by Thom Hartmann
"The Lost People" was originally published in 'Spirit of Change' magazine, November 1998, and copyright by Thom Hartmann, 1998, 2001
The last weekend of September was the Harvest Gathering, near Mount Washington, Massachusetts, sponsored by Spirit of Change magazine. At this gathering, Native American elders met with several hundred White, Black, Asian, and mixed-race immigrants to this continent. (Most were White.)
On the last day of the Harvest Gathering, a Council was held — essentially a talking circle by the Native, Black, and White elders. Author Thom Hartmann was invited to participate in the circle as a white elder, but time was short and not all persons had an opportunity to speak…including Thom. So here are the words he intended to share with the Native Americans and others gathered in the Council circle, reprinted with his permission.
Speaking to the Native American elders here in this circle and outside of it, I thank you very, very much for sharing with all of us immigrants to this land your traditional ways. Your teachings are vitally important for all humans on this planet, and I hope you have an opportunity to share them with more and more people over the coming years. You carry a message which could heal our world.
During your talks and during the council talk, I heard several comments and truths which brought up in me strong feelings about Whites and Native Americans. These include the issues surrounding how “in” it is now to be sharing Native wisdom, the curious phenomena of White “Indian wannabes,” and the tragic ripping-off of your (and other aboriginal peoples’) cultures and ways by some White writers, lecturers and self-appointed “medicine men and women.” These are vital issues, and you brought them out into the open in a particularly forceful and compassionate way. For this I am very grateful. However, when you so correctly pointed out that Whites can never truly understand the ways of — and reasons for — all the aspects of Native spirituality, I realized in that moment that the reverse is also true. Native people often have an incomplete understanding of what it is to have grown up White in this White culture.
And out of this incomplete understanding come a number of myths. Many of these myths are held by Whites (and Blacks, Hispanics, Orientals, and other non-European peoples living on this continent) as much as Natives, so I feel it is important to share a new understanding of these myths with you and others.
The Lost People
As your wise Native American elders here have shared, you know your roots. You know the languages of your great-grandmothers, from before the White Europeans arrived and murdered your people and stole their lands. You know the customs of your people that go back a thousand years, five thousand years, some of you to the time of the original settlement of this area, just as the glaciers receded, nine thousand years ago, and perhaps even tens of thousands of years before that. The ways of your people have been passed down all that time.
Even during times of severe oppression, some of your wise elders were looking seven generations ahead and preserving the language, wisdom, teachings, and ways of your people. These included the eras when the U.S. Government made it illegal for your people to use their language or practice their religion, and your children were stolen from their families and sent to Christian-church-run boarding schools. They extended through the times of mass murders and when your ancestors were forcibly moved from place to place and torn from their homelands. Through all this and more, your elders preserved many of your ways and knowings.
For this we must all be grateful. You are grateful, of course, because these wise ancestors and elders saw you in the future and held this for you, keeping your culture alive even in the darkest night of the coldest winter of oppression and genocide. My people must learn to be grateful because in the wisdom of your elders and the ways of your culture may lie the seeds of a survivable future, a way out of the mess we Whites have made of this world.
The Loss of Culture
Please imagine something with me for a moment. It may be painful, but it is only an imagination, and there is a deep lesson in it. While it does not pardon or make acceptable what Whites have done, it does help us understand why and how it happened. And, even more important, it also explains why today so many Whites are interested in your ways, some even desperate to become like you or one of you. Please follow this short story for a moment.
Imagine that the White Europeans had been successful in their original plan. Imagine that the Christian Whites had successfully forced all of your ancestors to abandon their language and speak only English, Spanish, or French. Imagine that all of the ceremonies had been lost, so that today not even one single living person still remembers them or could teach them.
Imagine that the White Christians from Europe had succeeded in ferreting out all the sacred places of your people and destroying every one, building churches or stores or houses over them, covering every last one with dirt or pavement or rocks, totally wiping them all out.
Imagine that every written record of your people — both those written by your own people themselves (from cave paintings to those records kept by people such as the Hopi who had both oral and written traditions) — was found through a most rigorous and thorough effort by the Church and destroyed. None remained. Even the records of your ways which were recorded by the early Whites when they first came and observed your people were burned by the Church, because those records were “demonic,” according to the teachings of the Churches of Europe. Even Whites today could not read the voices of the first Whites to meet your people hundreds of years ago.
