Western Friend logo

The Wisdom of Ordered Council

Laurie Roberts
On Dignity (July 2023)
Inward Light

My Quaker great-great-great-grandparents settled in Georgetown, Illinois, in the early 1800s. There they got to know two neighbors, a Quaker gentleman and his Native American wife, Tsilikomah. As my ancestors grew closer to Tsilikomah, they learned that she was a Keeper of the Old Things of the Oneida (Iroquois) people. That is, she was a Keeper of a ten-thousand-year-old oral tradition that chronicles the journeys of a group of Native Americans across the Bering Strait into North America.

The pressures of colonial expansion had made it difficult to preserve this oral history. Tsilikomah’s people had decided to convert to Christianity and turn away from their past. The oral tradition of the Old Things had diminished to the point of becoming the thinnest possible slip away from being lost altogether. Partly for these reasons, Tsilikomah eventually handed down the oral tradition of her people to my great-grandfather, Oliver Perry Underwood, who became the next Keeper. Years later, my mother, Paula Underwood, took responsibility for this tradition of Learning Stories, which are intended to be shared with “all Earth’s children with Listening Ears.” She took the task to translate the stories into English and transcribe them into books.

In the fall of 2003, I got a call from the Pendle Hill bookstore. They were looking for my mom’s book, The Walking People. We publish this at Tribe of Two Press, the family business. The folks at Pendle Hill told me they remembered a time when everyone at Pendle Hill was carrying that book around. I didn’t realize my mother had taught at Pendle Hill. She taught so many places that I was completely unable to keep up. Also, personally, I had very little contact with Quakers at that time, even though I was well aware that my Native family were also Quaker. I even knew that my great-grandparents met at Des Moines Monthly Meeting!

The phone call from Pendle Hill got me wondering whether any Quakers were meeting in Durango, Colorado, where I lived. It turned out the answer was “yes.” My three kids and I began attending Durango Meeting in the winter of 2004. Since then, we have offered many workshops to Friends, based on our family’s learnings, passed down to us through my mother. I’ll let my mom introduce you to some of the concepts infusing these workshops:

What is a learning story? Learning Stories are designed to engender questions, not to answer them – to raise issues, not to resolve them. They are an invitation to contemplation. They are designed to exercise the mind, the Spirit, the walk-around way each of us chooses.

Which path for you, my Brother, my Sister? Which path do you choose? I, who study with you, I choose this one! But which do you choose? And let us share our thoughts with one another as we each choose a path. Then we will both be wiser.

Such Tellings, such Learning Stories, enable us to learn from each other as much as we learn from the words, the images. They enable us to learn from our own wisdom, [which] sometimes hides behind assumptions – family assumptions, community assumptions. They liberate rather than define. . .

And if you lack Long Life Wisdom, you will therefore have New Eyes Wisdom, the gift of youth. Whatever your gift, apply it to the circumstance, this circumstance, every circumstance.

Let us learn together, my Brothers, my Sisters. Let us learn together.

The Walking People documents a 10,000-year epic journey of individual and community development. It also records encounters that the Walking People had with many different types of peoples along the way, encounters which fostered learning. In sharing this history in workshops, we focus on learning from experience. Through this learning, we seek to become a Continuing People.

This year, we brought an experiential offering to Intermountain Yearly Meeting, which we called, “Weaving the Needs of the Many into a Unified Vision.” This workshop focused on the historic, people-to-people encounter that is described in the Learning Story, “Many Circles, Many Paths.” We describe this story as a Learning Story for Spirit. We have other Learning Stories that we use for exploring experiences through Mind and through Body.

As you may have surmised from my mother’s words above, there is no “right answer” to a Learning Story. She often said, “No one is so wise as to only be wise.” She wrote deeply about striving not to limit the conclusions that other people might draw from a story, especially because anyone can discover a helpful new idea, as long as nobody interferes by indicating that a “correct” answer already exists.

In our family, the Learning Way has always been for us to sit together while each of us shares understandings that we have gleaned from a story. We value each individual wisdom and add it to our group understanding. In this way, we develop a deep understanding of consensus as a continuum. We also appreciate the energy that we save through cooperation, as compared with coercion. Based on these experiences, we cherish one of the earliest Learnings in the tradition that we are keeping, “Seek the wisdom of ordered council.”

However, despite the deep learnings conveyed through this tradition, I can’t put a falsely positive spin on the experiences in our history. Many times, we have faced significant deaths and dislocations when we, the Walking People, encountered unavoidable conflicts with other Peoples. At other times, many times, we relocated our home against our wishes, seeking to avoid ongoing conflict with neighbors. Our history also documents that, at one point, most of our People chose to defend themselves physically against a northern aggressor, rather than relocate again. However, a smaller part of our People, the Keepers of the Peaceful Way, chose instead to relocate to a swampy area in the south, which was uncontested, rather than join in acts of aggression. Later, when the dispute in the north was settled, the People sought out our Peaceful Brothers and Sisters in the south and were distraught to find that none of them were alive, having left behind evidence of sickness within their camp.

The songs that the People sang to each other were nearly lost to the sands of time. Many turned their backs on the Old Ways, forsaking gathered wisdom, wanting to allow a more comfortable place for the new Ocean Walking Brothers. My mother took up the work of translating these songs and stories into English and transcribing them into books, which can reach further and last longer than One Voice Singing.

As my grandfather would say at the end of every Telling, “What may we learn from this?”

Please visit our website to learn more: www.tribeoftwopress.com   ~~~

Laurie Roberts is mindful of the similarities between her family’s Native tradition and many Quaker practices. Laurie appreciates the opportunity to share this tradition, which is presented by Listening Ears. She attends Durango Friends Meeting (IMYM).


Indigenous culture learning stories

Return to "On Dignity" issue