Your Chewing Gum is Made of Plastic, and Other Things I Didn’t Know

In this post, I finally read about how plastic is hiding in plain sight in all SORTS of things that we wouldn’t expect, and why that’s kinda not good. Curious? Let’s dive in!

Plastic Kills

Plastic Free - Beth TerryToday I’m reporting back on Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry.

The impetus for this book is the author’s experiencing of one day stumbling upon a photo on the internet of a baby albatross. It was dead and had decomposed to the point where you could see inside its ribcage… to the stomach full of plastic pellets. Its parents had tried to feed it, but they unknowingly fed it so many tiny plastic bits (that looked like fish eggs) that the baby bird starved to death.

plastic bird stomach
Not the same photo, but a similar one.

I mean, it’s pretty horrific, if you think about it: starving to death because you’re filling your stomach with something it can never process. Ugh.

It was an emotionally impactful moment for the author, and she decided to start exploring plastic: What was it? Where was it? Why didn’t it eventually go away? How did it relate to her? This book is the result of that questioning process.

So… what about plastic?

There is SO much information in this book — I could never remember it all, but thankfully the book is organized as sort of a reference manual, so I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it. Here are some of the main “big picture” things I learned:

  • Most plastic NEVER goes away. EVER. To me, this is the same kind of “whoa”-ness as when I read the very first book in this project (like a million years ago) and realized that we have NO safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. We also have NO safe way to dispose of most plastic because IT NEVER BIODEGRADES. Like, when we think of decomposition, it’s not just that stuff sits around and slowly vanishes, it’s literally being chemically broken down by other organisms — basically eaten. So when a tree log decomposes, it’s becoming fungi food. Or when an animal decomposes, it becomes fly food. But most plastic doesn’t EVER decompose, because it’s not anything’s food!
  • Plastic’s longevity (aka FOREVER) is surprising considering our “disposable” attitude toward it. It’s cheap to make… so we feel like it’s “disposable” — but again, it NEVER goes away! Every bit of plastic that’s ever been made is still present SOMEwhere on the earth, as Wikipedia cites, “down to the molecular level.” So that plastic spoon I used to eat my soup after church this morning? I threw it away after using it once, but it’ll still be here — unchanged — when I’m dead. I will turn to dirt before that spoon does. And I used it once. As the author puts it, “Why create disposable containers and packaging out of a material that lasts forever?” (p.28) Well, because…
  • Plastic is flexible (literally) and cheap, so we give it a low value. Many objects in our society are valued based on the rarity of the material or the time or skill it took to make the item. Since plastic is in high supply and easy to mass-produce, that means we think of it as cheap — and it is cheap, monetarily and temporarily. But it’s costly in the long run, because someday we’re going to have to deal with all this non-biodegradable, non-edible, chemical-absorbing matter with which we’re blanketing our planet…
  • But can’t we recycle??? Well… only to a point. Recycling is toted as an environmental “solution,” but the problem is that each time we re-formulate a recycled material (whether paper or plastic), it’s lower and lower quality (it’s called “downcycling”) until eventually it won’t hold together anymore and needs to be discarded. The problem is that even after that much use, remember, plastic is still a polymer (aka holding together) at the molecular level — so even once we can’t recycle it anymore it’s still plastic and it will still last forever.
  • Things I didn’t know were made of plastic: most fabric (“synthetic” = made of plastic), every writing utensil I own, most carpet, many glues, books (plastic coated cover paper), toilet paper (ouch), and even chewing gum (p.206) – GROSS.

WOOF. I don’t know about you, but that feels a leeeeeetle bit terrifying. It’s so ubiquitous, and it’s never going away.

And you know what? I can’t honestly say anything to make it better. There’s not really a “happy ending” to this book…

So NOW what?

Despite the looming-ness of the plastic problem, this book does a GREAT job of keeping a positive, encouraging, non-shaming tone, which is important when you’re dealing with a topic where your reader realizes they are literally CLOTHED IN the problem. It can feel really overwhelming. But Beth Terry really takes time to say, “Hey — small steps. It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up and don’t get paralyzed.” I really appreciate that about this book — it’s so user-friendly and accessible.

That said, and while I really do support personal steps to be thoughtful about plastic consumption, as Barack Obama is quoted as saying at the conclusion of this book, “We can’t solve global warming because I f—ing changed the lightbulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective.” (p.309)

Yes, we started composting at our house. Yes, I stopped buying new clothing and have tried to shop only at thrift stores or on Craigslist for already-made items. Yes, we buy in bulk from the co-op using reusable containers as much as we can. Yes, I’ve been more aware when I’m using or buying a plastic object. Yes, I’ve even started washing out and reusing plastic Ziploc bags, even though I hate the smooshy feeling of washing warm, wet plastic.

BUT. Two things.

  1. Not everyone can afford to do those things. (Heck, not everyone even has access to a grocery store let alone a co-op.)
  2. Washing my plastic bags won’t save the world.

It’s REALLY important to remember that for things this big, change comes both at the personal level AND at the big, systematic level. I really like one idea from the book: the personal changes are daily reminders and conversation starters in the pursuit of bigger, wider change.

And especially because, as I learned in All Our Relations, environmental issues often disproportionately impact poor communities and communities of color, it is IMPERATIVE that we not buy a $30 zero-plastic water bottle, pat ourselves on the back, and go back to sleeping well at night. Environmentalism is not about assuaging our personal anxiety; it’s about working to care well for our fellow Earthlings (and ourselves!) on a large scale.

Conclusion

To me, one of the biggest messages of this book is that even when something is “out of sight, out of mind” it still has an impact. When we put something in the trash (or even in the recycling), we forget about it. It’s done. But “trash” doesn’t mean “gone” — we can’t discard something outside the environment. Likewise, just because I don’t live on an Indian reservation or in Flint, Michigan doesn’t mean I can shut my ears and go back to my nice, clean tap water. Life is relational; ecosystems are relational; so our environmentalism needs to be relational, too, and advocate for all our relations.

