Ojibwe people have long known what the Occupy Movement is discovering: there's power in presence, in spending our lives together.
“Only after the last tree has been cut down. Only after the last river has been poisoned. Only after the last fish has been caught. Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”
The sentiments expressed by the Occupy Wall Street and 99 Percent movements and those opposing development of the Keystone XL Pipeline have a familiar ring for me and, I suspect, a lot of other Indian people. You see, Indians have been talking about the perils of unchecked greed and its impact upon the earth and us as human beings for a really, really long time.
I found a photo I took back in 2000 at the end of the “Walk To Remember,” on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin. The Walk, a 1200-mile journey around Lake Superior, was a call to action for communities to protect the largest body of fresh water in the world. I noted a young woman who had paused to nurse her child near a banner imprinted with a well known quote from a long ago Cree leader. For me, the photo sums up the message, unchanged for generations, that Indian peoples have been delivering to the world: greed is not sustainable.
Indian peoples have traditionally relied on connections to community and family and responsibility to future generations to counter the siren song of greed. Watching the current protesters organize themselves into communities, I wonder if the world is finally listening to Indians.
Kandi Mossett of the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nations pointed out that many tribes have prophecies telling of a time when Earth will rise up to cleanse herself. The people, it is said, will either rise up with her or fall.
Mossett, who works for the Indigenous Environmental Movement, believes that the prophecies are coming true. “The people are rising up,” she noted while visiting the Occupy D.C. event.
Mossett says the prophecies further told that the cleansing process would be preceded by a time of great knowledge and information. This knowledge, however, would not be used in a good way; greed would overshadow it.
I recently attended an online symposium sponsored by the National Museum of the American Indian about climate change. Presenter Jeremy Rifkin, a well known author and instructor at the Wharton School’s Executive Program at the University of Pennsylvania, said, ““If mainstream society had embraced the Native philosophy of considering how their decisions would affect the next seven generations, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in today.”
Rifkin stressed that human beings are “hard-wired” for empathy and community, yet we have become estranged from the rhythms of Earth, losing compassion not only for each other but also for the planet.
This estrangement has allowed us to ignore the impact of excessive dependence upon fossil fuels. Since most of our food, building matter, and even clothing are made with petrochemicals, our entire civilization is now based on fossil-fuel energy, he told the audience. We have become, according to Rifkin, “monsters devouring the earth.”
“Empathy is our social glue, our transcendent value,” he said. And this empathy must extend not only to others of the human race but to the entire biosphere and all its creatures. “In order to continue our survival as a species, we must reintegrate ourselves into family.”
Could the new Occupy movements be embracing these philosophies?
There is a gratifying authenticity to these new movements; they seem to have emerged organically from people’s disenchantment with a system that didn’t deliver as promised and from a genuine urge to join with others. There’s also the sense that small, individual actions can have meaning for the greater community.
All of this is a fancy way of describing what Ojibwe have always known: the power of “visiting.” I once read about an Indian agent during the 19th century lamenting that the reason he had so much trouble getting Ojibwe to embrace Western ways of living and working was that they spent too much time visiting, or as he put it “sitting around talking.” Those Ojibwe were getting important work done — the agent just couldn’t see it, or didn’t value it. They were reaffirming their connections to each other.
My vision of community is influenced by childhood days spent on the reservation with my relatives. This was where I became part of the pack of exuberant kids who ran freely through the tall grass and weeds with the love dogs. The love dogs, one white, one black, always tried to maintain contact with each other when they ran. What fun it was to try to run between them as they looked up at you with their open-mouthed dog smiles, biting your clothes as they play-nipped each other. You had to hold onto your pants when you ran with those love dogs!
When we were hungry we followed the group to a home where we were fed whatever was available. After devouring our food, we raced back to run with the love dogs until evening. How good the air tasted in those ragged fields!
At night, great gobs of us crowded into living rooms where we would lie on a hodgepodge of blankets and pillows listening dreamily to the adults who played euchre or poker at the kitchen table. The slap of the cards and the waves of laughter, “Ayyyyye! Haw, Haw, Haw, Haw,” created a rhythm as soothing as a heartbeat. We smiled happily in our sleep along with the jokes we were too young to understand. We were home.
This isn’t to say my reservation visits were without drama. Sometimes drunken fights among the adults interrupted our idyllic play. We stopped short the night my Dad kicked some guy’s ass for accusing my Mom of trying to “act white.” But we shared the shame, somehow lessening it. We knew none of us was immune.
It was different back in our little southern Wisconsin town; home was a much smaller place. People were good neighbors but the lawns were neatly ruled and we had to call home for permission to eat or sleep over at a friend’s house.
We are hardwired for community, for visiting; we long for it, we need it. Our strength as humans emerges from it.
I imagine those people participating in the Occupy and XL Pipeline protests are spending time visiting and gaining strength from that act , one that is so easily dismissed in mainstream culture.
In Indian Country, the power of visiting continues to spur people on to organize. Ojibwe were walking for their communities and the water again this past summer during The Mother Earth Water Walk that concluded on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin.
Not long ago, Grand Chief Eddie Benton-Banaise-Bawdwayadun of the Three Fires Midewiwin Society prophesied that because of human negligence, “an ounce of drinking water will cost the same as an ounce of gold.”
“What are you going to do about it?” he challenged.
Josephine Mandamin, Anishinaabe from the Wikwemikong reserve in Canada took up that challenge. After visiting with others, she organized the Mother Earth Walk to confront human pollution of the Great Lakes.
“We want to raise the collective consciousness of people about the water,” said Mandamin. “You will likely feel a lot better and better united with the water. It is human, it can sense, it can feel, it can hear what you’re saying.”
In 2008, the Center for Public Integrity, Investigative Journalism in the Public Interest, shared a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was withheld from the public. The 400-plus-page study, Public Health Implications of Hazardous Substance in the Twenty-six U.S. Great Lakes Areas of Concern, warns that more than nine million people who live near the lakes face elevated health risks from exposure to dioxin, PCBs, pesticides, lead, mercury, and six other hazardous pollutants.
Since 2003, Mother Earth Water Walks led by Anishinaabe grandmothers have covered 11,525 miles around all five Great Lakes. This year walkers of various tribal nations crossed the U.S. and Canada, converging near Bad River and Lake Superior. Walkers carried copper buckets of salt water from the four directions, uniting them in Lake Superior where the first water walk began.
The Anishinaabe, Odawa and Potawatomi nations are caretakers of the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater system on Earth.
“Anishinaabe women, as givers of life, are responsible for speaking for, protecting and carrying our water,” according to a statement by the Mother Earth Water Walk. Looking over Gitchee Gumee, Mandamin remarked, “This lake is so strong, so pure. We want it to stay this way for the generations to come.”
One of the criticisms of the Occupy Movement has been that the participants have no organized agenda or list of demands. This is most the most hopeful and exciting aspect of the Movement for me. Rev. Bill Gupton expressed it well this past Sunday, he said, “The Occupy Movement is about making us aware of the moral and ethical cancer that lies at the heart of our current economic system.”
This awareness can lead to an empowerment that goes beyond dissatisfaction with the inequities of wealth and power. In order for any sort of equitable distribution of wealth to occur, people need to resee our connection to each other and to our earth.
We need to embrace the power of visiting.