Biodiversity in the Pacific Northwest: Lessons from a Living Land

By Madronna Holden

One reviewer of a manuscript I wrote changed the Upper and Lower Chehalis peoples into the “North” and “South” Chehalis, in spite of the fact that these peoples traditionally lived (and still live today) along a river that runs east to west.  This man obviously thought that since north is “up” on a map, the Upper Chehalis must live north of the Lower Chehalis, imposing a standard modern map of the land and its squared off directions on the land.

Monoculture stems from this same type of thinking:  pick a favorite crop and impose it on the land according to your own  map of what the land should produce– in spite of the nature of the land itself.  Then all else becomes a weed—the dandelion, for instance, becomes the occasion for dangerous pesticide use in home lawns.

Wheat farming in the nineteenth century Willamette Valley was an example of this tactic. Planting wheat throughout the valley not only meant tremendous labor inputs to clear land and sustain this crop, but subjected the farmers to the vagaries of the national wheat market—leading to a cycle of boom and bust in the local economy.

The potato certainly seemed like a great crop to plant in nineteenth century Ireland—until the notorious potato blight hit and there was mass starvation, since there was nothing else to survive on.  Such examples give us cautionary lessons in looking to a “magic bullet”,  such as a single genetically engineered crop, to meet our agricultural needs.

The potato blight did not hit Peru with such devastation as it did in Ireland.  In Peru, farmers grow dozens of types of potatoes, drawn from hedgerows that flourish as wild seed sources. As with such hedgerows—once prominent in Britain and continental Europe as well– the strategies of Northwest indigenous ecological management entailed fostering the ecological “edges”where diversity flourished between habitats.

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest were “salmon people”, but they were not salmon only people.  Situated as they were in the midst the richness of local salmon runs, they still had diverse subsistence strategies to complement taking of salmon. Not incidentally, this allowed them to limit their taking of the salmon in order to sustain them.

In negotiating treaties with the US government, native representatives insisted on rights to traditional subsistence resources that included an encompassing diversity.  To the extent that they could make this clear in the rudimentary vocabulary of the Chinook jargon in which negotiations were conducted, elders at the Cosmopolis treaty proceedings on Grays Harbor asked to reserve for their peoples not only their favorite salmon streams but cranberry bogs, oyster beds, prairies where they took camas and deer, and beaches where they took advantage of the whales that washed ashore.

Those who insisted on maintaining these diverse subsistence strategies had generations of experience to advise them. In traditional times if a salmon run were poor, there were sturgeon, seal, clams, smelt, and eel from the rivers and sea—and elk, deer, ducks, geese, and rabbit from the adjoining hills and prairies.

But it was the vast array of vegetable roots and seeds, ferns, berries and greens that most indicates the biodiversity of native subsistence strategies.  In 1945, Erna Gunther documented the use of ninety-seven local plants remembered by Puget Sound peoples– likely a mere fraction of those once used by peoples relocated from traditional lands.

East of the Cascades, an ethnography done by James Teit (again, after much change in traditional subsistence methods) among the Thompson Indians found 46 stems, leaves and flowering tops “used extensively” for food,  another 26 eaten as root crops, 41 more eaten as fruits and berries, and 6 eaten as nuts and seeds.  That is a total of 129 different vegetable foods utilized for food alone.

Additionally, these people used 176 plants for medicines, chewed 9 species, used 13 for non-medicinal drinks, 7 for smoking,  53 for manufacture, 13 for making dyes and paints, 7 for scents, and 16 for various forms of purification.

They gave at least 23 plants a special place in their traditional folklore and mythology and recognized 29 more as good food for the animals that shared their landscape.

Such biodiversity expresses how sustainable human cultures are interwoven in reciprocal independence with the natural world. All nature operates in this fashion. If we wish to honor and nourish the salmon, it is necessary to protect their habitat, just as the decaying bodies  of spawned salmon feed so many other lives.

In the traditions of indigenous northwesterners, it is also necessary to nourish one another.  In Western Washington, potlatch feasts held both within and between tribes helped redistribute food to those without resources.  Sharing between the well to do and the less well to do was institutionalized by such potlatches, in which the wealthy affirmed their social status by giving away goods and food to others.  Most villages in Western Washington had a community potlatch house in which such ceremonies were held.

In Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee’s words, “This was a country that was free to anybody and if you a different tribe, they let you go up, they don’t bar nobody.  If you hungry for something, you go out and get it.”

With permission, that is, from its caretakers– the particular people who were “rooted to the ground” in each locale– and undertook care for their land, establishing limits on usage of particular plants and animals during particular years or seasons.

