The Last Well: Indigenous and Feminist Approaches to Environmental and Climate Change Issues (Part III)

In any attempt to understand Indigenous approaches to environmental issues, it is necessary to explore a very different world view from that of most environmentalists, including myself. It means letting go, for awhile at least, of one’s preconceptions about land, air, water, energy, technology, and civilization, and instead put one’s self into a world in which all humans who have ever lived used to be born into, lived in, and understood, as a world of community and relationships among all living things. This is a world which has gradually become so deeply colonized by patriarchal urban civilizations from ancient Egypt, China and Europe to America, that this older world has become hard to find. But it is not impossible – the “Peoples of the Earth” never disappeared. But it’s a world our modern eyes can hardly see, and our current mental maps can barely comprehend. The closest I have found to this understanding within Eurocentric environmental philosophies are some of the eco-feminist perspectives outlined in Part II (which tend to get ignored in “mainstream”environmental thinking), and something called “Deep Green” vs. “Bright Green” environmentalism:

Although more and more people agree that we must undertake massive changes to address the environmental crises, there is disagreement as to what approach to take. At the risk of oversimplification, most solutions fall into one of two camps. We call them “Bright Green” and “Deep Green.” Bright Green solutions rely on government legislation, technological innovations and structural adjustments. Examples include massive investments in energy efficiency, developing cleaner energy sources, reducing car dependence, and converting to local and organic agriculture. Bright Green tends to emphasize the positive, and eschew anger and fear as counter-productive. Deep Green solutions are based on the belief that technological innovations, no matter how well intentioned, inevitably lead to accelerated resource depletion and more pollution. It views the reliance on technology to address the crises as akin to putting out a fire with gasoline. The Deep Green is more likely to look at pre-industrial and pre-civilization ways of living as solutions to the crises. In fact, many believe that the quicker we dismantle the apparatus of our civilization, the greater chance we have for survival.

Bright Green and Deep Green do overlap in their shared desire for structural adjustments. The main difference here would be in “how much” and “how quickly.” Whereas Bright Green wants us to ease into changes that won’t alienate people, Deep Green sees an urgency for profound change and that it is unavoidable that this will be a difficult transition. The Bright Green movement, because it “feels” better and does not threaten the dominant power structure, gets the vast majority of attention in the press and in public discourse. . . . [But] . . . The environmental crisis we face is so massive that, at a minimum, we need to consider every possible strategy.


For most humans, throughout most of our time on this planet, space was not a visual abstraction as seen from above (as in the maps at the end of this section). It was much more specific. Living and traveling in a particular area over thousands of years, people came to know the land in precise detail. It is not simply space, but place. Much of it is marked by generations of interactions between people, animals, sea, ice, and the land, as told in stories passed on from elders to the young for thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of years. In these stories, places become sacred, while stories, songs and other forms of human creation become different kinds of maps or ways of knowing the land. Maps are not only visual, but oral. The land itself takes on character and personality associated with stories of the ancestors, gods, spirit-beings, heroes, monsters, first peoples, animals, plants, creators, and tricksters.  This is not to suggest that Indigenous peoples did not make visual maps. Inuit made very precise maps:

In Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland), the Inuit people are known for carving portable maps out of driftwood to be used while navigating coastal waters. These pieces, which are small enough to be carried in a mitten, represent coastlines in a continuous line, up one side of the wood and down the other. The maps are compact, buoyant, and can be read in the dark.

For Indigenous people to leave their land can be a difficult experience. This does not mean that Indigenous peoples always remain in one place. Many have moved around continents, or from one continent to another, sometimes covering vast distances over the course of hundreds or even thousands of years. For example, the ancestors of Athapaskan or Dene speaking peoples moved east from Siberia to Alaska (and then possibly back again to become the Yeniseian or Ket peoples), then south from Alaska down the Pacific coast to California where some remained, while others moved east over the Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert to where they now live as the Dineh/Navaho and Apache Nations. Unlike many Indigenous peoples since colonization, the Navaho still occupy much of their original territory. The movements of some of these people is recounted in the Navaho creation story of Changing Woman and her children as they moved from one place to another. (Zolbrod, Paul G. Dine bahane: The Navaho Creation Story, University of New Mexico Press, 1984). Other Athapaskan peoples travelled northeast and then south, creating the Dene nations of the sub-Arctic boreal forest, and the Rocky Mountain region of what is now British Columbia. The history and geography of these movements looks quite different from an Indigenous as opposed to a Eurocentric perspective.

