One important way that the desire for a more ecologically wise society is being expressed is through the idea and movement known as bioregionalism. Bioregionalism took a major step forward this spring with the first convening of the North American Bioregional Congress (NABC) from May 21 to May 26 on the tall grass prairie northeast of Kansas City. David Heinke, the coordinator for this gathering, described plans for NABC in the Summer 1983 issue of IN CONTEXT, and now completes the cycle with his impressions of the event.
IN THIS PERSONAL ACCOUNT of the first Congress, I don’t presume to speak for NABC, which is now an ongoing embryonic bio-political body scheduled to convene itself again in 1986. NABC did not create or authorize anyone or any body of people to speak for it. The voice of the Congress exists so far in those resolutions and statements from its committees which the Congress passed by consensus. (You can get a copy of the NABC proceedings by sending $10.00 to: Bioregional Project/NABC, Box 129, Drury, MO 65638.)
The NABC was a unique and powerful event, far different from what is commonly known as a "conference." (In fact, it drives me crazy when people refer to the "NABC conference".) The power of the event came not only through the full and equal participation of 217 extraordinary people from ten nations (Navajo-Dine’, Anishinaabe, Ottawa, West Germany, USA, Canada, England, Australia, South Africa, Ozarks), 39 states and provinces, and representing 130 organizations from the bioregions of North America. It came through us because we were gathering and acting in the name of – and in concert with – the biocentric spirit and ecological laws and principles of the pre-existing governance of planet Earth and Turtle Island (the native name for our continent). It came through us because we spoke as a biopolitical deliberative/legislative body not only in representation, defense, and advocacy of human rights and agendas, but for the legal rights of forests, rivers, plants, animals, and all living and non-living members of the continent’s eco-systemic communities.
NABC’s strongest work was done by its committees, which are the heart of any congress. Committees formed in two ways, one by the affinity of people’s interest areas, expertise, and major life work; the other by biogeographic macro-regions.
The issue-centered committees were: Forestry, Communications/Media, Bioregional Movement, Economics, Green Movement, Arts/Culture, Education, Agriculture, Water, Spirit/Peace, Community Empowerment, Native and Land Based Peoples, Eco-Feminism, and Environmental Defense (which later became the EarthFirst!/Deep Ecology caucus).
There were five macro-regional caucuses formed so that those living in the same general region could swap stories; network; share information problems, successes, and failures; and strategize. Most active was the Pacific Northwest Macro-region group. They formed two working groups, one for networking of information, communications, education and for forming a bioregional congress for the region; the other for resource planning around the issues of sustainability, regeneration, conservation, and economics.
The issue-area committees organized on Tuesday and met each day throughout the Congress. Most gave a daily report to the plenary in the form of either general reports of their work, statements of internal consensus (not necessarily offered for passage by the plenary), or consensual statements given as resolutions to be passed by the plenary. Each committee set its own daily and weekly agenda, and determined its own structure and direction.
In fact, the whole of the schedule, agenda, and all decision-making for the entire Congress was continually done through a full consensus process with participation in all aspects constantly open to everyone there. This was a major source of the Congress’s strength – that everything was completely open and out-front all the time. Everyone was empowered. There was no place for backroom maneuvers and powerplays because there was no "backroom" anywhere in the process.
For example, the Congress’s daily schedule was tentatively drawn up at 7:00 a.m. each morning in a schedule/agenda committee meeting open to the suggestions of anyone who could get up that early. The proposed schedule/agenda was then taken to the day’s first plenary (usually 9:30 a.m.) where it was amended and approved by the whole group.
The consensus process in plenary was facilitated by Caroline Estes (of Alpha Farm, Deadwood, Oregon). Caroline brought 200 strongminded, strongwilled, unshy, highly self-motivated people through an unbelievably paced five-day agenda full of heavily controversial and often unprecedented content only fifteen minutes over schedule and just in time for Friday dinner after the closing ceremonies. Caroline’s work at NABC was a pleasure and a privilege to behold. (I keep wanting to use the word "awesome.") When it came time for acknowledgements she got a long and strong standing ovation.
After our first dinner together, the first thing the Congress did on Monday evening following a silent invocation was to have all of the 200 people there use up to a minute each to tell something about who they were, where they were from, and their deepest passion in life. The responses were variously inspired, hilarious, inaudible, and altogether entertaining. As someone said at the end of the Great Introduction, "Everyone has spoken before the group; everyone has participated. What a powerful way to start a Congress!"
The Voice of the Turtle was NABC’s in-Congress newsletter. The Turtle was a strong unifying element which got progressively more amazing right along with the Congress. It started out as one page on Monday, and concluded Friday with a twelve page edition which was finished and available with inclusion of mention of the closing tree planting ceremony only 20 minutes after it was over. At one point members of the Turtle staff were putting in 18-hour days getting it out. (Sets of Turtles are available from the Bioregional Project/NABC for $3.50.)
