The prophecy of the Fifth and Sixth Fires as related by Edward Benton-Banai in The Mishomis Book:
The fifth prophet said, “In the time of the Fifth Fire there will come a time of great struggle that will grip the lives of all Native people. At the waning of this Fire there will come among the people one who holds a promise of great joy and salvation. If the people accept this promise of a new way and abandon the old teachings, then the struggle of the Fifth Fire will be with the people for many generations. The promise that comes will prove to be a false promise. All those who accept this promise will cause the near destruction of the people.”
The prophet of the Sixth Fire said, “In the time of the Sixth Fire it will be evident that the promise of the Fifth Fire came in a false way. Those deceived by this promise will take their children away from the teachings of the chi’-ah-ya-og’ (elders). Grandsons and grand-daughters will turn against the elders. In this way the elders will lose their reason for living … they will lose their purpose in life. At this time a new sickness will come among the people. The balance of many people will be disturbed. The cup of life will almost be spilled. The cup of life will almost become the cup of grief.”
By the end of the eighteenth century, it was evident that the promise of material wealth and the new way of life brought by the light-skinned-race was indeed a false promise. The fur trade that rose to dominate the relationship between the Europeans and Native Americans brought all of the most harmful elements of European culture to bear upon the Natives. Disease and warfare ravaged the country for three hundred years, destroying many nations entirely and leaving many more destitute. Christian missionaries stripped away the Native’s spirituality. Alcohol devastated Native communities, leaving families broken, and causing many to opt for suicide. Native hunters had over-hunted the game animals, which heralded the decline of the fur trade, and left little food and peltry for their people to survive. Without the ongoing fur trade, Natives didn’t have access to European goods and services. Many had forgotten the primitive skills to craft their own goods, having become dependent on European wares. The false promise not only failed to make the people wealthy, but also stripped them of their family, culture, spirituality, and their ability to sustain themselves. As the prophets warned, those who adopted the false promise caused the near destruction of their people.
The latter Eighteenth Century saw a series of colonial wars, which had left intact not a single Native American nation east of the Mississippi River, but which had united the British colonies into a new nation. The French and Indian War, which raged from 1754 to 1763, pitted the two European superpowers against one another. France and England fought for dominion over the North American continent, with Native nations drawn into the conflict on both sides. England won the war and pressed for the removal of French interests in North America. A great uprising of Natives in the Midwest, led by an Ottawa warrior named Pontiac, resisted English authority. Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the English governor commissioned to quell the rebellion, dealt with the uprising by issuing blankets infected with smallpox to be given as gifts to the Natives. When the warriors learned that their families were dying of the pox, they broke off the war and returned home. Less than twelve years later, the American colonies united and rebelled against England’s authority. Once again, Native nations fought on both sides of the conflict. When the colonial Continental Army defeated the English army, a new nation, the United States of America, was born.
As its borders expanded west throughout the nineteenth century, the United States would invariably pursue a strategy of genocide against Native Americans. Claiming that it was manifest destiny ordained by Providence, the United States declared its right to possess and control all the lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Anyone or anything in the way of that progress was removed. Native peoples were confined to reservations or forcibly relocated. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, ordering the forced relocation of all Native nations east of the Mississippi River to the designated Oklahoma Indian Territory. The U.S. Army was charged to carry out the Removal Order. Despite their peaceful relationship with the Americans, the Cherokee of the Carolinas and of Georgia were the first people to face a removal order. They were summarily rounded up and marched west on the infamous Trail of Tears. Other nations, such as the Sauk and Fox and the Seminoles, rebelled against the removal order. Despite the valiant resistance of Black Hawk and Osceola, both nations were forced west to Indian Territory.
The United States Congress likewise issued the Anishinabe Ojibway a removal order. So that they might remain on their ancestral lands, the Anishinabe ceded timber rights to the US government in 1837. Despite treaty promises that the Anishinabe could remain on their lands, the US government again issued a removal order in 1842. This time, the Anishinabe ceded mining rights. When the US government violated this treaty as well, issuing another removal order against the Anishinabe, the aged Chief Buffalo undertook his historic voyage. Over ninety years old, Chief Buffalo traveled to Washington D.C. to convince President Millard Fillmore of the legitimacy of his people’s claims to their lands. Twice, he argued, the Ojibway had ceded usufruct rights to the U.S. government in exchange for the right to remain in their promised lands. He also said that, unlike other Native nations, the Anishinabe had not warred upon the Americans. The relationship of the two peoples had always been one of peace. Chief Buffalo negotiated an agreement with President Fillmore, whereby the Anishinabe ceded all their lands in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan to the U.S. government, but established reservations at their sacred grounds so they could remain on their lands. The Anishinabe also retained the right to hunt, fish, and gather in the ceded-territories, rights that are now a very important tool in the struggle to preserve the ecological integrity of the Upper Midwest. For their part, the U.S. government would never again attempt to remove the Anishinabe from their lands.
