Roots of Peace, Seeds of Hope
This is an odyssey for young people to explore alone or with their homeschooling parents and classroom teachers. The telling is a gift, just as all stories we tell from our truest selves are gifts we give each other—no matter who or where we are.
Looking back now, I see how Native ways have always engrossed me. I watched westerns on television when I was a little girl, and it was the Indians I was most drawn to. Years later, wherever I traveled, I studied the history of Native people who had been—and often still were—so much a part of the land upon which I stood.
Soon after moving to Maine I experienced a series of surprising connections. I felt as if I were following crumbs along a trail. Now I see now that, step by step, I was changing the direction of my life.
I longed to be close to a tradition that had at its heart a profound respect for Earth—this, though no Native American blood runs through me. Like many people hungering for deeper connections, I attended Native gatherings. I read essays and poetry written by Native authors and poets. I made a drum and moccasins and a rattle. I lit smudge, and the healing sage smoke became an essential and familiar scent. I was prayerful in increasingly simpler ways, both alone and with Native and non-Native friends. A relationship with healing herbs and flowers began to blossom and still knows no bounds.
The more acquainted I became with Native American tradition, the more I began to feel that at the root of every person's life, if s/he traced back far enough, was the true nature all humans share.
In 1991, a friend pressed a book into my hands. "Read this," he said. The book was titled The White Roots of Peace. Paul Wallace had written it over half a century before. Wallace's book spoke of Native people. In particular, it spoke of the Iroquois Six Nations, and of one version of the legend of the founding of the Iroquois confederacy.
Reading what I'd had no inkling of, I felt a shift in the axis of my "personal earth." In school, no one had taught me the genuine histories of the hundreds of Native nations that thrived for thousands of years in this land. And no teacher had mentioned how Native American and non-Native American people had been relating to each other during the more recent past. I didn't know that the Iroquois confederacy, alive in this country for over five hundred years, had inspired much of our Constitution. Where was appreciation for this—or even mention of it?
I researched elementary and secondary history texts and could find no more than token acknowledgment of Native American contributions. Too often, Native history either had been expunged or compressed into a muddle of misinformation.
How, I asked myself, could we hope to create a shining future for ourselves and for our children and for our children's children if we built this future on a foundation of ignorance and untruths?
Asking this question prompted me to put away other manuscripts I had been working on. For a while I sensed only that I was going to write a book that could change my life, and perhaps affect others' understandings of the history of this nation. I wanted to uncover past misaction. I thought that if I did this with true heart, what I wrote might do some good. I did not want to create an informational book—that, I knew. But an inspirational book, grounded in thorough research . . . ?
Every day, then, for well over a year, I set out on a journey through a maze of facts. I wanted to capture the essence of what Native and non-Native people have been to another in this country since their first encounters. I also wanted to learn what Native people had been to each other before this. For months, I sat with as many versions of the founding of the Iroquois confederacy as I could find. By the time I was truly ready to write, my single-spaced stack of Roots research pages was a foot tall and still growing.
During this time, I met an artist who shared my vision for Roots of Peace. This woman was eager to illustrate Roots, free of charge. Most times we worked independently in our Maine home towns and consulted, often—and happily, by phone. Other times we worked together in my cabin in the woods.
After many months, my friend's pen-and-ink drawings were nearly done. I planned to deliver them—and my manuscript—to the printer within a week or two.
Then one night, I sat bolt upright in bed. I knew that before giving my book to the printer I must put my feet on Iroquois land. I had invested myself fully, writing Roots. The experience would have felt incomplete without this journey. I wanted to take it, even though the land I'd be traveling to was not what it had been in former days.
I made calls. Doors opened. In no time, I was on my way to Akwesasne, the Mohawk reservation located at the tiptop of New York state. There I stayed for three days with a Native family. Stimulated by what I heard and learned and pondered at Akwesasne, I decided, on my eleven hour drive home to Maine, to rewrite my entire book.
Before I left New York, I'd spoken with a Mohawk elder who many years before had chosen the words Tree of Peace for his tree-planting society. Discovering this, I knew those words were no longer mine to use for my book's title. And the legend of the founding of the Confederacy was not my story to tell, I decided—no matter that I'd worked on it with great care and knew that what I'd written felt true.
At home, while I was rewriting, my illustrator faced personal difficulties. These blocked her from working on the new Roots. Illustrations for the first version had sprung from her heart and spirit. Now her heart and spirit were not sparking her.
So I had new text but no drawings. Easily my friend could have felt pressured. I could have felt abandoned.
Instead we crossed, time and again, back and forth, from our own circumstances—our own "home country"—to each other's. Putting ourselves in the other person's place, we did not feel ill at ease or angry—we could only understand. Realizing our worktime together was over, we wished each other well and said good-by.
I wasn't sure what to do next. Negative thoughts said "Quit. The book isn't meant to be." They said "It's not fair. You were so close!" But I kept going.
I looked at photographs of scenes of Native American life and started doodling, then sketching, though always I'd felt unable to draw even a stick. A window of opportunity was opening—I could almost feel the breeze. It didn't take long before I knew I would be the one doing Roots' illustrations. l also sensed this was what I'd been meant to do all along.
Around this time, the person who had pressed White Roots of Peace into my hands pressed another book there. This second book was called Peace Pilgrim.
Peace Pilgrim was nearly fifty when she gave up all her worldly goods—even her name—and began walking for peace. For almost thirty years, she walked back and forth across this nation. The world was impressed with her simple and uncompromising intention.
Peace Pilgrim carried no money, just some stamps and a little notebook and pen and a comb. Every day, she wore a plain blue smock—PEACE PILGRIM on the front and Walking 25,000 Miles for Peace on the back. Sneakers were her walking shoes.
She asked for no food or shelter. She tried to force her views on no one. And yet she was fed and sheltered—and listened to. Wherever she walked—across the plains, in the midst of Harlem—far and wide, she remained unafraid. and shone with a connection to God-As-She-Knew-God that most people only dream of. Never was she ill, or harmed. When she was threatened, she responded without violence.
In her late seventies, Peace Pilgrim was killed instantly in a car accident. Friends Peace Pilgrim had made during thirty years of walking, created books and pamphlets from her writings. They produced videos from film of interviews with her. Today, they continue to offer these materials, free of charge, to people around the world.
Learning about Peace Pilgrim inspired me to give away the first printing of Roots of Peace. This was my thank you to Native people in this country for the gifts they had given and continue to give.
Soon after I published Roots of Peace, I sent a copy of Roots to Ann Rush, co-founder of Friends of Peace Pilgrim. Ann responded with generous praise. I wrote back and asked Ann if I might use her words for the cover of a second printing of Roots. She kindly gave her permission. Ann's praise—and other praise I'm so grateful for—now grace Roots' third printing.
A while back, I shared the story-behind-the-story of Roots of Peace with one Maine 8th grade class. Up came their heads off their desks.
That response—and similar responses—spurred me to include this story on my website. It is a reminder to me to be and do in life all that feels most genuine, no matter what.
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