Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Dave Gibson: Iroquois Peace And Defending The Law

Recently I was asked to present a talk about the life and careers of Paul Schaefer, the 20th century Adirondack conservation coalition leader. The location for my talk was Niskayuna, where beginning in the late 1920s into the early 1980s Paul built and restored hundreds of homes, including his own, out of natural, recycled materials – stone, slate and timbers from old buildings then facing the wrecking ball. The host for the lecture was the Niskayuna Town Historian, fitting because Paul was also intensely interested by American history.

A healthy collection of American Heritage can be found on the shelves of his Adirondack cabin. During my talk I mentioned that Paul and his siblings, growing up after 1910, were constantly outside, and among their outdoor pursuits were days exploring for arrowheads and other implements of the Mohawk, a member of the Great League of the Haudenosaunee. I then described the outlines of Paul’s remarkably successful career defending and extending the wilderness of the Adirondacks, from its wild rivers, to its highest peaks and the wildlife rich valleys threatened from inundation by large dams. Some of this history is found in Paul’s first book, Defending the Wilderness (1989, Syracuse University Press).

I’m certain I did not pull together these various threads of Paul’s life very well; and lacked first-hand knowledge, outside of the ten years that I knew Paul, about many aspects of his life and building career beyond the conservation story. But I shouldn’t have been concerned about pulling it all together; Paul did not box off his home construction and restoration businesses from his historical interests, his outdoor explorations, and his fights for wilderness. In all these pursuits, Paul believed in making the world a better place. His children, and role as father, husband, son did sometimes get the short end of the stick as he pursued his life, which was by no means perfect.

But Paul held to his principles always, which included, I think, a bedrock belief in the ability of people to use their minds in rational ways to solve problems, which to him meant advancing our lives through heeding lessons of history, siting human shelter where it made the most aesthetic and practical sense on the land, building out of enduring materials that would outlast the owner, and protecting large swaths of wilderness – thinking of many generations ahead, while thoroughly enjoying and reflecting intensely on the deep woods and its “denizens of the forest” during his lifetime.

Arriving at difficult compromises which preserved as much wilderness as possible, participating in politics as the pursuit and art of the possible in a rapidly developing America, was part of the rational world he and his mind inhabited. One example: he participated actively in the routing of I-87, the Adirondack Northway, instead of fighting it because the highway at the time favored the many, not the few; he built strong small p political connections with state leaders to prevent the Pharaoh Lake wilderness-Champlain valley routing, which many favored, thus preserving both. He fought fiercely and successfully against the great dams on Adirondack streams and rivers which favored the relative few, but would sacrifice the many including the many forms of wildlife in their valley habitats.

I recently reflected on this man and his time when my Susan and I visited the Kateri Shrine and Museum in Fonda above the Mohawk River, on the day when the blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was made a Saint. The Museum not only is dedicated to Kateri, her life, the suffering and miracles of her life as a young Mohawk woman, but to the dedicated archeologists of the 1940s and 50s who discovered the Mohawk village where she and her people lived in the turbulent 1660s and 1670s. One of those amateur archeologists who participated in the digs that uncovered the location of the village’s stockade walls and longhouses and its water source was Vincent Schaefer, Paul’s brother. Susan and I got a special feeling visiting that village site and its spring below, and its surrounding forest. One senses many lives living intensely and richly, with sorrow never far away, including the lives of those who dug to discover elements of this complex society so that we can learn from it many generations later.

Coming home later that day, I re-read portions of The White Roots of Peace by Paul A.W. Wallace (1946), republished by Kahionhes, John Fadden (1986, The Chauncy Press, Saranac Lake). The book and the introduction by John C. Mohawk introduces the thinking around the events which led to the founding of the League of the Haudenosaunee, the Six Nations, or the Great League of the Iroquois. The Great Peace which The Peacemaker, Deganawidah, taught to Hiawatha and which was adopted by the Six Nations was well known by some of the founding fathers of the United States and, in turn, its principles became adopted within our very Constitution. I think Paul Schaefer believed this, too, and would have appreciated what Wallace wrote:

“The Indians of the Five Nations (the Tuskarora became the 6th Nation) were a practical people…Nowhere is this practical bent of mind better seen than in the way they talked about peace. Peace was not, as they conceived it, a negative thing, the mere absence of war or an interval between wars, to be recognized only as the stepchild of the law – as unfortunately has been the case with most western peoples, among whom the laws of peace, in the international field, have been recognized by jurists as an afterthought to the laws of war.

“To the Iroquois, peace was (is) the law. They used the same word for both. Peace (the Law) was righteousness in action, the practice of justice between individuals and nations.” But, as John C. Mohawk wrote in the 1985 Prologue to the book, the Peacemaker had to convince Hiawatha and then the Six Nations of the League that they possessed the power of rational thought; that they did not have to live in fear of one another; that the practice of peace as justice in action required a belief in negotiation, and that negotiation required that people believed in their rational nature to solve their problems – “we must believe they are not suicidal or homicidal by nature, that we can reason with them.” “Thus,” wrote John C. Mohawk, “the first principle that will bring us the POWER to act is the confidence in the belief that all people are rational human beings and that we can take measures to reach accord with them.”

Thus, the Great League of the Haudenosaunee passed on the Law, the Peace, to our United States, and a Law and belief in our rational natures which Paul Schaefer believed in, also, and which he relied upon in his actions to preserve our remaining wilderness. The Law was rooted in symbols found in nature, which Paul surely embraced: the great roots of the White Pine, symbolizing the Law which expressed the terms of the League’s union, the Branches signified shelter, protection and security in union, the Roots reached out to all quarters of the earth to embrace all mankind, the Eagle atop the tree which symbolized watchfulness necessary to discover approaching evil or treachery.

A watchful people is still needed to defend Peace, the Law, and in Paul’s time and in ours, needed to educate and persuade people that wilderness is needed in our time and our democracy, and to defend wilderness on the land and in law when necessary.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

One Response

  1. Nice weaving of the story. Appreciated the information about the symbolism of the pine tree.

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