In this context, the Lower Chehalis seasonally moved into Chinook territory to fish the Columbia River; the Upper Chehalis moved into Nisqually and Mud Bay territory to fish the Sound.  At particular times of the year, the Chinook, Cowlitz, and Quinault came to the Lower Chehalis territory on Grays Harbor to obtain seal. In July and August the Chinook and Cowlitz came to Lower Chehalis territory once again to fish for sturgeon.  Along with the Satsop, they all dug clams on the beach there. In turn, the Lower Chehalis would travel to Cowlitz territory to dip smelt when they ran in the winter.

In contrast to fences, which Cultee observed stopped the flow of life on the land, native maps honored the diverse mixture of space, time and life in such flows of people into and out of one another’s territories.

Cultee inherited the knowledge of the Harbor’s “fish trails” from his people. That knowledge told him not only where the fish swam, but when. He quipped that non-Indians might think him lazy, since he did not always get up at dawn to go out fishing. But he didn’t see any point in fishing when the fish weren’t there.  Thus though he worked less hours than some others, he caught more fish.

An Upper Chehalis grandmother told me her people followed “streams of trees”, noting how communities of plants seeded themselves together. Following such “streams”, one would never get lost on the land.

Near Florence, Oregon a Siuslaw elder instructed a young pioneer boy to listen to the distinct voices of the various watercourses—since if one learned to recognize these voices, one would always know where one was on the land.

In such maps of the land, there was neither clock time nor squared survey grids that caused “up” to be “north”, but an intersection of time, space, and the diversity of life.

The richness of these maps reflects the richness of a living land—to which it was necessary to attend with care.  The biodiverse subsistence strategies that flow from such observations illustrate the understanding that nothing in the natural world nourishes itself.

Biodiversity in indigenous subsistence strategies is directly linked to establishing a partnership with the land that follows nature’s models rather than trying to dominate it.

It is a pragmatic approach.

A UN conference recently convened in Brussels cited the largest study ever done comparing biodiverse  “ecological” agriculture (which avoids chemical inputs as well as genetically engineered seed) to conventional agriculture. In 286 projects in 57 developing countries, ecological agricultural outproduced conventional “industrial” agriculture by an average of 79 per cent.

The ecological methods also led to reclamation of degraded land, as in the area formerly known as the “Desert of Tanzania”, where  agroforestry rehabilitated 350,000 hectares  in two decades–while substantially raising local household income.

Besides avoiding chemical inputs, ecological agriculture uses diverse local seed, and grows a number of crops together, including mixing trees with other crops. This is the method by which the New Agricultural Movement in Bangladesh reclaimed their own land in the wake of the failed “high yield rice”– by combining forest, farm, rice paddies and animal husbandry on the same land.

Notably, in putting forests back,  “ecological agriculture” reverses the trend which causes conventional agriculture to produce 14 per cent of annual global carbon emissions and to add another 19 per cent through the deforestation it demands.

Nature does not “monocrop”.   And neither should we.

In a world with a burgeoning human population to feed–and with rapidly degrading agricultural land and climate change linked to industrial monoculture, we need biodiverse alternatives.

This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  Feel free to link here, but any part of it may be used off site only with attribution and permission.


Confusing Discovery and Conquest: A Recipe for Destruction

By Madronna Holden

The worldview that links discovery with conquest has caused considerable social and environmental harm.   This attitude has deep roots in Western history.  Julius Caesar’s famous motto Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered), featured on some  modern t-shirts, couldn’t be more clear on this point.  Discovery is a prelude to conquest.

Caesar himself didn’t invent this approach.  It was the guiding principle of the Athenian colonial empire, as illustrated in the tragedy of Melos. The people of Melos sent the Athenians a missive indicating they wished to live in their own way rather than join the empire.  The Athenian response was to massacre them.  In their proposal of neutrality the people of Melos violated the first rule of colonial empire, which is that whatever lands or peoples the conqueror casts his gaze upon, he owns.  In this context, the only alternative to assimilation of the Melos was their obliteration.

The worldview which mingles discovery with conquest persisted in the history of the Pacific Northwest—and it still persists today in our modern technology.  It is signed by the failure to see what we discover for what it is rather than for what we would make of it.  Indeed, an essential part of this discovering/conquering gaze is what it doesn’t see. Rather than Caesar’s I came, I saw, I conquered, the slogan of the conquering discoverer would more accurately be, “I came, I didn’t see, and I conquered”.  Or alternately, “I came, and I destroyed what I didn’t see.”