If this had happened, there would not be a single Native American on this Turtle Island continent who spoke any one of the more than 400 still-living Native languages. All these languages would be dead and forgotten. There would not be a single Native who remembered that tobacco was a sacred plant, or the significance of the Four Directions. Nobody would know how to sew a moccasin or prepare a spirit (sweat) lodge — or even know what it was. Not any elders would be alive who could tell stories or remember even five words of the Original Languages. Among all the “Red” people of North America, not even one single person would know what tribe he or she originally came from — all they know was that they have dark skin and black hair, and that they are a people different from the Whites from Europe.
But different how? And why? In this imagination, nobody alive today knows. Nobody knows what the sacred ways of two hundred years ago were, or a thousand years ago, or five thousand years ago. Nobody remembers what plants can be eaten and which are to be avoided. Nobody remembers that the Earth is sacred, or where are located the most holy and the most dangerous places. Nobody knows how to call to the Great Spirit, the Creator, or even that there is one.
Nobody remembers anything. All is lost.
Imagine if this — the dream and best effort of the White conquerors from Europe — was fulfilled. Imagine if there was not even one single Native American alive in the entire world who could speak a single sentence in Cree or Ojibwa or Apache or Lakota. Imagine if every Native American alive today, when thinking back to his or her ancestors and past, could only imagine a black-and-white world where people were mute and their ceremonies were mysterious and probably useless and primitive, having no meaning…and if they did have meaning, it didn’t matter anyway because it was now lost. A total forgetting of the past — all the ways and languages and memories and stories — destroyed by the people who had conquered your people. Every bit of your culture was burned in the fire of this conquest, and all was lost. All of your people knew the history of Greece and Rome and England, but nothing of the Cherokee or Dene or Iroquois people.
Can you imagine what a disaster that would be? How empty and alone and frightened you and your people would feel? How easily they could be turned into slaves and robots by the dominators? How disconnected they would feel from the Earth and from each other? And how this disconnection could lead them to accept obscene behavior like wars and personal violence and the fouling of waters and air and soil as “normal”? Perhaps they would even celebrate this fouling in the name of “progress,” because they would have no memory of the Old Ways, no realization of the meaning or consequences of these actions.
Imagine if your people were no longer a people, no longer nations and tribes and clans, but only frightened individuals of a different race than their conquerors, speaking only the language of their conquerors, sharing only the memories of their conquerors, and living only to serve the richest of those conquerors.
This is an almost unimaginable picture. The worse fate that could befall any people. The most horrific crime humans can commit against other humans.
And this is what happened a few thousand years ago to my people, to the Whites of Europe, who for 70,000 years prior to that had lived tribally just as your elders did.
It was done first by the Celts, who conquered and consolidated most of the tribal people of Europe 3000 years ago. It was then done more thoroughly by Julius Caesar of the pre-Christian Romans 2000 years ago. And it was absolutely finished by the iron-fisted “Christian” Romans 1000 years ago as their new Church sought out and destroyed all the ancient places, banned the old rituals, and tortured and murdered people who practiced the ancient European tribal religions. They even converted all alphabets to the Roman alphabet, and forced European people to change their holy days, calendars, and even the date (the year 1 or “beginning of time”) to one that marked the beginning of the Roman Christian Empire’s history.
This massive and thorough stripping of their identity and ancient ways — this “great forgetting,” as the Australian Aborigines refer to it — is why my people often behave as if they are “insane.” It is why they are disrespectful of our Mother the Earth and the life on Her. It is why so many of my people want to be like you and your people, to the point of dressing in buckskin and carrying medicine pouches and building sweat lodges from California to Maine to Germany. It is why we have hundreds of “odd” religions and paths, and why so many of my people flit from Hinduism to Buddhism to Paganism like a butterfly going from flower to flower: they have no roots, no tribe, no elders, no path of their own. All were systematically destroyed by the Celts, the Romans, and then the Roman Catholics. Whites in America and Europe — and Blacks who were brought to America as slaves and have since lost their ancient ways and languages — are a people bereft. They are alone and isolated from their ancient clans and tribes. Broken apart from the Earth, they are unable to reclaim their ancient languages, practices, and medicine…because these are gone, totally destroyed, even to the last traces.
The Australian Aboriginal Genocide
Last month a half-Aboriginal man named Geoff Guest led me and three Aboriginal teenage boys through about 400 miles of barren bush and scrub-land in northern Australia’s Queensland territory. We visited Quinken places, holy sites and story places, slept outdoors and camped by rivers, saw crocodiles and wallabies and kangaroos and poisonous snakes and wild horses. We visited Aboriginal communities from the scrub-land of Petford all the way up to the Lockhart River community in the rain forest at the northern part of Queensland. Geoff saved my life when I nearly died during this trip, and taught me many things.
