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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Native American Ecological Wisdom: Part One of Two

Air Date: Week of

In the first of a two-part series on indigenous environmental philosophy, producer Richard Schiffman speaks with American Indians from tribes located in the northeastern United States who believe that the spiritual values of their ancestors hold the key to the earth's survival, not only for the present, but for future generations.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. This year on November 26th, many of us observe Thanksgiving, a day of celebration and gratitude that is also tinged with a sense of loss. Our first Thanksgiving came amid the turmoil and tragedy that decimated the Puritan pioneers, and that foreshadowed the near-elimination of indigenous culture and homelands. We begin this week's program by examining some of the ancient religious practices and philosophies that have been passed down to surviving Native Americans. Producer Richard Schiffman spoke with some first Americans who believe that the spiritual values of their ancestors holds the key to our survival, not only for today but for generations to come. In the first of a 2- part series, he visits indigenous environmental activists from the eastern woodlands.

(A flute plays)

MAN: We recognize and offer our thanks to our elder brother, the Sun, who gives us warmth and who causes everything to grow. To our grandfathers, the winds of the 4 directions, who give us air to breathe.

SCHIFFMAN: New York City schoolchildren watch buckskin-clad actors and actresses enact a play about the first Thanksgiving.

MAN: We need all of the forces of nature.

ACTORS: All of us. Without them there is no life on this planet. We are all related.

CHILD: Mother Earth.

WOMAN: The grandmothers of the 4 directions.

WOMAN 2: Water.

MAN 2: The plants and animals.

SCHIFFMAN: The play's author says she wants her young audience to appreciate the deep gratitude that Native Americans felt and still feel for the elements of the natural world.

DE MONTAGNO: Native people have always given thanks. And it's not just at one time of the year but throughout the year.

SCHIFFMAN: Marty De Montagno is descended on her mother's side from the prairie brand of the Potawatomy people. She is the manager of the resource center at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in lower Manhattan. De Montagno says the legendary feast in 1621 was not so much a ceremony of thanksgiving as a military parade organized to cement an alliance between the Wampanoag people and the Pilgrims. The first recorded Thanksgiving ceremony happened several years later. Ironically, English settlers called it to celebrate the massacre of hundreds of indigenous people in Groton, Connecticut. The early colonists were repulsed by the Native Americans, who they referred to as "savages," and they were equally uncomfortable with the trackless lands which they inhabited.

DE MONTAGNO: They called it a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men. (Laughs) That's right from their writings. And the wilderness was really a scary place to them.

SCHIFFMAN: Some Native American ecologists believe that the same attitudes toward untamed nature, which made the European colonists fear it, have caused later generations to dominate and exploit it. They trace our present- day environmental crisis to the philosophical belief that human beings are alien and apart from the natural world.

PRITZKER: Ha kwe, greetings. My name is Oness, translated as Wolf That Watches a Beaver, or commonly called Beaver Wolf.

SCHIFFMAN: Oness Pritzker is an ecologist and an environmental journalist of Wabanake heritage from Maine.

PRITZKER: I hate the word "wildlife" or "wilderness." Native people do not consider our relatives as wild, or something to be afraid of or something to conquer or dominate. We consider the animal people, the planet people, as relatives, as our family. That's why I even use the word "people" after the word "animal" or "plant."

(Bird calls and wind)

SCHIFFMAN: The sounds of the Maine woods, captured by nature recordist Peter Acker, make it appear pristine. That's the way Oness Pritzker remembers it when he was a child.

PRITZKER: Much of my family depended upon, we say, Nakamusanac, our grandmother, the moose. And of course, we fished and hunted and gathered plants. I was able to grow up in a time where a large part of our cultural life way, our survival, was still living off the land, or, we say, in the bush. But that quickly changed as a result of multinational, primarily forest industries came into the territories and decided to really destroy and desecrate our tree relatives.

(A tree falls with a crash)

SCHIFFMAN: Having watched the clear-cutting of much of his ancestral land as a young man, Oness Pritzker became a biologist in order to learn how to protect threatened woodlands. He spent 3 years as a forest ecologist in southeast Asia. Beaver Wolf says that despite his rigorous scientific training, and however far afield he travels, his mind always returns to the ecological wisdom of his own Wabanake people.

(A man sings, drumming, joined by others and rattling)

SCHIFFMAN: We have ceremonies and songs and teachings that specifically instruct us on how to take certain trees. As one example, when we would take trees for firewood for our lodges, we would look for the trees that have a porcupine nest in them, because if you know anything about porcupines, they love to have a tree that has some insects in it they can go after.

(Singing and drumming continue)

SCHIFFMAN: By cutting mainly diseased timber favored by nesting porcupines, and limiting themselves to taking no more than 1 in 10 trees of any particular stand, the people of the Maine woods helped to preserve the health of the forest. But unlike some modern-day environmentalists, the first Americans were not just concerned about maintaining the integrity of the ecosystem.