The Dené–Yeniseian language family, linking Navajo in the American  Southwest to Ket in Siberia : MapPorn

For those of us of European, Middle Eastern or South Asian origin, our ancestors also traveled enormous distances. Indo-European peoples originated in the southwestern grassland steppe region of Central Asia from about 6000 to 8000 years ago. Their culture and languages migrated with them from about 4500 BCE as they traveled both east into Iran and the Altai region of northwest China, south to Vedic India, and west into Europe. They are probably the first peoples to use wheeled transport and to domesticate horses for pulling wagons, ploughs and chariots, and later, riding. They were the original bronze age horse warriors, replacing what may have been ancient matriarchal cultures throughout Eurasia with deeply patriarchal and war-like civilizations from the Hittite Empire, Persians, the original Aryans of northern India, and the many branches of European language speakers from Russian to Irish, Icelandic to Spanish, Italian and Greek. Eventually, the descendants of these Indo-Europeans conquered the world. (Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, Princeton University Press, 2007; Gimbutas, Marija The Civilization of the Goddess, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991). It is perhaps interesting that the last great flowering of warrior horse cultures occurred in the 19th century as Lakota, Blackfoot, Cree, Comanche and Apache peoples on the Great Plains of North America adopted horses from Spanish-speaking settlers to create the iconic image of the Native American.

Indo-European migrations - Wikipedia
Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 4.42.37 PM.png

A Spider’s Web

According to the Lakota theologian and historian Vine Deloria Jr. in Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths:

The quarrel between evolutionists and creationists focuses on the explanation of a possible Earth history. Was it long and tedious, featuring gradual or even rapid episodes of organic growth from tiny molecules? Or was it a sudden creative blossoming of life forms with or without a creator? . . . The flaw in both Western scientific and religious thinking begins with the reception of the Old Testament by early gentile Christian converts in the Greco-Roman world. Accepting Genesis as the exclusive explanation of planetary history, they embraced the idea of a linear unfolding of cosmic time beginning in the Garden of Eden. St. Augustine firmly implanted the idea of the absolute progression of time in the Western mind so that it became a philosophical constant. Science simply appropriated linear history from Christianity when it sought to answer the question of origins. That appropriation now forces us to link everything in one grand temporal scenario in which life struggles from single-celled creatures to the complexity we find today. (p.131)

Our Eurocentric view of space as the mapping of one spot, on a two-dimensional projection of the world, to another is very similar to our ideas about time. We see history as moving through time from a beginning to an end. Sir Isaac Newton established the physics of the 18th and 19th centuries as a set of laws governing gravity, motion, space and time. He saw reality as a branching chain of cause and effect on a static background of space in which any future event could be determined if all past and existing variables could be known. By the early 20th century the deterministic universe of cause and effect was upended at both the largest and the smallest scales. Albert Einstein proposed in the special theory of relativity that matter and energy were essentially interchangeable (E = mc2) and that all motion is relative. He expanded this in the general theory of relativity to create a vision of the universe in which space and time exist as a space/time continuum. Matter and energy create disturbances or ripples within this continuum leading to effects that Isaac Newton had earlier identified as a force known as gravity. Meanwhile, at the smallest scale, cause and effect seem to disappear altogether as the tiniest sub-atomic units, or quanta, interact in ways that seem utterly strange to the world of visible light and substantial matter in which we live. Change can occur simultaneously between particles at massive distances with no seeming connection or communication (non-locality), while matter and energy behave as either particles or waves in unpredictable ways that can seem quite mysterious. The presence or activities of an observer (whether conscious or mechanical) seems to be a necessary part of this behaviour. Scientific discovery became essentially a matter of mathematical probabilities in which nothing is certain.

According to Professor Leroy Little Bear in Philosophy and Aboriginal Rights: Critical Dialogues the Blackfoot vision of the universe is one of constant flux, movement and change. It is not linear.