Geoff is a half-breed, the child of a White father and Aboriginal mother. He stands straight and his eyes seem to look right through you as he listens or speaks. His skin is weather-worn, arms and face freckled with sun-damage, and in his jeans, boots, and cowboy hat he looks the part of the grizzled prospector from Western movies made in the 1950’s. Born 72 years ago when miscegenation was a prisonable offence and mixed-race offspring were often hunted down and killed by Whites, his mother sent him shortly after his birth to live with this Aboriginal grandparents.
When he was three years old, however, young Geoff made the mistake of stepping outside his grandparent’s house when a police officer was nearby on horseback: he was immediately spotted, lifted up into the saddle, and taken to a Dickensian orphanage run by the Anglican church. A year later, he was “adopted” (a euphemism for “sold as slave labor”) by a White couple who worked a sheep and cattle ranch.
“I got up every morning at four and made the fires, hauled the water in from the well, and fed the animals,” he told us. Forbidden from schooling because of his mixed-race status, he spent the next six years working 16-hour days on the ranch. “I wasn’t allowed to speak in the house or on the grounds of the house,” he said, “and when I did, I was flogged with a bullwhip until I bled. I spent most of my time with the animals, and became very good with the horses.”
And he began to plan his escape.
For a year, until he was around 10 years old, every week he would steal one bit of what he knew he’d need. “I built a saddle, piece by piece,” he said, smuggling out of the tack house a stirrup one week, a bit of a bridle the next. He stole enough gun parts to assemble a rifle, and then collected a stash of bullets. He added to his hiding place in the bush dried food and water, a knife and cooking implements.
The day of departure came when he was ten.
“I was in the big hall where we fed the shearers who came to work the sheep in season. I built the fires and kept the place clean and fed the men, but wasn’t allowed to speak. And one of the day-laborers tried to get me to talk, asking me questions and provoking me. So I shook my head, and tried to walk away, but he kept at it, so I made some noises through my nose, trying to tell him I wasn’t allowed to speak in the buildings. Well, the man who’d adopted me saw this, and came at me with his whip. So I grabbed an 8-foot bullwhip with a 3-ounce ball-bearing at the tip of it, and I hit him with it right in the forehead, knocking him out. I’m not sure to this day that maybe I even killed him.”
The men in the room must have sympathized with young Geoff, because none tried to stop
him when he ran out of the building. He took a couple of horses, loaded up his stashed supplies, and rode off, living alone in the bush for the next three years, traveling across the interior from northern Australia to the southeast, a distance of about 1000 miles. “When I’d come near a town, I’d just skirt around it,” he said. “I lived off the land, although after about a year I began to really crave salt. It’s amazing how much you come to crave salt when you’ve been without it for a year.”
Sometime between his 11th and 12th birthday, he came across an aboriginal man who survived trapping rabbits, selling their meat and hides. The old trapper took young Geoff under his wing, and he lived as a trapper for a few years, until he eventually made his way into Sydney.
In my various interactions with Geoff, I never once heard him speak angrily about his childhood.
“Don’t you hate the White people who stole you from your grandparents, or those who kept you as a slave?” I asked him last May.
He smiled and shook his head. “You have to understand,” he said. “What they did to me was the same as what was done to them. They were the Irish and the poor of England, they were shipped to Australia against their will. It was like a death sentence for them. They were doing to us Native Australians what was done to them by the British; it was the only way they knew how to live.”
“Then aren’t you angry at the British who shipped the political prisoners and poor Whites to Australia?” I said.
“No,” he said. “They, too, had to live under kings who bought and sold people along with land, who tortured and killed people at a whim. This goes back a long, long time.” Geoff is right.
For over a thousand years, the soldiers and inquisitors of the Holy Roman Catholic Church spread across Europe and destroyed the native people’s sacred sites, forbade them to practice their religions, and hunted down and killed those who spoke the Old Languages or practiced the healing or ancient arts.
Stones with written histories on them were smashed to dust.
Ancient temples and libraries were torn down or set afire, and Roman churches were built atop them.
The few elders who tried to preserve the Old Ways were called “witches” and “pagans” and “heathens,” and imprisoned, tortured, hung, beheaded, impaled, or burned alive. Their sacred groves of trees were burned, and if their children went into the forest to pray they were arrested and executed. God was taken from the natural world and put into the box of a church, and Nature was no longer regarded as sacred but, instead, as evil and dangerous, something to be subdued and dominated.
