Sustainability column, Mount Shasta Herald, March 15, 2017
I’ve been reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014), and considering the relationship between how white settlers treated the Native people of Turtle Island and how we white folks treat the land today. The United States came into being and expanded “from sea to shining sea” through centuries of conquest and violence. Most of us of European ancestry do not have a generational relationship with the land we occupy, having moved onto the land rather than living for generations within it.
This means we tend to think of land as a commodity to own, as property of certain monetary value, with resources that we can exploit—again for monetary gain. We don’t think of land in the way that many indigenous people do: as sacred, as holding the bones of our ancestors, as Mother. We don’t have sacred sites on our land, places we go for worship and renewal, following traditions hundreds of years old. Instead, we fly to distant places for recreation and renewal, rather than making pilgrimages within our home territory. Our places of worship tend to be buildings we construct in much the same design no matter where we live.
I am coming to understand what a profound difference this makes in Euro-American sense of connectedness and relatedness with the land. We see ourselves “on” land, not “of” it. We believe we are separate from that which gives us life, separate from soil and water and air, separate from the rivers, mountains, lakes, valleys, forests, and plains that surround us. We may enjoy them, but not fully grasp our radical interdependence with them.
When white settlers came to Turtle Island, they assumed without question that they had every right to occupy any land they found to their liking. They did not accord any rights to the people already living here and just took over, most often violently, with no regard for the lives and cultures they found in their path.
The miracle is that the Indigenous people of Turtle Island—while decimated in numbers, forcibly removed from ancestral lands and sacred sites, and subjected to dehumanizing boarding schools—still managed to survive and keep their culture and traditions alive. It’s possible that their deep relationship with the land itself enabled their survival as peoples and nations, even when separated from their ancestral lands by many miles and years.
The story of the Black Hills illustrates this powerfully. The Sioux Nation never accepted the validity of the US 1876 confiscation of Paha Sapa, the Black Hills in today’s South Dakota. After years of Indigenous protest and occupations, “the US Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills had been taken illegally and that remuneration equal to the initial offering price plus interest—nearly $106 million—be paid” (Dunbar-Ortiz, p. 207). However, the Sioux have refused the award (which has remained in an interest-bearing account, now totaling over a billion dollars) and continued to demand the return of the land, believing that “accepting the money would validate the US theft of their most sacred land” (p. 207).
“That one of the most impoverished communities in the Americas would refuse a billion dollars demonstrates the relevance and significance of the land to the Sioux, not as an economic resource but as a relationship between people and place, a profound feature of the resilience of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas” (p. 2108).
I wonder if we EuroAmericans can somehow recover this reverence for the land that supports our very lives. The survival of the human species may depend on it.