"Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way
by robert wolff
Review by Thom Hartmann
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If you want to understand what transformed the Enlightenment into
the Declaration of Independence, and that into the United States of America
- and where we've done well and erred from there - you must first read
robert wolff (he prefers the lowercase usage).
Although wolff's book "Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of
Knowing" doesn't once mention the Enlightenment, Jefferson, or even the
USA, it's nonetheless one of the most essential books to read for anybody
who wants to understand the genesis of this nation and the original understandings
of our Founders. This is because fifty years ago in the deepest forests
and jungles of Malaysia, wolff - a psychologist who now, well into his
80s, is one of our wisest elders - made the same discovery that had fueled
Rousseau's 1754 masterpiece "Discourse On Inequality" which, along with
Rousseau's later book, "The Social Contract," was a primary influence
of Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans.
Rousseau opened "The Social Contract" (and jolted Enlightenment thinkers,
including - in a big way - Jefferson) with this sentence: "Man is born
free, but everywhere is in chains."
Similarly, in "Original Wisdom" wolff writes about how the Malaysian
slang word for the Sng'oi people of the Malaysian jungles was "Sakai," a
word that once meant "slave," and how when he first met the Sng'oi, he
naively referred to them as Sakai:
After I grew to know the Sng'oi, the People, and when I knew
they accepted me, I apologized for having spoken of them as slaves before
I knew what they called themselves.
We were sitting around the embers of a little fire in the early
evening. There was a flickering oil lamp shedding some light on the
porch of one of the little shelters. In this settlement there were
four houses; no more than fifteen people lived here. After the sun
went down, we sat around, talking now and then, mostly just being
I had learned a little of their language, I tried to understand
some of what they were saying, but I never became really fluent.
My apology was a simple phrase. I said I hoped they did not mind
that I had called them Sakai. I was not sure whether I had said it
right, and for a long time there was no reaction at all.
I imagined that I saw smiles on a few faces, but it was dark. I
could not be sure. Long silences were not unusual among the People.
Often someone would say something that would be followed by silence
until, finally, one person would answer. This one person obviously
spoke for the group, but I often wondered how he or she knew what
to say for the group.
This time, again, one person answered. He - a rather adventuresome
young man, I was told later - spoke slowly, simply, for my benefit
perhaps. "No," he said, "we do not mind when others call us Sakai.
We look at the people down below - they have to get up at
a certain time in the morning, they have to pay for everything
with money, which they have to earn doing things for other people.
They are constantly told what they can and cannot do.' He paused,
and then added, 'No, we do not mind when they call us slaves."
When I first encountered "Original Wisdom" it was titled "What
It Is To Be Human," published by an obscure press, and out of print.
A friend had shared it with me, and I was so astounded - and transformed
- by the experience of reading it that I immediately did two things.
The first was to call a publisher I knew, Ehud Sperling at Park Street
Press/Inner Traditions, and tell him I'd found one of the most important
books of our generation, that it was out of print, and that he had both
an opportunity and an obligation to share it with the world. (After reading
the book, Ehud agreed, which is why Original Wisdom is now back in print.)
The second was that Louise and I got on a plane and flew from Vermont
to the big Island of Hawai'i to share a week sitting and talking with
- and learning from - robert wolff. He has been one of my best and most
insightful mentors ever since.
In the first centuries after European contact with the "savages" of
North America in the late 15th century, the Founders of this nation were
reading - in their day - the then-equivalent of robert wolff's modern
work. And they were, in many cases, living with experiences eerily similar
to those he documents in "Original Wisdom." Nearly all are now either
out of print, or in obscure academic publications; most are written in
the style of the 17th and 18th centuries that is, today, considered largely
As I noted in my book "What
Would Jefferson Do?":
"So much in answer to your inquiries concerning Indians," Thomas
Jefferson wrote to John Adams in June, 1812, "a people with whom, in
the early part of my life, I was very familiar, and acquired impressions
of attachment and commiseration for them which have never been obliterated.
Before the Revolution, they were in the habit of coming often and in
great numbers to the seat of government, where I was very much with them.
I knew much the great Ontasseté, the warrior and orator of the Cherokees;
he was always the guest of my father, on his journeys to and from Williamsburg."
