DUDLEY COCKE: Welcome, everyone, to Imagining America's 13th National Conference. You can see why—we just saw why we care about the arts, humanities, and design. Beautiful. Thank you.
So I'm Dudley Cocke. I'm a member of the National Board of Imagining America, and there are some key words that we'll be using. We all know them. Like "public scholarship," "democratic," "civic agency." All of those good things we're going to be talking about through the course of this conference. But what I really like about this conference is it's a call to action. So it's a call to action on these values that we all share.
So we're going to really be emphasizing what we can do, what we can do. How we can fortify what we're already doing, and how we can find new things to do together. So that is the call to action that we've all come here for. Now on the note of democracy, we have two champions of democracy with us here this morning: President and Chancellor of Syracuse University, Nancy Cantor, and Chief Oren Lyons. Now, Chief Oren Lyons is the Faith Keeper. We need to keep the faith, people. He is the Faith Keeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. So let's welcome Chief Lyons and Chancellor Cantor, and we're going to get this conversation going.
DUDLEY COCKE: Now, as many of you know, Chancellor Cantor was a co-founder of Imagining America. That happened in 1999 at the White House Millennial Conference on the public, democratic purposes of higher education. So we were founded in the Big House, and here we are today.
So I want to just begin the conversation by talking to both Chief Lyons and Chancellor Cantor about the optimism that they share for the future, and particularly for this place of Syracuse and Onondaga County and the entire region.
So Chancellor Cantor's optimism for this future is well known by, I think, many of us. It's certainly known by the people here because she's been so active. And because our focus in Imagining America is arts, humanities, and design, and we have a loyalist in Chancellor Cantor, I want to ask her, maybe, to begin by just telling us some about how you feel the arts, humanities, and design are important in bringing community and people together.
NANCY CANTOR: Okay, so the first thing I'm going to do is push back, right, as you know I would. And namely, I think Oren should go first because this is the First Nation. This is . . .
DUDLEY COCKE: And I was definitely going to say that it is on his—the First People's land that we meet today, so, Chief . . .
OREN LYONS: Well, thank you, Nancy. Some years back, when we were having a discussion with the powers-that-be in New York State on education, they asked us—and we had a delegation from the Six Nations at that time. We were in Albany, quite a few years back. I'd say maybe 20 years or so, maybe more. At any rate, they asked us about our ideas about education. And we said, "Well, we think that you're emphasizing—there's probably better things to emphasize than you do, and then get to the three R's."
And they said, "Well, what is that?" We said, "art." If we had our druthers, the first thing would be art, and the second thing would be sports, and that would be the development of the young people. Then we get to reading and writing and arithmetic. And we felt, and we know, that if you ask any kindergartner, any group of kids that age, "Who is an artist?" And everyone will raise their hand. Ask them the same question ten years later . . . [mimes shyly raising his hand.] And now what happened? What happened to them? And that's the three Rs took over, and didn't let them develop their broader sense of what art is. You know, it's intrinsic. It's part of life. It's community.
And we always had a very difficult discussion when it came to art because it categorizes. And you're hanging it on the wall or you put it over here. And with the native people, anywhere you go, you see the design in the art they put in their quilting board, or the clothes they make, or everything they do has got this intrinsic value, design. It's beyond utility, always beyond utility. Everything. Making a spoon. Amazing spoons made out of very, very beautiful lines. And I'll say one more thing. I was in New York City. I worked in New York City for over ten years, in advertising and so forth, so I'm well acquainted with the American psyche . . . [audience laughter] . . . in many ways.
And they were having a show at the Museum of Modern Art, and I was very anxious to see it. And it was modern art juxtaposed with indigenous art. And it was astonishing how much was taken from the indigenous art to be what you call modern art. Modigliani and then look at the carvings of African art: it was a direct steal. So it was astonishing. When I went through it, I couldn't believe it because a lot of it was direct. It just transferred over here. But it was the essence, the abstraction, the ability of the indigenous people to abstract and simplify and translate into beauty.
