A Cross-Cultural Forum: “Caring for Earth for Our Common Future”
Ghost Ranch, Abiquiú, New Mexico
In November 2013, indigenous elders from across the United States, and from Greenland and Mexico, came to Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico to participate in a three-day cross-cultural forum organized by the Bozeman, Mont.-based American Indian Institute. Feeling disenfranchised and frustrated by lack of action after years of high-level government summits on social- and environmental-justice issues, the “runners who speak for the Earth” came seeking allies to help get their voices out.
Amid the hills and mesas immortalized by painter Georgia O’Keeffe, the assembled leaders shared wisdom and prophecies with 65 non-Native delegates from across the country, who were there to listen, learn and interact. Highly aware that we live in a time of vast change, with ancient ice-melts, ocean levels rising and weather patterns becoming ever more erratic, the elders spoke of the urgent need for a new direction. They spoke of the need to do something for their grandchildren and future generations.
Discussions explored ways to influence the path into the future. The elders repeatedly said that change must come from a personal level, from individual actions. “The time for excuses is gone,” said Angaangaq, an Inuk Eskimo known as Uncle, who has been a “runner” for his elders in Greenland since 1975. “We can create a new path. It is going to come from you—not your city, not your state, not your government, not the U.N. You’re going to have to melt the ice in the heart of man. Renew your spiritual self. When you braid body, mind and spirit, you become unbreakable.”
“We live in an increasingly unsustainable world. So much depends on this generation,” said Oren Lyons, who, as faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation in the Haudenosaunee (formerly the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy), has spent years addressing global forums. “It’s very difficult—when you’re struggling to protect your people and you’re hanging by a thread—to instruct other people,” he said. “How do you instruct seven billion people as to their relationship to the Earth? Face the history. Face the real reality. It comes down to ‘value change for survival’—a paradigm shift. The values that are driving humanity today are economic, as opposed to moral, spiritual values. Understand where your life comes from. Instruct your people to be respectful and thankful for what they have, because it’s finite. The number one value: share what you have. Reciprocity is one of the main principles we need to flourish. If you learn how to share, you’re going to have a good life.”
“FYI: focus your intention,” teacher and agriculturalist José Lucero, of the White Corn and Winter Clan at Santa Clara Pueblo, urged the forum. “The work that we have is for all of us to do. To move into the face of fear is courage. Every day you don’t make that change is a day lost.” Lucero was echoed by Vickie Downey, a clan mother from the Pueblo of Tesuque, who works with the nonprofit Tewa Women United. “Your whole life is a ceremony,” Downey said. “It’s very important that you find a good mind. Become conscious of your thoughts. What are you thinking about? And where is it being directed?” Lucero, Downey and Navajo language educator/relocation resister Danny Blackgoat (Diné), as respected tribal elders of the region, co-hosted the gathering.
Each day began with a sunrise ceremony on the land, followed by an address from an elder to lay the foundation for the day’s discussions, small group sessions and activities related to indigenous cultures.
“We were a problem all over the world because of our being, really,” said Lyons. “The indigenous people who remain are very resilient, very tough. Indigenous people, almost above everything, we value relationships.” Lyons encouraged people to “really be concerned with the person you’re shaking hands with.”
Leonard Little Finger, great-great grandson of Sitanka (Chief Big Foot), has twice been a presenter to the U.N. Draft Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Geneva. He founded the Lakota Circle Village and Sacred Hoop School in Oglala, S.D. He told the forum, “In Lakota language, we have no word for ‘love.’ We use ‘respect.’ We’re not the leaders. Nature is the boss. Have respect for all of the powers that exist within nature. You don’t ‘fix’ nature. Get in line with it, you’ll be fine. Get out of line, you’ll suffer the consequences.”
“Climate change is not something that is far away,” added Lyons. “Watch out for the acceleration.”
The forum concluded with a plenary roundtable and closing ceremony. As they headed to traditional Feast Day dances at the pueblos of Jémez and Tesuque, many of the participants seemed to leave with new eyes, a sense of reconnection to the sacred quality of the Earth and an expanded sense of purpose.