E S S A Y S ,    A R T I C L E S    A N D    R E V I E W S

First Nations and the Future of the Earth
by Rebecca Adamson

EarthLight Magazine #40, Winter 2001

It's crucial to understand that as a society, we can reorganize.  We can reorganize socially, politically, and economically, and we can reorganize according to our values.  In my own heritage within the Cherokee Nation, we always had a White Council, the women's council, which ruled during times of peace, and we had a Red Council, the men's council, which ruled during times of war.  The goal was the balance, the harmony, the bringing together of both wisdoms and both energies for the good of the Nation.  We absolutely have to begin that journey on a grand scale.  We are running out of time.

I'd like to share several stories, starting with one about the San people (better known as the Bushmen) in Botswana and Namibia in southern Africa.  If you have ever seen the movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, those are the San people.  Listening to these people, you hear the most incredible language.  You hear pops and clicks. Up until 1963, it used to be legal to hunt them.  You could go to the government in Botswana and Namibia and get a hunting permit and hunt them down.

Our organization, First Nations, began working with the Sans three years ago. We met with them on the Kalahari desert, which was essentially the very last of their ancestral territories.  They had been driven and driven into one of the most harsh environments.  They still adapted, and still were surviving. While we were there, they were notified by the government of Botswana that they were going to be removed at the end of the rainy season, and once again displaced from what was now the remaining little bit of their territorial lands.

In their generosity of spirit, they gifted us with a trance dance.  A trance dance is a very ancient calling for guidance and understanding.  As I listened to the singing, I'd close my eyes and I'd hear the snap of twigs.  I'd hear the crack of branches, the rustle of grasses.  I'd hear the wind, the whirring as a bird takes flight.  And I realized what I was hearing were the very sounds of nature, that these people were a part of the sacred creation in every expression of their life. By most anthropological accounts, this was the most ancient language known to humankind.  How else would we have learned to speak, if it wasn't through the sheer imitation of nature?

What's happening to the San people is happening to indigenous people around the world.  There remain about 300 to 400 million indigenous people and we cover over 70 countries.  We truly are the globalization issue, with face, heart, feeling, soul.  We are the globalization issue.  What defines an indigenous person is the fact that we pre-date any other groups in our territories, but also equally important is our spiritual link to the land, our connection that is deeply embedded with who we are in understanding and relating to the land.

If you could see a map of the world's remaining critical habitats and the indigenous people's territories, the overlap is evident. [See inside back cover of EarthLight Magazine, Issue #40.]  And it's not a coincidence.  Alaska is a classic example of the critical habitat story as it unfolds for indigenous people.  I went up there in 1992 on a fact finding mission because then-Governor Hinkel had banned fishing of chum salmon.  Now, there are no grocery stores in the Alaska villages. You live off of what you gather, hunt, or fish.  So the closing of chum salmon was basically a death sentence to many of the village people, and simply said, "Starve."  At Port Graham they had already lost their sealing because of the Valdez oil spill, with 11 million gallons of oil absolutely destroying the marine ecosystem.  They no longer could hunt caribou, moose, or mountain goat, and in one single year, the sports hunters had killed every single bear in their territory, taking the paws and the heads home as trophies.  Two bears will carry a village through the winter.

Now they were being told they could no longer fish chum salmon.  Native people's salmon fishing is only four percent of the total take, while 96 percent of the salmon take is done by commercial and sports fishing, in what is a very fragile and delicate ecosystem.

What is happening in Alaska is happening to us around the world. Indigenous people are being robbed in so many other ways.   Extensive knowledge of medicinal properties of plants, fungi, and insects within their territories have provided a sort of pharmacopoeia for indigenous peoples around the world. Many of the early synthetic drugs such as quinine and aspirin were derived from indigenous knowledge, and today this traditional knowledge is one of the principal sources for the rapidly growing pharmaceutical and genetic engineering industries.

The covert acquisition and commercial marketing of this knowledge (we call it bio-piracy) is undertaken by obscure university research departments to multinational pharmaceutical corporations.  Once patented and trademarked, the knowledge is effectively expropriated from indigenous people.

