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The Seven Generations vs the Seventh Generation

Have you ever heard someone say something about living in ways that honor the seventh generation?

Many anthropologists use twenty years as a measure of a generation. I was always left a bit wonderstruck by the idea that people could conceive of how their actions would impact someone 140 years in the future. The idea of the seventh generation sounded good, and resonated deep within me, but didn't really have much traction when it came to guiding my daily actions.

Fortunately for me, in the early 1990s I encountered the work of a woman who would later become a personal teacher to me for a very brief time – Paula Underwood – would that she was not called so soon from this world! Paula was a wisdom keeper in the Iroquois tradition. A living link to a past that stretches back over 10,000 years and is remembered and celebrated in story and song.

Paula taught that indigenous people are careful observers of the world and of life. After all, if your daily survival depends on distinguishing between two plants that look almost identical, one of which is a healing plant and the other a deadly poison, your powers of observation become highly refined.

This kind of knowledge is kept alive in the culture by being passed along carefully from generation to generation, being gifted only to those who demonstrated an aptitude for such stewardship.

One of the things that indigenous people observed was the cycle of life – in spite of our contemporary ideas that before the advent of modern medicine no one lived past the age of 40 – it was not unusual for Elders to live into their 60s, 70s, 80s or even longer – take a look sometime at the photos of Indian Elders that were taken in the late 1800s. The Cheyenne woman below was named Poison and was nearly 100 years old when she was photographed in 1888. You are looking at a woman born around the same time that Continental Congress ratified the Constitution!

Over time it became apparent for those who were inclined to notice such things, that someone blessed with a long life would come to know seven generations. They would know their:








It was noticed that regardless of the time described in their stories (history) there were always Seven Generations Alive and Walking Through Time. Seven Generations who are responsible for the creation of The Stories That Are The People.

It was noticed that a person blessed with a long life would actually move through each of these generational stages – entering the circle as a great-grandchild would come around to be completed as the experience of being a great-grandparent before exiting it to become an ancestor – who were also included in decision making processes.

The Seven Generations Walk Together Through Time and their care for each other and the world is what generates the road they walk upon.

As a result of this noticing, a core tenant and competency of life in the indigenous world was that any decision which might impact the lives of The People would be looked at and considered from the perspectives of the Seven Generations Who Walk Through Time – the very old, the very young, those in the middle, those who had passed from this world, those who were waiting to come in, and on the world itself – for the world is infused with the energy of aliveness.*

Thanks to Paula's reframing, the idea of Seven Generations suddenly became alive with new meaning. It seems to me this is an incredibly valuable piece of wisdom. One that raises some questions worth pondering. Questions like:

What shifts in our leadership and decision making when we begin to view the world as filled with the energy of aliveness?**

What changes in our daily lives when we start to ask questions about how this decision or that action impacts the very old or the very young?

How do our individual and collective actions and practices honor those who have come before, upon whose shoulders we stand?

And, how do they make way and prepare an hospitable space for those who will follow after, who will one day be standing upon our shoulders?

What changes in our relationship to things like oil and plastic and nuclear waste when we think of what life will be like as a result of our actions today for the Seven Generations who will Walk the Earth 10,000, 100,000 or even 1,000,000 years from now?

What moves inside of us and inside of our families, our colleagues, our communities, and our governments, when we begin to ask questions about how we can effectively live up to and into our individual and collective responsibility to ensure the ongoing presence and integrity of Seven Generations Walking Together Through Time?

What is the road we are building now? Will it bear the weight of The Seven Generations?

Can we really build a sustainable civilization without looking at the world through such a lens?

How do these questions and ideas strike you?

Does anything in you awaken as you read them?

Does anything resist them?

What might you do differently as a result of entertaining them?

*For those struggling with the idea of a world infused with aliveness, I offer this brief excerpt from Fritjof Capra's book, The Systems View of Life, “At the forefront of contemporary science, we no longer see the universe as a machine composed of elementary building blocks. We have discovered that the material world ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships; that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. The view of the human body as a machine and the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily tissues, and even each cell as a living cognitive system. Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for existence, but rather a cooperative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces.”

**For more on the topic of the world being infused with the energy of aliveness see the chapter on Learning the Grammar of Animacy in Robin Wall Kimmerer's: Braiding Sweetgrasss: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.

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