Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Darwin and Western Science

As the birthday of Charles Darwin approaches, many are discussing his work and role in today's society.  A colleague of mine sent on this website "Darwin on Race and Slavery" which helped spark a discussion on Darwin and Western Science.

In the context of this discussion, people may be interested to know that although Darwin is usually blamed (my word choice) for the cultural concept of "survival of the fittest" and hence for the shamefully misnamed "social darwinism," his theories of evolution didn't really point to "survival of the fittest" as a satisfactory evolutionary theory.

Darwin's theories of evolution pointed to those species surviving who had the most survivable traits at a particular time in a particular ecological niche - it didn't necessarily make them the most fit species of all time.  However, a contemporary of Darwin's, Herbert Spencer (also of England), saw survival and dominance as evidence of superiority.  Given this, according to Spencer (the person who first developed the concept of "survival of the fittest"), those who survived were more superior; those
who perished were inferior.  Thus, as he advocated, if you were an Indigenous population nearly or completely wiped out by aggressive colonizers, it was sad but a necessary phase of human evolution.  The same held true, in his view, for those in poverty:  poverty was a sign of inferiority and the sooner the poor died out, according to Spencer, the better off humanity would be, however sad the fate may be of those of us in poverty.  The proper name for this theory is not "social darwinism" but "spencerianism."  Darwin, however, gets saddled with all of Spencer's racist, classist ideologies, ideologies that still covertly dominate Western cultural thought today.

Spencer's ideas formulated a major basis for Western science today: that of survival of the fittest.  Another major basis is the Linnaen classification system - a classification system so pervasive most of us don't even realize we've compartmentalized the world in which we leave based on one person's ideas of how species should be lumped together.  Keeping that in mind, anthropologist, Luke Eric Lassiter, in his recent text, "Invitation to Anthropology," writes "Linnaeus was among the first
to define race for the scientific community.  In the 1758 edition of "System of Nature," Linnaeus defined four races [of humanity] and their characteristics:

Homo sapiens europaeus (a.k.a., 'white Europeans')
'White, serious, strong.  Hair blond, flowing.  Eyes blue.  Active, very
smart, inventive.  Covered by tight clothing.  Ruled by laws.'

Home sapiens asiaticus (a.k.a., 'yellow Asians')
'Yellow, melancholy, greedy.  Hair black.  Eyes dark.  Severe, haughty,
desirous.  Covered by loose garments.  Ruled by opinion.'

Homo sapiens americanus (a.k.a., 'red Americans')
'Red, ill-tempered, subjugated.  Hair black, straight, thick; Nostrils
wide; Face harsh, beard scanty.  Obstinate, contented, free.  Paints
himself with red lines.  Ruled by custom.'

Home sapiens afer (a.k.a., 'black Africans')
'Black, impassive, lazy.  Hair kinked.  Skin silky.  Nose flat.  Lips
thick.  Women with genital flap; breasts large.  Crafty, slow, foolish.
Anoints himself with grease.  Ruled by caprice.'"

And it is from this type of thinking that we are taught how to
classify/catalog/categorize....come to know.....our entire world - that
is, when we are taught in Western educational institutions.

Finally, it may also interest people to know that Darwin did not write off sentience or intelligence in other animals as his scientific descendants did and continue to do.  He wrote a book that largely discussed this issue called "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals."

In fact, I often think Darwin's views were much closer to the manner in which traditional Indigenous cultures, around the planet, view the world and other animals than were/are his scientific colleagues and descendants.  Western Science, however, is beginning, on its radical fringes, to come around to viewpoints long promulgated by Traditional Ecological Knowledge - knowledge based on the "homo sapiens" experience with the world for 200,000-300,000 years.  PBS recently released a documentary titled "What Plants Talk About" that provides intriguing interviews with various botanists about plants and their amazing systems of communication.  "The Mother Tree" concept being explored by scientists on Canada's West Coast, is one such example....although the scientist who is proposing this theory implies she felt it might be her "discovery" that was the beginning inspiration for the Mother Tree idea in the film "Avatar," I wonder how much she knows about the Indigenous nation of South America who inspired James Cameron to do the film?

