Vermont Law School

October 16, 1995

Engaging the Tribal Voice in Environmental Stewardship: Is It Desirable, Necessary or Both?

The Personal Reflections of an Anglo-American
(Edited April 2008)

These are reflections on a personal journey, not of scientist or lawyer but of an individual who would be an environmental steward. I grew up a prospective naturalist with a strong sense of place and the beginnings of connections with the world around me. But then I was taken away from my special place and tentative connections began to fade.

I became an ecologist against the tide of molecular biology and medical microbiology. It was not enough. I turned to law in an effort to enhance communication among environmental professionals and between them and the larger society. It was not enough. I turned to education and writing. Here there is more. My place and connections are being restored in part. But it is not enough. Something is still lacking.

I need to remember I am a guest of the land. I want to learn the lessons of Old Man Coyote.

Law and ecology do not possess the ultimate answers and at best reflect only dimly the core values of stewardship. Worse, law and science are not working. They are the province of the professional and the scholar. The individual is not being engaged.

In short, professionally and emotionally, I am coming full circle.

For me, as an individual and as a student of the environmental movement, the answers to the questions of engaging the tribal voice must be in the affirmative. But with affirmative responses come additional questions . . . .

We  twentieth century Anglo-Americans and those heavily influenced by our thinking  have lost something infinitely precious. We have lost our sense of place, our connections with the natural world and with realms beyond the purely material and ethical. We have lost our connections with each other and beyond. Instead of connection with all the array of others in which we are immersed, we experience nature or wildness with a deep ambivalence at best and outright estrangement at worst. These disconnections are expressed in innumerable ways, most of them negative. But our longing for reconnection and reconciliation, our longing for place remain within. For some it may be bubbling near the surface along with an active "collective unconscious." For others the longing and that portion of awareness or of mind some call the collective unconscious are buried much deeper.

Many of us are actively searching for ways to express our relationships to the natural world actively and productively. First, of course, we should engage in an exploration of our own roots. Just where and when did the losses occur? Are our own lessons and lore irretrievable? But, as we explore our own roots, why not recognize that there are other cultures to tap; primal and "civilized," extinct or extant? And in the exploration of other cultures, who has more to offer us than the First Nations of this land and their descendants, cultural or individual?

Should we, as individuals or as a nation, seek to assimilate elements of the lessons and lore of Native American peoples in our search for place and reconnection, especially in the name of environmental stewardship, can we avoid further diminishment, degradation, denigration of our predecessors to this land?

There are those who would deny us our reconciliation. Others would deny us access to any other culture, perhaps with reference to Native American cultures in particular. Still others would tell us we have already taken too much and should withdraw from the exploration.

But is such a gift of knowledge not one enhancing the one who offers it as it enriches the one who receives it? Let us proceed, but with a sense of deep respect for what was and what is.

I once asked a scholar whether, to the extent our own legal traditions cannot afford protection for environmental amenities, we could turn to the life ways of Native Americans for inspiration and direction. The scholar rejected the proposal out of hand. It cannot be done. Our law precludes as precedent any extraneous (namely, non-Anglo) source.

More recently, I suggested to another scholar that we of New England study the ways of New England's native peoples, whose images, lore and lessons are seemingly neglected in favor of their more westerly counterparts. This scholar rejected the proposal out of hand. It cannot be done. This time it is our own devastation of those cultures that precludes the exploration.

We all may have to live with the second denial, but we are not and should not be bound by the first. It is not my intention here to make the legal arguments or even to take a political stand. Instead, I simply direct attention to the fascination of our Founding Fathers with the League of the Iroquois. I do so in the context of the disillusionment those early "patriots" experienced with the cultures identified with the Western Civilization of their time. I do so in acknowledgment of what has been called a higher natural law. Our relationships with and the values in and of environmental amenities are inherent. They are afforded or created by neither the Constitution nor the Congress of the United States.

I am reminded of an anecdote purporting to distinguish the ways of Native Americans and of the Western tradition. The detail has dimmed with time and other studies, but the point remains clear. Each man, Red and White, was presented with a portion of the natural world. The one took that part obviously intended to represent the more purely aesthetic and spiritual than material value. The other took that part obviously intended to represent the purely material, what we now recognize in terms of science, technology, economics.

I believe both were right and both were wrong. Each man took something meaningful to his culture while leaving something of real value behind. Here again, reconciliation is to be sought. Both Western Tradition and Native American cultures and people have something to offer us all in restoring place and connections with the natural world. And that restoration can take us far in establishing environmental stewardship on the personal, national and global levels.

