October 23, 2022, 9:50 Oct

As Long As The Grass Grows - some thoughts

I recently read "As Long As The Grass Grows - The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock" and I found the energy to write up some of the parts spoke to me most.

This was an extensive and excellently written book, and I would highly recommend it. It was a conscientious decision on my behalf to read a book not written by a white dude and it was a good one. Unlike, for example, "Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race" which was quite poorly written, making me think it's success is due to its click-baity title. My only gripe is that it's obviously centred on North America, and so it doesn't align with my attempts to stop feeding myself so much US / commonwealth country media. I should also add that the thoughts below poorly reflect the book itself, and I conscientiously skipped over some parts which other people may be less acquainted with (e.g. the Native American genocide). This is not because I'm an uncaring bastard, but again because I wanted to highlight parts that surprised me or made me think.

"Captivity and coerced labour was not a new phenomenon introduced by Europeans... but such practices existed within cultural frameworks that ensured... a group's survival, not for profit as was the case for Europeans."

I'm going chronologically, hence the strange first quote that I picked out. I highlight it because I think it's good to remember the shitty practices and behaviours are not unique to white people, we were just extremely good at it. I had a similar thought reading about cannibalism being practiced by tribes in the Congo in David Van Reynbrouck's book. My point is that having rosy, simplistic picture of good and bad, white and black is false and unhelpful. Victims of injustices can become perpetrators and vice versa. I'm coming off as a bastard here I realise. Moving on.

"... so while they adapted to their new environments, their relationship to land would change to fit the needs of an imposed capitalist system."

This is a running theme throughout. when they're not being exterminated, forced off their land or poisoned, indiginous people are grappling with the tension between assimilation and survival. This quote isn't a reference to that, but for example some groups have profited from fossil fuel extraction, like the Southern Utes in Colorado. Doing so has meant adapting their relationship to their land to an extractivist rather than custodian one.

"... much of the landscape in California that so impressed early writers, photographers and landscape painters was in fact a cultural landscape, not the wilderness they imagined." (Ethnobotanist M. Kat Anderson)

The book goes on to describe how the early conservationist movement in the USA forcibly removed indigenous populations from national parks to create an artificial wilderness, as well as banning hunting and the like. This story makes me want to write about what is "nature", "natural" and our (human) relationship to those, but that could fill up entire books and almost certainly has already. I would just say that the American conservationist movement, which was composed of modern environmentalist "heros" like Henry David Thoreau, marks the beginning of a mostly negative relationship of indigenous people with a predominantly white environmentalist movement in the US.

There are various stories of hippies or hippy-like, New Age people "searching for the mystical Indian wisdom they had read about" or similar activities. Specifically, the problem was that these people

"tried to fit Indigenous world views and practices into their own cognitive frameworks. Predominant among their settler culture frameworks are the pursuit of universal and personal edification, both particularly Christian ideas in the context of the US."

Tom Holland's book "Dominion" comes to mind (I haven't read it, fight me). I'll come back to this point later. Also I hate everything New Age and bullshitty, so happy to see this critique (though I'm definitely missing the point here).

"The imposition of foreign cultures, and Christianity in particular, was corrosive to societies that were typically matrilineal or matrifocal, were foundationally equitable in the distribution of power between the genders, and often respected the existence of a third gender and non-hetero relationships."

I wonder to what extent this is true for other indigenous people's outside of North America. With regards to gender, there are also some horrific stories of forced sterilisation (which was targeted at the poor and people of colour):

"42% of Native women of reproductive age had been unknowingly sterilised in an official government eugenics program"

"In Indigenous world views, there is no separation between people and land, between people and other life forms, or between people and their ancient ancestors whose bones are infused in the tend they inhabit... the world is seen and experienced in spiritual terms."

Very interesting, and again I wonder to what extent this is an American observation. I have heard someone say similar things about an indigenous group she knows in South America.

The final point I would bring up, related to the Christian conception of universal truths and moralities, is some of the tensions that arose at standing Rock. For example, Lakota protocol forbid (demanded? required? asked?) women during their "noontime" not to do certain activities, e.g. cleaning dishes. This would strike most Westerners as sexist, and indeed some non-Indigenous women ignored it.

To me, this raises questions of how we should deal with such tensions. The author doesn't tackle this directly and takes it as a given that the non-indigenous guests should adhere to the Lakota people's traditions. This seems to promote some sort moral relativism, but at that point can we still say that we "should" (as in have a moral duty to) respect other groups' ethics? The UN is mentioned several times in the book as a standard to which the USA should hold itself by, but the idea of universal human or indigenous rights is only possible thanks to a (largely Christian) idea of universal ethics. It's a half formed thought which I just want to leave there for now, but I think there's some unexplored tension there which I would be interested to explore more.

Previous Post