The Natural Model of Reciprocity
By Madronna Holden
The idea of reciprocity expresses balanced and mutual exchanges. In natural systems, such exchanges take place at the most basic energetic level–an essential law of physics states that, for every action, there will be an equal and opposite reaction. Indigenous characteristically model their economic and social exchanges, as well as their relationships with the natural world, on the reciprocity in natural systems. Importantly, this sense of reciprocity is very different from that of “an eye for an eye”. Indeed, a larger sense of reciprocity makes the vengeance exacted in an “eye for an eye” a self-defeating gesture-since one who demands vengeance can only expect vengeance in return. The compassion modeled in many world folktales suggests an alternative. In acting with compassion, we gather allies rather than multiplying enemies.
The model of reciprocity is expressed, among some African First Peoples and in Afro-American communities today, as “what goes around comes around.” In Hindu philosophy, reciprocity is expressed in the idea of karma.
In the economic realm, the natural model of reciprocity leads to “redistributive” systems, as Karl Polanyi noted in his analysis of Polynesian and Melanesian economic systems. He contrasted these systems with accumulative ones, in which individuals accumulate as many goods for themselves as possible. The systems Polanyi studied entailed trading cycles that spanned hundreds of miles between islands. The individual in this system did not conduct trade as simple barter with a set return. Instead, they simply gave things away, setting their goods into the flow of the system– with the understanding that something else would return to them because of the cyclical nature of the whole system.
In interdependent systems such as the Melanesian one, the behavior of one person affects all others. In line with this, in many indigenous worldviews, a reciprocal return on one’s actions is not limited to an individual. Instead, there are consequences for a whole family or group. In many folktales warning about disrespectful behavior toward the environment, the resulting consequences come to a whole people-who may lose their ability to live on the land as a result.
The redistributive economic system makes the Hawaiian hierarchies different from Western social hierarchy (and certainly industrial economic “success” in amassing wealth). Those higher up in the Hawaiian societies had as many obligations as they had privileges. In fact, any “king” or “queen” who did not use their position to redistribute goods would be removed from office.
Similar dynamics prevail among the traditional social systems of peoples of the Northwest Coast: the higher a person’s “class”, the more obligations they had to serve their people. A high-class person must work extremely hard to gather and give away goods to others if he or she wanted to keep their status. In addition to their spiritual dimensions, the well-known Northwest potlatches were re-distributive mechanisms, which affirmed the status of particular individuals according to how much they gave away. The giveaways also strengthened community in another way, since one’s friends and relatives would help amass goods for the potlatch.
The link between authority and service is characteristic of the worldview of indigenous societies. It was not easy to be a leader in such circumstances: among the Plains Indians, the chief’s teepee was the place of refuge in disputes; his was the first house to give away goods in economic hard times. There are stories that sometimes the position of “chief” went wanting- as no one was able or willing to assume so many obligations.
All worldviews that incorporate the natural model of reciprocity emphasize the ways that the natural world gives us the precious gift of life -a gift on which we must make a return. In the Hawaiian system, the natural world has the highest status in the social pyramid built on reciprocal giving-since the natural world gives to the people the priceless gift of life itself. The utmost respect is consequently due to the authority of natural systems, which comprise our generous life-giving “elder”. Contemporary Wintu artist Frank LaPena (from Northern California) sums up this idea in his essay: “The World is a Gift”. The idea of the world as a gift, in turn, implies an environmental value of gratefulness. Matthew Fox elaborated this idea from his Christian perspective in what he terms cosmic hospitality: the idea that we are on this earth as the guests of Life and should act accordingly. Many traditional stories from the Northwest Coast indicate the importance of being a good guest in this sense.
Indigenous cultures have characteristically built their social structures on the passing on of gifts to one another-modeling their societies after the giving qualities of the natural world. The early anthropologist Marcel Mauss wrote a classic work, The Gift, describing the exchange of gifts as the essential organizing principle of human societies.
The notion of reciprocity thus leads to important social and environmental ethics. Lewis Hyde has written a detailed book on the idea of the gift among both indigenous peoples and European peasants, in which he concludes, “the gift must always move.” In this view it is not accumulation or holding on to our property that gives us personal, social, economic (and certainly spiritual) power, but passing it on. Further, we should not give with an expectation of a return, but with the sense that what we give the world, whether it be in material goods or right action, will come back to us or our children in another form.