Take some examples from Pacific Northwest history.  Several decades after explorer Alexander Henry declared the Willamette Valley Kalapuya a wretched and homeless lot who lived out under the trees, those same Kalapuya began saving Oregon Trail pioneers from wholesale starvation—and it was the pioneers themselves that took shelter in the trunks of trees when they first arrived here. As for the traditional Kalapuya, one of their houses on Marys River (near Corvallis) was sixty feet long, and the ones near Tualatin might be twice that big.

But the denigration of the Kalapuya in the pioneer worldview led to the Senate’s refusal to sign treaties with them on the logic of those like Senator Sam Houston, whose Senate speech declared them “insignificant”.

The reduction of native villages to “huts” on lands that were “wastes”, as early  missionary Father Francis Blanchet wrote of the Chehalis, licensed their destruction. In fact, the Chehalis houses where Blanchet traveled, constructued by whole communities working together, included a potlatch house nearly two hundred feet long, to accommodate intertribal horse races inside in the wintertime.  But if one saw native houses as huts, that licensed their obliteration and replacement by a shipping port on the Chehalis River, as Blanchet proposed.

The blindness of those who crowded into a tiny cabin roofed with sail canvas and the camping mats of native people–and declared their abode the first house on Puget Sound– might simply have been humorous from the perspective of those at Port Madison whose cedar longhouse covered an acre of ground. In describing this contrast, historian and novelist Archie Binns stated that many pioneers foolishly assumed that, “a house is not a house unless built by whites”. This blindness  provided a license for destroying that which the pioneer worldview rendered invisible.

Throughout the Northwest, the cleared land upon which Native villages stood was favored by pioneers—and they seized it as they destroyed native homes, usually by burning. This is the mortal danger in the discoverer/conqueror’s blindness:  that which he renders invisible, his actions work to banish in fact.In the claims case pressed by several Puget Sound tribes in the early 1900s, indigenous peoples testified how the houses in village after village were burned by pioneers, who sought the land on which they stood–and ignored the fact that this land had been cleared by native people.

In fact, lands pioneers favored throughout the northwest were those specifically modified by native labor:  as was the broad Willamette Valley early fur trappers nicknamed the “gourmand’s paradise” for its profusion of natural foods. But Lyman Abbot, major spokesmen for the ironically named “Friends of the Indians” who lobbied Congress to assimilate Indian peoples to white ways in the nineteenth century (and take their land in the process) argued that the Indians did not even “occupy” the land.  Real occupation, he argued, would consist of things like mining operations.

Or the beaver trade.  The destruction of beaver homes along with human ones was something Chehalis elder Mary Heck remarked in the claims trial above.  This gets to the heart of the discovering conqueror’s blindness—the conqueror destroys that which creates the very things he favors. Pioneers throughout the continental US coveted beaver meadows as choice farmland, as Carolyn Merchant details in her analysis of ecological changes in New England with the coming of pioneers.

But at the same time, Euroamericans brought the beaver to the brink of extinction.

Val Plumwood outlines the blindness of the “dominator” logic—or more properly, illogic—expressed here.  The conquering mindset divides the world into dualistic sets such as progress/backward, civilized/savage, human/nature, civilization/wilderness, man/woman, master/slave, boss/worker, insider/outsider, friend/enemy– with the idea that one is higher and one is lower.

From the perspective of the ones above, those below become “objects” for their use—and invisible in their own right.  And also invisible in terms of the ways in which those at the top rely on them.  As Carolyn Merchant also observed, seeing nature as an active process means recognizing the contributions of natural life in creating the landscape upon which we make our own lives. But today we are still laboring under the induced blindness of the discover/conqueror in this respect, which sets humans above nature and renders natural systems as there for our use–and invisible in their own right.

Thus  globalization and industrialization are systematically destroying seventeen ecosystem services priced at $33 trillion a year, treating these aspects of ecosystems as it they were merely objects for our use–and thus invisible both in  their own right and in their contributions to our survival.

It is a matter of logic and of justice that we recognize and honor the living communities that charge water tables, contain and filter storm water, hold hillsides together with their roots—and provide us with the air we breathe and the soil on which to grow our food.   But we are hampered in doing this by the mentality that mixes discovery with conquest.

The mentality does not ask the “discoverer” to assess the consequences to natural lives (including human ones) in the use of his newly discovered technology. Modern industrial society simply gives the rights of usage to the “discoverer” as a patent.  The dangers involved in this approach have led the European Union to institute the precautionary principle in its REACH program.  According to this principle, a new chemical must be proved safe before it can be distributed.

There is the further question of who owns something derived from an ecosystem– something created and sustained by other life. The notion that if we “discover” something it is ours to do with as we will brings to mind a quip comedian Dick Gregory made about the discovery of the American continent by Europeans. Following this historical precedent, he declared that he would like to discover himself a car.

