Communicating across cultures can be as difficult as it is rewarding. This is certainly true when it comes to encounters between Native and non-Native peoples. I know there are many non-Native people who do a great job working and communicating with Native people on important cultural, environmental and educational issues. But I also have received phone calls from Native people seeking guidance about how to deal with non-Native activists who, although admirably passionate in their desire to save the forests, were completely incapable and downright arrogant when it came to the subtle kinds of perception and openness that were needed in order to listen to and effectively communicate with traditionally-minded Native people.
Unfortunately, many non-Native people do not seem to consider it important that Native nations and peoples have been engaged for centuries in an ongoing political, environmental, and economic struggle for their very survival. Some of these same environmental activists do not seem to believe that there is anything of real value to be learned from traditional Native cultures when it comes to dealing with different issues. They seem to think that there are no fundamental differences between the people of the dominating society and Native peoples. I’d like to explain why I think this attitude is wrongheaded, and call for a more concerted effort on the part of non-Native people to build strong alliances between themselves and Native nations and peoples around environmental and other kinds of concerns.
When early Christian Europeans traveled for the first time across Native lands and territories in North America, they did not find the ecosystems devastated by Native cultural land-use practices. Although the descriptions varied in the desert regions, the conquistadors, explorers, chroniclers, surveyors and missionaries described the vast majority of the lands they were visiting from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific as virtual “Edens.” Typical of this assessment of the terrain was the comment made by Rev. Jedidiah Morse regarding the lands of my own Shawnee and Lenape ancestors in the Ohio River valley: “This country may, from a proper knowledge, be affirmed to be the most healthy, the most pleasant, the most commodious, and the most fertile spot of earth, known to the European people.”
It was not by mere happenstance that our traditional Native lands and territories were so beautiful and pristine, with pure water and rich dark soil, and millions of acres of verdant old-growth forests that have since been destroyed. Indian nations and peoples had, over a period of thousands of years, understood themselves to be integral to the processes and web of life. Our ancestors understood, based on our origin stories and other teachings as well as through deep spiritual discernment, that life consists of and is sustained by certain laws. They had a life-paradigm, and not a death-paradigm.
Our elders and philosophers constantly reminded the people to harmonize themselves ceremonially and otherwise with those natural laws. Because life is naturally self-renewing and self-fulfilling, it is able to provide for the people as long as the people uphold the natural laws. Even now, many traditional Native peoples continue to understand and endeavor to live according to these laws. To a great extent, however, this is made virtually impossible now that these natural laws have been “outlawed” by the invasive impositions of the dominating society.
Today, we as Native nations and peoples live on a daily basis with the consequences of more than 500-years of genocide, colonialism, domination and the ecological and environmental destruction of our original worlds. Those worlds had been constructed and maintained for thousands of years. Collectively throughout the western hemisphere, we lost some 96 million people to murder, disease and through the rape of our traditional lands. With an estimated one out of ten people remaining alive after the initial stage of the holocaust had ended, and our traditional economies destroyed, everything rapidly spun out of balance. Even some of our own people began to forget about the discernment of our natural, spiritual laws. Many sought solace in the teachings of a religion that has, as a first and ecologically unsustainable principle, “subdue the earth and exercise dominion over all living things.”
Even now, our holocaust has not ended. The war against our Indigenous nations rages on, cloaked behind media white outs and various kinds of skillfully created camouflage. Entire Indian peoples are being killed off (one entire people per year in the Amazon since 1900) and over 270 of our peoples have been notified of our expected extinction dates based on the studies of those scholars who diligently make it their business to track such matters. Meanwhile, the multi-national corporations that, together with missionaries and governments, are complicit in our demise, grow fatter and more brazen.
We’ve had empires erected on top of us and our traditional territories without our permission or consent. We’ve not been allowed to maintain our traditional lifestyles, nor even to protect and hold on to the skeletal remains of our ancestors. Some of us were the victims of a United States eugenics program, which preceded Hitler’s eugenics project. We have been knowingly used by the United States federal government as nuclear guinea pigs and had our once pristine rivers, aquifers and other waterways–the veins of our Mother Earth–poisoned with radioactivity and other unspeakable chemical pollutants, in violation of our own traditional law. Women’s breast milk, which is sacred, now contains these toxins. Our fisheries have also been poisoned and destroyed. And we’ve had the most powerful empire on the planet–the United States–use its most powerful and diabolical techniques on us in an effort to keep us weak and divided. Our great Shawnee leader Tecumseh could talk non-stop for hours recounting the violations of the United States, and that was in the early 1800s, so you can imagine how long it would take now to recount to all that Indigenous nations and peoples have been through, throughout the entire Western Hemisphere.
As with all people, there is incredible diversity between and within our Native communities. Some Native people were raised traditionally, speaking their own language, attending ceremonies and being educated by their grandparents and other elders. Some were sent off to boarding schools where they suffered sexual, physical and mental abuse inflicted on them by those who were responsible for their well being. Some were adopted into non-Native Mormon or Christian families where they learned very little, if anything, of their traditional wisdom and ceremonial practices. And some experienced several of those settings during the time they were growing up.
Given these and many other contributing factors, is it any wonder that there is a lot of diversity today in terms of “Native” attitudes and behavior when it comes to land use policies? And yet despite all these and many more historic native impacts on Native communities, our eldprs and our traditional people, and our Indian government officials do desire a way of life based on traditional laws and values. In many Native nations and communities–Lil’wat, Zuni, Lakota, Amshnabe, Haudenosaunee, etc.–are once again bringing forward traditional natural law systems for the sake of the future generations and all living things.
For Native and non-Native people alike there is a common ground that we all share, and that is, quite literally, the Earth beneath our feet. But, in my view, there are three things that any Nonnative people could use when it comes to how they perceive, think about and judge Native people: compassion, humility, and a detailed historical understanding of the destruction and betrayals that Native nations and peoples have been through and are continuing to go through at this time. It is my strong desire that non-Native people support our nations and peoples in our efforts to bring forward and work with our own traditional laws. As they do so, perhaps those who don’t know will begin to realize how much the dominating society has to leam from Indigenous knowledge and wisdom which has been accumulated over thousands of years.
Finally, I’d like to suggest that there is a definite need for compassion toward Indigenous peoples who are themselves very much endangered by the eco-terrorism of the dominating society. What we need now more than ever between Native and non-Native peoples are lines of communication built on trust, and strong environmental alliances as we enter the twenty-first century.
This article is modified from the version published in Earth First! Journal, Lithia Issue, 1996. Steven Newcomb is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008).