What the Native Americans Got Right

Kelly Williamson
Kelly Williamson

Invited Contributor: Kelly Williamson authored this piece exclusively for The Review.

You may be familiar with the anonymous Native American proverb that says,

“Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents,
it was loaned to you by your children.”Or perhaps you have heard this one in passing,

“When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.”

I have chosen these two examples that directly relate to the theme of protecting the environment because that is my particular passion, but I could have chosen any Native American proverb regarding any subject and the following quote from Steward Brand’s The Whole Earth Discipline would still apply:

“Esoteric knowledge, even when it’s genuine, is of little use outside the culture it’s rooted in, and to seek it from outside is a trespass. What is not in the books and is in the tribes is their groundedness. They know how to live where they live. That’s the lore worth learning” (Brand, 2009)

I have considered myself an environmentalist for many years, and furthermore consider my passion for protecting the natural world an integral part of my personality and life-purpose. But Brand’s insight about Indian proverbs struck me as painfully true. It is true in my own life and I believe it to be true for a majority of the citizens of our evermore-globalized society.

I admire the natural world by gazing at pictures of breathtakingly beautiful scenery and, frankly, am lucky enough to travel often to see some of these views with my own eyes; I am always in awe and appreciative of Earth’s intricate biological systems as I stay up late studying them from a textbook. But the truth is, I am not as well connected to Nature as I would like to admit. I lack a sense of place that the Native Americans had before we –the white people- annihilated most and displaced the remainder. I do not know how to live where I live, and I would like you ask yourself if you do.

On a purely environmental and biological level… Do you know what fruits and vegetables are in season at different times of the year? Do you pay attention to the phases of the moon? Do you know where the restaurants you frequent obtain their meat? Could you name three edible native plant species that grow in your surroundings? Have you ever paid much attention to the migratory patterns of the birds that inhabit your lakes or parks?

And on a cultural level… Do you know the names or birthdays of your neighbors’ three houses down? Have you gone to see a play recently? Are you involved in your community’s local politics?

If you don’t know the answers to any of these questions, I’d venture to say you don’t know how to live (sustainably) where you live. And even if you do know some of the answers, I don’t think you have the same dedication to place as many Native Americans. I certainly don’t feel like I do.

I use the excuse that I travel too much and that I spent most of my childhood in a huge metropolis, but I know of people who were born and raised in small towns and have never left who still lack this sense of dedication to their niche- their local environment.

Brand also claims in his book “the American continent that had originally been tamed by spears, fires and plant-tending women was overrun by a new set of ecosystem engineers armed with guns, germs and steel.” There is no doubt in Brand’s mind or my own that humans are collectively a very powerful ecosystem engineer. Our energy generation practices via the burning of fossil fuels has changed our atmospheric composition beyond repair; our fishing industries have eradicated thousands of aquatic species, our deforestation rates are altering climate projections and extinguishing species as I write this and as you read it. The scale at which we are engineering our Earth is magnanimously higher than when Columbus set foot in America, primarily because there are so many more people on the planet, but also because more countries are developing economically and producing individuals who are no longer content living off the land.

Now, I must distinctly clarify that I am not proposing less global development, nor am I trying to convince you to move back to your family farm. Quite the contrary. I am in favor of globalization and economic development, and honestly, I know I myself would not be happy moving to a farm and living a sedentary lifestyle. What I am promoting is a revival and promotion of this concept of dedication to place.

How can we do that?

In Gary Paul Nabhan’s book Culture of Habitat, the author points out an interesting fact: “Worldwide, regions of highly natural diversity have high cultural diversity. Life is richest where cultures are richest and most constant.” So today I wish to encourage you to actively be a member of your community, pay attention to the natural process that have shaped the region you live in, think about who lived on your lands in previous centuries, and search for the groundedness of the Native American by connecting to the nature that surrounds you.

As Brand succinctly states, “Humanity is now stuck with a planet stewardship role.” We are the ecosystem engineers of the present and future. We must embrace this role today! And the only way I see us doing it successfully is if more people really learn to appreciate the land they live off of. A paradigm shift must occur. When will we realize that civilization needs Gaia more than Gaia needs civilization?


About the Author:

Kelly WilliamsonKelly Williamson is a Brazilian born U.S. citizen raised in Argentina. She currently plays professional volleyball in Austria, traveling Europe and gaining another perceptive of how different populations value the natural world and its resources. She begins to study for a master’s degree in conservation biology in 2014.

Ms. Williamson received a Bachelors of Science from the University of New Mexico in Conservation Biology and Sustainability Studies.

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