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'The First Environmentalists' | The Nation

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'The First Environmentalists'

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For thirty years, since the publication of Silent Spring and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the growth of the environmental movement has been fueled with sorrow for the decimation of Native Americans and nostalgia and reverence for their earthwise--if presumed vanished--way of life. White writers embellished Chief Seattle's 1854 speech of farewell to his people's sacred land with ecological homilies, making it the anthem of Earth Day 1992. The genocide and dispossession were popularized in films like Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves, bittersweet elegies sung by victorious, if guilty, whites. It's unrolled like an obituary for someone who turns out to be very much alive.

About the Author

Mindy Pennybacker
Mindy Pennybacker is editor of The Green Guide , an environmental newsletter (http://thegreenguide.com).

Also by the Author

It's hard to tell whether the US is conducting a war against terror or
against Native Hawaiians, as the military uses parts of the Waianae
coast as a live-fire training ground.

Although it may come as a surprise to the
rest of America, people from Hawaii also feel the urge to get away
from it all--even the inhabitants of a paradise theme park can get
bored. Driven by "rock fever," economic need or ambition, they leave
the islands, and one of their favorite destinations is Las
Vegas, which receives thousands of Hawaii gamblers on
packaged tours each year. Others retire there to escape the
prohibitively high cost of living at home, where cereal, milk and
other staples cost fully twice as much as on the mainland.

Sonia Kurisu, the wise-talking heroine cruising for a
breakdown in Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Father of the Four Passages,
has been trying for seven years to complete her bachelor of fine arts
at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, while supporting herself as
Tiger Lily Wong, the lounge singer. She could perfectly well have
done this back home, where there are universities and no lack of
opportunities in the sleazy clubs of Waikiki or Hilo, her hometown,
where her mother's a hostess in a golf-course bar. But Sonia had
dreams of broader horizons, inspired in part by her wandering father,
an MIT grad who for twenty years has sent poetic letters to his
daughter from Amsterdam, Italy, China and Thailand, about how little
girls remind him of Sonia and his love for her. (He just can't be
with her!) However, bad boyfriends and a serious drug and alcohol
habit have impeded her academic progress, and the book opens with her
latest challenge: single motherhood.

It's a terrible
shock. Sonia's breasts are engorged and painful, and she's angered by
the crying of the baby, Sonny Boy. "I hit his face, squeeze his
cheeks inside my closing palms. Distort his cry with my hands on his
face and throat, until the sound makes me laugh." His baby bottles
and dirty diapers lie strewn around with the adults' mess, "warm beer
in tilting bottles, a glass of merlot with lip-gloss rainbows on its
surface, Percodan and Prozac strewn on the countertop, glass pipes,
amber vials, burnt pieces of tinfoil," with mom's lover, Drake,
"passed out on the futon in the arms of a girl/boy drug
friend."

Sonia regrets having borne Sonny Boy, excoriates
herself for her decision, motivated by religious guilt over past
abortions: "I vanished three babies. A hospital's toxic-waste bin, a
dirty toilet at Magic Island, and a jelly jar buried outside my
bedroom window." At the same time, she feels ashamed and scared by
her rages, and desperately wants to be a good mother; she just
doesn't know how. For this she blames her own mother, Grace, who
"vanished" 12-year-old Sonia and her sister from Hilo to live with
their grandmother in a Honolulu slum. Instead of the absolution Sonia
hoped for, though, the baby's birth summons the ghosts of her three
unborn sons, whom she calls Number One, Number Two (Turtle Boy) and
Jar. She sees and hears them everywhere, outside her window, in the
laundromat. They want to know who their fathers are. They seem to
want to live.

Wallowing in self-pity, abusing drugs, booze
and her child, Sonia, a heroine for our times, does not lack appeal.
We see, in flashback chapters, where she comes from and what she's
been up against, and we root for her as an underdog who's scrabbling
for a second chance. Which seems a distant prospect: For a time, all
that stands between Sonia, Sonny and disaster is their neighbor Bob,
an unemployed black Vietnam veteran who seems to have moved in the
day of the baby's birth, and who provides free and loving baby care,
and grocery and laundry services, while Sonia works and occasionally
goes to school. After she kicks out Drake and his girl/boy friend,
Bob keeps watch in her apartment by night. They are joined by her
platonic friend Mark, who helped her abort two of the fetuses (not
his--he and Sonia weren't lovers) and who also came to Nevada for
college. Mark and Bob clean the apartment and try to keep Sonia off
the drugs and booze and out of her destructive relationship with
Drake.

