Harry Watt, Longhouse leader from the Allegany Indian Reservation in western New York, told a story about a visit from a carload of Hopi in 1948. The Hopi said they had prophecies of working with some Indian people I the East, but that they had been told all the Indians east of the Mississippi had been killed. Then, during World War II, some of their young men encountered Indians from New York State.
The Hopi produced a piece of paper with a drawing depicting five men holding hands and said these were the peole they were looking for. They were directed to Onondaga, capital of the Haudenosaunee confederacy, because the symbol was one of the images that appears on a wampum belt depicting the unity of the five founding nations of the six Nations Iroquois confederacy.
Today, hanging from the ceiling of the Onondaga long house is a small feather. It is evidence, t those who know the story, of the visits paid by the Hopi and of the treaty of friendship the Hope and Haudenosaunee entered into during the 1970’s. The Hope came with a request, and introduced one of their people, Thomas Banyacya, as their spokesman to the outside world. They were on a mission, they explained, to warn the world about an impending danger and they wanted assistance because their prophecy foretold of a house of mica on the East coast and that the representatives of the people of the world gathered in this place. The Hopi wanted to deliver their message to this house and the Confederacy agreed to help.
Banyacya was a tireless messenger. He traveled all over the world, addressing large groups and small, always with the same message.
He carried with him a fabric banner with a facsimile of a pictograph he said was on an ancient rock not far from Oraybi, AZ. Oraybi is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited town in the lower 48 states, and Hopi mythology and prophecy have been the subject of numerous books, articles and documentaries. For the most part, people have been curious and respectful of the Hopi prophesies, but little serious attentions was paid to Banyacya or the Hopi message. The general public tends toward things deemed entertaining or inspirational, and the Hopi ancient wisdom was lengthy, complex and out of step with the industrial world’s religion of progress.
The Oraybi rock pictograph was comprised of two symbols, which appear on ancient Hopi pottery, a circle representing the sun and a reversed swastika, which is said to represent the winds. Beneath these were drawings of two parallel lines connected at right angles by two shorter lines. The bottom line was straight and had representations of people and corn; the top line curved downward in a zigzag pattern and appeared to go nowhere.
Banyacya used illustrations to tell his story. This was ancient prophecy, her said, and the two lines represent the way of life of distinct peoples. On the bottom line is the way of life of those who live in harmony with nature. They are seen as living a permanent existence. On the top line are people who do not live in harmony with nature-such as industrial civilizations. In ancient times, he said, there existed previous worlds. In each of these, the people were not satisfied with their lives. They wanted more and more material goods and they came up with all kinds of inventions that allowed them to do marvelous things like fly. But in order to do these things they gave up their relationship with nature and the sacred. In time the spirits of nature were revolted by this behavior and they caused a great purification-fire, floods-and swept all away. Survivors went on to build again and another thing happened. Greed and materialism prevailed, the spirits of nature became angry, and again the world was destroyed, and today we exist in this fourth world. The pictograph illustrates peoples on two roads and the lines connecting them represent two times the Earth would shake and the second time the two symbols would appear and the things would go on for another generation or two. (The two symbols are thought to represent the rising sun of Japan and the Nazi swastika, and the second event of course, is World War II.) Then the upper road, the path with the zigzag lines, would no longer be sustainable and those people are destined to suffer greatly and their way of life will end. But the people on the bottom-line, those, who maintain the way of life in harmony with the creation, will go on as before and they will not feel the destruction. It will be difficult for the Hopi voice to be heard in 1999 because there are a number of prophets of doom competing for attention. There have been stories similar to this in other cultures; the most famous among them is the story of the floods and Noah’s Ark.
The Hopi have explained that they have been trying to warn the world since the end of World War II. The sincerity of their message is clear to anyone who has heard their story and, in these times, reinforced by the fact they did not establish an 800 number or tell people where they can send money to avert disaster. The most cynical among us cannot point to a profit motive but might think this is simply an indigenous superstition or revitalization moment that the events described either never happened or, in the case of two older Hopi prophecy is none of these things? What if this story is what remains, in the form it had to take, of a philosophy of history? What does this story say if we view it from this perspective?
There have not been very many philosophies of history even in western culture. One of the most famous and long lived appear in the writings of Augustine of Hippo who taught that history was the unfolding of God and the second day coming and judgment day. This was a way of viewing the world as progressing toward a day when all the believers were to become immortal and the world would be perfected. It is, upon reflection, profoundly anthropocentric and without much consciousness about nature.
Machiavelli, the author of The Prince, thought that politics was at the center of the historical process and that people ambitious for power would endlessly compete with one another for dominance. Immanuel Kant had an interesting view of history because he thought it was both moral and progressive and that it moved toward the idea of humanity, in which humankind progress toward freedom from the shackles of an untimely mysterious and unknowable nature. But he was unable to reconcile the idea of progress because it came at a cost. The happiness of one generation untimely comes at the sacrifice of the happiness of previous generations, and this price was immoral.
Francis Fukuyama thought history was the story of conflicts among opposing principles and that the collapse of the Soviet Union and its system of Communist rule signaled the end of capitalism and liberal democracy. He designated this moment of a perceived absence of opposing principles the end of history, an idea that some think sounds absurd but also follows the general discourse that is the philosophy of history in the west.
