Winona LaDuke outlines lessons from indigenous cultures for restoring balance
By Winona LaDuke
Indigenous peoples believe fundamentally in a state of balance. We believe that all societies and cultural practices must exist in accordance with the laws of nature in order to be sustainable. Indigenous people have lived on Earth sustainably for thousands of years, and I suggest to you that indigenous ways of living are the only sustainable ways of living.
Giiwedinong means “going home” in the Anishinaabeg language- it also means North, which is the place from which we come.This is a key problem that modern industrial society faces today. We cannot restore our relationship with the Earth until we find our place in the world. This is our challenge today: where is home?
I returned to the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota about twenty-five years ago after being raised off-reservation, which is a common circumstance for our people. White Earth is my place in the Universe. It’s where the headwaters of the Mississippi and Red Rivers are.
People of the Land
Anishinaabeg is our name for ourselves in our own language, it means “people.” We are called Ojibwe, referring to “ojibige” (meaning “to write”) on our birch bark scrolls. Our aboriginal territory, and where we live today, is in the northern part of five U.S. states and the southern part of four Canadian Provinces. We are people of lakes, rivers, deep woods and lush prairies.
Now, if you look at the United States, about 4 percent of the land is held by Indian people. But if you go to Canada, about 85% of the population north of the fiftieth parallel is native. If you look at the whole of North America, you’ll find that the majority of the population is native in about a third of the continent. Within this larger area indigenous people maintain their own ways of living and their cultural practices.
There are a number of countries in the Western Hemisphere in which native peoples are the majority of the population: in Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. In some South American countries we control as much as 22 to 40 percent of the land. Overall, the Western Hemisphere is not predominantly white. Indigenous people continue their ways of living based on generations and generations of knowledge and practice on the land.
On a worldwide scale there are about five thousand indigenous nations. Nations are groups of indigenous peoples who share common language, culture, history, territory and government institutions. It is said that there are currently about five hundred million of us in the world today, depending on how you define the term indigenous. I define it as peoples who have continued their way of living for thousands of years. In 2007 the United Nations finally passed the U.N Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, recognizing our unique status in the world. Four countries opposed this: the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. However New Zealand recently signed this declaration.
Indigenous peoples believe fundamentally in a state of balance. We believe that all societies and cultural practices must exist in accordance with the laws of nature in order to be sustainable. We also believe that cultural diversity is as essential as biological diversity in maintaining sustainable societies. Indigenous people have lived on Earth sustainably for thousands of years, and I suggest to you that indigenous ways of living are the only sustainable ways of living. Most indigenous ceremonies, if you look to their essence, are about the restoration of balance— they are a reaffirmation of our relationship to creation. That is our intent: to restore, and then to retain balance and honor our part in creation.
Therefore, when I harvest wild rice on our reservation, I always offer asemaa (tobacco) because when you take something, you must always give thanks to its spirit for giving itself to you. We are very careful when we harvest. Anthropologists call this reciprocity. This means that when you take, you always give. We also say that you must take only what you need and leave the rest. Because if you take more than you need, you have brought about imbalance, you have been selfish. To do this in our community is a very big disgrace. It is a violation of natural law, and it leaves you with no guarantee that you will be able to continue harvesting.
We have a word in our language which describes the practice of living in harmony with natural law: minocimaatisiiwin. This word describes how you behave as an individual in a relationship with other individuals and in relationship with the land and all things. We have tried to retain this way of living and this way of thinking in spite of all that has happened to us over the centuries. I believe we do retain most of these practices in our community, even if they are overshadowed at times by individualism.
The Clash of Indigenous and Industrial Worldviews
I would like to contrast indigenous thinking with what I call “industrial thinking,” which is characterized by five key ideas that run counter to what we as native people believe.
1) Instead of believing that natural law is preeminent, industrial society believes that humans are entitled to full dominion over nature. It believes that man— and it is usually man of course—has some God-given right to all that is around him. Industrial society puts its faith in man’s laws: that pollution regulations, allowable catches, etc. are sustainable.