Yamanaka is one of the most prominent members of the
so-called Asian literary mafia of Bamboo Ridge, the Hawaii
journal that first published her work and that of others who wrote in
pidgin, the language of plantation laborers. Yamanaka's fiction falls
short of the beautiful craftsmanship of her peers Gary Pak and Sylvia
Watanabe and of the mythical allusiveness of Nora Ojka Keller's
work.What sets Yamanaka apart, though, is her lack of cultural
nostalgia and her avoidance of gentility, as if she sprang fully
formed from the head of Milton Murayama, along with his 1959 classic
All I Asking for Is My Body. Her plot moves outward from the
small palette to the large: Although devout herself, in her fashion,
Sonia also sees through and rails about the pretensions of her
religious, self-righteous family, who leave bossy messages on her
answering machine. At one point, her whole Hawaii clan converges in
Las Vegas for a religious convention, including her yuppie big sister
Celeste, a leader of a Hawaii Right to Life Coalition chapter and so
much else. The sisters grew up in divergent socioeconomic spheres:
Celeste tested into Punahou School, the elite private prep academy
founded by New England missionaries in 1841; but "slow-minded" Sonia,
who could never make the grade, went to one of the tough public high
schools, Farrington. Every day, they'd take the bus with the other
"Kalihi Valley working-class poor," and "Celeste would hop off...one
block before the manicured school grounds. She didn't want to be seen
with Granny Alma, a lowly custodian."

Another friend from
home--handsome but troubled Jacob, the father of Number Two--comes
through Vegas after his own drug habit derails him from the track to
an astronomy degree. Sonia's dad, Joseph, drops in as well, to see
his grandson. "Something's wrong," he says when he observes the boy.
As Sonny Boy grew, he stopped screaming and Sonia stopped punishing
him. But he also grew real quiet, and still isn't talking as
his second birthday comes and goes. He repeatedly lines up his toy
cars, sorted by color. He pounds his head on the floor. He's
fascinated by his fingers. He spins. When he's diagnosed as autistic,
Sonia first reacts as if it's all about her--that what she'd seen as
her vehicle of redemption for past sins is actually her punishment
from God. A visit from Drake precipitates an overdose, and she wakes
in the hospital to find her mother by her bed, trying to mother her
far too late, in Sonia's opinion. The whole extended family forcesher
to move back to Honolulu with Sonny Boy, where Celeste books
appointments with autism specialists.

Yamanaka remains a
wonderful comic writer, producing perfect-pitch satire of Celeste's
cultivated Punahou speechand frequent lapses into local tita
tantrums. Continuing the exposé of local prejudices that's run
through all of Yamanaka's novels, there are wonderful passages in
which the Japanese-American grandma, mother and aunties, based on
knowledge gleaned from Oprah, Rain Man and the like, blame
Sonia's lifestyle for Sonny Boy's condition. They point to her
association with the kuro-chan, or black person. They say it's
Sonia's bachi, the evil she's brought on herself for the sin
of "murdering" abortion. Still, they begin to cheer up as they
litanize the celebrities afflicted with autistic children: Stallone,
Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H, Dan Marino, Doug Flutie, etc.
"And I read in Newsweek or maybe Time that Albert
Einstein and Bill Gates were autistic," Grace says.

For
the most part, Yamanaka continues to pull back from the racism she
exposed in Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre and Blu's
Hanging
(the depiction of a Filipino stereotype in the latter
caused her to lose an Asian-American literary award; she nevertheless
has won other awards, including one from the Lannan Foundation),
though she continues to confront class issues head-on. Many of the
themes in Father of the Four Passages extend those in her
previous work: sibling rivalry; silent and traumatized little
children; struggling and battling parents; tough, compulsive sex;
loud, bad Japanese girls spurning the cultural mores of modesty,
education, respect for elders and upward mobility. After essentially
rewriting the same story in many ways, in this book she's busted
out--and leaving the island venue seems to have refreshed Yamanaka's
work. It's also--remarkably for a writer renowned for her fluency in
local argot--her first book not written, or spoken, predominantly in
pidgin. Everybody here speaks the King's English, more or less. "Both
of you denied your eyes nothing they desired, refused your heart no
pleasure. What futility it all was. What chasing after the wind. I've
just quoted Ecclesiastes, mind you," says Celeste. Some of the
stiltedness of the dialogue can be attributed to her characters'
pretensions, but Yamanaka often stumbles as well, particularly during
climactic scenes, as when Sonia unearths Jar from their Hilo backyard
in order to cremate the fetus. Her father says, "Three babies. Oh,
Sonia, what have you done?" And she replies with words he's said to
her before: "Daddy, you were right. True freedom is holding on and
seizing--" "Seizing what?" "Love--no matter the cost or ferocity of
that love." There are too many such maudlin, confrontational
speeches, a tendency toward in-your-face summarizing that has
encumbered this author's earlier books as well. There's also some
over-the-top sentimentalism: a confusion of Bob with some kind of
angel as Sonia communicates with him telepathically, and a misguided
flirtation with magic realism, including one fetus mailing her a gift
of blue silk cloth.

