Mother Earth, Native American Wisdom, and Our Grandchildren

MotherEarth

Dear Virtual Editor,

I am writing on a very serious matter today, so I especially want to thank the Republican party for providing some much needed comic relief before I started. In the official response to the State of the Union Address, new Iowa Senator Joni Ernst was a hoot!  After she began by telling us how she grew up in a poor farm family and plowed the fields, I was expecting to hear how she had to trudge three miles in the snow to school.  It was even better than that.  Ernst told us how her parents put bread bags on her only pair of shoes to protect them from the wet.  But she was not ashamed when she got on the school bus because there were rows and rows of kids with bread bags on their shoes also!  Learning that she came from such a “Holsum” family background certainly enhanced her argument about how we should all support the Keystone pipeline’s eminent domain expropriation of farmland.

keystonepipeline1-2Sadly, there is a connection between the erstwhile Ms. Ernst and the matter that moves me to write today.  There is a danger that she and her supporters, including Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and the Koch brothers may decide what happens to my three grandchildren.  If her views prevail, the grandchildren and many others will need a whole bunch of bread wrappers because there is going to be plenty of water, some of it permanently occupying downtown Miami and many other coastal areas. I mention Miami only because there is no higher ground in the area to which people may relocate.  There will be other worse environmental disasters that are likely to make lots of people more than a little unhappy with their grandparents.  Being remembered for putting $10 in a birthday card over the years or resorting to Blue Mtn. when we get Facebook reminders will not get us off the hook.

For some time, I have wanted to say a word about the state of our Mother Earth. Here are the reasons I have hesitated until now and the reasons I now write:

1. In the words of Republican climate change deniers, “I am not a scientist”.  My formal education through university did not even include the word  “environment”.  Growing up, I thought I was being responsible when I chided my friends for throwing trash out the car window. I always thought it should be responsibly placed in a refuse bin, where it would presumably disappear magically forever.  I gave no thought at all to the 35 cents per gallon gasoline, each gallon of which would take us 8 miles.

Wait. The part about no education on the subject is not entirely true. My army training did include the official way to field strip a cigarette butt:  Do not just throw it on the ground. Carefully tear the paper down the side, roll in a small ball. Scatter the tobacco. Throw the filter and paper ball into an area that is the responsibility of another unit to keep tidy.  That’s about it for my environmental awareness instruction.

2. The environment was not my issue. Others, whom I have always admired, fought on behalf of Mother Earth while I spent decades doing what I could in a small way to mitigate human violence of one type or another. I did not see the connection between the two.

3. Even when I became aware enough to quit smoking, reuse, recycle, compost, and conserve to the degree I could manage, given the lifestyle to which my years of blissful blind consuming had accustomed me, I had no sense of urgency.  After all, when I looked out the window I didn’t see any impending crisis.

Here are the reasons all that has changed.

ClimateChangeI may not be a scientist, but I am not an idiot.  I see very little reason not to accept the findings of 97 out of every 100 real scientists. This is a far greater consensus than the number of dentists who urge me to buy a particular brand of toothpaste or mouthwash marketed by the same corporate conglomerates who are the fossil fuel industry. Moreover, if that great leader Dick Cheney is for invading another county upon a 1% threat to the US, I should probably be moved to confront a 97% threat to every country.

Climate change is a naturally occurring phenomenon but it is being aggravated by human behavior to a degree that poses an immediate threat to the people of this planet. Unless most of the fossil fuel now in the ground stays there, warming will cause water to rise to a level that will make those bread wrappers quite useless.  More important to me is the fact that this will happen in the lifetimes of my grandchildren.  To say the least, it is now much less comforting to me that I personally can probably continue to ignore the matter and go merrily into my dotage without penalty.

The truth that we humans are bequeathing a disaster to our grandchildren is in one sense not really subject to political debate. What Ernst and other politicians think about the existence of human induced climate change really does not matter. Reality is not affected by whether legislative bodies accept it. At the point of no return, which some responsible voices say we have already reached, Congress or Parliament could pass a bill repealing the law of gravity. The result would be the same.  And that is what makes the likelihood that the deniers will prevail even scarier.

Native American Wisdom

cherokeeOn a recent trip to the Appalachian region of the US where I grew up and went to school, I was blessed to reconnect with my First Nations heritage (my great-great grandfather was a Choctaw chief), and to be reminded by a wise Cherokee writer, Marilou Awiakta, of the way my ancestors related to the earth and to life.  While those of European descent make lists, categorize, and put things in boxes, natives see all of life as an interconnected story.  Environment, spirit, relationships, economic matters, media, politics do not go in separate boxes.  They are all part of one story, and stories are powerful.

These different approaches produce starkly different means of communicating.  In the white European manner, I have here made a straightforward factual allegation in the “environment” box:  Humans are wrecking the earth. If something isn’t done soon, my grandchildren will suffer the consequences. I have also made a second contention in the same manner: The moral contention that we should be “good stewards” of the earth is somewhat misleading. Continuing on the same path will not destroy the planet. It will just destroy us. Mother Earth will recover. She always does.book4

In a 2103 video at the end of this post, Naomi Klein, Canadian author of This Changes Everything, eloquently makes the same points, also in the European way. I am aware that viewing a long video is a time challenge that not all readers will undertake. This is a very long clip.  But please watch it, even if you do so in little bites over time.  Do this because, in addition to the points I have made, Klein persuasively argues both that the danger to the environment trumps all other causes in importance and how that issue is connected to other causes that are important to people of our ilk. She not only argues that we do not have to abandon our work for peace, economic justice, minority rights, criminal justice, or other progressive causes, but also that the environmental crisis presents us with a unique opportunity to further them. Watch the clip. Read the book.  Be warned, however, of her forceful contention that change will demand much more from us than keeping trash from landfills and using energy efficient light bulbs.