Also occurring throughout these biodiverse regions, especially in Asia and in Latin America, is the industrialization of farming, where large tracts of land are opened up for commercial plantations.  The goal of expanded food production is used to justify wholesale displacement of indigenous people.  It is reported at the very root of ethnic cleansing taking place in Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, Irianjaya, Timor, and Molaccas.

The multinationals have targeted extractive operations through the 21st century in indigenous lands, according to the United Nations multinational division.  You cannot understand how the extractive frontier operates without studying the role that government plays.  The Alberta government first opened the territories of the Lubicon Cree for oil exploration in the 1970s.  The Cree fought for an injunction to stop it. Nothing was done.  By 1984, 400 wells were drilled within 25 miles of the community.  The Cree went to Geneva and filed a human rights complaint.  Four years later, the DMI corporation leased 11,000 square miles of Cree territory from the government to build a huge pulp mill.  The Lubicon Cree barricaded the roads.  The government offered 100 square miles and 45 million dollars as a settlement.  One year after DMI had moved in, the U.N. did declare that the Lubicon Crees' human rights were violated. Yet nothing was done.

The Cree, with an organization called Friends of the Lubicon, called for a consumer boycott of all DMI paper products.  By 1995, 45,000 retail stores joined the boycott.  So DMI sued the Cree.  Justice McPherson awarded $1 million of damages to DMI, but he did allow the picketing to resume.  Within two months, DMI pulled out from the territories.  A year later, the actual legal costs were overturned.  So in the end, the Lubicon Cree have protected their territories.  They've protected the very sacredness of the forests in which they live. 

However, many indigenous peoples have no recourse within their own countries. In Papua New Guinea, it is a criminal offense for any indigenous people to research, organize, or challenge any multinational operations in their country.  British Petroleum got similar legislation passed in the Dominica.  We are the stewards of the last remaining truly sacred territories, which are also the critical habitats and the biodiversity hotspots for all of us.  Indigenous people won't stand a chance of surviving the 21st century without your help.  The liberalization of trade and its corresponding acceleration of globalized markets threatens our survival more now than it ever has before.  This is not just about indigenous people, nor is it just about the right thing to do.  This scenario will destroy us all.

It is in gatherings such as the Bioneers or the Socially Responsible Investment Forum, or the World Trade Organization and IMF demonstrations, that a unity of voices is heard.  Now, more than ever before, indigenous people need your alliance.

First Peoples worldwide, through First Nations, has begun a major Indigenous People's Rights Campaign. We have designed a new social investment screen which uses as criteria a distillation of all the rights that have been set forth by international treaties.  We've come up with eight principles that go into screening any investment. What we have right now, through this investment screen, is the only international advocacy vehicle for indigenous people.  When we went with the Sans, with the Cree, to the United Nations, or the International Labor Organization, or the World Bank, we were always told, "Sure, we'd really like to help you, but we have to be invited in by your country."  Now, what country's going to say, "C'mon down! Watch us kill and displace indigenous people?"  It doesn't happen.  The investment screen gives us a forum that we can use to have the market protect our culture, not destroy it.  In 1982, Calvert became one of the very first mutual funds to take a stand against apartheid, and back then many people said it couldn't be done.  Yet we all saw an end to apartheid.  This screen can become a powerful tool, and I ask you to use it.

In addition, together we need to build an international campaign to stop indigenous genocide.  We know that we can kill all humankind with a single bomb.  We can destroy the ozone, we can blow up the planet.  This means the current rules of the game must change.  These are not win or lose, power and control scenarios any longer.  We all lose.

The interdependency of humankind, the relevance of relationship, the sacredness of creation is ancient, ancient wisdom.  Economic development, more than any single issue, is the battle line between two competing world views.  Tribal people's fundamental value was sustainability, and they conducted their livelihoods in ways that sustained resources and limited inequalities in their society.  What made traditional economies so radically different and so very fundamentally dangerous to Western economies were the traditional principles of prosperity of Creation versus scarcity of resources, of sharing and distribution versus accumulation and greed, of kinship usage rights versus individual exclusive ownership rights, and of sustainability versus growth.

