Monday, 4 November 2013

Do the Six Nations and Aboriginal People Have a Special Relationship to the Environment Beyond that of their Non-Native Neighbours?

It is believed by many in the population at large that aboriginal Americans are in possession of some sort of spiritual connection with all things in the environment, and especially with the land and living things that sustain them.  Perhaps this is true, but surely only in part.  I certainly "get" the concept of the "three sisters" or "life sustainers", and the long history that this conceptualization has had on the culture.  It would be folly to argue that Six Nations do not have a special connection to the land they consider to be aboriginal.  Douglas George-Kanentiio has spoken eloquently on the matter.  He summarizes things in, a singular belief common to all Haudenosaunee, namely that which exists has spirit, and that which has spirit must be addressed in thought, prayer, and action.  With this cardinal rule the Haudenosaunee developed a culture which was distinct in that it enabled humans to physically prosper without inflicting harm on the natural world (p. 40).

However, in the practical world, a fellow up the road, on the Reserve, was allowing builders to dump construction waste such as asphalt shingles with nails, on his land for a fee.  The matter received considerable coverage in the local Indian newspapers.  To their credit, many residents pointed out that this goes against the responsibility of Six Nations people to be guardians and stewards of the land.  The Great Law (Kayenhera:koa) speaks of the need to consider the 7 generations that will follow before committing acts that might impact these descendants.  However there are other such incidents too which make it pretty clear that often there is a large gap between the ideal and the real.  The ditching of cars is all too well known by all.

So in the ideal, Native peoples have a special relationship with the land, and would or should not defile mother earth.  This is in the ideal, but meet the real.  One anthropologist followed (I will leave the tribal name blank here) peoples around during their winter hunt.  He tallied all of the items they left behind at each temporary camp within their traditional lands.  What he recorded was shocking, certainly in the 1980s when the research was done.  The refuse included all sorts of imperishable items, including disposable baby diapers.  Nasty.

Doubtless many Native and non-Native appologists would attribute the above examples to the corroding influence of White culture.  There is a major problem with promulgating these beliefs.  The facts show that Native abuse of the environment was tantamount to that of Europeans at the same period.  The author, having an interest in such things, has been present when many Native archaeological pre-Contact sites were investigated.  All contained extensive midden (garbage dump) areas immediately outside the walls of where the protective pallisade stood.  All humans make garbage, all have problems in disposing of it, all at times take the easy way and just toss it in the backyard.  It has ever been thus.

I would never argue that Six Nations values do not emphasise a special relationship with everything of the land in their homeland.  They surely do.  This can be well documented.  Of course, people being people, not everyone follows these principles and as is the case everywhere, money sometimes trumps everything else - for some.  Clearly the fact that scores of migrating birds will lose their lives, their lifeless bodies being tossed in a bag by the person whose job it is to perform this task, did not factor in the decision of Six Nations to support a whole series of Wind Generator initiatives in the Grand River Valley, as seen here.  As a someone who spends a great deal of time watching the birds at my backyard feeder, this problem, and the blight that it causes on the environment, seems to be an inconsistency with stated Six Nations respect for the land and the bounties of Mother Earth.

What I find unsettling is that Whites are considered to be acquisitive, and would sacrifice the land for monetary wealth.  This point is entirely true in the case of for example the Grand River Navigation Company (which began in 1837).  It used largely Irish labourers to construct dams and locks, all the while trees were cut and the environment badly stressed by these actions.  It makes my blood boil to think of it.  However, canals and "improvements" were popping up everywhere (such as the Erie Canal across NY State).  The countries were a hive of activity and the environment paid the price.  However it was not only Europeans or non-Natives who were involved in disrespecting the land.  Throughout the 1840s Tyendinaga (Mohawk Territory, near Deseronto, Ontario) the land was being heavily logged by certain families on the Reserve.  The Government agents of the Indian Department tried to put a stop to it, as did many of the Chiefs of the community - but the problem was endemic.  Tragic for the beautiful primal forests.