Meta-Conclusion

Well, folks, that’s the end! I’ve completed my investigation into Imperial Geography (for now). I answered my questions about why the US government offered tree claims to homesteaders, what happened to the land when European settlers came en masse to Turtle Island, and why environmentalism matters for real people today. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would, but I’m so thankful for all I’ve learned, and I’m sure it’ll come right along with me as I dive into my next reading / learning / blogging project… which I’ll tell you about in another post. 😉

Hopefully I’ve given you some things to think about — I know I’ve got plenty. Thanks for reading along with me!  ~Rebekah

[EDIT] P.S. Want to join in the next reading project? Here’s the first post!

The World Through the Lens of “All Our Relations”

This week in Imperial Geography, I learn where we dump all the waste that no one wants… and why just reducing our carbon footprint isn’t gonna cut it. Intrigued? Then let’s dive in!

All Our Relations

all our relations - winona ladukeWhen I first planned out this project (now over a year ago, woof!) I was really excited to take a tour around the continent through the eyes of Winona LaDuke in her All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life.  I know she is a well-known political activist, and I was expecting exciting and powerful stories of daring protests and demonstrations.

But that’s not what I got. What I got was an eye-opening spotlight into why environmental issues are so vital to many Native communities and activists.

We put… what? Where?

Remember wayyyyyy back in my very first book of this project, when the geography textbook I read freaked me out about nuclear (and other undisposable) waste?

Is anyone else REALLY REALLY DISTURBED by the fact that there is NO way to prevent all our nuclear stuff from seeping into our environment? I get that we didn’t necessarily know this when we first invented nuclear power and stuff, but I mean… now that we know… you think maybe we should stop making more until we’ve figured that one out? I mean, I’m no nuclear physicist, but… I kind of like not eating radiation… Just saying…

Anyway, consider me officially alarmed by what seems like a rather imminently dangerous situation in terms of waste generation and disposal. I’m urgently looking forward to learning more (hopefully!) in my last few books for this project, All Our Relations and Plastic Free.

Well, here I am at All Our Relations, and yes, I have learned more. I wondered where all the waste no one wants near them goes in this country, and the answer is, it goes to Indian reservations.

Incredulous? I was, too. But one thing this book doesn’t skimp on is examples. Here are just a few:

  • “According to the Worldwatch Institute, 317 reservations in the United States are threatened by environmental hazards, ranging from toxic wastes to clearcuts.” (p.2 — yes, she hits you with that on PAGE TWO!)
  • “Today, an estimated 25 percent of all North American industry is located on or near the Great Lakes, all of which are drained by the St. Lawrence River.That puts the Akwesasne [Mohawk] Reservation downstream from some of the most lethal and extensive pollution on the continent.” (p.15) This has led to Mohawk mothers having contaminated breast milk. The “progress” so far on this is that GM agreed to dredge some of the gunk out of the river… and then shipped it off “to some unlucky community in Utah” (p.23).
  • In Florida, “America has lost half of its wetlands… due to agricultural conversion” (p.30), and the now-rare Florida panthers are being slowly killed off by infertility due to acute mercury poisoning.
  • In Canada, a US Air Force base runs test flights low over the forest where the Innu live, creating “sonic booms” that are “generally exactly at or above the human pain threshold of 110 decibels” and “produce a constant shock wave, traveling along the ground like the wake of a boat over water” that can “lift the water off the lake and tip a canoe and can drive animals insane: foxes have been known to eat their kits, geese to drop their eggs midflight, as a consequence of the sonic boom.” (p.55)

And these are just the first few chapters! As I read through case study after case study of governments and corporations dumping their unwanted chemicals/sound/industry/etc. onto or near Native peoples and Native land (what’s left of it), I started to see why environmentalism isn’t just a fad for many Indian folks: environmental issues are literally killing them. LaDuke sums up this urgency well: “We are the ones who stand up to the land eaters, the tree eaters, the destroyers and culture eaters” (p3).

Seriously — what’s more innocent and natural than a woman breastfeeding her baby? And yet that, too, has been made poisonous. As LaDuke writes in the chapter on poisoned rivers and contaminated breastmilk, “Women are the first environment” (p18). It’s atrocious to think about our waste causing a Mohawk woman to poison her own child.

And why does this keep happening to them? Because in a country where they make up like 1% of the population Native peoples and nations are relatively powerless to stop it. LaDuke does share stories of lawsuits and protests and attempts to get companies and/or governments to respect their sovereignty and treaty rights, and there is a little hope… but it feels like a very David-and-Goliath sort of a battle.

The Mirage of “Clean Energy”

Another huge theme in this book is that the solution isn’t just about limiting ourselves. I kept being like “Okay, so THAT kind of energy isn’t ‘clean’ either… so what’s left?”

But that made me realize that the point isn’t finding an unlimited energy source that keeps our hands clean in terms of environmental sustainability — the point is that we place our desire for unlimited energy and productivity above all else. We only question HOW we will get “all the energy we need”, not WHETHER we actually “need” it.

So the core of the environmentalist conflict, for LaDuke, is not “clean energy vs dirty energy”, or even “conservationism vs extinction” — the conflict is really about an extractionist, resource-based view of the earth and nature versus one that views the earth as an entity in its own right. This giant paradigm shift is summarized well by this passage:

There is no way to set a price on this way of life. That simple truth more than anything else encapsulates the Anishinaabeg [Ojibwe] people’s struggle with the federal government, the miners, and the logging companies. For the past hundred years, Native people have been saying that their way of life, their land, their trees, their very future, cannot be quantified and are not for sale. And for that same amount of time, government and industry accountants have been picking away, trying to come up with a formula to compensate Indians for the theft of their lands and livelihoods. So long as both remain steadfast, there appears to be little hope for a meeting of minds in the next generation.” (p116)

Rather than urging us to exercise self-control within the existing energy-consuming paradigm, LaDuke calls us to completely transform our relationship with the earth. Instead of our current linear, resource-focused, consumeristic, anthropocentric worldview, she offers a more indigenous perspective — one that holds a more spiritual, holistic, circular, relational attitude toward life and the earth.

