FROM A BLUE PLANET “is hard to pigeonhole but easy to listen to”—Jeff Wagenheim, Boston Globe
- A collection of nine quintessential CHUCK GREENBERG compositions featuring his trademark lyricon, flutes, and tenor and soprano saxes.
- Features SHADOWFAXers PHIL MAGGINI and CHARLES BISHARAT, as well as ALEX DE GRASSI and others.
- Experienced a limited release in 1991, yet rose to #6 on the Gavin Report Adult Alternative and #12 on Billboard’s Top Adult Alternative.
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Slide one: Eywa and Momoy: Nature as Shamaness in Myth and Film
Slide two: The concept of Mother Earth and Nature is so commonplace today as to have become a virtual cliché. Yet, reverence for a feminized earth has endured for thousands of years among many cultures. Nature as the Divine Feminine may be seen in contemporary stories as well, including the film Avatar. Such staying power in the collective imagination speaks to atavistic impulses that have long been expressed by indigenous cultures in their mythologies. In Avatar, Eywa was the Na’vi “Earth Mother,” who was considered their holiest deity. The California Chumash Indians, former inhabitants of the area extending from Malibu in the south to San Luis Obispo in the north, revered a deity called Momoy, who represented variously an Old Woman, the moon, and jimsonweed.
Slide three:Like Eywa, there are no known images of Momoy, and just as Momoy may be understood as a feminine triunity, so may Eywa, whose pervasive presence throughout Avatar was embodied by the strong female characterizations of the Omaticaya princess, Neytiri; her shamaness mother, Mo’at; and even the anthropologist, Grace Augustine. All three participated in Jake Sully’s initiation into the Omaticaya clan, paralleling Momoy’s triple role of shamaness-moon-entheogen in Chumash rites of passage.
Slide four: Although much has been said about the correlation between Avatar and Native American environmental ethics, the ecopsychological aspect of their relationship has been scarcely examined, if at all. Ecopsychology attempts to understand behavioral and experiential processes as they occur within the environmental constraints of animal-environment systems. By focusing on perception, action, cognition, communication, learning, development, and evolution in all species, it criticizes the inherent dualism of traditional psychology that separates people from others and the natural environment (Krippner 2002). Ecopsychologists theorize that humans are a basic part of a grander system and that the health of this system demands sustainable and mutually nurturing relationships among and between the parts and the whole. Accordingly, to be psychologically healthy, one must acknowledge that the planet is endangered and make real-world efforts to save it.
Along this line, Theodore Roszak (1992) postulated an “ecological unconscious” as the “savage element” in humans “that rises up to meet the environmental need of the time,” providing the impetus for environmentally conscious activism (1992: 96). Such activism is seen in Avatar when the Na’vi were moved to protect their most sacred Tree of Souls against the invading Sky People. The film thus exemplified cinematically what religion historian Roger S. Gottlieb calls “religious environmentalism” (2006).
In contrast to Jungian psychology, which posits a “collective unconscious,” ecopsychology roots psyche within the neoplatonic concept of the anima mundi (Roszak 1992, 1995; Hillman 1995, 2006). The anima mundi obtains a sense of interconnectedness not unlike Eywa’s and that which is expressed in many indigenous hunting traditions, including the Chumash, for whom Momoy may be seen as a correlate to Eywa. The realization of this interconnection and interdependence has been an essential part of shamanic tradition for at least 30,000 years and suggests that the psychological study of shamanism can play a vital role in healing the earth. This is because shamanic healing “is embedded in a place and a history, in the rhythms of climate, in the contours of a landscape where the birds and beasts have been close companions for centuries” (Roszak 1992: 76). Seen this way, shamans were the original psychotherapists.
Slide five: Shamanism could be seen in the Omaticaya high priestess or tsahìk, Mo’at. As the matriarch of the clan and, therefore, in charge of initiation into it, Mo’at attempted to “cure [Sully’s] insanity” through a ritual that would transfer consciousness permanently to his avatar. She was skeptical at first, but ultimately decided that with her daughter, Neytiri, as his guide, there might be a chance for him. She also attempted a consciousness transfer with Dr. Augustine that included group chanting, drumming, music, trance, and exhortations to the dying anthropologist to “pass through the eye of Eywa,” a significant stage of the ritual required for its success. Although entheogens were not specifically mentioned, the scene in the film depicting this ritual glowed with a magical luminescence not unlike the psychedelic visions reported by many users of them, and Neytiri may be seen pouring a liquid substance over Sully.
