Stereotypes, Native Peoples, and the Environment

I awoke  this morning thinking about my last post. Specifically, I was thinking about who, in our society, speaks for Mother Earth. I suspect this chain of thought was established a couple of weeks ago, when I was in a meeting. We were talking about the hope of reducing conflict in various parts of the world. I ventured the opinion that given the pace and intensity of climate change, conflict is likely to increase, especially if we do nothing to limit both climate change and its impacts on Third World countries. Then there is the issue of water….

One of the other participants spoke up to thank me for my comments and said something to the effect that, “It is good there are Natives, like yourself, to speak up for the environment.” The speaker is a thoughtful, loving, open person, and I am certain they had no intention of racially stereotyping. Rather, they were noting my heritage and my propensity for bringing us the condition of Pachamama whenever I can do so gainfully.

Yet, the comment is based on a racial stereotype: First Nations people speak for the environment. Of course, we do, and we don’t. I suspect this stereotype is based on a heady combination of vague memories of Chief Dan George sitting atop a horse and crying as he surveyed a devastated landscape, and armloads of New Age books about the ecological awareness of Native peoples. The problem is not that First Nations peoples don’t care about Pachamama, many of us do!  (Notice I keep saying Mother Earth. This is important: the environment is something we manage. Pachamama creates and supports us!) Rather, the stereotype serves to marginalize the concerns of Indigenous peoples.  It’s our job to speak for Mother Earth.

Stereotyping also belies our diversity. Indigenous people come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and points of view regarding the environment. There are First Nations people who want to drill for oil on traditionally sacred lands, cut every last tree in the forest, or who see no problem in hunting species to extinction. We are a complex and varied lot.

Lastly, First Nations people have no corner on loving Mother Earth. Many non-Natives care passionately about the fate of the natural world. Unfortunately, these people are often labeled, “Environmentalists”, and marginalized as cranks, or do-gooders, who fail, in their naivety, to understand the necessary march of development, and threaten progress. Of course, the label, “environmentalist”, is another stereotype, a gloss covering an enormous range of points of view and concerns.

Human brains, cultures, and societies mirror other natural processes: they are complex, diverse, and have evolved over great spans of time. Stereotypes are algorithms that enable us to process vast quantities of information quickly, maintain group cohesion, and create jokes. They are essential for our survival. Stereotypes can also be destructive, effectively erasing difference, and ultimately a person’s very humanity.

We need Stereotypes to function effectively in the world. We also need to question them sharply, if the world as we know it,  is to survive.

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2 thoughts on “Stereotypes, Native Peoples, and the Environment

  1. hello michael… this is so true, every community has it’s mix of ‘desirability elements’ which varies depending where you stand within it. I’m loving what i’m reading here… found you via your comment at lauras (shine the divine). Really appreciate your thoughts that i’ve read so far, thanks.

    • Hi Suzi,

      I was thinking, as I awoke this morning, that desirability (as a position within a group) is learned. Growing up between cultures – not part of either – surely placed me as desiring inclusion in both. Having polio intensified that hunger to belong. And, of course, I have a lot of mobility for someone between cultures or who is significantly disabled, which confused things even more. While I can be very angry at all this, and am on occasion, I can also appreciate the gifts and learning I have accrued from my life. The spirits and the Creator seem to know what they are doling.

      I stopped by you blog. What lovely photos! I wonder whether I stop creating in the moon’s last quarter. We live in a deep, wide valley, so no Solstice panoramas!

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