2) In indigenous societies, we notice that much in nature is cyclical: the movement of moons, the tides, the seasons, and our bodies. Time itself is cyclical. Instead of modeling itself on the cyclical structure of nature, industrial society is patterned on linear thinking. Industrial society strives to continually move in one direction defined by things like technology and economic growth.
3) Industrial society holds a different attitude toward what is wild as opposed to what is cultivated or “tame.” In our language we have the word indinawayuuganitoog (all our relations). That is what we believe—that our relatives may have wings, fins, roots or hooves. Industrial society believes wilderness must be tamed. This is also the idea behind colonialism: that some people have the right to civilize other people.
4) Industrial society speaks in a language of inanimate nouns. Things of all kinds are not spoken of as being alive and having spirit; they are described as mere objects, commodities. When things are inanimate, “man” can take them, buy and sell them, or destroy them. Some scholars refer to this as the “comodification of the sacred.”
5) The last aspect of industrial thinking is the idea of capitalism itself (which is always unpopular to question in America). The capitalist goal is to use the least labor, capital, and resources to make the most profit. The intent of capitalism is accumulation. So the capitalist’s method is always to take more than is needed. With accumulation as its core, industrial society practices conspicuous consumption. Indigenous societies, on the other hand, practice what I would call “conspicuous distribution.” We focus on the potlatch—the act of giving away. In fact, the more you give away, the greater your honor.
Modern industrial societies must begin to see the interlocking interests between their own ability to survive and the survival of indigenous peoples’ culture. Indigenous peoples have lived sustainably on the land for thousands of years. I am absolutely sure that our societies could live without yours, but I’m not so sure that your society can continue to live without ours.
Sustainability in Action
All across the continent there are small groups of native peoples who are trying to regain control of and restore their communities.
I’ll use my own people as an example. The White Earth Reservation is thirty-six by thirty-six miles square, which is about 837,000 acres. A treaty reserved it for our people in 1867 in return for relinquishing a much larger area of northern Minnesota. Out of all our territory we chose this land for its richness and diversity. There are forty-seven lakes on the reservation. There’s maple sugar, there are hardwoods, and there are all the different medicine plants my people use. We have wild rice, we have deer, we have beaver, we have fish—we have every food we need. On the eastern part of the reservation there are stands of white pine; to the west is prairieland where the buffalo once roamed. Our word for prairie is mashkode (place of burned medicine) referring to native practices of burning as a form of nurturing the soil and plants.
Our traditional forms of land use and ownership are similar to those found in community land trusts being established today. The land is owned collectively, and each family has traditional areas where it fishes and hunts. We call our concept of land ownership Anishinaabeg akiing: “the land of the people,” which doesn’t imply that we own our land, but that we belong on it. Unfortunately, our definition doesn’t stand up well in court because this country’s legal system upholds the concept of private property.
We have maintained our land by means of careful management. For example, we traditionally have “hunting bosses” and “rice chiefs,” who make sure that resources are used sustainably in each region. Hunting bosses oversee rotation of trap lines, a system by which people trap in an area for two years and then move to a different area to let the land rest. Rice chiefs coordinate wild rice harvesting. The rice on each lake has its own unique taste and ripens at its own time. Traditionally, we have a “tallyman,” who makes sure there are enough animals for each family in a given area. If a family can’t sustain itself, the tallyman moves them to a new place where animals are more plentiful. These practices are essential to sustainability, and to maintaining what some now call the commons.
The Loss of White Earth, and How We Plan to Get it Back
Our reservation was reserved by treaty in 1867. In 1887 the Nelson Act and subsequently the General Allotment Act was passed to teach Indians the concept of private property, but also to facilitate the removal of more land from Indian Nations. The federal government divided our reservation into eighty-acre parcels of land and allotted each parcel to an individual Indian, hoping that this would somehow force us to become farmers and adopt the notion of progress—in short, to be civilized.
