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A totem gesture.

Native American Indians are reaffirming their spiritual connection with their totem animals. By leading campaigns to protect wildlife and the land, says Rupert Isaacson, they are becoming a potent force in the environmental movement

IN THE GATHERING OF THE LORE of the Indians ... one hears only of yesterday. His thoughts are of the past; today is but a living death, and his very being is permeated with the hopelessness of tomorrow." So wrote Edward S Curtis, an ethnological photographer who, in the early 1900s, set out to record what he saw as the dying cultures of Native America.

His book of poignant images of the old war leaders, such as Red Cloud and Sitting Bull and their dispossessed, defeated peoples -- In a Sacred Manner We Live -- still sells today, highlighting now, as then, that America has lost a cultural and spiritual life deeply rooted in a respect for the environment. Since Curtis' day, Indian culture seems to have lost touch with that original ethic. Many reservations now fund themselves from the profits of large Vegas-style casinos. Combine this with the alcoholism and domestic violence that afflict many native, communities and you don't have a very spiritual, let alone environmental picture. Some Indian tribes have come under attack from environmentalists over issues such as subsistence whale and seal harvesting, and alleged overfishing of Pacific salmon. While the US media has given much attention to these aspects of modern Indian life, what has gone largely unnoticed is a resurgence over the past decade of environmental awareness among Indians, manifested in a growing number of campaigns fought on behalf of wildlife and the land.

Totem beasts have been the prime focus of this new Indian environmentalism. Perhaps the most successful has been the wolf conservation programme adopted by the Nez Perce tribe of Idaho. The wolf has always been a totem animal for the Nez Perce. It represents strength of family -- the pack structure taken as an allegory for familial bonding and the importance of a properly functioning clan. Historically, the totem seems to have worked for them. Just over a century ago, when the Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph decided he had seen one treaty too many broken, he abandoned the reservation on which he had been living peacefully for over ten years and took to the warpath. In a running campaign Chief Joseph and his warriors defeated several US army units sent to `pacify' him. Ever since, the Nez Perce have been one of the most politically astute tribes, successfully holding onto their cultural identity.

In the early 1990s, when the US government decided to try reintroducing wolves into several areas of Idaho and Wyoming (which by strange coincidence lay along the very trail that Chief Joseph followed 100 years before), the tribe took the news as something of an omen. But in 1995, a coalition of Idaho sheep ranchers, cattlemen's associations and graziers managed, after an initial release of several wolf pairs, to force their state government to withdraw all official support from the project. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which had until then financed everything pulled out, crippling the project. It looked as though the wolves would have to be rounded up and destroyed, and the reintroduction abandoned.

Enter the Nez Perce. Using money partly earned from their reservations' two casinos, the tribal council's chairman, Sam Penney, offered to underwrite both the costs of reintroducing and monitoring the wolves for an indefinite period once they had established themselves. The deal was worth US$300,000 dollars per year, prompting then state governor Phil Bait to say: "The tribe has heavily subsidised the operation ... They should not be required to do this and should be fully recompensed ..." In fact, the Nez Perce have neither asked for, nor received, any recompense, and the Idaho wolf reintroduction has seen success on a grand scale. In five years, the state's wolves have reached official `recovered' status, meaning that ten packs have established themselves as viable breeding units. This year, wolves tagged in Idaho were spotted as far afield as Oregon and Montana. By breeding with wild wolf populations, these migrant wolves will hopefully augment their species' critically diminished gene pool.

This is despite stiff opposition from rangers for whom the wolves have become a symbol of federal government interference. They are also seen to represent an unacceptable assertion of Indian interests in state land policy, exacerbating the deep antipathy still felt towards Indians by many more conservative whites. And it is true that, by putting into practice their reverence for a totem animal, the Nez Perce have indeed had an impact on Idaho's land policies. The presence of wolves in Idaho's wilderness has resulted in a subsequent tightening of laws controlling the activities of mining, timber and development companies in those wilderness areas which until now have been among the least protected in the USA.


Less contentious is the Fur Seal Stewardship Programme run by the Aleut tribe of the Pribilof Islands, one of several archipelagos that lie in the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia. Here, the purpose is twofold: to conserve the creatures on which the Aleuts (whose elders still call themselves "brothers of the seal"), have traditionally relied, and to provide a focus for the tribe's young people who, like many Native American teenagers caught between the dual demands of tradition and modern life, suffer from a high incidence of drug and alcohol abuse and depression.

Working in conjunction with biologists from the National Marine Mammal Institute in Seattle, and with local hunters and fishermen, the teenagers monitor the overall health of the island seal colonies and help rescue individual animals that have been caught in nets and other debris cast into the sea by Russian and US fishing boats. But it has taken the project some time to get off the ground.

A report to the US magazine Native Peoples, admitted that both the lead biologist, Bruce Robson, and Aquilina Bourdukofsky, the young Aleut woman heading the programme, experienced disaffection from the teenagers at first. Many of the youngsters had drifted so far from the traditional culture that they were only dimly aware of the spiritual connection felt by the elders for the seals and the local marine environment as a whole. Some, moreover, had actively rejected it, both from natural rebelliousness, and because the seals were part of a past too painful to contemplate.