In the Native mind, there’s no notion of something being static. It’s constant flux in motion; flux that’s forever moving, forming, transforming, and deforming. If you could picture a geodesic spider web in motion, you’ll begin to see what we mean by a flux. (p.9)

The relationship between quantum physics to the spider’s web and flux of Indigenous thought is captured in David F. Peat’s ground-breaking work Blackfoot Physics. Professor Little Bear, working within an oral tradition rather than through a literary contribution, essentially co-authored the book through his conversations with Professor Peat. Blackfoot science and quantum (rather than Newtonian) physics bear some startling resemblances. The importance of the “arrow of time”, causation, and a lingering adherence to Newtonian physics differ radically from Indigenous histories of creation, journey, return, and sacred space.

Any discussion of relationships between people and the land – as in an examination of human interactions with the environment – needs to do more than simply acknowledge the existence of Indigenous perspectives, and then move onto a Western approach, whether scientific or historical. We cannot just begin our story “from the beginning” whenever that might be. Within Indigenous theories of the universe, there may well have been a beginning, but it is not necessarily about a specific point in time.  It is more about relationships, renewal and the sacredness of place.

The difference is perhaps best exemplified by a story from the oral tradition of the Mi’kmaq of Atlantic Canada. In the story “Bring-back-animals” some men meet a stranger near their village who has a stone canoe and lives with his grandmother (named Nukumi) in a wigwam in the forest.  This strange man is Kluskap, the hero of many Indigenous stories on the east coast of Canada and New England. He has the power to bring life back to the dead animals he has hunted or fished by chanting to their bones. He begins by saying to the men “I have lived here since the world began. I have my grandmother, she was here when the world was made.”

The man is a hero not only to humans, but also to the animals he revives. The phrase “I have lived here since the world began” is not a reference to a specific point in time. Rather, it begins the story of the relationship between humans and animals in the world as it has been known since creation – not through “time’s arrow”, but through the repeating circles of the Earth’s seasons, the sun, the moon and stars. It is about human responsibilities toward animals, and the gift of life that animals bring to humans.  All of this is under the guidance of Kluskap, who has lived here “since the world began” and his grandmother who “was here when the world was made.”

A Newtonian perspective sees space as a blank background for events that occur over time, where time has a constant clock-work precision. Einstein’s theories of relativity reject this vision of space for a fluid “space/time”. Quantum physics seems to have made a chronological flow of time through cause and effect improbable. Indigenous perspectives are less about a linear progression from one point in time to another than they are about movement through space in which time and space are fundamentally connected. Causation is still there, but in an active rather than a passive sense. In a passive or deterministic universe, one event seems to lead inexorably towards another, as Newton envisioned and by which most of us of Eurasian descent are still deeply influenced. Both Indigenous perspectives and quantum physics seem to depend on active participation by observers and agents in order to create stability in the flux of time and space through observation and ceremony. All sentient beings from mountains, rivers, the Earth, the sea to plants and animals play a role in this. Humans have a special responsibility to maintain the rituals and the natural laws which keep all this in balance. We owe this responsibility to “all our relations” both human and non-human.

The land itself provides guidance. The stories of Indigenous history are almost always about places in a specific landscape, not a chronology of specific events. It is not just about sacred or secular history. In Indigenous thought there is no such separation. It is more a kind of sacred geography – the land, the water, the ice, the sky. And this sacred geography is not just for humans, but for all living beings. Active participants in the ongoing creation of the universe are not simply divine or human – they are everything and everywhere. Most non-Indigenous environmentalists, unless they are working within a religious or theological perspective, reject importing notions of the sacred into ecology or climate change. Instead, we insist on a secular scientific perspective. But, this perspective is often still within a Newtonian scientific world-view that remains stubbornly resistant to developments within Western science itself over the past century. This is partly because Newton himself was operating within an Enlightenment tradition which was actively rebelling against the dominance of the Church that had existed for the previous thousand years. Modern environmental sciences, including climatology, ecology and ocean sciences, still actively resist any engagement with the “sacred”, or misinterpret it as necessarily mystical or metaphysical, when in fact it is, from Indigenous perspectives, deeply physically rooted in the material world.

