During this pandemic Susan and I are living in Wabash, Indiana Monday-Friday taking care of our seven-year-old grandson Jeffery while our daughter and son-in-law work as RNs at the VA Hospital in Marion, Indiana. We return to our Indianapolis home on weekends. Weather permitting, we take our grandson to Paradise Spring so he can ride his bike and hoverboard along the Wabash Riverwalk.
Recently, a friend called and asked what I was doing. I told him of our daily excursions to Paradise Spring with our grandson and the family basset hound. He asked me, “What is Paradise Spring?” I related to him the place’s significance. After the brutal defeat of the Potawatomie Indians along the Maumee River (1794) and the subsequent defeat of the Miami Indians at Tippecanoe (!811), these First Nations peoples were forced to surrender their ancestral lands in northern Indiana and southern Michigan. The treaty which allowed for this injustice was made at Paradise Spring in 1826. So, I told my friend that Paradise Spring (located two blocks from our daughter’s home) was where the U. S. once again robbed the First Nations of their lands and cultures. Within two decades of this treaty, most of those who composed these First Nations peoples living in northern Indiana and southern Michigan were relocated against their will to reservations in Oklahoma.
My friend’s response was, “But Ron, that land needed to be developed. It had to be done.” I’ve thought about that statement for the last couple of weeks, and I now recognize the tragedy and arrogance of such a perspective. First of all, the lands ceded by the Miami and the Potawatomie were already developed long before Europeans ever stepped foot in the New World. It is a mistake to believe that the indigenous peoples who inhabited the Western Hemisphere never developed the land. Archeologists and anthropologists tell us that all First Nations’ peoples developed the land to allow for their livelihoods, survival, and prosperity. However, with very few exceptions, they did so with a reverence for the land as they sought to live in harmony with nature. For example, The Iroquois could boast of never making any decision without first determining how that decision would affect the seventh generation in the future. The wisdom of this approach to development can be seen in one astounding and undeniable reality: the First Nations were able to live on this continent for over ten thousand years (some believe much longer than that) without polluting, exploiting, and devastating the lands they loved and cherished.
Europeans who came to the New World along with their descendants saw the land as something to be possessed, subdued, and exploited. In the five hundred years following their arrival, the beautiful paradise the Europeans found when they invaded this continent has been trashed, marred, and violated in ways that take no thought for the future or the health of the planet. I am reminded of this tragedy every time I go to Paradise Spring. The Miami and other First Nations could drink from the Wabash River. Today along the banks of the Wabash are signs warning people not to drink from or swim in the river because of the industrial waste, sewage, and pollutants that are dumped into what was once a life-giving and beautiful part of God’s good earth.
Perhaps most tragic of all were the words “needed to” and “had to” in my friend’s comment. These words betray a sinister assumption of greed and violence. Behind all of our “needs to” and “has to” in our approach to life on this earth is the conviction that we are free to do to this earth whatever we want and to do so with impunity. These words reveal an invisible and often unconscious imperative to exploit and violate our world in ways that destroy the delicate harmony and balance on which life depends. What we often label as progress is no more than ruthless exploitation and foolish consumption of a planet which has limits and boundaries that must be respected if humans are to continue life on this earth.
We can only imagine what would have happened if the Europeans and First Nations had chosen to learn from one another. History demonstrates that the indigenous people were willing to share their land with early European immigrants. Unfortunately, European whites had no concept of sharing. They only knew how to own, exploit, amass, conquer, and destroy. The wisdom of the First Nations which had been cultivated for more than ten thousand years was rejected by the whites who so savagely subdued and polluted the beauty and fecundity they found.
And so here we are five hundred years after doing all we could to “pave paradise” facing the greatest crisis in human history: the climate emergency. We need First Nations wisdom. That wisdom could lead to the salvation of humankind and of the healing of the earth as a place where life can survive and flourish in ways that are in harmony with nature and cognizant of the needs of future generations. We need to be converted to Seventh Generation thinking and valuing and to be done with our fixation on quarterly profits and trickle-down economics. The economist E. F. Schumacher wrote a book in 1973 entitled Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Matter. I believe that much of what he wrote is highly relevant for our time. However, perhaps we should add to the subtitle: Economics as if the Earth and People Matter. We must embrace a radically different value system if we are to survive as a people. Those first Europeans who came to the New World assumed they had nothing to learn from the indigenous people they found on this continent. But today as the descendants of those Europeans, we must be open to ways which cherish the earth and seek to live in harmony with creation. The remnants of these great First Nations can help show us those ways.
I want to end this article with a quote from the late Vine Deloria, Jr who was a Native American author, theologian, historian, activist, lawyer, and professor:
Our ideas will overcome your ideas. We are going to cut the country’s whole value system to shreds. It isn’t important that there are only 500,000 of us Indians. . . What is important is that we have a superior way of life. We Indians have a more human philosophy of life. We Indians will show this country how to act human. Someday this country will revise its constitution, its laws, in terms of human beings, instead of property. If Red Power is to be a power in this country it is because it is ideological. . . What is the ultimate value of a man’s life? That is the question.(quote from The New Indians, Stan Steiner, 1968, pp. ix-x)