Idle No More: Decolonizing Water, Food and Natural Resources With TEK

Rosalyn LaPier/Vimeo / Using traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK, to decolonize one's mind-set: That goal underpins the Idle No More ethic, this academic proposes.

Watersheds and Indigenous Peoples know no borders.

Canada’s watershed management affects America’s watersheds, and vice versa. As Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper launches significant First Nations termination contrivance he negotiates legitimizing Canada’s settler colonialism under the guise of “progress.” Progress, through Harper’s political illusion, provides inadequate allocation of money for water and wastewater systems on Canada’s reservations. Almost every natural resource development currently operating or planned is within 200 kilometers of a First Nation community and on its traditional lands. Harper has laid off public natural resource managers and environmental protection personnel and has weakened policies for conservation, again in the name of progress. Idle No More is about many things, but first and foremost it represents a unified effort to protect Mother Earth. We will talk about the evidence of watershed degradation due to American progress too…. But first let’s talk about watersheds.

Photo: Derek Dix The regalia and the dances transported the audience into other worlds. Here, one of the Dancers of the Damelahamid.

Watersheds in New York state are in close proximity to the border of Canada and thus to Canadian watersheds. Silencing Canadian indigenous people over water, carries with it a risk to Americans’ and indigenous Americans’ watersheds.

By silencing traditional ecological knowledge, the “progress” settler colonial ethic has wreaked havoc on watershed ecosystems. This ecosystem degradation comes from point and non-point pollution, industrial agriculture and domesticated meat production. Water quality issues also come from road runoff, lawn care products, sewers, chemicals and poor logging practices, all of which result in a declension of our drinking water and ground water and the vitiation of ecosystems.

When Native Americans are not allowed to discuss public land management as stakeholders, connectivity to reservation ecosystems is at risk. Discussions about U.S. public lands juxtaposed onto New York private lands and Indian reservations become imperative. This is important in order to understand ecosystem connectivity. Toxic degraded ecosystems on public lands adjacent to indigenous lands places ecosystems on indigenous lands at risk, especially with climate change upon us.

Native American thought, sovereignty and sustainability is steeped in traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). In order to understand the complexities of collaboration between TEK and western science, it is important to recognize the comparisons between the western science version of TEK (owning Native American thought) and indigenous versions of TEK.

Even though western science ecologists are coming around to embrace TEK, there is a long history of western science’s silencing the voices of traditional ecological knowledge practitioners. Many scientists cite credibility and legitimacy concerns over oral history. Indigenous people might give other reasons, such as the commodification of indigenous sovereign natural resources, land dispossession and industrial influences, which understandably engender a great deal of distrust from indigenous nations. Consequently, western science has excluded opportunities to collaborate with indigenous TEK practitioners. Collaboration between indigenous TEK and western science in watershed ecosystem restoration, monitoring and management can only contribute to successful sustainable and hearty watershed ecosystems for natural resource and food security.

Instead of TEK, western science has termed it “ethnoscience,” “ethnopedology,” ethnoclimatology, ethnobotany and ecoculture, among many other terms. Today most western scientists agree that prior cultures, not primitive cultures, were well versed in irrigation systems, soils and water conservation, climate, astrology, comprehended observational and conceptual order, and had a conservation ethic based on historic experience and social learning. Western scientists embrace the fact that Indigenous Peoples have an understanding of predictable uncertainty connected to place and that this intuitiveness asserts quicker detection of ecosystem changes. We only have our Inuit brothers and sisters to thank for their vigilance over decades of screaming that climate change has been affecting their region long before western scientists did.

TEK is lived knowledge enabling indigenous people to absorb perturbations by taking adaptive measures. Adaptations due to settler colonial watershed land changes from diverted streams, invasive species introduction, land dispossession, and other land, food, and natural resource degradation and disturbances. These adaptations were developed through measurement indexes, or the health- and community-based monitoring of local ecosystems or carrying capacity measures. TEK’s sacred ecology is expansive rather than scientifically restrictive. TEK practices can be considered as experiential and empirical, based on human ecology and adaptive management. TEK is nonlinear; it consists of interconnected relationships and environmental ethics and encompasses sustainable management of complex ecological systems, a way of life stemming from local and empirical knowledge.

TEK is a spiritual repository of memories past evolving out of adaptive processes that builds through generations of life experience and generational resource management. TEK practitioners comprehend observational complex systems. This historical intuitiveness applies measurement indexes through community-based monitoring of local ecosystems implementing adaptive processes that encompasses ecology, spirituality, human and nonhuman relationships; where the cumulative body of knowledge, practice and belief concerning the relationship of living beings to one another and to the physical environment are connected. TEK has come from indigenous chemists, pharmacists and botanists. TEK is an ethic in which the Earth is respected as our Mother, and reciprocity is the lens through which we look at the world.

