On May 22, Chief Oren Lyons delivered the following commencement address to CNR's class of 2005.
INTRODUCTION by Executive Associate Dean Barbara Allen-Diaz
It is a great pleasure for me to introduce Oren Lyons, our Commencement Speaker today. Oren Lyons is Faithkeeper and Chief of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Chief Lyons is Professor of American Studies at State University of New York at Buffalo.
We are honored today to have the opportunity to hear Chief Lyons speak. He was raised in the traditional lifeways of the Iroquois on the Seneca and Onondaga reservations in northern New York State. He served in the U.S. Army. He graduated from Syracuse University of Fine Arts where he immediately began a long career in commercial art and became a well known American Indian artist.
Since returning to the Onondaga in 1970, Professor Lyons has been a leading advocate for American Indian causes, both nationally and internationally. He has participated in meetings of indigenous peoples held in Geneva under the auspices of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations; he serves on the Executive Committee of the Global Forums of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival; and he is a principal leader in the traditional Circle of Indian Elders which is a council of grassroots leadership of major Indian Nations of North America.
Chief Lyons has spoken widely about spirituality, environment, natural laws, human rights and the ethics of authority. He has received numerous honors and awards, including an honorary doctor of law from Syracuse University.
In addition, Chief Lyons has been a lifelong Lacrosse player, a game that was invented by the Iroquois people. He was All-American in Lacrosse and inducted into the Lacrosse National Hall of Fame in 1993.
Oren Lyons perhaps has set the stage best of all for all of you graduating here today when he said, "When we walk upon Mother Earth, we always plant our feet carefully because we know the faces of our future generations are looking up at us from beneath the ground. We never forget them."
Please join me in welcoming Oren Lyons, professor and Chief of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation.
ADDRESS by Chief Oren Lyons
(Chief Lyons greeted the audience in his native language.)
I said thank you for being well. That’s our greeting. I am Onondaga, I am from the Haudenosaunee, called the Iroquois and I am also of the Family of the Wolf. And so I greet you. In my initial greetings, it is our protocol to extend our first greetings and respect to the original peoples of this land here: Pomos, Yuroks, and Chumash and others. They are the original landholders of where we stand and it is our protocol first to greet them and to honor them.
And my second greeting is to the Graduation Class of 2005, at this great university in the College of Natural Resources. My greetings to you and what you represent. You are like my grandchildren. (When you get to be my age, everybody is your grandchild.) So I greet you.
Then my next greetings are to the Chancellor of this University and to the Dean who has done so well, and to the faculty and staff and all of the visiting colleagues, and to these professors that work so hard for this particular day. This is our day as well as yours. It’s an accomplishment. You are like our children. We want to see you off. To all of my colleagues who are here, I extend my greetings to all of you and to your work. What is our work? Our work is instruction, our work is education, inclusively, large, inspired. And our work is to keep education a passion, as was mentioned by one of the student speakers. Passion, of course, is important and we don’t want to stifle that.
When the Haudesonauee meet, whether it is a large gathering or a small gathering, we have several greetings. I think it is apropos that I tell you what these greetings are. It begins with the people. When we meet, and these are called The Words Before All Words, we give these greetings. We say to all the people gathered, “We are grateful and happy to see you healthy and gathered here.” We also think about all of the people who are not here, who cannot be here for whatever reason, and then we think about the peoples of the world as they go about their business. And we think how wonderful this is. So we put our minds together as one, and we give a big thanksgiving for all the peoples of the world.
Then we look at Mother Earth and we say this is our mother and we give a big thanksgiving for our mother, with all our love, because that is what mothers gather: great love. And we look at Mother Earth and we think of how she supports us, helps us survive and keeps all life going. How wonderful, powerful, all enduring is our Mother the Earth and we give a thanksgiving for the earth itself.
And then we move to everything that grows on the earth, from the grasses to the medicines to the bushes. We think of all of this and what they do for the earth and how they support us. And we put our mind around the world and we try to see all of these places and we give a thanksgiving for all of the growing things of the earth.
Then we move to the trees, our grandfathers. I was so pleased that we came under the shade and shelter of these powerful elders that surround us here. These are our relations. Look how you gather in their shade, how you keep cool. Look how clean the air is and look about. These trees are listening. They hear what we have to say when we have a thanksgiving. They are listening. So we give a big thanksgiving for all of the trees of the world. We acknowledge their work and we acknowledge their leader which is the maple, the great chief of the trees.
Then we move on to everything that moves about and runs about in the forest with four legs. And we think about them and how they sustain us and how they are related to us and how we depend upon them, and how they have supported our life for so long and provided our identities. (I am a wolf.) We give thanksgiving for all of these 4-footed creatures for they sustain us and we are dependent.
And then we move to what lives in the trees and flies above—all of the birds. How powerful they are! How the song of a wren can lift our hearts when we’re down. They wake us in the morning, they plant seeds, they sing to us, they move about. They are messengers. And the leader, the great eagle, flies closest to the Creator and carries our word. We revere his feathers, we revere the hawks, we revere the hummingbird. These are our relatives and we give a big thanksgiving for them.
