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

Native American Perspectives

Air Date: Week of

Indigenous communities have long argued about how best to steward their resources, and their points of view are far from monolithic. Divisions intensified in recent decades when the federal government urged Indian tribes to form corporate bodies. Richard Schiffman looks at the deep divisions within the Klingit (KLING-it), Gwichen (GWI-chen), Hopi and other Native American communities.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Recently, Native Americans from throughout North America gathered in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to share their ecological concerns. They discovered that the same conflicts over environmental policy which exist in the greater society are also found within indigenous communities. But solving these problems presents a unique challenge for Native Americans, who say they struggle to strike a balance between ancient beliefs and the economic pressures of the modern world. Richard Schiffman has our report.

(Singing and drumming)

SCHIFFMAN: The rhythms of the sun dance seem to rise out of the depths of the Earth itself and out of the vast stretches of geological time. Native peoples say they've been in North America since the last ice age, perhaps longer. They tell us that rituals like this one on the grassy plains of South Dakota have generated mystical power for thousands of years. Sun dancers go without food and water for 3 days, and they pierce their skin so that the intensity of their prayers will be heard by the Creator. From the modern rationalistic point of view, it might be hard to understand how this blood sacrifice could have an impact on the environment. But sun dancers like Manny Two Feathers believe that prayer has the power to soften hearts and change minds.

(Singing and drumming continue)

TWO FEATHERS: The biggest thing that we do there is to pray for Mother Earth and what's happening to Her. And hoping that our prayers will reach the people that are digging her and cutting her and blowing her up just to make money.

(Singing and dancing continue)

SCHIFFMAN: Manny Two Feathers and other Native Americans believe that all of us here on Earth must learn to make a sacrifice. Perhaps not of our flesh and blood but of certain creature comforts and wasteful habits.

SENSMEYER: From the beginning of time we were always taught that in order to receive, we must first give.

SCHIFFMAN: Raymond Sensmeyer belongs to the Tlingit Nation of the Alaska Panhandle.

SENSMEYER: My mother and her father and those before were forced to go to school. And there you're taught that to become a success you've got to make money. And the more money you make, the more successful you are.

(Harmonic singing)

SCHIFFMAN: This haunting song was sung by Tlingit fishermen as they paddled their long wooden boats off the Alaska coast.

(Singing continues)

SCHIFFMAN: By the late 19th century the old ways were doomed. That’s when the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs started removing Tlingit children from their homes and immersing them in the English language at residential schools. Raymond Sensmeyer remembers how teachers punished children who spoke Tlingit in class. They forced them to stick their tongues on propane tanks during the winter until they froze on, and then they tore them painfully away. Along with the suppression of their language, Sensmeyer says, the old values of living in harmony with nature were dealt a blow as well. That process was accelerated, he believes, in 1971, when the Federal Government directed native communities in Alaska to form themselves into corporate bodies. Raymond Sensmeyer himself served on the board of one of these for-profit corporations.

SENSMEYER: We were thrust into this corporation mentality not by our choosing but because we had to. And once we were in it, to survive as a corporation you had to do these things. And one of them was logging. The logging interests came in and said, "The spruce beetle's killing off your trees. If we log this area out, it's going to save the rest of the forest." And so we believed that. But lo and behold, they started cutting more and more and more and pretty soon, you know, it fed on itself.

SCHIFFMAN: The division of indigenous people in Alaska into various land claim corporations has been highly controversial in native communities. Some see these corporations as necessary for the development of one of the nation's most economically depressed areas. While others, like Raymond Sensmeyer, view them as agents for the spread of materialistic values. Values which are corrupting their people and contributing to the over-exploitation of natural resources.

SENSMEYER: Since the inception of the land claims, the suicide rate of Alaska natives has risen. It's the highest in the nation. Sometimes there have been as many as 8 or 10 suicides in a small village in the winter. And we have the highest alcoholism rates, the highest unemployment rates. We're taught by the elders one thing, and yet in school you're taught another thing. And so, we know that a dichotomy exists, and we despair. And these are the results.

SCHIFFMAN: The Tlingit people are finding it increasingly difficult to follow their traditional culture of subsistence hunting and fishing. Elsewhere in Alaska, however, the ancient life ways are stronger.

(A woman sings, beats on a drum)

SCHIFFMAN: Sarah James is singing a Gwichen welcoming song. She's a resident of one of the few remaining native communities where people still get most of their food from subsistence hunting and fishing.

JAMES: The only way we survive with the cold and harsh weather up there is that caribou tend to come back and revive us again, and migrate through our country.

(Flowing water, bird song)

SCHIFFMAN: The Gwichen appointed Sarah James the Protector of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. The summer spectacle of waves of tens of thousands of caribou flowing across the tundra is one of the great remaining natural wonders of North America. But the Gwichen fear that oil exploration in the coastal plain where the animals calve may imperil the herd.

JAMES: It's a sacred place, because if it wasn't for the caribou we won't be exist today.

SCHIFFMAN: The struggle over the future of the caribou calving grounds has pitted 2 indigenous communities against one another. The Arctic Slope Corporation of the Upik Eskimo people has been pushing for oil development within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, whereas the Gwichen have fought against it. The Gwichen in Sarah James's region south of Alaska's Brooks Range are one of the few indigenous groups in the state that chose not to set up a corporation, but to retain their status as a protected native people. The clash between native people with very different philosophies of life is not limited to Alaska. The Hopi mesas of northern Arizona are regarded even by other Native Americans as sacred ground. It may be the last place on the continent where indigenous people still observe in full their traditional cycle of prayers and ceremonies. Ceremonies like the yearly butterfly dance.

(Singing and drumming)

SCHIFFMAN: But despite their reputation as traditionalists, not all Hopis feel the same qualms as the Hopi elders about selling the land. The Federally- mandated Tribal Council has signed multi-million dollar contracts for the mining of coal and uranium on the reservation. These mining activities have been a source of bitter controversy since the early 60s. For indigenous environmental activists like Andrea Carmen, they are symptoms of a spiritual disease within the greater society.

CARMEN: The natural world does not belong to anybody. It's not a commodity.

SCHIFFMAN: Andrea Carmen is the head of the International Indian Treaty Council, a group which lobbies for indigenous issues at the United Nations and other international forums. She says one of the current concerns of the Council is the patenting of life.

CARMEN: Over the vehement protest of the Amazon Indian people, Iowasco, which is a sacred medicine to them, a plant medicine, has been patented. Other, even food grains that indigenous peoples have developed, have been patented by companies. And the way that patenting works is kind of like a mining claim. Doesn't matter who owned it before or who used it before; if you file that claim, that belongs to you.

SCHIFFMAN: For Carmen, the patenting, and even more, the manipulation of life through genetic engineering, are threats to the sacred order of the Creation. Critics object that Andrea Carmen's stand against the commodification of natural resources and the manipulation of life through genetic engineering is a relic of a pre-technological age. Our entire consumer economy, they say, is based upon bending the material world to our human will. And they argue that even in the past, native peoples exploited plants and animals for their own use. They also practiced a kind of primitive genetic engineering in the selection and breeding of their food crops. And there is evidence that they, too, degraded ecosystems in certain cases through over-hunting and practices like slash-and-burn agriculture. Native Americans counter that while all cultures have an impact on the natural world, it is possible to live in harmony with nature. Only our attitudes have to change. Raymond Sensmeyer.

SENSMEYER: The values of civilization on a global scale have got to change. Time is of the essence. There's not a whole lot of time left. The Mother Earth is on the verge of collapse, and She's sick.

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



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