The Aleuts came to the Pribilof Islands as slaves, forcibly put there in the 1800s by Russian seal hunters who needed local labour to process what became, in the 19th century, a fur seal industry. Traditionally, the Aleuts had regarded the Pribilof Islands as off-limits to settlement, considering the archipelago a spiritual power centre that was too dangerous for ordinary human beings to inhabit, and keeping to other nearby island chains instead. There was a deep practicality behind this belief; the Pribilofs were the Aleutian foodstore, home to vast `rookeries' of sea lions, harbour seals and other marine mammals and birds, as well as about 75 per cent of the world's fur seals. By leaving it undisturbed except when hunting, the tribe ensured that the archipelago's plenty, upon which they relied, never diminished. But during the decades of Russian exploitation, the tribe, working in often inhuman conditions, saw the number of fur seals decline from millions to less than 150,000. In 1911, soon after the US government took control of the territory, a ban on fur seal hunting was enforced, to let stocks recover. But this left the Aleuts high and dry; although subsistence hunting was still allowed, the Indians became dependent on the cash economy.

The 20th century's ever-decreasing world market for fur hit them hard. When commercial seal hunting on US territory stopped altogether in 1983, not only did the local economy collapse, but the Aleuts found themselves cast as bad guys by the environmental media. As a measure of the effect of this, the years 1984 and '85 saw more than 100 suicide attempts, four actual suicides and two murders in a village of only 600 people. This was the Pribilof teenagers' legacy.

There is, however, nothing like hands-on experience to create shifts of mind and heart. As well as rescuing thousands of individual animals, the Aleut teenagers have, over the course of several summers, participated in the annual subsistence seal harvest, which involves a complex pattern of rituals, dances and sacred songs in which the hunters honour the lives they take. The result has been a deep and growing commitment to the project, combined with a rediscovery of traditional culture. The programme has received funds from, among others, the State department and various universities, proving that Indian-led environmentalism does not always have to be at loggerheads with government and the Establishment.

Sadly, this is not true of the Buffalo Nations, a grassroots campaign in Wyoming and Montana, aimed at stopping the government's annual winter cull of the Yellowstone bison herd. This is a complicated issue. To all the Plains Indian tribes, the bison have long been the ultimate totem animal. Hunters would routinely set up altars of buffalo bones and worship at them before hunts: "Let us honour the bones," urges one prayer from those times, "of those who gave their flesh to keep us alive." Another pleads: "Buffalo nation, the people are depending on you, so we pray that you will be healthy."

When the bison herds were all but wiped off the face of the Earth -- decimated from an estimated 50 million animals to under 100 individuals in less than a century -- the experience for the already defeated Plains tribes was shattering.

The Yellowstone herd, which is directly descended from those last surviving bison, is of particular spiritual importance to those tribes. It is for this reason that the Indian protestors of the Buffalo Nations group have taken to the field every winter and risked arrest by trying to disrupt the Montana state government's annual cull of the herd. In recent years the Yellowstone bison herd has been reduced by almost half -- from about 4,000 to some 2,400 animals. The reason is not overgrazing -- that would require a much smaller cull, to which the Buffalo Nations protestors say they have no objection. The heavy kill rate has resulted from the fear of Montana's ranchers that bison, who routinely migrate out of the park onto private land every winter, will transmit brucellocis to their cattle.

But several independent environmental groups, however, -- apart from the Buffalo Nations protesters -- have challenged this fear. There has never been a single documented case of bison transferring brucellosis to livestock, says the non-Indian National Wildlife Federation (NWF), who last year offered to pay Montana cattlemen for brucellosis vaccine. It was a move discounted by the state veterinarian. The heavy winter cull continues to take place. However, a second, more powerful Indian environmental organisation has now entered the fray. The Inter Tribal Bison Co-operative (ITBC), a nonprofit coalition of more than 40 tribes across some 17 states, has joined forces with the NWF to lobby the Montana government to severely reduce the cull. Its mission statement is clear: "To restore the bison to Indian Nations in a manner that is compatible with their spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices."

This goes beyond merely demanding a reduction of the Yellowstone cull. The ITBC has been more proactive than that, beginning a programme of raising bison herds on Indian-owned land. This year, ITBC's collective herd rose to some 8,000 animals. And for two years now, the ITBC has asked Yellowstone to allow them to relocate bison that would otherwise be culled onto Indian land, offering to pay the costs involved, so as not to further deplete the already beleaguered bison gene pool. So far, neither the ITBC nor the NWF have received a clear response from the national park. Meanwhile, the Montana state government seems unlikely to take on the call for translocation and a reduced cull. As Steve Tabit, bison project manager of the NWF says: "It is very apparent that this issue is not about brucellosis, but about who controls land in the West ... Pure and simple." He has a point. With the possible exception of the Aleut fur seal programme, most Indian-led environmental projects have a clear political focus. At the time of writing there are several more campaigns underway, including: resistance to uranium mining interests by the Navajo nation; an attempt to stop the dumping of nuclear waste on Indian landby a native group called Honor the Earth; and a call to halt the extraction of water from the Columbia River Gorge from the Indigenous Environmental Network. In some ways, it seems, the old battles over land between Indians and whites are still raging. But this time, with the rehabilitation of their totem beasts, it seems that the Indians are, however, slowly gaining ground.
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Title Annotation:Native American Indians are reaffirming their spiritual connection with their totem animals
Author:Isaacson, Rupert
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2000
Previous Article:The icing on the lake.
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