Walking With Nature

The Native Americans' age-old spiritual ties with nature endure

One of the articles in Earth & Spirit (IC#24)
Originally published in Late Winter 1990 on page 50
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

Native Americans have been cast in the role of environmental messiahs almost as often as they have been suppressed. But the original peoples of North America do have much to offer the relative newcomers, for many still live spiritually attuned to nature in their daily practices and teachings. At the same time, they meet what is sometimes called the “dominant culture” on its own terms: in combining sweat lodges with computers, they come closest to embodying a truly postmodern way of life.

Jewell Praying Wolf James is Coordinator for the Lummi Treaty Protection Task Force and Chairman of the Board of the Kluckhohn Research Center. Ken Cooper is Cultural Consultant for Fish, Timber and Wildlife of the Lummi Tribe. Together they bespeak the fire still alive and resurging among Native Americans.

Jewell also chairs The Moon’s Prayer Foundation, which offers the image of the “Indian in the Moon” as a source of spiritual guidance accessible around the world; and he institgated the apology to Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest from area bishops and church leaders for wrongs done to them in the name of Christianity. For more information about these activities contact: Jewell James, Lummi Tribal Council, 2616 Kwina Road, Bellingham, WA 98226.

Kari: One thing that has moved me, hearing the two of you speak, is the spiritual awareness with which you view things – it’s not separate from other considerations. That kind of sensititivity has generally fallen on deaf ears in America’s non-Native culture. Is this spirituality endangered among Indian people? Can it survive in today’s world?

Jewell: It’s a miracle that peoples on reservations have survived. And it’s not welfare that saved us. If it weren’t for Indians’ cultural awareness of who they are – and their extended family system – they wouldn’t have been able to exist. It’s because Seyowin’s here yet, our winter spiritual dances. It’s because the Sun Dance is there yet, and because the Hopi still dance traditionally and teach that there are reasons to continue to exist. But more important is that there is still this concept of what being Indian means – though some might want to believe that it’s just a stereotype.

One day a fellow asked if I would introduce him to people he could interview for his Master’s thesis. “I want to prove the fiction of Native American sensitivity to the environment,” he told me. I sat there wondering, “Who let this guy in the office anyway?” But he was a guest and I was obliged to be friendly, so I said “Well, I could set up a meeting with Ken Cooper, our Cultural Consultant. Of course we’re going to differ with you, and I’m not sure we’ll be able to set up any interviews.” He recognized then that he was saying the wrong thing to the wrong person.

But there are also many peoples worldwide who believe Indians know what the world is all about environmentally. Remember Iron Eyes Cody and his single tear?

Kari: Not by name, you’ll have to remind me.

Jewell: Iron Eyes Cody did a TV commercial where, in his buckskins and long braided hair, he looked at the dead deer at the side of the road – the dead fish in the river – the polluted bays and litter all over. Then he turned to the camera, and one tear came down. That’s all. It was one of the most famous environmental commercials ever made. The world really related to that one tear.

But we need to build on people’s perceptions of Indian Country based on fact and truth.

Kari: What are some of those truths? How do the Lummi, for example, actually relate to the land?

Ken: Currently we’re trying to protect our cultural use areas here in the Nooksak Basin. “Cultural use areas” are where we go in the mountains to swim and fast and try to earn more power, more knowledge. We try to understand how to walk in harmony with nature. We listen with our third ear – not with these [pointing to his ears], but this inside here [pointing to his heart]. This third ear can understand anything – the trees as they talk to one another, the songs in the wind, the stories of the pathway that started a long time ago that we’re walking on today. We try to get a better understanding of who we are, because I can’t love if I don’t love me.

When we enter the water we believe we’re cleansing ourselves of yesterday and fixing ourselves up for today. I can do nothing about yesterday or tomorrow, but I can do something about now. And if things are good today, we’ve got a good foundation for tomorrow.

When I come back I play the song that I hear floating on the wind and play the feeling that I hear coming out of those trees that are pained, that know they’re going to be cut down. They do talk. They have a lot to teach us. Anybody who goes in the mountains and sees beauty has a form of healing. But developing, logging and clearcutting, air pollution and building towns on top of places, these things have a devastating effect on Indian people.

It’s hard to talk about Indian when you’re using English. Very few people here in Lummi speak their real tongue anymore. In our language one word sums up a whole concept. Our Sha-langen means our whole way of life: the spiritual aspect, the harmony of walking with nature, the stories that we pass down to our children. The legends and stories all have meanings that relate to questions like, how did we get here? How did the tree form? How are the rocks made, what do they have to teach? What’s in the water and how do we take care of it? How are we supposed to take care of ourselves and our people?

Our people who’ve been educated are now searching for their traditions, but it’s really hard to put them into something that they totally don’t understand. They weren’t around it. The generation coming behind plays Nintendo and watches TV. Sending them away to school has cut the Indian family in two. Our school was taught by our grandma. She told us how to get along with nature, how to survive and how to live, how to heal anything that may happen to you.

