If we’re serious about saving the Earth, we have to start listening to native elders Indigenous people have much to teach about living in balance on the planet.

If we’re serious about saving the Earth, we have to start listening to native elders Indigenous people have much to teach about living in balance on the planet.


This was published before COVID, as we've experienced it in the U.S., was a thing. 

Mother Earth is clearly in a state of convulsion.  Her entire life support system is clearly at risk.  Going forward, we must center Indigenous voices and epistemologies, or ways of knowing.  

Our very survival as a human species depends on it.

Thanks to Juan Tejeda for sharing.

- Angela Valenzuela

Published on Feb 24, 2020 by Cyril Christo

If we're serious about saving the Earth, we have to start listening to native elders

Indigenous people have much to teach about living in balance on the planet.
Cyril Christo
, Opinion Contributor
“Behind this machine comes a century of maniacs and a heat which looks to consume the Earth.”
                                                 – “An American Dream”  Norman Mailer
“If you think the Indian Wars are over, think again!”     

- Carrie Dann, Western Shoshone Elder
“That may be why Western man studies so much but knows so little. That may be why his civilization has to collapse before he knows what's happening to it. That may be why he cannot, or will not, change his ways of life until his ways of life change him. He thinks he can change his way of life by changing his words. That may be his real forked tongue.”               
                                                            - Gerald Wilkinson, Cherokee, Director, National Indian Youth Council
Ours is the time of climate and elemental upheaval, and unfortunately few in the dominant society have listened to the enormous message of honoring the Earth that the native elders embody, chief among them the native peoples of the Western hemisphere.  
Over the last 25 years, I have observed the battle between traditionals who maintain the sacred millennial ways and progressives who are selling their land and culture to the powers that be. The Trans Mountain pipeline supported by Trans Canada and Kinder Morgan threatens the Wet’suwetan people in northern British Columbia. The energy companies face fierce opposition from hereditary chiefs who disagree with elected indigenous officials who have signed benefit agreements with energy companies who will spend 16 billion to build the project. Only 43 percent of Canadians believe the project should be cancelled. Where will the gas go? China. The Wet’suwet’an say their land was never ceded by treaty. Gordon Christie, a scholar of indigenous law at the University of British Columbia, says Canada as a whole is doing its best to “avoid acknowledging the existence of other systems of government.” It seems Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s image as a supporter of reconciliation has to be called into question.
In Brazil, Raoni Mutiktere, 89, tapped for the Nobel Prize and the chief of the Kayapo, has protested the 5-kilometer wide Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River in the Amazon for years. It is upending his and the Munduruku, Juruna, Kuruaya, Asurini, Parakana, and Arara people's land. An entire cosmos has been rent in the largest rainforest on earth. He exclaims, “We, the peoples of the Amazon, are full of fear. Soon you will be too.” In light of the fiery apocalypse that has just overwhelmed Australia, his words are prophetic. He laments the technological society selling its soul to “sad leaves,” the money our civilization seems to be so beholden to. Considering that almost 20 percent of the Amazon has been lost in the last generation and that it could soon turn into a savanna, the largest biological holy grail of life on Earth is in an emergency state. 
Native peoples have had a cosmic understanding of the world that our civilization is wholly lacking. I came to the American Southwest, to understand what some of its most traditional elders were saying. Some said the point of no return is 2020. We have reached that point. The Paris Climate accord needs to be honored. An equally significant treaty, now being compiled at the UN, would be to salvage the world’s species and biodiversity. It needs to become a cornerstone of our civilization this year while we still have some measure of hope.
Hundreds of years ago, the Hopi of the American Southwest knew about the coming “purification” and other changes to the Earth now underway. The European invasion of native lands continues to wreak havoc on the life support system of the planet. The native peoples have decried the flaying and polluting and detonation of the land for centuries and are central to its maintenance, as was written into the Declaration of Independence by the Iroquois Confederacy, “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” They knew their prophecies were as irreducible as lightning over the mesas. Few in the dominant society listened to them because theirs were the words of mystic shamans and medicine men shrouded in “primitive ways.” But like poet D.H. Lawrence, something ineffable from the sky and the mountains moved in my spirit a generation ago as I began to listen and hear testimony from those who are the walking equivalent of the land and eagles and grizzlies and wolves we would do well to honor, and who harbor in their culture the true seeds of continuity and wisdom that our civilization will do well to heed in this late and tested hour. 
