Read Living by the Word Online

Authors: Alice Walker

Living by the Word (17 page)

Some of us have become used to thinking that woman is the nigger of the world, that a person of color is the nigger of the world, that a poor person is the nigger of the world. But, in truth, Earth itself has become the nigger of the world. It is perceived, ironically, as other, alien, evil, and threatening by those who are finding they cannot draw a healthful breath without its cooperation. While the Earth is poisoned, everything it supports is poisoned. While the Earth is enslaved, none of us is free. While the Earth is “a nigger,” it has no choice but to think of us all as Wasichus. While it is “treated like dirt,” so are we.

In this time, when human life—because of human greed, avarice, ignorance, and fear—hangs by a thread, it is of disarmament that every thoughtful person thinks; for regardless of whether we all agree that we deserve to live, or not, as a species, most of us have the desire. But disarmament must also occur in the heart and in the spirit. We must absolutely reject the way of the Wasichu that we are so disastrously traveling, the way that respects most (above nature, obviously above life itself, above even the spirit of the Universe) the “metal that makes men crazy.” The United States, the country, has no doubt damned its soul because of how it has treated others, and if it is true that we reap what we sow, as a country we have only to recognize the poison inside us as the poison we forced others to drink. But the land is innocent. It is still Turtle Island, and more connected to the rest of the Universe than to the United States government. It is beginning to throw up the poisons it has been forced to drink, and we must help it by letting go of our own; for until it is healthy and well, we cannot be.

Our primary connection is to the Earth, our mother and father; regardless of who “owns” pieces and parts, we, as sister and brother beings to the “four-leggeds (and the fishes) and the wings of the air,” share the whole. No one should be permitted to buy a part of our Earth to dump poisons in, just as we would not sell one of our legs to be used as a trash can.

Many of us are afraid to abandon the way of the Wasichu because we have become addicted to his way of death. The Wasichu has promised us so many good things, and has actually delivered several. But “progress,” once claimed by the present chief of the Wasichus to be their “most important product,” has meant hunger, misery, enslavement, unemployment, and worse to millions of people on the globe. The many time-saving devices we have become addicted to, because of our “progress,” have freed us to watch endless reruns of commercials, sitcoms, and murders.

Our thoughts must be on how to restore to the Earth its dignity as a living being; how to stop raping and plundering it as a matter of course. We must begin to develop the consciousness that everything has equal rights because existence itself is equal. In other words, we are all here: trees, people, snakes, alike. We must realize that even tiny insects in the South American jungle know how to make plastic, for instance; they have simply chosen not to cover the Earth with it. The Wasichu’s uniqueness is not his ability to “think” and “invent”—from the evidence, almost everything does this in some fashion or other—it is his profound unnaturalness. His lack of harmony with other peoples and places, and with the very environment to which he owes his life.

In James Mooney’s
Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees,
collected between 1887 and 1890, he relates many interesting practices of the original inhabitants of this land, among them the custom of asking pardon of slain or offended animals. And in writing about the needless murder of the snake who inhabited our garden—the snake’s and mine— I ask its pardon and, in the telling of its death, hope to save the lives of many of its kin.

The missionary Washburn [says Mooney] tells how among the Cherokees of Arkansas, he was once riding along, accompanied by an Indian on foot, when they discovered a poisonous snake coiled beside the path. “I observed Blanket turned aside to avoid the serpent, but made no sign of attack, and I requested the interpreter to get down and kill it. He did so, and I then inquired of Blanket why he did not kill the serpent. He answered, ‘I never kill snakes and so snakes never kill me.’ ”

The trader Henry [Mooney observes elsewhere] tells of similar behavior among the Objibwa of Lake Superior in 1764. While gathering wood he was startled by a sudden rattle…“I no sooner saw the snake, than I hastened to the canoe, in order to procure my gun; but, the Indians observing what I was doing, inquired the occasion, and being informed, begged me to desist. At the same time, they followed me to the spot, with their pipes and tobacco pouches in their hands. On returning, I found the snake still coiled.

