Table of contents
Last year when the stay-at-home orders lifted, I ventured out west with my family in our popup camper to explore some of our country's most iconic parks. Free at last on the open road, and just in time for the Fourth of July
Our first destination after a four-day drive was South Dakota. But my initial excitement was short-lived. President Trump planned to host a fireworks extravaganza with thousands of people at Mt. Rushmore, despite concerns about the dry conditions surrounding the monument—conditions that have precluded fireworks there for the last decade.
It was over 100 degrees, and we would be camping nearby. I was worried about the risk of fire, but the backdrop of the pandemic, the contentious election and protests for Black lives and Indigenous land rights added to the national anxiety and my own. I had also just learned that this region of the Black Hills—filled with evergreen forests and prairies, dotted with clear lakes and granite peaks, where the antelope and buffalo roam—is the spiritual realm of the Lakota people, who have lived in concert with nature for thousands of years.
Fortunately, the fireworks didn’t start a devastating fire, but the event was yet another example of our hubris and dominion over the landscape.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, which buzzed from the car speakers as I drove from state to state, opened my eyes to the greed that had propelled Americans further west. When the book was first published in 1970, readers then had a similar gut-wrenching reaction. Using their own words and experiences, Dee Brown describes how in the second half of the 19th century, tribe after tribe lost access to their homelands, when the U.S. government violated treaty after treaty for gold, for homesteaders, and for “progress.”
Part of the strategy to exterminate the Native Americans was to kill every buffalo and raze existing orchards and agriculture. Starving and desperate, the Indigenous peoples were forced to move to reservations that purposely lacked grazing lands, adequate soil and access to clean water. Though of course this was long before my time, I felt quite ashamed as I listened. As a white woman of European descent, I’m sure I’m complicit in expanding upon this loss—probably even by vacationing in their ancestral lands.
The stories of Lakota leader Crazy Horse and his courage—and the unforgettable carving of him in the Black Hills, not too far from Mt. Rushmore—inspired me to reflect further on our modern use of and relationship to the land. Although he was ultimately stabbed in the back by a U.S. soldier after he surrendered, Crazy Horse’s legacy as a wise and fearless leader lives on. In 1877, he made a prophecy after a meeting with Sitting Bull:
Upon suffering beyond suffering, the Red Nation shall rise again and it shall be a blessing for a sick world. A world filled with broken promises, selfishness, and separations, a world longing for light again. I see a time of seven generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred Tree of Life and the whole Earth will become one circle again. In that day, there will be those among the Lakota who will carry knowledge and understanding of unity among all living things, and the young white ones will come to those of my people and ask for this wisdom. I salute the light within your eyes where the whole universe dwells. For when you are at that center within you and I am at that place within me, we shall be one.
In a powerful essay in All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis (2020), the author Sherri Mitchell of the Penawahpskek Nation, highlights this and other Indigenous peoples’ prophecies and suggests that the time has come for us to acknowledge their ancient wisdom.
For millennia, Indigenous peoples sought to live harmoniously with the rest of creation. Though they make up about 5 percent of the global population, Indigenous peoples’ lands contain 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity and have the world’s largest carbon stores. If we want to save ourselves and this planet, we should look to their example and learn to live in balance with all living things. Humans, after all, are just one of millions of species.
Mitchell considers the events at Standing Rock to be a turning point and the beginning of the fulfillment of Crazy Horse’s prophecy. In 2016, thousands of people from around the world joined the Lakota and others—very close to where Crazy Horse gave his pronouncement—to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil infrastructure project, that threatened sacred waters and sites. Living in camps set up in the area, the protestors learned from Indigenous peoples about the “unity among all living things.” According to Mitchell, each of these visitors now carries “the seed of understanding that was given to them by the Lakota people,” which they can disperse once back home.
On our family trip, we kept searching for bison. We didn’t find many wild ones until the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where a herd grazed freely. Throughout the journey, we observed spectacular landscapes, but we also saw plenty of closed casinos, usually operated by tribal nations, and shuttered roadside stands that typically sell traditional art. Even the ever-touristy Antelope Canyon and Four Corners Monument in the southwest were closed. Covid-19 has affected Native Americans far greater than any other group, because they often lack basic infrastructure on the reservations. The income they receive from tourists visiting their sacred lands usually provides for medical and other services, but the virus was too contagious and dangerous for these sites to remain open.
