by Tim Knauss, The Post-Standard
Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, has traveled the world to speak out against environmental destruction and other wrongs committed in the name of “progress.”
It has been an uphill battle. But Lyons persists.
He recently visited The Post-Standard and spoke at length with staffwriter Tim Knauss about the world’s “accelerating” race toward environmental calamity, driven largely by global warming and population growth. To avoid a crisis, he said, strong leaders must change the way business is done. They must find a way to put the common good above profits.
“Business as usual is over,” he said.
Lyons’ message draws upon the traditions of the Haudenosaunee, or the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, traditions rooted in respect and thanksgiving for nature. Lyons, 77, frequently cites the Peacemaker, a prophet who instructed the nations hundreds of years ago. Among other things, the Peacemaker instructed them to approach every decision with concern for the seventh generation to follow.
Lyons: I have your opening line.
Business as usual is over.
I think businesses are saying that also.
Well, they have to. Otherwise they’re going to get hammered. They’re going to get hammered anyway.
Hammered in what way?
Financially. Financially, we’re in for a depression. We’re not looking at a recession. We’re looking at a depression.
Because of … energy prices?
No, it’s not because of energy prices; it’s because of outsourcing. Outsourcing the work to the rest of the world and then leaving people here without jobs.
Do you see that as an environmental issue?
Well, it is. It’s probably one of the biggest environmental issues now, simply because you not only outsourced your work and your company, you outsourced your pollution. If you’re going to take steel mills from New York, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Michigan — if you’re going to take those steel mills and put them some other place, they’re going to be belching a lot of environmental damage …
Do you see that trend changing at all?
No, I don’t. I don’t see it changing, because I don’t see any relaxation from the executive side — from the leadership side — because they’re making money. People are making money. Anybody with stocks is making money hand over fist, but at the expense of the American public. …
Do you think that’s short-sighted?
Well, that’s the question. Where is the moral side to the shareholders on this thing?
I’ll give you a story that kind of illustrates this. I was invited to speak at Davos — you know, the World Economic Forum when they have it in Switzerland almost every year … I said, you know, if I am going to speak to these people, I would like to put a condition on that. I said, the group that I’m going to speak to, I would like you to put them up on the Alps — because we were up in the Alps anyway — up on top, for 24 hours. Then I’ll speak to them.
And (the forum coordinator) said, they won’t do it. You couldn’t get them up there.
I said, well, what you’re expecting me to do, I think, is to influence their thinking. And I said my job would be to associate them with the reality out there. They’re insulated — heavily insulated — they don’t deal with reality. They deal with business. They’re not in the reality business; they’re in business. I said, if you put them up there and just let them freeze for 24 hours, they would get an inkling of another power, of another authority.
He laughed. He said, that’s a good idea. He said, I mean, I would love to do that, (but) I don’t think — nobody’s going to do that.
Do you think business has become divorced from reality?
I don’t think they deal with it. I mean, their reality — let me put it this way — their reality is Wall Street. That’s their reality. It is real, but it doesn’t deal with the forces of nature. And they, if you notice, I haven’t seen any of their annual reports that put in the cost of the natural resources that they use. They never put that in. So how can that be real?
Just look around this room. Everything in this room came from the earth. It all came from the earth. So it’s all about extraction, right? People are extracting. And you know how powerful they are, and they’re all over the world, and they’re extracting it at tremendous rates with no perception of consequences.
That brings me to one of the key questions I wanted to ask you. As I see more and more businesses call themselves green, and talk about their green goals, I hear more and more about seventh-generation philosophy — that we must consider the impacts on the seventh generation.
Who said that?
There’s even a company called Seventh Generation Corporation.
I know, but who said seventh generation to begin with?
Do you think companies have to make moral choices to forgo some of their profits to be green?
Well, let me tell you this story. So, we went to Davos and I did our speeches and I was very popular. People were asking me to speak at their breakfasts, and come speak at our lunch, and come speak at our dinner … So we had this lunch and we met the executive committee …
And so I said, well, OK, let me ask you guys a question to get started. You all are very educated and you’re talented, or else you wouldn’t be where you are. So you know what you’re doing. I said, how can you as CEOs of corporations do what you’re doing, in terms of extraction, without looking at the consequences? I said you know as well as I do that these resources are finite. This round world is finite. We’re running out of oil right now. That’s one thing, but there’s more. There are ores and minerals they’re looking for, that they need for stuff, and they’re running out. Finite. And so I said, you guys act as if it wasn’t.
