The Common Good
May-June 2000

The Fire for Survival

by Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | May-June 2000

Native struggles for environmental justice.

Last year’s anti-World Trade Organization uprising was a reminder that there are detractors from the Pax Capitalista that currently placates some Americans with e-money and numbs others with the not-so-cheap thrills of day-trading. With unfettered consumption and development largely unchallenged, Seattle was one of those rare signs that this economic boom is leaving in its wake newly impoverished people and a devastated environment that has never been in worse shape.

All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, by long-time Native American activist Winona LaDuke, is another disturbing signpost. This book implicates the current boomtown mentality flowing through America and cautions us to learn new ways to live in harmony with the environment and with our neighbors.

LaDuke examines the often heroic struggles of indigenous communities in North America and Hawaii to regain control of their traditional lands and resist the onslaught of "development"—which is rarely aimed at improving life for America’s Native peoples, but very often comes at the expense of their land and resources.

There are close to 200 environmental groups based in Native communities, most of them, as LaDuke says, "underfunded at best and more often, not funded at all." In these small groups, which lack the cash of their mainstream counterparts in the environmental movement (who, as this book points out, have rarely proved to be Native people’s allies), LaDuke found Native environmentalists who "sing centuries-old songs to renew life, to give thanks for the strawberries, to call home fish, and to thank Mother Earth for her blessings."

This spiritual, relationship-based movement of Native environmentalists is not a lightweight, new-age approach to bonding with the environment. Native people, as LaDuke shows, do not have that luxury. All Our Relations is filled with chilling statistics that should make all North Americans extremely uncomfortable and completely dispel the myth that the savage injustices done to Native Americans were all in the past. In the Native American community the battle for justice is now more important than ever.

The connection between ecological degradation and racism is clear in the communities LaDuke visited. "There is a direct relationship between the loss of cultural diversity and the loss of biodiversity," she writes. "Wherever indigenous peoples still remain, there is also a corresponding enclave of biodiversity."

For example, the Florida panther, now reduced to a population of about 50 cats, is only just surviving on the land of the Seminoles. Like the big cats, those Seminoles who live a traditional lifestyle are themselves only just surviving the vast destruction of wetlands and encroaching strip malls of the Disney state.

And like the animals and habitat their lands so often protect, Native Americans have reason to see themselves threatened. Sold out by governments or self-serving tribal leaders, the lands of Native people across the continent have suffered irreversible destruction through exploitation of resources, the dumping of toxic chemicals, use by the military for bombing practice, and other abuses. Hypocritically, Native communities are disparaged for not opening their energy reserves to the free market, and then sweet-talked as "Earth-keepers" when energy companies want to dump nuclear waste—deadly for the next 100,000 years—in their backyards at the price of the 19th-century value of the land.

But ultimately All Our Relations is about the power of hope and the victories that can come from working together. This hope is shown by the Cree and Innu of James Bay in northern Quebec who, having already lost a huge amount of land to Phase I of a hydro-electric project, successfully organized among the potential consumers of the electricity in the Northeast United States to stop the expansion of the project.

Efforts like these show that while the players in the struggles and victories portrayed in All Our Relations are Native Americans, the environmental context in which they are played out affects everybody. "When you ask the question of what we want, you might as well go ahead and include yourself," says Danny Billie, a traditional Seminole activist. "Because not only do we want to survive as who we are, I’m pretty sure that you want to survive as who you are too."

We all have a lot to learn from those whose environmentalism is more about survival than about conservation. The question can no longer be how pristine we want our national parks to be, but how to preserve our humanity in a society that seems increasingly bent on denying us that option. From the fire in a traditional Seminole house, which burns continually, LaDuke offers a lesson of spiritual tenacity taught by the work of indigenous environmental activists: "Watch the fire, nurture it, and it will feed your soul and warm your body. Leave the fire, and it may get away from you." When it comes to preserving our own hope, "that lesson," LaDuke says, "is worth remembering."

AARON McCARROLL GALLEGOS, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a free-lance writer in Toronto.

All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life. LaDuke, Winona. South End Press, 1/1/99.

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