Never Forget Where You Come From

Nov 15th, 2000 | By | Category: 12-2: Land is Life, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

“What do you people want anyway? We’ve heard the Mericano ask…. Land and life, we have to say for they are one and the same. One cannot exist without the other.”-Simon Ortiz, Acoma poet

Many of us remember the evocative television advertisement where the actor Iron Eyes Cody sheds a tear over litter. Such Native images are often used to convey the idea of saving mother earth. People who accept this image find it difficult to reconcile with what they have seen of some reservations – dilapidated homes, rusted cars, underfed dogs, tumbleweeds, casinos, and coal strip mines. Those who most romanticize American Indians are the quickest to become disillusioned. However, Indians’ relationship with the land is much more complicated than those two black and white images, Iron Eyes Cody v. the tumbleweeds.

Historically, tribal people around the globe have had close ties with the earth. Lakota historian Vine Deloria, Jr., tells the story of the Ponca people who were taken from their range over a century ago and transported against their will to Oklahoma. Otherwise healthy, many Ponca wasted and died from no other discernible cause than separation from their home. As Cheryl Crazy Bull says in this issue, “The land is our relative…. Without land, tribal people lose their identity – the land along with language, spiritual beliefs, and social systems distinguishes tribal people from others.”

To many people in the United States, the Indian reservation is an embarrassment. It represents the American version of apartheid – a prison without walls where the government confined Indians to keep them apart from other Americans. To Indian people the reservation is home, regardless of what it looks like. They have spiritual, emotional, and family ties. Many of their relatives still live there or are buried there, and their creation stories are centered there.

Americans tend to pull up roots and separate from their birthplace, moving from city to city many times. Many of us non-Indians have never visited the graveyards where our ancestors are buried or the houses where our parents were born. Western nations use Earth in the same way, as if we can go to another planet when the air and water become too tainted. On the other hand, tribes are very familiar with the concept of limited resources. They cannot get another reservation if theirs becomes too polluted.

Forced alienation

Nevertheless, federal Indian policies and the resulting poverty over the centuries have alienated Indian people from the land. The federal government divided up communally held property on most Western reservations at the end of the 19th century into individual allotments and opened the “surplus lands” to homesteading by non-Indians. As a result, non-Indians now own the majority of land on some reservations, and the checkerboard ownership pattern defies cohesive management.

The allotments have become useless in many cases. Beginning with the death of the first generation allottee without a will, his or her descendents inherited undivided interests in the acreage. Today an individual may hold pieces on various reservations and get rent checks for as little as ten cents.

Northwest Indian College is encountering this problem when trying to buy land for its new campus. A large portion of the Lummi Reservation in western Washington cannot be developed because it is covered by wetlands or tied up in undivided heirships. The college is looking at several parcels of 80 acres or more, but some of them have 300 owners, each of whom has to be contacted for permission to sell. The number of heirs is constantly changing as people die, and no one even knows where all the heirs live.

On reservations across the country, many heirs cannot identify their land’s location, much less make a living from it. Without a sense of ownership or pride, it is easy to fling soda cans out the window. Without money for a new car, it is practical to keep a disabled car in the yard for spare parts. And without other viable ways of making a living from the land, casinos, waste dumps, and strip mines often mean the difference between starvation and getting by.

Although Indian people in some regions still feed their families by fishing, hunting, or gardening, many more do not. “We have gone from being hunters and gatherers to being couch potatoes,” according to Leland Bordeaux of Sinte Gleska University (SGU) in South Dakota. On most reservations, the land and water are managed by non-Indian scientists working for agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribal fish and game department, the state forestry division, or the U.S. Forest Service.

Re-connection with the land

“Never forget where you come from” is the unspoken mandate that guides everyone who works at Sinte Gleska, according to Nora Antoine of the SGU Policy Institute. SGU and other tribal colleges and universities help students and communities remember where they come from: the land and the associated cultural traditions. As reported in this issue, the colleges gradually are reconciling the people with their land by training natural resource managers, planting gardens, building sustainable models, and raising buffalo.

When Indian students go to large universities, they often find science classes that alienate them further. Biology classes focus upon molecular science first, reducing or eliminating field trips. Class content may seem irrelevant to students’ concerns and may deeply offend their spiritual beliefs. Tribal college science classes, however, often address local issues. At Fort Belknap College in Montana, they test water quality that could be contaminated by an abandoned gold mine. At Turtle Mountain Community College, they study the habitat preferences of mosquitoes and the types of fish on the reservation in North Dakota. Leech Lake Tribal College in Minnesota has developed culturally congruent laboratory protocols that show respect for plants and animals, not allowing dissections, for example.

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