Standing People, Rooted People: Peacemaking Among the Indigenous Cultures of Southern Africa and Turtle Island

Zen Peacemaker Order is an international movement and community of spiritual practitioners and social action. In this article, drawing experiences from different corners of the world, two ZPO members, one from the United States, Roshi Genro Gauntt and one from Finland, Mikko Ijäs, share their stories of being welcomed by First Nations and the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (Northern America) and Southern Africa and how their appreciation of peacemaking was affected by encountering these rich wisdom cultures and the individuals that embodied them.

An interview with Roshi Genro Gauntt & Mikko Ijäs

Written by Mikko Ijäs



Mikko and Genro

I was only three months old when we moved to Nigeria and I was four years old when we moved permanently back to Finland. The African tribal masks, sculptures, animal hides, clothes and books describing the African indigenous cultures were an important part of my life while growing up.

In 2009 I was invited to participate an international artists workshop in Namibia. The workshop took place in a traditional Herero village close to Waterberg mountain plateau. The same place where the Herero genocide began in the early 20th century.

After this experience I began to visit Namibia almost every year. My soon to be published PhD thesis deals with the ideas that emerged from my experiences in Namibia.

In late 2014 I made a trip to the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Namibia to study and to film one of the last part-time hunter-gatherer groups still living in the Kalahari. What really struck my wife Maija and me as we spent time tracking animals with the Ju/‘hoansi (San/Bushmen) was the respect they had towards the animals and the natural environment in general. One morning, after a night spent with the hunters under the Kalahari stars, I suddenly realized something as I was looking at the hunters going through the bushes and looking for tracks, I became conscious that this was the first time I’d seen humans in their natural habitat. These people had been here since the dawn of humankind. They knew exactly what the plants were used for, by humans and by the myriad of other creatures. They could tell from the animal tracks exactly which animal had been there and for what reason. These people belonged here. It was their home.

Roshi Grover Genro Gauntts background in Zen goes way back to the early 1970s when he began to study with Maezumi Roshi at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. After Maezumi Roshi passed away in 1995, he worked closely with Roshi Bernie Glassman and he became one of the founding teachers of the Zen Peacemaker Order and a dharma successor of Bernie.

His Native American interests include a long relationship with the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  Genro said that since he was a child he had been enamored with indigenous people. He always felt that he would much rather live in a tribal culture than in his own family. When we talked he had just come back from an American Indian Institute conference in Canada. At the conference they had said that the pre-colonized Iroquois nation didn’t have courts, judges, or punishing system, because the culture self-regulated completely based on behavior. There was no such thing as domestic violence. Essentially, I thought, unlike our western culture, they were free of trauma. The traumatization came from the colonizers. They transmitted the trauma to the Native Americans simply because they were already badly traumatized from thousands thousand of years of war and domination in Europe. These wars resulted often from people conquering other people’s lands for resources. There was also religious triumphalism that often resulted in genocide and war.

Genro knew in his heart that original tribal ways might be a wonderful way to live, but they were hard to find anymore. In 1996 the Zen Peacemakers did their first Auschwitz retreat. It became an annual event with religious leaders from the five major world religions and offshoots from all of them. After couple of years, for Genro it became clear that the religions represented at Auschwitz didn’t include indigenous spirituality. So the Zen Peacemakers started working on inviting a Native American spiritual leader to join them.


Genro called his friend, a fellow ZP member, Roshi Michel Genko Dubois who had co-produced and co-wrote a documentary film called “The Spirit of Crazy Horse” which tells the story of the Oglala Lakota, Native American nations and AIM (American Indian Movement) around the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation.

Dubois gave him a phone number to a Lakota elder. Genro admits being a bit nervous to make this call. He suspected it might possibly be something like walking into a brick wall. However, he made the call and asked Birgil Kills Straight to join them in Poland to participate at Auschwitz. Birgil immediately responded, saying that he really would have liked to do it, but he couldn’t, since he had another commitment, but he promised to send somebody. That year Tuffy Sierra, of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota was the first Native American pipe holder and spiritual leader to join the Zen Peacemakers retreat at Auschwitz.

Tuffy turned out to become one of Genro’s closest friends. They connect by phone or text almost every day and Genro still goes to the Pine Ridge Reservation twice a year for a few weeks or occasionally even for several months. For Genro, it’s home. People keep asking him, what does he do while he’s over there? His answer is simple: just hang out. He does not offer any program, money, solutions or anything like that. Over the years he’s been privileged to participate some of their spiritual traditions and a few of their medicine people have become his friends and family. The whole connection and involvement with the indigenous cultures has become an enormous part of Genro’s life.

