‘The First Environmentalists’

‘The First Environmentalists’

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 o


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.

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.

Geist also disputes the view that Indians’ practices had doomed the bison irrespective of government policy. While it’s true that they sometimes slaughtered whole herds, often by driving them over cliffs, these methods evolved before Europeans introduced the horse, after which hunting techniques adapted accordingly. Krech portrays Indians’ eating of buffalo tongues and humps, leaving the rest, as indiscriminate waste, but Geist points out that for people who subsisted on animal products a diet of only lean meat could actually kill–fat played the part that carbohydrates do in our diet.

Scholars like Krech and Flores may be sincere in challenging the romantic image of Native Americans as the “first environmentalists”–so it is unfortunate that their theories so neatly suit the purposes of the “wise use” movement, in which advocates of white entitlement are contesting indigenous peoples’ sovereignty, especially with regard to control of their own resources and lands. One recent and dangerous manifestation is the Rice v. Cayetano case pending before the Supreme Court, in which a white rancher in Hawaii is suing the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs because only ethnic Hawaiians are allowed to vote in elections for its trustees, who manage income from their designated trust lands. Rice, supported by the Pacific Legal Foundation, People for a Color Blind America and other right-wing groups, has previously sued to try to stop Hawaiian-language classes. It is in this context that the arguments of books like The Ecological Indian must be weighed.

In fact, Native Americans have never denied that they killed buffalo, deer, beaver and other game in increasingly large numbers. By the early 1800s, their traditional lifestyles had been changed by the influx of whites and the market economy, in which hides became lucrative commodities. “By the time Europeans arrived, North America was a manipulated continent,” Krech writes. As Grinde and Johansen note, natives sometimes did alter nature by cutting trees, grazing animals and diverting streams and rivers to irrigate crops. Yet, to judge from a wide body of literature–settlers’ descriptions of predominantly unmarred wilderness–Indians either trod lightly on nature, for the most part, or were cunning trompe l’oeil landscape artists. Krech devotes his book to showing that the Indians’ low-impact stewardship of natural resources was really a case of accident rather than design because of their low population numbers. He accuses modern Indians, who justify such ancestral practices as burning to regenerate forests and forage, of opportunistic fudging to fit the latest ecological fashions. Krech’s subtext is far more insidious: It seeks to absolve Europeans of blame and ultimately can be used to help fuel a backlash of anti-Native sentiment in this country. (Witness the outcry, for example, when the Makah Indians of Washington wanted to hunt a whale and the Humane Society International and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society sought to stop them; or when the National Wildlife Federation and others blocked relocation of the Black Mesa Dine to an area of great natural beauty along the Utah border.)

Krech also plays up disagreements between natives, implying that they aren’t likely to agree on effective environmental or social protections. Of course there are Indians who want to make quick money off waste dumps, strip mining, industry and gambling, as well as those who don’t, and this causes strife. But Krech ignores the growing indigenous movement founded on the vision and hope that we can learn from our past and seed change. LaDuke is a founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, one of approximately 200 Native American community initiatives to clean up the environment and get control of local resources. These groups belong, in turn, to national organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network. Victories range from a moratorium on mining in the Black Hills of Northern Cheyenne, Blackfeet and Crow territory, to the prevention of a mega-dam at James Bay, Quebec, on Cree, Inuit and Innu ancestral lands.

LaDuke quotes from the Indigenous Environmental Statement of Principles, which states, essentially, that ecology is economy and that we can’t continue to grow on a dwindling resource base. This means “curbing the rights of corporations and special interests, transforming the legal institutions of the United States back toward the preservation of the commons, and preserving everyone’s rights, not just those of the economically privileged,” she says.

The Native American eco-activist point of view is less compromising than that of the mainstream environmental groups, who by now are used to trade-offs–this tract of forest for that, this set of emissions standards for another. “The broader environmental movement often misses the depth of the Native environmental struggle,” LaDuke contends, noting that “when the Anishinaabeg discuss land return, as with other Native people, lines are often drawn between those environmentalists who can support indigenous rights to self-determination and those who fundamentally cannot.” For example, LaDuke’s nonprofit White Earth Land Recovery Project has found itself at loggerheads with the Nature Conservancy, which in 1983 purchased 400 acres on the White Earth Reservation and rejects Anishinaabeg offers to work collaboratively to preserve the ecosystem. In the age of corporate globalism, which promises a steady diet of bioengineered food, hormone-laced beef and Baywatch, it’s amazing and hopeful to see alternative, local economies developing, from White Earth to the solar power systems of the Dine.

While some environmentalists misappropriate their image and put them on a pedestal (off which others try to knock them), Native Americans, Grinde and Johansen assert, are interested neither in being victims nor in demonizing whites. Leslie Marmon Silko’s chilling fiction “Call That Story Back” recognizes the ugliness in all of us. In a pre-European “contest in dark things,” witches from all the tribes try to outdo one another with stewpots full of “disgusting objects,” dead babies and severed body parts. But one witch outdoes them all, summoning white people, setting them in motion, the winds blowing them across the ocean. The witch narrates the whole history of genocide, the raping of the land. This scares the other witches, who tell her OK, you win, call that story back, but the witch replies, “It’s already turned loose. It’s already coming. It can’t be called back.”

If they indeed brought white people here, Indians have learned from their mistake. Indigenous Americans are taking responsibility for their past and their future.

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