A Seat at the Table: Huston Smith In Conversation with Native Americans on Religious Freedom

A Seat at the Table: Huston Smith In Conversation with Native Americans on Religious Freedom

by Huston Smith

"A Seat At The Table is a valuable and insightful book about a too long overlooked topic - the right of Native American people to have their sacred sites and practices honored and protected. Let's hope it gets read far and wide, enough to bring about a real shift in policy and consciousness.”—Bonnie Raitt

"Phil Cousineau has created a fine

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"A Seat At The Table is a valuable and insightful book about a too long overlooked topic - the right of Native American people to have their sacred sites and practices honored and protected. Let's hope it gets read far and wide, enough to bring about a real shift in policy and consciousness.”—Bonnie Raitt

"Phil Cousineau has created a fine companion book to accompany the important film he and Gary Rhine have made in defense of the religious traditions of Native Americans. [Native Americans] are recognized the world over as keepers of a vital piece of the Creator's original orders, and yet they are regarded as little more than squatters at home. This book features impressive interviews, beautiful illustrations, and gives a voice to the voiceless.”—Peter Coyote

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1999, Smith, renowned authority on world religions, accompanied a delegation of Native American religious leaders to the World Parliament of Religions in Cape Town, South Africa. These delegates contended that understanding the world's religions was impossible without considering the indigenous religions of the New World, which had so often been overlooked. This book grew out of a documentary film of the sessions at the parliament called A Seat at the Table: Struggling for American Indian Religious Freedom. Smith interviewed Native American leaders ranging from the well-known (Vine Deloria Jr., Walter Echo-Hawk and Charlotte Black Elk) to the less widely recognized, such as Lenny Foster and Tonya Gonella Frichner. The remarkable conversations trace the common thread that Native Americans follow a spiritual path imbuing all their life, encompassing art, morality and literature. Topics include the fight for prisoners' rights, ceremonial rituals, the role of elders and the genius of oral traditions. Smith's interlocutors plead for a restoration of religious freedom so long repressed by an American government they believe is seeking to displace tribes from their lands and rob them of their tribal and spiritual identities. The interviews provide a fine introduction to Native American religions. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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University of California Press
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A Seat at the Table

By Huston Smith

The University of California Press

ISBN: 0-520-24439-7

Chapter One


Douglas George-Kanentiio, Mohawk-Iroquois, was born and raised as one of seventeen brothers and sisters in the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory and is a member of the Bear Clan. He is vigorously involved in many issues surrounding the survival of the Six Nations, including sovereignty, the environment, social problems, land claims, and the revival of tribal languages. He is co-founder of radio CKON, the only native-licensed broadcasting station in North America, co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association, and a member of the board of trustees of the National Museum of the American Indian. George is co-author, with his wife, Joanne Shenandoah, of Sky-woman: Legends of the Iroquois and author of Iroquois Culture and Commentary. They now live in Oneida Territory, in New York.

In the fifth dialogue at the Parliament, Douglas George and his former professor Huston Smith discussed the often bittersweet topic of native languages. As Whole Earth magazine reported in spring 2000, "Languages are going extinct twice as fast as mammals; four times as fast as birds." At the current rate,somewhere in the world a language dies every two weeks. In an issue devoted to vanishing languages Civilization agazine reported, "In the 19th century, there were more than 1,000 Indian languages in Brazil, many spoken in small, isolated villages in the rain forest; today there are a mere 200, most of which have never been written down or recorded." In 1996 Red Thunder Cloud, the last living fluent speaker of Catawba, a Siouan language, died. There remains only one living speaker of Quileute, eighty-seven-year-old Lillian Pullen, of La Push, Washington. "Of the 6,000 languages still on earth, 90 percent could be gone by 2100," wrote Rosemarie Ostler in The Futurist.

While some observers regard language loss as inevitable, even desirable, if it lessens ethnic tensions and promotes global communication, most indigenous people view it as a crisis that must be transformed. There must be a collective will to preserve and revitalize the traditional languages. To community activists like Douglas George, language is a symbol of the tribe's group identity, and the threat to its vitality is a diversity and a human rights issue, as well as a spiritual one. He believes language to be a spiritual gift, which means its loss can trigger a spiritual crisis in the community. He makes the case that the great web of life is not only biological but also verbal and cultural. To George, rescuing the endangered languages of the world's indigenous peoples is akin to saving their spirit. As George carefully relates, the preservation of the "mother tongues, the languages of the earth," is essential not only for educational purposes but for the very survival of indigenous people.

For Professor Smith, the crisis in languages is directly related to the crisis in religious and political freedom. What all three situations share is the need for minority groups to speak freely. The preservation of one's inherited language, he observes here, is especially key in oral traditions because it is the very safeguard of the community and "increases the capacity to experience the sacred through nonverbal means." Without language, the ability to express or experience one's spiritual life is diminished, so language is a profound religious issue.