TEK is devoid of commodification or opportunistic plunder. Harvesting is done through ceremony and consideration of every species. TEK is conservation. Vine Deloria would say that TEK is the intellectual twin to science. Elder Tom Ball says that Native Americans are the original environmental scientists. TEK is an indigenous cultural identity that is culturally conditioned in socially constructed connections to holistically complex natural local systems. It is a nature-based commons ethic that includes cosmology, reciprocity incorporating a respectful relationship with maturity, and all species of the living circle. The world, humans and animals are related. We are all part of the living landscape and the universe. We are connected and related.

When public land managers restore and manage watersheds they are given a budget and usually follow a restoration framework or pyramid like this. Budget shortfalls are common, which leads to incomplete projects. After restoration any vegetation planted, weirs for fish habitat built or contaminated silt channeled all needs to be monitored and maintained. There needs to be continuous management and monitoring, a connection to space. Those government and private company representatives who manage watersheds need to be invested in the outcomes, otherwise these ecosystems are at risk. Public watershed managers rarely reside in a region longer than a couple of years because employees are transferred out. Their work sites are rarely part of their home community. The outcome does not affect them. Cost becomes more important than ecosystems. Biodiversity, water temperature, ecosystem heartiness, natural resource and food sustainability are desired but are rarely allocated for within public agency budgets. Western science watershed management is compartmentalized into smaller areas of focus, such as water temperature or trout numbers. Holistic outcomes are set aside for satisfying but shortsighted results within budgetary restrictions. Stakeholders involved in these decisions rarely include local indigenous nations. Most important, species that are culturally essential to First Peoples are not usually restored or managed for sustainability on public lands. This is indigenous silencing and reflects the Stephen Harper “progress” policies just as it does America’s “progress” policies.

Photo: Derek Dix / The regalia and the dances transported the audience into other worlds. Here, one of the Dancers of the Damelahamid

Healthy forest and watershed ecosystems were managed by the Haudenosaunee for millennia through TEK. Western scientists call this kind of management passive agriculture, adaptive management, agroforestry or management with a light anthropogenic touch. Though the lands of the United States and Western New York in 1492 were not pristine, they were healthy, hearty and sustainable because of Haudenosaunee TEK. Haudenosaunee TEK, historical land management and the Haudenosaunee belief system that includes showing thanks to all levels of nature has been disrupted post-contact due to broken treaties, policies, unsustainable land management and the “progress” ethics of the new American dominant society. Furthermore, Western New York watershed ecological services would benefit from the inclusion of Haudenosaunee land management TEK practices. This land management adaptation knowledge is important for meeting contemporary ecological challenges such as climate change. It is evident that the sustainability of watersheds on Haudenosaunee lands today is comparatively heartier and healthier than on non-reservation lands in Western New York.

Now our minds are one. This is what the Haudenosaunee say in the Thanksgiving Address. All native species of the ecosystems on Haudenosaunee lands are connected, and each species has many uses, not just commercial. These species have integral importance to each other for ecosystem sustainability. The Haudenosaunee commons and family include all things. All things are connected. Mother Earth, the Waters, Fish, Grasses, Medicine Plants, Food Plants, Animals, Trees, Birds, Four Winds, Grandfather Thunder, Elder Brother the Sun, Grandmother Moon, Stars, the protectors, Handsome Lake and the Creator are all connected and thanked.

The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address gives thanks to the parts of nature necessary for ecosystem sustainability. This address is given in the beginning of every meeting, gathering, meal and greeting of the Haudenosaunee people. Think about giving thanks to the grasses several times a day; now ask yourself if others did this, would we be seeing the ecotrauma and ecocide that we see today? In the Thanksgiving Address we are reminded that fish clean our streams. Mussels, lamprey, bullheads and more, filter feed and clean toxins from our rivers, yet are disappearing. In our Haudenosaunee elder’s wisdom they knew this before western scientists did. Through TEK we give thanks, with one mind, for the fish’s hard work at cleaning our waters.