… It got a little quiet for a while. Then an elderly gentleman said, well, OK chief, I think I can answer that question for you. He said, I think most people here would agree with me. As a CEO, he said, I am beholden to the stockholders. The stockholders demand a profit. He said, if I don’t show a profit in the company, I’m fired.
Oh, I said, so it’s the stockholder.
He said, they’re the ones that really determine what the direction of the corporation is going to go.
I said, you guys have nothing to do with that.
Well, we do, he said, but you’re basically driven by the stockholders.
And I said, well, can I ask you a question? I said, do you have any grandchildren?
And he says, I have an 8-year-old grandson.
And I said, you know, I got an 8-year-old grandson. … And I said, OK, let me ask you a question. When do you cease to be a CEO and become a grandfather?
Now, it just got quiet in there. I had really stepped over a line, and what was that line? Well, I put a moral question into an economic forum. They don’t want moral questions. They don’t deal with moral questions. And so he got quiet. Now, he knew. And I kind of caught him by surprise. And it got very uncomfortable in there, because he couldn’t answer that. I mean, no matter what he did, the answer would be difficult.
So somebody pipes up and says, well, OK chief, he says, I hear a lot about Indians and prophecies. He says, can you tell us something about prophecies? I said, I sure can. I said, how about a guaranteed prophecy? Ever hear of a guaranteed prophecy? And they said, no. Want to hear one? And they said, sure.
I said, you guys are going to meet next year and nothing will have changed. I’ll guarantee it. And that was the end of the meeting.
And that was in 19 … ?
… Now I’ll tell you another thing.
(Lyons went on to describe a speech he gave at the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry, in which he quoted 19th-century Sen. Henry Dawes, of Massachusetts. Dawes sponsored the Dawes Act, which broke up many collectively owned Indian lands into individual parcels. Dawes, who had visited the Cherokee in 1885, believed Indians had to abandon collective ownership to become successful.)
He (Dawes) says, I just came back from the Cherokee Nation … in Oklahoma. Well, he said, they were very, very well established. He said they had schools, there was no war, they had their statehouse, they were living communally. They were very happy, he said, if not blissful there. They were all working like an Indian community. And he says, and that’s the problem. And that’s the problem.
What’s the problem? He says, well, as you know, if somebody is living in those terms, they’re not going to progress. They’re just going to be happy just the way they are. There’ll be no progress. And he says, as you know, the bottom line of our civilization is greed.
That is an interesting quote.
That’s a statement. And I don’t think he said greed, I think he said. … the bottom line of our civilization was selfishness. We have to teach them to be selfish, so they can progress. Not happy. Not about happy. It’s about progress.
It’s always about progress today. What do they talk about, any president that comes up … what do they say? Economic development. Economic development. And it goes on.
Growth. You have one finite earth. That’s the problem here. You know, it’s so fundamental, and they know it. You know, how often do you hear that the United States uses one quarter of the earth’s resources and we’re only 7 percent of the population. And we use one quarter.
… Way back, the Peacemaker says to us, when you sit and you consult for the welfare of the people, you think not of yourself, nor of your family, nor even your generation. He’s talking to the leaders. Make your decision on behalf of the seventh generation coming so that they may enjoy what you have.
Now, that’s an instruction on responsibility, far-seeing responsibility. And there was no such thing as a 20-year generation back in those days. He’s talking the full lifetime of a human being. Seven generations.
The responsibility of leadership is to look that far ahead, and in the course of that and by doing that, you yourself will have peace. You yourself will enjoy, because that’s what comes with it.
