“We, the children of nature, fight for Mother Earth” said the young Brazilian climate activist at the FridaysForFuture rally in Manhattan last week. Earlier, New York’s Peace Poets advised the large crowd of which I was part to make common cause with indigenous leaders, whose ancestors have been fighting for environmental justice for hundreds of years. It was with those thoughts in mind that I returned to Battery Park the following day, enjoying an exhilarating cycle across the Brooklyn Bridge to visit the Museum of the American Indian.
Prior to the arrival Europeans with our guns, germs and steel, the “infinity of nations” of the American Indians spanned 9,000 miles from the southern tip of Chile to the northern expanse of Canada. It is a vast area, but as the museum’s exhibits illustrate, these disparate societies had, and have, at least one fundamental thing in common: a respect for nature and understanding that humankind is part of an inter-connected eco-system, which has to be respected.
Perhaps because of there is an enduring vein of connection of with nature that permeates through American Indian culture across the millennia, a tour of the museum proceeds geographically rather than chronologically, starting with the Mapuche people of Patagonia, whose medicine men and women use a reve pole, an arresting example of which is on display, to reach the Wenu Mapu – the blue space above in which the deities live.
The Mapuche, one million of whom survive in Chile and Argentina today, like seemingly every other American Indian society included in the museum’s displays, make liberal use of images of the natural world whenever they want to communicate something important. Thus, a deer-head dance stick was used by the Yoeme (Mexico) to commune with other creatures of the Sororan desert. Extraordinarily beautiful Apache baby carriers, which look like giant snow-shoes, are decorated with flowers and plants, so that they children were never apart from nature.
The patterns on a Shipibo (Peruvian Amazon) anibo chomo, a kind of water vessel, seem at first sight to mimic computer circuitry, but were in fact inspired by the veins of a leaf and the skin of an anaconda.
Even the Inuit, scraping out a tough existence in the Arctic cold, still followed the maxim that everything that is useful should also be beautiful and show respect to nature. A James Bay Cree parka coat, essential to survival in everlasting snow, was thus adorned with stunning beadwork depicting delicate flowers that, presumably, manage[d] to thrive in an ice-bound world.
Often the association with nature would have been felt as well as seen. A striking Cree coat from the late eighteenth century Alberta, made from moose hide, has a tight fitting design that would have ensured that the spine of the huge antlered beast that sacrificed its skin in death, would have aligned perfectly with that of its human second-hand wearer.
As far as one can tell from the information on display in the museum, all American Indian societies hunted for food and materials, and many shaped the land to suit human purpose through farming and conurbations. It is a treat to see a cleverly, designed pair of decoy ducks on display were used by Californian Indians 2,000 years ago to lure flesh and blood aquatic birds into a human ambush. Similarly, a lot of beetles must have died to make the shimmeringly beautiful ear-rings of 1930s Ecuadorian Indian.
Every exhibit in the Museum of the American Indian suggests, however, that throughout American Indian culture there was/is an understanding that humans are part of nature, not separate from and above it. For humans to thrive, American Indians understood, other species need to be able to thrive too.
We are reminded daily that this wisdom has been largely forgotten by modern, industrialised societies. One reason, of course, is the brutal near-extermination of American Indian societies as a result of European colonisation, a fact of which I was reminded later in the day while browsing in a Brooklyn record store. I wasn’t looking for more Johnny Cash to add to my collection, but serendipity seemed intervened when I came across his 1964 album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.
Cash was of Cherokee heritage and proud of it, and this record was his attempt to set the record straight on how the West was won. Most memorably, General Custer’s supposedly heroic last stand is re-explained as a series of mishaps and war-crimes: “Custer with victories he was swimming / He killed children, dogs and women / But the General don’t ride so well any more”.
Bitter Tears was partially inspired by a contemporary injustice – the forcible removal of New York State Indians from a reservation granted them in defeat by George Washington, but which 1960s law-breakers deemed no longer of relevance in their desire to build a dam on the land. Fifty years later, indigenous communities are still defending their land – this time against the underground destruction of fracking, tar sand oil extraction, logging, and rain-forest burning – local struggles which support something much bigger: the continued existence of all human life.
The tenor of Cash’s songs are a tribute to a battle that is long lost, but should not be forgotten. On Apache Tears he sings:
Hoof prints and foot prints, deep ruts the wagons made
The victor and the loser came by here
No head stones but these bones bring Mascalero death moans
See the smooth black nuggets by the thousands laying here
Petrified but justified are these Apache tears
That’s not a sentiment that I am yet ready to accept in relation to the climate struggle. True, I have long since given up pretending to be optimistic about our ability to stop climate breakdown. But equally, it serves no useful purpose to be depressed by the continuing ability of a small minority of the human race to put protection of their immediate privilege before the well-being of our whole species. Channeling anger into activism and building the widest possible set of alliances for climate action is where our energy needs to go. And after a short visit to the Museum of the American Indian, I might also add to that short list taking time to be inspired by our sometimes more enlightened aboriginal forebears.