The allotment system was alien to our traditional concepts of land. In our society a person harvested rice in one place, trapped in another place, gathered medicines in a third place, and picked berries in a fourth. These locations depended on the ecosystem; they were not necessarily contiguous. But the government said to each Indian, “Here are your eighty acres; this is where you’ll live.” Then, after each Indian had received an allotment, the rest of the land was declared “surplus” and given to white people to homestead or “develop”. What happened to my reservation happened to reservations all across the country.
The state of Minnesota took our pine forests away and sold them to timber companies, and then taxed us for the land that was left. When the Indians couldn’t pay the taxes, the state confiscated the land. But how could these people pay taxes? In 1910, they could not even read or write English.
I’ll tell you a story about how my great-grandma was cheated by a loan shark. She lived on Many-Point Lake, where she was allotted land. She had run up a bill at the local store because she was waiting until fall when she could get some money from wild rice harvesting and a payment coming from a treaty annuity. So she went to a land speculator named Lucky Waller, and she said, “I need to pay this bill.” She asked to borrow fifty bucks from him until the fall, and he said: “Okay, you can do that. Just sign here and I’ll loan you that fifty bucks.” So she signed with the thumbprint and went back to her house on Many-Point Lake. About three months later she was ready to repay him the fifty bucks, and the loan shark said: “No, you keep that money. I bought your land from you.” He had purchased her eighty acres on Many-Point Lake for fifty bucks. Today that location is a Boy Scout camp.
The White Earth Reservation lost two hundred and fifty thousand acres to the state of Minnesota because of unpaid taxes. By 1920, 99 percent of the original White Earth Reservation land was in non-Indian hands. This was done to native peoples across the country.
We have exhausted all legal recourse for getting back our land. The Federal Circuit Court ruled that to regain their land Indian people had to have filed a lawsuit within seven years of the original time of taking. Still, we believe that we must get our land back. We really do not have any other place to go. That’s why we started the White Earth Land Recovery Project. Our project is like several other projects in Indian communities. We are not trying to displace people who have settled there. A third of our land is held by federal, state and country governments. That land should just be returned to us. It certainly would not displace anyone. Some of the privately held land on our reservation is held by absentee landholders- many of whom have never seen that land; they do not even know where it is. It is a commodity to them, not home. We hope to persuade them to return it to us.
Our project also works to reacquire our land. We bought some land as a site for a roundhouse, a building that holds one of our ceremonial drums. We bought back our burial grounds, which were on private land, because we believe that we should hold the land where our ancestors rest. We purchased a former elementary school, which is now the home of our new radio station and a wind turbine. In 2009, which is the 20th anniversary of our project, we had acquired 1400 acres. We use some of this land to grow and gather sustainable products that we sell: wild rice, maple syrup and candy, berry jams, and Birch bark crafts.
Sustainable Communities, not Sustainable Development
In conclusion, I want to say there is no such thing as sustainable development. Community is the only thing in my experience that is sustainable. We all need to be involved in building communities- not solely focused on developing things. We can each do that in our own way, whether it is European-American communities or indigenous communities, by restoring a way of life that is based on the land.
The only way you can manage a commons is if you share enough cultural experiences and values so that what you take out of nature doesn’t upset the natural balance—minobimaatisiiwin, as we call it. The reason native cultures have remained sustainable for all these centuries is that we are cohesive communities. A common set of values is needed to live together on the land.
Finally, I believe industrial societies continue to consume too much of the world’s resources. When you need that many resources, it means constant intervention in other peoples’ land and other peoples’ countries. It is meaningless to talk about human rights unless you talk about consumption. In order for native communities to live and teach the world about sustainability, the dominant society must change. If modern society continues in the direction it is going, indigenous people’s way of life will continue to bear the consequences.
“Excerpted and updated from “Voices from White Earth: Gaa-waabaabiganikaag,” the Thirteenth Annual E.F. Schumacher Lecture, given at Yale University, October 1993. The lecture is sponsored by the New Economics Institute . This essay appears in OTC’s book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons .