Indigenous peoples around the world have for centuries been considered inferior, both racially and culturally, to people of European ancestry. This has certainly been true in the US which has an awful history of systematic violence toward Native Americans by white settlers and governmental actions and policies. Many Christians believed that Indians needed to be “saved” through conversion to the “true faith.” But in recent decades, the traditional spiritual wisdom of our country’s native peoples has gained greater respect as a resource for all of us in a time when answers to our ecological crises are becoming desperately needed.
I grew up with some knowledge of the many injustices inflicted upon Native Americans, but it wasn’t until a graduate course I took almost four decades ago on world religions taught by Thomas Berry that I learned about the significant role indigenous peoples could play in reconnecting the rest of us to the earth. In one of his essays, he wrote:
Fortunately, we have the native peoples of the North American continent what must surely be considered in the immediacy of its experience, in its emotional sensitivities, and in its mode of expressions, one of the most integral traditions of human intimacy with Earth, with the entire range of natural phenomena, and with the many living beings which constitute the life community. Even minimal contact with the native peoples of this continent is often an exhilarating experience in itself, an experience that is heightened rather than diminished by the disintegrating period through which they themselves have passed. In their traditional mystique of Earth, they are emerging as one of our surest guides into a viable future. (TB, 42)
On numerous occasions Berry entered into dialogue with indigenous North Americans who recognized the depth of his appreciation of nature. In a volume of selected texts from Berry’s works, the book’s editors Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim* describe such an encounter:
Berry himself entered many times into dialogue with First Nations leaders, such as at a gathering at Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada. After hearing Berry speak publicly on this occasion, Mohawk leader Tom Porter called him “grandfather.” He observed with great admiration that Berry’s words reminded him of the elders of his youth. (TB, 39)
Berry’s teaching on this subject made a deep impression on me, so I read with great interest a report about a session last week during the Episcopal Church’s General Convention where Native Alaskan Bernadette Demientieff gave a moving description of the effects oil drilling could have on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain and consequently on her people’s way of life. The Refuge was opened up by the current administration and Congress for oil and natural gas exploitation, thereby threatening the native caribou herds which are essential for the Gwich’in people’s existence. For the Gwich’in, the Refuge’s coastal plain is “the sacred place where life begins,” a beautiful phrase many of us might feel describes a particular landscape with special meaning in our lives.
*Tucker and Grim both studied at Fordham University with Thomas Berry. Grim’s dissertation focused on Anishinabe/Ojibway shamanism.