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Indigenous people can call on prophecies to deal with climate change

Civilizations worldwide have collapsed as a direct or indirect result of climate change. And indigenous people can look to their ancestors' stories and prophecies to help guide survival through the current weather fluctuations.

That was a message John Mohawk delivered as the opening speaker at the Ancient Voices -- Contemporary Contexts Forum at Bemidji State University on Friday.

Co-sponsored by the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth and the American Indian Institute of Bozeman, Mont, the forum brought together Indians and non-Indians from around the country to discuss situations during changing times.

Lee Cook, American Indian Resource Center director, said he began organizing the forum for about one year. With Bemidji geographically central to easterners, such as the Seneca and Onondaga, and westerners, such as the Hopi, with BSU's resources, he said the site is a good fit. The format for the conference, which will continue through Sunday, features keynote speakers alternated with small-group discussions.

Keynote speaker today will be Oren Lyons, Onondaga Faithkeeper and respected voice for the Iroquois Confederacy and on Sunday, Wilma Mankiller, former Cherokee chief.

Mohawk, a Seneca author and professor, cited the crimes by Europeans settlers against Indians as the greatest of crimes against humanity. He took his audience back through history to the Papal decree during the early years of world exploration allowing Christians to enslave non-Christians.

"These are people they didn't even know about yet," he said.

He reviewed the horrific details of the Spanish conquest of the New World and the historical references to climate change in the past causing pestilence and famine and, sometimes, causing the dissolution of civilizations on the American and Old World continents.

"Terrorists have never brought a civilization down," Mohawk said. "Climate change has brought it down lots of times. This has happened before."

In the way, Mohawk touched on the way racism is a rationalization for maltreating people -- the conquerors are superior, so it's OK to treat them badly. He also cited major differences in world view between the Europeans and Indians.

"The Indians are celebrating nature, but the Christians are afraid of nature," Mohawk said. "We happen to live on a planet that's just warm enough and filled with all sorts of wonderful things. It was very hard to make them materialistic because of that."

He noted that the Europeans also arrived in the New World during a few centuries of "the nicest weather."

Because the Indians weren't going to give up their religion and outlook on life voluntarily, he said the Europeans coerced them into converting by force and by destroying their self-sufficiency.

Mohawk said technology can't turn around the climate change. Phenomena such as rising water causing people to evacuate low-lying areas and melting of ice in northern regions are facts.

"When something happens for the first time in recorded history, it's the beginning of a trend," he said. "When it happens again, it is a trend. What's going to happen is already happening."

But people can improve their lot during hard times by returning to cultivating crops that are not owned by big corporations. Supporting community sustainable agriculture and diversity of crops in efficient small farms would be a buffer against what "are likely to go very wrong in the next generation," Mohawk said.

"On the Indian side, there has to be a revitalization of that," he said. "We're already having it, but we need to step it up a little bit."