I remember the drought New Mexico experienced in 2000 when for six months not a drop of rain fell on a ravaged, parched and depleted Earth. A Diné (peoples of the Wind, widely known as Navajo) elder was asked to do his Ikah, sand expression used in healing ceremonies, of lightning boy, and Tibetan elders were asked to do a mandala for rain. Each did their proper ritual and prayers and that night mixed their expressions together in a sign of solidarity for two cultures who are in essence, two sides of the same coin, and spread them in the dry Santa Fe River. A marvelous thing happened. It started to rain like seeds of miracle from another time and place. One can ponder the seeming metaphysics or ignore them. But explanations will falter in trying to unravel the coefficient of the life force.
The dominant society in seemingly mastering external physical power only has ignored the invisible realities and the great web that unifies life as we know it. NASA scientists even came to ask native elders of their knowledge of climate change because they knew their computer models did not have all the answers, and they needed a different perspective. If Hopi elders had been able to persuade Wall Street and the business-as-usual model, I doubt that carbon dioxide would be such a menace today. It is ironic that the most flagrant methane cloud observable comes from the four corners area of the United States, precisely where the Hopi live. I heard from an eloquent grandmother from San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico that things were underway which would change the world, and that our so-called civilization was living “on borrowed time.” Many come to the Southwest for a job, or simply to live. Some build their overweening, often overbearing mansions with no regard for the genius of the land. They think themselves the masters of the universe. But beneath their feet, beneath America’s arrogant and outstretched maw, a universe crawls with an intelligence about which they have no understanding.
The latest North Dakota protests are about much more than land rights. It is much more than about mere oil and a pipeline. It is about ultimate freedom and living in accord with a much higher law than man’s. It is about the Earth in the very bedrock of place and what remains of the human spirit. The native peoples do not simply feel violated, they are not simply fighting for their rights as peoples as they have for hundreds of years, they are not battling just to maintain their homes and to keep the juggernaut of the petrochemical moloch and oil pipeline out of their backyards, they are not merely shouting for environmental justice, they are not merely defending their souls against the pale inflections of a fabulously belligerent military autocracy we call America; they are fighting for the balance of the Universe.
An elder, Martin Gashweseoma, first told me of the Hopi prophecies and the petroglyphs on prophecy rock in Arizona about 15 years ago. The world had barely reckoned with climate change. Prophecy rock seemed like an outdated piece of prehistory carved on a rock. But at Hopi the underground aquifer that has been used to slurry coal for electricity for Phoenix, Vegas and Los Angeles is about to dry up. The increasing forest fires and massive drought afflicting the Southwest may come in part from the draining of the water table below ground. So, the humble way of living the Hopi have advocated for centuries should come as no surprise; it is represented by a man holding a digging stick used for planting corn, to emphasize the simple, humble way of living.
By contrast there is the zig-zag path that underscored those who would deviate from the humble and simple way of living, and the three earth-shattering events — two of them being the two gourds of ash that fell on Japan in WWII — and our separation from nature. On one visit, Arizona public service was putting in water and electric lines which many traditionals, as opposed to the progressives, did not want. The battle against utilities and whether to be part of the modern world divided the community. A giant backhoe was slicing up some of Hotevilla, the bastion of traditional Hopi. I felt the need to record the violation as a millennial old way of being on the land was being subverted. The traditionals did not want to become federal subjects and pay for water and to be taxed when they had gone to get water from the springs for free, for generations. Now their sovereignty was in question.