To address this issue in modern globalization, Vandana Shiva has instituted a “no patents on life” campaign. According to its guidelines, discoverers can neither own nor lock up from others the use of what they “discover” if it is part of a living ecosystem.  This pertains especially to the patenting of food and medicinal products traditionally used by third world peoples.  In the case of Shiva’s India, corporations patented both basmati rice and neem—and attempted to use those patents to keep these products out of the hands of those who used them for generations.  Shiva’s idea has been picked up in a European Union proposal.

All in all, it is time to clear up our inherited confusion between discovery and conquest—and the near-sightedness that goes with it.

Let us re-imagine discovery as a matter of meeting and mutual learning—rather than overrunning and obliterating the others who share our earth.

After all, blindness to the natural sources of our lives is not a survival tactic.

The Dangers of False Reverence: Destroying What We Think We Love

By Madronna Holden

Updated 5.21.2012

In Crossing the Next Meridian, Land, Water and the Future of the West, Charles Wilkinson notes two ideologies that resulted in the destruction of the salmon runs that once yielded 42 million pounds annually on the Columbia River alone.

The first is the sense of dominance that saw the land only as a resource for human exploitation. But the other is perhaps not so obvious.  It is a reverence for that which it destroys.

We don’t have to imagine the destructiveness of the first attitude:  we have history to inform us of it.  This attitude created a free for all in the Pacific Northwest in which, as Wilkinson puts it, the “fish hardly had a chance”.  This was expressed in the waste in the taking of salmon in the late 1800s, as in the case of the trap on Puget Sound that wiped out an entire run of sockeye salmon when tens of thousands of fish wedged themselves into that trap and suffocated before they could be released.

Wilkinson also notes that some pioneers, by contrast, held the salmon in reverence. But it was a strange reverence, an idealization that never really saw the salmon for what they were– or as anything that incited human responsibility. In their awe for the overwhelming abundance of the salmon runs, pioneers never saw their limits.  Unlike the indigenous system which set up seasonal harvest limits orchestrated by religious leaders, pioneer harvesters depleted that which they never thought would end.

Partly this was because they had no historical experience with the runs—but the destructiveness of their actions was also mingled with their idealization of Western lands as something larger than life.

I spoke with those who logged the old growth forests they found on arriving in Western Washington in the late 1800s– who had experienced the grace and power of those forests as they took them down with crosscut saws, leaving stumps twenty feet high– since mills couldn’t handle logs over five feet in diameter. As they grappled with those great trees body to body, they did not stop to think that the forest that defined their lives would ever be gone.

In their minds, the hugeness of the land bestowed it with a sense of eternity—a sense that it would endure no matter how humans behaved toward it.

After he had been a logger, one man I interviewed served as a fire lookout, living alone in a cabin on Mt. Rainier. In those days the animals were not afraid of humans–and just watching from his mountaintop as various animals came by, day after day, he felt a reverence for the natural world that was no longer entangled in struggling with something larger than life.

That was when he looked around and saw the old forests were going.   He was in a state of shock as a result.

When I interviewed him he was in his nineties and had spent several years tracking the changing weather patterns resulting from those missing trees.  He filled his notebooks, day after day, with his record of the lost forest, as if his faithfulness could redeem his former carelessness.

He wanted most of all for our generation to understand the mistakes made by his.

The pioneer west is not alone in expressing the dangers of such a reverence toward an idealized part of nature. The Ganges River in India is both one of the most revered and one of the most polluted rivers in the world.  In effect, this river is loved to death, as its idealization licenses some to overlook the fact that it has any limits—any needs of its own which might depend on human responsibility towards it.

The good news is that while political will in India has not taken up the cause of cleaning the sacred Ganges, this project has recently united Muslims and Hindus.

The idealization of women expresses a parallel dynamic of failed or too idealized reverence.  At the beginning of an abusive relationship, a man classically expresses intense reverence for the object of his desire.  Indeed, in modern Western culture, many relationships are characterized by a “romantic fallacy”—an idealized projection on the other that prevents each from seeing who they really are.

The romantic fallacy is exceedingly dangerous to the object of its projection.  For the Ganges, the salmon, the trees, the idealized woman, the object of such reverence loses subjective identity—the right to act on their own and have their  needs honored.  As Jean Kilbourne points out in her analysis of the idealized woman in modern advertising, that ideal portrays the woman as a kind of corpse.  The airbrushed presentations of her face are like mummified parodies of real life. Such an objectification of anything, she observes, is the first step toward licensing violence toward it.

