COMMUNICATING ACROSS CULTURES

by Steve NewcombDirector of the Indigenous Law Institute,  in Eugene, OR. 

Reprinted from Earth Island Journal, Litha 1996, and On Indian Land, Fall 1996.

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 people working in the environmental movement. I know there are many non-Native people who do a great job working and communicating with Native people on important environmental issues. But I also have received phone calls from people seeking guidance about how to deal with young, white activists who, although admirably passionate in their desire to save the forests, were completely incapable and downright arrogant when it came to the subtle types of perception and openness that were needed in order to listen to and effectively communicate with traditional Native people.

Unfortunately, many non-Native environmentalists 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 environmental issues. They seem to think that there are no fundamental differences between the people from the dominant 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 activists to build strong alliances between themselves and Native peoples around environmental concerns.

When early Christian Europeans traveled for the first time across Native lands in North America, they did not find the ecosystem devastated by destructive Native cultural land 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 y mere happenstance that our Native lands 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 an integral part of the processes and web of life. They understood, based on origin stories and other teachings as well as through deep spiritual discernment, that life consists of and is sustained by certain laws. Elders, philosophers, and spiritual ancestors constantly reminded the people to harmonize themselves ceremonially and otherwise with these natural laws. Because life is naturally self-renewing and self-fulfilling, it is able to provide for the people as long as people uphold the natural laws. Even now, many traditional Native people 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 dominating society.

Today, we as Native nations and people live on a daily basis with a 500-year legacy of genocide, colonialism, domination and the ecological and environmental destruction of our previous 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, things 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 principle, "subdue the earth and exercise dominion over all living things."

Even now, our holocaust has not ended. The war against our Indigenous communities 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 people have been notified of our expected extinction dates based on the studies of those scholars who make it their business to track such matters. Meanwhile, the multinational 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 free 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 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 nonstop 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 you 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 out 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 these settings during the time that 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 historical impacts on Native communities, our elders and our traditional people, and, yes, even many tribal council officials do desire to restore a way of life based on traditional laws and values. In many Native communities- Lil'wat, Zuni, Lakota, Anishinabe, Haudenosaunee, etc.- through creative projects, Native communities are once again bringing forward traditional law systems for the sake of the future generations and all living things.

For Native and non-Native activists 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 non-Native environmentalist could use when it comes to how they perceive, think about and judge Native people: compassion, humility, and a detailed historical understanding of what Native nations and peoples have been through and are continuing to go through at this time. It is my strong hope that non-Native environmentalists will support traditional Native people ion their efforts to bring forward their own traditional laws. As they do so, perhaps those who don't know will begin to realize how much it is possible for the dominant society to learn from Indigenous ecological wisdom which has been accumulated for 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 dominant society. What we need now more than ever between Native and non-Native people are open lines of communication and strong environmental alliances as we enter the twenty-first century.