The Two Row Wampum and the Two-Headed Serpent

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    AN ARTICLE published today under the headline “A Haudenosaunee Observation of Occupy Wall Street” rehearses many assertions and assumptions I’ve heard elsewhere, and not just within Indian Country. While the author/Op-Ed Editor Ray Cook’s immediate focus is the Wall Street protest, the conclusions he draws in relation to this event have wide application. It’s this larger vista which establishes my present concern, and with which the following discourse will contend.

    Much of the article orbits “a very old Iroquois prophecy called The Two-Headed Serpent.” If you are not familiar with it, you may wish to read this version, derived (we are told) from Stuart Myiow and reproduced by Mr. Cook:

    One day, a boy found a two-headed serpent whose skin had beautiful gold and silver stripes down its back; it was unable to care for itself; it was dying. This was because one head wanted to go left while the other wanted to go right. The young boy brought the serpent to his village. The elders were very cautious of it but everyone loved its beautiful colors. The young ones said, “It’s so poor. How will it survive? Surely it will die with the coming of winter.” The elders said, “If you want to keep it, you will have to feed it!”

    The children fed it insects but the snake wanted more so they fed it field mice, but the snake wanted more. They fed it rabbits and small birds but it wanted more! Finally, with this serpent getting so big, the elders began hunting our brothers, the beavers and otters, to feed the snake; but it didn’t get enough. The serpent began eating our dogs, then our food—the gardens and the deer, then all our spirit guides. That was not enough. The serpent began eating people. It ate children, the elders and any who could not get away. So horrible was it that it even ate our dead. Soon, two-headed serpent began enslaving people. Along the way, it started eating the forest, and all the animals. It ate holes through mountains and poisoned our waters with its defecation.

    After Mother Earth there was nothing left for the two-headed serpent to consume, it started to eat into the Sky World. It was said that it would make its way out to our Grandmother, the night-time sun, and that from there it would attack our cousins, the stars. It was also said that when the serpent would be near the end of its destruction, the Earth would fight back to cleanse herself. At this time the serpent will be weakened by the natural powers released from our Mother’s revolt, revealing what it really is. Through its greed and insatiable appetite for destruction, one head would begin to eat the other and it would destroy itself and all it has enslaved to keep it alive, will revolt against it.

    Then young boy would come and address the Clanmothers with a vision how to destroy the Serpent. With the power of the hair of the Clanmothers he would make a bow that would thrust his arrows straight and true into the heads of the serpent. When the serpent dies the young boy will climb atop the huge monster’s belly and in slicing it open, the real people who were eaten up will be released. When the serpent is destroyed, life will again be the way the Great Spirit intended and creation will blossom with a new vibrancy that has not been seen since the coming of the serpent.”

    Both the telling and hearing of this “prophecy” deliver the credulous to various ends. I put the word prophecy within quotation marks to assert my firm and principled view that there is no necessary correlation of superstition and Onkwehonwe’neha — a Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) term referring collectively to the ways of the real, or indigenous, people. I say there is no Great Spirit, and therefore no whispering of occult matters into the ears of a privileged few: and I say it as someone who claims as much right as any other to call himself Kanien’keha:ka. Some see in the two-headed serpent a pre-figuring of the colonizing Church and State, others a representation of Canada and the United States. Others see a mythic rendering of Capitalism, in which case the two-headed serpent brings to mind a discredited Marxist/Hegelian theory of extinction by means of internal contradiction. According to this materialist and scientific (as its advocates have claimed, and still claim) superstition, one need only wait. Capitalism will grind itself into the dirt.

    A fondness for prophecy yields many pernicious errors. Whether one is a Christian or a non-Christian Indian (and how similar these begin to appear when matters of the supernatural variety arise), one problem of note is the habit of mind which deems the future an already done deal. The prophecy says, so why bother? This is the conclusion of Cook’s piece, ostensibly cloaked in the principles of the Two Row Wampum (“we should not interfere in this domestic dispute”) while sneaking in weird notions such as liberation theology.

    The case to be made against capitalism is a materialist and rational case. We are all (and I can not over-emphasize all) affected by the upheavals already underway. Putting aside whatever nonsense to which Marx may have been induced by the unfortunate nineteenth-century fetish of the Dialectic, his work makes apparent the structural logic of Capitalism which compels it single-mindedly to convert nature as a whole into capital. This idea, when I first encountered it, arrived to me with the force of a lightning bolt. It is far more terrifying than a mythical two-headed snake, precisely because it is commonplace and therefore observably well underway.

    We should all care about the vast and ruthless implications of this nature-to-capital mandate, whether Canadian, American, Haudenosaunee, or so on. We are all citizens of the world. The idea that all have a say in the workings of Global Capitalism in no way contradicts the Two Row Wampum, which itself captures the principles of non-interference and respect between sovereign nations. The point is, capitalism today crosses all borders and respects none. For this reason I particularly reject Cook’s final assertion that “we have our own concerns.” In many areas, we do. We also however have concerns we share with others. Here, the Haudenosaunee can, and should, play a useful role.

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