The Great Law: Peace is Action

By Damian Webster, Onödowa’ga:’

When I look at where our nations were before the Peacemaker came, I see that he pulled off “mission impossible.” How else can you explain the unification of five nations that could never get even with each other?

Some say it took him a hundred years to bring our nations together, and I believe it. Just look at what had to be overcome. The late Audrey Shenandoah once said the fighting was so bad that people did not know what a natural death was. She said people of that time thought the only way you died was by being killed.

It is a great feat for someone to bring such a powerful message into such hostile territory. His principles created an institution that still survives today. We still have our share of problems, but our system is still here. Just the fact that we can still hear The Great Law, in the languages, is a testament to its staying power. But are the lessons a part of our daily lives as Haudenosaunee? What have we taken away from the last two recitals, and what can we take away from this year?

When the Peacemaker brought his message, he had people starting to consider other ways of thinking and doing. At some point it had to go from admiring his ideas, to making sweeping changes to how they dealt with one another. They had to start healing from blood feuds, and I do not think this was done by simply gathering in large crowds and listening to his message. I do not think people sat and heard his message and then went back to their longhouse and started living differently. The lives they were living were part of a war culture, and it didn’t change overnight.

There had to come a time where they had to face each other. They had to face the people who killed their son, their father, or their family. Families that hated one another had to come to the circle and face each other, but no longer in a fight to the death.

One of the things you will hear is the first three strings of the condolence which used to precede treaty negotiations. But these strings were used long before treaties with Europeans. Mary Anne Spencer talked about her Restorative Justice program in Tyendinega and how they were using those first three strings for conflict resolution.

She mentioned that some people were not ready to step into the circle, because they were still carrying old injuries. They had to be rounded out BEFORE they could step into the circle with their adversary. Given the amount of hostility across our nations in the Peacemakers time, I wonder how many times this wiping of the tears, ears, and clearing the throat, had to be done?

Regardless of how many times this had to be done, it happened. Someone brought those people together, and those people started to use their minds to solve their differences. You will hear that peace is not the absence of conflict, but people using their clearest thinking to come to a common ground.

Today our communities are suffering from varying degrees of conflict and indifference between groups as well as individuals, just like the past. We aren’t going around killing one another on a daily basis anymore, and we do indeed have good people doing their best, but we are still suffering.

There is strength in unity, and we need to get back to that. When will we sit down and talk to the people we are in conflict with? Will we address the injuries we are carrying first, so we can see, hear, speak, and think clearly while addressing one another? Will we find the things we DO agree on, as well as inch along on those tough issues that are seemingly immovable?

The thing about the Peacemaker was his initiative. He didn’t just paddle across the river and say “I’m going to wait for them to come to me.” He went to all of our nations. He sought the fiercest, most dangerous people.

You look at the history of that journey and you will see that the Older Brothers were some of the hardest ones to convince. I’m sure we can all think of people in our lives who are simply set in their ways and are never going to change. The Peacemaker came across people like this too.

If he had given up on the cannibal, Jigonsaseh, the Mohawks who chopped down the tree he climbed, or Todadaho; where would we be today? Where would we be if he, and others, simply said “that’s just how they are.” As Oren Lyons stated many years ago, “Peace is a dynamic action. Peace is not a passive thing. It requires a lot of effort. You have to work to get peace. Peace won’t just come to you.”

Bob Antone and Howard Elijah do a great job with their decolonization workshops and have brought it to many of our communities. They give us great reminders of our teachings, and do a great job of tying the past to the present. Eventually they ask the million dollar question: How do we take our teachings and apply them to our lives today? Not only are there good guidelines to live by, but there are protocols and procedures in place to restore our definition of peace.

I like the comments of Rick Hill during the Protocols of Peace presentation in New York City in 2010 when he said, “These aren’t just ancient patterns or quaint traditions. These are the things that were given to our ancestors to do the real work of uplifting our mind, our body, and our spirit, so that we will naturally gravitate to the state of being that the Creator intended, and that’s to be well, and to be at peace.”