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One of the real costs of the European way of communicating is that imagery, poetry, and stories are seldom included in the transmission of ideas that have practical implications and call for immediate action. We are more accustomed to considering poems and stories for art or entertainment purposes. That is unfortunate.  Naomi Klein, for example, states that we should not take without giving back and that if we do there will be consequences.  Knowingly or not, her words precisely restate an essential element in the native Law of Peace, which was in force centuries before the first European arrived.  I think Ms. Klein has made her argument forcefully and persuasively.  She refers to scientific facts without inundating us with numbers. She is one of many who have made the case well—in the European way. Again, I urge you to watch the clip. But consider also a Cherokee poem and story with the same message.  I find them at least as valuable and persuasive.

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When Earth Becomes an “It”     

When the people call Earth “Mother”,
they take with love
and with love give back
so that all may live.
When the people call Earth “it,”
they use her
consume her strength.
Then the people die
Already the sun is hot
out of season
Our Mother’s breast
is going dry.
She is taking all green
into her heart
and will not turn back
until we call her
by her name.

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Little Deer

Awi Usdi, Little Deer, is a mythical teacher of wisdom, well known among the Cherokee of Oklahoma and North Carolina. In this story he teaches about taking and giving back with respect. This version was told by two tribal leaders to Anna Kilpatrick, author of  Friends of Thunder, Folk Tales of the Oklahoma Cherokees.

Long ago, hunters were killing too many animals… Meeting in council, the animals discussed ways of resolving their dilemma. Awi Usdi, the chief of the deer, came up with the solution.  “I see what we must do,” he said. “We cannot stop the humans from hunting animals. That is the way it was meant to be.  However, the humans are not doing things the right way. If they do not respect us and hunt us only when there is real need, they may kill us all. I shall go now and tell the hunters what they must do. Whenever they wish to kill a deer, they must do so in a ceremonial way. They must ask me for permission to kill one of us. Then, after they kill a deer, they must show respect to its spirit and ask for pardon. If the hunters do not do this, then I shall track them down. With my magic, I will make their limbs crippled. Then they will no longer be able to walk or shoot a bow and arrow.” Then Awi Usdi, Little Deer, did as he said.

(Poem and story from Marilou Awiakta, SELU, Seeking the Corn Mother’s Wisdom) 

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Preliminary Cautions

Whether Klein or Awiakta, or both have reached you on this matter, if you decide to get involved, you will immediately face obstacles.  Even I have paid enough attention to see that.

1. Do not allow yourself to be guilted out of fighting for the lives of your grandchildren. One of the more facile refrains one hears these days is the tut-tutting about environmental protesters driving cars to the site of the protest. What hogwash!  We have all come only gradually to the realization that we are destroying Mother Earth. This is the world we have all created, and we must live in it as it is. Becoming a vegan hermit is not a moral prerequisite to opposing the abuse of Mother Earth and offering a new vision for our relationship with her. Many would be willing to live a simpler life, and many are in fact doing so. We should be thankful for them but also for all, at whatever level of enlightenment, who are working, in whatever way they are able, to halt the abuse.

2. Do not get sidetracked by a debate about creation or loss of jobs. More evidence emerges every day that a green economy works, but that is not really the short-term point. Environmentalists are simply trying to get a real change of course started before it is too late. I once represented farmworkers in North Carolina who cropped tobacco. (Brutal work, by the way.) At that time, the weed was considered absolutely essential to the state’s economy. But as times changed, a gradual process of replacing the tobacco economy got underway. It is long past time for a similar process to begin to replace the fossil fuel economy. Some jobs will be lost. More and better jobs will emerge. I am sure that some tobacco growers and some of my farmworkers lost jobs in the changeover. Henry Ford no doubt wiped out thousands of blacksmiths.  When I was five years old, I was certain of the job I wanted to have when I grew up: Elevator operator. (“Mezzanine!” “Sporting Goods!”) Technology robbed me of my dream. I moved on. So will oil drillers.

3. Confront the currently powerful with as much grace as you can muster. Anger at injustice is a valuable starting point but it cannot take us the whole way. But grace will require abiding an appalling level of ignorance and arrogance.  In another context, a modern Cherokee complained:  “Show them a rock slide and they’ll show you a map that says there is no rock there.”  An Irish short story author captured it this way: “Hers was the impregnable front of complacent ignorance”.  Still, the Koch brothers are our brothers. We will do better at taking power from them if we do not also try to cast them into outer darkness, challenging as it is to consider that prospect.

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Finally, on second thought, there is a similarity between native wisdom and the way Naomi Klein asserts that although the environment presently trumps other issues, its connection to those other causes that are so important to many of us is inextricable. There, Klein is in effect tearing up the list and taking the environment out its “cause box”.   Of that, I think Awiakta and Little Deer would approve. So will our grandchildren.

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