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An Education of Experience

rachelr's picture


          This is a history lesson about the future. The climate is changing at the most rapid rate in history. The years are hotter, sea levels are rising, arctic ice is melting, hurricane frequencies are increasing, infectious diseases are spreading north from the tropics, and crops are dying; this all conveniently coincides with technological and production increases, human expansion, deforestation, overfishing, and general living beyond our means and the means of the earth.

            This problem is the white people’s problem. Had the past unfolded in some alternate way perhaps this would not be the case; but here we are in the midst of that vague term “post-colonialism” where the white man has expunged his declaration of control, and yet the remnants of colonialism can still be clearly found from the poverty in many parts of Africa to the displaced Native American tribes of North America.

            Now, it seems, the people who used to care so deeply for the land are too busy staying alive, doing what they can to make ends meet to share the connection that they once had with the land, with life itself. They lost this because of the white people.

            Native American culture is deeply rooted in their oral traditions, in the form that their lessons, instructions, and the way they made sense of the earth and all living things took: stories. These stories differ between tribes, between regions, because the stories are about the plants and animals of where they are on the land. These stories teach about the earth and about human relations to the earth and to life. Lessons and instructions are not the only form of stories; “Other stories tell about child rearing, friendship and love, hunting routes, bird migrations, family lineage, and prophecies that describe and predict major ecological, celestial and spiritual events” (PBS Circle of Stories). Not only do these stories look back at the forming of the earth, but they also recognize the importance of the elders in the community, without whom they would not be here. The stories are all a piece of the whole, never aiming to tell everything all at once. It is about lessons for the future through revisitation of the past.

            The millions of Native Americans who inhabited North America before the colonization by the white people from Europe (the English, the French, the Spanish) lived with little impact on the land. They farmed what they needed, the hunted what they needed, and they did not leave waste, using up every part of the animal, the plant. They watched as the white people decimated the landscape and heard the spirits cry out.


"The White people never cared for land or deer or bear. When we Indians kill meat, we eat it all up. When we dig roots we make little holes. When we build houses, we make little holes. When we burn grass for grasshoppers, we don’t ruin things. We shake down acorns and pinenuts. We don’t chop down the trees. We only use dead wood. But the White people plow up the ground, pull down the trees, kill everything. The tree says, “Don’t. I am sore. Don’t hurt me.” But they chop it down and cut it up. The spirit of the land hates them. They blast out trees and stir it up to its depths. They saw up the trees. That hurts them. The Indians never hurt anything, but the White people destroy all. They blast rocks and scatter them on the ground. The rock says, “Don’t. You are hurting me.” But the White people pay no attention. When the Indians use rocks, they take little round ones for their cooking… How can the spirit of the Earth like the White man? … Everywhere the White man has touched it, it is sore." – old Wintu woman (Touch the Earth, 15)

 Like many plants and animals, Native Americans have been driven to the brink of extinction. Since the 1790s the white people have attempted cultural assimilation of Native American children into white home and white schools where they were forbidden to speak their languages, tell their stories, or practice their religion; they were also given new names, names with no trace of their heritage or culture (NPR story).  Most do not know that even today, Native American children are still being taken from their homes under “questionable circumstance” (NPR three-part investigation). In white schools, Native American children struggle, feeling isolated and unrepresented; their dropout rate is close to 40% (Native American Education).

            Like an invasive species, like a weed, the white people are overgrowing the landscape, choking and displacing the native forms of life. They are fierce competitors. Michael Pollan writes about a sense of “a social or political threat in the growth of weeds… Until the romantics, the hierarchy of plants was generally thought to mirror that of human society” (Weeds Are Us). He also writes, about weeds, that he “ treated them, in other words, as garden plants. But they did not behave as garden plants… they seemed truly a different order of being, more versatile, better equipped, craftier and more ruthless.” This perhaps mirrors how the Native Americans observed the white people to be; they helped them, they taught them, they shared with them, but instead of taking these lessons and enacting them, the white people did not behave as expected. They tore the earth from beneath the Native American’s feet; they were crafty and they were ruthless.