And then we move on to the waters of the earth, from the very beautiful springs to the seas. Anybody that has seen a spring and looked at that crystal-clear water and can see everything on the bottom knows it’s beautiful and pure. And that’s the way we want your minds to be, as pure as those crystal springs. Do not pollute your minds! Do not throw dirt into that spring. That’s your mind. Keep it clean. Keep it pure so that you can see. From those springs, we go on to thank the streams, the rivers, the lakes and the mighty oceans themselves, these great waters. The first law of life is water. We are water. We are born in water, we are water. Without it, there is no life. So we give a big thanksgiving as we put our minds together for all of the waters of the earth.
And then we move on to the thundering voices that bring the rain and water the earth and water the people and water the plants and keep us alive--great powers and great authority and great strength. They speak. And in the springtime when we hear the first thundering voice, our people immediately move out and we give a prayer to the grandfathers who are returning and promising again to water us for another year, these seasons, the thundering voices that water the earth and replenish the springs. We give a big thanksgiving.
And then we talk about the winds—the four winds. There is a breeze here, it is very slight but it’s the wind and you can feel it. These winds are very powerful. We have been warned that at times, they are so powerful that they will blow the very dirt off the face of the earth and we do not want to see that. But we have been warned that they have this power. If they choose to come down, that’s what will happen. And so we thank the winds for planting all the seeds, carrying the seeds about, giving us the seasons. We put our minds together as one and give a big thanksgiving to our grandfathers.
And we thank the crops that feed us--what we live on. We call the corns, the beans and the squash the 3 Sisters that Mother Earth has given to us and without which we will not survive. Just think of all of the foods of this earth that you survive on and protect and keep pure. You are going to face some very ethical questions about that purity and it is best that you have a good foundation of where you stand. Remember the spring, remember the purity. So to all of the foods of the earth we give thanksgiving for they sustain us.
And then we move on to our elder brother, the Sun, who is here right now, who brings the warmth to the earth, who works with Mother Earth for life, brings us the light that we may see and is ever, ever dutiful and ever here. No matter what, no smaller how small we as are as human beings, we can depend on the sun to rise in the east in the morning. With a great love and respect, we give a great thanksgiving to our eldest brother the Sun.
Then we move to our grandmother, the Moon, who works with the female, who sets the standards for seasons, who raises the levels of the oceans. She has great power and the cycles of life that she produces, together with all of the females of the earth, are a very powerful force. She is a great wonderful grandmother. And so we give a big thanksgiving to our grandmother, the Moon.
And then we move to the stars. These are great well-springs of knowledge that some of our people know and that most of us have forgotten. We know they are brilliant and we still follow them through the night. They still will lead us and they have great knowledge. There are nations on this earth that know much about these stars, yet, in our nation, we have forgotten much more than we know now. Still, the stars are brilliant and they bring the dew in the morning, they water the earth. For the brilliance of the night sky and the stars, we give a big thanksgiving.
Then we move on to the spiritual beings who look after us. There are four of them and it is their duty to watch over all life here. They are having a hard time, working very hard at this point because there is so much life now, especially human beings. But there they are and they are consistent and they are constant, and so we give a big thanksgiving to these spiritual beings that look after us.
And then, to our messenger who came to us 200 years ago with a message of survival for the Haudenosaunee that has helped us to remain and be who we are today. He told us many things told to him by these spiritual beings who took him on this journey. This messenger, who was a Seneca chief, brought these prophesies for our survival and they are coming one by one. Some have happened and some are about to. So we give a big thanksgiving to our messenger.
And finally, to the giver of life, the holder of the heavens, all life, we give our last and most grateful and largest thanksgiving. This is who we depend upon, and who we work with and work for. It’s the nature of the chiefs of the Confederacy to work with these elements for the betterment of the future as we were told, the seventh generation, and so we give thanks to the giver of all life.
And now we have completed our initial mission. As you can see, it took time. However, is that not what we are about today? Is that not what we are talking about? What kind of message is important? We are instructed that every time we hear this opening message, it places us in proper perspective in making decisions of the day. We are not superior, we have great responsibility because of our intellect but we have responsibility as human beings. And here we are, so saying that, I have completed my duties to my people and to the natural world and to our grandfathers here and we can go on.
Now then, what are the issues? It’s interesting to me, that on my flight here the other day, I was carrying the New York Times to see what’s going on in the world. I found what I thought would interest you because it’s apropos, I think. It’s a full-page ad about a car, and it says: “More Horses, Bigger Engine, Increased Envy.” Do you know what it costs to buy a full-page ad in the New York Times? Who are they talking to? They are talking to you, they are talking to us. They are selling envy. Now I don’t think we can even talk about ethics in that direction, can we? However, that is the primary focus of today’s life in America, especially in America.
