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Synthesis/Regeneration 29   (Fall 2002)

The Centrality of Native Americans
to Green Philosophy and Practice

by Rick Whaley, Wisconsin Greens

Because Native Americans are only 1% of the voting population, it’s hard to get the point across. Native American spirituality, politics and practice—all the same in the minds of the leading indigenous activists—are the germinating core of the Greens, in simple and profound ways. Native American theoretical and organizing leadership is central to an American Green revolution the way Marxism once was on other continents.

Native Headwaters

Greens in Wisconsin got their start with the organizing efforts of the late Walt Bresette, Chippewa artist and activist. On July 4 (Walt’s birthday) in 1985, Walter initiated the Lake Superior Greens in the Bayfield/Red Cliff/Superior region. Walt was one of the co-founders of the Upper Great Lakes Green Network and the Wisconsin Green Party (Fall 1988).

Native American theoretical and organizing leadership is central to an American Green revolution the way Marxism once was on other continents.

The beginning of the statewide Greens was really the Witness for Nonviolence (1988–1992) which arose in Milwaukee—with people who concurrently started Milwaukee Area Greens—to document the racist protests to Chippewa treaty-guaranteed Spring spearing fishing in northern lakes (Chippewa-ceded territory). Spearers were called “timber niggers” and Indian women were spit on. A conscious effort was made by Walt and other Witnesses to turn the treaty solidarity into year-round Green work and organizations. Milwaukee Greens were seen as a way to broaden the base of Native solidarity and its inherently Green philosophy as well as work on environmental justice issues in our own place in creation. Treaty Rights, Mining, Urban Green Spaces, Ozone, Recycling were among MAG’s first task forces.

Walt was originally involved with the Rainbow Coalition and tells in Walleye Warriors about trying to get Jesse Jackson to pay attention to Native rights in Wisconsin. But Walter realized (after getting iced by Democratic Congressman David Obey on the nuclear waste issue) that a new party was needed—Native people were the first Greens anyway on this continent in terms of understanding the sacredness of Mother Earth, the unbroken connection of resource exploitation and racism, and the centrality of fighting for place in this era.

The Greens/Green Party USA platform on Native Solidarity was written directly from the Witness-Green treaty rights experience in Wisconsin. Walt Bresette keynoted the Green Gathering in Estes Park, CO in 1996 and spoke many times in Milwaukee, including hosting the 1996 Milwaukee Earth Day celebration. Walt was the initiator of the Seventh Generation Constitutional Amendment and a key anti-mining activist here and with Indigenous Environmental Network.

The Primary Understanding

John Mohawk, who spoke at the first national Greens Gathering in Amherst, Massachusetts in July 1987, provides, to my mind, the most profound theoretical center for Green politics. Marxism, he argues, is the flip side of capitalism, not its opposite or its solution. While he recognizes the contributions of Marxism to fighting the excesses of industrial capitalism, Mohawk poses the wellspring of Green theory: Industrialism in capitalist, socialist or communist countries exists in a colonial relationship to Nature and to indigenous people. The solution is a thorough Native or Green perspective, quite different on the solutions—technological, spiritual, economic, educational, energy and consumer-wise—than that of Labor-Left allies. In Leftist terms, Mohawk would be proposing ecological crisis as the main contradiction and arguing that the old -isms do not address (or will be made irrelevant by) the threat to the very biology of the planet—ozone layer, acid rain, global warming, chemicals disrupting reproduction.

Industrialism in capitalist, socialist or communist countries exists in a colonial relationship to Nature and to indigenous people.

Understanding the Native-rural source waters to the Green current will enhance the ability of urban Left-Greens to work with statewide Greens who, for the most part, come from this different revolutionary tradition. For example, Bresette always argued that Native rights were part of the larger struggle for rural rights, and he and others built alliances with rural whites that last until this day in the anti-mining movement in our state.