The occasional overexplicitness and
unevenness in dialogue are themselves outweighed, however, by several
moving aspects of the novel. There's the fine portrayal of Sonny Boy
and his autism, which rings true, and the ways different members of
the family, from his little cousin to his grandfather and Jacob,
tenderly relate to him; we observe how he helps them heal themselves.
In Heads by Harry, a baby's birth solves all the problems in
an easy, obvious way, bonding the jolly family; in Father of the
Four Passages
it happens with far more struggle, ambiguity and
risk.

Yamanaka pulls back from the shallow, sitcom surfaces
of Heads and dives deep. More than in her other books,
images--the remembered Hilo rain on hot pavement, the thousand
gilded-paper origami good-luck cranes that hover around Number
One--link throughout, building into metaphors and registering
emotional impact. Images spring from her father's childhood stories
and his effete but often beautiful letters--he plants flowers and
sends her descriptions of them from all over the world. With a
description of the window boxes of Amsterdam, he once sent a copy of
Anne Frank's diary, which motivated 8-year-old Sonia to finally learn
to read, saving her from special ed. A story he told his children
about hatching sea turtles and a Hawaiian fisherman gives Turtle Boy
his name. The color blue in the midnight sky above Las Vegas is also
a theme in her father's letters, as is the color of the liquid that
surrounds the fetus Jar. In Heads by Harry, the daughter of a
Hilo taxidermist and hunter falls in love with the rainforests along
the flank of the volcano; in Father, Sonia is drawn to the sea
and to the barren, pure moonscape of the volcano's top. In both
books, nature provides the absolution and calm that Yamanaka's
troubled urban characters yearn for.

For a social critic,
which is what Yamanaka really is, the choice of Las Vegas is fitting
in many ways; the place is an apt metaphor for the yearning and
frustration of Hawaii's working poor. It gives them a chance to be
tourists in a desert Waikiki. The biggest lure, of course, is
gambling, the chance to be a high roller, to actually win for a
change. Many Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiians, have immigrated to
Nevada as well as California, Oregon and Washington; the 2000 census
shows that populations of Pacific Islanders and Asians in Nevada has
climbed to 98,692 from 38,127 in 1990. And back home, gambling has
long been a subtext in the ongoing debate over Kanaka Maoli
sovereignty; as has been reported, lobbyist Tommy Boggs has been
helping the Office of Hawaiian Affairs plan to get gambling on
Hawaiian lands. First, of course, Hawaiians have to get their
lands--a process set back by the recent Supreme Court holding in
Rice v. Cayetano, which has put all Hawaiian blood
entitlements on the defensive. And many Hawaiian leaders are leery of
the social ills that gambling would bring. If Hawaii, or a Hawaiian
nation within a nation, gets legalized gambling, then girls like
Sonia will be able to find plenty of bachi at home.

At the other end of the spectrum from Las Vegas sits
another powerful metaphor: snowcapped Mauna Kea, the highest mountain
in the world, if you're measuring from the bottom of the blue
Pacific, which rings the Big Island that its eruptions made. The
extinct volcano is iconographic in Hawaiian culture, a symbol in
songs and chants of motherhood, purity and home. It's here that Sonia
climbs with her father, Jacob and her son to scatter the ashes of Jar
and bring him, and his aborted brothers, peace. In this last scene,
above the treeline and in the rare Hawaiian snow, the sentiment
works. For the rest, Yamanaka's cold-eyed realism is enough, and
readers should revel in her unsparing view of lowlife in contemporary
Hawaii, a side the Hawaii Visitors Bureau doesn't want shown. You've
got to give Yamanaka, and her characters, credit for their compulsion
to go straight where no one wants to go, and fight their way back
out.

For, as Winona LaDuke's All Our Relations shows, a vital Native American environmentalism is linking indigenous peoples throughout North America and Hawaii in the fight to protect and restore their health, culture and the ecosystems on their lands. LaDuke herself is a member of the Anishinaabeg nation and was Ralph Nader's Green Party running mate in 1996. These Native American activists take inspiration from their forebears' responsible treatment of natural systems, based on a reverence for the interconnectedness of all life forms. Another new book stands in marked contrast to this assumed worldview--The Ecological Indian, by Shepard Krech III, a professor of anthropology at Brown who maintains that Native Americans were actually environmentally destructive and, if Europeans hadn't hastened the demise of the bison (and depletion of natural resources), might well have brought that on themselves. But more on him later.