Juxtaposed on the other side of the page was a little article. It says, “Warming is blamed for Antarctica’s weight gain.” Now, that caught my attention because I watch the environment and any change like this, which is systemic and huge, (you want to talk big, that’s big!), bigger than the engine, bigger than the horses. The article said that they are gaining weight down there in Antarctica as opposed to all of the melting that’s going on. It corresponds to a gain of 45 billion tons of water a year—that’s the kind of weight change that’s going on in the Antarctica. If I were you, I’d pay attention to that because that’s the natural world talking now, that’s the natural law.
You know, early on, in this country, Jefferson and Madison and Washington and all of those founding fathers, talked about natural law all the time. If you go back and read their statements, you will find that they are always talking about natural law which you never hear about today from the current administration or past administrations. We’ve long moved away from that discussion, but the law prevails and that’s my message. The law prevails and we are bound by flesh, bone and blood to that law. We are not superior to it. We are subservient to it and we are beholden to it. So it is best we learn that natural law if we want to survive because therein lies the ultimate authority. There is no tribunal in this world that can issue to any of us an edict that would allow us not to drink water and survive—none. We need water for life. That’s another law, that’s a superior law and best you learn it. What are we doing to water today?
A good friend, Lester Brown, made an observation. I’m sure you know a lot about him since you are working in this area. I use his productions all the time because he’s so good at it and he has such a great amount of staff to keep up. Every year he updates his positions and tells me what’s going on. He said that in 1950, 55 years ago, there were 2.5 billion people in the world and it took 4 million years for that 2.5 billion people to grow to that extent. In 2000, there were over 6 billion people in the world—in 55 years, we almost tripled the number of human beings on this planet. That is not sustainable. That is not going to fly, not with Mother Earth, not with natural law. You want to remember that we are bound to natural law.
Let’s talk about production. He made this observation. He said that in the year 2000, production in that one year equaled the total production of 100 years previous. That’s not sustainable.
You want to talk about sustainability? Let’s talk about common sense then. That’s the struggle that my colleagues have. How do we illustrate that to you? How do we keep that integrity? It’s hard for us. It’s hard for universities and education not to become just big business. All of your parents out there have worked so hard and had the faith and support and love on you, spent all of their money (and it’s very expensive) to educate you.
We have to think now about what are we going to do. We have got to bring some common sense to the economic situation of this earth or we are not going to survive. We are just going to push the carrying capacity of this earth beyond what it holds and we are already beyond that now. So how do we come to the common sense part of it and how do we get back to the relationships that I talked about?
Now that we know about DNA, you understand that we are only just a few genes apart from the flower. You know that. The DNA of grass and the trees are almost the same as humans. Well we knew that! We knew that long ago. That’s why we said they are our relations, all our relations. What you call resources, we call our relatives. If you can think in terms of relationships, your relatives, you are going to treat them better, aren’t you? So you have got to get back to the relationship because that is your foundation for survival. It’s not going to be human intellect, let me tell you. That’s not big enough, not fast enough, not quick enough.
You are going to have to have some spiritual guidance here, some real grounding and get back to the Elders’ wisdom, so long ago and everywhere. It’s still there, the trees are here. The fight is on. I’m with you. I’m with you all the way. It’s going to take your energy, your intellect, your passion, your compassion. Probably the most important feeling that a human being can have is compassion and love for the future and the people who are not here yet.
As we said, looking up from the faces of this earth, layer upon layer, generations upon generations, looking up. Each generation is coming and each is going to have their time, hopefully, but that is our determination and that’s your responsibility. We’re still here, we are going to help you, we are going to guide you. Here are your leaders, people who have worked hard for you, and you, the people, have the biggest responsibility.
When we raise chiefs in our Confederation, we are instructed on the duties of the chiefs, the clan mothers, and the faithkeepers, and the longest instruction is to the people themselves because you have the most responsibility. It’s not up to the leaders to make your life, it’s up to you, the people—the mothers and the fathers and the grandfathers. If you are interested in these people’s welfare, then you are going to have to speak up and speak up soon. Don’t be afraid because it’s your future, their future you are looking out for. Don’t look to your chiefs to be leading, they will guide you but you have got to do the work. You have to do the heavy lifting. You, the men without titles, you, the women without titles, are the backbone of the nation. That’s your work. The grandfathers and the grandmothers look after the future generations. That’s our instruction and I pass that on to you because I think it is practical and it is quite necessary at this time that we challenge the direction of the leadership of this world now for the salvation of the future.
Go back to the wisdom of the Elders. Listen to the earth. Listen to the trees, they cry, they speak. But the ultimate natural law has no mercy. You will just deal with it as it will deal with you. So the best thing to do is stay on the good side, learn, stay with it. Be brave, be courageous. Be who you are. Be your own leader. You don’t need somebody telling you what to do. You think for yourself. Otherwise how are we going to gain if we don’t have this great wealth of intelligence? Challenge them every time. Every generation has its heroes, every generation has its leaders, and every generation has its responsibility and this is a big one now!
I am carrying on here because I am concerned about you. You are like my children, my grandchildren. I want you to be strong. I want you to be happy. I want you to have good children. I want you to be dedicated. It’s not naïve to have principles. It’s not naïve to be idealistic, not at all. It takes courage, so stay with it. You go forward today and do good for the world and do good for the people.