The First American Democracy

“The future is a construct that is shaped in the present, and that is why to be responsible in the present is the only way of taking serious responsibility for the future. What is important is not the fulfillment of all one’s dreams, but the stubborn determination to continue dreaming.”

~ Gioconda Belli, The Country Under My Skin

Nothing can replace the act of seeking knowledge for oneself. I can read about it, have it explained, or live it through another person’s experience, but in each case I see it incompletely, like the blind man holding the elephant’s tail.

For Americans eighteen and older this has never been more relevant.

In 1990 I sought to learn about our nation’s first people by going to them. I left a high profile position at a well known institution, sold or gave away most of my possessions, packed up my pick up, and traveled to a dusty border town trusting my inner compass. There was a man and woman who agreed to take me on as an apprentice and student to help me understand American culture and my own life’s course through an examination of my country’s historical relationship with the First Americans and with the land, water, air, and wildlife of the North American continent.

Why did I do that, you may wonder. I had come to the realization that instead of my nation being a beacon of light in the world, it was in fact an empire to many other nations and peoples whose cultural beliefs and lands were at odds with ours.  How could there be hunger in a land of plenty? Why were democratic rights applied conditionally to members of our own society and in the world – and my culture accept that? How could we destroy the great natural beauty and abundance of our lands even while extolling how much we love it?

It made no sense to me and created a pervading sense of living a lie. I remember the unreality of my life then as I drove to work where architecturally beautiful buildings and the expansive green of a golf course tumbled down to the deep blue of the Pacific ocean. My day was stressful administering programs at a world renown health care facility where patients—banged up in the American market wars and social striving—suffered from heart problems, addiction, or complications from obesity.

One day I sat looking out the picture windows of my corporate office on a singing blue-sky day in southern California. Internally I felt lost and weak.  My eyes settled on a book that had lain unread on my shelves for many years:  Touch the Earth (T.C. McLuhan.) It is a book of Indian values from Indian voices.

At the first reading I experienced a profound sense of sanity return to me. In them I found a direction to pursue the answers to my deepest questions. I became aware of a pulsing hunger at my core for this knowledge, like something precious lost and then vaguely rememberd. Could it be that we have within us the knowledge of past human wisdom buried in our brains at birth? Looking back now, I realize that I had no choice but to make the decisions that led me to seek guidance and leave all I had known before – to clear the decks and make way for something new.

The next three years of living in the daily presence of two American Indian educators (one a Mojave elder, college professor, Korean veteran and social worker; the other an Iroquois artist and musician.) Their guidance changed the way I see myself and the world around me. I still believe the experience made me a better person. But the story of how that evolved is a hard one and definitely not what I had expected. The path to self-understanding is a crucible where falseness is burned away and a tender new skin grown. It requires humility, determination, and humor. It is anything but glamorous.

I hope you will return to my blog for journal entries about my experiences. Until then, here are some links to explore:

The First Democracy: the Haudenosaunee

Basic Call to Consciousness

What Does It Mean?

The Earth Charter

2 thoughts on “The First American Democracy

  1. Larry Chamblin

    Susan, it sounds like you experienced your own personal moment of grace that ushered into your life a transformation. I suspect that one spark of that transformation was your new connection to the Earth and its rhythms–so much closer than in your (as mine too) office culture. I am reminded of Thomas Berry, who in “The Great Work” talks about indigenous people as possessing wisdom that will guide us into our new presence in the Earth, a presence that will be as beneficial to the Earth itself as to us in our selves and communities.

    I am currently reading David Korten’s “The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community.” Your entry suggests your own path from corporate empire to Earth community, a path I believe we must all be on in our own way.

    I don’t like to think of myself as one prone to proselytize, for I lack the traditional faith and the will to see others conform to my own beliefs. Yet I feel a need to help others into the kind of dialogue about our 21st century America–how we got here and where are we headed–that your thoughts expressed here and Korten and Berry and others call forth in my own mind. How can we open up this dialogue?

  2. Larry, thanks for your thoughtful reply. Your question – that is the crux of the matter at hand, is it not? How to open dialogue…I remember a line from the blockbuster environmental film, “Avatar,” when the medicine woman remarks that it is hard to teach a brain that is already full.

    My experience is that dialogue always begins where a person is “at”…what is on their mind? The first persons to visit my book sale were two dyed-in-the-wool evangelical conservative grandmothers whose vitriole for environmentalists could have put me off. But, remembering to take a deep breath, I thought to myself, “how can we talk to each other?” So I started talking with them about the Bible. It eventually led to stewardship and then I described the Tucson Green Faith movement in which thousands of parishioners competed to save the most money by becoming energy-efficient congregations. They loved it.

    That of course is only on the surface of the problem with our cultural perspective that holds all non-human life as subservient and less valuable than humans. That view is a direct outcome of a culture that worships money. I’ll wager that the people who have brought that culture into reality did not set out to plunder the earth and endanger life. But when we began to see that was a consequence then the moral and justice action should have come into play and did not.

    I think we DO have to be more willing to stand up and to speak on behalf of the Earth. But with stories, metaphors, poetry and song – to directly voice the collective anguish of Life. Think of how popular Avatar was and how Barbara Kingsolver’s book Prodigal Summer got millions of readers thinking about biodiversity in the context of sex and romance!

    My nephew and his adorable girl friend – both mid twenties – just left after spending a week here. They are soulful individuals with an earth-based ethic, walking their talk. I think they represent a new generation coming up that will replace the car-crazy, corporate culture of our generation with something much lighter on its feet, and divested from the mainstream of corporate culture. I see something with feathers coming…

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