over the western states. I hope, Tanna, that you will have access to the amazing redwood forests like I did. I hope you will experience awe as you look over magnificent mountain scenes, canyons, rivers, and oceans of grass. This is truly a remarkable land and I hope we find the ingenuity—and the will—to preserve it far beyond your generation. Like every other child, you deserve the chance to feel wonder at the annual butterfly migrations, to catch your breath when an unexpected wild visitor turns your head, to watch a white-tailed deer chew its cud, to fill your lungs with fresh, clean air in an autumn breeze.

The concern for our wanton destruction and exploitation of nature is not new. It was well documented before I was born. By the time I entered college, there were ecology classes focused on our careless destruction of the natural world, and what that would inevitably mean to every living thing on the planet.

We are some of those living things.

To me, nature is teacher and healer, a holy place where I retreat to seek the divine. Nature can be that for you, also, if you learn how to listen.

I once watched an exhausted moose lunge through shoulder-deep snow and I learned the dangers of choosing an easy path. In a downpour I heard the rain plummet from the heavens and it spoke to me of cycles in life. I watched a family of ducks chase madly from one point to another and back again and I saw human fads and opinions mirror the whimsical parade of a flock of ducks. I watched my best friend waste away in a losing battle with cancer and I understood how the growing demands of humanity sap the vitality of our home planet in a similar fashion. Meadowlarks leapt into the wind so they might gain lift and fly away. And I learned I must face the adversities in my life before I could ever rise above them. A stately and beautiful tree crashed to the ground in tornado-strength straight line winds, and whispered that sometimes our roots will not be able to support us against a barrage of adversity. Messages arrive on the dust of a sunbeam and the wings of the wind.

Long ago, I read books by Thor Heyerdahl. One was titled Fatu Hiva: Back to Nature.  In the narrative of his return to simple life on a remote island, he described the music he found in nature. “There is fine music everywhere in nature between moss-covered stones and foliage. . .The lights, the colors, the sounds, the perfumes, the touch, the shapes were never the same, and were always playing on our minds like a vast orchestra. We could hardly take in more music—and I do not mean the singing of birds and the tinkling of a rivulet: . . .I mean music beyond the eardrums. We have had to create flutes and violins to leave impressions deeper in than the eardrums, where nature used to play.”

The musician inside me revels in the symphony of nature. I have delighted in taking piano students (and a grand piano) to outdoor recitals where every piece they played showed a musical glimpse of nature. Everything we humans have created has its source in nature, one way or another. I cannot find words to describe that inner union of my consciousness with the constant prairie symphony in my backyard. Without nature, I would be nothing.

Nature is not exactly constant. It is, if anything, constantly changing, providing variety in daily life. Even the sky presents many faces and no two are the same. We see a lot of sky out here above the prairie. It is our grandiose landscape. Clouds provide our mountains, the earth propels us forward, and the view changes hourly.

From observing my grandchildren, I realize fresh eyes see things as new and wondrous, no matter how much they have changed in my lifetime. My wish for my grandchildren—times seven generations and more—is that they never lose a sense of wonder. Natural processes continue. Even the Earth’s response to humanity’s bludgeoning of the biosphere is Nature’s way to restore a sort of balance. What will emerge from this process is something I can’t imagine, but will be awesome in its own right. Perhaps your generation, if there is one, Tanna, will be able to answer that question.

In the evolution of homo sapiens, our intellect seems to have surpassed our compassion. We have developed the ability to manipulate the physical world—to the point where we even create earthquakes—but not the will or the heart to care enough to halt in our tracks and find another path, a better path, a path that leads to sustainability and life for future generations.

Currently I am dealing with a sense of profound loss for what I once knew the natural world to be. In some ways, this can be compared to the radical loss a person feels after the death of a spouse and soulmate. The loss of a spouse is a radical loss, tearing a hole in the fabric of your being. You not only have lost a person, a partner, and a friend, you have lost a marriage, a relationship, the shared experiences, the dreams and plans you made together. Everything—Yes EVERYTHING—has changed.

 

What do you do? Widowhood can become a very empty place. In some respects, the changes occurring on Earth are like witnessing the last agonized moments of a beloved soulmate. Many of us are grieving already, to the point where we are paralyzed by hopelessness and inaction.

Grief is not possible without love. And, perhaps, love is not possible without grief. If you never feel sad, lonely, or in despair, you will never appreciate the times you feel ecstatic and joyful. I treasure the joyful memories of a vibrant natural world. The process of working through the sense of loss makes me wonder many things. Are things so far gone that there is no hope? In our final attempts to right the wrongs of humanity toward nature, are we merely playing as hospice workers in a futile attempt to ease that final decline?

“Hospice care is a special kind of care that focuses on the quality of life for those who are experiencing an advanced, life-limiting illness.” How can one person provide this kind of care for an entire dying planet? How can thousands of us? Millions? How can we restore quality to the living systems surrounding us?

That is a huge question. I think the answer begins with hope. And I will tell you more about that tomorrow.

