By Lenore Three Stars
Recently, I was struck by a headline, “How do we grieve the death of a river?” Winona LaDuke wrote an article about the underlying moral issue of actually poisoning a river to death by dumping toxic mining waste into it. (http://www.winonaladuke.com/news)
The loss of the river was keenly felt by the local indigenous people who had a ancestral and sustaining relationship with the river:
We sing to the river, we baptize the children in this river,
we eat from this river, the river is our life.
I don’t believe that the dominant western culture of the US easily understands having a kinship relationship with a river, or with any part of creation. Thus grieving the death of a river would be considered irregular, at best.
Though LaDuke’s article referred to indigenous people in a remote area of Brazil, the same story is playing out all around us in North America. Like the remote indigenous population in Brazil, native tribes in the United States are not on the public radar. Native American reservations have been treated as both resource colonies and toxic waste sites due to the colonial policies of the U.S. In general, the dominant culture in the U.S. displays limited interest and knowledge regarding the current environmental issues affecting Native American reservations. For instance, the U.S. mined uranium for decades from the late 1940’s on the Navajo reservation in the Southwest. 1300 mines were abandoned. Since then, the Navajo people have struggled to survive the lethal effects of uranium exposure, including poisoned water and soil, and cancers. They continue to seek remedy from environmental laws, regulations, and policies that are not equally applied, a problem referred to as “radiation colonialism.” (http://worlddialogue.org/content.php?id=179)
The issue of environmental injustice against indigenous people in the US can be multiplied many times over, from reservation to reservation. So, I must admit that it was a little galling for me to see such public outrage when Flint, Michigan was subjected to dirty drinking water. “How could that happen in the day and age?!”
Native cultures understand we are more than stewards – we are interdependently related to all creation. In this context, the extent of what it means to poison a river to death cannot be fully expressed in a colonized language. And if we cannot grieve a river poisoned to death, how can we appreciate that we are poisoning the whole planet? Ultimately, there are consequences that cannot be skewed to favor the privileged.
Environmental injustice crowds my mind and tests my heart. I continue to walk the road that leads to Shalom and am encouraged by more fellow travelers.