Following the Civil War, the U.S. Army invaded the west with the intention of rounding up all Native Americans and forcing them onto reservations. The Army massacred any undefended villages, killing elders, women, and children in cold blood. Where they found encampments of warriors, they engaged them in battle. Great Native leaders, such as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Dull Knife, Geronimo, and many others fought bravely to fend off the invaders. The most famous battle of the “Indian Wars” was the Battle of the Little Big Horn, in which Crazy Horse and other Native leaders led a host of warriors against Lt. Colonel George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry. Following the decisive victory over the U.S. Army at Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse was invited into Fort Robinson under a banner of peace and was murdered. They stabbed him in the back because they couldn’t defeat him face to face. At Wounded Knee, the U.S. Army massacred the last free band of Lakota and left the victims frozen in the snow, silent witnesses to the end of Native military resistance.
Life on a reservation was nearly unbearable. Once able to hunt and gather throughout their territory, they were now confined to a prison, from which they were not permitted to leave without a written pass from the regional Indian agent, who was ordered not to give out any passes. The western reservations were unyielding, having few natural resources and little wild game. For a people who lived in abundance, the reservations must have been like being stranded on a desert island with no supplies. To make matters worse, the corrupt officials administering the rations on the reservations stole monies and goods that were meant for the Natives. Meat supplied by the government was often tainted, causing illness among the people, who often died from lack of medical treatments. Native men and women were often murdered for the slightest offense or even for no offense at all. In the face of such conditions, many committed suicide, having lost the will to live.
The twentieth century saw the fulfillment of the Prophecy of the Sixth Fire, as official U.S. government policy promoted assimilation of Native Americans into the dominant culture. The Dawes Act undermined the Native concept of communal lands by dividing the reservations into small plots that could be bought and sold. Native ceremonies were banned, and traditionalists were forced to go deep into the wilderness and perform their ceremonies under cover of darkness in secrecy. The ceremonies were kept alive by a few who maintained the teachings of their ancestors. Children were taken away from their families and sent to boarding schools, where their hair was cut and they were forced to wear the white man’s clothing. The boarding schools were directed solely to one purpose: destroying the children’s sense of Native identity. They were taught that their culture and spiritual beliefs were the work of the devil, and they were forbidden from speaking their own language under penalty of being beaten and abused if they were caught. When these children returned to their reservations, often having been gone for ten years, they had little in common with their parents and grandparents. Seeing their children turn away from their people and their heritage was more than most elders could take, and, as the Prophet of the Sixth Fire predicted, the people started dying at an early age, having lost the will to live.
Despite five hundred years of struggle, and overwhelming pressures to conform, Native Americans survived and maintained their traditional identity, but the greatest threat to Native identity yet looms: the loss of languages. There are few fluent Native language speakers today, and of those few, many are elders. There is a very real danger of Native languages becoming extinct. The only way to recover them is through total immersion, in which a Native language is exclusively spoken on reservations. Unfortunately, traditional languages are not spoken in most homes. English has become the universal language throughout Native America. A controversy has arisen over whether knowledge of Native language is needed for participation in the traditional spiritual ceremonies. Many elders feel that if their language dies, their sovereign identity as the people dies with it. If Native languages disappear, the U.S. government’s agenda of termination may become a reality.
The Sacred Hoop of Life was broken because the Light-skinned race arrived wearing the face of death instead of the face of brotherhood. The Prophet of the Fourth Fire spoke of a great nation that could have been formed if the Light-skinned race would have arrived in North America bearing only their knowledge and a handshake. It was foretold that the knowledge and implements of the Red Race could have been joined with those of the White Race, and the two nations would have joined to form one mighty nation. And if that were to happen, the Prophet predicted, they would be joined by two more nations, yellow and black, together uniting humanity and restoring the human race. Could the Light-skinned race, the dominant culture, now wear the face of brotherhood and reverse the damage that has been visited upon all orders of creation? The Sacred Hoop of Life can be mended.