Diplomacy with the Nations of Life

The perception of other natural life as nations with distinct ways of life, values, perceptions, rights, and territories of their own would allow us to see the natural world in a more holistic way. This is not a new idea. This perception inspired indigenous Northwesterners to treat the first salmon taken from a run with ritual care:  for they if did not respect that salmon, they would insult the salmon people.

The treatment of other species as nations went hand in hand with whole-species and inter-generational assessments of the effects of human actions. Thus Yurok Lucy Thompson pointed out in her self-published book in 1916 that the modern laws meant to protect salmon runs lacked effectiveness. They would not  work as long as they were geared only to the actions of individual fisherman– since taken together, the actions of those fisherman created a guantlet of nets that the salmon could not navigate.  Notably, the shamans who oversaw traditional Yurok fishing indicated when to start and stop the taking of salmon from a run, thus gearing the take to the size of particular runs.

In this context, we see modern religious leaders such as Takelma Siletz elder Grandma Aggie as ambassadors between humans and natural domains such as the salmon and the waters in which they swim.  In her self-described role as a “voice for the voiceless”, she reminds us of those we might otherwise neglect in both human and larger-than-human societies.  Today, those are the ones that often the vulnerable ones  most in need our attention.

Such diplomacy entails respect for the homes of other creatures– the kind of respect with which we would like others to treat our homes. One day a Chehalis grandmother (in keeping with her sense of the value of modesty in her tradition, she requested I not use her name, though she urged me to use her words), pointed out the piles of earth on a prairie in front of her house, resulting from the going after camas with shovels.  “They really messed up the prairie”, she told me.  By contrast, one shouldn’t be able to tell that a prairie dug with the slender traditional digging sticks of her people had been dug.

I have heard this same ethic of non-disturbance of the habitat of other natural life  expressed by a number of other elders. In 1927, elder Mary Heck, speaking in Chehalis, testified before the Indian Claims Commission on behalf of her people, citing the villages that were destroyed by whites.  She added that beaver homes were also destroyed by pioneers as they drained land for their farms.

Refraining from disturbing the homes of other natural life is not an automatic response. Knowledge gained over generations of observation told indigenous root diggers how NOT to disturb the lives and habitats of others as they met their own needs. In Mary Heck’s case, she also observed the fertility the beaver’s activity added to the land.

Respect for the habitat of others provides an excellent model for respecting other human communities–a  special concern in the context of growing globalization.  Such respect must be based on the willingness to learn about the needs and views of these others. This is not an altruistic impulse.  In an interdependent world, what we learn of others enlarges our vision and our own choices.

This is a sketch of an idea I am working up into a larger paper.  I invite your response.

There is a story of a traditional African court mediation between a farmer and a hyena along the lines of the diplomacy mentioned in this post, as well as a discussion of the concept of nature having rights in  this article by Cormac Cullinan in Orion Magazine:

There is also an excerpt from his book, Wild Law on the site above.

See also Christopher Stone’s classic, Should Trees Have Standing?

Here is a Northwest independent bookseller sketch of Stone’s work complete with a number of responses and reviews.