As Keith H. Bosso writes in Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache:

As conceived by Apaches from . . . the past is a well-worn ‘path’ or ‘trail’ (‘intin’) which was traveled first by the people’s founding ancestors and which subsequent generations of Apaches have traveled ever since. Beyond the memories of living persons, this path is no longer visible – the past has disappeared – and thus it is unavailable for direct consultation and study. For this reason, the past must be constructed – which is to say, imagined – with the aid of historical materials, sometimes called ‘footprints’ or ‘tracks’ (biké’ goz’ấấ), that have survived into the present. These materials come in various forms, including Apache place-names, Apache stories and songs, and different kinds of relics . . . Because no one knows when these phenomena came into being, locating past events in time can be accomplished only in a vague and general way. This is of little consequence, however, for what matters most to Apaches is where events occurred, not when, and what they serve to reveal about the development and character of Apache social life. In light of these priorities, temporal considerations, though certainly not irrelevant, are accorded secondary importance. (p.31)

Renewal ceremonies, stories, even jokes, get repeated every year in order to ensure that order is maintained over chaos. Humans, animals, plants, rocks, mountains, rivers, spirits all play a role in maintaining balance within this constant universal dance. Indigenous peoples – without exception as far as I can tell – traditionally identify with a specific place, their relations with everything in that place, and their responsibilities to keep that place and themselves in harmony. This is true even where people choose, or are forced to, move. Certain places have a sacred power where creation continues to occur. And not just for humans. Everything is alive, everything is part of the web of creation that needs to be maintained. Some Indigenous people give thanks by saying “all my relations” while lifting up their hands. This includes all life within their circle of place and relationship. It is an act of gratitude and respect. It’s never about the “been there, done that . . . move on” approach identified by Little Bear as so common to a linear mindset. It is about survival on the land in which the people and all of life (present, ancestral and future) must continue to exist together. Without that constant attention to renewal, ceremony and relationship, the continual flux and change within creation becomes unbalanced. (Little Bear, Philosophy and Aboriginal Rights, pp.9-18).

Of course, many Indigenous peoples have had to adapt to lives without their land and without connection with these old relationships. But this loss creates enormous social and cultural pain on top of all the other problems associated with colonization. Surprisingly settlers and migrants often suffer this same sense of loss, producing an insatiable desire to recreate the old connections that existed from “where they are from” in this strange new land. This does not seem to have created any social or cultural empathy with the people being displaced from these new lands. Settlers and migrants of the past few centuries have not yet had time to learn the land sufficiently well to keep their relations in balance. Even worse, many of us do not seem to think this is important, although environmental degradation and climate change seem to be waking people up to the damage we are doing. The imbalance within creation that Little Bear has identified is clearly upon us now.

Tewa (Pueblo) scientist and philosopher Gregory Cajete identifies five general principles within Native American thought. It is worth quoting his observations in full:

First, they [American Indian spiritual traditions] lack a particular espoused doctrine of religion. Indian languages do not even have a word for religion; rather, the words used refer to a way of living, a tradition of the people. This reflects an orientation to a process rather than to an intellectual structure. Spiritual traditions are tools for learning and experiencing rather than ends in themselves.

Second, Indian spiritual traditions hold that spoken words and language have a quality of spirit because they are expressions of human breath. Language in the form of prayer and song has therefore a life energy that can affect other energy and life forms toward certain ends. For American Indians, language used in a spiritual, evocative, or affective context is “sacred” and has to be used responsibly.

Third, the creative act of making something with spiritual intent – what today is often called art – has its own quality and spiritual power that needs to be understood and respected. In fact, for Native Americans, art traditionally was a result of a creative process that was an act and expression of the spirit and was therefore sacred.

The fourth principle is the notion that life and spirit, the dual faces of the Great Mystery, move in never-ending cycles of creation and dissolution; therefore, ceremonial forms, life activities, and the transformations of spirit are cyclical. These cycles in turn follow visible and invisible patterns of nature and the cosmos. In response to this creative principle, ritual cycles are used to structure and express the sacred in the communal context of traditional Native American life.

The fifth principle is the shared understanding that nature is the true “ground” of spiritual reality. The forms and faces of nature are expressions of spirit whose qualities interpenetrate the life and process of human spirituality; therefore, for American Indians and Indigenous peoples as a whole, nature is sacred and a spiritual ecology is reflected throughout. (p.264)

The worlds of spirit and matter are not separate – they are two different faces of the “Great Mystery” of the cosmos. Indigenous science is based on this dual reality which can be unified. The emphasis is on the process of change within circles of time, not primarily on cause and effect (although this too has a role in the interpretation of the land and the practical knowledge that goes with it).

