Let’s talk about oil

What if oil is a relative?

Ok, it would be a ‘distant cousin twice removed’ kind of relative, but still, what if it is a relative?

In Indigenous ways of being, we owe our relatives an act of ceremony when we take from them. When we hold this ceremony, we honor, promote and maintain a balanced, reciprocal relationship and acknowledge our interdependence.

Just as we have relatives above the ground who share this planet with us, we have many relatives who live deep in the land. In addition to the underground rivers and aquifers, there are also minerals, metals, and chemicals. They are part of the earth and are integral to the processes of the earth.

In many Indigenous communities, there is a ceremony specific to each relative. This ceremony is to honor what they give us and to acknowledge that we owe them a debt. It is important to acknowledge the inter-dependency between human lives and more-than-human lives. This ceremony also reminds us to not take more than what we need. There are instructions regarding how to harvest, when to harvest and what is to be offered in exchange for the harvest.

To be clear and honest, I don’t have the benefit of these teachings in a direct way, but I do have some of the knowledge. Some of the teachings have survived and passed down, and even though they haven’t been preserved in a traditional, cultural way, they are still alive in my family.

This knowledge, of the interdependence, is what drove me to study eco-psychology. I’ve read a ton (that’s a very academic quantitative reference) of books about the relationship and interdependence between our environment’s health and our health. Robin Wall-Kimmerer’s “The Braiding of Sweetgrass” and “Gathering Moss” have been highly influential in my understanding of the relationship to my relatives who are more-than-human. Stephen Buhner’s “The Secret Teachings of Plants” and many others. These words and wisdom have added to my knowledge.

Lee Maracle’s essay titled “Decolonizing Native Women” expresses this relationship beautifully.

“The promise of the spirit-to-spirit relationship with our mother, the Earth, and the waters is that the plants, animals and all life are here to support us in achieving the good life. All that is required of us is to acknowledge those beings who surrendered their lives to us and to obey the laws we inherited from that which set all life into motion, the Great Mystery.”

But Greg Cajete’s book “Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence” has most assuredly increased my understanding in significant ways.

 “Native science applies the principle of being true to all of one’s relationships, which means keeping true to all of the primal responsibilities, compacts and alliances with the natural world.”


This sentence alone has increased my understanding and helped me to see through a new lens: that the relationship Indigenous people have with their relatives is not anthropomorphizing, it is science; that it is based on a compact between relatives – a compact which carries responsibility as well as the promise of alliance into every action and interaction. You never take more than you need. You know how and when to take by having relationship with nib, or manoomin, aki, mitigoog or oil. You always give thanks and you leave an offering in return. Native science is deeply steeped in observation and is permeated with the spiritual as well.

So, let’s talk about our relationship to oil. In Cajete’s book, he discusses the different ways that Native science was in effect and contributed to how modern life is manifest. Particularly, he talks about oil.

“Jack Weatherford {1988, 1991} and other authors have recorded the contribution of Native Americans to establishing uses for asphalt and other petroleum products. Their oil pits in Pennsylvania became the birthplace of the modern U.S. oil industry. There and elsewhere, surface seeps of petroleum were developed and exploited for medicinal purposes. In Pennsylvania alone, over two-thousand oil pits were dug by various tribes to promote the collection of petroleum. Native Americans developed petroleum jelly from these sources by combining olefin-bearing hydrocarbons with methane (natural gas) to make a salve for treating burns and open wounds. After obtaining metal tools in trade from Europeans, Indians used petroleum jelly as a superior lubricant, in contrast to the animal fats employed as a grease by the Europeans. The Chumash in California also developed the use of asphalt (the heaviest part of petroleum) as a waterproofing material for their plank-hulled boats.”

When I first read this, I was astonished and excited! To my mind, it debunks the ideology that Native people didn’t “make use of the resources” available to them. They definitely did! But, I needed to re-read it again, in context of the rest of the book, and take in consideration the nature of the relationship that might have existed between Native people and this element. I haven’t yet found evidence that oil was considered a relative. In fact, it’s a big leap for me to contemplate the relationship to oil as a relative and that any ceremony for oil existed but it’s a leap I feel somewhat comfortable making.

Now that I have this information regarding how petroleum and gas have been used by Native people, I am left to wonder – how are we here, with such an imbalanced, destructive relationship with this relative? And what can we do to change course? Because we kid ourselves, at our peril, if we continue to believe that there is no reciprocity coming due as a result of our constant taking. There are laws of physics and natural laws which cannot be ignored forever.

Here are some ideas regarding the imbalanced relationship: we extract more than we need, we extract without regard for our other relatives and we use it to produce things which bring very little value to life on the planet. Or maybe better stated –  the value which things create is drastically offset by the damage the production of those things leaves in its wake.

The reality of our time is that we have much better alternatives available that will satisfy all the trappings of this modern life we have created for ourselves. Those alternatives ought to be moved to the forefront of our conversations and capital projects. Quickly. We must remember to honor the relationship to those beings which support alternative energies. There is more reason to keep the oil in the ground than there is a need to extract it. We still rely on the oil. So, where there is a need we must work to determine how to create balance in the relationship.

If we must extract it, then let’s only extract what we need to sustain life. If we must transport it, let’s make sure that the transportation routes are highest quality, constantly maintained and kept up to high standards. If we must burn it, we should figure out how to burn it in a way that doesn’t make anyone sick. Additionally, when industry doesn’t behave responsibly, they must be held to account.

Cajete offers some words which I believe are a wise and thoughtful encouragement for us to get to a balanced relationship.

“Creative use of the environment guaranteed its continuity, and Indigenous people understood the importance of allowing their land its rich life because they believed their land understood the value of using humans. If humans could use the land, the land would also use them to enrich it and keep it alive. They and the place they lived in were equal partners in life.”

We can do better. We must do better. If industry can’t be convinced to do better, then we must make it our priority to relieve ourselves of the dependence on those things which industry produces.

We have a right and responsibility to have a balanced, reciprocal relationship with our more than human relatives. Even the ones that might be ‘distant cousins, twice removed’.

Maracle, L. (2008) Decolonizing Native Women. In B. A. Mann (Ed.), Make A Beautiful Way: The Wisdom of Native American Women.

Cajete, G. 2000) Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence.

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Twylia (the 'i' is silent)

~ I am Anishinaabe-kwe with Scottish heritage and Sami DNA. I speak on the behalf of no one but myself. My ancestors inform and guide me. My voice is but one of many who are calling for change. We have much work to do to create a good space for the real human beings who are waiting to be born.

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