White: Economic peace, power and righteousness

Kevin J. White
10/31/08

The core concepts of the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee are peace, power and righteousness. Many have pondered what they meant, mean and will mean in the coming generations. They have evolved over time, because culture is dynamic and never static. I am not sure if these powerfully clear ideals are ever fully achievable. Many times I have thought about where exactly the line lies between change and tradition.

It is a complex issue, to say the least. Are we the same as we were 200 years ago? No, but we retain our values through our traditions. I believe that our traditions are there to remind us first what is important to acknowledge gratefully, then to think about the issues facing us and imprint upon these notions for subsequent generations.

The notion of thinking for future generations is a hard one. We have no idea what life will be like then, but the fundamental question becomes (at least in my mind): What they will say about our decisions seven generations from now?

One of the greatest misunderstandings between many cultures and, clearly, for many Americans is the notion of peace. Many define peace as the period between conflicts, and that it can be achieved and upheld with enough effort or recognition. I think it is something else. We must continually work toward achieving peace.

Peace is more than the absence of conflict; I propose it to mean that a culture has achieved a socially just and equitable position in its understanding of the world, and more importantly its place in that world. This is why it is not a static, achievable position; it must be constantly worked on and strived for through constant vigil for potential hotspots that can and do evolve into conflict.

Power is another complex set of notions. The root of it is clear thinking and allowing everyone’s voice to be heard. Clear thinking includes asking tough questions and seeking tough answers that will not benefit just a few, but benefit many, including those generations that have yet to be born. We must not shy away from difficult issues and pretend they don’t exist, or that our individual gain and position is any more important than that of our friends, family or communities.

 We must use reason to find the answers to these questions, where we will not all agree completely, but we can agree that this is the best course of action for the community.


Righteousness in the Haudenosaunee framework means that place where there is a common understanding. We may not agree unanimously, but we can agree this is the best course of action for our collective group, culture or even family. The underlying principle to strive for, I believe, is that we are willing to put the welfare and well-being of others before our immediate needs, in order to benefit the community, not just ourselves.

I’ve been thinking about this in light of the meltdown the U.S. economy is wading through. I have to ask: is it the fault of the people who took on loans for houses they might not have otherwise, or even known that they couldn’t afford, in pursuit of the American Dream? Is it the fault of the banks and investing industry who packaged these risky loans as secure long-term sound investment strategies in the name of profit? Is it the cost of a free market society with no real regulatory control due to all the deregulation of the last 30 years? Is it buying into this notion that “greed is good” that led the U.S. down this path?

I was surfing the Web and found a YouTube video of John Mohawk speaking at Bioneers in 1998. He was talking about philosophy, greed and the lessons of the Peacemaker in the Great Law. One of the things that jumped out at me was something he said about Adam Smith and the free market.

John said, “Adam Smith proposed this mythology that the market is the perfect regulator of human happiness and prosperity. That there exists within the market an invisible hand and this hand regulates the market. But upon subjection to clear thinking, it may not be very workable, but also which has brought about rationalizations for enormous harm to enormous numbers of people across the globe for about five centuries”; and I would add the environment also suffers in this mindset and rationalization process.

This is one of the many things I miss about John: his ability to take such complex materials and make it understandable in the human experience.

To highlight this growing disparity that exists in those who are running the companies, and those who are doing the work. Approximately 30 years ago, a CEO made approximately 30 – 40 times what the average worker did in the United States. Last year, that income was approximately 344 times greater income than the average worker. That is a 300-plus percent increase in income disparity.

Some have proposed to the average worker that the market will regulate itself, and thus one can trust the CEOs to also regulate themselves. This falls back to that age-old myth that all one has to do is work hard enough and this, too, could become your future – you, too, can become wealthy.

Clearly that is not the case; most families are now two-income families not desiring to climb the socioeconomic ladder, but seeking basic living conditions for their immediate family.

In the framework of the Haudenosaunee Great Law and these notions of peace, power and righteousness, we must all talk, reason together and hear one another to find the solution to this quagmire that even we in Indian country are in, too.

We are sovereign, yet we also take part in the U.S. economy. The gas stations, smokeshops and casinos all accept and pay out in American currency; so if the U.S. economy fails, what will keep these enterprises afloat? If these institutions fail, what will become of American Indian communities?

We also must return to our roots – building community, thinking of more than ourselves and immediate family, and in this case more than just our community. This is how we maintain sovereignty. We must use reason to find the answers to these questions, where we will not all agree completely, but we can agree that this is the best course of action for the community and not just the individual.

What befalls our families is an indicator of how strong or weak our communities are. If we do not take care of the needs of our communities, than are we really a community at all?

Kevin J. White, Ph.D., Akwesasne Mohawk, is an assistant professor at SUNY-Oswego in the Native American and American Studies programs. He has been involved since 1999 with the late John C. Mohawk’s Pinewoods Community Farming Inc. Iroquois White Corn Project. He can be reached at kwhite3@oswego.edu.

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