A trip to Supai: enrichment on many levels

This morning, I am utilizing symbology as a tool for processing all that took place on my trip to Supai. I still lack confidence that my words will do any justice to the spiritual and emotional impacts the trip has left on me. Heck, I’m not even sure that I have fully processed all that happened.

Our trip took place over Easter weekend, although that wasn’t intentionally planned. It is interesting to me that Easter for the last few years has involved meeting/being with Indigenous people. We flew into Vegas. Oh, my gosh…Vegas is so weird to me. On the flight in, I began diving into “Should Trees Have Standing” by Christopher Stone. This book is challenging in so many ways. I also read a couple of chapters of “Native Science” by Greg Cajete while down in the Village.

We were fortunate that our friend who invited us on the trip grew up in Supai, so we were able to see and be part of the community. The grace and generosity of her friends and relatives have left a lifelong impression on me. There are many things for me to put into perspective: being there at that time, meeting beautiful people, hearing all that could be heard (not just with my ears), seeing the beauty and life of this place, feeling peace and trying to understand the paradoxical experiences.

Returning home meant driving back to Vegas. It was evening when we finally started coming down into the valley, approaching that city in the desert. Some 40 miles out of town, you can already see the glow from the lights of Vegas. I couldn’t help thinking, “is this really why we let salmon and lamprey die?” What kind of land ethic is this? If we are going to harness the power of the river, shouldn’t we be wiser with how it is used?

Greg Cajete’s chapter “A Sense of Place” (chapter six) speaks very powerfully about the right relationship Indigenous peoples have developed with the earth. Interestingly enough, the words he used pointed me to a book I read for my undergrad studies: “Soulcraft” by Bill Plotkin. Such is the path of my research. <humor>

“The inner archetypes in a place formed the spiritually based ecological mind-set required to establish and maintain a correct and sustainable relationship with place.” (Cajete, p. 187)

He goes on to describe how the different Indigenous Nations developed the relationship to their land, and based on that relationship, they were able to avail themselves of the gifts of the land in responsible and sustainable ways. One amazing example was his discussion of the ways in which the various tribes of Pennsylvania were able to make use of the petroleum that seeped through to the surface for medicinal purposes, as well as helping to develop petroleum jelly for lubrication of tools.

I had never heard this before. I knew that the idea that Native Nations were somehow not technologically advanced was a barrier to understanding native science. I underestimated the lengths to which people have gone to de-legitimize and romanticize the true value and depth of the technological knowledge held by Native Nations. The Havasupai people are constantly having to adapt and change their relationship to the canyon. As recently as last year, a terrible flood swept through the village and caused a lot of destruction. However, it also changed the landscape in the canyon. What I heard on several occasions was “it wasn’t like this before the flood, and look how beautiful it is.” The water is life. The canyons are life. The rocks and the trees, all are relatives. It takes work, a maturity, a willingness to listen to ‘establish and maintain a correct and sustainable relationship with place,’ as Cajete says.

This idea of a land ethic is not new. It’s been ‘discussed’ for decades. We need to get serious about taking this to a new level. To my mind, that means giving space to Native science and letting the western paradigm of science (which has not served us well, in my opinion) to take a back seat to a Native understanding of our relationship to the land.

Nearly four years ago I was given a gift when I was accepted into the grad school program at The Evergreen State College. Nearly a year has passed since I graduated. I am always determined to not let that knowledge sit idle. As I was reading Cajete’s work, and tried to put all this into context, it dawned on me….we don’t need more words. We do need to begin to develop words that are actively engaged in relationship, that contribute to the ensoulment of our relationship to all our relations. It’s time to grow up, as a species, and have a mature, ethical relationship with our natural relatives. In the spirit of ‘not needing more words’, may my words land in a way that encourages others to become ‘entangled’ and ‘ensouled’ with our relations.

I am listening.

My social media feed was blowing up Sunday morning with posts about Gov. Inslee declaring a drought emergency for the State of Washington. There is also a petition, from my friends in the Blackfeet Nation, with a request to convince the Department of the Interior to keep the oil companies out of their territory and off their land. I went to a workshop the other night where the focus was how communities can restore self-government locally and regain decision making authority and power.