Slide six: Unlike other Native American tribes whose shamans were traditionally male, some, including the Chumash, were known for having female as well as transgender, or berdache, shamans. One of the shaman’s primary roles was the oversight of rites of adolescent initiation into adulthood. For the Chumash and other Native Americans like the Aztecs, whose Momoy correlate was Tonantzin, the ingestion of Datura, commonly known as jimsonweed or momoy by the Chumash, was a part of this ritual. At puberty both boys and girls participated individually in momoy-induced vision quests under the guidance of a “specialist” who prepared the potion and interpreted their visions afterwards, which may explain Mo’at’s meaning as “dreamcatcher.” These spiritual guides were well-respected because they had personally used Datura enough times—and survived—as to be considered experts in preparing the correct dosage. They also knew what to expect in the way of the hallucinations that resulted from the psychoactive component of Datura and that frequently contained images of animals, which decided a person’s “spirit guardian.” In this way, momoy-the-entheogen became associated with Old Woman Momoy-the-shamaness who presided over the ceremony. So critical to this initiation ritual was the use of momoy that an individual was not considered a true member of the clan unless he or she had taken momoy and had a designated “spirit guardian.”
Momoy as shamaness and spiritual leader is depicted in “Momoy and the Tupnekč,” a narrative in which she adopts a foundling, raises him as a tupnekč (grandchild), initiates him into the momoy cult, teaches him to hunt, and criticizes him when he continues killing animals even though neither he nor she are meat-eaters. At one point she says to herself, “‘He has no sense—he just goes around killing!’” (Blackburn 144). When the tupnekč with the aid of Coyote kills a bear, Momoy is clearly disgusted and says, “‘Have you no sense at all? You are just killing for the sake of killing. The bear was doing no harm,’” indicating a Chumash ecoethical attitude toward hunting (147).
Slide seven: Just as there seemed to have been a “hunter’s code” for the Chumash, so did the Na’vi demonstrate a reverence for life and a desire to heal the breach provoked by its taking. For instance, when alien-cum-native Sully thanked Neytiri, an Omaticaya clan princess of the Na’vi, for saving his life by killing the ferocious viperwolf that had attacked him, she reprimanded him: “Don’t thank for this! This is sad.” She was not pleased to have taken the beast’s life for a reason other than food procurement. It thus became apparent that, as with the Chumash, needless killing and injury were forbidden on Pandora, the mythical planetary setting for Avatar.
Neytiri’s Mother Nature quality also became apparent when she began teaching Sully’s avatar how to live as a Na’vi member. One of his first lessons was the correct way to take the life of an animal. Like many indigenous peoples who participated in rites associated with hunting, fishing, and gathering that embodied an implicit ethic of respect for other forms of life, the Na’vi performed similar rituals following animal and plant life-taking in which they “blessed” the dead and prayed: “Your spirit goes with Eywa.” In this way, the Na’vi affirmed their reverence for Eywa, their “Great Mother.” This ecological ethos may be seen not only in the Na’vi obligatory respect toward prey noted above, but in the close relationship the clans believed was possible with other species. Conversely, such respect for “mother” wisdom contrasted sharply with the apparently masculinist, nonindigenous, “sullied” society of Sully’s before being “reborn” as a member of the Na’vi. The Na’vi worship of Eywa thus resembled the ancient Greek reverence for Gaia, their Earth Mother.
Slide eight: The recognition of feminine energy as transformative energy is apparently what inspired goddess veneration. Women perform this transformation and incarnate this power in their capacity to make milk out of blood and to give birth out of their own bodies to an utterly other creature. As a fertility goddess, Gaia was also a goddess of the underworld, the realm of death. To die was to return to the receptive, generative mother. The earth was womb; burial was in the fetal position. When the world is conceived in cyclical terms, death is the prelude to rebirth. Yet, rebirth is not understood as the return of the same but as transformed consciousness. Because of this, death and new vision are closely intertwined. Gaia was the giver of dreams and omens, of the understanding of the hidden. She was the source of vision—and of lunacy, which is altered vision. She was the moonflower as well as the momoy, the giver of intoxicants as well as the intoxicant itself. In mythology, Pandora was indeed Gaia’s manifestation: the giver of all gifts, those welcomed and those not (Downing 1992).
Slide nine: Ecopsychologically, Gaia may be seen “as a dramatic image of ecological interdependence” and “as the evolutionary heritage that bonds all living things genetically and behaviorally to the biosphere,” according to Roszak (1995: 14). In this expansive view, there is “a deep, abiding connection between psyche and Gaia,” much like the interconnections among life and Eywa on Pandora (15). Eywa thus represented a Gaia-like concept of relationship: “a network of energy that flows through all living things,” as Dr. Augustine explained to the disbelieving invaders, who mocked instead the Na’vi belief system in order to justify their own reprehensible actions: “You throw a stick in the air around here and it’ll land on a sacred fern, for Christ’s sake!” snorted Parker Selfridge, the corporate sycophant in the film. “What the hell have you people been smoking out there? They’re just goddamn trees.”
Dr. Augustine persisted, however, pointing out that an “electrochemical communication between the roots like synapses” existed on Pandora, giving the trees “more connections than the human brain,” providing a means of cultural rootedness and identity among the Na’vi that the invaders decidedly lacked. Such interconnectedness was confirmed by Sully’s bonding with the Tree of Souls that ultimately allowed Eywa to “hear” his request for help and to respond in kind. Eywa’s answer was manifested not only the legendary Giant Leonopteryx, who arrived to transport Sully-cum-Taruk Makto into battle, but by her transformation of the formerly dangerous forest creatures into helpful reinforcements against the invaders. In a telling scene, the vicious viperwolves that had once threatened Sully prior to his “rebirth” now focused instead on the alien attackers.
