“A duty of care.” I ran across the phrase this week in a book I was reading, To Speak for the Trees, by the botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger. In the book Diana talks about growing up in Britain and Ireland—how she was orphaned at the age of twelve and then how her mother’s people, who were Irish farmers in County Cork, adopted her in the traditional way, all of them together taking her under their wing, teaching her one by one what they knew of the old Celtic ways. One elderly auntie might teach her how to treat an illness with plant medicine, another how to cover eggs with a layer of butter to keep them from oxidizing so they would not spoil even without refrigeration.
Diana writes, “Everything in the natural world possessed innate value. This belief, that one should love others and nature as much as they loved themselves, was at the very heart of Celtic philosophy. It [was] drilled into me with every lesson.” She was to love trees as people—something she said was not hard for her, as she went on to become a tree scientist.
But, she says, it’s harder to instill in people the sense of responsibility for nature. We humans are susceptible to greed, taking more from nature than we need, and so a central part of each of her lessons was to “always leave enough for the seventh generation.” We have “a duty of care,” she writes. Everything in the world is “owed the same duty of care” that we grant to ourselves and our loved ones.
As it happens, I read three other Indigenous writers this week, and every one of them offered a parallel message, each with its own flavor, its own history. I want to highlight all their words as a way of honoring this idea that is so crucial to living peaceably on Earth—the idea of care. An ethic of care. Caring for the land, caring for one another. And how some societies build it into the very foundations of their culture so that caring isn’t just something people do in the privacy of their homes within their own families; it’s the guiding principle of public life. It has social value. Caring for land and caring for others shapes the culture’s very laws and economics. So today we’re honoring as well the Indigenous societies that preserve and practice this public duty of care to this very day.
First up, a voice from Australia. Dr. Mary Graham is an Aboriginal woman from the Kombumerri clan of the Gold Coast of Queensland. She’s also a Western-trained philosopher and professor. Mary Graham writes that for Aboriginal people, the land is “not property or real estate; it is the great mother of all humanity. . . . The land, and how we treat it,” she writes, “is what determines our human-ness. . . . The relation between people and land becomes the template for society and social relations.” Aboriginal people see that if a person’s or a society’s relationships with others are out of balance, it is because their relationship with Earth suffered first.
In relating to land, the first ingredient is an obligation of care. Mary Graham writes, “As the land created us, so we are always going to be obligated to it. All the flora and fauna, every living thing, all the landforms and features of the land, they are all our ancestors, because they all came before us. . . . . Literally, the grass we walk on, the soil we walk on, the plants and animals we eat—these all made us human and gave us meaning and identity.” And because “we are always obliged to the land,” she goes on, “we are in turn obliged to look after it.”
Mary Graham calls this law of care a “custodial ethic.” She writes, “Ethics only come from having empathy and from looking after something outside ourselves.” She says, “The land looks after us, we look after it, it looks after us, we look after it.”
Her words reminded me of the native Hawaiian culture, of the land where I now live. I’ve talked about this before in the podcast, the guiding idea of aloha ‘āina, or giving love, aloha, to the land, the ‘āina. For Hawaiians the ‘āina is our mother or grandmother; ‘āina literally means “that which feeds.” We love the land, aloha ‘āina, because the land loves us and provides for us, ‘āina aloha. (If you want to listen to that episode, it’s called “Everything Is Alive and We Are All Relatives,” from September of last year.)
So this week I dug deeper into aloha ‘āina in a master’s thesis by Claire Hiwahiwa Steele at the University of Hawaii. Claire studied traditional Hawaiian society, and especially the class of people known as the konohiki, or land managers. Hawaiian society, like that of ancient Celts, was a class society with many divisions of people from royalty on down to tenant farmers who worked the land. The konohiki were the class below the chiefs but above the tenants; they supervised all the farming in a given district.
Their whole job was summed up in one term: mālama ‘āina, “to care for, serve, and keep the land.” Claire writes, “Mālama ‘Āina was the foundation of Hawaiian society.” So love and care shaped the hearts and minds of the land managers, not just their jobs. For example, one wrote in his personal will about “my land” and “my responsibility” and “my pieces of land,” and for every instance of the word my he used a word that people used for their closest kin and relations. So every time this man said “my land,” he was actually thinking of it with deep love and affection, as a beloved family member.
In traditional Hawaiian society, the higher your status, the wider your responsibility extended to care for others. To be “under” someone socially had the connotation of being “under their care.” Chiefs were responsible for ensuring the well-being of all the people, which means that those individuals with the most political power had the largest duty of all to make sure that every person in their chiefdom was healthy and happy.
And the chiefs were held to their duty of care because tenant farmers possessed a special power. If the farmers were being treated unfairly by their chief, they could up and move to a different district. Claire says in her thesis that it was considered an honorable quest to go in search of a pono chief, a righteous or fair-minded chief. And because common people could vote with their feet, they held the power of chiefs in check. Chiefs could not get away with exploiting farmers, or the farmers would grow unhappy and move away. Losing farmers meant a smaller harvest and a big dent in the chief’s honor and power as well as in his wealth.
So when the success of government is measured by how well it cares for even the lowest class of people, this lends a different flavor to a class system. I think for contrast of my ancestors in central Europe, say, in the early 1500s, where there was also a class system of kings and princes and common tenant farmers. My ancestors lived in Switzerland and Germany, right in the middle of the region where in 1525 the German Peasants’ War broke out. Over the space of a year or two, hundreds of thousands of peasants took up arms against the landowning class of aristocratic families.
The peasants were demanding a fairer deal. They wanted access again to forests and common lands for hunting and fishing and grazing so they could eat more than just the grains and produce they grew in the fields. But recently the landowning families had enclosed those common areas and were using them for their own private profit, to export things like sheep’s wool to foreign markets. The peasants also wanted the annual tax on their harvest to be put to public purposes instead of being sucked up into the coffers of the private landholding families.
The peasants were being exploited, and they knew it, but there was no system to prevent the landowning class from abusing them. The farmers could not vote with their feet, for where would they go? The system was the same in the next district over and the one beyond that. There was no moral code that demanded landowners treat their tenants fairly, no duty of care to make sure either land or people were happy.
So when the conflict between owners and peasants came to blows in the 1520s, the aristocrats pulled together armies of soldiers and of course had the means to supply them with much better weapons. The armies of the princes slaughtered over 100,000 of the peasants and farmers—or nearly 1 percent of the rural population of Germany. Think of it—nearly 1 in 100 peasants killed in a matter of months. The wealthy class suffered no consequences and in fact increased their power, for from that point on they could squeeze the peasants completely out of the political process.
It is one of those points in Western history where we can watch any obligation to care being tossed completely aside. The wealthy class untethered their own well-being from the well-being of the common people. The abuse that came to characterize their class would spur more than one revolution in the centuries to come.
So to build on the idea of good government as one that cares for people at every level of society, I’d like to turn to a fourth Indigenous voice, from the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois people, whose traditional home is New York and southern Canada. Chief Oren Lyons is a Faithkeeper of the Onondaga people, who are one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Six Nations are governed by a system called the Great Law of Peace, and Oren Lyons has spent much of his life educating others about the Great Law. He and several coauthors wrote about it in a book called Basic Call to Consciousness, a book I found myself revisiting this week. The Great Law of Peace is especially appropriate for us to talk about here because it helped to inform the writing of the US Constitution, and we’ll come back to this in a moment.
The Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, became a confederacy about a thousand years ago through the teachings of the Great Peacemaker, a man who arose during a terrible time when people were fighting endless wars and blood feuds over things that people often fight over: territory and boundaries and food.
In the Great Law, peace is not just the absence of war or conflict. It is, as Oren Lyons and his coauthors say, “the active striving of humans for . . . universal justice.” According to the Great Law, government exists to keep people equal because, they say, “hierarchy creates conflicts.”
