"Sharing Prophetic Traditions"
By John Mohawk,
Wednesday, February 2, 2000
Copyright © 2000 NAJ
All Rights Reserved
Harry Watt, Longhouse leader from the Allegany Indian Reservation in western
The Hopi produced a piece of paper with a drawing depicting five men holding hands and said these were the people 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 longhouse is a small feather. It is evidence, to those who know the story, of the visits paid by the Hopi and of the treaty of friendship the Hopi and Haudenosaunee entered into during the 1970s. The Hopi 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, Ariz. 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 prophecies, but little serious attention 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 these illustrations to tell his story. This was an ancient prophecy, he 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 again there was purification. Three times this happened, three times the world was destroyed, and today, we exist in this, the
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 things would go on for another generation or two. (The two symbols are thought to represent the rising sun of
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
What if the 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 (a.k.a. St. Augustine) who taught that history was the unfolding of God's plan for humankind on the road to the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the Second Coming and Judgment Day. This was a way of viewing the world as progressing (and progressive) 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 progresses toward freedom from the "shackles" of an ultimately 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 ultimately 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
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
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
Despite this, the archaeology of the
Western civilization had similar experiences in the ancient world. Ancient civilizations destroyed their forests, which speeded soil erosion, and they suffered from salinized and 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 are interesting: greed (the owners of the great estates learned to escape taxes, which eroded the ability of Rome to defend herself) declining soils, the disappearance of firewood and an 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
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 the disaster passed, but in every case they re-emerged. The Indians of this area adapted agriculture to the 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 and Antarctic ice will melt, ocean levels will rise and the waters will inundate the cities that dot the coasts on every continent except
For more than 40 years, Thomas Banyacya and other Hopi elders sought to address the United Nations at
The late John Mohawk, Seneca, was a professor of American Studies