And I waited at the other end just to watch people coming out, and they were stunned. In their faces, I could see they were stunned because they had just been educated. And it was an amazing—it was an amazing show. And it's available. You can—I think you can go back and find that—find those books. But it told me something that I didn't realize until . . . whoever it was that curated that show, really understood what they were doing. So what it translated to was that indigenous people [have] been here a long time, and they have abstracted, you know. That's a favorite design you see of the Indian. [Lyons makes up-and-down peaks with his index finger.] It's this, right? That's an abstract for a mountain. It seems to—it's a fundamental abstract. They're masters at it, all that design, all abstract ideas. So I just wanted to put that out there for a beginning.
DUDLEY COCKE: So, Chancellor Cantor.
NANCY CANTOR: I shouldn't have let him go first. [audience laughter] We always let him go first because he is the first. So, you asked about optimism in this region.
DUDLEY COCKE: Yes.
NANCY CANTOR: That's why I wanted Oren to go first. Because this is a region of extraordinary power and history and resilience. And really woven in that, so deeply, is exactly what Chief Lyons just said. It is that spiritual, environmental, artistic sense of values, of democratic purposes, of ways of coming together as a people. And if this region is going to fulfill itself going forward, it has to return to those roots in lots of different ways, and allow the new roots of diversity to really take hold in the region. You know, everything from economic development based within the neighborhoods and the senses of what it means to regenerate, all the way to education as Oren said. And, you know, I just have a feeling that the collaborative spirit, the sort of democracy-making, the kind of action spirit that has allowed the Six Nations to really survive against—and thrive—against incredible odds over the centuries, is what will allow it [to] go forward here. Don't you think?
OREN LYONS: I think we've been fortunate, Haudenosaunee, in our background, in our teachers and our leaders. There were three major periods that we acknowledge. One is, the first is, how we live. And it could be translated to religion, our way of life, ceremonies and so forth. We don't call it religion. We call it the way of life. And then the second major event was the Peacemaker, and bringing peace to warring nations, and fierce . . . You know, I looked at Kosovo and I watched how in the Middle East right now, how fierce it can get. And recently, the picture of a soldier eating the guts from a fallen enemy. That's going beyond, beyond, and I would urge all of you to understand that when you reach that point, it's almost no return. You'd better behave, and you'd better get your leaders to stop this discussion about war. It's peace. It's peace. That's what we were given in that second coming of the Peacemaker. And he said a lot of things. One of the things he said was, "Never take hope from the people." That was an instruction to the leaders. "Never take hope from the people." So we're ingrained with that, and the optimism that you talk about is a principle. It's not just optimism. It's a principle. It's a principle of peace.
So basing our confederacy on three elements—peace, equity, and the power of the good minds to be united—that has sustained us over all these times. And the process of leaders. And I would take this moment to illustrate that the Peacemaker installed the women in a very powerful position in our process of raising leaders. The Clan Mother has great responsibility. She chooses all the leaders. That's her choice. Has to be ratified by consensus, by the clan, by the Council of Chiefs, and finally by the Six Nations. But it is her choice. And I think what was the genius was that she chose a leader on the basis of what women look at: compassion and responsibility.
It's a different leader than a general. When you put a general in the leadership, then you're going to get a general. And he knows how, you know, he knows what he knows. But if you put a leader who thinks about people and the compassion for life and the responsibility that the Peacemaker gave to all of us, which is to protect all life. That's what he said to the leaders: "Place in your hands now the protection of all life." A very broad statement. That's including grasshoppers and mice and birds and trees and grass. All life. That was our responsibility.
We do our best, and I think the process of ceremonies is how we've installed that, so that the people are instructed. And what many Western minds think of as quaint, you know, Indians dancing with feathers. There's a principle behind that. And that's to understand nature. Nature's the box. Nature's always the box. It will never . . . when the Peacemaker planted the Tree of Peace, it was a great white pine, and it had four white roots of truth in four directions. And he said to the leaders and to the people, "Never challenge this tree representing the spiritual laws of nature, and never challenge those laws because you will not prevail." And that is precisely what we're doing right now around the world. We're challenging every law of nature. I'm telling you, you will not prevail. And since we're part of nature . . . sayonara.
