Culture & Conversation Environment

We Must Not Back Down in the Face of the ‘Eaters of the Earth’

Mary Annette Pember

The long-term implications of the election of Donald Trump as president and the inexorable corporate-driven greed of the Dakota Access pipeline have left me feeling vulnerable and in need of solace.

Last month, my daughter Rosa insisted we go to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Rosa, 18, proudly voted for the first time in November for a woman she believed supported her rights and dignity as a Native woman, an autistic woman, and a big, powerful woman who dares to be proud in the face of often-withering judgment from a culture that values—or devalues—women based on their physical appearance.

The journey to the march was exhausting for her in a way I can only imagine. Despite her physical limitations of weight and low muscle tone, she stood for the entire two-and-a-half-hour metro ride from our lodging in Fairfax, Virginia, to the march’s start point. She endured the barrage of sights and sounds of the train ride, the interminable wait to exit the train station, and the crushing crowds that are a unique nightmarish challenge for her.

When Amy Littlefield, a producer from Rewire, asked to interview us for a video, Rosa seized the microphone. She announced that her Ojibwe name is Baybaamisay-Ikwe: “She flies around.”

She continued, “I’m the one who made the choice to be here!”

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Baybaamisay-Ikwe will not stand by and watch as those in power continue to wreak havoc on our world. For that, I am grateful and proud—because the long-term implications of the election of Donald Trump as president and the inexorable corporate-driven greed of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) have left me feeling vulnerable and in need of solace.

Like the gangsters in The Godfather, I’ve temporarily gone to the mattresses. To be more specific, I’ve gone to my mattress, where I have spent far more time than usual watching old movies. Movies and documentaries are my decompression chamber. Among my favorite films is The Little Foxes, based on a Lillian Hellman play of the same name and starring Bette Davis.

Hellman wrote the play in 1939, during the waning moments of the Great Depression just prior to World War II. This was a time when people were suffering terribly from the economic shortsightedness that has come to define the United States. The play takes place in the South after the Civil War, when carpetbagging industrialists were eagerly selling off poor workforces to low-wage factories without any look toward sustainability and safety of communities.

During the play, a Black maid named Addie says, “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.”

“Sometimes,” she continues, “I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.”

The people who eat the earth and those of us who stand around and watch, either in fear or ignorance, have a long history in this country. We desire to hide under the covers and watch old movies en masse, or simply cling to the childish hope that our political leaders will somehow stay a course that maintains the unsustainable American way, with no thought to limitations of natural resources.

I recall a recent conversation with a non-Native waitress in a restaurant near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. She was frightened and angered by the sudden influx of outsiders who had come to support the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s opposition to building DAPL under Lake Oahe, the tribe’s source of drinking water.

The outsiders call themselves “water protectors,” and they engage in actions designed to stop work on the pipeline. Although mostly peaceful, the actions have helped direct the world spotlight onto this remote place where non-Native folks largely believe that if they work hard, trust in the system, and keep the blankets pulled firmly over their heads, everything will be OK. Their leaders, they seem to think, will take care of them.

Although the waitress, who refused to provide her name, shared concerns about potential threats the pipeline might pose to her community’s water, she noted that DAPL was providing jobs for local folks.

Pipeline construction workers “are just trying to put food on their tables and provide for their families. We are caught in the middle. I want things to go back to normal. I wish it would all just go away,” she added.

Indeed, upon completion of the pipeline, most of its short-term jobs will go away. She and her family and neighbors and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe will be left to deal with the environmental and economic fallout. Because the water protectors’ actions have come to symbolize far greater issues than DAPL. They have come to represent the implications of climate change and the effect of continued dependence on fossil fuels. The DAPL will transport oil, and burning that oil would produce harmful climate change effects.

The extractive fossil fuel industry has a long track record of creating boom-and-bust economies that are, by definition, unsustainable. Those in the United States have often embraced the industries’ booms willingly, with little thought toward the ensuing bust that they simply attribute to something other than corporate exploitation. The consequences of climate change wrought by such a system largely go unnoticed. For the most part, people in the United States childishly believe they are entitled to a life that although clearly unsustainable, will continue: The continued mass consumption of fossil fuels and limited efforts working toward developing sustainable resources bears this out.