More books have arrived. More books are on their way. Scholarly articles are being identified and thoughts are swirling. All this is to say that I feel very pressured to get this research project going. Even though, on a good day, I’m usually able to only crank out one or two salient thoughts on the matter.

Food for thought: It’s not about land management as much as its about the ethics of managing lands. Ethic: (n) a set of moral principles, especially ones relating to or affirming a specified group, field or form of conduct. (adj) of or relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these.

Reading  “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz,  provides evidence of how Indigenous land management practices, which have been in place since time immemorial, were all but erased from our awareness and usurped by Eurocentric approaches to land management. The difference between the two being immense. One viewing the land as an extended member of the family, with whom you engage, collaborate and cooperate. The other viewing the land as a resource to be tamed, extracted, manipulated and then left degraded and unrestored in the wake of what some would have us believe is ‘civilized progress’. I’m only a couple of chapters into this book, but I’m sure that I will have many more realizations to ponder the more I read.

I’m currently trying to digest the work of James (Sakej) Youngblood Henderson’s article titled “The Context of the State of Nature” and how our frameworks, or the ways we have constructed our understanding of legal title and ‘ownership’ principles, have come to be. “Indigenous peoples must transform the false assumptions behind the state of nature and its social theories to begin their transformation to a postcolonial order. It is the key to our cognitive confinement. We must clearly understand the disadvantages of creating artificial societies from wrong assumptions.”

Additionally, the thoughts and ideas put forth by John T. Noonan, Jr. in “Narrowing the Nation’s Power” are going to push the limits of my cognitive abilities. It’s not that I will have a hard time believing that the Supreme Court has imposed it’s will in unjustified ways. I have somewhat of an understanding of federal Indian law came to be, after all. What I will have a hard time processing, I believe, is how we might be able to reverse these decisions that have led to an imbalance of power and a dysfunctional relationship to the land, our relative, our sustenance.

I’ve come to realize that the idea of a land ethic is not new. Nor is it something that is untested/untried. This pushes me to revise my approach to the research, perhaps focusing on the who’s/how’s/what’s of land management. Who is doing it? How is it being implemented? What kind of land ethics are being utilized? What’s the difference between a land ethic and a land management philosophy? Is a land ethic enforceable? Is a land ethic singular or is it pluralistic in it’s goals?

I have pulled all my research methodology texts off the shelf and stacked them on my desk. I have a lot of work ahead of me.

Being a serious person, and being serious about this research, I know that at some point the reading will have to stop and the questions will have to be refined. I know my voice isn’t the only one on this topic. I am listening to those other voices, not only the ones who are present in this modern time, but also the voices of my ancestors.

some words I’m contemplating – not my own

In support of the spirit from which I am beginning this journey.

“If you have hard truths to offer up to someone, make sure the voice is soft, the language beautiful, and protect the dignity of the other. When the storm clears, make sure you all see sunshine.” Lee Maracle in her essay “Decolonizing Native Women” as published in “Make A Beautiful Way”

Regarding a way to think of our relationship to the land:

“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.” ibid

“We are of the Earth. The Earth is the source of life to be protected, not merely a resource to be exploited. Our ancestors remains lie within her. Water is her lifeblood. We are dependent upon her for our shelter and our sustenance. Our lifeways are the original ‘green economies.’ We have our place and our responsibilities within Creation’s sacred order.” “The Mystic Lake Declaration” presented at the Native Peoples Native Homelands Climate Change Workshop II: Indigenous Perspectives and Solutions. Published in “Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis”

Oh Hazel Wolf, environmentalist and activist:

“She experienced as a child what she later articulated as an environmentalist: there is no split between nature and culture. We humans cannot ‘save’ wilderness or the environment as if they were entities separate from us. There is no ‘intelligent’ human fundamentally distinct from other forms of life. We are part of nature, and it is us.” Susan Starbuck in her biography “Hazel Wolf: Fighting the Establishment”

“They talk about grassroots democracy – it never sprouts, it’s trampled. If people knew about caucuses, knew where they were, knew what was involved, this would be a different country. Decisions about who gets to run and what the party platforms are going to be would not be made in smoke-filled rooms – or rest rooms. But they are. The process is concealed from preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, high school, college, and graduate students – from the American people. The grassroots never gets above ground. But that’s where I stay, at the grassroots, working in organizations.” Ibid