With my enduring love,

Your Seventh Generation Grandmother

Day 3: Of Love and Wind, Two Recurring Themes

Dear Tanna,

Considering the power of love, scattered on the Wind of the Spirit, there was John Lewis, another hero who passed from this life on July 17 this past summer. All the publicity since George Floyd’s murder in late May–the demonstrations against police violence, Black Lives Matter, racism, and white privilege–bring social inequities front and center. With each successive generation, the wounds re-open. We were all reminded of John Lewis’s struggle to grant basic civil rights to all American citizens when he died. Our local library selected his memoir as part of the adult summer reading selection. With a Zoom meeting planned that included Lewis’s co-author Michael D’Orso, a man Lewis claimed was like a brother to him in the book’s introduction, I wanted to participate.

The book itself was daunting, 503 pages of relatively small print. But the metaphor in the prologue hooked me, a description of a wind storm Lewis experienced as a preschool boy. The wind blew so strong it lifted a corner of the shack his sharecropper aunt and uncle lived in. Harboring in the shack with his aunt and fifteen cousins, they held hands and walked from corner to corner, bringing the house down to the ground when the wind began to lift it. That became the metaphor for his life, and provided the title for his book, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.

Lewis was a teenager by the time I showed up in the world. I remember the events of the civil rights struggle of the early 60s as a child overhearing her parents discuss the nightly news. It was not until I read this book almost six decades later that I fully realized what had occurred during those years.

The chapters in the memoir flowed, easy to read. It was like sitting with John Lewis over coffee and listening to him tell about his life. And what a life! He personally knew the key players. John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr.

He told of the first time he heard MLK give a sermon on the radio. It was titled, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.”

Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, to read King’s words? An online search for his sermons produced a website—www.kinginstitute.stanford.edu—that includes his entire collection of sermons. So I did read “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” in the year 2020.

Lewis was a key figure in all the civil rights actions: the restaurant sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, Selma’s Bloody Sunday, the efforts to safely register black people as voters. His premise was aligned with Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, a non-violent protest. Love your neighbor, even those who beat on you.

Why? We may ask.

Because they are victims of this unjust system too.

Imagine the strength of character needed to love someone who was busting your head open with a wooden club. How could a person manage that?  Lewis shared one of his secrets. You imagine the oppressor as an infant, a precious child of God.

I was struck by the uncanny parallels to today’s social and political climate. Lewis, a genuine and unassuming man, shared lessons he’d learned from MLK. “People who hunger for fame don’t realize that if they’re in the spotlight today, somebody else will be tomorrow. Fame never lasts. The work you do, the things you accomplish—that’s what endures. That’s what really means something.”

Does this remind me of anyone in the spotlight today? Absolutely.

What rights are guaranteed by the Civil Rights Act of the late 60s? 1) The right to vote. 2) The right to a fair trial. 3) The right to receive government services.  4) The right to use public facilities.  and 5) The right to a public education.

Sounds pretty basic to me, but for ages, a significant portion of our population was denied these rights. After the legislation, new practices skirting the edges effectively denied the same people basic human dignities others take for granted.

Has this changed in the 200 years separating you and me, Tanna? I desperately hope so. I hope that your generation experiences the blessings of Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community. Lewis never lost sight of the vision—one people, one family, one house, one nation. As a congressman from Georgia for the last years of his life, he answered to his conscience and worked toward policies that would benefit all people.

The last chapter in his memoir was a summary and a wish. “Onward” described the challenges he faced during the time when he wrote the book—1998—but it could well have been written during this last summer of 2020. The struggle for civil rights, for civility itself to be extended to all citizens in our country, indeed to all of the world’s inhabitants, seems never to end. Each generation must carry on and must learn and appreciate the sacrifices and struggles of the generations before. Slowly we may approach an equitable society, a new global economy that values not only human players, but the finite resources provided by our planet.

John Lewis devoted his entire life to a movement he firmly believed continued decades beyond the demonstrations of the 1960s. “I came to Congress with a legacy to uphold, with a commitment to carry on the spirit, the goals and the principles of nonviolence, social action, and a truly interracial democracy.

“We must realize that we are all in this together,” he said. “Not as black or white, Not as rich or poor. Not even as Americans or ‘non’ Americans. But as human beings. . .The next frontier for America lies in the direction of our spiritual strength as a community. . . It is not just materially or militarily that we must measure our might, but morally. . .”

“It does not profit a nation to gain the world if we must lose our soul—which includes our compassion. . . ”

“The alternative to reaching out is to allow the gaps between us to grow, and this is something we simply cannot afford to do. . . ”

“That sense of caring and sharing that makes us a society and not just a collection of isolated individuals living behind locked doors must never be lost, or it will be the end of us as a nation. . .”

I wonder, Septanna, how healthy is the nation in your day? How healthy is the planet?

John Lewis, a great man, concluded his final chapter with these words, “Talk is fine. Discussion is fine. But we must respond. We must act . . .  As a nation, we must move our feet, our hands, our hearts, our resources to build and not to tear down, to reconcile and not to divide, to love and not to hate, to heal and not to kill. In the final analysis, we are one people, one family, one house. . .”

Tanna, this is what’s at stake even now, two decades after Lewis published his memoir. This has been a hard chapter for me to write. I have struggled with it for weeks. How do I, an ordinary grandmother living in conservative rural Kansas, attempt to share what this man’s life has planted in my own heart? It’s too important not to try, though. So I offer these thoughts in honor of John Lewis. I desperately hope that he and other notable leaders we lost during the last few months—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg,—will lend their essences to our continuing struggle for securing human dignity and basic rights for all.

And, Tanna, I hope that, two hundred years from now, you will realize the results of our efforts.

With enduring hope and love,

Your seventh-generation grandmother