We wait in the darkness! Come, all ye who listen, Help in our night journey: Now no sun is shining; Now no star is glowing; Come show us the pathway: The night is not friendly; She closes her eyelids; The moon has forgot us, We wait in the darkness!


* * *

HUSTON SMITH: I cannot be more overjoyed at the prospect of this conversation, because you play a unique role in my life. Before we turn to our topic of native languages, I want to tell the audience what that role is. In my five decades of teaching at Syracuse, you were the only Native American student I have ever had. Never could I have anticipated at that first class meeting what would happen of enduring importance in the course of that semester.

The story, as you may remember, is that during that semester my older brother, Walter, died. One morning at 6:00 a.m., I received a phone call from my remaining brother informing me that the previous evening Walter had keeled over from a blood clot in his brain. Our class was to meet at 10:00, and I debated about whether to have the departmental secretary go to the classroom and tell the students that the class was canceled. Finally, I decided to hold the class but be up-front about what had happened and ask the students to understand if at times my attention wandered. I wanted them to understand and excuse me if I was a little less coherent than usual.

For the next hour I taught as well as possible and made it through. As I was gathering up my notes I noticed that you were lingering. Without saying a word, you fell in step with me, and we walked together with downcast eyes for about ten minutes. When we arrived at my office you came in. I closed the door. Then you said, "Professor Smith, when something like this happens among our people, we sit together. I'm sorry it happened." With those simple words, you proceeded to sit for twenty minutes with me in my office without saying a word. Then you rose and left the office, closing the door quietly behind you.

I don't have to tell you the impact of your action. It was an experience I shall never forget, and I thank you again for that. So it sent a thrill through me when I discovered we were going to have another hour of learning together.

Turning now to the topic of this hour, native languages, let's begin by your giving us an overview of what the language situation is among the Iroquois.

DOUGLAS GEORGE: I was born in 1955 in a time of great transition within Iroquois society. I was actually raised on the Canadian side of what is the only reservation in North America that actually straddles the border. [The Blackfeet Reservation, in Montana, also shares an American and Canadian border.] In our history we have experienced times when the very foundations of our lives have been shaken. The 1950s were one of those times.

Specifically, I was born in those times and was raised among the Mohawk people. Mohawk is one of the Six Nations that also include the Onondagas, the Tuscaroras, the Oneidas, the Senecas, and the Cayugas. Our homeland is what is now central New York State. At time of contact, in the year 1492, we estimate there were a quarter million Iroquois living on those native lands. Currently there are around 80,000 Iroquois people, the majority of whom live on the Canadian side of the border. That is because after the American Revolution, many of our people felt they owed a deep allegiance to the British Crown. They were somewhat apprehensive about the reaction of the Americans to the victory and elected to fulfill their treaty obligations and live close to the British.

When I was born, there was virtually complete knowledge and fluency of the Mohawk language among the adult population. After the Second World War there was a move by the Iroquois to become wage earners. They were displaced from their aboriginal territories, especially the Mohawks. With the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and various other capital works projects by the state of New York and the U.S. federal government, our people were displaced from the land. When that happened the adult population realized that their children had to be prepared to earn a wage, whereas formerly we could exist by extracting natural resources from the land and the river. That was no longer the case. Their children had to be prepared to compete in a job market, in a capitalistic system. A conscious decision was made by the adult population that their children would be educated, instructed, and taught to think in the English language. The Mohawk language was by and large abandoned, and we experienced a great break among the generations, a break we are still feeling the effects of. You could almost say to a given year when that break happened. For us it has created a tremendous amount of internal trauma.

SMITH: So within one generation you have endured a slippage from virtually 100 percent knowledge of your language to 25 percent. My, oh, my, what a tragic loss for any period of time, but to think that it happened in one generation-

GEORGE: Yes, the estimate among the Mohawks is that fluent Mohawk speakers make up approximately one-quarter of our population. Among the Iroquois, we have the most Iroquois speakers existing in the Mohawk nation. In other Iroquois nations the situation is even graver than that in our communities.

I think what needs to be emphasized is that at the time of contact with the Europeans there were upward of roughly six hundred languages spoken in North America by 30 million people. A hundred years ago the native population of North America had dwindled to about 170,000. As for the current situation, I believe we have about 157 languages that are still spoken. However, the majority of those languages are spoken by people entering their elder years. There have been moves by native communities to restore language. There has been legislation passed on a national level in the United States to make funds and resources available to help us recover from former government mistakes when they outlawed languages, to make means available to those native groups who still want to retain their language. That is a most admirable thing.