For a thousand years — continuously — the conquerors of the Roman Official (Catholic) Church did this to the tribal people of Europe.
As a result, today not a single European remembers the Old Ways or can speak the Ancient Languages. Not a single elder is left who knows of sacred sites, healing plants, or how to pronounce the names of his ancestors’ gods. None remember the time — which the archeological record indicates was probably at least twenty thousand years long, and perhaps as much as seventy thousand years long — when tribes lived peacefully and harmoniously in much of what we now call Europe. None remember the ways of the tribes, their ceremonies, their rituals of courtship, marriage, birth, death, healing, bringing rain, speaking to the plants and animals and stones of our Mother the Earth.
Not one single person alive still carries this knowledge. All is lost but a few words, the dates and names of some holidays, and a few simple concepts that have been stripped of their original context.
For example, my father’s parents came here from Norway during World War I. They spoke Norwegian, but it was not the true language of their ancestors. That language was written with a different alphabet, which is referred to today as Runic; nobody alive remembers how to pronounce the runes, or their original meanings. Adolf Hitler adopted one of the ancient Norwegian runes — what is believed to be the symbol of lightning and the god of lightning — for his most elite troops. The double lightning-bolts looked like an SS, so they were called the SS, but it was really a rune. So lost are the old ways of my grandmother’s people that even the Nazis felt free to steal and reinvent them in any way they pleased.
When we track it back, it seems likely that it all began — the entire worldwide 5000-year-long orgy of genocide and cultural destruction — in a part of the Middle East known then as Ur and now called Iraq. It started with a man named Gilgamesh, or one of his ancestors, in an area now called Baghdad.
The first conquers — the first people to rise up and discard the Great Law — were not the “White men” of Europe. They were, instead, the people of the region where the Middle East meets northern Africa. (Which is why this area is referred to as the “Cradle of [our] Civilization.”) Their direct descendant is not the Pope or the Queen of England or King of Spain, but a man named Saddam Hussein.
The Need for Tribe
And so my people — who in the lands of Europe three thousand years ago lived the Red Road in harmony with the world, as your people did four hundred years ago — were stripped of their tribes, of their languages, of their ways, of their medicine, of their rituals, of their elders. And it was done by a people who, themselves, had had it done to them…by another people who had had it done to them — all the way back to the first “eruption of human insanity”: the City/State of Ur (now called Baghdad) and its king, Gilgamesh or his predecessor, 5000 to 7000 years ago.
And what each of these collapsed civilizations forced on the people they conquered — to replace the old Earth-connected, Creator-centered path — was a religion that was organized in the same way the dominator kingdoms were. At the top was one or more angry gods, who demanded that the people work for them and offer their crops, children, and lives to them. Under the god(s) were the bureaucrats who could deliver people’s requests to the deity: these bureaucrats (called “priests”) also had to be paid by the people, and until recently held the absolute power of life or death over the people (and still claim the power to bestow or withhold “eternal” life or death). And then, of course, at the bottom were the people, groaning and oppressed by their Church. They were victims, and so, as Geoff Guest so rightly pointed out, they became victimizers.
Because of this my people crave their ancient ways — which are lost forever. They organize “pagan” festivals and try to reinvent the rituals, and some have become quite elaborate. Many people over the past few hundred years have claimed to have “received” the knowledge from the elders of our tribes, most through “channeling” or other abstract means, and there are tantalizing fragments in the archeological record. But nobody really knows the Old Ways with the level of confidence and certainty that Native Americans know the ways of your great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers.
Trial and Error
Native American, Australian Aboriginal, African, Indigenous South American, and ancient Asian cultures were not “invented” by some clever man. Nobody one day woke up and said, “I just got an idea! We should live this way by these rules and practice our rituals in this fashion!”
Instead, the ways of Native cultures took tens of thousands of years of trial-and-error to come to where they are.
The Native American ways of life — the hundreds of different tribes and different languages and different paths — are each the result of millions of tiny experiments. It’s safe to assume that many of those experiments, in the early years, didn’t work out, and many tribes died out or vanished. Settlements, encampments, and even entire pueblo cities that were abandoned thousands of years ago stand in mute testimony to this process. Yet some tribal ways worked, and the ways that worked were taught from grandmother to mother to daughter and on down through the generations. Thousands of threads of knowledge — from ways to interact with others, to ways to hunt and eat, to ways to worship — were spun together into the yarn of culture, and the weaving of these yarns of tribal cultures formed the fabric of the Native American Nations.