Peoples of Western Tradition were not always so lacking in connection to the physical and spiritual realms of the world around us. While disconnection may have arisen from among us (Anglo-Americans), it is not a function of our own spiritual tradition, that of Judeo-Christian belief or ethics. We are estranged from that belief, too. At least some of us  theologian, scholar, scientist, individual believer  already are reestablishing the sense of stewardship and all the attendant obligations of a steward our scriptures demand of us. Some of us are aware of the estrangements and know they occurred somewhere in relatively recent times, when our natural science split away from our theology and our world was divided up among scholars in all the array of scholarly disciplines and their students and their students' students.

Although we may number among those students, some of us know that neither the world nor environmental stewardship exists in discrete packages of knowledge, each independent of the others. Some of us would re-establish the linkages among the disciplines serving us as intellectual beings. For some of us the material and spiritual realms are no longer separate places in our hearts.

At least some of us see Divinity in a form simultaneously transcendent and immanent, a Being of the Spirit Who is of all peoples and Who speaks to every culture, every time and every individual in the manner which best reaches each. We are numbered among those who would cherish the natural world physically, emotionally, spiritually. We are among those who wish to learn all we can from all the teachers available to us. We are seeking place, reconnections, reconciliation of the material and spiritual realms.

We want to discover and ponder whatever lessons and lore the native peoples closest to us can share with us in our personal quests for place, for reconnection, for the environmental stewardship we would practice. We would share the visions and hear the words of Native American traditions and of their descendants who themselves are seeking if not expressing some personal sense of connection.

I am not calling for homogenization but for something leaving the distinctive flavors, each tinged with the essence of other flavors. I see as representative the image of mitosis in the corn. Through the microscope the scientist perceives the dance of the chromosomes. Through the motions of the dancer of the corn, that tiny dance emerges anew. This is only one of countless "coincidences" to be found wherever one may be searching for realities within and among cultures.

None of us is effective alone. Neither a single culture nor a single individual. Not the lawyer, the scientist, the economist, the theologian, the sociologist, the psychologist. Not any single source of belief and associated aesthetics and ethics. Not even the culture or the individual imbued with the Spirit of the land. None of us can do it alone! We must come together and learn from each other. Only then can we serve the world of beings we all cherish. That is the gift in which all of us can share as members of the larger societies to which we all belong. Native American Lessons and Lore
Representative Sources and Readings

Non-fiction; articles

Hill, Tom and Richard W. Hill, Sr. (eds), "Creation's Journey, "excerpts from inaugural exhibit and book in Fall 1994 Native Peoples, at 30

White Deer of Autumn (Gabriel Horn), "Vision, identity, and the great mystery," Fall 1993 Native Peoples 44 (excerpt from book, A Circle of Nations: Voices and Visions of American Indians. 1993, [No city identified]: Beyond Words Publishing Co.

Johnson, Trebbe, "Native Intelligence: Environmentalists and Native Americans Team up to Protect the Earth," The Amicus J. [NRDC] 11 (Winter 1993)

Non-fiction; books

Bruchac, Joseph. Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. 1987, Tucson: Sun Tracks and the University of Arizona

Churchill, Ward. Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians. (M. Annette Jaimes, ed.) 1992, Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press

I Become Part of It: Sacred Dimensions in Native American Life. (Dooling, D.M. and Paul Jordan-Smith, eds.) 1989, NY: Parabola Books

Heizer, Robert F. and Albert B. Elsasser. The Natural World of the California Indians. 1980, Berkeley: University of California Press

McFadden, Steven. Profiles in Wisdom: Native Elders Speak About the Earth. 1991, Santa Fe: Bear & Company Publishing

McGaa, Ed; Eagle Man. Mother Earth Spirituality: Native American Paths to Healing Ourselves and Our World. 1990, NY: HarperSanFrancisco Morgan, Lewis Henry. League of the Iroquois: A Classic Study of an American Indian Tribe With the Original Illustrations. (Originally published in 1851, this facsimile 1962, 1990) New York: A Citadel Press Book

Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present, 1492-1992. (Peter Nabokov, ed.) 1991, NY: Viking Penguin

Weatherford, Jack. Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. 1988, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.


Card, Orson Scott. Hatrack River (Seventh Son, 1987; Red Prophet, 1988; Prentice Alvin, 1989). Guild America Books [Science Fiction Book Club edition]

Talking Leaves: Contemporary Native American Short Stories. (Craig Leslie, ed.) 1991, NY: A Laurel Trade Paperback (Dell Publishing)

Power, Susan. The Grass Dancer. 1994, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. 1977, New York: The Penquin Group

Starhawk. The Fifth Sacred Thing. 1993, New York: Bantam Books

Additional readings in Western Tradition

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 1993, NY: Alfred A. Knopf

Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. 1992, NY: Ballantine Books

Shepard, Paul. Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Esthetics of Nature. 1967, 1991, College Station, TX: Texas A&M U Press

Swimme, Brian, and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era  A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. 1992, NY: HarperSanFrancisco

Wesselman, Hank. Spiritwalker: Messages from the Future. 1995, New York: Bantam Books