Those who idealize another cast see them in terms of their own needs—and thus are all too liable to exact of them the kind of sacrifice Trask exacts of the indigenous elder who befriends him in Don Berry’s historical novel Trask, situated on the Oregon Coast.  In this novel, the pioneer protagonist kills the elder in the midst of his attempt to initiate himself in a spirit quest like that of traditional indigenous peoples.  In a profound metaphor for real history, the pioneer is literally out of his mind as he commits this murder, unaware that establishing his own “spiritual” connection to the land costs the life of another.  In his trance, he carries the dead body of the elder through the landscape in his personal search for a spiritual home.

The ambivalence of this murderous reverence—in which the land and its people become a sacrifice on the altar of human need– is expressed in this quote from the novel:

“Taking possession of the land is the first and final grasping of a man … toward immortality…As a child clutches blindly at his mother’s breast, so a man will strain to the land without understanding…

The thing that possesses a man to open a land is simple lust…A molding and carving and forging takes place between [man and land].. bitterly, happily, angrily, exultantly…  And in time there is no …clear edge of difference where … the land ends and the man begins.”

As this quote expresses, there is a profound human need to belong to something larger than oneself—something that begins before an individual’s birth and continues after death.  But such belonging cannot be had by seizing it:  “possession” and “land lust” are the contrary to belonging established in the mutual inter-working of the land and its human residents over time.

Moreover, we can never see a land so entwined in our own need for what it really is.  Idealization of the land, that is, inhibits true intimacy with it.

By contrast, indigenous reverence for their land rests on intimacy with it—on gratitude and humility for the daily gift of life the land provides. It is characterized by the reciprocity between a people and a land that is not larger than life, that is, but bound up in life itself.

In its link to daily life, such reverence motivates care for the land and for all life that shares it. This reverence is illustrated in the words of native naturalist Linda Hogan in Dwellings: “What does god look like? These fish, this water, this land.”

In such recognition of the divine in creation, there is quietude and fullness, as expressed by Rebecca Adamson, Founder of the First Nations Development Institute: “God is in the space and silence. That is where it is sacred. You look up on a starry night and you feel yourself unfold, and that silence is where God is.”

In her interview in  YES magazine (summer 2009), Adamson indicates an essential difference between opening to the silence of the divine in the stance above and the idealization in the pioneer perspective.  The indigenous perspective is based on fullness and gratefulness;  the pioneer perspective, like that of modern capitalism in general, is based on hunger and need:  on a “self-fulfilling scarcity”.

In the indigenous case, humans adapt to the fullness of natural life, in the pioneer case,  the land becomes a projection of human need.

Thus the latter sees the land as that which might redeem humans from their hunger for  belonging and security–even if they have to destroy it in order to possess it.

How to Love a River

By Madronna Holden

Updated April 2012.

Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee obtained his own long life from sharing it with the river his people named themselves for. Hum-m-m-ptulips, that river was, its name humming along on the tongue the way its rifles hummed along, so that it cleaned itself out in three days after a rain.

His elders had taught him to dive deeply in the river when its water was “alive”, when it was at its most powerful– and the greatest challenge to humans.

Cultee told me of a cousin who simply wet his hair to give the appearance of diving.  His elders might be fooled, but the river knew who really dived there.  His cousin passed to the other side many decades ago while Cultee lived on in concert with the land.

He was in his mid-eighties when I first met him and still living in season in his “fishing shack” on the Humptulips, tending and mending heavy nets on his own.    He was ninety-nine when I last went to see him. Then he had given up the heavy labor at his ancestral place on the Humptulips.  He was living with his son Richard on the Skokomish Reservation, where the only medication he took was an occasional aspirin-and where he and Richard had taken in two small boys.

“Here we are, bachelors with children”, Henry Cultee quipped.

“Wherever you found a river”, Cultee once told me, “There you found Indians”.

The fluidity of the river mapped the flow of the land, rather than the frozen north or south of paper maps-and certainly-rather than fence lines, which Cultee complained stopped the flow of natural life

To the Northwest’s river people the treaty promise of the US government:  “as long as the rivers shall run” was no fleeting thing-even if Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens wrote to his superiors, that as soon as the US gained more strength in this area, they would no longer have to honor the treaties they were making.

Indian peoples themselves soon learned that to the US government, treaties held “as long as the rivers shall run–or thirty days, whichever comes first”.

Richard Cultee’s Skokomish people had another joke:  “We knew the whites had arrived when we woke up one morning and the river was moved.”

It was no joke that Tacoma Power stopped up the entire north fork of the Skokomish River with a massive dam at Cushman to generate electricity.