So when I talked to the ESF students, I told them this story. I said, all right, now we heard Sen. Dawes say this was the bottom line of your civilization. I said, let’s fast forward now to 2007. Here we are and here you are. I said, what kind of condition is the earth in today? What is our condition as a human family? And I said, now you have a decision to make. What are you going to do about that? What’s your direction? …
What I’m saying is that the situation we’re in today is directly due to the idea of capitalism, the idea of private property. You know, they’ve been calling Indians communists since 1700, 1600, because we live communally. No, we’re not communists. We’re Indians. We’re Onondagas. That’s how we live. What’s wrong with that? That’s our basic value. Our basic value is to share.
It’s a rule of law.
There are two common laws across this North America — our hemisphere — and that was to give thanks, be thankful for what you have, and to share. And the third one would be respect. Those were laws. Those were rules that nations lived by. Everybody knew, everybody understood it and everybody used it.
… When the peacemaker talked to our leaders — some say it took them 100 years to get them all together finally to talk peace, but we don’t know, and then they finally had everybody sitting here — on the shores of Onondaga Lake, no less. Sitting right here, planting the tree of peace and democracy here. Right here. Most amazing.
Talking to them, he said, this tree of peace that I plant represents the natural law, spiritual law. And he instructed the leaders, never challenge those thoughts, because you will not prevail. That’s instruction. That’s along with seven generations and everything else he said.
Those are only two instructions. There’s a lot more he said.
Do you think ordinary people and the things they do and the way they behave, the way they live, the way they buy things, can make a difference?
Yes, of course. Of course. People are the energy force. Probably the best example of that in contemporary times is when the Berlin Wall went down. That’s was people power did that. Germany didn’t want it, East Germany didn’t want it, nobody wanted it. People wanted it, and nothing could stop them. Once they get in a move in that direction they become a force. It’s very difficult — it’s not a manageable force — and that’s why leadership is so vital and important.
The reason I ask that is the business executives, in addition to saying, well, we’re driven by our shareholders to produce a profit, say that we’re just giving the consumers what they want.
No. That’s a lie and you know it. I worked in advertising in New York City. You ain’t gonna tell me that. You’re not giving them anything … You’re selling them something. You’re selling, that’s your job. Your job is to sit there and sell them something.
They’re buying it, though.
Well, you know, because if you give them license, if you give them a way to do something. You know, leadership and the control factor for human beings, in particular, is moral. If you don’t have moral law you don’t have any law. If there’s no moral law, you don’t have any.
… The thing that you have to understand about nature and natural law is, there’s no mercy. There’s no mercy to this law. There’s only law. And if you don’t understand that law and you don’t abide by that law, you will suffer the consequence. Whether you agree with it, understand it, comprehend it, it doesn’t make any difference. You’re going to suffer the consequence, and that’s right where we’re headed right now. Six-point-six billion people and more coming every minute as we sit here. That’s a compound.
Well, what happens in these great systems is, they adjust. They balance themselves, and we’re going to be caught in that balancing squeeze. There’s not much to say about it. We have probably 10 years to change direction. That’s about the common statement now coming from the scientists I know. You know (NASA scientist) Jim Hansen. I know Jim, I talk with him. He’s a very matter-of-fact guy, and he says, yeah, probably nine or 10 years. And we talk with the Inuits from Greenland, the elders up there, and they said probably nine or 10 years. And (ecology professor) Carl Folke from the University of Stockholm — brilliant, brilliant — he says probably 10 years. And the Union of Concerned Scientists says that.
But, you’re optimistic that we can (turn things around)?
I can’t say I’m optimistic. But I do think human beings — I have always been amazed by human beings. They just amaze me all the time, how they can rise to an occasion. They can, you know. I’ve seen them do it. But it takes a tremendous amount for them to do that. And it takes some understanding to rise to the occasion. You’ve got to comprehend what’s going on.
So, I think that these natural catastrophes are going to force the issues. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to see it. … Ice is melting. Nothing is waiting. Not only is it melting, it’s accelerating.
You mention how important leadership is. Do leaders have to ask people to
sacrifice to get through this?
Oh, sure. Absolutely. But not only do they have to ask people to sacrifice, they sacrifice. That’s how you lead. You lead by action. You don’t lead by asking somebody else to do something. No, you sacrifice.
Because, you know, I ask this question over and over again to people in business … Do people have to cut back? Do they have to do with less? And they always say no.
Why? Are you kidding me? They say no?
