In mapping our future, we must learn by looking through the lens of indigenous cultures

We were inspired this year when we spoke with Sarah Walsh about the process she used to recognize the indigenous people whose lands are now part of the conserved Bozenkill corridor.

Words are posted at a trailhead kiosk that read in part: “Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy’s intention is to preserve and act as stewards of the traditional lands of the Mohican people, now known as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community located in Wisconsin, and the traditional lands of the Mohawk people.”

It was our hope, in writing about Walsh’s work, that other individuals and organizations would follow her lead in recognizing the origins of the lands we live on.

But what impressed us more than the words — which Walsh had carefully worked through with Kay Allen, a Mohawk storyteller — was the process, which is ongoing, that she used to get there.

She developed relationships with members of the Mohican and Mohawk tribes and continues to learn from them.

A white woman, Walsh grew up on a farm on a dirt road in the most northern reaches of New York State. At age 12, she drove her own team of work horses to do the haying. She has a love of the land.

Walsh originally thought she’d be a music teacher like her mother but her mother saw the environment was really Walsh’s deeper passion. Her mother took her to visit the Environmental School of Science and Forestry at Syracuse “and it just clicked,” said Walsh.

Her first year at university, Walsh had Robin Wall Kimmerer as a botany professor; Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, has written several popular books on the ethnobotanical world.

For bonus points in Kimmerer’s class, Walsh did a presentation on a plant, showing from the scientific side, “the identification characteristics, but more interestingly, you had to go back and figure out how the plant was used medicinally,” she said.

“This was really my first foray into indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, and that has been a totem for me throughout my career,” said Walsh.

This past week, one of our readers, Katy O’Rourke, sent us a recent essay by Kimmerer that O’Rourke is thinking about as she ponders the future of land she owns in New Scotland.

The essay is titled “The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance.” Amelanchier, we learned by reading Kimmerer’s words, is known by many names: Saskatoon, Juneberry, Shadbush, Shadblow, Sugarplum, Sarvis, and Serviceberry among them.

“Ethnobotanists know that the more names a plant has, the greater its cultural importance,” writes Kimmerer. “The tree is beloved for its fruits, for medicinal use, and for the early froth of flowers that whiten woodland edges at the first hint of spring.”

As she harvests these berries, along with the bird she is named for, Kimmerer ponders how we can learn from indigenous wisdom and ecological systems to reinvent our currencies of exchange.

She notes that the Potawatomi word for the serviceberry is Bozakmin — for the best of berries — and that min is the root word for “berry” and also for “gift.”

Our relationship with a berry changes, Kimmerer notes, if we think of it as a gift rather than a commodity.

She writes of receiving a gift, “If our first response is gratitude, then our second is reciprocity: to give a gift in return. What could I give these plants in return for their generosity?” It might be direct, like weeding, or indirect, like donating to a land trust.

Kimmerer goes on to ask why we, as a society, have permitted the dominance of economic systems that commoditize everything, which creates scarcity instead of abundance and promotes accumulation rather than sharing.

“We’ve surrendered our values to an economic system that actively harms what we love,” she writes. 

Kimmerer goes on to share a report linguist Daniel Everett wrote as he was learning from a hunter-gatherer community in the Brazilian rainforest: A hunter had brought home a sizable kill, far too much to be eaten by his family. The researcher asked how he would store the excess.

The hunter was puzzled by the question. Instead, he sent out an invitation to a feast, and soon the neighboring families were gathered around his fire, until every last morsel was eaten.

“This seemed like maladaptive behavior to the anthropologist,” Kimmerer writes, “who asked again: given the uncertainty of meat in the forest, why didn’t he store the meat for himself, which is what the economic system of his home culture would predict.

“‘Store my meat? I store my meat in the belly of my brother,’” replied the hunter.

Kimmerer concludes her essay by positing that economies based on competition for manufactured scarcity, rather than cooperation around natural abundance, is now causing us to face the danger of producing real scarcity, evident in growing shortages of food and clean water, breathable air, and fertile soil.

“Climate change is a product of this extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle: genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy,” she writes. “Indigenous story traditions are full of these cautionary teachings.

“When the gift is dishonored, the outcome is always material as well as spiritual. Disrespect the water and the springs dry up. Waste the corn and the garden grows barren. Regenerative economies which cherish and reciprocate the gift are the only path forward.

“To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants.”

The sentiment is similar to that expressed in Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy’s acknowledgement: “MHLC’s commitment to preserving these natural resources honors the legacy of the Mohican and Mohawk peoples as the stewards who nurtured this land since time immemorial. We honor and respect their historic and continuing dedication to taking care of the natural world and commit our efforts to making these lands a more inclusive and equitable environment for all.”

What is most telling is that Kimmerer’s wisdom comes not just from her scientific knowledge as an ethnobotanist but from her understanding of nature and human nature — including language — through the lens of indigenous culture.

The waves of newcomers to America’s shores — starting with the very first European settlers — have not properly understood nor learned from the indigenous cultures trampled in the name of progress.

This is true not only in our economic system but in our justice system as well.

American history professor Nicole Eustace, in her book, “Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America,” writes compellingly of the restorative justice practiced by the Haudenasuanee, whom Europeans called Iroquois.

“Eighteenth-​century Europeans and the settler colonists they sent to North America thought that the world could be neatly divided between savage peoples and civilized ones,” Eustace writes

Her book centers on the aftermath of a three-century-old murder committed by two brothers, white fur traders John and Edmund Cartlidge, who brutally beat to death Sawantaeny, a Seneca hunter who lived in what is now Pennsylvania. “By attacking Sawantaeny, the Cartlidges pitched all the peoples of the Susquehanna River valley into crisis,” she writes since the Europeans feared a war with the Haudenoshaunee that they may not win.

 “Anxious to avert warfare,” Eustace writes, “colonial leaders promised Native peoples that they would subject the accused killers to justice, even though a murder charge, if it were brought, could mean capital punishment for their own colonists.

“‘Captain Civility’ stepped forward to represent the Native peoples of the river valleys,” Eustace writes. “Claiming the title by virtue of his unstinting efforts to bring people together in civil society, this diplomat tried to teach colonists the strength of the Indigenous commitment to building community.

“Native peoples sorrowing for Sawantaeny were ‘covered with night and wrapped in darkness,’ as generations of Iroquois storytellers would describe the feeling of grief. Dawn could come only when the mourners’ grief was assuaged. On that new day, killers and survivors could become fully reconciled to one another.”

What resulted, upon a meeting in what is now Albany, between tribal and white leaders, was the Great Treaty of 1722, which Eustace writes, “entered into general obscurity almost as soon as it was written.”

A Haudenoshaunee representative said to the Europeans, “We do in the name of all the Five Nations forgive the offense and desire you will likewise forgive it.” He asked that the Cartlidges “be released from prison and set at liberty.” 

“Indigenous ideals entered the record made at Albany almost inadvertently, the by-​product of colonial desires to document the land and trade agreements that would further Pennsylvania’s prosperity and security,” Eustace writes. “Still, colonists dutifully set down the speeches that Captain Civility and other Native speakers made to them. And in the process, they preserved Indigenous ideas on crime and punishment, violation and reconciliation.”

The events that Eustace has carefully teased out from three-century-old documents shows us that the Europeans’ certitude that “the value of ‘civil society’ was theirs to share with ‘savages’” was misplaced.

We don’t have to go back 300 years to see we have much to learn from the Native peoples who flourished on these lands for centuries before Europeans arrived. Like Sarah Walsh, we can learn from those who are here now.

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