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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

For Future Reference: A Long War Like This

"When people accommodate themselves to a landscape, they learn the parameters of their spiritual existence, although sometimes these boundaries change according to the needs of the people." -Vine Deloria, Jr.

Last Sunday, the 21st of September, I went to a workshop, "Off The Grid Living: In the Urban Ecosystem" hosted by the Ecology Center of San Francisco ( We were a group of nearly 8 people in the outer Sunset, at Ocean Beach. Before taking us outside to demonstrate solar cooking methods and a compostable toilet, Devin of the ecology center raised the question of "appropriate technology."

Appropriate technology: Technology that creates the smallest ecological impact while serving basic human needs. Instead of using the most convoluted and complex technology, appropriate technology is the use of the simplest level of technology that can effectively achieve your goals in a specific landscape.

He then asked the group if they think about how much energy, water and people are consumed for each piece of equipment and hard good they use.

As the workshop went outside to see a solar oven (a cardboard box, covered with a piece of glass, with a black reflective surface inside), Devin explained "this will always work, as long as there is sun."

At this point I was having my regular Duane Big Eagle moment: My Grandpa knew that. Though I cook inside my apartment on electric coils, and while I have a flush toilet and am not composting my own fecal matter, all I could think about was my recent visit to Acoma Pueblo. Old Acoma remains, off the grid.

Some say that we, tribal people, live that way because we have to, not because we want to.

Understanding the relationships that exist between our twisted notions of poverty and wealth requires a shift in perspective, a change of language and a willingness to admit the systematic assault on traditional knowledge and skills. Traditional peoples living traditional lifestyles, the very lifestyles some are creating an industry out of, have been and continue to be punished economically-spiritually-corporally for living those very lives. Identifying necessary skills and appropriate technology requires a specific understanding of poverty and its relationship to wealth as well as a commitment to live in balance. For many traditional people it has become relatively impossible to live a life not bound by the global market and its consumption of land and human labor.

Bilagáanas themselves are writing books about this, "going back." My phone bill recommended one: Ultimate Guide to Wilderness Living: Surviving with Nothing but Your Bare Hands and What You Find in the Woods. "Your ancestors knew this stuff. You don't. But you can rediscover it, everything you need to live off the land for weeks or years. Like starting a fire and making a bow and arrows."

My grandpa knew this stuff. I know this stuff. The question is—who has lost this knowledge and why?

My grandfather raised us on the food his stories grew, here, in the city of San Francisco. He butchered the livestock he raised in our back yard. Our family ate the eggs Mamacita's chickens laid. I helped hide her rooster from the Health Board. When I would visit my Aunti Cora, at that time living in Denver, we'd walk to Kmart across Federal Avenue, and stop to pick the tségha’ nílch’i (wind through the rocks) that grew up through the cement to eat for dinner. We "stole" water to keep her garden.

There is so much tribal people know, technologically and spiritually, and yet tribal lives are viewed as something we are to be rescued from. The people on Acoma are largely viewed as poor. The people on Navajo, living traditional lives, are largely viewed as poor and uneducated. Butchering your own livestock, growing your own food, living without electricity is all seen as a clear indication of poverty—every aspect of our decision to remain who we are as tribal people is seen as a backward step, an inadequacy, an archaism.

If we do not want a five bedroom house, an iPod, a cellular phone, flat screen television or a month's supply of clothing we are viewed as stupid. Our culture is viewed as primitive. If we are fluent in our own language, and speak a little of another tribal language but have accented English, our skill set is thought to be limited, our manner unprofessional. If we have no potable water, or lack enough fuel to burn for heat or to cook our food it must be because we refuse to progress and connect ourselves and our homelands to the rest of the United States.

The material conditions of hunger, illness, and homelessness affect millions of people world wide, but we will never be able to adequately address those problems if we continue to believe that poverty is saying I can't have everything I want and live in the "Versailles House," and if knowing how to manage your iTunes and print your digital photos is considered having skills. Blaming the people for their position in an economic system of inequality side steps the fact that the rich require the poor. In this economy poverty ensures square footage and flat screens.

Every one of us is reeling from this convoluted logic and language. Each of us faces the consequence of decisions made by people so alienated from the land, from each other and from their ancestors and origin stories, that we have homelessness in the midst of a "housing crises." And most eat food other people have cared for, killed and cooked, without even thinking that is strange. Who cooks now days?

Accommodating ourselves to the land requires maturity. And yet we are in the midst of the therapy generation, where I have heard children being told, "you don't have to say hi." These young people are learning they are not bound to acknowledge another human being's presence. And we, each one, live with those instructions. You don't have to stop for people crossing the street. You don't have to stand up for elders who need a seat.

At the end of the Victorian Age, Henry James noted America's movement into "the children's century."

"There is an immense literature entirely addressed to them, in which the kicking of shins and the slapping of faces is much recommended. As a woman of fifty, I protest. I insist on being judged by my peers. It's too late, however, for several millions of little feet are actively engaged in stamping out conversation, and I don't see how they can long fail to keep it under. The future is theirs; maturity will evidently be at an increasing discount. " (From James', The Point of View)

James' body of work reeks of his estrangement to the land. After his first tour of America , following a 20 year stay in England, he wrote the following about the homes he viewed: "We[the homes] are only installments, symbols, stopgaps, 'they practically admitted, and with no shade of embarrassment; 'expensive as we are, we have nothing to do with continuity, responsibility, transmission, and don't in the least care what becomes of us after we have served our present purpose.'"

People are starving. People have no potable water. People are homeless. People are ill. The need for capital and credit is another thing entirely.

On BBC News, in the midst of analysis of the current financial crisis, they aired a brief story about the Kalinago of Dominica. The Kalinago Chief Charles Williams is asking the Kalinago women to marry in, and not leave their homeland. With nearly 3,000 members they are facing the threat of "extinction." The threat of vanishing and the burden on women to change the tide is an old hustle. We indigenous women know it well. What struck me was the grand hope the BBC reporter offered: Cruise ships. Dominca is a cruise destination and the tourism brought in with each boat could bring in thousands of answers to the Kalinago's problem: cash.

Real change, in an attempt to live with the land, will require a change in what is experienced and named as poverty and wealth, as well as the strength to value ourselves and our traditional knowledge and cultural practices. Living off the grid accepts a certain reality as an inevitability, a certain idea of progress and evolution, as does pumping cash into a system that requires inequality and subjection.

Every tribe makes its own decision but we must consider ourselves in our own terms. Survival is a question of language. Can you introduce yourself? Can you recognize your relations? Can you pray? Can you navigate the land without a GPS? Can you grow and recognize food? What type of soil do you have? Is it toxic? Can you butcher a sheep? Can you harvest plants?

"A long war like this makes you realize the society you really prefer." -Gertrude Stein, Wars I Have Seen

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I believe we can be more beautiful than broken. Devotion to language and literature, stories and storytelling, writing and reading will restore humanity and heal severed relations. There is no alibi in being.