On The Election of Barack Obama

By Kenneth Cohen  11-08

Square Pegs in the Oval Office: But “Change Can Happen”

American presidents have not had the noblest record of conduct towards America’s original peoples.

In 1779, George Washington, known as “Destroyer of Towns” among the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), ordered Major General John Sullivan to attack Iroquois villages and “lay waste all the settlements…that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.”  “Do not listen to any overture of peace,” advised Washington, “before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.”

Even after villages were abandoned, cornfields were burned to the ground. After a successful battle, American troops would skin the dead to make boots and leggings.

Thomas Jefferson similarly instructed the War Department to meet Indians with “the hatchet.” Andrew Jackson tried to eliminate the future generations by paying soldiers for the scalps of women and children. Abraham Lincoln, though noble in so many ways, did not hesitate to act savagely towards the “savages.” In 1862 he ordered the largest mass execution in U.S. history: the hanging of 38 Dakota Sioux - mostly holy men and political leaders - in Mankato, Minnesota.

All were innocent and would have been acquitted in a modern court of law. Theodore Roosevelt supported Edward Curtis as he documented the faces, places, and cultures of Native Americans during what he believed would be their last days. “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians,” said Roosevelt, “but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

Yes, things have gotten better. Nixon helped preserve sacred Indian lands in the Southwest. Clinton, our first Native American president (part Cherokee), sought advice from tribal leaders and was the first president to invite tribal leaders of all federally recognized tribes to the White House (April 29, 1994). He appointed 63 Native Americans to all levels of his Administration, passed laws to protect Native religious freedom, advanced tribal sovereignty, and tried to strengthen government to government relations. Yet, the hopes and promises of Obama go beyond all of this.

In May 19, 2008 the Washington Post reported that Barack Obama became the first American presidential candidate to visit the Crow Nation. He was adopted by Hartford and Mary Black Eagle and given the name Barack Black Eagle as well as a spiritual Crow name “One Who Helps the People Throughout the Land.” In a powerful speech directed to the needs of Native Americans in general, Obama acknowledged treaty obligations, promised “quality affordable health care and world-class education to reservations all across America. This will be a priority when I’m president.”  He had no illusions about the failings of the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). “We need to shake up that bureaucracy and have them come to Indian Country, see what’s going on.” Obama closed on an emotional note, a beautiful acknowledgment of his new family: “I will never forget you…Since now I am a member of the family, you know I won’t break my commitment to my own brothers, my own sisters.” News from Indian Country published a full-page message from Obama to the Native People of the United States, pledging “a full partnership with Indian Country.” Not long after that visit, the Navajo Tribal President, Joe Shirley Jr., representing a tribe with more than 250,000 members, endorsed Obama along with 100 other tribal leaders.

The Values of Leadership

All of life is infused with spirit, Manitou, as my adoptive Cree relatives say. Stones, plants, animals, and people have spirit. Qualities and feelings may also have spiritual power—the spirit of Love, of Forgiveness, of Compassion, of Strength. Today, on Election Day 2008, the Spirit of Justice has blessed our country. I am grateful that I have lived to see such an unexpected event. For as much as I hate injustice, I love justice. Looking at the late autumn moon this evening, my wife and I both noticed a strange halo that extended like two spears of light vertically above and below the lunar crescent. Grandmother Moon seemed to be acting as a beacon carrying a message from Earth to Heaven and Heaven to Earth.

I hope you join me in celebrating the election of a man of honor. In my opinion Barack Obama has qualities of leadership that would be recognized by the American Indian leaders of old. A chief, says the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy), must have “skin seven spans thick” as proof against adversity. That is, he or she must not abandon principles or lose integrity when faced with such challenges as injustice or malicious criticism. We are certainly allowed to defend ourselves - there is an eagle at the top of the Great Tree of Peace, looking out for danger to the Nation. But we must take up weapons only as a last resort, when reasonable solutions have failed. And even if we must fight, whether figuratively or actually, a great chief leads the people without hatred and negativity in the heart. He or she preserves, above all, a Good Mind.

Of no less importance are the other ethical attributes of a great leader, again admirably demonstrated by President-elect Obama. He expresses respect for women, children, and elders. He is a parent who wants to create a better world for his children. He is humble and admits that as a human being who can make mistakes, his decisions will not be perfect. But he will do his best and listen to the voice of the people. He stresses personal responsibility because a Nation is great only if its citizens recognize their accountability and responsibility to each other and, ultimately, to the greater world—the beautiful planet on which we live and the people and other creatures who share it with us. Sometimes responsible action requires personal sacrifice - in modern terms the effort to recycle, a more fuel-efficient car, charitable gifts to those less fortunate than ourselves, even if such gifts are “inconvenient.” Perhaps in the Obama years, a fairer and more equitable tax law will make taxes what we have always hoped they would be—a sacrifice for the common good rather than the fuel for war and waste.

Sacrifice is, of course, tied up with generosity. This core value in Indian country, is, alas, rarely appreciated or practiced today, whether on “Wall Street” or “Main Street.” In traditional Native American culture, security was not the amount of money in the bank, the size of your home, the “protection” of insurance, but rather the wealth of friends and the community who you had helped during their times of need - all of whom were ready to return the favor. Wealth measured and status achieved not by accumulation of goods but by gift-giving, including gifts of time and caring. In such a generous society, one is never poor or alone.

And finally, a great leader, a chief or a President, inspires the people to greatness. He makes them feel not less than they are but more than they imagined. “You cannot see clearly,” said Mark Twain, “when your imagination is out of focus.” He would have the American people rise to his expectations, emphasizing the positive over the negative, a strategy much appreciated by Native American traditional healers. Yet the imagination of a president must be distinguished from flights of fancy. His vision and his imagination must both be in focus. It is easiest to trust a president who has both sight and insight, who values clarity, awareness, and honesty. Barack Obama has earned my trust. May he continue to do so.

Kenneth Cohen is a health educator and scholar/practitioner of indigenous healing traditions. Of Russian Jewish ancestry, he has worked with American Indian traditional healers and elders for more than thirty years. Ken is the winner of the leading international award in complementary and alternative medicine, The Alyce and Elmer Green Award for Innovation. He is the author of Honoring the Medicine (Ballantine Books), national health book award winner, and more than 200 journal articles on spirituality and health.