Referencing the recent Coast Salish Gathering of indigenous peoples, Tom Sampson of the Tsartlip First Nation in British Columbia observed, “Our objective here is to turn the tide on all the environmental destruction that the white society has heaped upon us over the past 150 years.” Brian Cladoosby, co-chair of the Coast Salish Gathering and chairman of the Swinomish Tribe in Washington state said: “True leaders have the confidence to stand alone if they must, and make tough decisions. We want to work with the other governments and other communities if we can, but we will continue to look to our traditional strengths and tie our culture to our objectives.”
As a former resident of the Salish Sea that incorporates the famed San Juan Islands in the shadow of Olympic National Park, I can attest to the beauty of the forests and grandeur of the snow-capped volcanoes that — along with Vancouver Island — enclose this magnificent marine sanctuary. As someone who had the good fortune to work alongside the Indian tribes of this area harvesting the once bountiful salmon, I can also testify to the sadness we shared at the devastation of this abundance through the obliteration of the landscape to accommodate the consumer society—a very different kind of culture from that of the aboriginal peoples now seeking to repair the damage.
Having, as well, challenged the wholesale destruction of these same watersheds as a litigation manager for mainstream environmental coalitions, I distinctly recall the need to overcome the consumer philosophy that undergirds the institutions that drive the devastation. While there were, at that time in the early 1990s, some who were ready to reexamine the priorities of white society, most were still hoping to have their cake and eat it, too. Today, I think that many more have come to understand that this is a fantasy of consumerism.
Cladoosby himself pointed out that over the past 150 years of environmental deterioration, there has been a philosophy that people must make as much money as they can without regard for the environment, adding, ”Mother Earth is not a commodity to be dominated and exploited, but rather a gift to be loved and respected.” If, indeed, the time is now opportune to start reversing this catastrophe, the Coast Salish are going to need a lot of friends to help them in this noble endeavor. Given the inevitable opposition from institutions and attacks from organizations still stuck in a destructive, consumptive mindset, the provision of educational, participatory roles for their good-hearted white neighbors is essential.
Joining together in a harmonious way of life is going to be a lot of philosophical work. For some of us, that is going to entail reaching deep into our souls and background to a time and place when our ancestors, too, were indigenous to the landscapes they inhabited and worshiped. It is this knowledge, in the end, that will enable us to put into perspective the culture we are hoping to replace. Sharing this knowledge with our neighbors will help inoculate them against fear-mongering by those we are passing by.
(Jay Taber — recipient of the Defender of Democracy award — is an author, columnist, and research analyst at Public Good Project.)