“By watching Emily Haig [Chairwoman, Conservation Committee of the Seattle Audubon Society], I learned you have to make compromises in relation to people that you’re working with. You can’t be really mad at a person, way deep down. You can be angry at a situation, an abstraction, but not at a person. Anger is a consumer passion – it eats you up. Sometimes I’ve looked like I was mad at someone, but I was putting on an act for some purpose. Under the influence of Emily Haig, I developed a kind of quiet and factual way of giving testimony or participating in meetings, and I always add something funny.” ibid


I have a little story to tell. Not everyone will hear the story. They will read my words, but they won’t hear the message. This is especially for those who have ears to hear.

Saturday morning I rose early, unable to sleep from the pain in my back. I carried my bones downstairs, in the dark, and prepared some coffee. Sometimes, the dark is a comfort to me. It’s hard to explain, but it’s far from gothic. It’s more along the lines of needing dark to balance light. But that’s another story, perhaps.

Once the dawn started to break, I moved outside. To put my feet on the soil. To listen. To sink my pain in the earth. The silence was brilliant. No city sounds, very little bird song. Just the sound of a breeze every now and again. Then, quite suddenly, I heard what sounded like something moving through the brush, quite loudly, but not in a disconcerting way. I looked up and noticed that the branches of this tree we’re moving very energetically, up and down, side to side; dancing, to be honest.

This felt very different from just watching wind move through a tree. The movements were elegant and graceful. So, I checked to see if any of the other plants or trees were moving in such a manner. Nothing. No breeze near me. Just this dance, for what seemed like ten minutes. Then, It stopped and I noticed that the birds had started singing.

There were no buds on this tree yesterday. Today, it is alive with new growth. I am fairly certain that I witnessed a moment of a life affirming awakening yesterday morning. This afternoon, as I realized how differently this tree looked, it dawned even further on me that I may have been in the right place, at the right time, to have had an opportunity to hear the land in such a profound and magical way.

I whispered giizaagiin and miigwechto the tree, on the wind.  And made a promise to keep listening.

churning through the thoughts

I promise…I’m not slacking. I am processing thoughts, ideas, energies around this Land Ethic proposal. Nothing is really gelling yet, so I have been hesitant to post anything.

I’m re-reading “Hazel Wolf: Fighting the Establishment” by Susan Starbuck, because Hazel’s approach to creating dialogue and organizing disparate stakeholders to engage in a civil and meaningful way really inspires me. Plus, I like to think I have her sense of humor and her passion.

Here’s a quote I think we could chew on.

” National security can no longer be defined in terms of military security, only in terms of environmental security.” p. 214

I would encourage you to interact with me on this topic. It can’t be just my voice. It can’t be just my thoughts. We all have a stake and a place in this conversation. “many hands make light work.”

Getting busy….

“And they say, ‘Don’t forget where you come from,

Don’t die holding on to your words.

Cause you know you got a whole world to change,

but understand who you got to change first.'”

Macklemore, “Victory Lap”

I’m reading, thinking, observing, worrying, reading, thinking. We need a better lens with which we can see the world: a lens that shows us our errors with crystal clear clarity, so that we can develop better strategies to correct those mistakes. It’s a scary errand, trying to find/develop a better lens. I find it’s too easy to spit words filled with anger. Too often, I pull concepts out of my soul that are wrapped in a cocoon of cynicism. It’s much harder to see through a lens of love, hope, faith, truth. One wouldn’t think it would be so hard. Perhaps that is only my experience and it is a task that gets easier with repetition.

I recently read an article about developing the skill of listening. Deep listening. Listening to the words, the emotions of a speaker, and letting them sink into you without jumping to the pre-determined argument or rebuttal. This too is a skill that requires practice and repetition. We can all learn to listen better, with more integrity, including me. So, as I contemplate being a better listener, but having a ton of words in my soul that I don’t want to die holding on to, I have to look more deeply at what it is I am intending to do with my words.