“When you step on one strand of a spider web, it all moves.” (p191)
“We are walking upon the faces of those yet to come.” (Iroquois teaching, p.194)

Conclusion

As I think I said at the start of this project, I never expected to be an environmentalist. I always thought environmentalism was like a hippie white people thing about saving the whales, and it seemed rather irrational and pointless to me, because humans > whales. What this book really cements for me is, (1) it’s really important to listen to people’s concerns without writing them off, because when you choose to care for the person by listening it lets you in to what really matters to them, and (2) environmental issues are less about restraint (aka only driving one car instead of two, or killing fewer whales) and more about fundamentally rethinking how our society and culture view our earth (aka why is our society car-based, and why do we feel we need to extract so much energy from the earth?). I’m excited to get practical with the last two books in this project!

Next up: Earth Then and Now: Amazing Images of Our Changing World.

‘Grassland’: The Power and Flaws of the American Environmentalist Movement

This week, on Imperial Geography… my conflicted thoughts about Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning. Let’s dive in!

grassland - richard manningSo, I was actually really excited to read this book, because compared to Prairie, which seemed a lot more scientific, this book seemed like it was going to be really political, and I was excited for an alternate viewpoint. What I got was half a book of pretentious white liberal nonsense and half a book of excellent enviro-economic insights about American culture in general and the American environmentalist movement in particular.

Let me explain.

The Bad News

The book is written as a sort of creative nonfiction travel memoir, from the point of view of the author, as he travels through (mostly) Montana. The first half of the book is devoted primarily to exploring the history of the prairie — mainly the western prairie, since he’s based in Montana — through the people he meets as he drives around to talk to them. This sounds fine and harmless, but I was consistently frustrated by a couple things:

1. No Native people

Despite the fact that the first part of the book is all about the history of the prairie / Montana, Manning talks to a total of ZERO Indians! I kept waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and there was some mystical Indian hearsay (“I once heard a Native man quoted as saying…”, p.34)… and there was one part where he talked about talking to this old white rancher lady about an old Indian who used to live nearby but left… but that was the closest he got. SERIOUSLY??? Dude — yes, the original inhabitants of what is now Montana were forced off their land and into reservations, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ANY left! I just Googled “Indian reservations in Montana” and there are seven scattered throughout the state. Seven! According to the state of Montana’s video about Indian nations (which I would recommend, BTW), there are over 65,000 Native people living in Montana. That means, Mr. Manning, that in a state of about a million total people Natives make up over 6% of the total population — well above the national average. And you couldn’t even find ONE to talk to about the history of the prairie???

Considering my previous reading — and my own blind spot with regard to including Native voices in said reading project — I get it. It’s easy to be a part of the national “leaving out” of Indians and Indian history, because “every(white)body does it”. BUT here’s the thing. Manning does include a pretty substantial bit about Native people at the end of the book, so you’d think he would have thought to question (or ask for input about) the lack of Natives in the rest of the book. We can’t personally check all our flaws — but we can and should surround ourselves with people to help us check them, and Manning missed a big opportunity here and contributed to the continued erasure of Native voices from the national discourse.

2. Unquestioned manifest destiny writing

In addition to literally leaving Native voices out of the first half of the book, I was frequently frustrated by the author writing things that seemed really pro-colonization or Euro-centric and leaving them completely unquestioned within the narrative. For example, after quoting US General Sheridan’s opinion that buffalo hide hunters who were exterminating the buffalo herds “have done more… to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years” (p.85), Manning then attempts to soften the impact of this quote on the readers: “It is easy to make too much of a statement such as this, as if the extermination of the bison were the product of a willed agenda” (p.85). Clearly Manning anticipates reader outrage at the government / army and is proactively deflecting that outrage and explaining it as “Industrialization drives extermination” (p.86). I agree with that statement in the context that industrialization dehumanizes people and incentivizes production over humanity, but that doesn’t take away the fact that the “vexed Indian question” was one that both the US government and the people who comprised it all were bent on “settling”. Putting the issue into abstraction ignores, but doesn’t erase, the real felt feelings and impacts.

Then on top of defensive language about white settlement, we see a double standard emerge. In a section explaining the irony that white settlers decided to teach Native people how to farm when many Indians had been farming the land long before white settlers came, we read this: “William Least Heat Moon, in PrairyErth, speculates: ‘Surely, lore must have been deliberately withheld from a people taking away the land, so that the thieves got the big machine but not the operating instructions'” (p.98). While Manning is uncomfortable with readers extrapolating any sort of larger intention from General Sheridan’s statement, he’s apparently fine with implying that Indians conspired to withhold information from white settlers. Yes, the conspiracy of the Indians could reflect more favorably on them, since it would be an act of active resistance — but STILL. The evidence for this is (a) described as “speculation” and (b) not given any particular source. In contrast, the buffalo hide quote is from a general in the US Army — by name — in his exact words. Seems like a lot of acrobatics to keep the US government clean.

3. Land / Science > Native people

It’s weird, but as I was reading through this book, I kept feeling like Manning was trying so hard to personify and dignify the land that he eclipsed Native people. Like he’d throw in a mystical Indian quote in order to serve his personified land thesis, but not talk to Indians about the history of colonization of them and the land. Or he’d talk about the land teaching us (Americans / white colonists) stuff, like science, but completely skip over any discussion of Native people’s learning from and relationship with the land. It just felt like there was this weird huge gap where Indians SHOULD be in this book.

Additionally, this book (especially the first half) is full of that particular science-worshiping humanism that I find frequently coincides with white male privilege, especially in nerd culture. This could be a whole blog post in and of itself, so I’ll just summarize by saying this: Go watch Star Trek: The Next Generation — even just the first episode — and watch Picard defend the “nobility of humanity” and the progress associated with science and the ever-present expansion of the “frontier” (which, by the way, implies that space exploration is a moral and natural outgrowth of westward manifest destiny expansion in the US — whoa.). That’s what I’m talking about. In this book, it shows up in little side comments like “Science is eventually self-correcting” (p.100) and “eventually the wanderings of the plains built a national tradition of science. Credit this to the power of the land” (p.100). It’s as if Manning is implying that the genocide of Native people was just “part of the circle of life” and “the Native people were gone, but at least the land remained to teach us (white Americans) things” and “at least we ended up at science”. Just plain false and bothersome, not to mention icky-feeling.