The Haudenosaunee fought western encroachment not just to protect their culture and rights but also to protect the cultural food and resource species, grasses, waters, trees, four-legged creatures and even the soil. The Haudenosaunee leaders spoke out against the Western culture of ecosystem disconnect through unsustainable industrial development. The Haudenosaunee warned about the disastrous effects on our environment from urban sprawl, dams, canals and industrial agriculture, but were silenced and forced to assimilate or lose more of their lands and resources. The white pine Tree of Peace and species prominent in the Thanksgiving Address is relevant because the Haudenosaunee managed lands and used harvesting techniques that were sustainable. These are important lessons necessary for sustainability of all lands in Western New York, not just for the local Haudenosaunee reservations. The White pine, for example, was used for medicinal purposes including in teas with sumac, for food as with pine nuts, for shelter, fiber and basketry, all without having to kill the tree. The notion that the Haudenosaunee did not cut down trees because of a lack of technology is ludicrous. Plenty of examples can be found in which tree harvest for canoes and longhouses occurred, but sparingly, out of respect for the position the tree holds in the family commons. This family included all of nature. But even more important to the Haudenosaunee is the spiritual connection to these species. Imagine a white pine tree that is 200 years old. This tree is a family elder to many Haudenosaunee, one who lived with their ancestors and represented peace among their peoples.

The US policies, treaties and anti-Indian laws affecting Haudenosaunee environmental sustainability in the name of “progress” are being replicated in the Harper Canadian government today. There is plenty of evidence that America’s Indian policies not only assisted settler colonialists to steal lands and resources from the Haudenosaunee but also created ecosystem disturbances and environmental devastation, leaving the Haudenosaunee without basic cultural foods such as fish and clean water.

Ellicott Creek

Settler colonial failures to conceptualize policies that would benefit all people of the Americas is why TEK and indigenous inclusion in watershed management dialogue is imperative. A local example of stream degradation due to shortsighted and minimal budgeted restoration is Ellicott Creek, where there are few trees, fewer willows, very few invertebrates or fish, and the grass is mowed to the stream edge within a manmade channel.

Mohawk Nation

Compare this to the healthier local watershed ecosystems, for example, in the Mohawk Nation.

Indigenous people must be included in public land management dialogue for this reason. The example of Mohawk lands reinforce the TEK ethic toward sustainability that supports the World Wildlife Fund web site Indigenous People and Conservation statement that “most of the remaining significant areas of high natural value on Earth are inhabited by Indigenous Peoples, and this testifies to the efficacy of indigenous sustainable resource management systems.”

The unfortunate results of the settler colonial version of U.S. “progress” is enforced by the daily visual that Senate representatives receive as they enter the Capital building in Washington D.C. In the boxed portion presented here, the sculptor Thomas Crawford (1865) chiseled the “Progress of Civilization Pediment” which was “envisioned as the fate of the first Americans, a grave near which a despondent Indian Chief, Indian mother, and Indian child await the inevitable advance of the white woodsman and white hunter, harbingers of “white progress” and “Indian doom.”

Mohawk Nation

Settler colonial policies on Northern American ecosystems favor the dominant society’s bastardized version of progress. Lorenzo Veracini provides a glimpse into which countries favor political settler colonialism dominance through their refusal and opposition to signing the UN Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The transfer section of the “Population” chapter that had the biggest impact on me was the “Narrative Transfer” section, which discusses the settler colonizer mentality insisting that the vanishing of Indigenous Peoples is inevitable. This narrative has been so obviously contributing to the United States Congress’s contemporary voting record, which has been favoring the dominant society. Again, the reminder of this narrative sentiment greets U.S. representatives every day as they enter the capital in Washington. It is called the “Progress of Civilization Pediment.”

Patrick Wolfe wrote “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” for the Journal of Genocide Research. In the beginning of Wolfe’s journal article he tries to explain where genocide fits in the realm of settler colonialism. One simplified example is that he says, “land is life—or, at least, land is necessary for life.” Therefore if settler colonialists take land they also become a threat to the indigenous lives that depend on that land. Does genocide mean the immediate destruction of a nation? Again Wolfe provides examples of why this is not necessarily so. Genocide, as it is intended, is a “coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” The United Nations defines genocide as the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion and the economic existence of national groups. I would argue that many (not all) Euro-Americans have represented genocidal and settler colonialism dominance. Watershed ecosystem degradation is prime evidence of this, as indigenous cultural foods and natural resources have been all but eliminated. Wolfe argues that race is not necessarily the prime motive for the elimination of Indigenous First Peoples of America but that land and resources are. Wolfe goes on to say that territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible focus, and that through invasion, elimination of America’s First Peoples is their positive result. Alison Alkon et al would disagree in “Cultivating Food Justice; Race, Class and Sustainability” as would Park and Pellow, who wrote in 2004 that “if environmental racism is the unequal burden of ecological hazards imposed on people of color and their surroundings, then the European conquest was the continental embodiment of the process.” It becomes painful for me to read and digest Wolfe’s interpretation of the settler colonists’ positive outcomes from their logic or rational of the elimination of people, my people. It begins with silencing them. According to Wolfe, settler colonizers find the breaking down of Native title into alienable individual freeholds, Native citizenship, child abduction, religious conversion and re-socialization within institutions such as missions or boarding schools, not to mention a whole range of cognate bio-cultural assimilations, as a very good thing. This is genocide, and Wolfe demonstrates that these strategies, including “frontier homicide,” are characteristic of settler colonialism.