They stand by and watch as the eaters consume our earth.

Indigenous peoples, however, don’t have the luxury to stand by and watch. They have been driven to action, such as that of the water protectors at Standing Rock; Northwest tribes’ opposition to the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline; Navajo Nation’s lawsuit over the 2015 Gold King Mine spill; Lakota opposition to the Crow Butte uranium mine near Crawford, Nebraska; the struggle of the Bad River Tribe in Wisconsin to deny permits to the Enbridge company’s crude oil pipeline through their reservation; and others.

Native peoples “have been talking about the importance of climate change for years to anyone who would listen,” said Dr. Gregory Cajete, director on Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico.

Cajete, of the Santa Clara Pueblo, is the author of seven books presenting the indigenous view of the world and science.

“Western education is predicated on a worldview that objectivizes the world, that reduces the world to measurable outcomes, measurable entities,” he said. Native folks are encouraged to “look to the mountain, to take a long view of our actions.” Cajete added that this phrase is an old Pueblo saying; he published a book under this title several years ago.

Cajete has been speaking and writing about the importance of climate change and the effect of reliance on fossil fuel for years. In 2011 he was a keynote speaker at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Symposium, “Creating a Climate of Change: A Sustainable Future for the Living Earth.”

He noted at the symposium that indigenous peoples, because of their subsistence lifestyles may be more vulnerable to climate change. For instance, Alaska natives are seeing an earlier seasonal reduction of sea ice due to higher temperatures that prevents them from hunting seals and other animals. However, he said, they might be in a position to offer important lessons to the rest of the world in addressing this challenge.

Cajete and his co-presenters at the symposium noted that many indigenous people, unlike the rest of the United States, continue to have a sense of community and live in extended family situations.

By contrast, people in the United States living isolated lives, disconnected from their neighbors, may have a tougher time dealing with challenges brought about by climate change.

“In order to continue our survival as a species, we must reintegrate ourselves into family. Human beings are ‘hardwired’ for empathy. Empathy is our social glue, our transcendent value,” author Jeremy Rifkin said during the symposium.

This empathy extends not only to the human race, but also to the entire biosphere and all its creatures.

According to Rifkin, modern humans have become estranged from the rhythms of earth and have lost empathy not only for each other but also for the planet. This estrangement has allowed us to ignore the effect of excessive dependence upon fossil fuels on the earth. Our ideas about human nature, mostly based on acquiring property, have become toxic and dysfunctional.

“We are in deep trouble as a species and are potentially headed for a mass die-off. We are monsters devouring the earth,” according to Rifkin during the symposium.

He instructed that people must relearn empathy and the spirit of working together in order to survive.

Rather than take an unknown step forward toward a new way of living and developing sustainable energy, however, the United States has succumbed to Donald Trump and his repackaged vision of Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century sentiment that fueled unbridled western expansion and destruction of indigenous peoples and natural resources. By pushing the DAPL and Keystone pipeline projects forward rather than exploring alternative energy, to name just a few examples, Trump forges ahead with no thought to future generations.

Ultimately, however, even Trump won’t be able to brass out the realworld repercussions of climate change.

There is an old Ojibwe prophecy that speaks of our eras of existence as fires. During the crucial seventh fire, which many believe represents the present day, the light-skinned people will have the opportunity to make an important choice between spirituality and technology. If they choose spirituality, the eighth fire of peace and life will be ignited. If they choose the path of unbridled development of technology, they will bring terrible suffering to the earth and her people.

My cousin Annie, however, offers a contemporary spin on this prophecy. She believes it may not represent an end-of-the-world scenario, but an end to life of dependence on fossil fuels as we know it today. Maybe the eighth fire will happen only if we run out of choices. Could Donald Trump and his winner-take-all tunnel vision of the world be our final prophet who pushes us to that terrible precipice?

I can’t predict the future. But like Baybaamisay-Ikwe, I’ve decided to push those comfy covers aside and step boldly toward creating a new normal, one that doesn’t include eating the earth.

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