The Trickster

The Trickster is frequently misunderstood by non-Indigenous peoples (including myself) and, like shamanism, can be appropriated in ways that do not reflect the complexity of this figure within Indigenous sacred philosophies. He (he is almost always a “he”) can take many forms – Raven, Coyote, Jack Rabbit, Spider-woman, Kluskap – the strange man “who has been here since the world began” – all can be seen as Tricksters. Within Anishinabe thought he is often called Nanabozho or Nanabush. He is a spirit of creation and transformation, although he is not the Creator of all things. His actions often seem unpredictable, annoying or even dangerous. But he also reminds people of the way to live a good life. Professor John Borrows tells the story of how Nanabush woke people up one day from sadness, lethargy and despair. “He finally spoke, and reproved the people for their foolishness. He chastised them for forgetting their power of re-creation and regeneration.” (Borrows, Drawing Out Law, pp.14-16). He gathered the people around the central fire and threw stones he had gathered from a stream up into the air. They changed into beautiful colours, and then into butterflies. The children laughed, the dogs began to bark, and the adults soon began smiling. Joy returned to the land as people remembered the beauty and power of everything around them, and their own roles in maintaining creation in balance.

Nanabush had taken something that was seemingly ordinary and transformed it to create new life. He [Mishomis] wondered how many other people remembered these deeper laws about hope and healing. The land and their old stories had much to teach them about how to live well in the world. . . . The powers of regeneration and re-creation were literally at hand. (p.16)

Another origin story is told on the Pacific West Coast in a poem by the Haida poet Skaay. This story describes how four Indigenous nations of the Northwest Coast were called up out of the earth by the Trickster Raven (in this incarnation he is known as Voicehandler’s Heir):

After Voicehandler’s Heir had walked back and forth, he stamped on the ground to the right of the doorway. The earth split open at his feet. Someone held a drum up from underneath the ground, and a line formed behind it. He went to the opposite side. He stamped there too. “Even dirt can turn to human beings.” Someone lifted up a drum in that place too. He did it again in the back of the house at one side. Someone lifted a drum in that place too. He did it again on the opposite side. Then there were four lines streaming.

Tsimshian, Haida, People from the Distant Coast, and Tlingit were singing their songs from his uncle’s house. And while they were singing, his uncle was saying, “Well, we have plenty of food!” They arranged themselves in the house, and a crowd of people gathered near the door to serve the meal. (A Story as Sharp as a Knife, p.260)

As Bringhurst, who collected and translated these poems and stories, says:

Human beings . . . did not make their own way to the surface of the earth for their own purposes. They were summoned to the surface from their place within the earth because the spirit-beings needed them to stage a celebration. (p.261)

Humans are always part of a web of life which includes spirit-beings like the Trickster in his many manifestations, animals, birds, fish, plants, mountains, rocks and rivers. Raven’s uncle in the story of Voicehandler’s Heir is Qinggi who incarnates the largest mountain in southeastern Haida Gwaii and is “its resident deity, spirit or killer whale.” (p.259) Humans are necessary because they can perform the ceremonies, celebrations and rituals required to keep creation in balance.

Complexity and Unity

E. Richard Atleo of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island describes, in Principles of Tsawalk: An Indigenous Approach to Global Crisis, that “reality” is a unified whole or “tsawalk (one)” in which “relationships are qua (that which is)”.

The ancient Nuu-chah-nulth assumed an interrelationship between all life forms – humans, plants and animals. Relationships are. Accordingly, social, political, economic, constitutional, environmental, and philosophical issues can be addressed under the single theme of interrelationships, across all dimensions of reality – the material and non-material, the visible and the invisible. (p.ix)

He goes on to discuss the problem of crisis and violence in our current world order:

. . . according to the theory of tsawalk (one), any planetary stage of crisis must, by definition, be a shared responsibility, a shared experience. The Nuu-chah-nulth notion that reality is fundamentally an interconnected and interrelated whole regardless of its seeming polarity, its seeming contradictions, has been interpreted historically in one of two ways. The first is indicated by what [Samuel] Huntingdon defines as the progress of civilization, which, it is argued, sets the current stage of crisis. This crisis is defined as one of interrelationships between humans and between humans and other life forms. In this interpretation of reality, the practice has been to eliminate opposition to, for example, the imagined ideal of progress. Until recently, this has meant the extirpation of non-European beliefs and lifeways through legislation and policy. This has involved a process of resource extraction that has proven degrading to nature. . .

