Saturday, November 24, 2007

Taos Pueblo and Sacred Lands: A Return to the People

I was recently down in northern New Mexico doing some fieldwork, and visited several of the Native American pueblos in the area. One of my favorite areas has always been Taos and the mountains outside of the pueblo. What many people don't realize is that the Taos indigenous peoples have not always had access to certain parts of the land directly behind their pueblo, despite the fact that it was part of their ancestral homeland for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. All of this changed in 1970 when the U.S. Government returned to Taos pueblo their sacred Blue Lake and the area surrounding it.

Since time immemorial the land, water, and other natural resources in the Taos pueblo indigenous homeland sustained their lives and culture. However, after the arrival of Euroamericans this vast area began to shrink. In 1906 a substantial amount of acreage within Taos pueblo's ancestral domain was designated as National Forest by President Theodore Roosevelt. Within this acreage was Blue Lake, one of the Native American's most important religious site. After this designation the Taos indigenous people had to get permits to worship and conduct ceremonies at their own site. Furthermore, because of public access to the lake and surrounding areas, the sacredness of the site became desecrated: cabins, corrals, and even an outhouse were built within the sacred area.

Now, however, things are different. Several generations of Taos pueblo leaders fought and protested the taking of this religious area. After 70 years of perseverance, 48,000 acres of the Blue Lake area was returned to Taos pueblo by President Nixon in Public Law 91-550. Today, the indigenous peoples of Taos pueblo are able to once again conduct ceremonies, rituals, and other spiritual practices on their traditional land and at some of their traditional sites, such as Blue Lake. This allows them to keep their culture and identity alive.

To me, this is a great story. Although it has many a sad part, what I really like is the fact that through perseverance indigenous peoples can continue to flourish in an age of global hegemony. Much of my work is involved in just such fights, showing that the indigenous peoples have the knowledge, and the right, to manage and maintain their ancestral lands - often to a better degree than Euroamericans do (for example, see this article). I was honored to be in such a beautiful place, and I will continue to advocate for the return of land - or at least co-management of land - to indigenous peoples. Together, we can all make the world a better place.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Menominee Native Americans and Epistemology: Merging the Old with the New

It is often not understood by individuals, policy makers, government officials, and the like exactly how indigenous peoples differ from others. If the indigenous peoples are living in modern houses, use cars, and watch TV, how are they still "indigenous"? And if they are basically "modern", should they get any special treatment or recognition in terms of policy decisions or actions that may effect their traditional homelands? These are tough questions, ones that cannot be easily answered. However, there is one way to begin to answer these questions: by looking at epistemology.

Epistemology is defined as: the method and theory of knowing. Basically, it is one's belief system and cognitive understanding of the world, from their eyes. The key point is that indigenous peoples have a very different epistemology than those of Europeans, Americans, or any other peoples. On top of that, each indigenous tribe often has a unique epistemology from any other indigenous tribe. So, one Native American tribe may have a very different epistemology than another, and these will differ from Canadian First Nation epistemologies and so forth. Sure, there are similarities, but they are not the same. So, rather than looking at the current cultural manifestations (i.e., housing, transportation, electricity, etc.) it is more sound to first examine the epistemology of a group to see exactly how they envision themselves.

An excellent example of this method, and the insights gained from such a method that can then be used in policy decisions, self-determination cases, natural resource management plans, and more is that of Norbet Ross, Doug Medin, and Doug Cox (Epistemological Models and Culture Conflict: Menominee and Euro-American Hunters in Wisconsin [2007], ETHOS, 35(4):478-515). Here is the abstract:

We describe how Menominee Native Americans and Euro-American hunters differ with respect to how they perceive and think about nature (here, specifically animals and plants of the forest) as well as the role of humans in it. We call these models epistemological frameworks - folk theories that allow individuals to make inferences in specific situations, guiding the acquisition and formation of new knowledge. Using an approach that combines ethnographic research from anthropology with experimental approaches from related cognitive sciences, we explore the within- and between-cultural distributions of ideas, values, and beliefs and their behavioral consequences. Findings indicate that stereotyping of other groups is largely driven by differences in epistemological frameworks and resulting categorizations and interpretations of observed or assumed behaviors.

What my colleagues are saying is that the Menominee Native Americans (and other indigenous peoples in general) have a very different epistemology from that of Euroamericans. This means they understand, and view, the world around them very differently. As a result, how each group treats the environment, deals with resource issues, and so forth will differ. All one has to do is look at how the Menominee have managed their environment on their reservation.

The Menominee Native Americans have an international reputation for sustainable forestry. The Menominee forest is richer in larger trees, has a richer mix of species, and is denser even than the Nicollet forest (a state forest preserve area) to the north. It also has a higher per-acre production of timber and maintains a higher number of board feet of commercial species. This is all because of the Menominee epistemology, one that allows them to actively use, and manage, their land economically, sustainably, and productively.

If we could include the epistemologies of indigenous peoples in policies, natural resource management plans, oil development plans, mining impact assessments, and the like, we may be able to better manage our environment and its resources. The logic is simple: a broader epistemology is better than a narrow one. Including indigenous peoples epistemological knowledge is key to the future of our planet. The Menominee Native Americans have demonstrated that if we do, everyone can benefit, the people, the environment, and even Mother Earth.

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