We do it ourselves. And so, what's in our hands right now is our own future. That's why it's important to have leaders like Nancy, who will stand for principle, who understands the importance of a spiritual side, the art side, and a spirit of responsibility. Yeah, you got to be optimistic. I say right now, I'm in it. This is a big fight, folks. And I'm in there. I'm with you. I'm for your kids. And let's get it on.
DUDLEY COCKE: One of the things, Chancellor Cantor, that's so fitting for our conference here, A Call to Action, is that you have consistently declared . . . you've stood on principle, but you've also acted on those principles. And is there something you could share with us . . . an example of how you've tried to act on, say, the principle that you hold so clearly of connecting the resources of the university with the resources of the community, and just that role of working together, and connecting and uplifting both community and university in the process?
NANCY CANTOR: So I think, already the conversation has gotten to the point where I would want it to be, which is that it's actually about the collective. It's about community. It's not about universities and . . . You know, despite the arts and cultural disciplines being about as collective as we get, we're not—universities are not used to being a community of experts. And I think the real principle that we've certainly discussed ever since we first knew each other is really—comes out of this notion of a collectivity, of a community of experts, not—I think Harry Boyte's sitting here somewhere. At least I know he's in town. And he has that wonderful phrase that you have to transition from the cult of the expert to, in our words, a community of experts. And experts being plural is the key thing. So I think the real principle that we've tried to call into action in the work in Syracuse has been about, how do you collect around the table enough difference that creativity really gets produced and you get something done? And, how do we become humble in that process? Because we're so trained to be so—such experts on everything. I mean, right? [audience laughter] I mean, it's almost like that's what education has become, right? It's become, how do you, like, strain out all the humility, all the sense of doubt, all the complexity, all the not knowing something.
And at the end of the day, you hand someone a PhD and you give them tenure because they know something. [audience laughter] You know, I just so love being with Oren because [turning to address Lyons] you know, you would just never let anyone get away with that. [audience laughter] You know, maybe it comes from you and Jim Brown on the Lacrosse field. I mean . . .
OREN LYONS: Well, you know.
NANCY CANTOR: I just learned today that he boxed at Syracuse. I thought I knew everything about you. I couldn't believe this man of total peace would box! [audience laughter] I just can't compute this.
OREN LYONS: Well, I had to learn how to duck early in my life.
NANCY CANTOR: But I do think that . . .
OREN LYONS: Precisely.
NANCY CANTOR: You know, I could cite good social psychology for you, but what it really is, is that creativity comes out of that kind of a mixing and clash and humility that says you don't know something.
OREN LYONS: Well, you said the magic word, which is "community." Community is a huge community. Everything is a community and once you understand that, once you start to work with that, then you find out that you are connected, you know, you are connected with the community. It's basic. Our people know about medicine, they know about the woods, they know everything. And so when you're looking for medicine, how do you find it? Because it is something that just doesn't grow everywhere, so you've got to find it.
So, sometimes you look for a tree because you know next to the tree a certain bush grows, and next to that bush a certain plant grows, and next to that plant is the medicine. That's a community all the way down. So what happens, you know, if you're the owner of a lumber company and you clear-cut a section of land, you've destroyed a community. You may plant a tree back again, but you've destroyed the community. You've destroyed a broad section of life that supports one another. And we're all involved in that. We're part of that community, and Nancy's perfectly correct. We have to understand. We learned that.
I think the genius, again, of our system was our relationship to the earth. And I'm a wolf, that's my family. And so I'm concerned about the wolves because that's my family. And when the Peacemaker gave us our clans at that time, and then if we go to the Navajos or the Hopis, and they got a hundred clans. We got eight. They got a hundred. They have a Wind clan. They have a Cloud clan. They have all this relationship with the earth, and they're tied directly to it. Therefore, they're responsible. Therefore, they're careful. Therefore, the earth is protected.
Western society doesn't have that. They don't, you don't have that relationship, and you don't understand it, therefore. And therefore, you challenge it all the time. You challenge it. You remember what the Peacemaker said: "You can't win." So everything needs protection, because everything works together. It evolves, it changes, and everything. So this is human beings' time right now, and how long we're going to be here is dependent on your activity. Dependent on your principles. Dependent on whether you can understand community and move back into that section where everybody works together and . . . the Commons we call it.