The second interpretation of the Nuu-chah-nulth notion of a unified but polarized reality remains largely peripheral to centres of power and influence. In this interpretation the focus is on the development of sustainable relationships between life forms. In other words, it is on managing polarity by working to transform the inherent contradictions of reality into a sustainable balance and harmony so that all life forms can continue to live. This interpretation of the interrelated characteristic of reality seeks not to eliminate opposition but, rather, to employ the natural oppositions and apparent contradictions of reality to realize wholeness. (pp.57-58)

This idea that reality is a complex process which is inherently unified or one, despite its seeming contradictions, insists that humans have a shared responsibility to find balance and harmony – to create order out of potential chaos. This is not just a philosophical or religious ideal, nor is it simply a metaphor or myth. It has very concrete, practical implications. It really is about survival.

The land is central to this process of “survival through relationships and harmony”. Knowledge is not exchanged – it is a gift learned through ceremony, and the renewal of ceremonies over generations. Respect for ancestral knowledge, adaptation to new conditions, and the protection of the world for future generations, are all central to Indigenous thought. Everyone and everything relies on the Earth for life and wellbeing. This is an ancient truth which modern humans not only have forgotten, but resist as a basic principle of life on this planet. Even many environmentalists, particularly of the “Bright Green” majority, simply will not see the connections between resource extraction, depletion and destruction as the “primitive accumulation” upon which our modern political economies rest, and that this logic of consumption is not sustainable under any technological or structural adjustment regime we can imagine or invent within our current ways of thinking. Eco-feminist perspectives based on relational perspectives, or, more broadly, on an “ethic of care” as outlined in Part II, have a strong connection to Indigenous ways of thinking even where these are not explicitly examined in any depth, or are misinterpreted. (See Mies, Maria and Shiva, Vandana Eco-Feminism, Zed Books, 1993).

For Inuit of the Arctic this process of survival means observing rules that protect the land so that the people and animals can live. As the late elder Mariano Aupilaarjuk explains in Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut:

We used to get told not to live in one area too long; Inuit thought the land would carry sickness if lived in for too long or the animals would get scarce. They didn’t like to live in lands that didn’t have animals. They used to move camp all the time because they wanted to stay on healthy land. The land we lived on when we have been in certain areas and come back to them, it is like being welcomed by the land. Even where there are no people on the land, there is a feeling that the land is really yours. (p.121)

This feeling of ownership is not about property, about buying and selling and then moving on, it is about belonging and guardianship. Animals also have to be respected. The late Inuit elder Lucien Ukaliannuk used to teach that you should not talk about polar bears as they can hear you and may be offended. Living on the land or hunting on the ice with polar bears nearby means learning to respect their presence and power. In addition, humans and other animals used to be able to transform into one another. Shamans or angakkuit had this power. Because animals, especially polar bears, are so closely related to us it is necessary to respect them. They also give us life. There are laws or maligait about how to greet guests, share food, treat animals killed for food and all other aspects of life. Not all these rules are still followed. Since the introduction of Christianity, relocation off the land into settlements, residential schools and the imposition of government control over so much of Inuit life, many of these rules were forbidden or have dropped from use (Ukaliannuk, oral teachings). But, as Aupilaarjuk says in Interviewing Inuit Elders: Perspectives on Traditional Law:

Let us think of the Earth as a woman. The Earth is very big and strong and gives us food. A woman is also very strong. She feeds the children and helps them grow. We are not to misuse our wives, we are to take good care of them. We also have to take care of our Earth so that it is not misused or exploited. (p.17)

In Inuktitut, the Inuit language of the Eastern Arctic, the word for both the environment and intelligence is sila. Silajuaq is the universe or the powerful spirit of the air. Silatuniq means the knowledge of the old ones, or wisdom. As Jaypeetee Arnakak has said:

I truly believe in this Sila and the means with which Inuit shamanism accessed its depths and breadth through suffering and fasting. It is through suffering that the phenomenal self lets go and equanimity is achieved, clarity is achieved. Nature is indifferent; it cares nothing for our limited conceptions of “good” and “bad”, “evil” and “beneficence”. This insight can either kill us or liberate within us unbounded creativity.

