At a few moments here and there during Bill Moyers' special tonight, you can sit on the eve of Independence Day and realize that the perspective on this country is quite different if your ancestors were already living on this land when Columbus stumbled upon it.
The program "Oren Lyons the Faithkeeper" is an hour-long conversation with this chief of the Onondaga Nation, one of six nations in the Iroquois Confederation. It will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, tonight at 9 o'clock.
This is not a bunch of mystical mumbo-jumbo, or liberal guilt or pedestal placing. Oren Lyons is a published author who runs the Native American Studies program at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He gave up a career as a commercial artist in New York City to return to the reservation in upstate New York and assume the Faithkeeper post. Moyers asks pretty tough questions about the current plight of the Indian culture.
Lyons speaks straightforwardly about the history and customs of his tribe, making an interesting case for Iroquois' approaches to governance having had a significant influence on the founding fathers of the United States.
His most telling criticisms of the country that ultimately conquered his is of its short-sightedness. For the Onondaga, he says, all acts are for the seventh generation that is yet to come, a view that enforces a conservation-oriented stewardship of the land and nature as well as the culture. For too many Americans, of course, all acts are for next quarter's bottom line.
An All-American lacrosse player at Syracuse in the late '50s, Lyons continues to promote the sport, which he sees as a ritualistic game. He helped found the Iroquois Nation team that participated in the world championships.
He points to another Native American sport as emblematic of his culture's approach to technology. The Indians take a product of industry, a carefully lathed, painted and polished stick, and see how far they can slide it along a path in the snow. Lyons says that this shows that the Iroquois see technology as something to be used for fun, not to devote your life to. What's worth devoting your life to are things like community, mutual support and sharing.
Among the realizations you have when you hear Lyons speak is " that the 215 years of the United States that we celebrate tomorrow are not that many circles around the sun. Though we've cut most of them down, there are trees growing that are older than that. The Onondaga were here long before the white man came and, if they can keep enough water pure and air clean, they plan to stay, maybe long after we're gone.