Some of the indigenous peoples of what are now the United States (and more broadly, North America) – generally known as “Native Americans,” or, in Canada, by what I believe to be the more accurately descriptive term, “First Nations” – have a concept that what we do, should be done in light of the “Seven Generations.”
Exactly what this means is open to some interpretation (*), but the version I like is that we should consider our actions in light of our own generation, the three that preceded us, and the three that will follow us: that is to say, how would it reflect on our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents? What is its effect on us? And how will it affect our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren?
This makes a huge amount of sense to me. We have a responsibility, and we ought to have a sense of loyalty, to both those who came before us, and those who will come after us. We inherit the world we inhabit as a gift from our forebears, our ancestors, and while we will ultimately hand it down to our descendants, in another sense, we borrow it from them for a while. We have a responsibility to pass on that legacy unimpaired; if anything, enhanced.
Our actions, the decisions we make, and the worldview we adopt to guide our actions and decision-making, demonstrate the degree to which we love, respect, and revere both those who came before us, and those who will follow us… or the degree to which we do not.
* This essay explains the view of contemporary Native elder Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005), which is the one that makes the most sense to me:
“it is clear that much can be learned from nations that respect their ancestors, themselves, and those to come. Such nations exemplify the true meaning of the Seven Generations by maintaining their integrity as peoples.
“Vine Deloria, Jr. spoke of the Seven Generations in very practical terms. In his cantankerous way, he would express extreme annoyance at the romanticism of the concept as it was popularly used. Because, as explained to him, the generations we are sworn to protect and revere are the seven we are most immediately connected to.
“Think about it for a moment. It is possible that many of us have known or will know our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Even if we aren’t fortunate enough to have been in the physical presence of those who came before us, we usually have stories, songs, and photos that have been shared so that we feel a connection. We also want to make sure our kids and grandkids are healthy, safe and aware of where they come from. So, counting our own generation—ourselves, siblings, and cousins—we are accountable to those seven generations, not some imagined futuristic peoples two hundred years down the road.
“Deloria’s articulation of the Seven Generations makes so much more sense on a human scale and does away with the destructive myth of mystical, all seeing Natives. In truth, our peoples were visionary but not in a passive, new-age way. We actively tended our families and our clan-ties by holding the lives, memories, and hopes of all Seven Generations close. Each generation was responsible to teach, learn, and protect the three generations that had come before it, its own, and the next three. In this way, we maintained our communities for millennia.
Consider what happens when we think of the Seven Generations as only flowing from each of us as individuals, as seems to be the dominant interpretation today. Then we live in a world where we owe nothing to our predecessors, where we have only a tangential connection to our present-day relations, and where we have but a vague notion of the ‘future generations.’”
That, unfortunately, is where most of us are, these days! The vision he articulates makes a great deal more sense to me, and I commend it to your attention.
Nota Bene: This idea of the Seven Generations was originally articulated by the Iroquois Confederacy, but it has since been adopted more broadly.
And while it may not be expressed in just this way, it seems rather silly to pretend that other indigenous peoples throughout the world did not and do not have a very similar concept: concern for both one’s ancestors and one’s descendants is actually a core feature of every traditional culture, including European traditional cultures.
And of course, Europeans are the indigenous peoples of Europe, now existing also in a diaspora that extends from the Americas, to South Africa, to Australia and New Zealand. Our Celtic, Germanic, and other European ancestors may not have used the precise term “Seven Generations,” but they certainly would have recognized and respected the concept!