“The Indians, on their part, surrounded it, all addressing it by turns, and calling it their
but yet keeping at some distance. During this part of the ceremony, they filled their pipes; and now each blew the smoke toward the snake, who, as it appeared to me, really received it with pleasure. In a word, after remaining coiled, and receiving incense, for the space of half an hour, it stretched itself along the ground, in visible good humor. Its length was between four and five feet. Having remained outstretched for some time, at last it moved slowly away, the Indians following it, and still addressing it by the title of grandfather, beseeching it to take care of their families during their absence, and to be pleased to open the heart of Sir William Johnson (the British Indian Agent, whom they were about to visit) so that he might
show them charity,
and fill their canoe with rum. One of the chiefs added a petition, that the snake would take no notice of the insult which had been offered by the Englishman, who would even have put him to death, but for the interference of the Indians, to whom it was hoped he would impute no part of the offense. They further requested, that he would remain, and inhabit their country, and not return among the English…”

What makes this remarkable tale more so is that the “bite” of the Englishman’s rum was to afflict the Indians far more severely than the bite of any tremendous number of poisonous snakes.

That the Indians were often sexist, prone to war, humanly flawed, I do not dispute. It is their light step upon the Earth that I admire and would have us emulate. The new way to exist on the Earth may well be the ancient way of the steadfast lovers of this particular land. No one has better appreciated Earth than the Native American. Whereas to the Wasichus only the white male attains full human status, everything to the Indian was a relative. Everything was a human being.

As I finish writing this, I notice a large spider sleeping underneath my desk. It does not look like me. It is a different size. But that it loves life as I do, I have no doubt. It is something to think about as I study its many strange but oddly beautiful dozen or so legs, its glowing coral-and-amber coloring, its thick web, whose intricate pattern I would never be able to duplicate. Imagine building your house from your own spit!

In its modesty, its fine artistry and self-respecting competency, is it not like some gay, independent person many of us have known? Perhaps a rule for permissible murder should be that beyond feeding and clothing and sheltering ourselves, even abundantly, we should be allowed to destroy only what we ourselves can re-create. We cannot re-create this world. We cannot re-create “wilderness.” We cannot even, truly, re-create ourselves. Only our behavior can we re-create, or create anew.

Hear me, four quarters of the world—a relative I am! Give me the strength to walk the soft earth, a relative to all that is! Give me the eyes to see and the strength to understand, that I may be like you…

Great Spirit, Great Spirit, my Grandfather, all over the earth the faces of living things are all alike. With tenderness have these come up out of the ground. Look upon these faces of children without number and with children in their arms, that they may face the winds and walk the good road to the day of quiet.



The Onondagas are the “Keepers of the Fire” of the Six Nation Confederacy in New York state. The Confederacy (originally composed of five nations) is perhaps the oldest democratic union of nations in the Western world, dating back roughly to the time of the Magna Carta. It is governed under an ancient set of principles known as the “Gayaneshakgowa,” or Great Law of Peace, which in written form is the constitution of the Six Nation Confederacy.

This remarkable document contains what well may have been the first detailed pronouncements on democratic popular elections, the consent of the governed, the need to monitor and approve the behavior of governmental leaders, the importance of public opinion, the rights of women, guarantees of free speech and religion, and the equitable distribution of wealth.

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson acknowledged in the mid-18th century that their own ideas for a democratic confederacy were based largely on what they had learned from the Six Nations. A century later Friedrich Engels paid a similar tribute to the Great Law of Peace while making his contribution to the theory of Marxism.

Jon Stewart,
Pacific News Service

* Vancouver: Press Gang, 1981.