So basically, the first 150 pages of this book were like pulling teeth for me to read. Let’s just say there are many all-caps sentences scrawled furiously in my notes. But thankfully for my investment in reading this book, the last 130 pages were a lot more positive.

The Good News

It’s clear to me as a reader that the second part of the book, in which Manning begins his diatribe about modern environmental degradation, is where he really begins to hit his stride. To me, it felt like he had always wanted to write the second half of the book and he tacked on the first half to add length and/or make it cooler and more pretentious.

Anyway, the last 130 pages — especially the last 50 — of this book yielded some FANTASTIC insights about our national relationship to the land and the history of the American environmentalism movement. Here are the highlights:

1. Nature is not meant to be pristine

Through a brief history of the creation of the first national parks and forest preserves, Manning effectively argued that the early American environmentalist movement grew from a dualism that separated humans/civilization from nature and preserved nature by keeping it in a pristine little roped-off area for humans’ enjoyment. This coincides with the popular romanticization in the early 1900s of nature, Indian “noble savages”, and childhood — as the author notes, literature at the time frequently equated childhood with “savage” freedom in nature, “as if the state of nature is appreciated only by the unschooled and unspoiled minds of children and Indians” (p.201). In reality, however, nature is not pristine, Indians are neither savage nor uncivilized, and all we humans are a part of the natural world and not its observers in some sort of nature park museum gallery. This point really hit home with me, and I find myself still turning over in my “rock tumbler” of a brain because it’s just so deep into our national narrative.

2. Farming was/is viewed as war with the land

Manning frames settlement as an effort of Europeans to impose an unnatural, measured logic on the land, symbolized by the attempts of early American surveyors to literally map the land into squares (aka “rectilinear cadastral grid”. Look it up, I had to!). Additionally, Manning notes that “throughout prairie literature [e.g. Willa Cather], the landscape is the rock on which European pieties founder” (199) and paints a picture of imposing monocultural wheat (European grass) farming onto the prairie as unnatural, dominating, unsustainable, and even violent. To support this endeavor, government agencies were created to be “in the refuge business” and bend nature to our collective economic will. Manning argues that the Fish and Wildlife Service preserves “have amounted to little more than duck farms,” while “the US Forest Service exists to produce trees; the Bureau of Land Management, to produce grass for cows; and the National Park Service, to produce scenery and rubber tomahawk stores for tourists” (p.248). In this way, the environmentalist impulse in the United States has grown from the dualist view of nature as pristine entertainment into nature as commodity made to serve our economic engine of environmental exploitation even in its preservation.

Interestingly, and in probably the most powerful section of the whole book, Manning uses this idea to challenge the animal rights movement, who questioned the revival of buffalo ranching as a more sustainable alternative to cattle ranching:

The animal-rights movement is urban and derives from people who follow civilization’s idea of progress as it is removed from nature. In their epithets aimed at [a buffalo rancher], we can hear an ancient accusation, the same the Chinese leveled at the Mongol nomad and the same the Jeffersonian yeoman [farmer] leveled at the Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Sioux. We hear the epithet: “Barbarian.”

…Why is it unethical to kill and eat a bison when all the rest of the bison and all the prairie life they stand for will go on? Why is it ethical, in the name of rights, to save a few bison in parks and zoos and eat instead wheat, to turn loose the plow that ensures, above all else, that nothing goes on? Why is the plowman not the barbarian simply because no one sees the blood on his hands? (p.245-246, emphasis added)

Essentially here, Manning argues that mass industrialized farming, which completely destroys the prairie ecosystem, is simply a more palatable and “civilized” destruction parallel to but less visible than the European settlers’ destruction of bison herds in the first place. We are appalled at the images of bison hunters standing on mountains of buffalo skulls, and we are appalled at images of mass graves at Wounded Knee, but we’re not appalled seeing images of farmers plowing up the prairie. Manning, I would argue, views them as inextricably linked pieces of the same destruction. He goes on to advocate a new kind of ethic:

The “ethic” that civilization would impose on the land is as artificially derived as the chemical fertilizers it would impose on a corn field. Aldo Leopold began tackling this notion a couple of generations ago with a call for a land ethic, which we took to mean an exhortation for an ethical treatment of the land. This has been the impetus for conservation.

But I think he meant to call for something deeper: an ethic derived from the land. Harley Frank [chief of the Blood Blackfoot, who celebrated the return of the buffalo to their land] had it right to assert that the return of the bison marked the return of the power of his people. Power, when it derives from the land, is a land ethic. (p.246, emphasis added)

Conclusion

So, while this book started out pretty shaky and questionably for me, it came home to end in some pretty thought-provoking and challenging ideas. All in all, a powerful reminder that humans are just a part of God’s creation, not separate from it, and that we are called to live with the land and all creatures, not divide it into boxes for our exploitation and profit.

Next up – All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life by Winona LaDuke. And I’ll try to finish this one a little faster! …especially since I’m already brewing my next reading project… =)

I Don’t Want a Lot for Christmas… There is Just One Thing I Need… Justice.

Hey friends!

So if you happen to be my Facebook friend, you’ve probably noticed a lot of pictures of me in a dress over the last week. That’s because… I’ve been posting a lot of pictures of myself in a dress (or more specifically, dresses) all week. The reason? It’s DRESSEMBER!!

dressember days 1-5 2014

Dressember is a month-long fundraiser to raise awareness and funds to fight slavery and trafficking, especially slavery and trafficking of women and girls. (Hence the dresses.) Funds raised will go to International Justice Mission, which is:

ijm logoBasically, they’re my heroes. They fight for freedom and dignity for women, children, and men, and they do it even in long, boring court proceedings and endless piles of paperwork. (Seriously, if you’ve never dug into IJM, check them out. They have some SERIOUS bad-guy-busting chops.)

