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Who we are, philosophically

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Who are we as Native peoples? Who are we in the contemporary world? Who will we be in the future? Questions like these arose recently at conferences hosted by Harvard University for Honoring Nations, which celebrates tribal governance, and at the National Museum of the American Indian, where Native identity is the dynamic, central theme. Many suggestions about identity and purpose made in these conferences were very thoughtful and philosophical. Some pointed out ancient instructions, as in the Haudenosaunee tradition, the peoples of the Great Peace. Others offered that complex yet beautifully simple sense of duty: we are peoples responsible to the seventh generation. And still others said that we are the ones who live in spiritual balance with the peoples and powers of the universe. Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, said we are the people who bless the Earth.

Translating these comments into philosophical language suggests that we are the peoples who bless being. Being is an expression of all that can be said to exist. We are the peoples who bless being or all of existence, and are blessed by being. Saying we give blessings means that we appreciate, understand and respect the Earth and the universe, both physically and spiritually. We give meaning to being, to the universe, by our self-conscious acts of ceremony, blessings and respect. This worldview differs sharply with some Western philosophical positions, known as materialism or nihilism, where the universe is believed to have no significant meaning or purpose for humans.

We can continue on the line of thought by saying we are the peoples who bless becoming. Becoming is the pattern of change and direction of the universe. Becoming is similar to what many indigenous peoples understand as the Great Spirit. We are the peoples who believe there is a plan and purpose to the unfolding of the universe, or becoming. Individuals are part of the overall becoming of the universe, and therefore individuals and nations play a role or purpose in the process of becoming.

We are peoples who recognize that being and becoming can be dangerous, out of balance and in need of healing. Many Native peoples believe that becoming and being are influenced by great tricksters, whether they are Raven, Coyote or Nanaboozoo. The antics of tricksters are often the cause of death, disease and pain, but they also are often creators of humans, ceremonies and social and cultural institutions. Tricksters are both creators and destroyers, and manifestations of social and cultural order and disorder. Trickster stories reflect the uncertainties of life and the future; they teach the folly of personal egoism and disrespect for social-cultural rules and the laws and relations of the universe. In this sense, what is colonialism if not a great trickster? What is modernity, if not a great trickster? Who is the God of the Old Testament, if He is not a great trickster?

We are the peoples who seek to understand and overcome the tricksters within ourselves, and seek to navigate through the trickster character of being and becoming. We are the peoples who respect the laws of being and becoming in order to turn the uncertainties of life and the future, the trickster character of being and becoming, into blessings and well-being. We are the peoples who bless and consecrate being and becoming through ceremony and thanksgiving, community moral order and individual moral discipline.