Wrangling over Sustainability

Cone Flower

We were wrangling recently over the word sustainability: what does it mean for American Indians?

I can readily point to such issues as language preservation, where tribes work diligently to teach language classes. The Osages run regular classes and the grocery store in Fairfax, Oklahoma, places labels in Wah-zha-zhe near some of the popular food items: flour, salt and sugar (wah-sku-uh, ni-skuh-uh and shaw-nee).

A colleague—Rose High Bear (Deg Hit’an Dine, or Athabaskan)–runs a program that interviews elders and holds their stories on film and tape, then releases them to public view.

Her worked is steeped in sustaining Indian ways-of-knowing.

And sometimes information is kept hidden because of the temptation to purloin information and goods.

Judy Bluehorse Skelton (Nez Perce, Cherokee) told a story about the media sensationalism of the herb Echinacea. Judy, a writer, teacher and scholar, said she remembers when Time magazine ran a cover story on Echinacea, also known as a cone flower, and interest in the plant soared.

She said the flower has been used widely by American Indians, and grows readily North America. But following the Time article, one local tribe discovered that whole patches of the flower were yanked from the ground near their home, leaving nothing to re-seed.

Judy wondered if it would help to consider sustainability from an indigenous perspective in which we think of our relationship with water, air, earth, plants, etc., as intrinsically interwoven.

Just for the sake of argument, imagine the earth is a relative. Sure, we’ve heard the phrase that the earth is our mother, but what if the phrase was more than a metaphor: how would your viewpoint change if the earth was indeed a relative? A warm, breathing, sentient being? Would that change how we interact with the earth? Water? Plants?

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
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