To stop the flow of life’s gifts is to create poverty rather than abundance in the social and ecological systems-as well as in one’s own spirit. According to the natural model of reciprocity, the gift of life necessitates both a respect for that gift and a return. We see an expression of this in the respectful return of parts of the animal to its habitat. There is another implication to the view of the natural model of reciprocity-and that is, how dangerous it is to take too much. If the natural world operates reciprocally, what we give will return to us-and what we take will exact a price. In this sense, the model of reciprocity is a conservative one in terms of the use of natural resources-and a sharing one in terms of the human use of those resources. The Inuit elder interviewed by Knud Rasmussen put it this way: the most “dangerous” thing about human beings is that we live off of “souls” (since the Inuit considered all natural beings to have souls, as do human persons). The only thing one can do to alleviate this danger is to respect and to pass on the invaluable gift of life itself that animals share with us through their own sacrifice on our behalf.
In this context, hunters, gatherers or cultivators in indigenous culture, characteristically share whatever largess they take from the natural world in this world. As Chief Patrick Munyariari, South African elder, puts it: If “another person is eating while others are not eating…the land cannot smile at us”. “We never asked, ‘are you hungry'”, the Humptulips elder Henry Cultee told me, “We just brought out the food.” The implication was that by asking “are you hungry” (he said this in a whiney, begrudging tone), we are asserting that we somehow have the right to dole out food that belongs by rights to all as a gift from the natural world. Paul Radin, who spent twenty years learning the language and ways of the traditional Winnebago, writes that not to share food, shelter, and clothing with any member of their culture was tantamount to “declaring that person dead”.
M. Kat Anderson sees similar cultural dynamics as absolutely essential in the development of the non-exploitative relationship native Californians developed with their land. In her words,
…wealth-spreading devices…along with the lack of strong economic hierarchies discouraged hoarding of resources and encouraged cooperation. The chiefs divided important harvests among families so that no one went hungry… These formal cultural rules acted to ensure broad community access to staples… and prevent food sources from being raided and exhausted by a few families or powerful individuals. (Tending the Wild, p. 362).
Such ethics continue among indigenous peoples throughout the world today. In the Pacific Northwest, sharing, cooperation-and reciprocity itself-are traditional values emphasized in contemporary longhouse ceremonies on the Columbia River.
The natural model of reciprocity is also linked with the cyclical view of time. The cyclical flow of time through seasons and solar energy through ecological systems, expresses the inescapable reciprocity of the natural world. Indeed, in the largest sense, the cyclical worldview indicates that all time is one, since nothing ever totally “disappears”- it will always return again in another way. By contrast, the worldview that sees time as linear carries no notion of reciprocity with it. If time consists of points on a unidirectional “arrow,” then the past is left behind, and things do not come around again. This leads to the assumption we can leave behind the consequences of our past actions. All we have to do is move on in order to escape the personal, cultural or material “waste” we create.
The natural model of reciprocity also helps us understand the limits of the natural world-since it indicates we must make a return on everything we take from that world. The linear view of the arrow of time moving forward, by contrast, implies no limits to our thrust into the future. In the book, Natural Capitalism, by Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins, the authors emphasize that we are making a tragic mistake in using up natural resources as if they were limitless and we never have to make a balanced return on our usage. Instead, they suggest that what is limitless is human energy and the capacity for learning, and that is where we should focus our sense of growth. Interestingly, this is very much in line with indigenous systems like that of the San people of the Kalahari, who traditionally spent a small percentage of their time (a few hours a few days a week) harvesting the resources necessary to sustain themselves-and the bulk of their time telling stories and practicing ceremonies that taught them how to get along with one another.
For a more detailed illustration of the reciprocity in traditional folktales, see my article, “Wild Justice”, in Parabola.
How important is reciprocity? In answer to a question from a student about the current environmental crisis, Kalaypuya (Willamette Valley) elder Esther Stutzman put it this way: “This is what I think will save us. Always thank the earth. Thank everything, living and non-living, and sometimes pay the earth”. Stutzman said her granddaughter gives the earth pennies in return for items collected from it. She continued, “If you take food or basket materials, say thank you. If you swim in the river, say thank you. Respect everything, living and non-living”. Stutzman joked that she even tells the weeds as she pulls them from her garden, “You are going to a better place”. This attitude of respect and thanksgiving makes you a “better-spirited person. You feel better about yourself inside, and when you feel better about yourself, you treat others in a better way”.
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Winona LaDuke elaborated the concept iof reciprocity from the perspective of her Anishinabe tradition in a talk she gave at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1993, on the topic of “Social Justice, Racism, and the Environmental Movement.” Winona LaDuke is the coordinator of Native Harvest and author of All our Relations (see the latter for more discussion on reciprocity).
She was introduced in the following way:
“Winona Laduke is a leading spokesperson and activist for indigenous rights. She is Anishinabe from the Makwa Dodaem (Bear Clan) of the Mississippi band. At the age of seventeen she addressed the United Nations on behalf of native peoples. She is a founding member of Women of All Red Nations and the Black Hills Alliance. She directs the Land Recovery Project on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. She is President of the Indigenous Women’s Network.”