A Turtle Island quilt was finished and shown to the plenary Wednesday afternoon. The quilt was made of squares representing some essence of many bioregions on the continent, with squares sent in from these regions over a period starting in late ’83. It was given to the Congress, but we could not agree on what to do with it that would be worthy of it, so it went back into the hands of Connie Grand, from the Ozarks, who coordinated the quilting project. She will put some finishing touches on it and then it may go out on the road on display. A booklet has been written about it and may be out soon.
"Turtle Island Visions and Soundscape," a multi-image slide show of audio and visual contributions from all over North America woven together into a message of interdependence and strength-in-diversity by its producers – Marsha Boone and Sue Richman – was presented on Monday night. It moved its audience to hugs, smiles, and tears.
Virtually every one of the NABC participants had something relevant and special to offer which was well worth sharing with all or a significant part of the whole group, both in plenary and in the relatively small amount of time available for workshops. An "open mike" plenary on Thursday relieved some of the pressure for individuals to speak to the full group, but the pressure on available workshop time stayed intense for the whole event.
I don’t know how many workshops and special presentations were given. Probably at least 60 or 70, which is amazing, since most of the Congress meeting time was prioritized for plenaries and committees. A large number of these presentations were of extraordinary quality.
Each night – and at spontaneous times through the day – there were expressions of culture and entertainment with music, drama, dance, poetry: John Papworth reciting Shakespeare; Paul Winter on soprano sax and Australian John Stokes on the didjeridu (an aboriginal wind instrument hollowed out by termites, producing the most electrifying sounds I have ever heard) playing duets in the morning in the Tabernacle and Thursday evening on the lake in a canoe. The Planet Drum Foundation’s great road show production, "Not for Tourists" played Thursday night. There was all manner of fervent spontaneous music everywhere, a sweat lodge every night, an aboriginal camp set up off in the outback that I only heard of on the last day. Though I was the general coordinator for the logistics of the Congress, I know I will never know a tenth of what went on at NABC. It was some kind of torrential outpouring of information and culture and juicy green politics.
The first resolution brought before the plenary for passage came on Friday morning from the Native and Land- Based People’s Committee, led by Navajo-Dine’ Nation elders Mae Shay and Roberta Blackgoat, with Laura Kadenehe of the Navajo-Dine’, Juanita Espinosa and Lea Foushee of the Anishinaabe, and Douglas Big Joe of the Ottawa Nation. The resolution called for the recognition of the treaty rights and sovereignty of the Native American and Hawaiian peoples. This resolution was the first one passed by NABC. It was an intensely charged and emotional time for everyone there, especially the Native delegation, a strong affirmation for them, and all of us.
To me, the import of this resolution is vast: an ongoing continental consensual body of people of many different origins – including a predominance of those whose ancestors are from the Western European culture which has driven and continues to drive Native North Americans from the ancestral lands which they have stewarded in a sacred way under ecological laws for centuries – has in effect returned the right of primary stewardship of the lands of the continent to Native North Americans. Non-native people should be prepared to renegotiate their presence on the lands of North America with the ecological laws and with the most deeply aware stewards who have ever lived here, the native traditionals.
This resolution is a beginning towards the fulfillment of the challenge given us by Winona LaDuke of the Anishinaabe – who addressed NABC’s second plenary on Tuesday – in her Winter 1981 CoEvolution Quarterly article, "Seceding into Native North America." In this article she asked that through affirmation of treaty rights and tribal sovereignty the continent be returned to the original bioregionalists – the Indians. She further asks us to consider how vastly better off we would all be under the stewardship of Indians.
At different times through the Congress the Native Americans told the story of their struggles at Big Mountain and the government’s genocidal relocation program for the Navajo and Hopi there (to help, write: Big Mountain Defense Committee, 124 N. San Francisco, Suite B, Flagstaff, AZ 86001 – (602)774-6923); and of the major land grab of Anishinaabe White Earth Reservation lands in Minnesota, being carried out by both state and federal initiatives. Of the Ottawas’ contest with the state of Michigan over fishing rights and the right to a land base for their nation (contact: Ottawa Tribe, c/o 601 Second St., Harbor Springs, Ml 49760 – (616) 526-7920). I believe that the people of the Congress realized, if they didn’t know already, that the struggles of the Indian people are directly those of all of us.
Along with those of the Native and Land-Based Peoples committee a number of other significant resolutions, statements, and expressions of future courses for NABC came from the committees and were put before the final plenary on Friday.
The Bioregional Movement Committee offered an NABC communications plan modified by the plenary to publish a periodic NABC newsletter, the publication of which will move from one bioregional organization to another until NABC convenes again in 1986. An NABC II event steering group formed during this plenary, with many members from the Bioregional Movement group, to help the New Life Farm Bioregional Project (which did the major pre-event organizing for NABC I) put together the next Congress. The Congress resolved to endorse the Bioregional Movement Committee’s "Welcome Home" statement on Bioregionalism:
"A growing number of people are recognizing that in order to secure the clean air, water and food that we need to healthfully survive, we have to become guardians of the places where we live. People sense the loss in not knowing our neighbors and natural surroundings, and are discovering that the best way to take care of ourselves, and to get to know our neighbors, is to protect and restore where we live.