Kari: You talked about seeking knowledge and understanding by going into nature, into the mountains, listening to trees. What might a person learn that way?

Ken: Really looking at nature tells us what’s going on. For instance, if you walk in the woods at night, vines trip you, you bump into stumps and windfalls. They’re all obstacles trying to stop you from reaching your goal. And that’s the way everyday life is. You get tangled up in peer pressure – they pull you back into their alcoholism or drugs or whatever. Or maybe you want to build a house, and you keep bumping into obstacles. So when you walk at night in nature and bump into things and fall down, you stop and think, “This is the way I go through life!”

Or if you get impatient, just sit on a rock. One of the most patient things the Creator made was a rock. We tell our children, “You sit on this rock, and I’ll come back in a couple of hours and you tell me what you learned.”

Kari: It gets harder, doesn’t it, as wild places vanish? Human settlements used to be small islands in a sea of wilderness. Now it’s the other way around: we have small islands of wilderness surrounded by settlements.

Ken: I brought a botanist across the street here last spring, and had her pull up a lady fern. Its root was about a foot long. Then I brought her up the mountain and said “Here, pull one of these up.” The fern looked the same but she couldn’t pull it up. I said, “Man hasn’t disturbed this. It’s still the way it was in the beginning of time.” I pulled one up and it had a two-foot-long root. We use the whole plant for medicines, dyes, and decorations – but where man is, there’s nothing usable even though the plant looks the same. Wherever you put man, he eventually poisons the area he lives in.

Everything on the floor of the ancient forest has a use for Indian people. When they kill a thousand-year-old tree they also kill the environment beneath it, and that can’t be put back by the smartest person on Earth. No one can duplicate what the Creator made.

Kari: In their traditional way of life, how did the Lummi manage to avoid permanently damaging the environment?

Ken: Our old areas took in all the San Juan Islands into what they call Canada. But we never stayed in one spot – we moved with the seasons. We dug our clams here, caught our salmon over there, got abalone from this island, other types of clams and seagull eggs on another island. Up north we’d gather herring roe off the kelp. By the time we came back here, this place had replenished itself. We were in a constant cycle.

So when I die, best I go back where I came from, back in the ground. As the body rots it pushes up new vegetation for animals to eat, and that way I replenish, just like everything else.

Jewell: There’s a sensitivity to the environment, that was taught in the old ways. But that’s considered “subjective.” Ken was saying the trees talk. Well, a U.S. Forest Service employee recently developed a machine that can record trees speaking between 50 and 500 kilohertz. They picked up a “song,” and now they’re saying that these trees sound like birds chirping. Our hearing range only goes up to 20 kilohertz – and yet Indian people have gone through their fasting, their ceremonies, and they hear this. Scientists are starting to admit that there really was something there. And people are realizing the environment is being destroyed under “objective” science, and that they have to re-evaluate how they measure the world around them.

We learned the hard way. We destroyed the salmon once, and had to create the first Salmon Ceremony to teach our children to respect them. They still know the lesson of Salmon Woman: if you use up the resources now, you’ll have none for the future.

These old lessons can still teach us today. Here’s an example: Cups are fifty-four cents at Woolworth’s. If this cup falls I can buy another one, right? But some clay from some stream where the salmon spawn will have to be dug up to replace it. The supply and demand cycle is vicious – it’s like the unlimited frontier. But grandma would have made us put it way back on the table, or not touch it at all. “That’s a piece of art, that’s beautiful, that’s Grandma’s, don’t touch it.” Just pushing it back from the edge of the table is a ceremony of respect.

If people turn off the extra lights when they leave their house or leave the room – just turn off what they don’t need – that’s a ceremony. It’s as simple as that. It’s not just so much about doing the act, the ceremony, but about knowing, telling yourself in your mind and in your heart that you did something that made a difference. You walk away with a very different feeling than when you do it because you feel obligated. It can give you a very different view of the world around you.

Kari: Can Indian people help change the way things are generally done in this country?

Jewell: You’ve got to institutionalize a change of attitude, and Indian people have to play a stronger role in that. Indian people recognize that you have to pay respect, and that kind of respect is not institutionalized in the U.S. Forest Service or Department of Natural Resources, for example – they see the forest as something to be used. So everybody takes their little bit out, and when you add it all up, it’s the destruction of the whole ecosystem – from humans down to the smallest amoeba.

The reservations did reserve a part of our culture. We’ve changed, but that thread of our culture is still there. And that thread is a key to changing the thoughts and consciences of those that have the power right now to make this decision: Do we change the system and protect the environment, or not change the system and destroy it?

I think we can be really proud of the Lummi people, because they try so darn hard! They don’t have much here. These people have lost most of their land, their hunting rights, fishing rights, religious rights, their language. Their culture was attacked, everything they stood for was to be destroyed. And yet they’re still here! And they still think they can make a difference!

Kari: The church apology to Native Americans is a powerful example of what you’re talking about. How did that come about?

