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  • The Leadership Imperative:An Interview with Oren Lyons
  • Barry Lopez (bio) and Lyons Oren (bio)

Oren Lyons, seventy-six, is a wisdom carrier, one of the bearers of a variety of human tradition that can't easily be reduced to a couple of sentences. One reason he—and the tradition for which he is a spokesperson—isn't more widely known is that he doesn't actively seek forums from which to speak. If someone asks him, however, about the principles behind the particular Native American tradition of which he has, since 1967, been an appointed caretaker, he is glad to respond. He chooses his words carefully, and these days, there is occasionally a hint of indignation in his voice, as if time were short and people generally willful in their distraction.

In an era of self-promotion, Oren Lyons represents the antithesis of celebrity. When he converses about serious issues, no insistent ego comes to the fore, no desire to be seen as an important or wise person. His voice is but one in a long series, as he sees it, and the wisdom belongs not to him but to the tradition for which he speaks. His approach to problems is unusual in modern social commentary because his observations are not compelled by any overriding sense of the importance of the human present. In place of a philosophy of progress, he emphasizes fidelity to a set of spiritual and natural laws that have guided successful human social organization throughout history.

The appeal of his particular ethics in the search for solutions to contemporary environmental and social problems can become readily apparent. It is, however, not a wisdom anchored in beliefs about human perfection. It's grounded in the recognition and acceptance of human responsibility where all forms of life are concerned.

Oren is a Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan among the Onondaga people of western New York. He sits on the Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee, or the Six Nations as they are sometimes known. (In addition to the Onondaga, these would be the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora.) The people of this "Iroquois Confederacy" share a philosophy of life given to them a thousand years ago by a spiritual being they call the Peace Maker. (He was named so partly because his instructions and warnings [End Page 4] ended a period of warfare among these tribes, but his teachings about peace are understood to refer principally to a state of mind necessary for good living and good governance.)

When the Peace Maker came to the Haudenosaunee, he instructed them in a system of self-governing that was democratic in nature. (Benjamin Franklin and others, in fact, borrowed freely from this part of Haudenosaunee oral tradition and practice in formulating the principles of government upon which the United States was founded.) He emphasized the importance of diversity in human society to ensure sustainability and rejuvenation. And he urged a general tradition of thanksgiving.

The Peace Maker is sometimes called simply "the Messenger," someone sent by the Creator. The clan mothers among the Haudenosaunee, along with sitting chiefs such as Oren, are regarded as "runners," people responsible for keeping the precepts handed to them by the Peace Maker regenerating through time. As a council chief, Oren is said to be "sitting for the welfare of the people" and to be engaged in sustaining "the power of the good mind" in discussions with others on the council, all of whom are exchanging thoughts about the everyday application of the wisdom given them by the Peace Maker.

Oren has spoken often, recently, about a lack of will among international leaders, a failure to challenge the economic forces tearing apart human communities the world over, and the Earth itself. His response to the question of what society should do to protect life, however, is rarely prescriptive. Frequently what he says is, "It's up to each generation. There are no guarantees."

The Peace Maker's advice included an important warning for the chiefs and clan mothers. Some of his instruction, he said, would apply to life-threatening situations that would develop before the Haudenosaunee were able to fully grasp their malevolent...


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