The concept of Silatuniq can help bring about a true balanced relationship with the environment and the universe that is fundamentally ethical, not economic. But there is a problem, as Arnakak points out:

. . . this Silatuniq may contradict dominant cultural assumptions for everyday living. Beyond the narrowing dynamics of cultural assumptions, colonial pressures, and expanding climate impacts, this dialogue suggests a fourth dynamic is limiting the breadth of interdisciplinary and intercultural research on Sila’s northern warming: the West’s rational rejection of shamanic or spiritual wisdom for socially contextualizing knowledge.  Book, pp.290-291.

Reconciling Sacred Places with Secular Histories

On the west coast of Alaska is a community known as Unalakleet, or Uŋalaqłiq, an Iñupiaq name meaning “from the southern side”. It is just south of Cape Denbigh where an ancient village site known as Iyatayet is located. It is one of the oldest human settlement sites in Alaska. The archeologist J. Louis Giddings uncovered evidence of settlements going back at least 5000 years including the remains of a Thule/Inuit village (Nukleet), an older settlement which is between 2500 and 3000 years old, and the even older remains of the Arctic small tool tradition or Denbigh Flint Complex going back at least 4500 to 5000 years. Each of these layers indicates a succession of cultures similar to other sites found all over the Arctic. It is possible this site is where the original Inuit (Iñupiaq and Yup’ik) settled after leaving Siberia. Iñupiaq and Yup’ik are closely related and speak languages that can be mutually understood. Uŋalaqłiq, the modern settlement a little to the south, has been a meeting and trading place for Iñupiaq, Yup’ik and Athapaskan speaking peoples from the Alaskan interior for thousands of years.

There is another way to tell the story of this important place in the history of the Indigenous peoples of Alaska. This is a short version as told by the elder and story teller Tikasuk (Emily Ivanov Brown) who was born in Uŋalaqłiq in 1904:

Ayaatayat [Iyatayet], the original village at Cape Denbigh, is the grandfather of all the Eskimo villages in that area. It was the very first organized community and was established maybe 10,000 years ago. The present village of Cape Denbigh is built on this same site.

My Aunt Kiiriq’s ancestral tribesmen lived at this first village and handed down their history to her by word of mouth; she repeated it over and over, until it became part of her. As she repeated it to me, I wrote it down, and I now pass it on to the reader. One of the stories she told me is this epic legend which follows, in which the main character is an eagle-man.

The eagle-man lived with his parents on the south tip of a peninsula which had a high cliff. Like many characters found in Unaliq [Yup’ik] legends, this man was capable of turning from human to animal (an eagle, in this case) and vice-versa. When he was transformed into an eagle, he was a great flyer, had the instincts of an eagle, and was able to hunt sea mammals by clawing them. Whenever he returned to his home on the cliff, he transformed himself into a human.

The story begins with life among the surviving members of the eagle-men who lived at the end of Cape Denbigh peninsula as cliff dwellers. This peninsula, which, according to legend, was once an island, lies between Norton Bay on the western side and the Shaktoolik (Saqtuliq) mountain range on the eastern side. The distance between the island and the mountain range is about eighteen miles. The area of the sea eventually receded, and the lowland that formed there became a bridge between Cape Denbigh Island and the eastern mountain range. Many years were required for this process, and the land was not inhabited until the latter part of an era when supernatural giants and eagle-men lived in this particular area.

Just before the expiration of the first known era of supernatural beings, the first human family migrated to the virgin tundra and settled on the coast of this eighteen-mile stretch of lowland. The legend teller himself did not know who they were or where they came from, but he thought they came from the south. This family had only one child, and she was a young woman. The surviving family of eagle-men was an aged mother and her son. Since the father had died, this only son had become a great hunter. His aged mother, though quite feeble, was able to live a long life with her son.

One evening when he returned home from his flights over the countryside, the eagle-man surprised his mother by bringing back a female human [the daughter of the first humans]. This female was destined to become a prime factor in the change of supernatural humanity to natural man, and to bring about the move from the cliffs to a new homesite called Ayaatayat [Iyatayet].