“Several of our young People were formerly brought up in the Colleges of the Northern Provinces: they were instructed in all your Sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods… neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, nor Counsellors, they were totally good for nothing.” – response to an offer to send boys to William and Mary College, 1744 (Touch the Earth, 57)

            How is it that with all of our technology, our book knowledge, our education, that we cannot understand that we are driving the future of the entire planted to the brink of destruction? Life stands on the edge of a knife. Scientists tell us what percentage of arctic ice has melted, how many polar bears are drowning, how many inches the oceans have risen in the past ten years (Arctic Sea Ice Extent); if we really understood this we would have stopped. We would have turned around and acted back against our own destruction. But, even with all of our “Colleges of the Northern Provinces,” we have not.

            Something, then, must be missing from our education. We are growing up differently than Native Americans once did. The missing link is stories. Now the argument can arise that there are already stories about the global climate crisis (course syllabus), which there are. Some authors argue for a science fiction story, some for a tragedy, some for a comedy, others through personal experiences. The often speak of the earth and life as some far off abstraction, not connected to us. The stories are anthropocentric.

            The stories of the Native Americans do not involve the self. They are about the past, not the future, and they look to the ancestors to not progress themselves forward at the expense of the earth or of life but rather in harmony with them. For all our religion, white people forget the basic lessons of life. Perhaps it is because Native Americans do not have an ultimate authority, a single supernatural being of human form; instead, “plants and animals, clouds and mountains carry and embody revelation,” and “instead of encompassing a duality of sacred and profane, indigenous religious traditions seem to conceive only of sacred and more sacred… religion is understood as the relationship between living humans and other persons or things, however they are conceived” (Britannica Online Encyclopedia). There is a balance and harmony between everything on the earth and in the heavens, and this is what is taught. This is what is learned and known.

 “We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as “wild.” Only to the white man was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was the land “infested” with “wild” animals and “savage” people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it “wild” for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the “Wild West” began.” – Chief Luther Standing Bear (Touch the Earth, 45)

            Many narratives about the environment are a discussion of the wilderness. But this wilderness is just the opposite of what we imagine; it is raw and primal, yes, but it is also predictable. It is the white people, the weed, who are unpredictable. We have shed what it means to be a part of the circle of life, and we have taken it upon ourselves to change the landscape of the earth, put wild animals in pens and then remark how happy they look when we give them a piece of their natural rights back. If polar bears in California are this happy at the sign of snow, imagine for a moment how unhappy they must be without it (Birthday Surprise). As Chief Luther Standing Bear said, it is the white people who began the “Wild West,” who retreated into their metal homes and sit in front of screens, some big and some small, looking at a representation of the world and remarking at its wildness. Perhaps if we knew the world, if we were experienced in its ways, we would not come back “totally good for nothing.”


“The tipi is much better to live in; always clean, warm in the winter, cool in summer; easy to move. The white man builds big house, cost much money, like big cage, shut out sun, can never move; always sick. Indians and animals know better how to live than white man; nobody can be in good health if he does not have all the time fresh air, sunshine and good water. If the Great Spirit wanted men to stay in one place he would make the world stand still; but He made it to always change, so birds and animals can move and always have green grass and ripe berries, sunlight to work and play, and night to sleep; summer for flowers to bloom, and winter for them to sleep; always changing; everything for good; nothing for nothing.” – Chief Flying Hawk (Touch the Earth, 64)

            The solution then is storytelling, and not the storytelling that we engage in daily: what we did, what we saw, what we want to do, what we didn’t do… we need to stop telling the human or the white people stories. We need to hear again how Mother Earth and Father Sky came to work together when they saw that there differences were hurting the life on the earth and in the sky. We need to recognize that if no one takes responsibility for their actions, life itself will suffer.

            It is impossible to go back in time and change how we have become today. But what we can do is change how we will become tomorrow. There is no way to go back to a time before the “Wild West;” we must do what we can with the wilderness of modernity that we have constructed, colonization after colonization, jet after jet, Apple product after Apple product. We must, as Aldo Leopold alluded to in “The Land Ethic,” find a way to pair global and ecological responsibility with of way of life. North America alone functions as a machine of commercialism, and though stories are powerful, they will not cause the machine to grind to a halt. The immersion of storytelling into our lives will not only cause an increase in storytelling; it will foster a community that the white people lack. The landscape that North America has become fosters a homogeneity that is quite contrary to the “land of opportunity” we so eagerly sell. Diversity breaks down groups and it is every (white) man for himself with a few brave women pioneers challenging the patriarchy thrown in. We need community to be there to remind us of the things that we sometimes forget.

“The man who sat on the ground in his tipi meditating on life and its meaning, accepting the kinship of all creatures and acknowledging unity with the universe of things was infusing into his being the true essence of civilization. And when native man left off this form of development, his humanization was retarded in growth.” – Chief Luther Standing Bear (Touch the Earth, 99)

* The book that both the incorporated block quotations and the photos come from has been in my house as long as I can remember. I loved looking at it when I was young, even before I could read I would sit looking at the photographs. In opening it up after having my father pull it out from his bookshelves, I found small pieces of ripped paper in between pages (bookmarks). I have no idea why I marked these pages. 




rachelr's picture

Holding onto the past as preservation

I really did not intend to propagate a "national fantasy about Indians." I understand that the different Native American cultures are fluid and changing, both by necessity and by force. One of the major problems for different tribes, from what I know, is a loss of cultural identity and a connection to the past (due to cultural assimilation and diseases that wiped out generations, especially elders who preserved the oral histories). It was that history of traditional oral history and connection to the earth (that I know they still have, although perhaps in a different, evolved form) that I am arguing for a return to. No, we cannot return to the "Wild West," nor should we, but there are lessons from a different time that are valuable resources for a re-educational process. 

As to the wilderness being predictable? The sun rises, the sun sets; the seasons change; wolves hunt smaller animals, eagles snatch fish from the water. Yes there are hurricanes and earthquakes that cannot be predicted down to the very minute, but all around us the air, the animals, the plants, they all can sense that something is coming. We can sense something is coming; it doesn't (or rather it shouldn't) take a news anchor to tell us that driving rain and winds mean to head for shelter. There are signs all around us about what is coming, we've just forgotten how to read them. As Chief Luther Standing Bear essentially said in the quotation I used, it was only after the White People disturbed a balance between living things and ignored the patterns of the dance of life that the animals became "wild," unpredictable. 

Anne Dalke's picture

"The solution then is storytelling"

I'm very glad that you decided to dig back into a book that has so much resonance for you, and to bring its lessons forward into our current explorations into ecological "imaginings" and education. I like very much your opening line, that "this is a history lesson about the future," and appreciate also your observation that we have not arrived @ anything like a state of "post-colonialism," that colonized practices and their effects still reverberate continually around us .

I'm a little uncomfortable with some portions of your summary of what Native American culture was-and-is, since it continues to evolve; as Thomas King cautions us in The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, we need to beware the "national fantasy about Indians," that tends toward the celebration of an "authentic, fixed identity," rather than more fluid, imaginative, ever-emerging acts.

If you want to go further in this direction (as I know you do, for your final project) you might well want to look @ King's book, which argues--as you do here--that the "solution is storytelling." King says, unabashedly, that changing the stories we live by will change our lives. He begins with two creation stories, and two different strategies for telling them, which suggest different values: exuberance vs. authority/veracity; cooperation vs. hierarchy; balance vs. competition. He goes on to recount the horrors of the Indian schools (which you gesture towards here also), and most assuredly agrees with you that "Something, then, must be missing from our education."

I'm eager to hear about what you imagine as next steps, interventions in the forms of education now available.

One real (and not @ all unrelated!) question: what do you mean that the "wilderness is predictable"?