Here is a part of her talk: for the whole of this talk and others by LaDuke, visit Alternative Radio.
“‘Over the long term the change that is required to make for all of us to survive demands that people who are not Indian need to change the way this country works. I believe that is the investment we must collectively make because that is how we will survive together. The premise that I’m going to talk about is that the environmental racism discussion forces us to look deeply into the paradigms and institution of this America. As a consequence, we have the responsibility to act as deeply. That is the challenge that we all face in bringing up the discussion of environmental racism. I believe it is a discussion that permeates the society. I also believe that the issues that are brought up by the discussion are much deeper than the discussion itself of environmental racism.
To begin with I’d like to talk a little bit about indigenous ecological thinking. The purpose in doing that is that I would like to contrast what I believe is the thinking that came from this land with the thinking that exists on this land now. I believe that that is ultimately the contradiction and the dichotomy that exists in this society, something which systemically we have avoided discussing in this America because the mythology of this America is based on the denial of the native. As a consequence, most Americans, most people know nothing of the native. As a consequence, most people know nothing of what is indigenous thinking, our ways of living on this land.
I don’t know all things about things native. I have had the opportunity to listen to many of our people talk. It is my experience that we have many common values and premises of our indigenous ecological thinking. I believe that one of the most common perceptions, a centerpiece of our world view, is the indigenous perception that natural law is preeminent. It is the highest law, higher than the laws made by nations, states, municipalities, corporations. We are all fundamentally and ultimately accountable to natural law. If we are to exist and to continue living and to live sustainably we must learn to live in accordance with natural law. To not do so would in fact be foolish. That basic premise underlies most indigenous thinking.
I would also suggest to you that as a consequence of indigenous societies’ belief in natural being preeminent we have learned to live here sustainably. The reality is that indigenous peoples are the only people who can evidence living in the Western Hemisphere sustainably. As a consequence of that I believe that our knowledge in living sustainably is something which could be valuable for the rest of the society. There are certain tenets which go in accordance with the perception of natural law being preeminent. It is my experience in most indigenous societies that the balance is something which we see in all forms of life and try consistently to maintain. We recognize when there is an imbalance that there at least be something to offset it. Most indigenous societies are predicated on finding balance. That is how we have continued to live. That is how our ceremonial practice, our spiritual practice, and our day-to-day living is based on finding balance. I believe that balance has to do with our basic concepts of things like reciprocity and of cyclical thinking.
Most indigenous societies, when anthropologists talk about economic systems, which only recently they have begun to discuss as us having economic systems in themselves, have begun to discuss that our economic systems are based on reciprocity, which has to do with balance. In my community, when we go out and harvest wild rice, we always offer saymah, tobacco, before we begin our harvest to give thanks to that for giving itself to us. It’s reciprocity. You don’t take without giving. That’s the relationship of reciprocity. You always gives something when you take. And you only take what you need and leave the rest. It’s a basic element of an indigenous society, that you only take what you need and leave the rest. We do that for several reasons.
Perhaps the first and most significant is that indigenous people observe that all that is around us in the world is animate, alive. In fact, in our languages most nouns are animate. In my language, corn is animate, rice, stone. In fact, in most indigenous languages many of these nouns are animate. Which means that from an intellectual point of view they have standing on their own. We recognize them as having spirit, being alive, as having power. As a consequence when we harvest we’re very careful to harvest them with great respect. In fact, it is a perception in most indigenous cultures that hunters, when we harvest, the skill of the hunter is not the reason that you get the animal. It’s because the animal gives itself to you because you are respectful and honorable in your practice. Most indigenous people, particularly northern hunting societies, go to great pains to ensure that they are respectful in their harvest practice. To not be respectful in harvesting would mean that you would starve, would not have the ability to sustain your community. This is the practice of reciprocity.
The third concept is that of cyclical thinking. I discuss this because I believe it is important to bring forth different perceptions of the world than those with which we are raised in this society. Most indigenous societies have a perception that all things which are natural, in an accordance with natural law, are cyclical. The time, moons, seasons, women, our bodies, even time itself. All things which are alive are cyclical. The perception is that what you do now will affect you in the future because now and the future are a continuum which is cyclically related.
I talked about some of these concepts. I’m going to read a quote about this, the Cree talking about this in more specific terms: “All creatures are watching you. They know everything you are doing. Animals are aware of your activities. In the past animals talked to people. In a sense there is still communication between animals and hunters. You can predict, for instance, where a black bear is likely to den. Even though the black bear tries to be secretive, before retreating to his den to hibernate, tries to shake you off his tail, you can still predict where he is likely to go. When he approaches his den entrance he makes tracks backwards, loses his tracks in the bush and takes a long detour before coming back to his den. The hunter tries to think what the bear is thinking. Their minds touch. The hunter and the bear have parallel knowledge, so they share that knowledge. In a sense, they communicate.”