A few days ago I came across two "birders" who resided in Hamilton, but were on the Reserve doing their yearly volunteer bird count of the region.  We talked birds and during our discussion a bird landed nearby.  I said it was probably a red headed woodpecker, those I see frequently at my place.  They politely corrected me and said that even though it has a very red head, it was known as a red breasted woodpecker.  These men lived and breathed birds.  They loved and respected birds and the environment in general.  They had a special relationship with the world around them.  Are they lesser in some way in the "respect of the land" department?

Often is a group feels isolated or marginalised they will seek ways to assert "superiority", possessing something that the majority culture does not possess or even understand.  On the website of Six Nations Lands and Resources, Eco - Center (by the way the first website that I have ever used that will not allow one to copy and paste), here.  They state that one of their goals is to, Provide the non-Aboriginal population with information and education on the many aspects of Aboriginal concepts of the land, environment, forests, fish and wildlife and to encourage our community to better understand the differences of the non-Aboriginal attitude towards these same issues.  It would be nice to have an example of these Aboriginal non-Aboriginal differences, otherwise it is somewhat insulting to White conservationists to read something of this nature.

I find it somewhat unusual if Six Nations truly believes there is some special Aboriginal value system that sets them apart from say Whites (who of course have ancestors aboriginal to say England), why they would enlist a White man to write editorials on subjects of this nature.  For 11 years the editor of the one time most prominent newspaper at Six Nations - New Credit, affectionately know as "Teka", was a non-Native, J.W. whose "philosophy", if that is the correct word, reflects that of a far left wing hard liner - assessed via my own discussions with him and also see here.  Apparently he must have been well respected in this role as his tenure only ended when the almost 50 year old newspaper "Teka" folded, after he moved to a position at a newspaper new to the publishing scene on the Reserve - whose owner is a well known Six Nations businessman - see here.

It should be recalled that the great Ojibway Native American environmentalist Wa-sha-quon-in or Grey Owl, trapper turned environmentalist, who by all accounts promoted the aboriginal way so well, was actually an impostor.  His real name was Archibald Belaney from Hastings, England.  He claimed to be the child of a Scottish father and an Apache mother.  His true identity was revealed soon after his death.  See here.  However his eco views transcended his identity issues, and he was seen as a true environmentalist who reflected aboriginal views.  I guess one might say that living among the Ojibway so long, he became one of them - proving that environmental concern is a cultural trait someone learns (or fails to do so) via the experiences of their life.

Also as was noted in an earlier blog, the Missisauga not the Six Nations are aboriginal to the Haldimand Tract.  Thus the Nelles, Young, Huff or Dochstader (all of German origin) families who accompanied them could also be considered aboriginal by this understanding.  Over the years the Territory became a magnet for people from other tribes in the States such as the Tutelo and Nanticoke, and later the Stockbridge Mahicans.  All brought their own perspectives to add to the Six Nations world view.

By the time of the Revolution, the Mohawk were entirely Christian and largely acculturated (e.g., residing in homes often more substantial than their poor German neighbours).  It appears that as a Mohawk, having been raised in a community at a time when he only knew an environment which was shared with White people, Chief Joseph Brant wished to re-create the environment that was most familiar when he moved to his new home along the Grand River.  Being surrounded by White neighbours and Black servants was very "normal" for Brant and other Mohawk Chiefs of the time.  The truth is that today Six Nations includes many who are largely indistinguishable from their White neighbours.  Their mind set has been shaped by TV, the Internet, video gaming and the like.  Go to the Speedway on a Friday.  How different are the spectators from each community?

Thus I would argue, if one believes that there is some sort of qualitative difference in the way Six Nations people interface with the environment, but which local White people do not, then these differences should be plainly and boldly stated for all to consider - and perhaps learn from.  As far as I am concerned I see a lot of individual differences on each side of the equation, and a lot of commonalities too.  Differences there may be, but do these trump the similarities.  A Six Nations conservationist and a White conservationist may be cut from the same cloth.


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