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The Warriors Who Turned to Peace

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, inter?necine 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.

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.

The complex art of peacemaking

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 ter?rifying 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 ack?nowledge each other’s humanity and the losses and sacrifices that each had suffered. The two parties would meet in the middle of the forest, and one side would say to the other something like this:

“We’ve been engaged in combat, and you’ve come out of the forest, and you’re covered in the bracken of the forest; we see that on your clothing.”

“So the first thing we do is we brush your clothing off, and clean off all the stuff that shows that you’ve been in a war.”

The next thing they do is they brush off the bench that the man is going to sit on, and make it clean and ready.

One side passes strings of wampum to the other, each string carrying a pre-set message. Your enemy then acknowledges these messages by repeating them back to you. They say things like this:

“With this wampum, I release the pressure in your chest. You’re feeling tight in your body from the struggle, so I release you from that.”

“With this one, I remove the tears from your eyes that you’ve been crying because of the people you lost in war.”

“And with this one, I release your vocal cords. I release your voice so you can speak strongly.”

They are addressing the conditions that can extend the truce. The first goal is to stop the fighting; a truce is not peace, but it is a small step in that direction.

The peacemaking process begins with some principles, one of which is symbolized by images of people casting weapons beneath a tree and burying them. This is, of course, entirely symbolic, just like modern disarmament is entirely symbolic, since you can always go out and buy more weapons. Likewise, the Indians could always go home and whittle more weapons, and in any case, they couldn’t give up weapons entirely because they depended on them for hunting and food gathering. So when they say they are putting the weapons of war under the tree, this is symbolic language meaning that they are not going to use them on each other anymore.

The second principle can be summarized in this statement: We are now going to put our minds together to create peace. The focus is on a desirable outcome that benefits everyone. One of the most famous quotations from Indians is from Sitting Bull: “Now let us put our minds together to see what kind of world we can leave for our children.” And another is out of the Haudenosaunee tradition now known as The Great Law of Peace: “Now we put our minds together to see what kind of world we can create for the seventh generation yet unborn.” Both of these are pragmatic constructions; both are about envisioning a desirable outcome and then negotiating the steps to go from here to the outcome that you want.

The power to make peace

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. Ack?nowledging 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 acknowledgement 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.

What you can do is reach a place where you can work on resolving conflicts. You can find out why the two parties continue to have conflict and try to remove those irritants that have caused violence. You can reach enough of an agreement to take the conflict from warfare to a place where, as they used to say, thinking can replace violence, and where the conversation about peace is ongoing.

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.

Combing hair

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.

In this story, there is a relentless conversation going on about righteousness, about what does and doesn’t work and what might work if we tried it. It’s a long conversation, but the point is the process, not the end of the process, because it is assumed that there will never be an end. Instead, they are working to set the stage for peace. They are working to make it possible for the next generations to be involved in  talking and thinking instead of shooting and blowing each other up.

The Great Law formed a type of early international law. Since one of the founding principles is that talking is superior to fighting, the Haudenosaunee guaranteed the safety of those attending the talks. Other nations were offered the opportunity to “join” under the Great Tree of Peace, and those who joined were under the protection of the confederacy.

The hope is that the process of thinking and talking continues until it becomes normal that we don’t kill each other. But we have to remember that there is never an end to it.

Which gets me to my final point. People talk about a “war on terrorism.” Some cultures haven’t realized that there has always been a war on terrorism. As long as human memory, there have been assassinations and harm done from group to group, on and on, endlessly. Sometimes there was a claim to a religious foundation, sometimes these were just things that happened in battles.

I’m afraid the principles of today’s “war on terrorism” are the same principles as those of the game of chess, which are built on the idea that if you could capture the head of the other side or kill him, you win and then you can go off and think about something else. Evidently, somebody thinks that someday there will be an endgame in the war on terrorism. But there will never be an endgame in the war on terrorism. What we need is a beginning game for the process of peacemaking. As far as I can see, we haven’t begun that yet.

North America has given only one philosophical tradition to the world, and that single philosophical tradition is pragmatism. For it to follow the principles of the Haudenosaunee Great Law, it has to be progressive pragmatism.

Progressive pragmatism seeks ends that are universal and that have the quality of win-win negotiations. Both idealism—the idea that God is on someone’s side—and vilification—the idea that one side is evil or fundamentally in the wrong—are barred from this process. Instead, this process lays out desirable outcomes that all sides can agree upon, and these must be adhered to through a set of protocols, because it is not possible to create peace by force and because peace requires rules that both sides embrace and honor.

JOHN MOHAWK was a leading scholar and spokesman for the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. He died on December 12, 2006. This essay was originally published by Yes! magazine.

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