What is my errand? Is my errand to change people’s minds? Is it a fool’s errand to expect that we re-craft hundreds of years of policy and law as it pertains to lands which are held sacred by Tribal communities? At a point in time, even Vine Deloria, Jr. didn’t think it a fool’s errand. “In those days we really believed that it was possible to re-create nations but only if people, Indian and non-Indian, honestly dealt with the facts. in this context, law and policy depends on the appearance of morality,  if not it’s substance.” (“Spirit and Reason”)

Ah. The facts. You know, the history. Those historical stories that no one seems to know. The facts about federal Indian law and policy that most people don’t know and can’t seem to understand.

This topic I have decided to focus on – the care and preservation of lands for future generations – this is not a new issue of concern. The underlying problem is not that the challenges we face are new: the problem is that we can’t continue to ‘solve’ these problems with the same thinking that has led us to policies and practices which continually degrade and poison the land. Which means that we have to have different conversations. Conversations which are based on truly listening. The same old argument between developer, legislator, politician and conservationist cannot be counted on to make any progress in the dilemma. We must learn to listen. More succinctly, we must learn to involve other voices; those whose words are rooted in generations of holistic land practices. I also think what this really means, if you dig in and break it down, is that some of the stakeholders whose voices have dominated the ‘conversations’ really need to learn to be quiet. They need to shut up for a time. I don’t say this to be disrespectful, but I do mean for it to be provocative. It also means that people need to be willing to hear the truth of how lands have been taken away from Indigenous nations.

Broaden the conversation, deepen the listening. Think more critically about the decisions we are facing. Tell the truth. Be willing to hear the truth.

I love what Dr. Dan Wildcat recently cited as one of seven things he believes we need to do to advance the rights of Mother Earth. His non-negotiable position is that we must base all our work on the belief that “this planet and the life on it constitutes a spiritual universe.” That was my rough attempt to quote him from the presentation he made in January to the Bioneers Indigenous Forum. If we listen deeply enough, if we think more critically, we might be able to remember that we are part of a huge, symbiotic universe; that our lives are really as fragile as the planet’s; that what we do to Mother Earth, we do to ourselves; that we can better manage the gifts that our Mothers offers us for a good life.

Here’s a link to his presentation. I highly recommend it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fz25Velw6cE&list=PLcrF8lYZY144VBdB-deo9dUxznTlLSG1N&index=8

We need a land ethic. We need a return to a belief in the value of an undisturbed environment that sustains and perpetuates life. All life. Dr. Wildcat reminds us, in his presentation, that there is plenty of work to do. And we all must get busy.

In my next post I hope to lay out some points about why we should engage Tribal and Indigenous principles, knowledge and wisdom in the decisions about land development / management issues. I’m hoping that the more I do this, the better organized and clear my thoughts can be expressed.

I’ll leave you with the words my friend Jessica posted that her mom, Wanda Wilson, had spoken to her. I had the honor of meeting Wanda in January of 2014 and we keep in touch via social media. I admire her greatly.

“We have to understand we are all different, but we share one goal. If the earth is polluted these beings won’t exist anymore, and we lose our gifts. We all share the earth, the water, the air, trees and soil to grow our food. We all want to be loved and to give love, we all want to be friends. But we are all born, special and unique. What is that one goal we all share? Go and do it.” Wanda Wilson

this is where it begins

I graduated with an MPA from The Evergreen State College in June of 2014. I pursued that education, not as a way to further my career. I had no career in public service. This educational journey was something that lit a fire in my soul. MPA, with a focus on Tribal Governance. I read those words, and my soul lit up. I was driven to get into the program, and jumped through several hoops to get there. I consider it an honor to have been given that opportunity.

The funny thing about studying a field in which you have no ‘practical’ experience – getting hired to work in that field is a bit of a challenge. I can’t tell you how many times I have crafted a cover letter, answered supplementary questions, only to receive the gracious “thanks, but no thanks” email weeks later.

Rather than be discouraged, I take each email as an opportunity to acknowledge that my opportunity is out there, even if I have to create it myself. It’s looking more and more like that’s what I’ll need to do. That’s great, actually, because I love a challenge. I’m a hard-worker. I’m looking forward to see what can be created, individually and collaboratively.

The intent of this blog is to continue the learning process and academic skills I acquired while in grad school, and to, hopefully, create a body of work that contributes knowledge, ideas, hope and inspiration to others in a graceful and meaningful way. Oh, and probably lots of random thoughts, too.