I believe that traditional ecological knowledge, the knowledge of indigenous people who have inhabited ecosystems for thousands of years and both observed and been given, through gifts from the Creator and from spiritual practice, that that knowledge is superior to scientific knowledge. I believe that the knowledge of indigenous peoples who have lived here for thousands of years is the knowledge which should determine ecosystem management in North America. I do not believe that the knowledge of scientists is yet at the state where it could match traditional indigenous ecological knowledge.
I think that some of the reasons that traditional ecological knowledge is systematically denied by the society have to do with the paradigms on which the society is in itself based and a denial which exists in the society of what is indigenous. The mythology of America is based on the denial of the indigenous. That has always been what America has been about. The consequences of that are that this society, this American society, I view it as indigenous and industrial thinking, the dichotomy which exists between the two. The society and what we are taught in these institutions is a different paradigm, a different perception of the world, than an indigenous perception. I believe that that is a disservice to the earth and to future generations, the lack of indigenous thinking in these institutions.
Specifically, I will tell you that it is my experience and all of our collective experience that the things which I have outlined as basic tenets of indigenous ecological thinking and of natural law, the idea of natural law being preeminent, the idea of balance, of reciprocity, taking only what you need, leaving the rest, cyclical thinking and all things being alive and the requirement and responsibility of humans to respect those things, those are in sharp contrast to the thinking of this society. That is my experience. In this society I believe that instead of the perception that all things are animate, that natural law is preeminent, the society holds instead man’s dominion over nature, the perception that somehow man has a god-given right to all things in nature and that man has the right to make the rules and all else should live in accordance with man’s rules. In this society we do not believe that natural law is preeminent. In America we believe that man is preeminent. It is, of course, usually man.
I believe that this society also forwards a perception of linear thinking, in stark contrast to cyclical thinking. I believe that this has to do first of all with how you’re taught time in this country on a time line. The time line usually begins around 1492 and continues from there on out, with a number of dates that are of importance to someone. I was never sure who, but they are of importance to someone. That’s how we’re taught time. The consequence of linear thinking, permeating our consciousness in America, is that for instance there are values which go along with linear thinking, like the idea of progress, defined by indicators like “economic growth” and “technological advancement.” You want to have progress. Where you want to be. So we have an underlying perception in the society that we need to have progress when we move along the time line.
There are also other perceptions associated with this kind of thinking. A perception of the “wild” and the “tame.” The land is wild. The untamed wilderness of America, and the attendant policy of manifest destiny which was a consequence of that. Also, the perception of peoples as primitive and other peoples as civilized. That is associated with linear thinking. It is my experience, and other people of color’s experience, that people who are viewed as civilized are usually people of European descent, and people who are viewed as primitive are usually people of color. I believe that those perceptions permeate thinking in this society and that they have been taken well into the environmental movement. That is the problem that we face today.
Finally, the perception of capitalism. I listened to NPR on the way to the airport today. I heard Colin Powell talking at the National Press Club. He was talking about how great capitalism was, how communism was totally gone all around the world. We’re so glad that capitalism is flourishing. It made me nauseous. The problem is that it’s always unpopular to talk about capitalism in America, but being who I am I can’t help myself. My experience is that from studying economics, capitalism is, you take labor, capital and resources. You put them together for the purpose of accumulation. The idea is the least labor and capital and resources you put together and the more you accumulate the better capitalist you are. So the suggestion I will make to you is that the idea of constant accumulation, which is what America is about, what consumerism, NAFTA are about, means that you always take more than you need and you don’t leave the rest. So I suggest that it is possible from an indigenous world view that capitalism is inherently out of order with natural law.
I presented two paradigms, indigenous thinking and industrial thinking, because I believe that that is the problem we face in this society, the conflict between those two ways of thinking, and the inability, for instance, of people of conscience in this country and people in the environmental movement, to move from industrial thinking to indigenous thinking. I believe that that is what we must do if we’re going to survive. The reality is that the consequences of industrial thinking and an industrial way of life are holocaust. That is our experience. It is the experience of this society having caused the extinction of more species in the past hundred and fifty years than since the Ice Age. It is also the experience of the extinction of peoples. There is no clear estimate of how many indigenous peoples have perished in the Western Hemisphere, except perhaps for visiting scholar David Stannard’s book American Holocaust. But the experience that we understand is that the holocaust which occurred in the Western Hemisphere is unparalleled in the world. It’s not appropriate for me to compare my holocaust with someone else’s. But it is appropriate to say the holocausts have to stop. Clearly, the past two months in Brazil and Peru have indicated that holocausts do not stop. They indicate that mining companies and governments turn away while entire villages are wiped out. It continues to occur.