** Wasichu was a term used by the Oglala Sioux to designate the white man, but it had no reference to the color of his skin. It means: He who takes the fat. It is possible to be white and not a Wasichu or to be a Wasichu and not white. In the United States, historically speaking, Wasichus of color have usually been in the employ of the military, which is the essence of Wasichu. By John G. Neihardt (New York: William Morrow, 1932)

***By JohnG.Neihardt (New York: William Morrow, 1932.)

****Though much of what we know of our Indian ancestors concerns the male, it is good to remember who produced him; that women in some tribes were shamans, could vote, and among the Onondaga still elect the men who lead the tribe. And, inasmuch as “women’s work” has always involved cleaning up after the young, as well as teaching them principles by which to live, we have our Indian female parent to thank for her care, of Turtle Island, as well as the better documented male who took her instructions so utterly to heart.


Under questioning by commission members, Mr. Goode said he thought he managed the crisis well with the information he had at the time. But he said that he realized in retrospect that his subordinates had not given him enough data to make proper decisions, such as dropping a bomb on the MOVE house.
He was first asked for permission, which he granted, to use the device 17 minutes before it was dropped from a helicopter…
Mr. Goode also said that Mr. Sambor had violated his order not to involve police officers in the assault who might hold what the Mayor called a “grudge” from participating in a confrontation with the radical group at another MOVE house in 1978.
Several officers involved in that siege participated in the assault this year.
[My italics.]

Oct. 16, 1985

One of two people known to have survived an inferno that killed 11 people said that police gunfire drove fleeing members of the radical group MOVE back into their blazing house in the May 13 confrontation with police…

Oct. 31, 1985

[Detective] Stephenson’s log also gives a gruesome glimpse of just what kind of deaths MOVE was forced to endure. Excerpts of entries concerning the search for bodies revealed, “15:35—The body of a female was recovered 10 feet from rear door, 8 feet from west wall. On her foot, left, was a black Chinese slipper and was lying on her right side facing the rear wall. No other clothing…head and chest appeared to be crushed, can’t recall hair—all photographed.

“16:05—The body of a child was recovered under the female. Same area. No description. Only bones.

“17:50—Left forearm with clenched fist recovered at door…

“19:45—Adult male from waist down recovered, no descriptions. Some skin…

“11:30—The body of one Negro/male was lifted from the front area with his heart outside the chest area by crane…no arms, legs missing from thighs down. No head…”

Nov. 14, 1985

According to the report [The Commission on the MOVE

Goode paused only
seconds before approving the dropping of the explosives.
[My italics.]

Negotiation with MOVE was never seriously considered…

A long gun battle ensued. The commission says the 10,000 rounds of ammunition fired by police was “excessive and unreasonable,” especially given the presence of children in the residence.

In addition, the report notes that work crews found only two pistols, a shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle in the rubble of the MOVE compound…

Once the fire began, it could have been quickly put out if the Fire Department immediately had used two high pressure Squrt
water guns it had trained on the house. However…Sambor and Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond hastily made the “unconscionable” decision to let the fire burn, hoping to force the MOVE members to flee…

At least two adults and four children attempted to escape after the house caught fire, but police gunfire prevented them from fleeing.

Mar. 2, 1986

Nobody was supposed to survive.

—Ramona Africa,

January 7, 1986

I was in Paris in mid-May of 1985 when I heard the news about MOVE. My traveling companion read aloud the item in the newspaper that described the assault on a house on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia occupied by a group of “radical, black, back-to-nature” revolutionaries that local authorities had been “battling” for over a decade. As he read the article detailing the attack that led, eventually, to the actual bombing of the house (with military bombing material supplied to local police by the FBI) and the deaths of at least eleven people, many of them women, five of them children, our mutual feeling was of horror, followed immediately by anger and grief. Grief: that feeling of unassuageable sadness and rage that makes the heart feel naked to the elements, clawed by talons of ice. For, even knowing nothing of MOVE (short for Movement, which a revolution assumes) and little of the “City of Brotherly Love,” Philadelphia, we recognized the heartlessness of the crime, and realized that for the local authorities to go after eleven people, five of them children, with the kind of viciousness and force usually reserved for war, what they were trying to kill had to be more than the human beings involved; it had to be a spirit, an idea.

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