By Madronna Holden
Land was something priceless–something that could not be bought or sold at any price– in the worldview of the traditional peoples of the Pacific Northwest.
The local peoples gathered at the treaty proceedings at Cosmopolis on the Olympic Peninsula expressed the utmost frustration in their negotiations with Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens on this point. They could not make him understand that his plan to remove them from their homeland was unacceptable, since nothing could replace their land for them. It was a concept that Stevens did not register even as native peoples spoke of the spirit of the land, of their love for this particular place, of the loneliness of the ancestors without the presence of their descendants.
Instead, Stevens flourished gifts to replace their land. Whether it is a literal story-or one meant to convey Stevens’ stance-Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee told me that Stevens doffed his top hat and promised to fill it with gold for every man, woman and child at the treaty proceedings.
When the Indians refused to leave their homeland in exchange for any material compensation, Stevens spoke of how the “father in Washington” would ensure their safety in exchange for their lands-but could not be responsible for their welfare if they stayed in the way of the pioneers. Native oral tradition has it that Stevens threatened to put them all on a boat and maroon them at sea until they learned to get along if they continued to insist that they would not live on the land of others’ rather than their own.
There was no bridging the gap between the perspective which sees the land as distinctive, precious, and priceless– and that which sees the land as a thing to be bought and sold. But some Indians still tried. An Upper Chehalis man spoke these words recounted by oral tradition: “Move my body anywhere you wish, but cut off my head and place it on the land of my people.”
Stevens still didn’t get it. When the Chehalis, the Cowlitz and the Chinook refused to sign the treaty at Cosmopolis, he blamed his failed treaty on particular recalcitrant Indians rather than on the worldview he never understood.
At the Walla Walla treaty negotiations, government agent Joel Palmer tried to sway those present by stating that he had moved all the way across the country for his own betterment. Thus native peoples could move a little distance away from their land to go to a reservation- where the US government promised to better their lives.
But Palmer’s argument at Walla Walla had the same problem as Stevens’ argument at Cosmopolis. It was based on the assumption that one could simply exchange one bit of land for another. This idea has been carried into the present day in the idea of “mitigation”-if one wants to develop wetlands, one must recreate or maintain a comparable wetland somewhere else. But such a notion was wrenchingly sad to a group of elders on the Muckleshoot Cultural Committee who mourned the sacred sites they had lost to highway development.
This reflects an essential aspect of the indigenous worldviews: the sense of the unique value of individual persons, other natural life, and particular lands such that none of these can be replaced by or exchanged for any another. 
By contrast, the modern industrial system prices everything-including human life. This is what got the Ford Company into trouble for its exploding Pinto gas tank-which it failed to replace after creating a balance sheet on which the value it fixed for human life didn’t make it worth the cost of repairing the tank. Ford is not alone. Our own EPA has done this kind of analysis in its decision to continue to allow cancer-causing chemicals on the market.
In a capitalist market system, what people are willing to pay for a thing determines its value. But as economist Mark Sagoff points out, the truth doesn’t work that way. Three will never be the square root of six, no matter how many people are willing to pay to make it different.
I don’t think some lobbyists currently in Washington D.C. believe this point.
But we cannot just blame them: the mindset that sees everything as being capable of being exchanged for something else has led us into manufacturing plastics to use in place of natural materials. This has not been spectacularly successful. We have plastics which result not only in brain cancer suffered by workers who make them, but in the endocrine disruption caused to infant bodies by plastics leaching into milk in baby bottles. Plastics with chlorine in their formulas (such as vinyl) are particularly toxic; and plastics with BPA cause endocrine disruption.
The fact that we have exchanged plastics for products of natural systems causes more general problems. If it is hard to imagine what we would do without plastics in the modern age, it is also hard to figure out what to do with them. Sunlight only breaks them down into smaller and smaller pieces that persist and are consumed by ocean plankton–and thus they have become a part of all ocean life. And then there is that floating soup of plastic in the ocean–most of which has blown off of landfills.
All human bodies now consist of a certain percentage of plastic. We have no idea what part of our physiology this replaces.
In complex and dynamic and carefully calibrated natural systems (including our own bodies), we cannot easily lift out and replace some part for another. This should give us pause in gene splicing, where the attempt to replace one gene by another in “Roundup Ready” soybeans has produced a mysterious “extra” gene whose effects are unknown. General problems with genetically engineered crops include gene migration which spreads genetically engineered genes for miles and the fact that genetically engineered crops have contaminated non-genetically engineered seed stocks.
It is a dangerous thing to blithely create something we cannot contain-even if its convenient business of substitution gives us something we want. This is why the European Union has wisely created the REACH program to use the precautionary principle with respect to the creation and use of human-created chemicals.
This business of thinking we can exchange everything for something else needs to be re-evaluated. The minute one sets a price on something, no matter how high– it is devalued. For then it can be bought.
As did those who lived sustainable lives in the Pacific Northwest for tens of thousands of years, it is time to think about and revalue the things that are priceless–before we trade them all away.
 See Nancy Turner’s “Lesson of a Birch” in Resurgence no. 250, for more support for this point.
Filed under: Contrasting worldviews, Ecofeminism, Environmental ethics, Environmental psychology, Ethics, Indigenous links, Northwest History and Culture, worldviews | Tagged: contrasting worldviews, Environmental ethics, genetic engineering, indigenous environmental values, intrinsic value, Pacific Northwest treaties, pricing human life |