When the eagle-man moved his family to Ayaatayat, or Nukleet, the first community at Cape Denbigh cove, his supernatural ability ceased to function and he lost his eagle skin and tail. According to the legend, this was a stage of transition, and he lived a life of duality while he built a home on the eastern slope of Cape Denbigh. . . . (Tales of Ticasuk, pp.3-4)

There is much more to this story, just as there is much more to learn from the Iyatayet archeological site where this story was first told. Which version is true? Both are recounting human relationships with the land. The “legend” is much richer, more detailed, and pays close attention to the formation of the land itself. The archeological story may be more accurate in terms of dates and objects, but it doesn’t explain why people were there.

Are these stories really connected? Do they reflect a natural commonality of human experience that used to exist everywhere? Can that human connection between ourselves and the Earth be reclaimed? What can we learn from these older stories that recount how our ancestors and many Indigenous peoples survived and still survive? Where can we find the truth of our collective connections within ourselves, with each other, and with the place where we live – Earth? Given the radically different approaches to be found, how can the history of Indigenous peoples and settlers be reconciled or, perhaps, transformed? How do we re-envision past, present and future within the primacy of place – secular history with sacred geography? And how does this relate to our current tangle of environmental and social crises in which science, history, space and time appear to be taking us over the edge of a cliff. If Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives cannot be reconciled or transformed, can we survive the massive changes we are all facing? Mariya Gimbutas (cited above) attempts to recreate a history of “Old Europe” that existed for thousands of years before those Bronze Age horse warriors came sweeping across Eurasia with their chariots, swords and patriarchal ways of living from which our modern imperial cultures seem to be directly descended. Our own dilemmas seem far removed from that ancient confrontation (if it ever actually occurred) between an ancestral matriarchal way of life and what we have now. From the invention of the wheel to the invention of the lithium battery seems like a big leap. Is it?

2 thoughts on “The Last Well: Indigenous and Feminist Approaches to Environmental and Climate Change Issues (Part III)

  1. Hello! I’m so glad I came across your blog. So much of what you’re saying echoes things that have been rattling around in my head for the last thirty years. Your writing has pointed out connections that I had never thought of before. Thank you.

    Many years ago, a friend took me to an event in Windsor, Ontario for Aboriginal Solidarity Day. One of the speakers (whose name I don’t recall) said a couple of things that I have never forgotten. The first was her anger and pain at seeing a display at the Royal Ontario Museum, in which a tableau of the traditional “everyday life” of her People was in a glass case, just like the other stuffed, dead animals on display, a setting that indicated that her People’s culture was a curio of the past, dusty and dead. A thing to be preserved, but no longer present, vital, or changing. Her message to us was that they were still here, still alive and active.

    The second thing I left with from her words was her opposition to the idea of “sustainable development.” This got my attention, as I’d though sustainable development was “good.” What was more important was “sustainable life.” The preservation of life, the ability of all things to continue living is essential. Prioritizing the continuance and survival of economic activity, the maximization and industry to the absolute limit, at the expense of life, was the opposite of what we should be doing. This was a shift in perspective that had not occurred to me before, but it is one I’ve tried to carry with me since. I see these perspectives mirrored in the “Bright Green” and “Deep Green” paths you point to above. The Bright Green approach sounds a lot like “sustainable development,” an attempt to keep the old game alive for as much as possible. It is, at best, a stop gap or way station, at worst a distraction, or illusory end point. To me it looks too much like where we are and how we’ve been doing things, more of what got us into this mess, rather than a decisive step away from it. If your ship is sinking, the only thing that can save you is getting off of it. I’m more of the belief that Deep Green is the only long term path that is best for all of Earth’s beings. The big question is how do we get there from here? Underneath everything is “Dark Green,” the future that unfolds if we cross too many tipping points; the destructive rearrangement of climatic, biological, material, and energetic cycles which will occur as the entire Earth System comes to a new balance and re-integration, as it recovers from, or at least moves on from, the disruption and perturbations we have forced upon it.

    I enjoy your in depth look at these issues, and the long range and wide reach of your examination of the origins of, and possible solutions to, our current crises. It has helped me to see things a little more clearly, and to put together some of my own thoughts and feelings around these matters in a better way. Thank you again. I look forward to more entries, and will look for more of your work through the library.

    Take care, be well, stay safe.


    1. Thanks so much for your comment! I’ve been bad lately at posting here. I’ve been thinking about those 215 children found buried at the Kamloops Residential School and the upwards of 104 kids at the Brandon School. Haven’t had the heart to write about it. I’m on facebook a lot of you want to send me a friend request. @Shelley Wright. Take care.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: