Before the prophet known today as the Peacemaker brought his message of peace to warring nations, it was a time of bloodshed and fear. The Peacemaker, upon gathering leaders from the warring nations together at long last, uprooted a great white pine and exposed a hole with a river flowing deep inside. He instructed the warriors to throw their weapons into the hole and let the river wash the tools of war deep into the earth. This ancient story of peace has many versions, but its message has remained clear for generations of Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois: Peace and unity were to be the law of the land.
How far we have come from that day. Today, America is again at war. Mohawk and Onondaga ironworkers witnessed airliners destroy the World Trade Center towers, buildings raised by the hands of their own fathers, uncles and brothers. They were among the first responders on Sept. 11, 2001. On March 21, 2005, a 16-year-old member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa killed his grandfather and his grandfather's companion, and then continued on to school, where he shot and killed a teacher, a security guard, five students and finally himself. Ten people lay dead after the rampage. To date, as reported by www.icausalities.org, 34 American Indian servicemen and women have been killed in Iraq. Many more return home, their bodies wounded and spirits broken. Violence is a mind-changer; it can steer good people down dark paths and cloud cultural memory of peaceful ways.
Violence impacts all Americans. We find ourselves often united by tragedy and sorrow, but we must also create ways to unite in peace. Nongovernmental organizations working toward peace and conflict resolution are increasingly picking up steam in this citizen-fatigued time of war. The Peace Alliance, a nonpartisan citizen action organization, is one of them. It is a grass-roots lobbying effort for the creation of a U.S. Department of Peace and Nonviolence. Its legislation, the Department of Peace and Nonviolence Act (HR 808), was introduced in February and is co-sponsored by some 50 members of Congress with others expected to join the crusade.
The act calls for a cabinet-level Secretary of Peace, whose duties would be to advise the president on peace-building needs and tactics for domestic and international matters. The department would also create several programs that teach alternative dispute resolution techniques, peer mediation and nonviolent communication programs. The department would work domestically and internationally for peace, an arduous task that some Indian tribes and nations have both struggled with and accomplished for hundreds of years.
Indian Country Today was introduced to the alliance's proposal when we were invited to attend a Feb. 28 celebrity reading of the play ''A Gift of Peace'' at the University of California, Los Angeles. Its cross-country tour is a three-part project that ''aims to educate, inspire civic action, and draw media and grassroots support.'' Involved in the reading were actors Ed Asner, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Frances Fisher and Esai Morales, among many others. They played Americans affected by fear and distrust: from a nervous school teacher who drops to the ground when her young student reaches into his pocket, only to see him pull out his homework; to the proud young man returning from a tour of duty in Iraq; from a woman mourning her mother, lost in the terrorist attacks of 9/11; to a passionate college student who wants to make a difference. The message was stark: We are a nation living in fear, and it is damaging our humanity.
There is a clear need for a Peace Department in the federal government. War and violence are expensive. ''Bringing justice'' to Iraq and Afghanistan, the rhetorical pastime of the warmongering Bush administration, has cost the United States $400 billion to date, with each passing day adding $200 million. For American victims of bullying, school shootings, domestic violence, sexual assault and rape, child and elder abuse, hate crimes and gang violence, there is a clear and desperate need for a shift in priorities.
The Peace Alliance, to its credit, appeals directly to the purse - it reasons that a Department of Peace could help conserve federal funds by preventing conflict and its social, economic and political consequences. According to the World Health Organization, violence places ''a massive burden on national economies, costing countries billions each year in health care, law enforcement and lost productivity.'' With funding bills currently stalled in Congress, citizens of Indian country know this all too well.
Violence and other related social problems occur in every corner of America regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or age. [American Indians were not specifically mentioned in ''A Gift of Peace,'' although Salteaux actor Adam Beach was among its cadre of performers.] We continue to fight these battles in our communities, burdening the perpetually underfunded Indian health care, judicial and education systems. It is especially necessary for those communities trying unsuccessfully to draw blood from a stone in order to undo damage caused by violence. The peace proposal may be bold and idealistic, but we know it is not impossible - remember the Indian enemies who once accepted peace to form a mighty confederacy.
At the very end of ''A Gift of Peace,'' one of the actors proclaimed, ''The Department of War was created during peacetime. Wouldn't it be ironic if we created a Department of Peace during wartime?'' Indian affairs were once assigned to the Department of War, until the Interior Department was established in 1849 and the bureau was transferred. It would be ironic if Indian country's support for this legislation meant sharing those ancient instructions for ''burying'' weapons and creating a great peace in times of war.