From what I know of him, Darwin, in my view, represents some of the best Western science has to offer.  Spencer; Rene DesCartes (another of science's founding fathers); and to various extents, Linnaeus; represent much of what has led to a disconnect with the Earth in Western science.  It is interesting, though, that the more Western scientists are willing to push the scientific boundaries in botany, in the study of other animals, and in the very study of the stuff our universe is made of, the more their theories start to sound more and more like the ideas found in the bodies of Traditional Ecological Knowledge developed by Indigenous societies throughout the world over millenia.  As T.S. Eliot writes:
                          We shall not cease from exploration
                          And the end of all our exploring will be
                          To arrive where we started
                          And know the place for the first time.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A History of Wolf

The wolf hunt in Michigan is not an isolated event, as those of you following the issue know. It is the last of the states in which the wolves were recently delisted to institute a hunting season on wolves.

But to understand all this, we need to go further back....

Prior to the coming of the settler society, the US Fish and Wildlife Service states ( gray wolves, second only to humans in adapting to climate extremes, ranged from coast to coast in the Americas, from Alaska to Mexico. In other words, they were in nearly all of the lower 48 states, with the exception of the southeast (where red wolves predominated) and the large deserts of the Southwest.

Wolves and First Nations shared the land and had good relations. The Anishinaabe creation stories, for example, describe the wolf as an especially sacred relative (see The Mishomis Book by Eddie Benton Banai) after all the rest of creation had come into being, the Creator brought Anishinaabe ("Original Man") into being - humanity, as the last to be created, would be the species who knew the least and who looked to everyone else as guides and teachers. Anishinaabe saw that everyone else had companions but that he, as the first human, was alone. So he asked the Creator for a companion too. The Creator responded to his request by bringing Ma'iingan (Wolf) to him as his first companion. The Creator charged the two with traveling the Earth and coming to know all of Creation and to name all they met. By the end of this long journey, Original Man and Wolf had become brothers. And through this bond of brotherhood, they realized their deep relationship to all of creation. At the end of their journey, the Creator told them they must go their separate paths, but that, though separate, they would always be close. So close, in fact, that what befell one would befall the other.

With the coming of the settler society, wolves and Native people were hunted and driven from their homelands by settlers who feared, did not understand and wanted to destroy them. As a result of such genocidal, ecocidal, and hatred-driven actions, by 1973 the wolves were put on the Endangered Species list. At this time, there were only a few hundred wolves left in the lower 48: most of these were in northeast Minnesota; a very few lived on Michigan's Isle Royale.

In May of 2011, the Obama Administration signed legislation delisting the gray wolf in the northern Rocky Mountains. Hunts in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming ensued almost immediately (Fall of 2011).

In December of 2011, the Obama Administration delisted the gray wolf in the Great Lakes states. Wolf hunts then began in the Fall of 2012 in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Michigan's first wolf hunting season began this November 2013.

Recent news reports indicate the Obama Administration is preparing to delist gray wolves in other states as well.

In Minnesota and Wisconsin guns, traps, bow and arrow, and baiting are allowed in hunting wolves. In Wisconsin, dogs are also allowed on the hunt for wolves. In Michigan, guns, crossbows, and bow and arrows are allowed - you need only be ten years old to get a permit.

In all three states, the First Nations have forbidden wolf hunting on tribal lands.

In Wisconsin, the state recognized tribal sovereignty by respecting the tribes sovereign right to forbid wolf hunting within the boundaries of the reservations.

Michigan and Minnesota, however, have not respected tribal sovereignty in this manner and have said that while the tribes right to forbid wolf hunting on tribal lands will be recognized by the state, they will not recognize the tribes right to forbid wolf hunting on all lands within reservation boundaries. As you may know, 50% or more (frequently even more than 90%) of the lands within most reservation boundaries are no longer tribal lands but rather owned by non-Natives. Michigan and Minnesota's rejection of full tribal sovereignty is akin to saying any land owned by non-Americans within the United States will not be subject to US law but rather to the laws of the country the landowner is from.

In Wisconsin, and, I believe, Minnesota, the wolf hunts were closed early as they met their "harvest" goals weeks ahead of schedule (e.g. Wisconsin's hunt was scheduled to end on Feb 28, 2013, but it was closed on Dec 23, 2012).

For the 2012 seasons, in Minnesota, 6000 wolf hunt permits were available (at $100 for residents; $500 for non-residents) to kill 400 wolves. In Wisconsin 2,010 wolf hunt permits were available (at the same prices) to kill 117 wolves. Although I don't know Minnesota's number sold, Wisconsin was only able to sell 892 permits. In Michigan's 2013 wolf hunt season, they sold 1500 permits (at the same prices as above) to kill 43 wolves.