I’ve not heard many North American environmental groups speaking to the holocaust. I think it is something which needs to be done. I also believe that is the circumstance in which we find ourselves today, in which indigenous people today in the world remain as a center part to the world’s ecological and environmental crisis, ecological and economic crisis. On a worldwide scale, fifty million indigenous people inhabit the rain forests. A million indigenous people are slated to be relocated for dam projects in the next decade. Seventy two percent of the wars going on today involve indigenous people. Usually nations or states trying to annex the lands of indigenous nations and peoples. The same occurs in North America. All the atomic weapons which have been detonated in the U.S. have been detonated on the lands of indigenous people, about six hundred or so in the Western Shoshone Nation. There are some people in Point Hope, Alaska. It started in the 1960s, called Project Chariot. The Department of Defense wanted to make a nuclear blast to clear a harbor on the north slip of Alaska. So these Inuit and Inupiat fought this, and they didn’t do it. But what they did was to take about twelve hundred points of radioactive swill from Ground Zero at the Nevada test site and put it on the north slope of Alaska, next to some Inupiat villages near Point Hope and study the bio-accumulation of radiation in the lichen-caribou-man cycle. They put it there in the 1960s. They released the documents in 1992. The Inupiat that live there have cancer and leukemia rates incredibly above the rates down here. This past summer Inupiat people and Greenpeace were trying to clean it up. But the Department of Defense only cleaned the surface. The Inupiat saw those people plant it low, dig big holes. They won’t spend the money to clean that up.
That is indicative of what is going on in Native America today. The hundred separate proposals for dumping toxic wastes, the uranium mine, the coal strip mine. I was in WashingtonD.C. trying to get the land returned by the Department of the Interior. A guy who was in forestry at the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) started talking about the fifty billion board feet of Indian timber that’s out there, most of it old growth, most of it in Alaska on native lands. He kept talking about how for the past decade they haven’t been able to cut it because there wasn’t enough money in the Bureau. All he kept talking about was how now that the Clinton Administration was in that they were going to appropriate the money so that Indians could have economic development on their lands. This is what environmental racism is about: where people bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility of waste and toxins in their ecosystems for a society
But I suggest to you that the problems of environmental racism which are faced by the indigenous community are much deeper than that. Environmental racism is a symptom of the illness of the society, which has to do with industrial thinking and which is incapable of dealing with the native. We inherit this but it is a result of a long process of colonialism in which we still exist and still live. So today all across Indian country there are grass roots organizations. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of these people. They are working on trying to address, the Inupiat people are out there with radiation suits on digging up DOE garbage. Indian environmentalism is not well funded. Indian women with one-eyed Fords driving down roads with five kids in the back seat going to a meeting to try to face down Waste-Tech. That is what is going on. We don’t have lots of briefcases. Most people don’t even have phones. Most people live in trailer houses or log homes or HUD housing. We are facing down these huge corporations that are coming in with these new proposals.
We are a front line of the environmental movement. Yet we are not recognized as valid partners. That is the reality. When we talk about the appropriation of wealth in the environmental movement, it does not trickle down to Indian country. I’m not saying that we want all the money in the environmental movement. But there remains a myopic view and a tunnel vision which does not include either people of color or particularly indigenous people at the table in a valid way in determining what happens in our communities. So there are women like Gail Small at Native Action in northern Montana on the North Cheyenne reservation. She’s an attorney, has four children, and for about fifteen years she’s been fighting coal. North Cheyenne reservation is sitting on top of a huge coal deposit. On three sides of the reservation they have coal strip mining. They have the PowerRiver Basin coal sales, the single largest federal coal sale in history. It happened under the Bush Administration. If you’ve seen strip mining you know a little bit about it. The National Academy of Sciences talks about coal strip mining in the West … I don’t know if you’ve read some of this, but in 1973 the National Academy of Sciences came out with a report called “The Rehabilitation Potential of Western Coal Lands.” They were talking about Northern Cheyenne, the northern plains and the Southwest. What they said is that there’s a lot of coal out there. Then they said, The problem is that in those areas where there’s a lot of coal they receive less than seven inches of rainfall a year. In the process of coal strip mining what they do is take everything out. They call what is above the coal “overburden.” So they just take the whole thing out. The coal is a part of the aquifer system. So they dig it out and trash the aquifer system. Then they go back and try to pat it back down and put grass on it. That’s what they call “reclamation.”