He traveled with other Zen Peacemakers to participate in the Standing Rock protests and support the People in early December 2016.


The Great Peacemaker

For Genro, the whole involvement with the Native Americans began from his connections in the Dakotas, but recently these circles have grown bigger and wider. For twenty years he had been going to the West to be with the Oglala Lakota. Recently he has been also involved with the Northeastern Iroquois, the Haudenosaunee. These people are practically just around the corner from his home in New York. What was striking for Genro in his initial involvement with the Iriquois, was that although Genro and others had been part of the original group founding of the Zen Peacemaker Order, they hadn’t realized that there was a legendary Mohawk man known as The Great Peacemaker. His native name is not to be used outside of ceremonies. The Great Peacemaker, assisted by Hiawatha, was one of the three people (one of them known as Jigonhsasee, a woman) who worked for twenty years to bring together the six nations of the Mohawk, Tuscarora, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Cayuga, to form the Iroquois Confederacy, the Haudenosaunee. I thought, The Great Peacemaker had to be an enlightened being, a bodhisattva, or a saint.

I reflected with Genro on my own experience with the Kalahari San. There, a talented hunter might only hunt when it’s absolutely necessary. Otherwise this hunter would just help others to be successful hunters. Avoiding jealousy is a key element in a small band (of about 25 to 50 members) of hunter-gatherers. Precious tools and decorations are common gifts among the Kalahari San. This gift giving activity is known among the Ju/‘hoansi as ’xaro’. The xaro-gifts are used to strengthen and maintain social relationships. Any precious and possibly even coveted artifacts are quickly given away as xaro-gifts, so as not to cause any jealousy, which would in turn jeopardize the delicate social structure. Xaro partnerships can last for a lifetime. A person might give a gift and time might pass and the other person might give a gift in return. Occasionally these xaro partnerships are terminated when the imbalance between the gifts that are given and received continue for too long. There are some stories from the mid 20th century of Ju/’hoansi evicting members who acted selfishly and didn’t contribute to the peacekeeping. Sometimes if a violent and a selfish group member wouldn’t move away, he had to be terminated. Life is exacting and depends on interdependence in a small band of hunter-gatherers and there is no room for selfish behavior.  In response to my musing, Genro said that he observed similar practices in North American tribal communities.

As I already mentioned, it was a tremendous experience to bear witness to humans in their natural habitat in the Kalahari. It was the first time I had seen humans in such close contact to their natural state. Genro continued sharing that one of the teachings from Haudenosaunee is that we are traumatized if we are not allowed to be in our natural state of body, mind and spirit. We can’t hear the birds, we can’t feel the wind, we can’t smell the wild flowers, and we can’t understand the wild animals. We are essentially cut off from our own real life. The whole environment is our family and our relatives. He observed that Indigenous peoples in many ways say: father sun, mother earth, sister moon, all creations are my relatives. The trees were called the standing people, the grass and plants and medicines the rooted people, the insects were known as the little people. Winged people, four legged people, the water nation and also the two-legged people. 

The Lakota people also have their own version of the creation story. The Lakota say that at first the two-legged were the grass people, then they became the buffalo people, and only then they became the human people. They are recognizing all evolution and saying we are everything. At the end of their prayers the Lakota say: Ho Mitakuye Oyasin “All my relations”. With this they declare we are intimately related and connected to all creation.

I found that similar beliefs are repeat in many hunter-gatherers everywhere. The Kalahari San believe that all animals descended from humans. Long time ago the humans sat down to have a council and decided to brand people into the animals. Some people were given stripes and they became the zebra and so forth. Some groups believe that Gemsboks (Oryx) actually partly return to their human form in the evening. They only retain their animal heads. The branding process is like a creation story for the San. Most of the religions have their mythic pasts and creation stories. 

This somehow reminded Genro how His Holiness the Dalai Lama once responded when somebody asked him what he thought about the Big Bang Theory. He sat there for a while and then asked: “Which one?”


How the Colonizers Abused the Peacemaking

The Iroquois had a long tradition for peacemaking. Building peace and maintaining it had been important for their culture since the Great Peacemaker. In the Haudenosaunee decision making process they take in consideration three things: 

1. Any decision they make cannot harm mother earth.

2. Any decision they make must have complete respect towards all life and all the people. You cannot demean anybody or make a law against someone.