Michigan is the only state of the above three to have a people's referendum available to state citizens. Last winter, Keep Michigan Wolves Protected ( initiated a petition drive to put the proposed state wolf hunt on the November 2014 ballot to let the voters of Michigan decide whether or not the state should hold a wolf hunt. While those of us who worked on the drive (I myself was a volunteer) turned in more than the required signatures, Senator Tom Casperson introduced legislation into the Michigan Legislature that undercut the referendum taking the wolf hunt legislation and changing its wording so that the wording of the referendum as stated on the petition would not apply and therefore voters would not be able to vote on the wolf hunt in November 2014, even though over 200,000 signatures were gathered saying people wanted it on the ballot. A new petition drive is currently underway.

As White Earth tribal member, Bob Shimek, said, "This is a typical class of cultures." Non-native wolf supporter, Clint Carroll, a columnist for the St. Paul Star Tribune, asks, "Are wolves relatives or resources?" And, finally, Eddie Benton-Banai (Ojibwe - LCO) writes of these hunts (his caps), "NOONGOM, NOW, WE MUST RETURN [the wolf's] LOYALTY BY FIGHTING, BY DEFYING THE HUNT, THE EXTERMINATION OF OUR BROTHER/SISTER."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ma'iingan: A Poem for Wolf

As we gear up to launch another year of the Seventh Fire Project, it seems particularly fitting to publish this original poem here, marking Michigan's first pending wolf hunt on November 15. This hunt was to be voted on by Michigan citizens, but that referendum was undermined by political maneuvering on the part of our state politician, initiated by our own U.P. senator, an act of disloyalty towards Yoopers that I'm still shocked at.

As we speak, Wisconsin is in the throes of it's second wolf hunt, scheduled to last until February or until all 251 wolves in the hunting quota are killed - that's one-third of the population of wolves in the state of Wisconsin. The DNR has already closed the wolf hunt units in the north, as all the wolves that can legally be killed (plus one) have been killed. And the hunt only started a little over 10 days ago.

Image from

A. Cree Dunn

We reach out
   and run our hands
      through your thick
          and heavy fur.
Closing our eyes,
   we press our forehead
      to yours.
We romp with the pups
    and play chase with you
       through the forest.
Our breath in the cold
   mingles with yours.
In the rivers of your song
   we swim to the stars.
And when we look
   into your knowing eyes
       your wild spirit reminds us who we really are.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

By the River of Slippery Rocks: Escanaba

What a great time it was for me last night presenting in Linda Cree's (my mother's) Cultural Anthropology class down at Bay de Noc Community College! A wonderful discussion throughout that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Escanaba, or zhooshkwaanaabi, comes from the river (or ziibi) of the same name, meaning "river of smooth, slippery, flat rocks" in Anishinaabemowin - the language of which the Ojibwe language is a part. Today it's a town that sits on the border of the treaties of 1836 and 1842. With the river as the dividing line for those treaty areas emptying into michi-gami (Lake Michigan), at the delta, an interesting situation has arisen. As the river delta is in constant flux, the bureaucratic mindset wanting to pin down the territory to enforce game laws on treaty harvests is in an uproar. At one time, those from the 1836 Ojibwe nations can hunt on a particular piece of land, but as the river delta shifts, that same piece of land ends up on the other side of the river and now is no longer 1836 territory but 1842 territory open only for treaty harvests to those who's nation signed the 1842 territory.

Although this provides a headache for the tribes in game enforcement, I think the DNR is the one with the greatest headache. From my view, though, I see it as a lesson the river is giving - how can you divide the land in such arbitrary ways and expect it to stick? Mother Earth sets the rules, no matter how hard people may try to tame her and keep her controlled.

The zhooshkwaanaabi area is also near a great known piece of history - the Grand Island-Bay de Noc Trail. Much more than a hiking trail, this path has connected gich-gami (Lake Superior) with michi-gami (Lake Michigan) for centuries, perhaps millenia. To my knowledge, no one actually knows how long people have been traveling this path between the two lakes, but it was already well established when the fur traders started using it. When I take my classes there, I remind them to really let themselves soak in the place. After all, if many Indigenous cosmologies are right and if quantum physicists are correct about this being a holographic universe, all of time is connected, like a sphere. Thus, as we walk that path, so too are our ancestors walking it, according to these theories.