That whole section of the  river didn’t run at all any longer.  Neither did the salmon, whose care was outlined in traditional Skokomish tales, which instructed the people to allow the salmon to release their eggs so as to perpetuate and strengthen the runs.

There wasn’t any advice in those old stories about how to help the salmon up a dry river bed.

But the Skokomish fought the dam that blockaded their river.  Recently they achieved a settlement with the Tacoma utility that it would release enough water from its turbines to allow the river to flow again.

There won’t automatically be salmon back on that water. The water flow comes all at once, in a steady blast from the turbines rather than in an ebb and flow.  But the Skokomish have visions for changing that too.

And someday they may be able to follow the injunctions in their ancient tale for caring for the salmon on their river again.  They have dreams about that:  and like the Chehalis who earned their long lives on the land in conjunction with the rivers, they plan on persisting.

So do the Takelma, represented by Takelma elder, Agnes Baker Pilgrim, who will conduct the second annual ceremony “honoring the water”-blessing the Willamette River-this coming Sunday, April 26 at the EWEB Plaza in Eugene, Oregon.  Grandma Aggie has international stature as chair of the International; Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. But she has local status with the salmon.

On her website Grandma Aggie conceives of her role as a “voice for the voiceless”-for all those things, that is, whom we have neglected because they may not speak in a human voice-or if they do, may speak only the language of the privileged.  In this sense she works to actualize a “democracy of all life” as East Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva has put it.

This phrase is an apt term to describe the “commons”- that natural life upon our own depends, no matter what our status in human society.

We are only now beginning to see what happens when we ignore the natural sources of our lives.

This is a lesson we would not have to learn the hard way if we had traditions of honoring the rivers in the way of the Takelma or Chehalis or Skokomish.

We might learn from the river instead.

There is nothing that can teach us more about the democracy of nature than a river.

And nothing that can teach us more about reciprocity and balance:  since what we put into the river ultimately comes back to us.

This is one tragic lesson in the current state of the Ganges River, sacred to millions, but one of the top ten most polluted rivers in the world whose flow is also threatened by global warming. Hindu ecofeminist Lina Gupta has analyzed how the idea of transcendence without reciprocity has led to the pollution of this river. There is a belief that the river is a goddess who can cleanse anything-and thus anything can be dumped into her with impunity.

It is the understanding of reciprocity and balance, Gupta writes, that is most dangerously missing from this perspective.  fortunately, since this essay was first posted here, the plight of the sacred Ganges has become a cause (cited in a news story in April 2012) for uniting Hindus and Muslims in cleaning this river.

Conceiving of the river as transcendent in this way implies that she never has to be cared for herself. Gupta argues that this attitude contradicts true Hindu belief about Dharmic (duty)  responsibility for one’s actions.  Gupta also ties this into the notion of dominance in the industrial world that denigrates the sources of nurturance that it designates as feminine-like the Mother Ganga.

Thus those who say they revere the river as transcendent can actually use this as an excuse to pollute it.

Global warming is currently affecting the glacier that feeds this river-and as its source dries up; millions downriver are affected by drought.  And the e.coli and heavy metal content from industrial pollution is directly affecting those who use this river as the source of their drinking water.

From a short-sighted human perspective, it might look like we can dump anything into our rivers and have it simply carried away.

But in fact, the river teaches reciprocity:  how what we dump there ultimately comes back to us.  It teaches karma, that is, in Hindu terms.

It also teaches another revered Hindu idea, according to Gupta: the idea that all is one.  In its flow it negates the modern industrial divisions between spirit and nature, humanity  and  the natural world.  When we pollute the rivers, we pollute our own bodies.

Meanwhile, back in Oregon, Grandma Aggie specifically requested that a sign be made for her blessing of the river that reads, “The river is not a garbage dump”.

Coming back to the question that began this essay– how do we love a river?

By caring for it, as have the Skokomish with the long court battle to free its water and as does the Chehalis River Council today.

By knowing it-following the example of the Corvallis Environmental Center’s mapping of the water quality in the Willamette River in conjunction with the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State. University.

By fighting its being bottled up in plastic and sent elsewhere, as are the Winnemem people currently defending their sacred McCloud River in Northern California.

By learning from rivers everywhere what they have to teach us about fostering the length of our lives on the land.

The Dangers of Pricing the Priceless

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. [1]

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.


[1] See Nancy Turner’s “Lesson of a Birch” in Resurgence no. 250, for more support for this point.

 

Caring and the “Fore-caring” of Precaution: Watching over the Commons

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.”

Partnering with the Natural World

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By Madronna Holden

In 1927 Chehalis elder Mary Heck testified on behalf of her people before the U.S. Court of Claims. She spoke in Chehalis, enumerating the things a non-Indian court might count in terms of value.