Anyway — so here I am at the end of Week 1 of Dressember, and I have currently raised $85. If you have some dollars floating around that need a home, I — and more importantly IJM — and more importantly, the folks IJM works for — would love if you would add those dollars to the fight for justice for women and girls!

You can donate to me specifically at my Dressember page. Or, if you want, donate to the team I’m on, which is a few of us ladies from my church doing Dressember together. My personal goal is $300 (but I’d love to beat it!) and our team goal is $2000 — so please consider chipping in!

OR, if you don’t have any dollars floating around, or if your floaty dollars need to float in another direction but you still want to support Dressember/IJM, consider donating your social media juice! Share this blog post, or share my donate page, and tell your friends why you support the mission of IJM. Then THEY can send THEIR floaty dollars — and it doesn’t cost you a thing!

International Justice Mission is working like crazy to provide much-needed advocacy to end slavery — so thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll consider financial and/or moral support of this incredibly important cause!

 

1491: The Book that Turned My World Upside-Down

Since my last post it’s been a crazy few months, including a move and the birthdays of everyone in my house — but I FINALLY finished reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, and I’m all excited to talk about it! So let’s dive in! (NOTE: If you are considering reading this book and haven’t, STOP NOW. Here there be spoilers!)

What I Expected to Find…

1491 charles c mannWhen I chose this book for my “Imperial Geography” project, I expected that it would give me somewhat of a baseline. One of my driving questions behind this project was “What happened to the earth when European settlers colonized North America?” So I wanted to know, well, what the earth looked like BEFORE European settlers colonized North America.

Just from reading the dust jacket of 1491, I knew that there was more here when Columbus arrived than I had learned about in school (or at least, more than I remember). I figured I’d hear about all sorts of technologies and practices that made 15th-century North, Central, and South American contemporaries just as “advanced” or “civilized” (if not more) than their European contemporaries. And there were those things. Like:

  • What we today call “the Maya” were actually a “collection of about five dozen kingdoms and city-states in a network of alliance and feuds as convoluted as those of seventeenth-century Germany” (p.24).
  • The Inka empire in 1491 was the greatest on earth, the equivalent to “if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo” (p.64).
  • A large part of the reason that Indians were able to be defeated by invading Europeans was that Indian strongholds from North to South America were first visited by European disease (usually smallpox) that killed 90-95% of the population and caused political fragmentation, giving conquistadors a HUGE foothold: “Conquistadors tried to take Florida half a dozen times between 1510 and 1560 — and failed each time” (p.91-2).

One of the examples of the “advanced-ness” of some of these cultures that really stuck with me was a fairly long and detailed section on Nahuatl/Mexica philosophy and poetry. The excerpts were really beautiful and complex — a part of me wanted to make a study of it! Unfortunately, these days it’s a pretty obscure topic:

Cut short by Cortes, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way. The stacks of Nahuatl manuscripts in Mexican archives depict the tlamatinime [Nahuatl philosopher-poets] meeting to exchange ideas and gossip, as did the Vienna Circle and the French philosophes and the Taisho-period Kyoto school. … Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes never had a chance to speak with these men or even know of their existence — and here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the disintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole. (p.123)

To me, this passage sums up a lot of my feelings on the topic of Native peoples — they were (and ARE!) an integral part of our human family. Sadly much of their ancient culture was destroyed and lost, but thankfully some of it — and some of them! — live on, and we can all benefit from their unique perspective. As the late Richard Twiss often said, Native Christians have something without which the rest of the church is incomplete. We need each other. So I’m sad not only that so many human/Indian lives were lost to European invasion, but that still today the rest of us have yet to fully embrace and learn from our Native sisters and brothers.

What I Didn’t Expect…

Before we got into any talk of different civilizations or people groups, the author nailed us with a “check your privilege” stereotype-buster. Mann leads off by explaining what he calls “Holmberg’s Mistake,” which is, in short, the mistaken assumption that all Indians and Indian cultures are by nature simplistic and naive. This assumption leads to the two sides of the stereotype coin, the “savage brute” — the Indian who is hopelessly degenerate — and the “noble savage” — the Indian who is childlike, innocent, and admirably at one with nature. Adherents to the “savage brute” school may think of Indians as animals; adherents to the “noble savage” school may venerate Indians as mystical, ancient elements of nature, hence the “wise old Indian” trope.

Going along with this “noble savage” stereotype about Native peoples is “what geographer William Denevan calls ‘the pristine myth’ — the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost untouched, even Edenic land” (p.5). Mann points out that the modern environmentalist movement has been based on this myth — think of the famous crying Indian commercial from the 70’s. But not only do these ideas of the “noble savage” and the “pristine America” turn Native peoples into something akin to endangered animals whose habitats need protection, they’re also… totally untrue! At least according to Mann and a wave of new research. (Stick with me — examples below…)

Mann’s thesis in this book — and it’s one that totally shocked me, in all honesty — is that the “pristine myth” is totally false, and that Indians from the Amazon to Alaska actually did have an impact on the land — a managerial impact. He takes the opportunity of this book to acquaint us with all sorts of new research about the peoples of the ancient Americas, and I have to say, his research and the research of the experts he interviewed is pretty compelling. According to this book:

  • Indian farmers in Central America were such masterful farmers that they developed  maize — and no one has figured out how they did it yet! In fact, “one writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica” (p.177). EPIC.
  • Plains Indians strategically used fire to maintain North American prairies as essentially a giant game park, while they gathered food and farmed elsewhere, away from the big game. Mann argues that “carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature — but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing” (p.252). MIND. TOTALLY. BLOWN.
  • Amazonian Indians practiced a complex form of agro-forestry and much of the rainforest is actually “managed forests”. In some places that are known to have been inhabited by early Amazonians, “almost half of the ecologically important species are those used by humans for food” (p.304-5), compared to 20% for non-managed forests. In addition, ancient Amazonian Indians had a particular way of enriching the thin tropical soil so much that even today farms are built on “terra preta” left over from their cultivation — and scientists today are still stumped as to how they made it. WHAAAAAT.