I’ve seen the power of peace myself when I was in a bitter conflict with an individual. I never gave up on them, and we acknowledged many past injuries we inflicted upon each other. We acknowledged that we are not in that time of conflict anymore, and that it is easier for us to work together rather than to stay at odds. I watched us go from a time when we could not stand being in the same room with each other, to being able to visit, laugh, joke, and discuss our lives. It took at least three years, but it was worth it and it is still an ongoing matter.

One of my closest friends from the Three Affiliated Tribes was right by my side the whole time, and he watched how I used those lessons. He took those lessons and used it when a fraternity openly mocked him and his daughter crossing the street in their Native regalia. He took that lesson again and brought two families together when a member of one family murdered a member of another family. Somehow he was able to have both families help each other bury their lost family member in a good way, and revenge was avoided.

Today we are really good at holding grudges. Our children watch us when we hold a grudge against someone else, and hear us when we talk about the people we don’t like. But our teachings tell us that everyone deserves another chance, that people can turn things around, and there is power in peace. It’s right there when the Peacemakers grandmother was forgiven. The Mother of Nations was given another chance. Even someone as evil as Todadaho was relentlessly sought as a key to unity and peace. Just like those stubborn people we know today, Todadaho didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t want anyone near him and used everything in his power to try to keep everyone out. They never gave up on him, and we must follow that lead.

In addition to the actual recital by very knowledgeable and hardworking individuals, there are symbols of The Peacemakers efforts to bring us together. Those efforts are in the form of original wampum belts from over one thousand years ago.

One can admire the tremendous amount of effort and craftsmanship that went into creating these great tools, but that’s only half of the story. These come from a time when there were no audio recording devices and no western scholars writing everything down. As the late John Mohawk wrote in Wampum: A Symbol More Powerful than Paper:

“The wampum said that all that had transpired to create the conflict had been resolved, and all that could be done by human beings using their clearest thinking to create an environment for the future generations had been put together into that belt.

They are as sacred as our sanity, as sacred as our ability to use our minds to solve our problems, as long as we believe that the principle is inviolate… We believe that the agreements that we make between people using their intelligence to solve their problems is something that is part of our heritage. It is something that is part of our grandchildren’s heritage as long as the belt lasts.

They are a record of people’s good will, a record of their thinking, a record of how we came to be the way we are, in a state of peace and tranquility with another people.”

These are the thoughts, actions, protocols, blood, sweat, and tears of our ancestors; manifested in the most appropriate technology of their time. These are agreements “held up by their honour and nothing else.” They are symbols of people setting aside their hatred, anger, and bitterness towards one another. They are symbols of discussions that sometimes went on for generations before people came to one mind. I would bet the harvest there were many times when opposing sides refused to come to the table, walked away from the table, and had to come back to the table when things went wrong. It would be a good idea for all of us to recognize and know these symbols because each one tells a story, each one has many lessons.

Much like everyone else, I don’t have the magic solution. I don’t claim to be knowledgeable, and there are MANY more people who understand the Great Law much better than myself, even more so in the language. Some of them are standing before you this week, with many more across the Confederacy. As the week winds down and many reflect on what has been said, when will WE take the route of seeking out the fiercest people in our lives and make peace with them?

When The Peacemaker left his mother and grandmother, he wasn’t sure how the journey would go, but he went. We can’t let uncertainty stop us, because it is about the process, not the end of the process. John Mohawk also wrote, “The Haudenosaunee Law of Peace assumes that peace is not achievable as a static condition, just as relationships between human beings are not static but are always unfinished.” We will always have work to do, and we have a great set of principles to draw from. Now we must face today’s “Todadaho” of our nation, today’s “Jigonsaseh” of our personal life, and fulfill our duty as ambassadors of Peace, Rower, and Righteousness.

Source: Reprinted with permission.

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