The National Academy of Sciences looked at the potential for even scientifically done reclamation and determined that in areas where there was less than seven inches of rainfall they shouldn’t even bother trying to reclaim it. They felt that what they should do is to write off those areas and call them “national sacrifice areas.” Those terms came from the government. The problem is that that’s Indian coal. One third of all Western low-sulphur coal is on Indian reservations, or adjacent or surrounding, like Northern Cheyenne. They’re sitting right next to coal strip, four big coal-fired power plants. All the way to Minneapolis and Seattle and San Diego, North Cheyenne coal. That’s where it’s going. So they’ve been fighting it. Gail Small has a little project, $100,000 budget. Four staff. They got the federal government to require a cultural impact statement on coal strip mining on their lands. The idea that is might have a cultural impact on people when their sacred sites are strip mined. Very important.
Then she took on a bank. If you’re in an environmental movement you think that banks don’t have much to do with environmentalism. They were trying to do this interstate bank merger. There’s this bank right on North Cheyenne that wouldn’t lend to Indians. They were redlining North Cheyenne, for a couple of reasons. One is that they were just racist. Another is because the Indians have water rights to the water they needed for those coal strip mines and coal-fired power plants, and they were trying to blackmail those Indians into going along with the coal business because they couldn’t get operating loans for their ranches. Ninety percent of that reservation is owned by those North Cheyenne, and they’re ranchers. Gail took on a bank merger under the Community Reinvestment Act, which says that if you’re a local bank you’ve got to invest a certain percentage of money in the local community. She took them on in court a couple of years ago. It was the first time that a federal interstate bank merger was stopped by the Federal Reserve on the grounds that they were redlining that community. Now they’re starting to get more loans. That’s an example of grass roots environmentalism.
Grace Thorpe, her Sauk and Fox tribal counsel, in its infinite wisdom, decided to go for a hundred thousand dollar grant the federal government was giving for nuclear waste dumping in Indian country. They didn’t tell any of their people. She read about it in the Daily Oklahoman one day. She opens it up and finds out that her tribal council has applied for this $100,000 to look at the feasibility of a nuclear waste dump on the North Cheyenne. She went through the roof. So she starts going out there and finds out what radiation is, which most people don’t know. Then she starts taking on the tribal council. She got an election on it and there were seventy five people who could vote. Seventy people voted against it and five voted for it. The five were the tribal council. The seventy people who opposed it were the community. The tribal council already had the check. But they had to send it back. That’s another example.
Then there’s Lance Hughes, in Oklahoma. I worked with these people for quite a while. For about fifteen years they’ve been out there fighting Sequoia Fuels. You’ve heard the Karen Silkwood story. This is about environmental racism. It’s also about the racism in journalism. Nobody covers Indian environmental issues very much. These guys have been fighting Sequoia Fuels which dumps radioactive stuff all over their land. They have an elevated cancer rate and birth defects in their community. They’ve been pumping it into these underground holding systems, Sequoia Fuels, which were leaking. Then they had this excess, raffinate, which is a toxic byproduct of uranium processing. They passed it off as fertilizer and put it all over Kerr-McGee’s fields around the plant. About three or four years ago there was an interesting story in Kerr-McGee’s annual report. They talked about how since they had a longstanding relationship with the Navajos, which has much to do with the uranium mine in the Southwest in the 1950s and 1960s, where a lot of people died. They took a bunch of hay grown with raffinate and brought it down to BigMountain and the whole area surrounding it when they didn’t have enough hay down there. They brought truckloads of it because they were really trying to help those people out.
These people took them on for about ten years. A year ago this fall this local grass roots organization called Native Americans for a Clean Environment (NACE) that Lance Hughes runs had a meeting and said, What are we about? Are we in the business of being an organization or are we in the business of stopping Sequoia Fuels? They decided that they were in the business of stopping Sequoia Fuels. So they took all of their money and put it into this campaign. They got hydrologists and lawyers and did blockades and intervened in all these legal hearings. Pretty soon uranium buyers from Japan started calling up this little grass roots groups in a log cabin and asking them if they were going to get their uranium back. They were afraid that NACE was going to stop the plant from operating. Pretty soon it got written up in a nuclear fuels magazine. They took them on in court and about a year ago they had another accident at the plant. There was a big release. People got radiation burns. Sequoia Fuels decided that they didn’t have a chance of winning. They decided to cancel their reapplication for licensing.
I tell you that story because this is a group that has a very small budget. They decided that what their business was was stopping Sequoia Fuels. It was not being in the business of being an environmental organization. They can’t pay their phone bill, but they can stop Sequoia Fuels.
The irony of it is that the coverage by journalists of that story was limited. I have a personal problem with In These Times because I have tried to get them to run some articles on our project and Indian environmentalism and they said, No, we won’t run that because we already wrote about Indians last month. You know how you’ve got on the cover of In These Times magazine is if you were NACE and you came to them with a picture of a nine-legged frog, which they found outside the Sequoia Fuels facility. That’s how that Indian group got on the cover. I think that that is indicative of the absence of recognition of what is going on at the grass roots level and on the front lines in this country. It is something that we need to address.