After returning from my western travels, it took me another year to discover the gem Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. It’s a memoir in essays that provides specific and spiritual ways we can circle back to a more sustainable lifestyle, but it’s also full of interesting facts about plants and stories of Indigenous cultures. Author Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation (originally of the East but forced to move to several locations in the Midwest), and she uses her experiences from these seemingly disparate worlds to illustrate a bridge to a healthy future.
In simple terms, she suggests we need to restore our connection to the land, and she believes the best way to start the process is through plants—recognizing them, planting them, cultivating them and celebrating them.
I will never look at lichen the same way after Kimmerer explained that they have umbilical cords and are actually half algae/half fungus; when I see a cattail, I will know how it can be used for food, shelter, and medicine; and the next time I eat maple syrup, I will appreciate its sweetness even more because of the painstaking effort it takes to transform the sap. I'm not sure I have ever seen sweetgrass, but I certainly will be looking for it. Woven into these details about plants are also her thoughts on preserving language, putting down roots, gifts of gratitude and ceremony. As a self-taught gardener, I love her sentiment that “we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again.”
Kimmerer elucidates many dark examples of our history, some of which we are likely not familiar, but should be. For example, the concerted effort to destroy indigenous cultures by forcing children to attend American boarding schools where they were forced to denounce their traditions and language; the destruction of the sacred Onondaga Lake near Syracuse, New York to process chemicals used in manufacturing—the lake today is one of the most polluted lakes in the US with nine Superfund sites; and the prohibition on practicing ceremonies and natural medicine.
Throughout the book she shares in intimate fashion her experiences as a mother, a university professor and as a student of her culture. Her education is also our education. One of my favorite chapters discusses time not as linear but as circular. In her retelling of a creation story, she shares how the First (or Original) Man, Nanabozho, arrived on Turtle Island (North America/Earth) as an immigrant in a world already filled with plants and animals. He must learn how to act and survive, and for guides he relies on those non-human beings that came before him. The earth is not his to change as he sees fit; rather, he must learn how to adapt in an already ancient place.
These Original Instructions might just help us, the Second Man. The author asks these thought-provoking questions:
For the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become Indigenous to place. But can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying? With both feet on the shore?
What happens when we truly become native to a place, when we finally make a home? Where are the stories that lead the way? If time does in fact eddy back on itself, maybe the journey of the First Man will provide footsteps to guide the journey of the Second.
I was reading this particular essay on the eastern shore of Maryland in June when my 13-year-old nephew mentioned that colonizing Mars would be a good option, once we have rendered this planet uninhabitable. I was speechless for a moment at his nonchalance, but I know he’s not alone in his thinking.
Time and progress march us forever forward, as we routinely exploit whatever resources we discover on our path to prosperity. While there has been a rear-view mirror to look into if we so choose, there haven’t been obvious signs for U-turns along the way. Though I think I can make out one—way down the road—coming into focus. I dug my toes in the sand, and suggested to him that maybe it was better to concentrate on the home we have now—after all, won’t we need to take with us to Mars many of the same things we need here? Plants, probably, most of all.
We can take Kimmerer’s advice and apply it even in our own communities. In addition to those that have lived here for a lifetime, Urbana has many new residents from out of state and out of country. Might we all treat the landscape and its inhabitants differently if we acted as if this was our forever home? Can we circle back and learn lessons from those first peoples who thrived here for millennia?
In Urbana, Maryland, we reside on land in the Chesapeake watershed that once was the home of many different Indigenous peoples, including those who spoke the Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan languages. Just down the road, the Monocacy River alone contains thousands of archaeological sites that remind us of generations before our own.
When the colonists arrived in the 17th Century, the largest and most powerful tribal nation in between the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River (above the falls) was the Piscataway, “the people where the rivers blend.” As of the last census in 2010, there are over 40,000 people in Maryland who identify as American Indian, and they want us to know they are still here.