I taped the dismantling of Hotevilla, saw a machine embodying the very monster of technological society ripping through the ground of a ceremonial shrine, and I timidly rushed back to my host, Martin. Using cameras of any kind was not allowed, but the video I had taped was a record of what I saw as a violation of Hopi sovereignty. A few minutes later a policeman came and said someone was taking pictures of Hopi, which was forbidden. Martin explained that I was his guest and concerned about the casualties happening at Hopi. The unity of what was once one of the most peaceful places on Earth was becoming two, like a cleaver coming down on the social, spiritual and metaphysical bone of a community. 
Martin asked the young Hopi policeman, if he was so Hopi why did he have two guns on his belt? The young man was at first befuddled, then explained that he was simply doing his job, then backed off, realizing the truth of the elder’s words. He was Ka Hopi, not peaceful and in essence no longer Hopi. For a people who did not have prisons, the very idea of guns was anathema to Hopi. But Hopi, like the rest of the world, was undergoing rapid changes. The Hope prophecies which predicted such things as the talking cobwebs, the House of Mica (the UN), flying villages, and many Earth changes had started to take shape. It is perhaps no coincidence that I first saw the comet Hale Bopp streaking like an incandescent omen over Hopi during these events in 1997. It was perhaps a reminder from the heavens that larger supervening forces were at stake and that it was ultimately up to humans to honor that order. 
Like the pipeline in North Dakota an entire ontology is being torn asunder for the mercenary, power structures of the world economy, and its oil and banking cartels. That the media was turned back and threatened not only underscored the powers of the police state and the abrogation of the First Amendment, but also the fact that an extraordinary lie of severe ecological consequence was being forced onto the people. The lie being perpetuated was an order of reality that was quite simply eviscerating the topsoil of existence as we knew it. The world changes now upon us are irrefutable evidence that the visions of the elders were no mere superstition, but an intuitive depth charge from the deepest part of the human psyche. Hopi has been considered the center of native prophecy for generations. What I beheld at Hopi was ground zero for what was enveloping the biosphere. That was before the tar sands in Alberta, before we realized that 300 feet of the Greenland ice sheet had disappeared. Before we had entered the so-called Anthropocene. Before we passed 400 parts per million for carbon dioxide. What was unique at Hopi were predictions that undermined the very priorities of modern civilization and what the global media understood as relevant or even cared to confront because it did not suit the elite. Red Cloud’s prophecy of the Indian Nations coming together puts the spotlight squarely on what is happening in North Dakota, because Mother Earth’s rights are being abrogated. The lessons at Hopi and North Dakota, British Columbia and the Amazon are a litmus test for the future of the human species about how we should tend to our one and only home planet.
It was on the last Mother’s Day of the 20th century that my wife Marie and I went to pay respect to Corbin Harney of the Shoshone people. Corbin had been protesting the Nevada nuclear test sites for decades. Corbin had fought the military arrogance of the U.S. government, which has exploded over 1,000 nuclear bombs for decades in the belly of the desert. He had tried, like the Hopi elders, to warn the world of our ways, but to no avail. Despite the claims of the U.S. that we are a peaceful nation, we have abrogated every major treaty designed to limit the spread of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. A new generation of bunker-busting weapons would soon be tested on Shoshone land. Corbin understood only too well that the government wants to “take advantage of the earth and use and misuse it. We see that throughout the world. That’s the way I see the white man today — termites — they want to destroy things. They’re putting nothing back — no give, just take. The animals, the berries, the roots — nothing’s here. It’s sad. Pretty soon we’re going to be fighting for water. Somewhere it’s going to come to an end. People are not going to wake up until something terrible happens.”
Between the industrial worldview with its accompanying Darwinian capitalist system and the cosmology of the first peoples of the world lies a titanic gulf. The acts being done under the authority of the U.S. government have altered the political and spiritual status of the Shoshone forever. The laws that are being violated — the very laws that are being rejected by the U.S. in favor of multinational corporate interests — are those that are inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” The fight around Shoshone is the fight for aboriginal people to live by ancestral law before mercantile law, and the modern “civilized” world has taken their sovereignty away.