Seriously, there were so many mind-blowing revelations in this book that I still feel like I’m reeling, even though I finished reading like a week ago.

Confession Time

Honestly, when I first encountered Mann’s thesis — and even when I got to the part about the prairie being a product of Indian fire management — I was skeptical. I resisted. “But,” I said, “How can I respect Native environmental activists’ authority and self-stated cultural connection with the land if they’ve been CHANGING it this whole time???” I reacted really strongly and had a lot of push-back. I started to get nervous to read the Winona LaDuke  book I’ve got on my list down the road… How could the indigenous inhabitants of this land have authority if they controlled the land just like we do today?

At the end of 1491, Mann has this to say: “Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world’s largest gardens” (p.326).

My push-back was about wanting to hang onto the nice, wise, “noble savage” image that I’d inadvertently embraced. I wanted Indians to be the moral guides, the ones who somehow stay clean and untouched by modern environmental sins. It’s easier that way — Westerners are the bad guys; Indians are the good guys; bada-bing, bada-boom. But you know what? They’re people too! In fact, they’re a LOT of peoples. Some of those peoples (like the Maya) overextended — they tried to live beyond what their land could sustain and it set the stage for political upheaval that probably led to their demise. Some peoples cut down trees to create farms. Some of them maintained forests but encouraged food-bearing trees to grow in greater abundance than the other trees. All of them ate food (plants and animals) and left traces of their existence and affected the land they lived on. The point is that everyone tried to interact with their land in a way that meant survival, and the ones that were most successful for the longest time, it seems, were the ones who also did it with respect, and with a thought to the sustainability of their relationship with their “large gardens”. 

There’s a concept that I’ve heard from multiple Lakota friends I’ve talked to — though I believe it originates with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) — called the “seventh generation.” Basically the idea is that all decisions should be made thinking about the impact of those decisions seven generations from now. To me, this concept sums up how many Indian cultures think about humanity’s relationship with the land. Is it wrong to live in a way that leaves traces on the land? Certainly not! To the contrary, all relationships leave marks on all the participants. However, I think it’s quite possible — even advisable — for humans to relate to and manage the land in a good way that leads to good outcomes for both the land and our descendants in seven generations.

Conclusion

Native peoples still have an authoritative voice as stewards of this land for thousands and thousands of years. They can make mistakes — they’re not perfect either, and they’re not required to be animalistic nature-sprites — they’re human, like the rest of us. But to me, that makes the goal of balance and cooperation with the rest of nature seem all the more attainable and worth pursuing. You don’t have to be a “noble savage” to be an environmentalist — you just have to want your children for the next seven generations to have food to eat and a beautiful place to live. And while the rest of us immigrants have come to live here through violence, we still can share in the responsibility of, as Charles Mann says, “creating the world’s largest gardens” for our children.

Next up: a book that Charles Mann references in 1491 — William Cronon’s  Changes in the Land. Hopefully it won’t take me three months this time! =)

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 13, Boarding Schools & B.S.

In the thirteenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, I read a crappy book, a good book, and a fantastic critical review, and I finally meet Geronimo. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

My Heart Is On the Ground is a crappy book.

my heart is on the ground cover ann rinaldi
Do not pay money for this book!

There’s just no other way to say it, folks. Despite the fact that I knew there was some controversy surrounding this book, I tried to come at it with an open mind. I’ve actually read 8-10 other books by Ann Rinaldi, who is a prolific author of children’s historical fiction, and I really liked some of them. So I really, really tried to give her the benefit of the doubt here.

But once I started reading, there was no denying the awfulness.

From the start of the novel, where Rinaldi has the protagonist, Nannie Little Rose, write her “die-eerie” in stereotypical broken “Indian English”, to the afterword, where Rinaldi says of the Carlisle Indian School children whose gravestones inspired her to create this novel, “I am sure that in whatever Happy Hunting Ground they now reside, they will forgive this artistic license, and even smile upon it” (p.196) — this novel is just bad.

And not only is it bad — it’s just plain fake.

The whole time I was reading, my Spidey senses were tingling. Wouldn’t Nannie say “Lakota” and not “Sioux”? Why did she just blame her chiefs for giving away their land? Did she just describe white people as “very powerful” and say that “They know almost everything on the earth’s surface and in the heavens, also!” (p.7) ?? (No, I did not make that up.)

When I got to the end, I immediately read a review of the book co-authored by Debbie Reese (who runs the blog American Indian Children’s Literature) and eight other native and non-native women. And there, I learned that my Spidey senses had been right.

Rather than re-invent the wheel, I will simply excerpt some of Ms. Reese & co’s fantastic article below. I strongly recommend reading the review in its entirety, as it is impressively thorough and very educational in and of itself. (All quotes below are from the above-linked article by Reese & co. All emphasis is mine.)

In response to Rinaldi’s depiction of Native children wanting to stay at Carlisle rather than go home with their parents:

In her autobiography, Helen Sekaquaptewa (Hopi) remembers that parents taught their children to play a game similar to hide-and-seek to avoid being taken away to boarding school. In Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families 1900-1940, Brenda J. Child (Ojibwe) reports:

“The most painful story of resistance to assimilation programs and compulsory school attendance laws involved the Hopis in Arizona, who surrendered a group of men to the military rather than voluntarily relinquish their children. The Hopi men served time in federal prison at Alcatraz” (p. 13).

