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.