By Dr. John Bacher
Twelve years ago, I had the fortunate experience of taking part in an Iroquois homeland meeting between the respected Seneca elder John Mohawk and Ronkwetason, (Spirit Man); more widely known as Danny Beaton.
Beaton is a Mohawk of the Turtle Clan. He is the son of Lois Clause, whose grandparents were Edna Beaver and Freeman Clause of the Grand River Six Nations Territory, located near Brantford, Ontario. He has produced and directed four nationally broadcast films that feature Native American spiritual elders voicing their concerns for the need of society to return to spiritual values and the protection of Mother Earth. In 1992, he was made by the Governor-General of Canada, and was a recipient of the Canada 125 Award.
In my first meeting with Danny Beaton and John Mohawk, we discussed strategies to realize native American views for the healing of our wounded earth. This resulted in a close collaboration between Danny Beaton, and Onondaga chief and faithkeeper, Oren Lyons. They would soon meet in Onondaga with the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth, a gathering of grassroots native spiritual elders and youth.
After his first Onondaga council, Danny Beaton would faithfully attend the annual gatherings of the circle. This year marked the 25th anniversary of the gathering and was held in Montana on a vast Buffalo ranch, hosted by the revered elder, Joe Medicine Crow.
From taking part in such sacred gatherings of native people with a deep bond to creation, Danny Beaton became a compelling messenger of their wise message of the urgent need to protect Mother Earth.
In his constant earth defense work with spiritually connected elders from the Arctic to the Amazon, Danny Beaton went beyond his many important individual battles to protect creation.
He placed these efforts in a context of restoring the planet to the balance that existed when it was guarded by native leaders who sought to be the custodians of creation.
This is why it was so appropriate that when conference planners of the third biennial Interdisciplinary Conference on World Order, held from May 24 to June 1 at Ryerson University in Toronto, sought a speaker able to share the holistic, Indigenous perspective of our place in and responsibility for the environment, they contacted Danny Beaton to speak at the conference’s sustainable education session.
Stephen Shcarper, an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Toronto, who teaches courses in Religion and Ecology, explains why the conference organizers felt it was so important that Beaton make a presentation.
He “felt it was absolutely essential that a person of his vision and ancestry be speaking at the conference because he brought a perspective based on the way of life of a people rooted in the land and not in western thinking. It is quite inspiring to hear from the perspectives of traditions based on the beauty of the earth. If Danny Beaton or someone from his tradition had not been speaking at the conference, it would have lacked both power and integrity.”
The biennial Interdisciplinary Conference on World Order is coordinated with the co-operation of Science for Peace, Ryerson University, and the respected peace orientated Buddhist movement, Sokha Gakkai International.
Its participants are internationally recognized scientists and educators from around the world. The conference seeks to develop “a wide angle and full spectrum systemic view of global issues” to assist government with solutions that encourage peace and the protection of the environment.
The Sustainable Education Session dealt with the implications of environmental sustainability or lack of it, for future generations. Danny Beaton was asked to give an opening ceremony to begin this session. He chose to give a recitation of the Iroquois Thanksgiving Address.
The Thanksgiving Address is a sacred prayer recited at the beginning and end of all gatherings of Iroquois people who still adhere to the earth respecting ways of their confederacy government and Longhouse traditions. Through it, the speaker expresses thanks from the earth to the sky for all the blessings of creation.
The SpeechIn his version of the Thanksgiving Address, Beaton told the assembled scholars and scientists that for the beauty of the day, “we join our minds together as one and give a great thanks to our great Creator for allowing us to travel to this place safely; for allowing us to come to this place in a good way. We give thanks for the protection that we receive to attend this gathering.”
He began his thanks to creation with “a great thanks for all the sacred vegetation that’s around us; for all the trees and the plants, the vegetables, for all the sacred vegetation and for the spirit of the sacred vegetation”.
After thanking the plants Beaton urged that the gathering “give a great thanks for the sacred four leggeds and for the winged beings, for the insects and for the fish that swim in the water.”
