October 20, 2006

Before All Else

It was a day-long teach-in on our campus, part of a year-long collaboration and dialogue amongst environmental activists, scientists, native people, and people like me whose roots here only go back for four or five generations. It was a day to talk about environmental issues close to home, a day for grieving and for planning, a day to seek common ground as we discussed ways to heal our relationship with the land.

We began early in the morning, with people of all ages trailing into the auditorium one at a time, clutching cups of coffee or pieces for fruit. A young man disappeared into the men's room, and emerged in his traditional clothing, long fabric strings swaying from his chest and shoulders as he moved up the aisle and took his place at the microphone. In the tradition of the native people in this area, we began with the words that come before all else, words of thanksgiving. He gave thanks to the sun, the moon, the stars, thanks to the plants and creatures, thanks to the waters and the fish, thanks to the trees, the winds, and the thunderers. Thanksgiving was a common theme through the workshops and talking circles; over and over again, native elders kept stressing this need to be thankful.

PlantsWoman gave a talk about what ecologists call the restoration ecosystem, describing what this landscape looked like before Europeans settled here, when the land was managed by the native people who had lived here for thousands of years. After her careful descriptions of the plants and animals, we could just imagine the park-like forests, the meadows full of deer that the natives had formed through controlled burning, and the lake filled with fish and water clean enough to drink.

How difficult then, to end the day with scientists, lawyers, and native elders giving us the current facts about the lake that is now regarded as the most polluted lake in the country, with levels of toxins at such high levels that the data they read from the EPA documents seemed like the stuff of a horror movie. The lake, a body of water considered sacred by native people, was used as an industrial dumping ground in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and continues to act as a sewer for Snowstorm City. My father swam in the lake when he was a boy, but swimming was banned in 1940 as a health hazard. I have never swum in Polluted Sacred Lake, and my children never have either. In fact, when we drive by, they roll up the windows because they can't stand the smell.

A very recently announced plan to clean up Polluted Sacred Lake, a plan that came about as a result of litigation, seems to be little more than a token effort intended to appease the public. Rather than removing the toxins from the bottom of the lake, the plan calls for a cap to be installed. Caps have not been proven to work in the short term, and most certainly, a cap of any material that sits underneath water will not work in the long term. Eventually, it will erode and the toxins will leach into the lake. As one of the native elders said about the clean-up plan: "It is a cover-up that dumps the problem into the laps of our grandchildren."

At the very end of the day, a young man approached the microphone. He is the son of a chief, a young man whose relatives have lived here for thousands of years, a people so integrated into the landscape that the lake we were discussing bears their name. When asked, "What is a reasonable timeline for cleaning up the lake?" he said simply, "This is our home. We have always lived here. I live here, my children will live here, my grandchildren will live here. We are not leaving. We must clean up the lake, however long it takes." His father, when asked earlier in the day what he wanted for the lake, had said simply, "We want to be able to eat the fish, drink the water."

And yet, as we sat in the auditorium, looking at the depressing statistics about the toxins in the lake, it was hard to even imagine that any of our descendents would be able to even swim in the lake, no less drink the water that came from that lake. PlantsWoman and I looked at each other, and sighed. Then above the somber mood in the room, the young man began talking into the auditorium, low words in his hash-sounding native language, words that I recognized from that morning. Words of thanks.

The words that come before all else.

11 comments:

turtlebella said...

How beautiful, to start and end the day with giving thanks, even when much of the message was depressing.

Funny that you posted about this, because just yesterday as the sqvirrel and I were driving through the corn-fields of mid-western state I had an overwhelming desire to "see" the landscape as it looked before Europeans came. And I was sad that it wasn't really possible for me to do this. Amazing how we change the land, and not for the better or even for the neutral. And why is that Europeans felt compelled to do so when the Native populations didn't? A game of numbers?

Yankee, Transferred said...

I have always wished I could experience more of this country's native culture. How beautiful these people seem in your story.

Chip said...

It's always painful to reflect on the fact that those of us who live in the snowstorm region, and the nearby beautiful digit lakes region, are the beneficiaries of an official policy of genocide perpetrated by none other than George Washington himself. The Polluted Sacred Lake and other environmental travesties are yet another aspect of that tragedy. If there is such a thing as karma, I really fear for the white people of this country.

zelda1 said...

It really saddens me to know that there are more and more of those lakes. A small lake where I played as a child is now too full of mercury to allow anyone to swim in it or eat the fish out of it. IN fact, at the bottom of the mountain where that lake spills over and rolls down and dumps into a small creek, it is so polluted that you can't even drive over to look at it. The smell is too noxious. Our poullution comes from farm raised poultry and it's killing our enviornment. I hope they clean your lake up and I hope they clean ours too.

Anonymous said...

We people of the longhouse have not lived here for thousands of years, we have lived here since time began.

I personaly know grandchildren of the families who have ruined this lake. Thay live grand lives in grand houses on a different beautiful lake. They are still living off the plunder.

Sara said...

This post is both beautiful and sad. Well, "sad" doesn't seem like a strong enough word. I've read it twice now on two separate days, and teared up both times.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I teared up, too. And still am. I heard the news about this, and heard the elders speaking about it on the radio. I wish I could have been there to lend my heart, if nothing else.

cloudscome said...

It all seems unspeakably horrible to me. I am glad there are others; native peoples, plant women and scientists who can speak of it and do, and begin and end with thanks. Reading of this crushes my heart and somehow also gives me a slight hope.

Rana said...

I think the part that resonated the most with me was the bit about "what's the timeline" -- I feel great frustration, often, with our larger culture's unwillingness to commit to anything that might take more than a month's, a year's, three year's worth of effort.

I see this in politics, in how we choose our jobs and homes, and very much in how we interact with our environment. Here, at College University, the president refuses to speak about our institutions's piece of natural lands in anything but the short term -- he won't even use a name like "Nature Park" or "Natural Area" because he believes that nothing he (or we) do has any meaning -- that our actions today can (and should) be easily undone by future presidents and campus community. He thinks that because future generations might someday want to raze it all and build a parking lot, we shouldn't cramp their options. Yet he's unwilling to defend those future generations who might want to protect this land.

It makes no sense to me, that the only time we talk about the future and its potential, is when we're talking about destroying things as they are now. No one talks about protecting or restoring -- as if they are too hard, while the other things are easy and cost-free.

I don't know whether this makes me more sad, or more angry.

Mother of Invention said...

It is indeed a huge loss and a crime that we have done unto ourselves that it is too late to reverse the process. Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth" really shone some light on this for me and drove home the fact that we MUST do what we can while there is still a little time left to make some things better. can they not do anything for your lake?

jo(e) said...

mother of invention: Sure, they could do an effective clean-up. We have the science, the technology, the knowledge. It's just that it would cost money ....