Social agreement, like a treaty—or even as the trustworthy word of an honest human being—must be kept. Once broken, dissonance ensues, and conflict is sure to follow.
The American Dream, the sense that although flawed (as with everything that exists) the working people of our country have a chance at a decent living wage and the opportunity to educate and launch their children into prosperous futures, appears broken.
What the general public has sensed, that the economic system “as a whole” has been intensely managed in favor of a very small percentage of Americans, is now more keenly examined. The upward transfer of wealth, the continued impoverishment of the working population, the middle class and the poor—the story of greed and deception as practiced in so-called high finance—is out.
We can credit the occupiers at Wall Street for elevating these discussions into the public channels. The largely spontaneous movement signals a most powerful fact-pattern that is locking in for a substantial majority of American society. Given the deepening impacts of social media in political action, common thought travels wide and deep, and quickly, these days, and this particular message—that the system has gone top-heavy—resonated increasingly across the country and the world. (Some eighty percent of Americans say it is so).
The message out of the Occupy Wall Street is one that questions greed as the driving social value, and seeks to have a better moral (and competent) compass steer the path of a more equitable and commonly comprehensive society. Where the sense of the Commons? Where the Pluribus Unum? Where the social safety net? Where the future generations?
This kind of perception has been signaled over the American centuries by the traditional Indian elders, whose sensitivities toward the earth as a living being could tell them, long before Western scientists saw it, that it can be made fragile and can be damaged by the behavior of the human being. A people who highly value reciprocity and generosity in the extended, in-place community, quickly sizes up humans strictly driven by greed and deception. Much of what came at the Indian nations in the expansion of the new American republics was spearheaded by very raw greed. It’s an old story—not yet well told.
Recognizably, as a people, Americans have formed the most generous country on earth. The history of Indian treaties, as flawed as it became, began in some measure of principle and honesty. Things might have gone much better between Indians and the new polities that came to the hemisphere; that they went so awry is largely due policies driven by the greed of acquisition and confiscation of Indian property (lands), in various forms, by the new governments. Again, this is an old song, and there has been much experience, both positive and negative. One lesson is that greed will have its way, unless its ultimate incapacity to lead is clearly understood.
This new old song surfaces, and forcefully, in the contemporary national discourse as a large cross-section of American society feels the same pain of progressive dispossession of a “way of life,” squeezed increasingly out of existence by power social forces. Is the treaty of the country with its own citizens now also broken?
John Mohawk, the renowned Native philosopher from the Seneca Nation (Haudenosaune, d. 2006), encapsulated what might be a good message to the Wall Street Occupiers and a good addition to the larger discussion generated by the protests. Globally, the earth-bound, locally productive traditions of the indigenous peoples are severely threatened. Yet, the indigenous traditions join other knowledge bases of local-regional agricultural and small industry production that could model new social concepts of good human life and development of sustainable practice in energy and natural resource consumption.
Traditionalist, author and university scholar, Mohawk was and remains one of the deep thinkers of the Native world. Trained by parents from a clan of farmers, herbalists, longhouse ceremonial leaders, then emerging a modern intellectual and persistent activist, Mohawk focused a discourse of economic independence among and by the Native nations and communities. The prescription included business and trade, but also a deep attachment to land and the proportional growth of economic activity generated at local and area levels, including high attention to local, indigenous food and medicinal production and protection of water bases.
Mohawk acknowledged that his indigenous prescription is modeled for a people who already come from a land-based culture, who can recover their own knowledge of how to produce from small farms. But he would offer that the main principle—accountability of scale—has applicability at all levels of planning and production. On a larger scale, even on national and even international levels, the notion that the whole country and world could greatly benefit from smaller (not necessarily small) rather than bigger and biggest operational structures (such as “too big to fail”) becomes an increasingly appreciable principle.
Mohawk’s thinking is not a bad point of departure for a discussion on bottom-line, safety-net economics in North America.
As the Seneca philosopher liked to say, “The question, ‘when is enough, enough?’ is worth asking, and should be asked.”
Jose Barreiro serves serves in the scholarship group at the National Museum of the American Indian – Smithsonian. His 2010 book, Thinking in Indian: A John Mohawk Reader (Fulcrum Publishers), compiles the early essays of the Seneca professor.