Basic Call to Consciousness” is the title of a small book edited in the
late 1970s by Indian Country Today columnist John Mohawk and Senior Editor
Jose Barreiro. In part, the book reported on the genesis of the
international movement of indigenous peoples, which was re-ignited in 1977
by the now well-referenced International Non-Governmental Organization’s
Conference on “Discrimination Against the Indigenous Populations of the
Americas,” held in Geneva, Switzerland.
Even more compellingly, the manuscript, which has become a classic,
contained the nugget of a philosophy or view of history, through the eyes
of a body of chiefs and clan mothers still sustaining natural world
spiritual traditions going back thousands of years. The book was assigned
in large part to analyze for these Native elders from the 1970s the origins
of the thinking and methodology of life of what the ancestor Indians
referred to as “the whiteman,” that population who came to their lands as
representative of European and Mediterranean civilization and who had
altered American Indian tribal life forever.
The assignment, by the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee to Mohawk,
already a well-known traditionalist and intellectual in the early 1970s and
then-editor of the national Indian newspaper, Akwesasne Notes, was
monumental. Mohawk rose to the task, however, and the succinctly written
manuscript, which provided the three required position papers for
participation at the international gathering, evoked a stunning reaction of
recognition, both from the large audience that heard it in Geneva and in
waves of Native discussions and actions over three decades.
Since 1978, it has been translated to half a dozen languages and
republished, even in pirated form, at least a dozen times. Most
interestingly, as Mohawk narrates in his new introduction: “For me, the
most edifying feedback was an account I heard from an Indian rights
activist at a meeting in Washington, D.C., in 1980 … ‘Basic Call to
Consciousness’ had been translated into Portuguese and a group had carried
the book to Indian communities across Brazil and had read it to the
rainforest Indians [Yanomami]. He said these Indians thoroughly enjoyed
hearing it and stated that it represented their own thoughts and feelings.
Nothing that has happened before or since ever brought the satisfaction of
Below is a short except from “Basic Call to Consciousness”:
“Our essential message to the world is a basic call to consciousness. The
destruction of the Native cultures and people is the same process that has
destroyed and is destroying life on this planet. The technologies and
social systems that have destroyed the animals and the plant life are also
destroying the Native people. And that process is Western Civilization.
“The Americas provided Europeans a vast new era for expansion and material
exploitation. Initially, the Americas provided new materials and even
finished materials for the developing world economy that was based on
Indo-European technologies. European civilization has a history of rising
and falling as its technologies reach their material and cultural limits.
The finite natural world has always provided a kind of built-in
contradiction to Western expansion.
“The Indo-Europeans attacked every aspect of North America with
unparalleled zeal. The Native people were ruthlessly destroyed because they
were an inassimilable element to the civilizations of the West. The forests
provided materials for large ships, the land was fresh and fertile for
agricultural surpluses, and some areas provided sources of slave labor for
the conquering invaders. By the time of the Industrial Revolution in the
mid-nineteenth century, North America was already a leader in the area of
the development of extractive technology.
“The hardwood forests of the Northeast were cleared for the purpose of
providing farmlands. Those forests were destroyed to create charcoal for
the fires of the iron smelters and the blacksmiths. By the 1890s, the West
had turned to coal, a fossil fuel, to provide the energy necessary for the
many new forms of machinery that had been developed. During the first half
of the twentieth century, oil had replaced coal as a source of energy.
“The Western culture has been horribly exploitative and destructive of the
Natural World. Over one hundred forty species of birds and animals were
utterly destroyed since the European arrival in the Americas, largely
because they were unusable in the eyes of the invaders. The forests were
leveled, the waters polluted, the Native people subjected to genocide. The
vast herds of herbivores were reduced to mere handfuls; the buffalo nearly
became extinct. Western technology and the people who have employed it have
been the most amazingly destructive forces in all of human history. No
natural disaster has ever destroyed as much. Not even the Ice Ages may
count as many victims.
“But like the hardwood forests, the fossil fuels are also finite resources.
As the second half of the twentieth century progressed, the people of the
West began looking to other forms of energy to motivate their technology.
Their eyes settled on atomic energy, a form of energy production that has
by-products that are the most poisonous substances ever known to man.
“Today, man is facing threats to the very survival of the human species.
The way of life known as ‘Western civilization’ is on a death path, and its
culture has no viable answers. When faced with the reality of its own
destructiveness, Western civilization can only go forward into areas of
more efficient destruction. The appearance of plutonium on this planet is
the clearest of signals that our species is in trouble. It is a signal that
most Westerners have chosen to ignore.
“The air is foul, the waters poisoned, the trees are dying, the animals are
disappearing. We think even the systems of weather are changing [emphasis
added]. Our ancient teaching warned us that if man interfered with the
natural laws, these things would come to be. When the last of the Natural
Way of Life is gone, all hope for human survival will be gone with it. And
our Way of Life is fast disappearing, a victim of the destructive
“We know that there are many people in the world who can quickly grasp the
intent of our message. But experience has taught us that there are few that
are willing to seek out a method for moving toward any real change. But if
there is a future for all beings on this planet, we must begin to seek the
avenues of change.
“The people who are living on this planet need to break with the narrow
concepts of human liberation and begin to see liberation as something that
needs to be extended to the whole of the Natural World. What is needed is
the liberation of all things that support life — the air, the waters, the
trees — all the things that support the sacred Web of Life.
“We feel that the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere can continue to
contribute to the survival potential of the human species. The majority of
our peoples still live in accordance with the traditions that find their
roots in the Mother Earth. But the Native peoples have need of a forum
where our voice can be heard. And we need alliances with other peoples of
the world to assist in our struggle to regain and maintain our ancestral
lands and to protect the Way of Life we follow.
“We know that this is a very difficult task. Many nation-states may feel
threatened by the position that the protection and liberation of Natural
World peoples and cultures represent, a progressive direction that must be
integrated into the political strategies of people who seek to uphold the
dignity of human beings. But that position is growing in strength, and it
represents a necessary strategy in the evolution of progressive thought.
“The traditional Native peoples hold the key to the reversal of processes
in Western civilization that hold the promise of unimaginable future
suffering and destruction. Spiritualism is the highest form of political
consciousness. And we, the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere, are
among the world’s surviving proprietors of that kind of consciousness. We
are here to impart that message.”
Excerpted from Akwesasne Notes, Eds. “Basic Call To Consciousness” (2005),
the Native Voices Series of The Book Publishing Co., Summertown, Tenn.
First publication, 1978.