On June 19, 1754, when Jefferson was only nine years old, Ben Franklin
had introduced the Albany Plan of Union at a meeting attended by
both his pre-revolutionary compatriots and a delegation from the
Iroquois Confederation. Franklin had earlier attended an Iroquois
Condolence Ceremony in 1753, and used Iroquois symbols both in his
language and his design for early American currency. In 1770, Franklin
wrote, "Happiness is more generally and equally diffus’d among Savages
than in civilized societies. No European who has tasted savage life
can afterwards bear to live in our societies." ...
Adams replied to Jefferson’s letter on June 28, 1813, by saying, "I
have also felt an interest in the Indians, and a commiseration for
them from my childhood. Aaron Pomham, the [Indian] priest, and Moses
Pomham, the king of the Punkapang and Neponset tribes, were frequent
visitors at my father’s house, at least seventy years ago. I have
a distinct remembrance of their forms and figures. They were very
aged, and the tallest and stoutest Indians I have ever seen. The
titles of king and priest, and the names of Moses and Aaron, were
given them, no doubt, by our Massachusetts divines and statesmen.
"There was a numerous family in this town, whose wigwam was within
a mile of this house. This family were frequently at my father’s
house, and I, in my boyish rambles, used to call at their wigwam,
where I never failed to be treated with whortleberries, blackberries,
strawberries or apples, plums, peaches, etc., for they had planted
a variety of fruit trees about them. But the girls went out to service,
and the boys to sea, till not a soul is left. We scarcely see an
Indian in a year."
Similarly, many of the Europeans wanted to become "savages" and live
among the Indians:
Over the next hundred years, as more and more Whites encountered
Native Americans, the incidence of Whites joining Indian tribes dramatically
increased. Derisively termed "White Indians" by the colonists, thousands
of European immigrants to the Americas simply walked away from the
emerging American society to join various Indian tribes. Ethnohistorian
James Axtell wrote that these early settlers joined the Indians because "they
found Indian life to possess a strong sense of community, abundant
love, and uncommon integrity…" Axtell quoted two White Indians who
wrote to the people they’d left behind that they’d found, "the most
perfect freedom, the ease of living, the absence of those cares and
corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us."
In 1747, Reverend Cadwallader Colden wrote of the growing exodus
of Whites for Indian life: "No Arguments, no Intreaties, nor Tears
of their Friends and relations, could persuade many of them to leave
their new Indian Friends and Acquaintance; several of them that were
by the Caressings of their Relations persuaded to come Home, in a little
Time grew tired of our Manner of living, and ran away again to the
Indians, and ended their Days with them."
While most people in the modern world think of contemporary tribal
people as hungry to join our civilized world, wolff found the Sng’oi
just as happy with their own democratic culture as Colden found Native
Americans in the 1700s.
Similarly, Colden wrote: "…Indian Children have been carefully educated
among the English, cloathed and taught, yet, I think, there is not
one Instance, that any of these, after they had Liberty to go among
their own People, and were come to Age, would remain with the English,
but returned to their own Nations, and became as fond of the Indian
Manner as those that knew nothing of a civilized Manner of living."
Not being fettered to eight or more hours of work a day to enrich
some person or corporation at the top of an economic food chain, people
in democratic indigenous cultures spend much of their time interacting
with their children. James Bricknell, who was captured by the Delaware
in the early 1800s and lived among them for several years before returning
to his family, wrote in 1842: "The Delawares are the best people to
train up children I ever was with… Their leisure hours are, in a great
measure, spent in training up their children to observe what they believe
to be right… They certainly follow what they are taught to believe
right more closely, and I might say more honestly, in general, than
we Christians… I know I am influenced to good, even at this day, more
from what I learned among them, than what I learned among people of
my own color."
Similarly, in his afterword to "Original Wisdom," wolff writes:
The stories in this book are about people who have worldviews
different from the Western one. They know their world differently. ...
My translation into English words and an English sentence structure can
only clumsily represent another view of reality. ...
It is difficult for Westerners to accept that people and their
worlds are inseparable. Now all ancient worlds are threatened by
our greed, our machines, our civilization. A young Sng'oi man told
me the People are dying out; others have told me they have no place
to run to anymore. As Hawaiians say, Hi'ina mai ki puana --
Let the story be told! ...
My luck was to find people who were human in an ancient way. My
luck was to recognize and reclaim a humanity rooted in the earth.
May these stories help others remember.
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Thom Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com)
is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author and host
of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show. www.thomhartmann.com His
most recent books are "The
Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight," "Unequal
Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of
Human Rights," "We
The People: A Call To Take Back America," and "What
Would Jefferson Do?: A Return To Democracy."