When the Peacemaker gave us our instruction and the chiefs and the leaders sat there and said, "How shall we present this to the people so they understand?" And they come up with a concept called, "One dish, One spoon." One dish, One spoon. That means everybody shares equally, and everybody's taken care of. And then there's an additional statement, and that is, "Nobody owns the woods, but everybody is responsible." One dish, One spoon. Nobody owns the woods, but everybody's responsible. You're going to survive on those principles, as a species.
So, you know, John Mohawk, a great thinker, he said one time, just an offhand remark. He said, "Well, as far as I can see, human beings are still a biological experiment." And there you are. And there you are. There's nothing superior about you except your knowledge of death. You have a foreknowledge of death. Animals don't. They know when it's coming. Elephant goes, knows where he's going. Dog will get ready, find his place. They know when it's coming. But you know when you're this small it's coming. And with that knowledge, it's how you present your life and carry on, and protect the future. Seven generations. It's not an empty term; seven generations means responsibility to the future. Just good advice.
So, I think, the Commons that you talked about and Nancy promoted here, which we want to do for Central New York. We want this community to work better. We can do better. You got good leaders, women leaders, finding clan mothers coming up here. So the leaders have now presented themselves in Central New York, and there's an option, an opportunity now to build collectively into a very powerful, green, sustainable life. It's right here, and all that leadership really took flower during Nancy's tenure here. Of course, we're all going to be very, very sad to see her leave, but I'll tell you what: Rutgers, they're gaining big time.
And I can tell what, too, is things are going to change down there. So that's good. That's good. And for us, all right, we got a good start, she give us a good push, and now we have to really think about that. We have to work together. It's not about me. It's about us now: we, not me.
DUDLEY COCKE: Thanks. So Chancellor Cantor, since you are only leaving here, and not leaving the community of this work at all. But do you—are there a couple of particular hopes, or a hope for a particular role that you see Imagining America growing into, or you would like to help it grow into?
NANCY CANTOR: Well, I think one of the things that happened when Julie Ellison and others really came together and formed Imagining America, was really to put front-and-center the notion that arts making, in the broadest sense of that, and democracy really go hand in hand. And that in the middle there, the connective tissue that Oren's talking about, is really this notion of interdependence that is so . . . You know, fundamentally, the cultural disciplines are about articulating that interdependence. It's a communicative act, but it's a reciprocal act. And that's just totally missing in—not totally missing, actually, because you go out to the longhouse, it's not missing. But it's certainly missing in the rhetoric in Washington, for example. I mean, that's a dumb thing to say. It's an obvious thing to say. There is no rhetoric in Washington.
But I think it's really—I guess the reason I come to that is it's just so striking right now how important it is to return, for Imagining America to return in my view. Not that it strayed from that, but to really redouble the efforts to say that the arts and humanities and design disciplines, again, broadly defined, can put this country-slash-world back on the right path to democratic process, to that enshrining of that interdependence, to the kind of reciprocal conversation that is evoked by the best of artistic impulses. And I don't know how we do that, but I think we do it both by practicing those disciplines in that way, in a connective way. And by reminding people of how far we have strayed from that.
And it's not that other disciplines can't be . . . I mean, you can have civic science, as we know. But we don't, usually. Whereas, you bring those kindergartners—before we smash it out of them, that they're artists—you bring them immediately together and the interdependence in the classroom, the conflict, that energy, and the conversation happens without instruction. So how is it that we manage over time to take that away?
And I guess, just to put a fine point on that, I love that Imagining America committed itself early on—for example, in the Tenure Team Initiative—to really thinking about the processes that serve to undermine the kind of engaged citizenship through the arts that we can be, and to really . . . Or to say more positively, how do we deliberately reward that? I would love to see a conversation in Imagining America that really says, "What is it about education that takes that away from us?" How do we—and not just university education, but the entire pathway, if you will.
OREN LYONS: That's a fundamental point that I think that, you know, by example. The best teacher's example. And so leaders lead by example. Not by speeches or not by what they do—not by what they say, as you know. As anybody rearing children understands, the children watch what you do. They don't much listen to what you say, but they watch what you do. And they're very good at that. They never miss anything, you know? And going back to an early age, you can remember how quickly we see something.
