Rethinking the American Narrative

by Chuck Hunt [1]

For some time, I have been questioning when the American narrative actually began. From reading the popular histories today, it seems we are fixated on the late 1700s, when our foundational documents and institutions begin to emerge. The period leading up to July of 1776 seems a popular date.

This question resurfaced recently when I started reflecting on the differences between Americans and Europeans. After having spent over five years in Europe, mostly in France, representing the people of the United States, I began to appreciate the differences between the outlooks of Europeans and Americans. The optimism and the “can do” orientation of many Americans I knew stood in contrast to the pragmatism, realism and at times cynicism of many Europeans.

These experiences led me to question how the American narrative diverged from European perspectives and cultures. Many Americans today are descended from Europeans who arrived here on the shores of America hundreds of years ago bringing with them European belief systems and values. How did we so quickly (in European terms) transform from “subjects” of monarchs to citizens seeking self-governance and freedom that comes with independence?

I believe the answer to this question is that the American Narrative only has a portion of its roots in Europe, as well as Africa and Asia. At the root of the American Narrative is a story of the coevolution of many different influences from throughout the world, including those who lived here when the Europeans first arrived.

American Indians were here long before the Europeans – they were the original American sources of influence on the Europeans. Whether we were cognizant of it or not, from the earliest days of Western colonization American Indians shaped our narrative. When we consider the basic structure of our government and its founding documents, the way we would come to wage war, the way we nourished ourselves, or even our quest for freedom, it’s very likely that American Indians played a fundamental, even original role in shaping what has become the American Narrative. [2]

Sadly, due to a variety of forces ranging from ignorance to arrogance to racism, we seemed to have systematically minimized these influences. There are times in our history when we even demonized the contributions of our native peoples, forcibly taking their land and driving their cultures into near-obscurity.

My self-questions suggested that it is perhaps time we go back and begin to celebrate these influences as distinctly American…perhaps we would benefit today from embracing our American Indian history. In others words, maybe it’s time we start thinking of our American Narrative as beginning to emerge thousands of years ago. We might even consider deleting the word “Indian” in the previous sentence and declare that we should “embrace our American history.”

I use the word “embrace” instead of pride in the foregoing paragraph because it’s a mixture of things in which we can take pride, but also honestly acknowledges where we have fallen short of embracing values so eloquently expressed in core documents from the revolutionary era and beyond. Notice I didn’t use the term “founding documents” because perhaps we should revisit the notion of “the founding.” Perhaps some of the initial founding concepts began to emerge well before Europeans even arrived in what would become America.

Just as we likely embraced wisdom based on thousands of years of reflection by native peoples as we designed our government, maybe it is time we do likewise in figuring out how to come back together as a nation and create a more sustainable future for each other that our native forbearers envisioned.

Recently, I had the honor of visiting the leadership of the Onondaga Nation in New York [3]. I had an epiphany as I sat in their rustic but elegant longhouse. As I listened to their leaders, Sid Hill and Oren Lyons, among others, it hit me that they were sharing with me wisdom gained from perhaps thousands of years of experience and reflection. I was there as a representative of a government that was only 238 years old and it struck me that we have much to learn from these people who have lived in this part of the world far longer than my nation and even European nations have existed. My Native American hosts spoke with a passion for peace and protecting the environment that was so thoughtful and sincere that it transcended any of the childlike politics that currently plague mainstream America.

For example, Oren Lyons introduced me to the concept of “One spoon, one dish.” At the risk of butchering his wisdom, I perceived he meant that we all have one spoon, but we share the bowl (earth) and we are to take just what we need and keep it clean. It’s a simple way to acknowledge concern for your fellow being, conservation of what nature has given us, and avoidance of greed. Oren Lyons also stressed the importance of making decisions based on the welfare of the next seven generations. Wouldn’t the current generations of young Americans like to know that Boomers were thinking like that when they started having children?

Unquestionably, some of what was shared with me would be labeled by some of our edge-driven countrymen as socialistic or environmental extremism. I would urge them to stop applying 20th Century philosophical concepts to profound, centuries-old ways of thinking. What could be more authentically American than the voice of this tribal leader based on the teachings of people living in this land well before any Europeans arrived?

This recent experience in New York leads me to start thinking about an American Narrative that embraces thousands of years of wisdom. I’m ready to proudly embrace the roots of our nation’s heritage and give credit where it is due. Most importantly, just as we did a couple of hundred years ago, we need to listen to our native, indigenous wisdom to chart a revised course for our nation to get out of this poisonous political cul-de-sac in which we find ourselves and start taking better care of each other and our environment.

For your own inspiration (and perhaps epiphany), watch this short video of Oren Lyons explaining his awakening concerning the environment and wisdom passed on to him by his uncle:

Originally posted by Chuck Hunt, 7/26/2014.


[1] We’re taking a brief departure from the FAPITCA Platform series to post this special piece on the “American Narrative,” a topic that will be incorporated from time-to-time in future posts. This proposal about rethinking our nation’s narrative is not precisely related to the National Strategic Narrative we’ve discussed in previous posts, but may have a bearing on that work as well.

[2] For a visual background on America before the mass arrival of Europeans, see Native America before European Colonization.

[3] The Onondaga Nation is a member of the Haudenosaunee (“People of the Long House”), an alliance of native nations united for hundreds of years by traditions, beliefs and cultural values. Also referred to as the Iroquois confederacy or Six Nations, the Haudenosaunee consist of the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga Nations and Tuscarora Nations.

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