So, it was a real treat to present to an anthrology class, particularly this one, as the students had a great background in the material to fully understand the implications and meanings of a lot of the concepts discussed in the presentation. What a great group! Miigwech to my mom and everyone for a wonderful evening!

Marquette, the Iron Ore, and a Place of Long Habitation

I'd never been in the Kaufman auditorium before until presenting there for Marquette Alternative High School last week. Quite the impressive place!

And the students were too! The ongoing discussion we had, the great questions...I very much enjoyed it all.

Marquette is an interesting place for me. As a city that sits on the boundary line between the 1836 and 1842 treaties, I'm never quite able to forget what Marquette boomed out of, especially with the old iron ore dock down in the harbor, a dock that, to me, is a symbol of all that is being done to the Earth. Everytime I drive by it I think of this and of the treaties of 1836 and 1842 - that in order for that iron mining to happen (and the subsequent poisoning of the land), entire nations of Anishinaabe people were pushed off their land. And it was Kawbawgam, as I understand it, who showed the iron ore to those seeking it - yet he was never paid any part of the profits that rolled in from such mining. Just another story of exploitation.

Marquette, though, has history much deeper than the iron mining. Just outside to the east on gich-gami (Lake Superior) is the site of one of the oldest known human village sites - near the Carp River where today we have the prison, the sewage plant, and the bike path - it is some 6000 years old. You wouldn't know it, as there is no sign marking the site, yet archaeologists such as NMU's Dr. John Anderton have been talking about the site to those who're interested.

This area is also home to some of the oldest exposed rock on the planet - nearly as old as the planet herself. Amazing. In Ojibwe culture, stone is thought of as "asin," as grandfathers from a long way back. I think we can all feel the presence inherent in stones, rocks, when we're near them. Ancient. They've "seen" much.

Miigwech/thanks to Nora Taylor and the other teachers at MAHS for setting this up at MAHS! It was a pleasure to be there.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Back on Keweenaw Bay

One of the first things I noticed pulling into the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College's parking lot was what a beautiful view there was to be had, overlooking the Bay. And what a beautiful college! It was my first time to KBOCC and I truly enjoyed it.

I was honored to be a part of Jessica Koski's class - she's definitely someone who's been in the trenches herself as well as having done a great deal of study on Indigenous environmental movements and philosophies. In fact, she'd just come in from a meeting in Denver on mining where one part of the program, on acid mine drainage, included Rio Tinto and other mining corporations discussing how much of a problem acid mine drainage is. As part of this, Rio Tinto also described how the "Eagle" Mine is mining sulfide rock that is particularly reactive. Right from the horse's mouth. Why don't they include that in all their U.P. PR? Haha. As if.

The discussion that took place in Jessica's class, though, throughout the 7th Fire presentation last night was not only interesting, not only inspiring, but also...healing. Healing in the sense that most of the time we're all out here flapping in the breeze, doing the best we can against the gale. But every once in a while you run into those who understand and are doing the same thing.

In fact, the trip over from Marquette County had been hard for us and left a hole in the soul as, traveling along M23, pine after pine after pine was very obviously dying or already dead. These were pines that not so long ago, when I made that same trek fairly regularly, were doing fine. Besides, going through Negaunee and Ispheming is always a downer - each time I wonder how people can voluntarily live in places riddled underground by mines, whose waters have been poisoned, and whose very skyline is shaped by the massive tailings mountain of the area mines.

At any rate, the class was wonderful and the discussion a much needed one for me personally as it was a re-grounding.

Plus, the return trip's sky marvels were so dazzlingly gorgeous it blotted out nearly everything else along the roadway: a (almost completely) full moon was rising in the blue turning pink turning lavendar sky while the blazing red sun set in the west. This lasted throughout almost the entire return trip. We even caught a fantastic view of Grandmother Moon rising huge and white in the blue sky over a small lake with the trees reflecting in its stillness and a pair of ducks swimming by. Absolutely stunning.

So, a big chi-miigwech to Jessica, her students, and the very land over that way!!! It gives me strength to be reminded that there are folks like you out there.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

North Star

What an awesome class! I had a great time presenting with all the wonderful comments, questions, and insights that were brought in by everyone along the way. Much more to say on this, but have to run for now. Will update later!!

Miigwech/thanks so much!!