"Bioregionalism recognizes, nurtures, sustains, and celebrates our local connections with: land, plants and animals; rivers, lakes and oceans; air; families, friends and neighbors; community; native traditions; and local systems of production and trade.
"It is taking the time to learn the possibilities of place. It is mindfulness of local environment, history and community aspirations that can lead to a future of safe and sustainable life. It is reliance on well-understood and widely-used sources of food, power and waste disposal. It is secure employment based on supplying a rich diversity of services within the community and prudent surpluses to other regions. Bioregionalism is working to satisfy basic needs through local control in schools, health centers, and governments.
"The Bioregional movement seeks to re-create a widely shared sense of regional identity founded upon a renewed critical awareness and respect for the integrity of our natural ecological communities."
There was a recognition by many NABC people even before the Congress that Bioregionalism is one of a number of elements in the present and potential Green political movement. It was also recognized that it was necessary, from a bioregionalist base and through the bioregional vision, to begin work on cohering those aspects of the nascent Green movement which deal with the nation-state, lobbying, legislation, and general electoral politics, especially in the USA.
Given this, the NABC Green Movement Committee met – at times with up to 26 members – throughout the Congress. (I was, and remain, a member of this committee). At first there was some dissent and uneasiness coming from several congresspeople not on the committee because there even was a Green Movement Committee meeting separately from the Bioregional Movement Group. There were fears that NABC’s energy would get co-opted towards electoral politics, that working on this level was not a valid part of bioregional consciousness.
However, the Green Movement Committee members were very clear from the onset about the committee’s relationship to bioregionalism and to the work they felt needed to be done. From their first report to the plenary on Wednesday: "We are bioregional people, functioning as individuals who are bringing Green ideas to the political arena."
The final draft statement of the committee, presented to the Friday plenary, states, relative to the formation of a Green political organization in the USA:
"Recognizing the urgency of our planetary situation and the opportunities for choosing new directions, Green political movements are arising around the world. None of the traditional political forces, whether from left, right or center, is responding adequately to the destruction of eco- systems and the web of crises related to that destruction.
"Currently there is great interest in many quarters of the United States in forming a Green political organization. It seems certain that such an organization will emerge in the near future. It is essential that this organization have a biocentric vision – one which puts the needs of all life forms at the center of decision-making.
"Furthermore, as individual bioregionalists, we recognize the need for bioregional principles and practices to be secured and protected, cooperatively and in a decentralized manner, through a Green political organization. Such an organization should focus on open, democratic planning and political action supportive of local and regional autonomy and interdependence as reflected in the bioregional model.
"We believe that to be effective a Green political organization must originate from a broad base of support, from natural allies concerned with ecological politics and social justice, peace and non-violence, local and regional self-management and grassroots democracy. If the emerging Green political organization does indeed reflect these basic bioregional concerns, we urge support from bioregional groups and individuals from around the continent…"
By the end of the Congress I believe that an understanding and general approval of the Green Movement Committee and its work was reached by NABC as a whole. This group did extraordinary work in a difficult area, work that continues since the committee is still functioning as a working network. If you would like to make contact, write: Green Committee, Box 658, Mountain Home, AR 72653.
Through a national organizing effort, which includes some of the participants of the Green Movement Committee, there is a good chance that a broadbased convention to pull together a U.S. Green organization will take place in April, 1985. To learn more about this contact: The Green Organizing Committee, Box 91, Marshfield, VT 05658.
The 25 children at NABC were a vital part of the Congress’s good energy. The childcare coordinators provided the children with all kinds of activities and learning experiences, many of which were parallel to what the adults were experiencing and learning. The children learned about tree planting and sign language, did creative dramatics, drew maps, played a cooperative Turtle game, took an herb and nature walk, learned about all-species awareness from All-Species Projects’ Ponderosa Pine.
Though there were a few paid coordinators at NABC, such as in food preparation, everyone at the Congress worked as a volunteer in the tasks of cleanup, making food, childcare, running the Congress, taking people to and from the bus, train, and airport terminals, and everything it takes to create the fully functioning cooperative community that NABC was.
At around 5:30 Friday afternoon, May 25, we all gathered in a silent circle outside near the Tabernacle where the last plenary had just dissolved in silence. The children, Ron Rabin of Children of the Green Earth, Robert Mazibuko of the Africa Tree Center from Natal Province, South Africa, and a box of seedling pine and mountain ash trees were all in the center of the circle. The children planted a mountain ash and together gave an Indian sign blessing. Another blessing from Mr. Mazibuko, a song "…Tis a gift to be simple…a gift to be free…" from everyone, a little more silence and the circle dissolved. Some of us gave water to the tree, and though we all wouldn’t be gone till the next afternoon, we started home.