Jewell: Well, I’ll give you some history. A few years ago I was in South Africa, giving a presentation about growing up Indian to some black students, when a retired ranger came in. He was crying quite hard, and to make a long story short, he said he believed he was an Indian reborn in white South Africa. So he got as close as he could to his former life by becoming a ranger. All his life he had followed the teachings of Grey Owl and worked to protect the rhinoceros and the wilderness.

I was the first Native American he had met, and he wanted to send a message back. His message was this: If the Native Americans do not get back to their true spirituality – not religion, spirituality – the rest of us are doomed. We are destroying the world, he said, not only politically and socially, but as religions. We have these written religions, and walk those words on paper, but we’re destroying the world in the process. But the Indians walked their spirituality in daily life – they lived it in ceremonies and in everything they did. He said, if they would only preserve that and bring it out for the world, then the rest of us might be able to change enough to save it. And it was heart-breaking, the way he was sobbing.

So I listened to him, and the very next day Chernobyl blew. Later that year I was in Europe and Chernobyl’s radioactive contamination was flowing around. I remember sitting with a couple whose little boy was on the porch looking at the sand which had been poured out of his sandbox. I offered to put the sandbox together so he could play in it, but his father said “We can’t. It’s radioactively contaminated.” I said “Why don’t you get rid of it?” And he answered “Where do I put it? My neighbor’s garden?” That said it all.

You’d read in the papers about your daily allowance of radioactivity and warnings about milk, certain meats and vegetables. The Rhine was running red with toxins from a fire at a big Swiss chemical plant. So I’m flying out of Europe thinking, “That’s the legacy of Europe, this is the roots of modern America.”

Then I read a book, Touch the Earth , by T.C. McLuhan, with excerpts from speeches by Indian leaders, men and women, from 1492 on. They were saying over and over, “Love the Earth, cherish the Earth, respect the Earth, all things are brothers and sisters.” I was really moved and just sat there crying, because over the years I’d heard a lot of “uneducated” Indian leaders say basically the same thing! Almost five hundred years later, with all the assimilation, acculturation, and even termination that the tribes have suffered, fragments and threads of belief have survived, passed from generation to generation. That’s what moved me the most. These people have been saying the same thing year after year. And nobody’s hearing them!

At that time the Lummi Treaty Protection Task Force was drawing upon church support throughout the nation to stop the Federal Government from taxing treaty rights resources. Their support was key for our success.

Now, Indians are survivors. We have survived some of the worst conditions that can be thrown against us – the highest infant mortality, shortest life expectancy, highest poverty and unemployment, lowest educational and vocational attainment. America’s consciousness just does not want to look at Indian people. Knowing all the suffering that has taken place in Indian Country, and that the history taught in America doesn’t give kids any reason to take pride in knowing Indians – well, I was pretty pissed off.

So I said “As coordinator of the Treaty Task Force, I can’t sit here hating the churches for teaching the world that we’re uncivilized, that we’re not worthy unless we mold into their image, and at the same time ask their children to help us!”

Then Kurt Russo, another member of the Task Force, suggested we write a letter to the Church Council of Greater Seattle, saying that the churches’ treatment of Native Americans was wrong. A year later the churches responded with an Apology signed by ten bishops and church leaders from the Northwest. By now its message has traveled across Canada, into Mexico, the Brazilian jungle, Australia, and a copy hangs on the wall of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Kari: I’ve heard reference to both the “Apology” and to the “Declaration” – what’s the difference?

Jewell: We call it an apology, they call it a declaration. We’re working on getting a national declaration now. The Vatican issued a statement in February, 1989, saying that racism has been institutionalized in the church, that this is wrong, and that they’ve taken a stand against it. Not apologizing, just saying it’s wrong.

Kari: Perhaps this response by the churches reflects peoples’ growing need for flexibility in the spiritual/religious traditions, and search for meaning in their lives. Many non-Native people have become interested in Native American spirituality. Do you see anything positive in that?

Ken: Definitely. People are so hungry for spirituality that they don’t care whose it is. That’s good, because it’s opening their eyes to what’s happening around them and to what they can do. We’re trying to wake up what everybody has in them anyhow. I notice that all the Indians I’ve run across have teachings almost identical to our own. I’ve talked with Africans and Japanese, and their teachings are basically the same as ours.

Jewell: We’ve all got the gift of love. We’re just saying “Love the air, love the water, love the earth, love the animals, love each other, and love respect.”

Kari: As you bring your message to people, what kind of response are you getting?

Ken: We get a lot of calls and letters from people we’ve spoken to, and it’s very rewarding to get something in the mail saying “You’ve completely changed my life with the Indian concept.” That’s a good feeling, a very good feeling.

When you sit with Indian people, they sit in a medicine circle. Within that medicine circle we’re only as strong as the weakest among us. It’s up to the rest to make that one as strong as the rest of the circle. The circle can’t be broken. If you take a bundle of kindling and pull one piece out, you can bust it easily. But that whole bundle can’t be broken. That’s how people are – if you put them together, all of one mind, all working for one thing, then we’re very powerful.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!