But government can do its work of creating equality only when the people do their part, which is to keep their minds in a good place. So in the Great Law of Peace, it is incumbent on people to keep their minds aligned with the Great Creator, with the Good Mind. And here is how Oren Lyons and his coauthors describe the Good Mind:
All thoughts of prejudice, privilege or superiority [must] be swept away and . . . recognition be given to the reality that the creation is intended for the benefit of all equally—even the birds and animals, the trees and the insects, as well as the humans. The world does not belong to humans—it is the rightful property of the Great Creator. The gifts and benefits of the world, therefore, belong to all equally. The things which humans need to survive—food, clothing, shelter, protection—these are things to which all are entitled because they are gifts of the Great Creator. Nothing belongs to human beings, not even their labor or their skills, for ambition and ability are also the gifts of the Great Creator. Therefore all people have a right to the things they need to survive—even those who do not or cannot work, and no person or people has a right to deprive others of the fruits of those gifts.
This is a profound vision of equality, which is another way of saying it is a profound vision of public care, because to work for equality means to care about the well-being of others.
The Great Law of Peace also calls for political leaders to be the servants of the people—another way it structures care into the public fabric of society. We know the Iroquois Nations put this into practice because in the 1720s a colonial lawmaker in New York attended meetings of their confederacy and reported that all of the Iroquois leaders “are generally poorer than the common People” because they gave away all gifts “so as to leav[e] nothing to themselves.” According to the Great Law, the attention of leaders was to rest entirely on the welfare and the will of the people, and if any leader acted from other than these motivations, they could be removed from office.
This vision is striking in its contrast with the growing inequality in Europe of the time, with rulers living as if they had no obligation to treat their subjects fairly. It was exactly this kind of abuse that contributed to the American colonists rebelling against the English king. So when the Founders sat down to envision how to get the new American states to work together equally, one of their inspirations became the Great Law of Peace, for some of the founders, especially Benjamin Franklin, had been meeting with leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy for thirty years already.
But the Founders failed to adopt the most radical heart of the Great Law of Peace—the vision of complete equality. In the Constitution they wrote, they elevated the rights of property over the idea of equality, or care. They did so because they wanted to protect their ability to own other human beings as slaves. And they wrote this brutality into the law of the land. Which means that today equality remains a goal and an aspiration more than a foundation of our social order.
Now, a few thoughts in closing. In this time when people become aware of just how much power we have to damage our home, the Earth, it is common to ask where Western society went wrong in our relations with nature and with each other. For an answer, we need look no further than how we lost the duty of care.
A duty of care was there long ago, at least in some parts of Western history, like the Celtic areas, and it has been handed down in Irish tradition to this day, as we know from the life story of Diana Beresford-Kroeger. But a duty of care did not survive in mainland Europe, and it did not cross the ocean to become a foundation of American society. Today there are even Americans who define liberty as the opposite of care—as their ability to refuse any responsibility at all for the well-being of others. We can see this in anti-maskers who think they are being free when they refuse to wear face masks during a pandemic. Their position has become possible because caring for others is not built into our definition of a good society or into our definition of being human.
A different society, a different world, is possible. But it will take some radical rethinking of our laws and our customs. It will take learning from Indigenous communities and their centuries of experience in caring for each other and the land. It will take changing laws to reward care and equality over profit. It will take redefining leaders as servants of the people, as the Haudenosaunee do, and reviving the old Hawaiian idea of power defined as responsibility for the well-being of people and land. It will mean looking at government as a means for keeping people healthy and happy rather than a means for keeping people in line.
It will take retraining ourselves to see the fate of people and land as intertwined, as Aboriginal people do, and changing our definitions of humanness to look at how we treat land and water and animals. It will take stitching together the well-being of the privileged with that of the less privileged so that we stop fooling ourselves by thinking our fates are separate. It will mean reviving the words love and care in public life. And the word responsibility.