And so, by example, then, is how you teach. So if you want somebody to clean the streets or something, you bend down and you start picking up paper and, first thing you know, somebody's helping you, and the next thing you've got ten people there, and the next thing the street's all clean. But what happened? What did it take? It takes somebody to bend over and pick up that piece of paper to start, by example, so Central New York's got a very great opportunity.
Nancy did such a great thing for the Haudenosaunee when she made the Haudenosaunee Promise. She showed an institution what could happen if they open their doors to people and made available education, tuition. That's no small deal anywhere in this country. And tuition and room and board to the Haudenosaunee people. I remember when she said . . . she came to the longhouse, you know, that was her first thing she says. She said, "Well, you got two propositions here. One is I want to introduce you to my senior vice president, Mr. Smith, and he's going to be your liaison to the Onondaga Nation." We said, "That's good." And then she said, "And then we're going to offer tuition and room and board to all Onondagas who can pass the exam." And there was silence in the longhouse. And one of the chiefs leaned over and said, "Did I just hear what she said?" [audience laughter] And somebody said, "Ask her again." And so I said, "Would you repeat what you just said?" And she did, and we were stunned. We were stunned by that. But look what has occurred. Look what's occurred now. We got 60—at least 60 there right now. It's going to change the face of the Haudenosaunee. And can you imagine if that was offered to all the people, everywhere?
You know, when you come into this world and you deal with these large problems. People asked me, "Well, what is it that vexes you? What is your problem?" I said, "Well, how do you instruct seven billion people as to their relationship to the earth?" Seven billion. In 1950, there was 2.5 billion. Sixty-three years, we have over double that population. Seven billion people. Water, food, place to live. And it's soon to be eight and soon to be nine, and we're running out of water right now. So the question, and the only answer to that is, "Work together in community." That is the only answer. And so listening to the discussions that are going on right now . . . I just returned from the United Nations in Geneva last week. And I talked to the Ambassador of Human Rights for the Netherlands, and I said, "What do you see?" He said, "I'm not encouraged." He said, "I'm not encouraged by the conduct of states. They're just not acting on behalf of the Commons, of the people, us, not acting on behalf of us."
And so the people have to speak up. People are always the power. They're always the authority. If you unite yourself in a common cause, this is what's going to happen. So I think Central New York, under the leadership of Nancy, she lit the fire, and here it is. And I've a friend, struck up a strong relationship, and she's working with small companies, and what she found out was that if you share a profit with your workers, they work harder. If they're—it's a simple thing: share. I mean, if there's a fundamental statement by our system, it's "share." We've got to teach the people how to share again.
And there is a compensation for that that you're not going to get any other way. There's a feeling of goodwill that comes from doing what you should be doing. And that's it. That's your reward. That's your reward, doing something good. So I think we've got this opportunity in Central New York. Mayor Miner, a lady, wonderful lady. And we have Joanie Mahoney, another wonderful lady. One of the greatest right here from the university, and just OCC [Onondaga Community College], another lady. We're lucky here.
[audience laughter] So taking advantage of that, and you know, mothers worry about the future. They worry about the children. They worry about the common things. I think that's our opportunity here, so we're going to pick up where you're moving on. We're going to keep track of you. I know something's going to happen down there, I know that.
[audience laughter] So the opportunity is here, and it's community. It is community, and that's what we are. We're a human species. We're not Black. We're not White. We're not Red. We're a species. We can change blood. Can't get any closer than that. Can't get any closer than that. So here we are. We have to look at it that way. And we have to look to the Commons and the common good and the future. And by example, by example, you move everything forward.
DUDLEY COCKE: Well, thank you, for both of your examples, and for sitting with us here this morning, for really a conversation to launch us on these three days. And as you can see by Chancellor Cantor's scarf, it's Homecoming Weekend at Syracuse University. And she has to do many things today, I'm sure. She needs to scoot. But as many of you know, I'm from the Central Appalachian coalfields and we often sing, "Will the Circle be Unbroken?" And these two people, who we've just been, who have been talking with each other and with us, have devoted their life to that hope that someday the circle will be unbroken. So we very much thank you.