Humans have been on this planet for millions of years, and fully modern humans — people like you and me — for at least 200,000 years. If they had not found ways to live that worked, we would not be here. The tribal and clan ways of life are the pinnacle of a multi-million-year evolutionary process that kept the human race in delicate and appropriate balance with the animal and plant and mineral kingdoms.
Until, of course, Gilgamesh and his friends created the first successful dominator culture, five to seven thousand years ago. This new cultural experiment rose up, wiped out three million years of trial-and-error learning, and replaced it with theft and fear and violence. And then it collapsed, because it wasn’t based on a solid foundation of knowledge, understanding, love, compassion, and respect for all life.
But it was soon replaced by another insane attempt at domination, and then another, and another — each extending the reach of the dominators, the Younger Cultures, a bit further out of the Middle East and toward Europe.
Until eventually it reached the Celtic people, who first conquered the tribal peoples of Europe, and then were replaced by the Romans, and then replaced by the Roman Official Church. (Keep in mind that the Pope signed the original and earliest land deeds giving Europeans “ownership” of the lands of North and South America. And all but two of the “modern European” languages are based on the official language of Rome — Latin.) As the Church faded in power during a time we call the Renaissance, it was replaced by the European and then American corporate kingdoms, which rule most of the world today.
All are dominators, Younger Cultures. All are cultural experiments. None have three-million-years of trial-and-error experience, and the little experience these Younger dominator Cultures do have shows that they have always eventually self-destructed, usually within 200 to 1000 years.
Please Understand and Have Compassion
And so, my Native American friends and elders, I ask that you understand the cultural poverty of my kin, and forgive them their ignorance.
When Whites climbed under the rope around the sacred circle, they did so because their experimental Younger Culture has little concept of the importance of ritual…and so it is a doomed culture. When they interrupted and were not respectful to the Grandmothers, it is because their culture has no concept of wise elders…and so it is a doomed culture. When they imitate you and pretend they understand the ways of Native Americans, it is because they come from a world in which there are no elders who remember the Great Law, the Right Way To Live, or who walk in the Spirit Path day by day as an ordinary part of everyday life…and so they are trying to escape from their doomed culture.
An Apache friend of mine once said, “Why don’t the White people just learn to be satisfied with their own culture and leave us and ours alone?”
The unfortunate answer is that White people and those they subsumed have no true and functional culture, no way of life capable of sustaining humans for tens of thousands of years. All they have is an experiment, which all evidence shows is doomed to fail, and — in fact — is failing spectacularly all around us even at this moment…and threatening to take much of the rest of the life on the planet with it.
And so those few who have in their hearts the understanding of the loss of their ancestors’ ways 2000 years ago, the loss of their native cultures, are empty and longing and in pain. They are afflicted with a sickness of the spirit, the same as if half their blood had left their bodies. They are slaves to the corporate dominators — the modern-day kings of the world — and they intuitively know they are slaves.
And yet they yearn for freedom and crave the wisdom of cooperative tribal ways, which is now only found in the few remaining ancient and native cultures.
So, our wise elders, I thank you for sharing your wisdom and culture with my White sisters and brothers. As you say, they cannot become Indians. They cannot learn the language and do the ceremonies of your people. They will never get it right: it is not in their blood or their upbringing, and they lack the elders to correct them and keep them on the Pollen Path. But they can — and must — learn from you, both from your teachings and the examples of your lives.
This is their great challenge, their great mission, and their urgent quest: to save the future by transforming the present dominant world culture.
They must create their own way, their own tribes, their own clans, and their own rituals and laws. To do this, they must learn the true history of what was done to their people over the past three thousand years, and try to recover what they can of their original culture. They must learn from other cultures who still have ten-thousand-year-long memories — like yours — and use those lessons about what works and what doesn’t to live in harmony with the Earth and other peoples. As they acquire this wisdom, they may be able to rebuild the foundations and assumptions of “modern” culture into something that will work and is sustainable.
And they must do it soon, because they are the people of the culture with thousands of atomic bombs, millions of deadly microbes, billions of lethal weapons. For the first time in the five billion years of the life of Mother Earth, one culture has the power to lay waste the entire planet...by accident.
With your help and suggestions, those who listened to your wise words may find a way to turn our Younger Culture toward the Older Wisdom and Ways which have kept humans — and other species — alive and thriving on this planet for millions of years. They may bring us through this peril and into the light of a new day.
God help us if they fail.
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