3. The decisions must take in consideration the faces of the children that are coming. That means seven generations into the future. Those faces are already sitting around the council fire and you can’t make a decision that is going to harm them.

When they made peace, the peace meant totally respecting each other as true human beings. That’s the real sense of a peace treaty. To respect the peace the Iroquois demanded all parties to retain a clear mind, free of otherness, criticism of anybody, both in thought and in speech. They would say that “if you hear yourself criticizing in your mind, you’ve already broken the treaty”. 

The Iroquois made peace first with the British, then with the French, and then with the ones who wanted to become the Americans. They were all terrified of the Iroquois. The indigenous people clearly outnumbered them and the invaders knew that they would be wiped out if they even tried to quarrel with them. So they had to make peace with them. The Iroquois didn’t have the illusion that peace was something that was everlasting and would always be there. Retaining peace is a continuous process. 

At the end of the 19th century there were many peace treaties between the Native Americans and the colonizers. These of course included many broken ones, and the colonizers remade these treaties over and over again.

Forever to the advantage of the colonizers and dominators.

The ceremonies involved around the treaty process must have been amazing. Because the treaty talks could take from two to three months, as time and patience were necessary for developing trust among the participants, and ceremonies were conducted cleanse the mind and spirit. This was necessary so that all parties would have a clear vision of what real peace was. 

Genro reminded that it is difficult to even imagine what might happen in this sort of process when the ceremony continued for several months.

The Iroquois recognized the peace with a symbolic Wampum belt, a beadwork about two feet long. It had designs in white and purple shells throughout it. This piece of iconography really embodied the sentiments, the feelings, and the deep meaning of the peace and agreements that had been made. After peace was made with the Native Americans, the colonizers decided to steal these symbolic Wampum belts. They took them all and hauled them up to the cities so the evidence would be gone that there ever was a real attempt to create peace with the Native Nations. It was not before 1996 when they released the Wampum belts back to the Iroquois, the Haudenosaunee, ninety years later. The colonizers attempted to wipe out the history of the only attempt to create peace by stealing the sacred evidence.


We could do better

The indigenous cultures have been treated horribly pretty much everywhere where pastoral, agricultural, and industrial cultures have invaded their lands taking their resources and enslaving, killing or forcefully assimilating their people. This exploitation hasn’t gone anywhere. The situation around the Dakota Access Pipeline is only one example. The same issues are prevalent also in Finland Finland has deliberately denied signing international treaties which would guarantee the Sami, the local indigenous, full governance over their ancestral lands.

In my conversation with Genro, we both felt elevated by the similarity of our shared interests towards the ancient wisdom which is still here among the last indigenous cultures whether it was the San of the Kalahari or the Native Americans. We both agree that there’s an immense amount to be learned from them. Knowledge and experience related to their relationship with the oneness and wholeness of life and the peacemaking that naturally results. Our original relatives often embody the true meaning of what it is to be a true Peacemaker. 

* * *

Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt

Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt, is a Founding Teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order and a dharma successor of Roshi Bernie Glassman. He is the head teacher at Hudson River Zen Center in Yonkers, New York. Genro was a key figure in the leadership and accomplishment of twenty years of Bearing Witness retreats in Auschwitz-Birkenau, 2014 in Rwanda, 2015 in the Black Hills and the 2016 Zen Peacemakers Plunge in Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe reservation. More on Genro. Join Genro at the 2017 Zen Peacemakers Week of Service in Cheyenne River.

Mikko Ijäs 

Mikko Ijäs (b. 1978) is a Finnish media artist and a researcher of prehistory of art. Mikko’s soon to be published PhD thesis “Fragments of the Hunt” for Aalto University deals with the birth of art among the early hunter-gatherer societies. He has also produced a documentary film of the same subject. The film titled “The Origins” (2016) describes his ideas how early persistence hunting (weaponless running down animals) might have been the catalyst behind the processes that gave rise to symbolic cultures, involving art. In this film, Mikko follows the lives of the Kalahari San, but also lives of the Native Americans of Northern Mexico who are struggling to maintain their traditional running culture despite the invading drug cartels. Mikko began his zen practice in Helsinki Zen Center in 2012 and he has been a member of the Zen Peacemaker Order since 2016. 

Mikko’s documentary film “The Origins”, featuring his work with the Kalahari Ju/‘hoansi, will be shown at Zen Center of New York City, Fire Lotus Temple, Brooklyn, NY USA on February 19th at 1:15pm. All are welcome.

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Standing People, Rooted People: Peacemaking Among the Indigenous Cultures of Southern Africa and Turtle Island



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