Sunday, May 22, 2011

The importance of the sacred

Water is sacred. It is the Earth's blood. This is the worldview of the Ojibwe Native American tribe, who live in the upper Great Lakes region.

Standing in stark contrast is the worldview arguably held by much of the rest of America: water is a servant, existing to meet the needs of humans.

This comparison is not an original of mine. An Ojibwe woman brought it to my consciousness during an environmental history workshop I recently attended, which sent over 30 faculty and graduate students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison on a four-day tour around Wisconsin to experience and contemplate landscapes of health--places that evoke themes in the relationship between health and the environment. Among our stops was the reservation of the Ojibwe's Sokaogon Mole Lake band in northeastern Wisconsin. This was perhaps the most emotional stop for many of us.

The Ojibwe woman I just mentioned, Tina, the co-director of the band's environmental department, told us that the sacredness of water is firmly rooted in Sokaogon legend. They believe they are destined by the creator to live off of "food that grows on water." Centuries ago the band settled along the shores of Rice Lake, where they found this food--wild rice--which they believe to be a gift from the creator. They have been harvesting wild rice from the lake ever since, and it remains an important part of both their livelihoods and spirituality.

Rice Lake. Photo: Sokaogon Chippewa Community

But, in the mid-1980s, pressure to build a zinc and copper mine at the headwaters of the Wolf River, just two miles upstream from Rice Lake, began to threaten their livelihoods and spirituality. Over a period of about 25 years, the Sokaogon people courageously defended their sacred water against a series of national and transnational mining companies that claimed the mine would bring jobs and money to the otherwise impoverished region. However, in the process of "wealth creation," the mining activities would have dumped highly toxic heavy metals into the watershed, threatening the long-term health of the water, wild rice, and the Sokaogon people.

Fortunately, sacredness eventually defeated short-term economic gain. In 2003, the Sokaogon people were able to buy the land slated for the mine, thus protecting it from mining activities. You can read more about this story here and here.

Victory! Photo: International Indian Treaty Council

Tina was one of the band members who led the charge against the mine. She told us the story with immense passion and emotion, occasionally breaking out in tears and causing audience members' eyes (including my own) to well up. She explained that her father has harvested wild rice every year of his life, and the threat of the mine ending this tradition was utterly heartbreaking.

She also recounted how, in one meeting, she pleaded with federal government officials to stop looking at the data on their papers as she spoke to them and, instead, to look at her face and listen. The real effects of the mine cannot be seen in the data, but in the faces and hearts of the people.

One of Tina's colleagues, an engineer from Eastern Europe with a thick accent who had worked alongside Tina in the mine battle, supported this notion as he movingly explained to us that the human stories are what really matter, not the faceless quantitative data used to determine whether or not an environmental risk is strong enough for concern. And this was coming from an engineer. 

Such emotion is often missing from the decision-making process, and yet emotion is the element that brings the "human" to the table.

To add to the poignancy of this experience, it came at the start of another battle against mining pressure faced by the Ojibwe people. The Bad River band of northwestern Wisconsin are up against a proposed iron mine at the headwaters of Bad River, which poses a number of troubling threats. Among the important environmental assets the region hosts are the largest undeveloped wetland complex in the upper Great Lakes, the highest quality rivers in Wisconsin, and the largest natural wild rice bed in the Great Lakes basin, on which the Bad River people are dependent.

Harvesting wild rice on Bad River reservation, circa early 20th century. Photo: Marquette University Archives

Unfortunately the Bad River people have been thrown an added challenge--the mining firm eying the site, Gogebic Taconite, is lobbying the Wisconsin legislature to rewrite mining law to shorten the permitting process from seven years to 300 days. The shortened permitting process also shortens the amount of time the Bad River people can organize to fight against the proposed mine.

The legislation would also eliminate important environmental protections, such as restrictions on dumping toxic mine waste and a mandatory environmental risk assessment.

A couple members of the Bad River tribal council, including their president, unexpectedly attended our meeting with the Sokaogon representatives to learn about how they can build their defense. Their president spoke briefly about their predicament with eyes soaked in worry. They have a tough fight ahead of them and will need a lot of support. What's at stake impacts not just the tribe, but also all creatures--both human and nonhuman--that depend on the region's natural resources.

My fellow workshop participants and I left this experience changed. We witnessed a clear example of how a deep reverence for the Earth can prevail over greed. As Tina explained to us, the sacredness of the Earth fuels her people's passion and hope for continued health and happiness. This passion and hope sustained them throughout their fight.

If the sacredness of Earth and its resources imbued everyone's worldview, just like the Ojibwe people's, I wonder how different our world could be.

Recommended reading:
Reynolds, Glenn C. (2003). A Native American Water Ethic. Transactions, 90, 143-161.
If you are interested in supporting the Bad River band's defense against the proposed mine and live in the upper Great Lakes region, they told us about the Mother Earth Water Walk, which will take place June 11-13, 2011. It is an annual event organized by Native Americans to raise awareness about the importance of clean water. The event could be a powerful way to garner people power against the mining threat.

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