She listed the houses that had been destroyed by pioneers who wanted the cleared land on which they stood. She told how long it took her people to build each of those great cedar houses that stood for generations unless they were destroyed by fire – the white tool of choice in this matter. She spoke the names of villages erased from maps that set down straight lines over lands and waters that contemporary Chehalis elders told me were traditionally navigated by “streams of trees” and “fish trails.”

But Mary Heck had something else to say as well, something she deemed important to place on the record alongside the list of the destroyed homes of her people: the destroyed homes of the beaver, devastated by pioneers as they drained her people’s lands for their farms.

Even in translated court transcripts, her tone comes through. She is speaking up for the beaver who shared a partnership with Chehalis women in their root digging grounds. Mary Heck credits the beaver for sustaining the wetlands and fertile ground the Indian women favored for these crops. In relating the destruction of the beaver’s homes, Mary Heck mourned the loss of a friend.

Just as the otter is a keystone species in Pacific Ocean ecosystems, the beaver had a central role in ecosystems both east and west of the Cascades. Indeed, in taking beaver and otter, the early fur traders could hardly have picked two species whose depletion had more profound effects on local ecosystems. Beaver dams helped create and sustain the wetlands that are now ninety-nine per-cent gone along the Willamette River, wetlands which married the river to the land, providing habitat for a proliferation of plant and animal species, containing and filtering storm water, and keeping ground water tables charged.

Across the Cascades, along the Crooked River, for instance, innumerable springs dried up when the beaver dams were lost in the wake of the fur trade. Then the once fertile lands that spread out beside that river shrank as the formerly meandering waters stayed to a deeply cut bed. In this sense, the concerted policy of Hudson’s Bay Company administrators John McLoughlin and George Simpson to stymie competitors by creating a “fur desert” in the Pacific Northwest had an ironic ring. In accomplishing their goal of depleting the otter and beaver, they enlarged dry land areas throughout the Northwest.

We can set Mary Heck’s story of the beaver alongside the modern ecologist’s story of the sea otter in expressing the dynamic interplay of species in a resilient ecosystem. Her perception, in turn, derives from the “partnership” worldview in the indigenous Northwest. With this point, I want to take up where many natural resources managers, including innovative ones such as “resilience” thinker Brian Walker leave off.  I want to shift from questions about how we “manage” natural resources to how we manage ourselves to support nature’s resilience.

The issue of partnership takes up a theme in a paper I recently gave on resilience thinking, in which partnership was one of four strategies I proposed for managing human behavior in ways that support the resiliency of natural systems.

The first step in establishing a partnership is treating our partners with comparable respect to that with which we treat ourselves.  In their 10,000 years of sustainable living here, the Pacific Northwest’s diverse indigenous cultures did this by treating all natural life as their intimate kin, with standing comparable to that of humans. “All animals and inanimate objects possessed spirits,” as STOWW (Small Tribes of Western Washington) stated in their handout for their 1975 treaty rights workshop. Among the Sahaptin-speaking people on the mid-Columbia River, the term for “life” is waq’ádyšwit, the “animating principle or ‘soul’ possessed by people as well as animals, plants, and forces of nature”. Waq’ádyšwit indicates “intelligence, will, and consciousness,” and since it exists in all natural things, it is the moral basis of the reciprocal partnerships between humans and their land. [i]

Parallel recognition of personhood in nature is found in the traditions of the inland valleys as expressed by contemporary Coos-Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman: “The earth is alive. It has a heart.” The indigenous peoples of Northern California likewise also perceived natural landscapes as comprised of persons alive with spirit. In the early 1900s, linguist Jaime de Angulo wrote of his frustration in trying to get a word for animals that contrasted with that for humans in the Pit River language. But there was no such word in their language, since there was no such distinction in Pit River culture.

A partnership worldview inherently promotes respect for diversity in its recognition that all natural life possesses spirit and personhood. In this sense, the partnership view envisions the most democratic of socio-ecological systems, embracing what Vandana Shiva terms “a democracy of all life”.

The radical equality between humans and other natural life in the partnership worldview goes hand in hand with the recognition that nature and humans are intertwined in the relational manner of Brian Walker’s “socio-ecological systems,” in which “changes in one domain of the system… inevitably impact the other.”

In this sense, both the partnership model and the resilience paradigm offer an alternative to the dualistic split of the worldview that sets humans apart from and above nature. Both concur with the modern science that tells us whatever we do to our natural environment, we do to ourselves. Thus, for instance, the pesticides and fire retardants released into our environment have become ubiquitous in U.S. breast milk.

