I worked a bit with some Iroquois on their reservations in New York State and Canada on some food and agricultural projects and principally with a woman named Iona who is a clan mother and seed keeper for the Iroquois. When I first met Iona she was in tears. It was early evening and we were walking along a narrow lane on her farm on our way to a field where she grows out her seeds every year. She was responsible for seeds that the Iroqouis have had for more than a thousand years and she had close to a hundred varieties representing the pure strains of ancient cultivars. She was crying, she told me, because she was afraid and sad because she believed she was losing her indigenous knowledge, that her people were forgetting the “old ways” and that this knowledge was lost forever.
From my own perspective talking to Iona over days and weeks it was clear to me that she had not lost her “knowledge”. It was like she feared the knowledge was “lost” because she saw the younger generation in its ambivalence about that knowledge and the way of life it is represents. They’re willing to let it go. It has very little meaning to them. Some of them told me, “I don’t want to know how to make a pair of snowshoes, or a bow, or a decent arrowhead. What would I do with them?” One of Iona’s interns, a young Seneca woman, said “I didn’t think much about it for a long time. I listened to what the older people were saying about the old ways, like how the outside world was intruding and weakening the position and power of women in the bands, that the clan mothers were no longer on equal footing with the chiefs. It didn’t interest me until I took the internship here with Iona working with the seeds, the plants, then I wanted to know everything about the old ways. Iona has given me a lot. She’s a very wise soul.”
(I'm adding this bit on January 17, 2009 as I just finished re-reading Henry Thoreau's The Maine Woods and I found this quote: “Our Indian said that he was a doctor, and could tell me some medicinal use for every plant I could show him. I immediately tried him. He said that the inner bark of the aspen [Populus tremuloides) was good for sore eyes; and so with various other plants, proving himself as good as his word. Acording to his account, he had acquired such knowledge in his youth from a wise old Indian with whom he associated, and he lamented that the present generation of Indians ‘had lost a great deal’”. He wrote that in 1857, 150 years ago but it certainly resonates with my discussions with Iona and her intern.