Skip to main content

There Is Hope: Time to Follow an Indigenous Model for Peace in America

Thing About Skins: There is hope -- Time to follow an Indigenous model for peace in America. By Gyasi Ross
  • Author:
  • Updated:

The story of the Great Laws is the story of the Great Peacemaker, who travels among the people and "combs their hair." In other words, he speaks to them and works on untangling old traumas that stand in the way of peace.

John Mohawk

Quick Story: I have the unique privilege of traveling all over the country and hanging out with kids. During the past two school years, I’ve been to well over a hundred schools and have spent time on MANY reservation schools, MANY independent schools and also a whole bunch of colleges and universities. As a result, I sometimes have a different view of “hope” and “optimism” or “pessimism” than most. It’s not because I’m any smarter; instead, it’s because I get to listen to kids of all different ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds talk about what they think of what’s going on in the world today. 

By and large, I see something profound happening. I see a whole bunch of kids who are not nearly as concerned with “difference” as we were during my generation. Of course there are still exceptions but now there’s even a word when someone cares about difference: “bullying.” We didn’t know what “bullying” was when we were kids because it happened so often. Now it actually gets it own name and it gets called out when we pick on others because of difference. Different color? Most of the time today, the kids see that as a source of strength—as someone they have to include. Gay? Lesbian? That’s something to be protected. I see, in real time, many categories being questioned, torn down and re-defined. It’s not a naïve reimagining or unwillingness to see difference; instead, from our conversations, it’s because they simply do not see these differences as important. 

Difference is there. It just doesn’t matter (as much) as it did when I was a kid. 

Reason I Told You That Story: Sometimes the news cycles in 2016 can seem daunting. Even hopeless. When we hear Donald Trump say pretty much anything, it seems reasonable to despair. “How can someone so stupid and racist and ineloquent and inhumane be allowed to run for the most powerful political position in the world?” Likewise, when we see police killings happening, it seems reasonable to despair. “These police officers seem to kill brown and black men a whole bunch more than they kill anybody else. There’s gotta be a reason why.” When we see the retaliation for those killings, it seems reasonable to despair. “We can’t just go an eye for an eye—we’ll all be dead. And why would we ever teach our kids that violence solves anything?”

We read about the state of our environment and it seems reasonable to despair. “Can we ever dig ourselves out of this hole?”

First we have to acknowledge that the 2016 news cycle is intentionally depressing and outrageous. Almost every single web publication (including this one from time to time) utilize what is called “Clickbait”—creating the most sensational headlines they can to drive more traffic to the website. That is, hopefully, a practice that will move toward obscurity in the near future. Moreover, news sources generally know that they’ll get more of a reaction if the content is genuinely outrageous and anger-inducing, therefore many have a vested interest in only covering only “bad” stuff. That’s a practice that has been around for decades, to create fear and not hope, and probably will not go away anytime soon. 

But even with those aforementioned obstacles, there is a realistic path to hope, to peace and to empathy that has been historically tested and worked. It will really work. Promise. But I don’t want to get there quite yet. 

Before getting there I want to talk a bit about the violence and rhetoric that we see today that seems to be getting worse than ever before. It’s not. In fact, like bullying discussed above, the violence and rhetoric have there since forever and the fact that we are talking about it so much is actually a HUGE sign of progress. 

You got that right: the fact that these stories of violence and hateful rhetoric are in the news are a sign of progress. 

We’re progressing as a society, becoming more compassionate as a society. Some folks call that “political correctness,” but I don’t think so. Instead, it seems like it’s just a heightened humanity that holds certain behavior accountable. Bullying. The stuff that is making news today would not make news 100 years ago. Heck, it may not have even made news 50 years ago. The “tiny” little daily assaults against the dignity and bodies of so many people who were not white men—Natives, black folks, gay and lesbian folks, Mexicans, women—would not even be an issue some years ago. That’s one of the reasons why Donald Trump’s Trumponian use of hateful rhetoric is so interesting; Donald Trump’s campaign really seems to be is the last stand of those white men who wish for the days when they could commit those assaults against all of those groups with impunity. 

That’s not political correctness. That’s fixing inhumanity. And the stories that accompany them, whether “black man got shot by the police” or “Native man shot by the police” are no longer taken for granted. And the subsequent protests and social media outrage over those shootings are likewise no longer taken for granted. 

That’s good. We’re evolving. 

However, there is a genuine divide between different generations of people. Amongst those generations, let’s be clear, none of them are bad. Even Donald Trump. But many of us simply have fundamentally different worldviews and perspectives depending on how we grew up and the entanglements into which we were born. Currently, there is an old guard oftentimes represented by those in power. Police. Law enforcement in this nation was constructed to protect property and not people; as such, it inherently favors the wealthy. Certain communities have historically been intentionally and systematically kept out of wealth structurally because of many reasons (that’s a different conversation and I’d love to have that conversation with all of you someday; still that’s not the point now); those communities include pretty much all of the communities—black, Native, LGBTQ—who are catching hell from law enforcement today.

A genuine divide. 


I’m a disciple of John Mohawk, a dearly departed Seneca philosopher and professor. He introduced me to the Great Law, a model for peacemaking and peacekeeping amongst warring nations—communities where there is a genuine divide. I’m simply going to quote his 2004 take on the Great Law from “The Warriors Who Turned To Peace” and hopefully start a conversation about how we can heal some intergenerational wounds and provide our children a new start. 