The Hopi prophecy truly comes from a different world than these thinkers. The popular western versions of the philosophy of history are anthropocentric. The Hopi may find human beings as the critical players, but humankind is far from the only player. The Indians of the Americas represent hundreds of different cultures, stretching from the mountains and forests of South America to the woodlands of North America, and a number of these are agricultural. Some of these people developed agriculture in the most difficult environments, including high deserts, mountains, lowlands, rainforests and so forth. The record of civilization in the Americas is one of triumph of human ingenuity. Some of the irrigation projects abandoned by Indians hundreds of years ago in places like Colombia and Bolivia are today being revitalized because, essentially, no one can prove upon the original designs.
Ultimately, the most important thing to know about these cultures is that they were extremely successful. American Indian farmers developed an extraordinarily diverse list of edible crops, ranging from potatoes and tomatoes to grains and tubers most people in North American know nothing about. The result of all this effort was unique. The history of Western civilization is littered with accounts of famines and plagues and long periods of time when food supplies, while not at famine levels, were in short supply. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico they found a culture in which people had enough food to eat.
Despite this, the archeology of the Americas provides plenty of evidence of civilizations that rose, flourished then disappeared or at least dramatically declined. Such cultures can be found on the Pacific coasts in South America. In Mexico, Central America and in the American Southwest. Some of these cultures declined for reasons unknown. Some may have declined because of climate change. The Anasazi culture, antecedent to the modern Pueblo, including the Hopi, may have declined because of climate change. According to the Hopi story, it happened more than once.
Western civilization had similar experiences in the ancient world. Ancient civilizations destroyed their forests, which speeded soil erosion, and they suffered from exhausted soils and sometimes became unable to feed their populations. Many explanations have been put forward to explain the fall of the most powerful of the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean-Rome. Among these several interesting: greed (the owners of rich estates learned to escape taxes, which eroded to ability of Rome to defend herself) declining soils, the disappearance of firewood and economic crisis initiated by a Roman version of globalization, which worked to Rome’s disadvantage.
Western versions of the philosophy of history usually project that things are moving forward to some kind of utopian future where all the experiments have been tried and the best selected. This is the point Fukuyama has made about the triumph of representative liberal democracy. The Hopi version is proposing that civilizations are not permanent and that a primary reason for their decline is the tendency of people to prefer a material prosperity of the present over responsibility to ecological imperatives and the future. The people of the Hopi first, second and third worlds did not heed warnings about the consequences of their excesses.
The parallel is compelling. Contemporary industrial society has produced quantities of greenhouse gases and the subsequent global warming is producing weather patterns never seen before in some parts of the world. We experience more intense storms, unprecedented hurricanes, longer droughts, and the prospect of melting ice caps producing rising ocean levels that are already threatening some islands with destruction. Scientists can be offered monetary rewards to discover that the evidence of global warming is controversial evidence of the greed mentioned in the Hopi story and politicians are aware that the steps needed to reverse the trend are going to be unpopular and that the public is not clamoring for such measures.
Could it be that similar kinds of things happened to civilizations of the Southwest long ago? When the first frosts came in June, or the drought went into its third year, did people go about business as usual? Did a small number of them take steps to prepare? What kinds of steps did they take? What do the Hopi mean when they urge people to become more in tune with creation? Most curiously, why are they trying to warn a mostly uncaring world about impending disaster?
From everything we know about the history of agriculture in the Southwest, although various cultures declined, the people of those cultures persevered. In some stories they are said to have retreated into the Earth until disaster passed, but in every case they re-emerged. The Indians of this area adapted agriculture to desert and developed a culture that enabled them to live in what is, by any account, a hostile environment. Modern desert cities are colonial outposts that depend on the outside world for many of the things that support life. Unless there are dramatic changes in lifestyle, modern desert cities will disappear if the wider system of support declines. Civilization is always in danger of extinction, even civilizations that have lasted thousands of years.
This seems to be one of the messages of the Hopi philosophy of history. Modern civilization is no exception. The idea of purification may be archaic, but it has its appeal. If global warming continues, the arctic will melt, ocean levels will rise and the waters will inundate the cities that dot the coasts on every continent except Antarctica. That sounds like purification.
For more than 40 years, Thomas Banyacya and other Hopi elders sought to address the United Nations at New York City in the House of Mica. For about 20 years, they were joined by delegations from the Six Nations Confederacy. In 1992, a decade of indigenous peoples was declared and on a December afternoon Banyacya was, at least, invited to address the United Nations. He told a version of the story that is recounted here. As he spoke, one of the worst storms in memory swirled out of the Atlantic and battered New York, causing flooding in the streets and high winds in a demonstration of nature’s fury. The storm may have been a coincidence. Global warming may be a coincidence. The Hopi philosophy of history, as presented here, counters the Western notion that changes occur over time in desirable and therefore progressive ways, and urges that nature reacts in unpredictable ways that humans have a moral obligation to pay attention. The patterns of the Hopi message that brings us to this kind of conclusion may also be a coincidence. But then again, maybe not.
THE LATE JOHN MOHAWK, SENECA, WAS A PROFESSOR OF AMERICAN STUDIES AT THE STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK AT BUFFALO.
This article extracted from The Grandriver Runner, A News and Commentary Serving Six Nations of the Grand and Mississaugas of the New Credit.