In recognizing the dynamic reflexivity between ourselves and the natural world, indigenous Northwesterners developed an ethic of reciprocity, which entailed sharing the gifts of life with others, taking only as much as you could replace from natural systems, and treating natural life with respect in order to allow it to flourish – which in turn allowed humans to flourish. In such reciprocity, we find the intersection of ethics and practical outcomes in an interdependent world.

Take for instance, the case of the salmon in the Pacific Northwest.  Respecting the salmon as partners with humans, for instance, resulted in their abundance under native management, so that the indigenous peoples on the Columbia River harvested seven times the modern take without harming the sustainability of the runs.

Since all natural species were peoples in the partnership view, it followed that one should develop an ethics of consideration for the future generations of salmon and humans together. Drawing on this perspective Yurok elder Lucy Thompson observed in 1916 that non-Indian rules for protecting the salmon on the Klamath River were bound to fail, since they were based on the actions of individual fishermen – but their actions taken together created a gauntlet of barriers the salmon could not run.

Lucy Thompson’s insights stand beside those of all the indigenous peopled cited above in illustrating how the partnership view implements both intimate knowledge of natural systems and careful monitoring of the results of human actions on those systems. Thus is the alternative to the Not in my Backyard attitude which separates the consequences of environmental decisions from those who make them.  Ecofeminist Val Plumwood points out the fundamental irrationality of the modern global system in this respect, in which those who have the most power to make environmental decisions are the least likely to be visibly  and immediately affected by them. This broken feedback/ethical loop must be repaired by remedying a sense of “remoteness” from particular places (as the bioregional movement sets out to do), from the future (in the effects of our actions on future generations) and from those “others” which a hierarchical worldview renders invisible or inconsequential.

The ways in which the partnership model encouraged humans to manage themselves for the benefit of both their landscapes and themselves were not limited to the salmon. In Tending the Wild, Kat Anderson details the way that this worldview led to the exquisite bounty of root crops, wildfowl, and game recorded in hundreds of explorer records in native California. In like fashion, early explorers in the Willamette Valley termed it the “gourmand’s paradise” for the results of the specific management practices of the Kalapuya – and they would come to the Willamette Valley to stock up on provisions whenever they ran low.

The intersection of ethics and practical results in the partnership model is eloquently expressed by modern Nisqually leader Billy Frank, Jr., who has worked tirelessly both for Indian fishing rights and the care of the salmon and its habitat: “I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same thing.” [ii]

Modern Westerners cannot authentically or ethically take over the specific spiritual beliefs of other cultures. Nor can we return to the past. Yet as the Resilience Alliance’s workbook for resource managers observes, it is important to tell the story of ourselves and our land in ways that free us from the constraints of the ruling paradigm. In this context, the partnership worldview has much to show us about fostering a resilient world.

Indeed, the partnership worldview immunizes its holders against the paradox of domination. This paradox flows from the fact that the more one tries to control a thing, the less one sees it for what it is. One-way communication with natural life (we plant, you yield) subverts the knowledge we need to foster a resilient world. As a remedy for the dangers of such limited information gathering, the partnership model sensitizes humans to the ways in which natural life “talks back” to us.

This paradigm has important scientific potential, as expressed in geneticist Barbara McClintock‘s Nobel Prize-winning work she accomplished through “speaking with the corn,” getting to know each corn plant as an individual. It was not a popular method for any scientist, much less a woman beginning work in genetics several decades ago. For years McClintock struggled to continue her research without the support of her colleagues, finding ways to fund her own work.

This is the kind of leadership expressed by Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Pilgrim Baker in taking on her personal commitment as a “voice for the voiceless.” She does not say, “voice of the voiceless.” She is not subsuming or taking over the voice of the other. Instead she is expressing the central stance in the partnership worldview: speaking up for those we might otherwise leave out of our goals or visions, in the same way that Mary Heck called attention to the beaver.

Such leadership reminds us that in order to gear our behavior toward fostering a resilient natural world, we need to increase our listening skills-and thus expand our range of vision.

Key to the success of the partnership worldview is its attribution of agency to all in any socio-ecological system. Thus it helps us embrace a question as pressing in this era of increasing globalization as it was to cultures with 10,000 years of standing in the Pacific Northwest.

How do we share our world?


[i] “Western Columbia River Sahaptins,” Eugene Hunn and David H. French in Handbook of North American Indians v. 12.

[ii] Quoted in Charles Wilkinson, Messages from Frank’s Landing.

A slightly different version of this essay appears as “Partnership and Resilience” in Ecotrust’s online journal, People and Place.