As examples, Wolfe talks about Theodor Herzl, founding father of Zionism. He draws parallels between the fate of the Palestinians and the Zionists who are oppressing them and committing genocide upon them, which should be very familiar to Americans with their history of the same against Native Americans, yet rarely are the connections made. According to Wolfe, Herzl compares the lives of Palestinians to buildings saying, “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct.” I have seen video of Israeli military men bulldozing olive trees that were more than two thousand years old while wailing elderly Palestinians are run over by the offending bulldozers as they attempt to protect their sacred trees. This is clear when Wolfe quotes Meron Benvenisti saying, “I myself made the desert bloom by uprooting the ancient olive trees of al-Bassa to clear the ground for a banana grove.” All of this settler colonialism is in the name of productivization; which should remind us of Harper’s “progress” as the current reasoning behind his land and resource theft against Canada’s First Peoples. Zionists as well as Americans and Canadians stigmatize “others” as parasitic, and as much as Wolfe argues that genocide is not necessarily about race, these cases appear to incorporate race within their settler colonialism mentality.

Jolene Rickard argues that the National Museum of the American Indian’s management refused to designate established musicological categories such as fine and folk art, or anthropological and material culture, as organizing principles. Instead, multiple indigenous worldviews were presented as a unified culture representing many Nations, which was confusing. Rickard offered Haudenosaunee perspectives that the museum rejected, saying that the Haudenosaunee are not sovereign but quasi-sovereign. Rickard assumed it was because the museum was funded in part by U.S. taxes, and the concept of indigenous sovereignty is perceived as an erosion of U.S. authority over indigenous autonomy. Rickard quite eloquently refers to the Haudenosaunee concept of sovereignty, which has become a unifying political strategy that has been instrumental in their struggles to protect communities, land, and cultural traditions. This is the struggle for all indigenous nations in North America. Rickard says that the Haudenosaunee appropriated the European word sovereignty yet rejects the U.S. legal interpretation of it. Isn’t it true that each Nation has unique interpretations of sovereignty?

If we are to decolonize our Nations we must have a better understanding of sovereignty, especially since decolonization must first start with indigenous nations’ water, food and natural resources if there are to be continued nation-to-nation relationships with the colonial-settler governments of the United States and Canada. Sovereignty within Nations should never be a manifestation of western law. TEK embodies sovereignty, as Rickard describes. It is a concept that embodies our philosophical, political, and renewal strategies. Indigenous Nation sovereignty and TEK become indigenous identity. Therefore when Arizona Senator John McCain says that Indians are not sovereign as he bids to weaken Arizona tribal water rights, he defiles our identity just as he defiles our water and natural resources. The same is true for Harper in Canada.

If we are to move beyond fighting the settler colonial system we must, as First Nations, walk free in peace, as decolonized people. I would like to think that being of one mind could include all indigenous people who struggle for their sovereignty and Nationhood, united in solidarity. It starts by starving the parasitic cancer of settler colonialism. As the Nation host that settler colonialism feeds upon, it is up to us to become “Idle No More.” We must protect our food, water and natural resources by managing our watersheds utilizing traditional ecological knowledge, which is the mainstay of our sovereignty.

• Participate in public land forums.

• Be a voice for conservation with organizations like Idle No More, River Keepers, Audubon Society and other nonprofits or NGOs.

• Start with your own Nation. Be an active member of ecosystem communities on your reservation. Assess, monitor and invest in your non-human relatives.

• Honor Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and pass it forward.

• There is wisdom in the Haudenosaunee opening address. Each species mentioned is an intricate important member of healthy watershed ecosystem communities.

• Be politically savvy. Know how representatives vote, don’t just go by what they tell you or what others tell you. Congress.gov

• Vote with your wallet. DO NOT PURCHASE items that support the “progress” settler colonialist model.

• Be self-sufficient.

• Walk in peace and beauty.

Valerie Goodness is of Tsalagi and Ojibwe heritage and is a National Science Foundation PhD Candidate Fellow at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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