What the Indians lost, of course, still takes one's breath away. Regional maps in All Our Relations show the current and former boundaries of indigenous lands, the location of industrial, nuclear and other development sites, and remaining resources. Glaringly evident is the extent to which lands ceded to the Indians in treaties have been cut back and fragmented, along with ecosystems from northern forests to the Everglades. While confinement to "little islands," as Black Elk called reservations, was cruel enough, and often meant die-offs from disease and starvation, things grew worse as the islands shrank, revoked by "allotment" and opened to white homesteaders, or taken for national parks, roads, pipelines and power projects. "In 1875...the total reservation land base stood at 166 million acres, or 12 percent of the continental United States," LaDuke says. By 1974 less than 44 million acres remained. Native America now covers only 4 percent of US land. The Worldwatch Institute reports that 317 reservations "are threatened by environmental hazards, ranging from toxic wastes to clearcuts."

Native Americans were displaced by farmers and ranchers and then by mining, when the barren enclaves selected for reservations turned out to be rich in minerals like gold, coal and uranium. About half the recoverable uranium within the United States lies in New Mexico--and about half of that is on the Navajo Reservation. The largest radioactive accident in North America occurred not at Three Mile Island but on the Navajo Reservation in 1978. On Dine, or Navajo, land, where Indians provided cheap labor for thirty years without safety regulations, radioactivity enters the air and water from more than 1,000 open slag piles and tailings, dust from which blows into local communities on windy days; drinking water, too, has been contaminated. Dine teenagers have a cancer rate seventeen times the national average. Some Dine face a February government deadline for relocation in a land dispute with the Hopi--but the prime site for relocation is in Sanders, on land contaminated by the 1978 spill. Washington State's leaking Hanford Nuclear Reservation sits on Yakama land. In forty-five years, there have been 1,000 atomic explosions on Western Shoshone land in Nevada, and now the Shoshone are battling the federal government's decision to use their sacred Yucca Mountain as a vast underground nuclear waste dump.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is the trustee of the Indian lands, and its policies have notoriously disfavored the beneficiaries. On Northern Cheyenne lands, coal was strip-mined, permanently scarring the land, at fixed leases for between 15 and 35 cents a ton when the market value stood between $4.67, in 1968, and $18.75, in 1975. A lawsuit filed in 1996 seeks $10 billion in missing trust-fund payments for oil, gas and timber leases owed to 500,000 Native Americans for up to a century. Yet in many cases, the records have disappeared. Industrial pollution and agribusiness robbed indigenous Americans of their traditional diet--fish and the Hawaiians' kalo plant, as well as buffalo. A study of Mohawk and Akwesasne women's breast milk showed a 200 percent greater concentration of PCBs than in the general population, thanks to the granddaddy of all Superfund sites, in Massena, New York, which still leaks PCBs and heavy metals into upstate land and water. Environmental destruction has thus meant particular heartbreak for Native Americans. LaDuke's book conveys a deeply felt sense of "the relations all around--animals, fish, trees and rocks...what bind our cultures together."

In his story "The Way to Rainy Mountain," N. Scott Momaday describes the last attempt at a Kiowa Sun Dance, in 1890. "They could find no buffalo; they had to hang an old hide from the sacred tree." Almost 50 million buffalo were wantonly slaughtered in a government policy calculated to bring the fiercely independent Plains tribes to their knees, observes LaDuke, a strategy confirmed by Native American scholars Donald Grinde and Bruce Johansen in their new Ecocide of Native America. Krech's argument is that Native American overhunting had already doomed the buffalo and that the "final stage" of white hunters, supported by the incursion of five railroads into the buffalo range, only hastened the inevitable end.

Krech's twenty-six-page chapter on buffalo devotes a scant three pages to hunting by whites. While he admits that in the final stage, whites were probably killing five buffalo to the Indians' one, he explores government policies no further than a nonjudgmental mention of how "the Department of the Interior linked the disappearance of the bison to the civilization and eventual assimilation of Indian tribes." He omits the US Army altogether. Others, too, deny military culpability; in a November 1999 article in the New York Times, Dan Flores, a history professor at the University of Montana, calls it an apocryphal story of Army policy, hanging on the thin thread of an undocumented speech by Gen. Philip Sheridan to the Texas legislature.

Perhaps Flores should have consulted Buffalo Nation by Valerius Geist, professor of ecology at the University of Calgary. "Sheridan's was not the only voice. There are many indications that this was covert U.S. policy," Geist says, noting that before Sheridan came west, his "scorched-earth" tactics against the Confederacy had been made famous late in the Civil War. "And it's no coincidence that, in 1875-76, attempts by Congress to save the bison were not signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. He would not oppose Sheridan, who had been his protégé," Geist writes. Buffalo Nation quotes other bison eradicationists of the time, including Representative James Throckmorton of Texas and Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano.

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