In 2012, Maryland officially recognized the Piscataway-Conoy Tribe and Piscataway Nation—the first two to be recognized in the state. Working with the Maryland government, the Piscataway have since developed a 100+ page plan for education and interpretation, including many opportunities, especially in southern Maryland, to:
• Learn about the ancient history of the Piscataway and the development of technology and adaptations that sustained the tribe for centuries—how the first people thrived and did not just survive prior to the arrival of Europeans.
• Understand the importance of the natural world of the Chesapeake region in sustaining life and the relationship between the health of the natural world and human health and welfare.
• Feel inspired to help conserve or restore the resources of the natural world that sustain us all.
Braiding Sweetgrass was first published in 2013 but feels even timelier now. One of the last essays discusses the crossroads that we face—one that was prophesied by the Anishinaabe people when colonists first came to America and started reshaping it. Kimmerer’s elders believe we are in the era of the seventh fire—a time when there are two paths ahead of us and we must choose which one to follow:
One of the roads is soft and green with new grass. You could walk barefoot there. The other path is scorched black, hard; the cinders would cut your feet. If the people choose the grassy path, then life will be sustained. But if they choose the cinder path, the damage they have wrought upon the earth will turn against them and bring suffering and death to earth’s people…. It is said that if people choose the green path, then all races will go forward together to light the eighth and final fire of peace and brotherhood…
I think we are at this crossroads now—maybe this year, even. We are that seventh generation of which Crazy Horse spoke.
Since the publication of Braiding Sweetgrass, there has been a notable shift in science’s approach to the interconnectedness of all life. As Sherri Mitchell discusses in her essay and in a recent podcast, scientists—who as a body have long dismissed Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and vast experiences—are now formally studying the living connection among species. The first draft of the Open Tree of Life Project, published in 2015, shows an evolutionary map of the living connection of 2.3 million species and, as the lead scientist on the project says, is “the first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together.” The work continues and is funded by the National Academy of Sciences.
Ecology is also gaining steam in the mainstream. Scientists are publishing popular books about how trees communicate, how mostly unseen fungi support and sustain nearly all living systems, and how the relationship between insects and native plants is a key to life on earth. Others are consulting Indigenous peoples and incorporating their traditional ecological knowledge to develop coastal management programs, restore salmon runs, and practice the most effective fire management strategies.
As we hear even more warnings this summer of ecological disaster, it's time for us all to gather seeds. To start we can look to these authors, who are themselves picking up the pieces of their fractured culture and sharing thousands of years’ worth of knowledge and experience.
It’s not enough to stop our bad habits, and it’s not effective to be always on the defensive. Sherri Mitchell advocates using the 80-10-10 rule. Consider this: Use 10 percent of time and energy on determining and educating ourselves on what is harming us; another 10 percent to stop the harm, i.e., stand in protection of life without harming other life; and 80 percent on envisioning and actively creating the world we wish to inhabit. As an antidote to despair, Kimmerer suggests that “restoration offers concrete means by which humans can once again enter into positive, creative relationship with the more-than-human world, meeting responsibilities that are simultaneously material and spiritual.”
I want to walk barefoot on the green landscape. I want to put my hands in the earth and plant seeds. And I want to see you, my neighbor, at the eighth fire that we can all light together.
Visit our Events page on www.GreenTeamUrbana.com for ways to get your hands dirty right here in Urbana. Email Carey and Green Team Urbana at GreenTeamUrbana@gmail.com.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown (1970).
"Indigenous Prophecy and Mother Earth" by Sherri Mitchell / Weh'na Ha'mu Kwasset, Penawahpskek Nation. All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine K. Wilkinson (2020).
(The entire book is exceptional)
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)
No Place Like Home podcast with Sherri Mitchell as first heard on the "How to Save a Planet Podcast" hosted by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg. ("How to Save a Planet" is my favorite climate solutions podcast - it's personal and entertaining, while being educational)
To learn more about the Piscataway and other indigenous peoples in our region:
“Native American Heritage Trail Guide” traces the C&O Canal Towpath and uses its mile markers in Frederick/Montgomery Counties for points of reflection on native heritage. (Brochure from Frederick County Visitors’ Center)