For “their spirits and for our friends” Beaton gave “a great Nia wen” since “without our friends, the animals, and the insects and the birds and the fish, it wouldn’t be the same on the earth. It would be very lonely without their voices and without their songs.”
Following his honouring of the birds and creatures that walk on the earth, Beaton went on to give thanks “for the rivers and lakes and streams, and the great oceans and tides.” These water forces he called “Mother Earth’s blood that quenches the thirst of all life.”
After thanking the waters, Beaton went on to honour “all the things that are in the sky”, including, “our brother, who is the sun” and “our grandmother, who is the moon.” He explained that “it’s the sun that makes things grow and for this we are grateful” and how it was “our grandmother, the moon, who gives us light at night”.
It was the stars, Beaton’s Thanksgiving Address explained, that provides the basis for when traditional Iroquois can perform their ceremonies. In these ceremonies the Iroquois give “thanks to all the spirits for the spirit world, for the spirit forces, for the spirit powers” and for “the four protectors who protect us from danger and trouble”.
Danny Beaton urged that the entire “Sacred Mother Earth” be understood “in a sacred way.” He gave thanks, “For all the nourishment that our sacred mother gives us, for the sacred beauty that our mother gives us and for the sacred medicines that our mother gives us so we can do our ceremonies.”
As it is customary in the Thanksgiving Address, Beaton concluded by imploring that “we join our minds together as one and we say Nia wen to our chiefs, our clan mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers, for the people that are praying, for the people that are doing ceremonies, for everything that takes care of us.”
After reciting the Thanksgiving Address, Beaton explained how it was part of “a ceremonial culture of giving thanks”.
This was part of how “as traditional people we have to be connected to the earth by speaking to the earth and giving thanks, and honour to the earth and to all of creation so we are one with creation and we’re not separate from creation, we’re not separate from the sun and so we’re not separate from the water, we’re not separate from the fire, and we’re not separate from the air or the water. In native culture elders teach that going to the water, air and fire is medicine to purify ourselves.”
For Beaton, today’s environmental crisis is rooted in the disrespect of both the natural world and the “faithkeepers and clanmothers of this continent”. They have been unrecognized in the dominant culture for their role “as spiritual leaders of this continent over the years”. He explained that “native culture is a culture of oneness with the universe that is around us.”
Beaton explained he was not here to scold, belittle or ridicule, being “of one mind” with those gathered who sought to protect the earth. He then explained the deep spiritual connection traditional native Americans have with creation. This is so deep that often when they explain these bonds the elders “don’t need to have any notes”.
Beaton told how “our way of life is with the spirit world, it’s with the universe, it’s with creation. What we learn to do as we get older is to live with this force, with these forces. The sun, moon, stars, animals, trees, plants, all of these gifts that are, we learned to be a voice to them. We learned to give thanks to them, not to separate ourselves from them.
“And so when we get up everyday we learn to be at one with them. And so our elders learned to be the voice of the wolf, they learned to be the voice of the bear, they learned to be the voice of the eagle, they learned to be the voice of the plants-because we are close to them, because we work with them. We work with the bear, we work with the plants, the medicines, we work with these and this is where we get our strength. This is where we get our strength and this is the culture that has been.”
Traditional native culture living in respect and balance with the earth, explained Beaton, is “the furthest thing from triviality that could ever be. It’s the most profound existence, the way academics and historians have preserved and documented our culture throughout the years of colonization and western thinking.”
Listen to your elders
Native culture, Beaton explained, relies on the wisdom of elders who strive to protect creation, to which they are deeply connected. He told the gathering “it’s the most beautiful experience to spend time with an elder, a spiritual leader”. Such people dedicate their lives to “experiencing ceremonies, experiencing purification, experiencing oneness, with the universe.”
Beaton explained how “ever since colonization, my people have suffered from western thinking. That’s a profound understatement in the history of the earth. I am here for my people, I am here for my ancestors, I am my people, I am my ancestors and ever since colonization, our people have suffered. I am the wounded earth, I am my wounded people, I am the polluted water, I am the polluted air, I am the dishonoured sacred fire. That’s who I am and that’s who you are and that’s what your children will become”.
Scharper recalls that he was “very deeply moved” by Danny’s remarks. “Part of it was how he explained how the Mohawks look at earth, air, water, and fire”, Scharper explains. ” He told us we are the earth, we are the fire, we are the water.
Following the address, Helmut Burkhart, then President of Science for Peace and a key organizer of the conference, said that he came to the same conclusions, only after 30 years of scientific research, that Danny made concerning the ontological relationship with creation. Western science, especially physics, is realizing that humans share matter and energy and the sub-atomic level, with all matter which they come in contact.”
For Scharper, “What was very urgent about Danny’s presentation was its sense of reconciliation, optimism and hopefulness. European policies towards indigenous peoples as Danny points out have usually been horrendous, yet Danny spoke with compassion rather than recrimination. He talked about our common purpose in saving Mother Earth. This is what I found to be particularly moving.”
Burkhart is astonished how Beaton “actually summarized the scientific world view in down to earth language about Mother Earth. I thought it was very good. He addressed the water question, he addressed the air question. Any scientific survey couldn’t have handled it any further.”
Burkhart took particular interest in how Beaton’s presentation of the native perspective offers a “different approach” to past conflicts between spirituality and science. He explains how, “Most of us come from a scientific perspective viewpoint. He came from a spiritual side.
“When the Catholic Church criticized Galileo for his scientific views about the earth going around the sun, they actually forced him to comply. We have a similar problem over birth control, which we know as ecologists, is important to protect the planet. However, at a United Nations Conference in Cairo, the Catholics and the Muslims used religious arguments to refuse to sign on to a population planning document. I found that with the native viewpoint there isn’t this conflict between spirituality and science.”
Strong message heard and spread
Another participant who was quite moved by Beaton’s presentation was Colin Soskolne, who is a Professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
He believes that, “The environmental message of Danny Beaton was no less than profound. I was so impressed by the message that I made his films available to my colleagues in Australia. I think it provided a glimpse of how we can have a more sustainable future for ourselves and for future generations. The essence of the message is how to live in harmony with the environment. At least the Iroquois elders he portrayed in his speech understand the urgency of achieving sustainability. They are closer to the land than what western civilization has allowed itself to become.”
Leading scientists and scholars appreciate the wisdom of the spiritual teachings of native elders about the sacredness of creation and the need for leaders to be custodians, not the “owners” and exploiters of the earth. This was the great accomplishment of Beaton’s presentation, the first to be made in the three World Order Conferences that gave the perspective of Native American spiritual leaders.
It is tragic that the voice of elders was not heard even a century ago, when the then much smaller environmental community in North America was quite isolated from native Americans seeking to defend their ancestral and sacred lands from industrial pillage and exploitation.
Then the tragic massacre of Wounded Knee took place when natives were peacefully praying for a return of their buffalo to the great plains. No scientist, professor, or even the early environmental champions of this period, who were in the Sierra Club and Audubon Society, joined in this prayer for the earth.
Great spiritual leaders such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were never able to sit down with scientists to explain what would happen to our common humanity if the earth were to continue to be pillaged by the invasion of native lands.
Just when scientists and scholars are coming to respect the teachings of the elders, many native leaders in Canada are turning against it. I asked Danny what he thought about this dilemma.
“It’s no wonder why people like George Bush are able to get support for a third world war. What happens if Korea, Russia and China and the whole Middle East get fed up with American dictatorship and exploitation? George Bush is spending millions of dollars to feed soldiers, instead of starving children and building tanks, rockets and bombs, instead of fixing the environment from nuclear waste and acid rain.
“People like Matthew Coon Come and Ted Moses are bragging about selling our sacred rivers to Quebec Hydro for 3.6 million dollars. My hope and actions are with the spiritual elders of this continent and it is our original instructions from our ancestors to protect Mother earth from harm. I am truly thankful that there are still some people focused on peace and harmony and the protection of our children’s future. Nia wen.”
Dr. John Bacher, who has his doctorate in Canadian History, is the author of two books. He is also an environmentalist with the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society and a peace activist. In 2000 he ran as a candidate for the New Democratic Party in the federal election, and has been nominated by the NDP for the next Ontario provincial election.