The Hawaiian language has a beautiful word for this: kuleana, “responsibility,” but it includes the idea of reciprocity. A person’s kuleana is that special relationship you have with those you care for. It shows the back-and-forth flow of responsiveness—how you respond to others and how others are responsive to you.
So our responsibilities actually light our way forward in life. Being responsible is how we find our own purpose in life, our belonging and our joy.
So the good news, as shared by these four Indigenous traditions, is that a duty of care is not a burden; it is where we find out what it means to be human. And what we need at this fragile moment in the life of the world is to bring this duty of care back into public life so that our very definition of humanness again includes the practice of love and care.
It is a big job, of course, but it is possible for each person to start right where we are. We can ask ourselves questions like, “What is my part in this creative work of care? How can I care for my local water? What does the soil in my area need to be healthier? Or the fish or the forests? What would promote equality among people here? How can we change the laws to grow happiness?”
There are millions of ways to answer each question, which means there is something here for each of us to do. May each of us find our own kuleana, our own best ways of responding.
If you want to dig deeper:
Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s story of receiving the Celtic oral tradition appears in her memoir, To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2019). Jane Fonda interviewed Diana for her Fire Drill Fridays series. For in-depth stories about Diana, see the series of five articles in the British Colombia news magazine The Tyee in 2020 by Andrew Nikiforuk.
Aboriginal philosopher Mary Graham teaches in the School of Political Science & International Studies at the University of Queensland. Her words come from her paper “Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews,” Australian Humanities Review 45 (2008): 181–94. Available for free download at the Australian National University Press, the final entry on this page. More detail in a chapter by Mary Graham and Michelle Maloney, “Caring for Country and Rights of Nature in Australia: A Conversation between Earth Jurisprudence and Aboriginal Law and Ethics,” In Sustainability and the Rights of Nature in Practice, ed. Cameron La Follette and Chris Maser (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Group, Taylor & Francis, 2019), 385–400.
Numbers of casualties from the German Peasants’ War of 1525–26 come from Encyclopedia Britannica. Germany’s population in 1500 was 12 million, with 1.5 million of those people living in towns and cities and the remaining 10.5 million people in the countryside. If 100,000 German peasants and farmers were killed or executed, that would be .09 percent, or nearly 1 in 100 of the rural people.
Oren Lyons’s words about the Great Law of Peace come from the Basic Call to Consciousness, a statement published first in 1977 when delegates from Indigenous groups from both North and South America delivered position papers to a United Nations conference in Geneva. It was the first UN gathering that looked at discrimination against Indigenous people of the Americas, and it led over the next few decades to the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Watch a talk by Oren Lyons here on “The Indigenous View of the World.”
The English observer who reported on the Iroquois Confederacy in the 1720s was Cadwallader Colden, a member of the New York provincial council who attended as a colonial representative of New York. His words are quoted in a paper by Renée Jacobs, “The Iroquois Great Law of Peace and the United States Constitution: How the Founding Fathers Ignored the Clan Mothers,” American Indian Law Review 16, no. 2 (1991): 497–531, available from the digital commons at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
On Benjamin Franklin’s contacts with the Iroquois, see “Franklin and the Iroquois Foundations of the Constitution,” by Cynthia Feathers and Susan Feathers, University of Pennsylvania Gazette, Jan.–Feb. 2007. More info from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University at their website the National History Education Clearinghouse, “Iroquois and the Founding Fathers.” Donald Grinde Jr. and Bruce Johansen make a case, following original historical documents, for Iroquois influence on the American Founders. Their book, Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy (Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center of UCLA, 1990), is available online here.
Historian Heather Cox Richardson talks a lot about the differences between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration held up a vision that “all men are created equal” while the Constitution set limits on that equality in order to protect property, and the tension between those two different purposes continues to this day. “When people have rights, they focus on the Constitution,” she says; “when they don’t have rights, they focus on the Declaration.” This came from her Facebook Live chat on April 29, 2021. All her Thursday Live chats are fascinating, and her daily newsletter summarizing political developments is a must-read.
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