(Singing and drumming continue to closure)

SCHIFFMAN: For the native people, treating life with respect was a religious act, an acknowledgment that every bird and stone and tree arises out of the same spiritual source as ourselves.

PRITCHARD: Wherever I go, Algonquin elders tell me the most important thing is to love and honor the earth.

SCHIFFMAN: Evan Pritchard is of mixed Algonquin and European heritage.

PRITCHARD: Chief Seattle's speech still stands. Chief Seattle said that the Earth does not belong to us. We belong to the Earth. We are plants, we are like plants growing on the surface of our mother. Just like plants, we all have our different gifts and healing properties. "We are all medicine for each other," is an Algonquin saying.

SCHIFFMAN: According to indigenous philosophy, humans, as well as animals and plants, exist not for their own sake alone but in order to serve one another and to advance the sacred purposes of life itself. Scholars say that most Native American languages have no word to convey what we mean by the English term "rights," a concept which is central to our own modern, individualistic world-view. But these languages are rich in expressions which speak of the complex net of mutual responsibilities. Responsibilities which bind us to one another, and to the Earth itself.

SWAMP: Everything has its original instruction. Everything performs according to what they were given as a responsibility.

SCHIFFMAN: Jake Swamp's chiseled features and dignified manner suit his role as a chief of the Mohawk Nation.

SWAMP: Human beings were given a responsibility. That's to take care of the Earth. And many of the people have neglected their responsibility. Instead, they have gone the other way. But there's still time to turn around and bring them back.

SCHIFFMAN: Jake Swamp says that the first Americans were given a series of prophecies by the Creator, warning of the environmental crisis which now confronts us. The Algonquin prophecy has been preserved in pictographs, beaded onto belts of wampum, carved meticulously out of shell. His traditional elders asked Evan Pritchard to speak out about it.

PRITCHARD: The specifics of the prophecy were that there would be fish dying in the waters because they would be poisoned by the water, which is happening. And it's said that the sun will look different. And because of the ionosphere and changes in the ozone, the sun does look different. And it's said that the trees, the maple trees, will begin to die from the top down. Now, they couldn't have known about acid rain, but that's how acid rain affects maple trees.

NICHOLSON: Our trees are dying from the top down. Many, many, many trees are dying where I'm from.

SCHIFFMAN: Pat Nicholson, or Three Rivers, as she is called, is a sprightly grandmother from Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.

NICHOLSON: I believe that our Earth is all we have. I believe that this is the Garden that's spoken of in the Biblical text. And I believe it is our responsibility to take care of it.

(A bubbling brook, bird calls)

SCHIFFMAN: Pat Nicholson's Cherokee ancestors called this southern hill country The Land of Many Waters because of the abundant streams which course through it. But those streams have been running muddy and polluted lately. Logging and open pit mining have wreaked havoc in many parts of the Appalachians, Pat Nicholson says. And she's observed a pall of smog from industrial sources in the Midwest hanging over the smoky mountains on many mornings. She believes it's led to the dying of trees from the top down, in fulfillment of the ancient prophecy.

(A man and a group sings to guitar accompaniment)

SCHIFFMAN: The Cherokee and other southern tribes were amongst the first converted to Christianity, as this Christian hymn in the Cherokee language bears witness. Pat Nicholson was brought up as a Christian in the hill country that she calls the buckle of the Bible Belt. But like many others of indigenous ancestry, she's been exploring her native roots in recent years.

NICHOLSON: I have many people that want to believe that I'm being sacrilegious to Christianity, but I try to share with them that I'm not worshiping the Earth as such. It's not about worshiping the Earth. It's about respecting and honoring the Earth. And learning to do that with each other.

SCHIFFMAN: For Three Rivers, following in the steps of her ancestors and being an environmentalist are 2 sides of the same coin. She leads a regular ecology tour of the logged ridges and polluted waterways around Hurricane Mills to educate residents about the destruction of their local ecosystem. As people delve into the traditions of the first Americans, Pat Nicholson says, they just naturally become more environmentally conscious.

NICHOLSON: You can't have one without the other. The next thing they're doing is they're putting their tobacco offering down, and they're learning to not put their garbage on the ground, and they're learning all of the things that it takes to protect the Earth. The environmentalists who have been out there in the forefront of trying to protect us from ourselves, and the Native Americans, coming together would be a mighty force. You bring together the head and the heart.

SCHIFFMAN: Some years back, Three Rivers spent the better part of a year in a walk across North America to pray for the healing of the Earth. The prayer walk was led by Grandfather William Camanda, a peace activist who's been called the Mahatma Gandhi of the 84 Algonquin Nations, ranging from the Carolinas all the way to central Quebec, where the revered elder lives. The spiritual leader's shocks of jet black hair amidst the gray belie his more than 80 years.

CAMANDA: I don't think Mother Earth will die. The people doing the pollution by chemicals, they will do away with themselves, but Mother Earth will be there. Once all people are gone, she will come back in full bloom again. But we would not be here. Time is running out.

(Flute music and drums)

SCHIFFMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman.



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