Overheard at the County Fair

August 14, 2011

Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE) faced a heaping dose of raw voter intensity last week, as news accounts told the tale. At a town meeting in the capital city of Lincoln on Monday, August 8, he heard from a variegated crop of angry Nebraskans venting from the right and the left about America’s dizzily declining economic prospects and the political ploys in Washington that provoked the most recent twists and downturns.

But when Johanns arrived at the Lancaster County Fair later that afternoon, the scene was serious and generally sedate. He came to the fairgrounds to talk about the farming outlook for the nation and for Nebraska. Because he is a former Secretary of the USDA (2005-07), and current member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, his words have potential for resonance. But he didn’t say much. He was smooth, polished, and adroit at skirting potential triggers of controversy. His main points of information:

  • The downgrading of USA debt rating, and the wobbly economy, mean the USDA budget will be drastically diminished. When he was Secretary, he said, about 63% of the USDA budget went to nutrition programs like SNAP and school meals; but now that figure is up to about 83% leaving only about 17% for actual farm programs. “Be prepared for further downgrades,” Johanns said. “The weak economy will inevitably have a huge influence on the next ag bill.”
  • “There will be no sacred cows,” Johanns said in reference to impending budget cuts. The USDA ethanol subsidies that have aided and abetted the spread of GMO corn across the Heartland is all but certain to be cut. “There just aren’t votes for it,” said Johanns, who has been a big supporter of the subsidies in the past. Undoubtedly the decline of support among other Senators is the basic realization that it takes more energy and money to produce a gallon of ethanol that you can get from it. It’s a losing proposition.
  • The 2012 Farm Bill is on its way, Johanns also noted, but he expects that nothing much will happen this year (2011). As he sees it, there is no momentum for action in either the Senate or the House. The key areas of debate for the 2012 farm bill will be around crop insurance, the safety net for farmers.

The meeting soon gave way to questions. Chuck Hassebrook stood to ask Johanns to take a good look at the Grassley Johnson Rural America Preservation Act. Proposed by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IN) and Tim Johnson (D-SD), the act could close loopholes and make the existing subsidy limits real.

Hassebrook, who is not only executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs but also a Regent for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a major land-grant institution, said that it’s time to put an end to mega subsidies for mega farms.

He said we need to put effective and meaningful caps on payments to the nation’s largest farms because we cannot afford them, and they harm rural America since the payments are often used to drive smaller operations out of business.

In the late August afternoon at the county fair, though, the most heartfelt and insightful message came from Nancy Packard of Lincoln. She attended the listening session with her elderly mother. Ms. Packard introduced herself as a Nebraskan with deep roots. She noted the Heartland farming efforts of her father, her grandfather, and her great grandfather.

“It takes 10,000 years to make a prairie,” Ms. Packard said, “I know that because I have been working on re-establishing the prairie on a piece of our land for 20 years. It’s not easy…Now we are using this resource, this ancient beautiful prairie soil not to grow food but to grow GMO corn with toxic chemicals to supplement fuel for motor vehicle fuel. It’s very, very wrong.

“We need to go back to smaller, family scale farms,” she told Senator Johanns. “And we need to stop ripping up and destroying the earth for energy. We need to draw our strength from the land and our energy from the Sun.”

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R.I.P. Mishomis – Grandfather William Commanda

August 3, 2011

At the UN - Grandfather Commanda (center) displays the Seven Fires Wampum Belt at The House of Mica - UN headquarters on Manhattan Island. Frank Decontie (L) and Eddie Decontie (R) help hold the belt.

Dear Relatives -Grandfather William Commanda died early Wednesday morning, August 3, 2011, two days before the start of his annual gathering in Maniwaki, Quebec, Canada. He was 97 years old.

Among the many accomplishments in his long life as a protector and defender of the land, Grandfather served as Spiritual Advisor to the Sunbow 5 Walk for the Earth in 1995-95, a walk chronicled in Odyssey of the 8th Fire.  The story of Grandfather’s leadership of this epic walk is also at the heart of the project to create an audiobook based on the nonfiction Tales of the Whirling Rainbow. I am honored to have known Grandfather, and to have traveled with him, since 1989. He was a remarkable man with a brilliant soul.
Meegwetch, Mishomis (Thank you, Grandfather)

One of the many birchbark canoes Grandfather Commanda built over the years.

* * * * * * * *

In my memory, one vivid picture of Grandfather’s resolute nature comes strongest. It was 16 years ago:  Friday, November 24, 1995 in the desert to the west of Rio Rancho, New Mexico. We’d been on the road a long time. It was Day 155 in the Sunbow 5 Walk for the Earth (the Odyssey of the 8th Fire). In his 80s at the time, Grandfather served as Spiritual Advisor for the walk and its epic quest across Turtle Island (North America).

Grandfather Commanda (author photo)

Grandfather was leading us from Atlantic to Pacific to meet with and learn from wise elders of all traditions, and to seek out “what had been left by the side of the trail long ago” as described in the Seven Fires Prophecy.

But our grand pilgrimage for peace and unity had hit the wall of human nature by the time we got to New Mexico. We had been arguing viciously among ourselves, and fractured into four or more groups — each group filled with suspicions and hostility.

As we arrived at a desert knoll to circle up for our council and air our ferocious grievances against each other, the wind rose. It blew so hard — 45 to 50 mph — that the air literally began to scream across the desert. The unrelenting desert gale blew stinging sand into everyone and everything. The storm rocked across the desert with howls and jerks, whipping ceaselessly through our gathering as we huddled low on a dune, seeking a windbreak. We prayed.

In the desert of the west direction, Grandfather listened to us for a long, long time, and then confronted our brokenness. His hands shook and his eyes filled with tears. He wiped his tears and then spoke. “No,” he said. “This is not my way, this is not the way. You must all stay together. You must stay in unity.”

He was unshakeable on this point: “You must all stay together as one group, one circle,” he said. “You can’t kick people out of the hoop. That’s not the way forward. You must find a way to stay together…You cannot fulfill the Seven Fires teachings any other way…”

In this manner it was settled. We were all to walk together — one reconciled, reunited walk.

* * * * * * * *

With the help of his companion Romola Treblecock, Grandfather Commanda developed his own website, a Circle of All Nations. Among the many treasures in his spiritual legacy to the people, he left his vision for Asinabka – an indigenous guided island for personal and planetary healing, located downtown in the river that runs through the heart of Ottawa, Ontario and Hull, Quebec.  Grandfather Commanda’s final vision is only part way to fulfillment. It needs wider support to come to full realization.


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