Lecture Four: Does the Land Belong to the People or People to the Land?

             In this lesson, we will examine two very different notions of relating to land, contrasting in the essay on “belonging to the land” in our website readings. On the one hand, there is the idea of land as a commodity that can be developed and owned for monetary profit—the idea of land with which we are familiar in the contemporary United States. This is the worldview in which land is considered property. On the other hand, there is the idea of land as sacred space expressed by the indigenous cultures in our readings.  Suzuki and Knudtson also give an analysis of the contribution of science toward developing the idea of sacred space (pp. 194).

The notion of land as “property” contributes to a different sense of place than does the notion of land as sacred space.  Indeed, some have questioned whether the idea of land as property allows us to feel a true sense of belonging to place at all.  Wendell Berry observes that the latter has historically led to a relationship with the land as a “one night stand.”  Here is a quote from his Back to the Land, in Amicus Journal, winter, l999):

One of the primary needs of industrialism is the separation of people from their place and products from their histories.  To the extent that we live in an industrial economy, we do not know the histories of our families or of our habitats or our meals.  This is an economy of the one-night stand….  The industrial eater says to the … industrial hog, “We’ll be together at breakfast.  I don’t want to see you before then, and I won’t care to remember you afterwards.”

…  What, then, is the countervailing idea by which we might correct the industrial idea?  …  It is the agrarian idea that … rises up from the fields, woods and streams… the agrarian mind is less interested in abstract quantities than in particular qualities.  It feels threatened and sickened when it hears people and creatures and places spoken of as labor, management, capital and raw material.”

Wendell Berry’s “agrarian idea” might well be linked with the long-lived connection with the land of indigenous peoples.  According to Berry and to the worldviews of the cultures discussed in Suzuki and Knudtson, such a long-lived connection with the land is what makes it home to the humans who live there.  In this context, home is where our kin are: to indigenous peoples such kin include both the human and non-human spirits on the land. They also include the ancestors who have gone before and those who will follow:  in this context caretaking of the land is a sacred trust.

Other elements of this view of land as sacred space include valuing the complexity and uniqueness of particular landscapes (rather than their abstract exchange value); keeping the stories of a particular landscape that tell the history of its human and non-human habitation; and protecting the land’s ability to sustain itself (Aldo Leopold definition of a “land ethic”). Such values, in turn, set the scene for the adaptation of human behavior to the land as opposed to the common approach of Western industrialism which attempt to adapt the land to human purposes.

Indeed, the pioneers who founded this country– to whom the possession of the land meant a secure economic life– also often felt more than its “property” value. For some pioneers, the land might be powerfully linked to their very identity in a way resonant with the indigenous views described in our readings.  However, other environmental values expressed by the Euroamerican society that colonized both the land and its peoples stray quite far from indigenous viewpoints.

The contrast between the contrasting views of belonging to the land outlined in this lesson lead to ongoing contention between those who see a place as valuable in itself—and those who seek to develop it for economic purposes, as expressed in this statement about Snoqualmie Falls written by Lutheran minister, Reverend Jon Magnuson:

In the darkness of one early morning last July, an 18-year-old, a fugitive fleeing from state police, jumped to his death off the 270-foot cliff edge of Snoqualmie Falls. On an August afternoon, with the prayers of a Jesuit-priest and a Suquamish Indian spiritual leader, a small group of native and non-native friends walked to that same cliff edge and, in a quiet ceremony, scattered ashes of a deeply loved wife, nurse and mother into the cascading river water tumbling over the granite rock face. Such events continue to remind us that Snoqualmie Falls, apart from being one of Washington State’s most popular tourist attractions, is no ordinary landscape.

In 1991, Puget Sound Power and Light Company applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a 40-year relicense to operate its hydroelectric facility, which produces less than 1 percent of the total power sold to its consumers. The private company would divert an additional 60 percent of river flow from the falls. The proposal involves major blasting of the falls’ rock face and considerable alteration of the natural river bank. This initiative for federal approval and licensing sparked the beginning of a regional public debate and marked the falls as a battleground for a fascinating, troublesome and emotional collision of values and perspectives.

For years, Snoqualmie Indian people have felt that the sacred nature of the falls, the site of their creation story, has been compromised. Having become aware of Puget Power’s plans, they approached local church leaders for support. These bishops and denominational executives, in a 1987 apology to native people, pledged support in recovering and protecting “sacred teachings” that earlier Christian missionary traditions once helped diminish or destroy. The Snoqualmie Falls Preservation Project, a coordination of the tribe’s and religious community’s preservation efforts, has now gained increased recognition with the support of the Mountaineers, the Northwest Rivers Council, Seattle’s Audubon Society and Washington Trout.

Two special notes of reflection are helpful in framing a better understanding of the dilemma. First, the future of Snoqualmie Falls is a question of conscience and sensitivity that rightly belongs at the center of public discourse. It’s not, as some suggest, a simple business or engineering problem. On a deeper, fundamental level, the struggle essentially reflects a collision of paradigms and world views.

The most universal of all modern religions, economics, has been pitted against the religious and spiritual values of one small, fragile Indian tribe. As the river is a public, not a private, resource, any appropriate resolution should be found from a deepening of public conscience.

Secondly, the struggle to preserve Snoqualmie Falls might be seen as what James Hillman calls an effort to “recover the world’s soul.” Hillman, a prominent psychologist and social critic, soberly observes that the great majority of our churches have become personalized, private and sentimentalized. A shift needs to move religion and psychology, Hillman maintains, from saving the soul of the individual to saving the soul of the world. The challenge of protecting the haunting beauty and religious significance of Snoqualmie Falls remains for us in the Northwest an unusual opportunity: a chance to protect a place where the power of an ancient people’s prayers are still lifted up in the falls’ mists, where people from all cultures are drawn and invited to pass through to other realities. The falls need to be left as pristine as possible … additions of museums, turbines and dynamiting of its rock face are intrusive and obscene.

For those involved in the preservation efforts, it’s a reminder of theologian Matthew Fox’s conviction that one of the ways creation protects herself is to ensure that native peoples all over the Earth continue to survive in spite of technological society’s efforts to exterminate them. Fox prophesies that indigenous people are here to “bring back the Earth.” Ron Adams, director of the Falls Preservation Project, states forthrightly, “Indians are not the message, they are the messengers.”

Related essays for discussion:






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