Many children died at Carlisle, and they died running away from the institution. Child (1995), in her study of boarding schools, found that running away was a universal thread that ran across boarding schools and across generations. Physical and emotional abuse, including sexual abuse, is well documented in the stories of survivors of the boarding schools in the United States and Canada. Children were beaten and worse for not understanding English, for speaking their languages, for minor infractions of military rule, for running away, even for grieving. Many died of illnesses, many died of abuse, and many died of broken hearts.
On Rinaldi’s appropriation and story-invention of the names of the children who died at Carlisle:
Appropriation of our lives and literatures is nothing new. Our bodies and bones continue to be displayed in museums all over the U.S. and Canada. For the last hundred years, many of our traditional stories have been turned into books for children without permission and with little if any respect given to their origins or sacred content. Now, Rinaldi has taken this appropriation of Native lives and stories one step further. That she would take the names of real Native children from gravestones and make up experiences to go with them is the coldest kind of appropriation. These were children who died lonely and alone, without their parents to comfort them. They were buried without proper ceremony in this lonely and sad place. Native people who visit the cemetery today express a profound sense of sadness.
On Rinaldi’s lack of both accuracy and cultural authenticity:
Contrary to Rinaldi’s statement in the historical note that “most of the graduates were able to earn a living away from the reservation,” and “others went on to higher education,” evidence points to the opposite. Earning a living “away from the reservation” meant going into Indian service and working on a reservation or agency— or in one of the dozens of off-reservation boarding schools modeled after Carlisle. And very few children graduated. Of the total population of 10,000, only 758 students—or fewer than 10%—graduated. More students ran away than graduated—1,758 runaways are documented.
The events in My Heart Is On the Ground are not plausible. In 1880, a Lakota child of the protagonist’s age would have been well-educated by her aunties and grandmothers in Lakota tradition and lore, and ways of seeing the world and behaving in right relation to it. She would probably have had younger children to care for, as well as older sisters in her extended family, her tiospaye, to emulate.
A Lakota child in 1880 would not have referred to herself as “Sioux.” (beginning at p. 6) It is a French corruption of an enemy-name used by the Ojibwe. She would have referred to herself by her band (Sicangu) or location (Spotted Tail Agency) or from a much smaller familial group, her tiospaye. And she would certainly not have referred to Indian men as “braves.”
On putting stereotypes in a Native protagonist’s mouth:
Throughout, Rinaldi uses stereotyped language to express Lakota (or “Indian”) speech and thought patterns. These include over-emphasis on compound words (e.g., “Friend-To-Go-Between-Us,” “Time-That-Was-Before,” “night-middle-made”) to “sound Indian,” when there is no basis for such use. For instance, Rinaldi makes up the term “Friend-To-Go-Between-Us” as Nannie’s word for “interpreter.” Yet there is a Lakota word for “interpreter”: iyeska, literally, one who speaks well. The original term meant “translator,” since most translators at the time were the mixed-blood children of Indian women and white traders.
In response to every possible objection:
Individuals in the field of children’s literature may dismiss our concerns and ask, “But is it a good book?” We think not. From a literary perspective, it lacks consistency and logic. As a work of historical fiction, it is rife with glaring factual errors. As a work of “multicultural” literature, it lacks authenticity.
Seriously, folks — I cannot overstate the awfulness and potential damaging-ness of this book. Please, if you ever see someone about to read it, kindly say to them, “I’ve heard there are some major inaccuracies in that book…” and then send them a link to AICL’s review. (Here it is again, just to keep it handy.) There are WAY better books about both young Native people and the history of Indian boarding schools.
Speaking of which…

A great children’s book about Indian boarding schools

As a native-authored counterpoint to Rinaldi’s disasterpiece, I grabbed a copy of Larry Loyie’s As Long as the Rivers Flow. This beautifully illustrated (and autobiographical) children’s book tells the story of Larry’s last summer before being sent away to boarding school.

larry loyie family illustration
Larry & family (dad, siblings, grandparents) as the kids imitate their owl

This might be like any other “I’m gonna miss my family while I’m away at school” book… except that Larry’s parents were forced by the Canadian government to send him to a mission school for First Nations children or be jailed.

While the bulk of the book focuses on Larry’s time spent with his family (including siblings nursing a baby owl back to health and grandma shooting dead a huge grizzly bear), the epilogue includes photos and biographical information about the time that Larry and his siblings spent attending St. Bernard’s Mission residential school in Alberta.

You may remember from early on in the Little House series that I have previously struggled with how and when children should be told about difficult events. What most impressed me about this book is how truthfully AND appropriately it teaches children about an important topic in our history.

This book was the perfect truthful antidote to Ann Rinaldi’s fake stuff. Difficult truth > easy lies.

Wounded Knee Ch. 17

In this chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, we pick up with the Chiricahua Apaches (whom we saw last in Chapter 9). Their part in this book concludes in what is becoming an all-too-predictable fashion: Indians do things US doesn’t like, US tells Indians to surrender, Indians resist and/or flee for X amount of time, eventually US catches Indians and forces them to go somewhere else than where they want to be. Bada bing, bada boom. It’s like a really predictably awful sitcom, except full of death and sorrow.

Anyway, since that outline is pretty familiar, I’ll just pull out a couple of unique points that struck me while reading the story of the Chiricahua Apaches:

1) It’s cool to see the “character development” of General Crook — he finally treats the Apaches like PEOPLE!

Brown notes this attitude change himself in his narration about Crook, but it’s cool too just to see the change in Crook’s own words. When he is called in by the US to “deal with” the Apaches, his first move is to… search out individual Apaches and sit down to talk with them. I was SHOCKED when I read this! Imagine — asking the people you’re supposed to supervise what THEY think! It’s a sad commentary on the rest of the book that this seems like such a refreshingly novel concept to me at this point. Anyway, here is an excerpt from Crook’s assessment after his chats with some Chiricahua folks:

“I discovered immediately that a general feeling of distrust of our people [whites/Americans] existed among all the bands of the Apaches. It was with much difficulty that I got them to talk, but after breaking down their suspicions they conversed freely with me. They told me … that they had lost confidence in everybody, and did not know whom or what to believe. … [The Apaches] had not only the best reasons for complaining, but had displayed remarkable forbearance in remaining at peace” (p.403-4, emphasis added).

Oh my goodness — THANK YOU FOR ACKNOWLEDGING THIS. I have been SO impressed SO many times with various Indigenous folks’ commitment to honoring their peace agreements throughout this book, and Crook is the FIRST white person in this book to acknowledge the strength of character it takes to get kicked around all the time and STILL keep up your end of the deal. (Again, the fact that he is a rarity speaks volumes about the crappiness of most of the rest of the US representatives in the book.)

2) We finally meet the famous Geronimo and — surprise! — he’s not a fierce, bloodthirsty warmonger.

Geronimo was just another regular guy trying to take care of himself and his people in whatever way he could. But the white newspapers made him into a monster. In fact, one of the strong themes in this chapter is how the anti-Apache sensationalism of the newspapers (beginning with those near the US-Mexico border, which then fed other papers around the country) had a strong negative effect on all efforts to have straightforward communication and relations with the Chiricahuas. In the end, when Crook promised Geronimo & co. a peaceful return to their White Mountain Reservation if they surrendered, stories about “dangerous Geronimo” probably strongly influenced the US Government’s refusal to meet those terms, and the rumors flying around contributed to Geronimo getting spooked and fleeing the scene. After Geronimo fled, the papers eviscerated Crook and he was reprimanded and forced to resign.

3) Carlisle Indian School is far-reaching and terrifying.

After Geronimo & co. were later convinced to surrender, both they and the “friendly” Apaches (including the Aravaipas, who we met back in Chapter 9) were shipped to Florida, where many died from consumption and suffered in the humid climate. (Not quite like Arizona!) Additionally, Brown notes that “the government took all their children away from them and sent them to the Indian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and more than fifty of their children died there” (p.412). This is terrifying and sad, because the government is totally destroying all connection between the generations and all connection to the land each people is tied to, thus totally disintegrating every major thread of the fabric of Apache society (and others…). Not to mention, here they are sending children who are from Arizona, and have been shipped to Florida, to live in Pennsylvania! With no family and maybe no one else who speaks their language! Wow. Talk about total uprooting and disconnection. Seeing it here in the “real life history” section makes Carlisle even more sinister in my brain, and it makes me even madder that Rinaldi portrayed it so falsely and toothlessly.

The Chiricahua Apaches: Where are they now?

Because Florida was such a bad climate for the Chiricahuas, Crook and other white allies worked to get them permission to return to the Southwest. They succeeded — but Arizona refused to allow them inside its borders, so the Mescaleros allowed the Apaches to live on part of their reservation. Today there are two federally-recognized Chiricahua/Apache tribes: one, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, lives in Oklahoma in their tribal jurisdictional area and numbers around 650; the other is the joint Mescalero Apache Tribe, whose reservation is located in south-central New Mexico and numbers just over 3,000 tribal enrollees. You can read more about all the Chiricahua peoples here.

Conclusion

As I near the end of this project, I keep coming back to the importance of telling true stories. When false stories are told, it can do a lot of damage. Rinaldi’s false story has probably taught a lot of children a lot of stereotypes and misinformation about Lakota people and Carlisle. The southern newspapers made the climate incredibly volatile for US-Apache relations in the 1880s. On the other hand, pursuing the true story can also have powerful impact. Larry Loyie’s sharing of his experiences of being torn from his family is a powerful witness that is accessible even to children. When Crook took the time to hear the true story of the Chiricahuas people he was supposed to serve, he gained their trust and did his job better for it (even though his compassion got him fired).

The moral of the story: Take the time to learn the true story. And then, fight the false ones. Because which story we tell matters. 

Tune in next week for Little Town on the Prairie (LH #7) and The Game of Silence (Birchbark House #2 — YAYYYYYY!).

In which I flinch at road signs…

So last night at my church we watched the film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It’s fictionalized but loosely based on the last few chapters of the book by the same title (the one I’m reading). It gives a pretty decent overview of some of the context and events of the Wounded Knee massacre. I’d give it like 3 stars out of 5. (None of the white villains are as evil as Chivington, which made the white “side” a little too sympathetic for my taste, but it did a good job of showing some of the cultural whitewashing and the events surrounding the Dawes Act.)

Anyway. One of the big themes of the film is the power of names, which reminded me of an experience I had last week.

I was driving around the Twin Cities area when all of a sudden I realized — tons of things are named after Indians or generals or other figures or events in Minnesota’s “pioneer history”. A road (and a school) here in Chaska is Pioneer Trail, presumably named for the settlers who came here in wagons to fill the “empty” land. My town, Chaska, is the name of one of the 38+2 Dakota men who were hanged in Mankato in 1862. Heck, our whole state has a Dakota name — Minnesota, “sky-tinted water”.

In the film, the character of Henry Dawes (creator of the Dawes Act) tells Indians gathered to hear his offer for their land to basically “let us not dwell on the past — it’s behind us.” This is a statement I hear a lot when I talk with [non-native] people about Native people and the trauma they have suffered at the hands of white settlers. “That’s ancient history! Why are we still talking about this? It’s in the past!” I often hear. I confess that I myself have thought that.

Well, here’s the thing, folks and past-self — it’s not in the past. It’s literally freaking everywhere, and everywhere we look we can see reminders of the people and events that resulted in the Dakota (or whoever else’s land you’re on) losing their land, much of their way of life, and many relatives who were killed.

Now, when I’m out and about, I literally flinch when I read signs.

“Oh, look — an article in the Pioneer Press — **twitch** — holy crap, our newspaper is still called the name it had when Pa read it during the Long Winter in 1880.”

“Welcome to Sibley County — ARGH! That’s Henry Sibley, an Army general in the Battle of New Ulm who drove the Santee Sioux from Minnesota.”

“25 miles to New Ulm — **flinch** — that’s where Dakota and white settlers fought. There was a battle there.”

“Dinner in Mankato? Whoa, that’s where the largest mass execution in US history took place — and it’s also the name of a Santee man who fought against the settlers, and then was hanged in St. Paul.”

“Ooh, some nice Andrews Sisters music — What? Don’t fence YOU in? Give you land, lots of land??”

SERIOUSLY, PEOPLE — you cannot possibly know the story of this land and NOT have it smack you in the face every. single. day.

And I just learned all this! This has only been happening to me for a few weeks! And none of these people are related to me! And I’m not legally banished from my ancestral homeland because of some of these people!

I don’t know if Dakota and other Native people flinch like I do when they see this stuff — maybe they’re used to it, or maybe they can ignore it, or I don’t know what.

But it bothers me. And it reminds me that there’s a lot more to the story of the land I’m standing on than most of us want to think about today.