By Madronna Holden
One day when I visited a Chehalis grandmother that I sat and spoke with many times, she called my attention to the prairie in front of her house. She loved that prairie which brought her the smell of wild strawberries in June and remembered images of her ancestors with their slender digging sticks prying camas up carefully, so carefully, so as not to “disturb the prairie”. Over generations, the careful work of her people and that of other indigenous women resulted in the camas flowers everywhere on the prairies pioneers nicknamed “camas lakes” for their stunning visual effect.
But that day the prairie this elder loved was full of shoveled mounds of dirt. It seems that some people on a quest for wild foods had been seeking camas and had tunneled away, turning over and uprooting soil everywhere. It was something I myself did not at first notice, but it was immediately apparent to this woman who in her eighties watched over the prairie just as she watched over the Chehalis children playing outside the tribal hall during recess from the Headstart Program. She had an all too extensive recollection of the assaults on Chehalis identity and language during the boarding school era, but observing these children who “knew who they are”; she could finally say of her people, “I guess we made it”.
She had strong eyes with which to do all that watching: ones that could warm you even in the coldest days. Others (non-Indians) advised me to wear a coat when I came to see her in her unheated cedar house. But sitting there before her bright watching eyes, often flashing with glee at a joke, I was never cold.
She had plenty of vision with which to observe that those folks armed with shovels had “really messed up the prairie”. This violated her ethic of non-disturbance the same way the sloppy leavings of a modern hunting camp violated the same ethic in Henry Cultee’s eyes. You should take and use all of what you shot-and should there be something you couldn’t use of the animal that had given its life for your survival, you should respectfully bury it. Honoring the life you had taken and leaving the land just as you found it.
In this sense the “precautionary principle”, which mandates that we take special care not to disturb other lives now or in the future, is nothing new.
Caring for the land and for the people is anciently intertwined in traditional indigenous views in which animals were hunted so that meat could be shared. In some areas of California, the hunter never ate any of his own meat. He could justify taking the life of another natural creature only by giving it away to feed others. In the same way, girls who harvest their first roots berries on the Mid-Columbia River never consume these themselves-but instead give them away. In wisdom gleaned from observing the reciprocity of natural systems, they realize that the one who gives away her first harvest will see nature return the favor to her in future years.
What we share of nature and society expresses the content of what environmental philosophers term the “commons”. The commons includes things like air, water, transportation and storm water systems upon which modern developers depend-and for the Chehalis grandmother, the prairie in front of her house. That commons differs radically from “private property”. What was truly “private”shouldn’t matter to anyone else. Thus the grandmother above thought it as peculiar as it was insulting that social service folks had knocked on Indian doors with the purported purpose of teaching Indian women how to arrange their housekeeping. Once the word got out, the Indian women they targeted didn’t let them in the door.
Digging up the prairie by any means convenient and intruding on the home life of Chehalis people to proffer their re-arrangement both violate the ethic of non-disturbance shared by many native cultures and the modern precautionary principle–originally called “fore-caring”, in that it was caring for the future.
It was the same kind of violation that saddened the Chehalis grandmother when she had, years before, gone to visit someone at the state mental institution at Steilacoom. She was indignant that the inmates could be “paraded around like that-human beings!” She did not recall that there were many who were “lost to us that way” before contact, but when there were, her people would work to “bring them home again”.
To bring them, that is, back to a place of honor and belonging, to include and embrace them rather than to isolate and regiment them.
There is exemplary tenderness in this stance: in the stance that honors all life exactly as it is– and understands disease as lack of belonging. Instead of remaking the world for its own purposes, this stance attempts to enlarge itself to embrace those who have been left out, thus bringing them home again.
Imagine a science that worked with this kind of tenderness toward our world. It is a possible vision. Indigenous Community Conservation Areas now account for a substantial portion of the world’s lands (up to an estimated twelve per cent), and they include global areas with the largest cultural and biological diversity (“biocultural diversity”). Such areas are managed in terms of the ancient partnership between native peoples and their land.
Imagine if global development and technology turned to such tender caretaking: what if we defined “progress” as enlarging ourselves, embracing others (including natural systems) as they are?
What if we exhibited such tenderness and watchfulness over our social and ecological worlds?
What if we instituted the precautionary principle in all aspects of our lives, combining the stance of non-disturbance with intimacy (so that we have the knowledge to understand whether or not we are disturbing others) and the watchful protection that many indigenous worldviews have modeled?
If we honored our own potential in this way, then perhaps we might begin to expect our actions in this vast mysterious world to yield unexpected positive consequences rather than the unintended negative ones we all too often face today. Like those in the community of Gaviotas in Colombia, who have worked so carefully to be in harmony with their environment that thousands of acres of recovered rainforest have serendipitously risen up in their wake.
Imagine what daily life might be like if we expressed such tenderness towad our environment that we woke up each morning expecting wonderful surprises– and secure in the sense that those who followed us would inherit an even more vital world than the one that sustains us.
This is a vision that all of us might work to make a reality.
As a point of information, I have not used this wise Chehalis elder’s name since, in keeping with her traditional values of humility she asked me to “use my words but don’t mention my name”– even as she asked me to pass on what she and others told me– to “make a book of it.”
Filed under: Contrasting worldviews, Ecofeminism, Environmental ethics, environmental philosophy, Environmental psychology, Hope and vision, Indigenous links, Northwest History and Culture, Working for justice, worldviews | Tagged: Chehalis worldview, commons, Ecofeminism, environmental philosophy, Henry Cultee, Indigenous environmental knowledge, indigenous worldviews, precautionary principle, sustainability |