There is one Mohawk teacher who has had an international impact because she designed a curriculum under which some Mohawk students are currently learning about the world through Mohawk eyes. Her name is Dorothy Lazar, a former nun in a Catholic tradition, who put aside her orders and now devotes all her time to teaching ways to retain Mohawk language. She is a remarkable person. A very humble, very nice, wonderful person. That curriculum is being replicated among the Maori in New Zealand and among the native Hawaiians in Hawaii. There are tangible, creative responses to the situation we are in. But I cannot emphasize enough that the teaching of our elders, passed on to each one of us and delivered here now, is that if native people lose their connection with the natural world, then the world itself is lost. That is the situation we are faced with now.

SMITH: You indicated the cause of the tragic loss of language among your people. Now, what do you see as the cost of losing that particular world?

GEORGE: My own experience is the best way to tell it. When I was a fairly young boy I was taken away from the reservation. The Canadian government decided that I was going to be their ward. Like literally thousands of other native children I was put into an institution, a very sterile institution where the very last vestiges of native language were eradicated from the minds of the children. That was probably the most odious and reprehensible act that the government engaged in, the actual displacement of our children.

These children were taken away from the nurturing and loving atmosphere of their own communities and put in these institutions, where they were overseen by people who were, if nothing else, rigid and brutal. You will see that among native people, time and time again. They will give you heartrending testimony of what happened to them when they were taken away from their families, even when those families might have been in a state of crisis, and put into these institutions.

If there was one act initiated by the United States and Canada that was meant to finally eradicate native people by destroying their spirit, that was it. This singular act of removing children by design, by federal policy, from their homes to institutions that were nothing short of penal colonies, laid them wide open to substance abuse.

That is one of the things I went through. If there is anything that stamped out the last vestiges of pride in our ancestry, it was the way our children were put into these schools. This is not an exaggeration. It's a highly emotional issue for Indians who have gone through this. The removal of our children was the primary cause of the destruction of our native language.

SMITH: You have written that the learning of your mother tongue was actually discouraged by the elders for a time because they thought that it might interfere with their assimilation. That's a heartbreaking story. How do people recover from such a cultural calamity as convincing parents that it is in their children's interest to be raised in a whole other tradition?

GEORGE: One of the most amazing, most beautiful, and most heartening things about the Iroquois people is how much we have retained when it comes to our ancestral values, when it comes to our ancient ceremonial activities. We still practice an elaborate set of rituals that follow the lunar phases of the moon. We are pleased to say that among all native peoples in North America, despite the enormous loss of language, our people are still holding on to those things that make us indigenous people.

SMITH: And in those rituals is the language native?

GEORGE: Yes. It has to be. We are taught that native language, the Iroquois language, was developed and born in the land in which we find ourselves. We are taught that it is the language of the Earth. It is the language in which we communicate with the natural world. When our spiritual leaders, our political leaders-they are one and the same-when they gather together, regardless of whether it is a social event, a national meeting, or a ceremony, they have to speak very specific words of thanksgiving. It's called the opening address, or "Thanksgiving Prayer." During the course of this prayer they acknowledge the different elements of Creation, beginning with Mother Earth and going on to the waters, the insects, the plants, the trees, the winds, our grandmother moon, the human leaders, our elders. They go through this in order to put our minds into a kind of collective spiritual state, and they have to do this in a native language, because we are told that is the means by which we can effectively communicate with the natural world. If we don't have that language, then we can no longer talk to the elements. We no longer can address the winds. We no longer can address the natural world, the animal species. If we fail to do that, if there is some time in our history when we lose that ability, then the balance is upset between humans and nature, and there will be an attendant and possibly a violent reaction.

SMITH: I'll put on my historian of religions cap for a moment. I'm thinking of a parallel in Islam. You mentioned that in your rituals the native language has to be used. So too in the Sala, the prayers, even though most Muslims do not know Arabic, those prayers must be said in Arabic, so everybody knows those. That's the similarity. But the difference is that Muslims relate to the language as the language of the divine, of Allah, so the language brings them closer to God. Whereas for you your language is related to the elements of the Earth, and you cannot be effectively bonded, or thoroughly bonded, without that.

GEORGE: We are taught that language is essential in the spiritual world as well as the physical world. The Iroquois believe this is one of an infinite number of spiritual dimensions, and we are meant to extract certain lessons from our time on this Earth. When our time is completed, we are sent on a journey back to the Creator, and the shell of who we are returns to Mother Earth because it was a gift from Mother Earth. But the spirit-the spark of our being-goes on a journey back to the Creator escorted by our relatives.

Now, one of the reasons that the Iroquois are greatly apprehensive about the loss of our language is that when we make that transition, when we die on this level, our spirit goes to the next level of existence. We have to be greeted by our relatives, our ancestors, and if they can't speak to us, if we don't know their language, then we are going to be trapped between two worlds, and if that happens it is going to be a great despair for our people.


SMITH: What can be done, what is being done, about the crisis in native languages? Have you passed the point of no return, or are there ways to turn the situation around?


Excerpted from A Seat at the Table by Huston Smith Excerpted by permission.
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