Defending Mother Earth: Native American Perspectives on Environmental Justice
Edited by Jace Weaver. Orbis Books: Maryknoll (1996)
Book Review by Martin Rowe
“This savage people ruleth over many lands without title or property,” wrote John Winthrop, the recently arrived governor of Massachusetts, of Native Americans in 1631. “For they inclose no ground,” he continued, “neither have they cattel to maintayne it, but remove their dwellings as they have occasion, or as they can prevail against their neighbors.” For Winthrop, this was literally incomprehensible. His own world view held property to be the central principle of government. Land’s only purpose was for farming, and to leave it fallow – as “waste lands” to use his words – was a sign that it was his Christian duty to occupy this promised land and work it. Winthrop’s bafflement and disgust have characterized the history of European conquerors’ relations with Native Americans and the land. And as the challenging essays in Defending Mother Earth reveal, Winthrop’s words are still very much the lingua franca.
The book seeks to dispel misconceptions. For one, it reports, Native Americans are not one “people.” In Winthrop’s day there were two thousand different tribes inhabiting the North American continent. Now there are 600, with 400 different ethnicities, eight major language groups, and three distinct racial strains. Secondly, Winthrop’s thinking that the “savage people” were not doing anything with the land is equally wrong. Like all peoples, the native inhabitants worked the land, but they did so in a way that enabled the land to recover. Defending Mother Earth comes down hard on such groups as Earth First!, who, according to the writers, consider native peoples in their own way to be as environmentally destructive as the white people who followed them.
Thirdly, native peoples do not all think the same, and do not always agree. Take, for instance, the meaning of sovereignty. While most writers in Defending Mother Earth hold that sovereignty goes hand in hand with environmental responsibility, others – such as Wendell Chino of the Mescalero Apache, profiled here – actively campaign for storing nuclear waste on tribal lands because of the substantial monies that would accrue to his tribe. Grace Thorpe (from the Sac and Fox peoples) comments drily: “The real irony is that after years of trying to destroy it, the United States is promoting Indian national sovereignty – just so it can dump its waste on Native land.” Schisms within native cultures are aired: Margaret Sam-Cromarty (Cree) left her reservation because of what she perceived as her people’s infighting, alcoholism, and corruption by money; Duane Good Striker (Blood) complains about “rocking chair” farmers on the reservations leasing out native lands to outside developers who do not practice sustainable agriculture.
One of the strengths of Defending Mother Earth is that writers place the struggle of native peoples on the North American continent in the context of the worldwide struggle of indigenous peoples. Multinational corporations are exploiting indigenous communities for their resources around the world. And it is not just multinationals. Andrea Smith (Cherokee) sees the deliberate attempt of the North to place the burden of population control on Southern women of color as part of the age old racist dynamic of the industrialized world refusing to stop its over-consumption and accept the need for economic justice for indigenous peoples. Indeed, according to George Tinker (Osage/Cherokee), the Euro-American tendency to identify itself as a moral conqueror (whether as the neo-colonial World Bank or well-meaning Western non-governmental organizations) will not solve the root causes of environmental destruction or global population. His answer, and the answer of many, is the restitution of lands to native peoples and a granting of real sovereignty to the First Nations.
With sovereignty, however, come the threats to the small amount of land Native Americans own. According to the writers in Defending Mother Earth, although Native Americans own only 2.3 percent of the United States, their lands contain 35 percent of the commercially valuable minerals, timber, and metals in the United States. These are resources which mining and other industrial interests have sought to exploit. The result has been, say the writers, disproportionate amounts of mining and pollution on native lands. In Canada, cancer and birth defects among natives caused by pollution have risen by as much as 600 percent in some areas, while Iron Mountain in California is so polluted from mining that rivers running through the area will never support life again. Sometimes these sites are on the tribe’s most sacred ground, destroying the cultural as well as natural fabric of native communities. When native peoples have tried to organize resistance to the exploitation of their habitat, mining interests have stirred up anti-native sentiment. In northern Wisconsin, for instance, groups were organized to counteract the fishing and hunting rights granted to the Chippewa by Wisconsin courts. These groups’ message was clear: “Spear an Indian; save a walleye [a fish],” or “Spear a pregnant squaw, save two walleye.” When a colonel in the Army Corps of Engineers was asked recently why he had broken promises to the Sioux, he responded: ” ‘Well, it was those people from Standing Rock Reservation that killed Custer, and I’m not going to forget it.’
Native Americans, as all native peoples, perhaps feel the impact of environmental and cultural degradation more acutely than other groups precisely because of their dependency on the natural world. Disease, a non-native meat-based diet, and environmental degradation have meant that current life expectancy for many Native Americans and Canadians is only about 47 years. Norma Kassi of the Yukon Gwich’in writes that all her 11 aunts and uncles died of the non-indigenous diseases of smallpox, tuberculosis, and measles.
Defending Mother Earth is not a comforting book. Those of us who believe in animal rights need to take seriously these writers’ call for the fish they catch and the animals they hunt to be free from toxins and pollutants. We also need to respect the fear and anger of someone like Norma Kassi when she blames in part the animal rights movement for destroying her nation’s livelihood from the fur trade.
Nevertheless, all writers are clear that the kind of sustainable practices which evolved with their different peoples – of respecting the lives of animals rather than hunting them to extinction, of recognizing the intrinsic value of all life and not just its instrumental value to human beings, and of letting nature alone rather than seeking to control it – is not just necessary for their own survival as peoples or for the sons and daughters of John Winthrop, but for the survival of the planet.
The writers in Defending Mother Earth each acknowledge that an enormous spiritual change will be required to save the planet. If the world was just, This Sacred Earth would be able to accomplish the spiritual change singlehandedly. The book is a massive, extraordinary collection of essays, poems, and articles encompassing the response of the world’s religions to the environmental crisis. Like Defending Mother Earth, it acknowledges the problem inherent in centuries of “Winthropian” thinking about the planet, much of it based on traditional Christian theology.
Nevertheless, This Sacred Earth also argues that the world’s religious traditions offer important resources for reclaiming a biocentric spirituality [see sidebar]. As such it presents not only a history of the emergence of religious ecological consciousness, but powerful ritual and theological expressions of a respect for nature and non-human animals. The book does not shy away, however, from the concern of liberation theologies that environmental concerns cannot be divorced from genuine concern for the culture of indigenous or disadvantaged peoples. Writing as an African American liberation theologian, Theodore Walker, Jr. says that concerns about the environment and animals run the risk of being the preserve of the privileged white middle-class who have given up – or, worse, do not consider necessary – the fight for racial justice.
No review could possibly do justice to the richness, variety, and thoroughness of this anthology. Compiled as a textbook for courses in religion, This Sacred Earth nevertheless has a readability and organic wholeness that makes it a good narrative read for non-scholars. Unlike other environmental texts it includes the perspectives of women, people of color, non-Western religions, religious practitioners as well as scholars, and creative writers as well as scholars. It also acknowledges that the exploitation of “food animals” remains as much a concern of the Creator as the protection of endangered species…