There are narratives among Native people that we are living in the fifth or sixth iteration of the world. Not unlike the Bible story of Noah and the great flood, these ancient stories tell us that the people repeatedly made a mess of things, leading to the destruction of the world. Each time, the survivors must go in search of a new, inhabitable world, long, difficult journeys that often take place in the dark. Eventually they emerge into a new world.
Last week I read that some paleoecologists have speculated that we primates may not have been the first “higher life forms” to evolve on our small blue-green world. Some believe they have found evidence there were earlier times when the planet’s atmosphere contained the right mixture of gasses, including oxygen, to support the rapid evolution of life. Of course, proving that hypothesis would be very difficult indeed, give the inevitable destruction of the evidence caused by the continuous cycles of destruction that occur in the Earth’s crust.
Here in the U.S., policy is increasingly generated by people who believe the Earth was created 5,000 years ago, that the Creator wants us to use all of the available resources to accrue wealth, and that the destruction of the Earth’s living systems will hasten the return of the Creator. This narrative conflicts with the scientific consensus, which puts the Earth’s age at about 4,500,000,000 years, and that during the last couple of billion years most life on Earth has been destroyed at least five times. I don’t think our Native stories say just how old the Earth is, just that She is old and we have suffered the consequences of mistreating her many times.
I was raised in an Appalachian style Evangelical church. I remember the pastor preaching that the Bible said the Earth was 5,000 years old, but the pastor was proud of his first generation college education and I doubt he actually believed the Earth was that young. Rather, I think he understood the story to be a teaching story filled with metaphor, as did my Native identified father. My settler identified mother, on the other hand, most likely did take the narrative as literal truth. My dad was largely silent about his beliefs but my mother was an enraged follower of the literal.
It is easy to forget that the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, about the nature of life, the world, and the universe form the basis for our decisions; policy arises from story! We must be thoughtful about the stories we tell, and those we choose as the basis for our actions.
Yesterday an elder called, wanting to talk about the stories being told by the current government. She was concerned about the fate of the world, and that of Native people here in the U.S.. She’s getting older and feels increasingly vulnerable. “They’re coming after us Natives,” she said, then asked, “What are we going to do?” Given I have no idea what we are going to do, I simply listened and agreed things might well get really bad. Then I reminded her that Jennie and I will do our best to aid and protect her.
I’m getting older, too. I’ll be seventy come the fall, and the new administration’s war on the aging deeply concerns me. I try to notice that they seem to hate everything I care about, especially the vulnerable: Natives, immigrants and refugees, ecosystems, women, children, two-spirited people, the arts, and elders. They seem Hell bent on bringing on the end of the world as we know it. I suspect the Earth, the Grandmothers, and the Creator are not going to be happy with this. I also imagine many of us may face much heartbreak.
My elder friend also wanted to talk about dying, saying she was thinking a lot about death these days. I suggested that was something all us aging ones think about. She said there was a lot left for her to do and not much time. I suggested the tasks that really need to be done take many hands. She said she does not like the stories that are guiding the decisions the government is making. I agreed.
I’m not certain what happens after death, but experience teaches me that awareness continues. I imagine our consciousness journeys to other worlds. Maybe we meet with the Grandmothers who ask us to justify our actions when alive; I rather hope so. Maybe we then go on to new adventures and learning. This is a story I find useful in that it encourages me to do my best while I am here, to be try to be kind to all beings, given we are all journeying together. It also holds me responsible for my actions, and for creating a good place for future generations. Finally, it puts hardship and fear into some perspective.
Oddly, all the stories the elders told me after I became an adult share two themes. They suggest that our time in the womb and our journey through the birth canal are reflective of larger processes at play in the universe, and that since we shall, individually and collectively, repeat such travels many times, it is best to be thoughtful and compassionate. It used to be that the women would choose chiefs based on those attributes. Maybe it is time to begin to do so again.