So those are some examples of communities in resistance. There are also examples of communities that are rebuilding and restoring. For instance, I was just down at Hopi reservation. A lot of houses don’t have electricity. There are a lot of reasons. Hopis could explain it better. I understand what they’re saying, that it disrupts the balance. Power lines disrupt the balance. Some of those people decided that they wanted to have something in their house, a light for night, or a radio. So they started putting up solar panels on their houses. In the village of Hopeville they have fifty houses with solar panels on top. I interviewed a woman who’s a Hopi solar electrician. She straps on her belt and goes up there on those houses and puts on the panels. I thought that was a pretty good job. I heard that the Navajo nation has more wind generators and wind-powered houses per capita than any other place in North America.
There’s another example of indigenous thinking tied into a broader context, which is the Menominees in Wisconsin. They have a reservation. If you look at a map of northern Wisconsin you’ll see farmlands and then an area that’s just trees. That’s Menominee. They have the same amount of trees standing and the same age span and the same diversity as they had a hundred years ago. They have a full-scale forest in operation. They only do selective cutting. They’re very careful. The interesting thing is, I don’t know very much about international certifications, but they are the only Green Cross certified forest in North America. I think there’s something to be learned from that.
Perhaps the best knowledge about forests is, I heard a story about the Haidas in Alaska. The Haidas used to make plank houses. They still know how to cut a plank off the side of the tree and leave the tree standing. I figured that if Weyerhaeuser could do that I might listen to them. That is traditional ecological knowledge.
A final example of proactive traditional ecological knowledge is from James Bay. My children’s grandfather is a trapper on James Bay on the HirekanaRiver. When he goes out to trap in the wintertime he reaches his hand into a beaver house to count how many beavers are in there so he knows how many beavers to take. I’d suggest to you that James Small has more knowledge of value about the James Bay ecosystem than any person with a southern Ph.D. and anyone from Hydro Quebec could ever hope to have. That is the kind of knowledge and experience that needs to be embraced by the environmental movement.
The problem is that today, as we look at the environmental movement, we don’t see that. We see instead the Nature Conservancy comes to my reservation, buys four hundred acres of land and gives it to the state of Minnesota. It appears to me that they did not believe that we are capable of taking care of that land. We see the experience historically of organizations involved in the seal campaign, including Greenpeace, which I now sit on the board of. The European Economic Community placed a ban on the sale of white coats from seal pup pelts in 1983 the market for pelts collapsed. In eighteen of twenty Inuit communities in the Northwest Territories the annual revenue from the sale of sealskins dropped by sixty percent. The community of RohtenIsland saw its collective income drop from $92,000 to $13,000 by 1983. The Inuit of Baffin Island made only $42,000 in 1983 in comparison to the $200,000 they had made in years previously. The income for Resolute in the high Arctic fell from $54,000 to $2,000 in the same period. Those communities found that they had no way to support themselves. The attendant rise in welfare payments, alcoholism and suicides was epidemic. The President of the Inuit Committee of Canada, said that one of the disasters was a high rate of youth suicide. Its loss is due to the animal rights groups. We have youth problems, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence. There is very little employment. When you’re hit with something like that you’re bound to see those problems come up as a result. People at Great Whale on James Bay ask the same question. They say, Why are we conserving the belugas? Just so that the power company can come and kill them all later? There are questions asked by northern people about what right southern environmentalists have to determine and control their lives. I have to ask the question myself, when you look at those northern communities who have lived for thousands of years and understand exactly where the bowhead whales go, how many bowhead are out there, better than the Bowhead Commission does, understand how many seals are out there and where they are, have lived for thousands of years in those communities and have harvested those animals and used their surplus for trade so that they could sustain their communities. Indian people do not live rich lives in terms of financial returns. We live rich lives in terms of our culture. What happens is when southern environmentalists change that by stopping the harvesting, by stopping the market for pelts, whether it is seal or beaver, what are those people supposed to do? Then southern environmentalists become aghast when they find that Inuit communities in some areas sign on to oil development. The reason that communities sign on is that they feel that there is no alternative. Anything that they had historically done is now being diminished by this society. Those who they thought were their allies are in fact becoming their enemies in the process. That is the challenge that I believe this environmental movement faces, the challenge of making peace with the native. It is a challenge that we have not, collectively as an environmental movement, undertaken in any fair way.