Before the formation of the confederacy now called the Iroquois or, more traditionally, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, there were no states. In the prehistoric Northeast woodlands, internecine warfare and blood feuds were going on everywhere. The people had been at war for so long that some were born knowing they had enemies and not knowing why they had enemies. It was led by what we would call today warlords, although they were actually warrior chieftains.

What was peculiar about it was that the people who had the capacity to make war did not have the capacity to make peace. This is the case with warlords also. A warlord can initiate violence, but can't guarantee the cessation of violence.

I propose to you that there will always be people who work outside of a framework of states, who do violence and adhere to no coherent rules about when to end the violence.

In other words, this condition of pre-state violence has always existed, and is taking place now, and will take place in the future in cultures that find the idea of revenge to be attractive.

In the Haudenosaunee culture, they found revenge to be very attractive. Many of the old Haudenosaunee stories tell of people who lived only for the purpose of revenge.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

At some point, though, people began discussing how you stop warfare, and over time, they began developing a way of thinking about war and peace that turns out to be relevant to our time.

According to Haudenosaunee stories, a male child was born whose destiny was to address the condition of continuous warfare. The story of this man, who would come to be called the Peacemaker, gave form and substance to a kind of revolution in thinking.

In that time, people fought wars with clubs, traps, and bows and arrows. These were not what we today call weapons of mass destruction, but a solid club wielded by a skilled warrior was a terrifying weapon.

Any effort to seek peace had to be practical. In the days prior to the invention of states--just like in this current so-called age of terrorism--no one had the power to assure that everyone would stop the violence. There was an attention to practice, to how to make promises to one another that would be kept.

Under the Peacemaker's guidance, the Haudenosaunee people developed a protocol to be followed when enemies first come together under a temporary truce. The protocol begins with a "condolence," a short ceremony in which the two parties acknowledge each other's humanity and the losses and sacrifices that each had suffered…

According to the Great Law, peace is arrived at through the exercise of righteousness, reason, and power.

You have the power to make peace with an enemy only if you acknowledge that the enemy is human. To acknowledge that they are rational beings who want to live and who want their children to live enhances your power by giving you the capacity to speak to them. If you think they are not human, you won't have that capacity; you will have destroyed your own power to communicate with the very people you must communicate with if you are going to bring about peace.

To bring this into contemporary thinking, if you say, "We don't negotiate with terrorists," you have taken away your own power. You have to negotiate with them; they are the people who are trying to kill you! But to negotiate with them, you have to acknowledge that they're human. Acknowledging that they are human means acknowledging that they have failings, but you don't concentrate on the failings. You concentrate on their humanity. You have to address their humanity if you're going to have any hope of stopping the blood feud. Thus, the first meeting, and subsequent meetings, begin with an acknowledgment that people on all sides have suffered loss and that their losses are traumatic ones.

Remember, we're trying to make peace in a situation in which there is no state, no government, nobody on the other side who can surrender or guarantee anything by law. We're trying to make peace between peoples in which the foundation of the peace is the tradition which they embrace, and it's held up by their honor and nothing else. This is important because the people who are at war now are not states, and there is no way to stop them unless they agree to stop.

Righteousness and reason

Righteousness is a very dangerous word in English and in European history. But here's how it was used by the Haudenosaunee. Righteousness means that almost all of us agree that some things are right, correct, and positive. The list that we all agree on might not be long, but those are the things to build on.

That takes us to the next element, which is reason. Reason means that you're going to work on the rock-hard issues up to a point. You're not going to settle them, but you're going to move them as far forward on as many points as possible.

The Haudenosaunee Law of Peace assumes that peace is not achievable as a static condition, just as relationships between human beings are not static but are always unfinished.

Blood feuding is often built on injuries that happened to people in previous generations. Those sitting at the negotiating table bring that injury with them as a real injury, an inherited injury.

I propose to you that the world is full of inherited injuries. In the modern world, there is a dismissal of those types of injuries. We say, "Wow, sure, but that happened in 1952, you were only two years old in 1952." The pragmatic people say you still have to address those inherited injuries. If you can't undo them, at least you can address them. So negotiations must address old injuries as well as new ones.

There are absolutely ways for finding hope and peace in 2016. We’re closer, as a nation, to peace than we’ve been since Europeans first landed on this continent. We’re much, much closer to peace than we were in 1816 when slavery was unquestioned by white people and the only time Natives were mentioned by white people was when the Supreme Court was screwing us out of our land and our humanity. We’re even closer than we were in 1916 when women, Native Americans and Asians were not even citizens, when apartheid called “Jim Crow” existed for black folks. The kids I’ve talked to in schools around the country are evidence that they are willing to look past the genuine divides. They don’t tolerate bullying because of differences that are the unfortunate hallmarks of their parents and grandparents’ generations.

We’re evolving and while we move forward, we may have to look forward to this nation’s genesis to find models of peacemaking and peacekeeping that worked historically. If we want to find peace on this continent, it may benefit us to look toward the only people who have a track record of creating peace on this continent even when they born into a place of warfare, fighting and strife. 

It may be time to look to the original people of this continent for some answers.

Wesley Roach, Skan Photography

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large

Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories

Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

Instagram: BigIndianGyasi