In the field of economic development, economists like to think Western economics is value-neutral, but in truth, it is not.  Success is defined according to production units or monetary worth. The contrast with successful indigenous development is stark. For example, since they understand the environment to be a living being, the Northern Cheyenne have opposed coal strip mining on their reservation because it kills the water beings.  There are no cost measurements of pollution, production, or other elements that can capture this kind of impact. There is an emerging recognition of the need for a spiritual base, not only in our individual lives, but also in our work and in our communities.

Perfect harmony and balance with the laws of the universe means knowing that the way of life is found by protecting the water beings. The indigenous understanding has its basis of spirituality in a recognition of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living things, a holistic and balanced view of the world.  All things are bound together. All things connect. What happens to the Earth happens to the children of the earth. Humankind has not woven the web of life; we are but one thread. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.

The environment is perceived as a sensate, conscious entity suffused with spiritual powers through which human understanding is only realized in perfect humility before the sacred whole. Both the Hopi and the Clinkit hold this concept of being in harmony and perfect balance with the laws of nature.  Modern science is just now beginning to catch up with such ancient wisdom. Clearly, Bell's theorem of quantum physics, Einstein's theory of relativity, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle indicate that how and when we look at subatomic particles affects what we see.  All particles of matter, property, position, and velocity are influenced by the intention or presence of all other particles.  Atoms are aware of other atoms.

According to this law of nature, a people rooted in the land over time have exchanged their tears, their breath, their bones, all their elements (oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, all of their elements) with their habitat many times over. In the words of Diné traditionalist Ruth Benaly, "Our history cannot be told without naming the cliffs and the mountains that have witnessed our people. Here nature knows us."  The closest contemporary philosophy comes to understanding Earth-bound spirituality is the concept of Gaia.  However, tribal people worship the sacredness of creation as a way of life, not as a philosophy or religion. In fact, none of the native languages have words or terms synonymous with religion.  The closest expression of belief literally translates to "the way you live."

Human consciousness determines what we do and how we do it. Consciousness is given order through a belief system.  The reality of any belief system is expressed through ideas and values, which give us practical guidance. Ideas work together with values in a consistent, mutually affirming system. Ideas such as love, truth, and justice work according to values of caring, honesty, and fairness.  The wise to be wise must also be just.  Every society organizes itself politically, socially, and economically according to its values.  For tribal people, who see the world as a whole, the essence of our work is in its entirety.  In a society where all are related, simple decisions require the approval of nearly everyone in that society. It is society as a whole, not merely a part of it, that must survive.  This is the indigenous understanding. It is the understanding in a global sense.  We are all indigenous people on this planet, and we have to reorganize to get along. I am here today because this gathering, the Bioneers, this community of leadership, believes in a sacred vision of humanity, and I was taught, "a vision is your life."  In this case, it is our survival.

Rebecca Adamson, Cherokee, is Founder and President of First Nations Development Institute.  She has worked directly with grassroots tribal communities, and nationally as an advocate of local tribal issues for 25 years.  Her work has established a new field of culturally appropriate, values-driven development, in the process creating the first reservation-based microenterprise loan fund in the United States, the first tribal investment model, a national movement for reservation land reform, and legislation that established new standards of accountability regarding federal trust responsibility for Native Americans.  Ms. Adamson was named a Woman of the Year by Ms. Magazine in 1997 and a Social Entrepreneur of the Year by Who Cares Magazine in 1998.

Contact information for the First Nations Development Institute: The Stores Building, 11917 Main St., Fredericksburg, VA 22408; (540) 371-5615; www.firstnations.org

This article was adapted, with permission and edits by the author, from an address at the Bioneers Conference in October, 2000. For information about the annual Bioneers conference, contact the Collective Heritage Institute at chisf@nets.com; www.bioneers.org; 877-BIONEER; fax: (505) 986-1644.

Thank you for visiting the EarthLight Magazine web site. 
Your subscriptions and contributions make this web site possible.
We invite you to subscribe to EarthLight  and receive a wide range of these informative and inspiring articles, reviews and interviews every three months.

Return to EarthLight Home Page
Subscribe/Donate to EarthLight Magazine
Read Sample Articles
Find Out About EarthSaints Special Issue
Contact EarthLight Staff