The bioregional movement (seeing the land by watersheds and cultural history, not by imposed political boundaries) extends Mohawk’s analysis in its Green City theory. Cities exist in a colonial relationship to rural areas, especially small farms and Native reserves, and to wilderness (mineral, energy, water, and timber resources). The revolutionary question is “how do we live in cities on a planet of inevitably shrinking resources,” not “which class gets the blame and the goodies.” It is no surprise, of course, that the watershed bioregions (flora, fauna, resources) drawn by this modern environmental movement correspond to the hunting regions and cultural-spiritual homelands of first nations on this continent.

Racism and the Land

Native activists know that the struggle to save community (the anti-racist, power struggle) is the same (philosophically and strategically) as the struggle to save mother Earth.

Racism is embedded in the landscape…

Racism is embedded in the landscape and runs as deep as the scarred land of African Americans (the denied promise of 40 acres and a mule, the property stolen outright in Jim Crow era cities and farms, and the forced labor—in the 1920s!—to save the levees of flooding southern rivers). It runs as deep in Texas oil and in the desert soil of the American Southwest where Chicano men were lynched to the same degree as Black men.

To argue the Native core to Green values is not to dismiss the centrality of the African American liberation struggle to the political definition of America, to this central moral dilemma of race in our history, or to the strategic social force African Americans are in urban centers east of the old Mexican territories (US southwest). The African American liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s spawned all the other great social movements of that time—AIM and Red Power, La Raza and the Brown Berets, the women’s movement and anti-war movement and, yes, even the environmental movement.

But African American political thinkers left out the ecology crisis. Native rootedness (“The soil is our ancestors,” Winona LaDuke has said) and indigenous values provide the philosophical and strategic motherlode for Greens.

Their small percentage of population and political power increases 50-fold Native nations’ need for allies over that of the Deep South civil rights struggle. African American have won at least enough influence to deal quickly with racist images in sports, media, and popular culture, in a way Native people have yet to do on Indian mascots and logos.

Shining Examples

Bresette always argued this extra environmental tool tribes bring to the table can save places, resources and rights for many communities. Two of the more striking examples of racism twisted within earth desecration today are the dumping of toxins near communities of color and spraying food with pesticides while farmworkers are still in the field. But sovereignty and treaty strategies are tools only for Indian reservations or treaty-protected public lands until multi-racial alliances build the legal and coalition bridges.

Like the popular star quilt, old themes find new form on the reservations (and shine as examples for allies): satellite-fed radio stations; wind energy; casinos used to fund social services and new economic enterprises; the 7th Generation Constitutional Amendment; and treaty/cultural schools.

Indigenous economic models as well as methods of decision-making are echoed in the Green value of decentralization.

Indigenous economic models as well as methods of decision-making are echoed in the Green value of decentralization. A dissenting tribal group could often go and form their own village while the majority pursued their decision. Unity was held by leaders who spoke well and led by example, not who controlled what position or punishment. If Greens hold to ecology and environmental justice issues as the core of organizing (from the core analysis, core values), and refrain from defining the “one official position” on other issues, working instead for a diversity of approaches and solutions, the circles of empowerment will grow.

The Cities

There is no one group’s experience that can define the sole nature of oppression on Turtle Island. Especially in the urban crisis centers, there is no one analysis or set of solutions or one strategic block of voters. But Native Americans are here in the same numbers that they are on rural reservations. Their issues and perspective are part of the urban mix of poverty in the midst of plenty-for-some.

One of the biggest urban problems is what alternative sentencing programs can we come up with for first-time, non-violent offenders. The restorative justice model used in Milwaukee echoes directly the Navajo reconciliation method.

Further, the bioregionalist movement to re-inhabit cities—restoring urban habitat systems, supporting local sustainable production and trade networks, funding mass transit, recycling and reuse, etc.—is really just an argument for becoming Native to place.

Even though, as a movement and as a country, we have not resolved the old justice contradictions of where classes and genders fit in the social structure or where working and unemployed people fit in the economic system, the question of where humans fit in the eco-system gains primacy with the passing of each day.

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