THE OARLOCK – How One Simple Decision Can Affect Generations To Come

7th December 2012

By Woody Morrison

Guest Writer for Wake Up World

WHEN THE SPANIARDS CAME INTO HAIDA COUNTRY in the 1500s, we first saw the use of thole pins, the fore-runners to oarlocks. We Haidas immediately saw the advantage of using the oarlocks—canoes could be propelled quickly with fewer people. However we did not adopt their usage until about 300 years later. The unwillingness to utilize this new technology was not out of ignorance or the fear of change but because we recognized that there are always unintended consequences to using any new technology. We saw that it would fundamentally change Haida worldview and societal structure.

There are two types of societies—command structured and common-mind structured. The common-mind society is based upon cultural imperatives gleaned from thousands of years of experience. Much like flocks of birds and schools of fish that can change direction instantaneously without any orders, indigenous peoples learn to think alike, to focus all their activities toward a sustainable society.

For thousands of years we Haida had gone to sea in cedar-log, ocean-going canoes that were sixty to ninety feet in length. These canoes required as many as 24 to 30 paddlers. The seating was partly by order-of-inheritance rather than personal preference. When paddling, everyone faced forward except the chief’s nephew who sat back-to-back with his uncle. His responsibility was to apprise his uncle of anything coming from behind—an unusually large wave, or human danger—and to describe special features of the land just passed. His uncle had to be able to trust the judgment and word of his nephew implicitly, for, eventually, that nephew would succeed his uncle as chief.

Since everyone could see where they were going, no one needed to give orders. For example, when the canoe traveled in very large seas and an overly large wave came from one side, without orders the paddlers all moved to that side of the canoe to deal with the problem. Thus, the paddlers moved with one mind rather than under someone’s command. They utilized the collective wisdom rather than the judgment of just one person.

Since rowing with oars requires that people face backward, we Haida saw that someone would have to take command, giving orders about when to stroke, how to turn and so on. People would not be engaged in the same way with the sea since they would be looking at what was behind them instead of what was before them.

Also, a hierarchy would be created that would affect the sense of unity among the people. The society would change and become command-structured with the majority of members dependent upon the orders of a select few. And, because the nephew of the chief would not be needed to warn of dangers, the responsibility of protecting the lives of the society would be held by the person giving orders, thus depriving the nephew of that crucial experience.

The Haida term for “chief” literally means “the big boss who cannot give orders.” People followed that person’s lead because of his proven leadership and his caring for his people as a people. Each paddler was a relative of the “uncle” and was responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the canoe. It was a family enterprise. A Haida maxim says, “Like the Forest, the roots of our people are so intertwined that the greatest troubles cannot overcome us.”

We Haida resisted using the oarlock until the early 1900s when, due to a population crash brought about by disease and other factors, we no longer took our great canoes to sea. We switched to using smaller canoes with oars held in place by oarlocks. In many cases a canoe that normally required three or four paddlers could be propelled by a single person. Now an individual could do things himself. He no longer needed the cooperation of other persons. Family relationships began to fade. No longer were we bound together by a common soul (all related by creation) or by cultural imperatives.

“Individual liberty” and self-reliance are the greatest threats to the survival of all common-mind societies because the focus shifts from sustainable societies to obtainable resources. The economic system of the command-structured society is based upon “relative scarcity.” When something becomes scarce, the price is simply raised. Therefore, conservation is not possible. Someone will buy the last drop of drinkable water, will buy the last salmon, will buy the last tuna. In this system money equals power.

In the common-mind society, there are ceremonies for “giving back,” for not taking what is scarce. Wealth equals the responsibility to share. So, the task faced by Haidas is to figure out how to make technology serve society, rather than serve the economic advantages offered by individual liberty. One might say it is the legacy of the oarlock.

About the Author

Woody Morrison serves on the board of directors of Wisdom of the Elders, Inc., a 501 (c) (3) corporation that records and preserves indigenous oral traditions and cultural arts in order to regenerate the greatness of culture among native peoples.

This article was originally published in Sacred Fire magazine

Sacred Fire magazine is an initiative of the Sacred Fire Foundation which seeks to help all people re-discover and celebrate the sacred, interconnected nature of life, a perspective held by indigenous peoples and spiritual traditions everywhere which is the source of all personal, cultural and environmental well-being.

Key initiatives include:  

Sacred Fire magazine, which offers a fresh outlook on modern culture by showing the relevance of ancient ways to today’s world

Ancient Wisdom Rising, a series of gatherings with elders and wisdom keepers that offer hope, healing and renewed relationship with our sacred world

Sacred Fire Press, a book imprint that preserves and presents spiritual teachings from ancient and original sources

Wisdom Fellowships, bi-annual awards to tradition holders who are keeping the sacred fires of their people burning.


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