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Indians speak forcefully on climate

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    Indians speak forcefully on climate
    U.S. tribes join discourse on global warming

    By John Donnelly, Globe Staff
    The Boston Globe - 17 June 2007

    WEST FACE OF MT. MOOSILAUKE, N.H. -- Talking Hawk stood above the South Branch of the Baker River one warm spring day recently and grimaced.

    "It's August color," he said of the tea-colored river. "It's not normal."

    The Mohawk Indian, along with members of five other Native American tribes, was preparing for a sacred ceremony by the river to pray for "Earth Mother." He said the planet was reacting to the overwhelming amount of pollution humans have produced that caused changes around the globe, even in the river at his doorstep.

    "Earth Mother is fighting back -- not only from the four winds but also from underneath," he said. "Scientists call it global warming. We call it Earth Mother getting angry."

    In recent months, some Native American leaders have spoken out more forcefully from New Hampshire to California about the danger of climate change from greenhouse gases, joining a growing national discourse on what to do about the warming planet.

    Scientists have documented climate change, but Native Americans speak of it in spiritual terms and remind others that their elders prophesized environmental tragedy many generations ago.

    Those who study Native American culture believe their presence in the debate could be influential. They point to "The Crying Indian," one of the country's most influential public-service TV ads.

    In the spot, actor Iron Eyes Cody, in a buckskin suit, paddles a canoe up a trash-strewn urban creek, then stands by a busy highway cluttered with litter. The ad ends with a close-up of Cody, shedding a single tear after a passing motorist throws trash at his feet.

    The "Keep America Beautiful" public service announcement , which aired in the 1970s and can be seen on, helped usher in landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

    "Within the last six months, there's just been a loss of faith in the insistence [by some politicians] that global warming isn't happening, and that we have nothing to do with it," said Shepard Krech III , an anthropology and environmental studies professor at Brown University.

    Krech is the author of "The Ecological Indian," which examines the relationship between Native Americans and nature.

    Though many citizens will look for "a consensus in the scientific community" to convince them of climate change, Krech said, others will seek "perspectives from Indian society. . . Native Americans have a rich tradition that springs from this belief they have always been close to the land, and always treated the land well."

    At a United Nations meeting last month, several Native American leaders spoke at a session called "Indigenous Perspectives on Climate Change. "

    Also in May, tribal representatives from Alaska and northern Canada -- where pack ice has vanished earlier and earlier each spring -- traveled to Washington to press their case.

    In California, Minnesota, New Mexico, and elsewhere, tribes have used some of their casino profits to start alternative or renewable energy projects, including biomass-fueled power plants. Here in the White Mountains, where Native Americans have become integrated in the broader society, some have questioned the impact of local development

    Jan Osgood , an Abenaki Indian who lives in Lincoln, N.H., and who attended the sacred ceremony on the Baker River, said she worries about several proposals that would clear acres of national forest on Loon Mountain for luxury homes. "It breaks my heart," she said.

    She approached Ted Sutton, Lincoln's town manager, about the project and gave him a book called "Touch the Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence ," a collection of writings by North American Indians that detailed the history of the US government's unfulfilled promises to their tribes. The gift spurred their friendship, and an exchange of ideas of how to ensure development does not ruin the mountains.

    After reading the book, Sutton said he agrees with the Native American philosophy of life: Use nature respectfully, never taking more than is needed.

    "American Natives have been telling us all along that this was going to happen to the earth," Sutton said. "They were telling us hundreds of years ago that what we were doing [to the environment] would come back and haunt us. They have been proven right. But hopefully we've started to listen to them and move back to some better management of our lives."

    Christopher McLeod, a filmmaker who produced "In the Light of Reverence," a documentary about Native American sacred sites, said that many tribal leaders were now trying to craft messages about global warming for the wider population.

    "Their feeling is, 'We need to work that much harder to protect the earth, because you guys are killing the earth,' " McLeod said. "But at the same time, they are trying to strategize internally about what message to send, how to survive themselves, and how to get non indigenous people to realize that the people on the front lines -- the Inuit, the [Arctic] coastal people -- have to be listened to."

    At the United Nations forum, McLeod noted that several tribal leaders said the current global warming trends were "nothing new, nothing different, a manifestation of what we've been telling you guys for [hundreds of] years of what is going to go wrong."

    Henrietta Mann , a leader of the Southern Cheyenne Sioux tribe, told the conference, "Day and night are out of sync. We know that Mother Earth, that beautiful, loving, most generous of all mothers, that her body has been violently treated. We live in an increasingly polluted land."

    Wahela Johns , a member of the Dine' tribe, who helped form the Black Mesa Water Coalition , an environmental group, joined the fight against carbon trading -- a system to control greenhouse gases in which a polluting company or industry compensates for its carbon dioxide emissions by purchasing credits from a company that invests in alternative energies.

    In Johns' s view, companies paid for "planting trees. . . in South America, so we can pollute more as an industry in the Northern region. That is not a solution.

    "Our people are being first and foremost affected by climate change," she said. "We have the knowledge as indigenous peoples, we understand the caretaking we need to do, we need to share that with the rest of the world."

    Alongside Baker River, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Talking Hawk, who asked to be identified by his Indian name, prepared for the "Medicine Wheel Ceremony." The ceremony is based on the belief that "all of life is a circle. . . and human beings travel around a great wheel" in sync with nature, he said.

    He blackened his face as "a sign," he said, "of humility that I am one with Earth Mother."

    Around the circle were members of the Passamaquoddy, Mohawk, Blackfoot, Micmaq, Lakota Sioux, and Abenaki tribes. Osgood, the Abenaki, played the flute.

    Thunderbull , a Lakota Sioux, banged on drums. And Talking Hawk addressed the group, and the spirits.

    "We've come here to pray for Earth Mother," he said. "We pray for the healing of Earth Mother in these troubled times."

    Thunderbull offered a prayer for people who had suffered from recent flooding in the Midwest. Talking Hawk prayed for those who would suffer from natural disasters ahead.

    "Think of the people who will die in the cleansing of Earth Mother, all around the world," he said. "Think of their spirits."

    "Be good, be kind, help each other."
    "Respect the ground, respect the drum, respect each other."

    --Abe Conklin, Ponca/Osage (1926-1995)

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