I was asked to speak at the New England Environmental Conference last year. It was in Boston, at TuftsUniversity, big conference. I came to talk and see Bruce Babbitt and ask him for my 50,000 acres of land he has on my reservation that I want back. I’m just about to get up on stage to talk and the woman who directs the New England Environmental Conference, Nancy Anderson, a fine, elderly woman, comes up to me and says, I have to ask you a favor. Don’t talk about James Bay. I said, Excuse me? She says, No. You can’t talk about James Bay. If we don’t have that power from James Bay, if we cancel the rest of those contracts, like New York, we’re going to have nukes. We can’t have a nuclear power plant in Massachusetts. I looked at that woman and said, What you’re telling me is that my children won’t have an ecosystem because you don’t want to cut your consumption. That is the question that we have to address. What right does an environmental movement have to create sacrifice areas in Canada or elsewhere? To keep ecosystems in some kind of shape so that they can visit it as a luxury in the United States?
I have serious problems with the Big Ten. I have serious problems this week because nine groups signed on to NAFTA. What is this? Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, signed on that NAFTA is OK. Somehow I believe that nobody is willing to address the paradigm, to talk about the pie, to say that perhaps at some point we’ll need to stop growth, that we’ve grown enough. Perhaps it is unethical to legalize the theft of more land and resources under an agreement like NAFTA. To make it impossible for people to protect their ecosystems because under the law you can’t have barriers to trade. The Canadian free trade agreement just accelerates development of the north.
Historically, economists and social justice thinkers have talked about the North-South argument, the idea that the North consumes the South. There’s a drain of wealth from the South into the North. I believe that that view is myopic. It needs to expanded. The middle is consuming both the north and the south. That is what is going on in Canada. If they don’t cut in the Northwest, where are they going to cut? Weyerhaeuser has a lease the size of Great Britain in Alberta. Canadian forests are being cut at a rate of an acre every twelve seconds. In Brazil it’s an acre every nine seconds. If we don’t have nuclear power plants in Massachusetts, somehow the New England environmental movement thinks it’s ethical to have hydroelectric plants in James Bay. Somehow the environmental movement in this country has compromised itself to the point where it believes it is OK to have North American sacrifice areas to continue the same level of consumption. That has passed environmental racism. These are problems primarily of perception, of how we live in the society. The lack of courage of North Americans to address the levels of consumption in the society. That is the indicator, that is what drives this level of destruction.
The solutions are multiple. First of all, indigenous people must be treated as equal partners in this struggle. People of color, of communities, of the grass roots, need to be treated with respect for our communities. Who is going to take care of the north slope of Alaska if it’s not the Inupiat? I don’t think that the Wilderness Society is going to take care of the north slope. I don’t believe that anybody can take care of their community better than the people who live there. It is high time for environmental organizations, with their masses of wealth, to begin to recognize that and to support local initiatives to protect their ecosystems and regain control of their areas.
Environmental groups need to adopt policies of recognizing the sovereignty of indigenous peoples. Greenpeace has adopted a policy which recognizes the sovereignty of indigenous peoples and says, We are not going to go in there and drag those Indians into court over sea otters. Those people have a right to live, and we’re not going to tell them what to do in their community. We’re going to work with them. We agree that we will not always agree. We don’t come from the same world view, so there are bound to be disagreements. But the point is to respect our right to disagree and to ultimately respect our right to control our destiny. That ultimately is the challenge that needs to be faced. I believe that all environmental groups should be challenged to take on policies of recognizing the sovereignty and rights to self-determination of indigenous peoples and to put that into action not just in specific instances or in literature, but in terms of their campaigns. I’m saying that what is going on in Indian country has to do with this society on our backs, with this society consuming resources coming from our lands, and destroying our lands. How come it is that no environmental group in the U.S., in fact no international environmental group except Greenpeace, has a uranium campaign? I ask this question about once a week. Uranium is what they use to fuel nuclear power plants and build nuclear weapons. It seems to me to make a great deal of sense that one should leave it in the ground if one doesn’t want to destroy your ecosystem. But somehow because uranium is located in indigenous territories, and we are the people who are primarily impacted by the devastation of our land and our lives, no one has seen fit to put the resources into stopping the uranium mining. I have to ask this question of how come nobody wants to address uranium mining in the environmental movement.
I also believe that solutions need to be addressed both now and in the larger view. We need to expand our vision, collectively as an environmental movement and collectively as people trying to figure out how to live here right. For example, the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act, as it is now called, most environmental groups have signed on to that. Sacred site protection is paramount to our ability to continue living here on this planet. If we are unable to either continue our spiritual practice as indigenous peoples of reaffirming our relationship to the earth, in some places they call it remaking, or renewing. I believe the truth is that because some indigenous people in northern California continue to do that ceremonies the way they have for a thousand years and renew the earth is perhaps the reason we’re still alive. Somebody’s doing what they’re supposed to do. That’s a very important thought. As people of conscience, who have a long-term interest in surviving, it is incumbent upon us to support and protect people’s rights to continue their free exercise of religion. Other pieces of legislation: we’re trying to get 50,000 acres of land returned to us, the Black Hills Act to try to get land returned to the Lakota nation.”
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