They say no. We just have to use technology to find better means to supply our goods and services.
You wanna put that in a different term, I’ll tell you what that is: Have your cake and eat it, too. You can’t do that.
And that’s why that terminology, business-as-usual is over. That kind of thinking is absolutely over. You can’t do that. There’s just no reality to it. That’s just presumptions and projections. But the reality is, no, I mean, houses have to get smaller. They can’t get bigger. They have to be much more energy-conscious and -controlled. Which they can do. Everybody can do that.
People have to make less money — way, way, way less money. People have to share more of what they have.
When the Peacemaker talked to us about the foundation of the confederacy, he said the first principle is peace. And you know the Indian word for peace; it also means health. The same word.
When we say our greeting to you, or our greeting to one another is, “Thank you for being well.” And the answer is, “Yes, what you say is true.” And so, it’s a greeting of saying thank you for being well. So, (it) has a dual meaning here. Health — you can’t have peace without health. Absolutely fundamental. How can you have peace without health?
Second principle, equity. He said, “Equity for the people.” Be fair. Be fair to the people. Equity.
And the third one was power of the good minds. Unity. To be united.
Powerful concepts, powerful. And so we built a nation on that. That’s our foundation, peace. So my mission is peace. That’s the mission of the leaders. That’s the mission of the chiefs. That’s the mission of the people. It always has been for a thousand years.
And for how long has that mission involved talking about the environment?
Right from the beginning. … That’s what he said: It’s a natural law. Don’t challenge it. You will not prevail.
We have what we call, Words Before All Words, which is a thanksgiving acknowledgement. I heard it four times today, four times in different parts of our activities (for the annual Midwinter Ceremonies).
It starts with the people; the earth, everything that grows on the earth, bushes, trees, what lives in the trees, what lives on the earth; water, what lives in the water; and food, what grows, where it grows. And the leaders, the animal leaders, who lead the animal. We acknowledge thanksgiving for them.
And then the winds. We call, my grandfather, the winds. Thanksgiving for the soft winds, we say, because we know the other ones. Thanksgiving for the winds that bring the seasons and does the planting, all of that. Then we have thanksgiving for the grandfathers, the thunder and the lightning, that bring the rain — you know they’re powerful. What was the statement that this cosmonaut made when he looked at the earth? Lightning all over the world. Energy. Lightning. We knew that. The grandfathers. We better be nice to them. Better acknowledge them.
So we call these — we personify these elements to bring our people closer to them so they have more respect. We say grandfather, because we want our people to respect them as you would a grandfather.
And then we go from that to the elder brother, the sun. And talk about all the work that he does. Where would we be without the sun? Our eldest brother. And then — grandmother — our moon. Works with the females. Power to raise the water. We set our time cycles by her. We set all of the cycles of our whole calendar year by her. We plant by her. We do everything by the moon. She works with the females on their cycles.
And the stars and all the work they do. You know, they water the earth and we say that. And we thank them for bringing the dew in the morning.
… And, then we move into the spiritual side of the world, which is the Four Protectors. And we give thanks to them for looking after us, for all the things they do. And then Handsome Lake, who brought us the information 200 years ago. Giving that vision, to give us direction and why we’re here today. If we didn’t get that direction then, we wouldn’t be here today. So we acknowledge it. And then finally the Creator himself. And that completes our opening for every meeting, big or small.
… Human beings have different gifts and we say, they’re not gifts, they’re responsibilities. You’re supposed to develop them and then share with those that don’t have them. That’s how everything has equity. So you come back to that.
It’s a philosophy. And it’s not about private property. It’s not about ownership. It’s not about enclosure. That has led us to this problem we have right now — and who’s going to argue and say it hasn’t? You can’t blame anybody but who’s to blame. And what can we do about it? That’s the big question here for this generation and for us sitting right here, because we’re going to be involved in this. If you have grandchildren and great-grandchildren, you’re involved. If you have any kind of responsibility towards them. So that, you know, is kind of in a nutshell the situation from my perspective.
And it’s not my perspective, it’s one I learned from listening to our people. And because they use me for a spokesman all the time, you know, people say, that guy’s wise. No, I’m just telling what people know. And we don’t tell all by any means.