It was thanks to Corbin that we learned about the extraordinary Dann sisters in northern Nevada who had been trying to hold onto their land against the intrusion and persecution of the U.S. government, eager to get its hands on gold reserves under their land, which was by some estimates the third largest gold deposit on earth after Russia and South Africa. Carrie and Mary Dann had been fighting for their land with all the power of their 5-foot frames for decades. The blistering raw beauty of their land is punctuated by stark brown mountains that surround their valley. The vast irrepressible freedom and openness here and the magnitude of the stars belies the range war that was waged here. Carrie’s face is lined with decades of struggle, like land that is cracking under the weight of two opposing world views. It is a testament to what Carrie Dann calls the “dictatorial powers” of renegade U.S. policies. Carrie answers most questions placed before her with the contention that the U.S. government does not respect her or the Shoshone right to property. It is here, under the phantasmagoric sands of Nevada, that the bones of the Shoshone are buried. It is the birthright of her people. It is here that 900 acres of mining for gold were slated on the scarred peak of the Shoshone, Mt. Tenabo. In the increasing hunger for minerals, dollars and wealth, the globalization process has not had a trickle-down effect. In addition to the extraction of gold and other minerals, Nevada is second to none for what is perhaps the most insidious by-product of the industrial world — nuclear testing.
Carrie is adamant in her belief that there are two sets of rules in America — those that apply to the dominant society and those that apply to native people. The real America has long since been hijacked. Jim Anaya, law professor at the University of Arizona, offers the possibility of joint management between Shoshone and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). He says the solution is one of attitude. There is an “age old premise that Indians can’t manage things for themselves. It’s based on an attitude of paternalism that has plagued policy makers in this country probably since its founding.”  
The idea of being caretaker of the Earth is primary among Native people. The core of the devastation being wrought around the world lies with the abrogation of this relationship. Instead of a living, breathing, reverent model of abiding by an organism that sustains existence, we have within a hundred years brought the earth to a state of convulsion. Upon finishing his "savage pilgrimage" in America, D.H. Lawrence, the great English writer, exclaimed that our “metaphysics are wearing woefully thin.” He arrived in Taos, New Mexico in 1922 on his birthday, Sept. 11. Decades later, that fateful day looms as a reminder of the enemy without and within. Much greater than the so-called terrorist threat is the large-scale global dismemberment of the ecosystem. Already at that time D.H. Lawrence realized that our civilization was in grave trouble and had lost its roots to the cosmos. That is a connection that the Shoshone, and those fighting for their land in the Amazon, the Arctic, Australia, Africa and the world over refuse to give up. But each year there are fewer elders who still bear the knowledge, wisdom and patience to battle what many perceive as the final phase of colonization, because today the outcome is addressing the whole life support system of the planet. “When the people’s connection to the land is broken, something vital will be lost forever,” says Carrie.
One of the most tenacious and remarkable native elders, Roberta Blackgoat, was Diné, Navajo, and waged an incessant fight against Peabody Coal’s usurpation of her people’s land for coal at Black Mesa. Her life, honored in the Academy Award winning “Broken Rainbow,” is a testimony not only to matriarchs of the world, but also for native people’s struggle to conserve the Earth for future generations. Having lived firsthand the harassment of what she considers the tactics of the police state, which wanted her off her land for the prize resource of coal, Roberta would hold up placards that said, “If you want to move me, you must sue the Creator.” Since 1974 when Congress revoked her Creator-given right to live on Big Mountain, she waged a one-woman war against the powers that be. Coal is Mother Earth’s liver, while for the dominant society it is one of the key sources of power that makes the engine of modernity run. She did not move until her death. She stayed for the “entire universe.”
The struggle in North Dakota is the same struggle, but this time the stakes are higher. The oil that would come from Canada is a transnational issue. After the Paris Climate Agreement who can doubt that this time around the fight is not for just one precious commodity, at least for the technological society, but for the future of the world as we know it. This time all native nations know what is at stake. It is not just about conquistadores and Anglos coming for their land and oil and water and coal and target practice with nuclear weapons. It is far greater than that. The spiritual implications of abrogating native title and the multibillion dollar theft of native land underscores the difference between true freedom and becoming subjects to a tyrannical economic system and the worldwide police state. If the current trend continues unabated, traditional wisdom insists, the forced change of gods cannot but invite disaster. The assault on the soil, the militarization of the land, sea and sky, the loss of wildlife worldwide, these Corbin predicted, as well as algae blooms plaguing the sea and 200 mph typhoons. The Diné predicted a time when it would thunder in the winter and snow in the summer, as evidence the holy beings were being upset. For many in the dominant society, such talk smacks of superstition. But global warming and its aftermath are already upon us. 
“We think money is a god,” Corbin declared, “but it’s not.” Carrie, with all her wit and defiance, held up an invisible coin to the sky and squinting, wondered what to make of the inscription, “In God we trust. Is that God? That little coin, that big?” she asked. “It’s strange how you can destroy your environment — all in the name of money.” Will we rush into that once unforeseeable horizon of total ecological collapse, a horizon that now laps at our heels, or can we change course to a renewed horizon? The native elders say society needs to turn around by 2020. There is room for a rebirth, but 2020 is the point of no return. Now is the time to listen to Earth’s native elders.  
I first heard about the vaunted Hopi prophecies in the American Southwest, in the desert, what some might call the middle of nowhere. Far from the glitzy glass and concrete machinations of what passes for modern civilization with its infinite distractions and cultural artefacts that I was told were mere decorations for the highest story of the Tower of Babel, I heard the Hopi elders speak. They warned me about this time. They told me to avoid the coasts. They told me of storms that would be 200 miles per hour. Many things are happening exactly as they predicted. Like their Inuit cousins in the Arctic who predicted that there would be people who “would burn the polar bears.” It is time the dominant society divest itself of fossil fuels and the blood of dinosaurs and beings that lived many millennia ago because our entire society could crumble from lack of vision and care. Our economic system is no longer tenable. In the old days we had to fight sabre tooth cats and mastodons to survive. It was hard to plan days in advance, let alone years. Today we need to plan for a new way to live on the Earth because as some elders say, it is starting to get angry at the human species. Henno Martin, a German who survived like a human leopard in touch with the elements as he managed to avoid being imprisoned in Namibia at the outbreak of WWII wrote: 
“It seemed to me that hunting peoples, like Bushmen, Red Indians and Eskimo, must be happy and contented. They certainly knew danger, sudden death and cruel enemies, but who could say in this year of grace 1940 that modern civilization spared civilized man any of those things? On the contrary it had increased the dangers; it had enormously increased violence and senseless destruction, and in doing so it had deprived the individual of all independence. But the old instincts of the hunter were still alive in civilized society, and millions of men felt elated at the thought of war. The old killer instincts were awake again, but surely they could not give that deep inner satisfaction that this vigil in the night gave me, because operating under civilized conditions they had been robbed of their original significance; they no longer served to defend and sustain life. Those primitive hunters who lived together in small kin groups did not show reckless courage for its own sake. They had to be reckless in order to survive. But the hypnotizing power display of vast organizations which exhibited and glorified power, trained man — without necessity — to recklessness and the unquestioning acceptance of death and annihilation. There lies man’s road to extinction.”
I would like to leave the last words with the granddaughter of the famous holy man Black Elk. Her name is Grace Black Elk. She said about 50 years ago, "One day soon, the white man will come to us and say: help us! We have used up the energy of Mother Earth! We have wasted the energy of Father Sun! We beg you to teach us how to use our energy wisely! So that we can survive! We are afraid! So please help us! You Indians know how! So teach us! And I will say: Sure! Let us see your Application for Survival. Go write your proposal and submit it to us. And we will submit it to our councils of chiefs for consideration and discussion. And then I will say to them: Come back in two years! But they will say, this is an emergency! We have an energy crisis! We know I will say. We sympathize with the plight of the white man. So we will very sympathetically file your plea away. We know this is a matter of life and death for you. So we will have to consider this very carefully. In two years time we will have a meeting on your Application for Survival. Even a conference, even a congressional hearing. This is the way we learned from you to consider matters of life and death. Mother Earth has no 'energy crisis.' Father Sun has no 'energy crisis.' The People, the Indian People, they have no 'energy crisis.' Who does? It is the white man, who has broken the Sacred Circle of Life."
Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.
Published on Feb 24, 2020

Back to blog