Sully’s initiation therefore reflected his conversion from a contemporary western perspective into an indigenous ethos. Sully further demonstrated this transformation with his speech: “Look at the world they come from. There is no green there. They killed their Mother.” Sully’s choice of pronouns clearly confirmed his dissociation from the Sky People. As the nefarious Colonel Quaritch sneered, Sully had “gone native.” Moreover, only after Sully was “reborn” as an Omaticaya clan member did he become impassioned sufficiently to rally the Na’vi to defend Pandora. In this way his “rebirth”—his indigenization—resembled a conversion to Gottlieb’s religious environmentalism.
Slide ten: Avatar and Momoy illustrate that by embodying ecoethical worldviews, indigenous myths may inspire caring attitudes and behavior toward nature, or religious environmentalism. No one forced or even advised the formerly apathetic Sully to defend Pandora; he simply did it, as if in response to an inner directive. As explained by psychologist Lionel Corbett, “When the myth in which we live is unconscious, we are like . . . fish in water” (2001: 84). The myth “creates the atmosphere in which we live and is taken for granted. Our fundamental attitudes are then derived from it” (2001: 84). Articulated here is the innate sense of “doing the right thing” when one is guided by a mythopoietic narrative that situates ethics within a “cognitive context,” as J. Baird Callicott has observed (1994: 26).
Such a rapprochement between humans and nature is plausible, ecopsychologist James Hillman suggested, because the individual anima-soul coheres with the anima mundi-World Soul. Accordingly, any “alteration in the human psyche resonates with a change in the psyche of the world,” transforming the collective consciousness in the process (2006: 35). All of this seems to indicate that like the ancient myths that once communicated moral behavior and values, the discourse of environmental ethics will be most effective when the symbolic, non-rational language of poetry is rejoined with scientific observation in mythopoietic narratives. Hopefully, mythology will then be restored to its archaic function of providing individuals and communities with stories that give meaning to their lives and that enable their indigenization to places, thereby instilling a desire to care for the environment—including the city—and each other. And like the last “gift” in Pandora’s basket, hope may be all we have left.
Presented at the Western Region of the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference, Whittier, CA; Mar. 2011
Since its origins during the past quarter century, environmental ethics has morphed into a multidisciplinary field, largely due to an increase in awareness of our planetary ecocrisis combined with what many perceive as the failure of unitary disciplines such as theology, philosophy, and the sciences to engage and adequately address these concerns. Clearly, a new discourse is needed: one that is informed not only by multidisciplinary approaches, but that unifies the collective as well as points toward a more responsible treatment of nature and each other. Thomas Berry is among those who believe “It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. […] The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective,” he claims in The Dream of the Earth (123). The “old story” of which Berry speaks is that of the Bible, which served its followers well until the so-called “enlightenment” that caused many to question the validity of religious claims about the cosmos. On the other hand, many indigenous myths are “old” stories that continue to thrive and retain their cultural influence. Berry suggests that this is because they, unlike those of nonindigenous groups, articulate an innate connection to nature. In Earth’s Insights J. Baird Callicott acknowledges the contribution that many indigenous traditions, by embodying an implicit environmental ethic, can make to understanding how ethics becomes located within a “cognitive context” (xiv). Although he lauds pagan Greek mythology as representing an ecoethical belief in the sanctity of nature, he criticizes it for its anthropocentrism (26). To the contrary, I wish to argue that ancient Greek myths about the indigenous nature goddess Artemis reflect rather a pervasive anthropomorphism, through which a prototypical environmental ethic is projected and may be recognized in the 2009 Academy Award-winning film, Avatar.
One of the earliest records of Artemis in classical Greek myth is found in Hesiod’s Theogony from the eighth century BCE, in which she is identified as the “archeress Artemis,” a daughter of Zeus and Leto and Apollo’s twin. Hesiod’s scant mention of Artemis suggests that she was originally an outsider among the Olympians, according to Robert Pogue Harrison in Forests (21). Her marginal status within the Olympic pantheon supports the theory that Artemis represented a prehistoric nature religion for the ancestral Greeks—or what author Bron Taylor might call dark green religion in his book entitled the same.
According to J. Donald Hughes, Artemis of ancient Greece “resulted from the transformation of a general type that had existed for millennia”: the goddess of the hunt, who was thought to protect wild animals and to exact retribution from hunters for disrespect, improper injury, or needless killing (191). Such a characterization seems logical given hunting’s primacy as a means of sustenance for Paleolithic peoples, who developed oral traditions, myths, and rituals that survived in folk culture, influenced art and literature, and actively inhibited exploitation of wildlife, says Hughes, who deduces an unwritten Artemisian “hunters’ code” that demanded respect for animals and plants and allowed the slaying of game only for human nourishment (194).
As an indigenous hunters’ religion, Artemis’s cult thus preserved beliefs and practices of the Greeks’ early forebears—traditions that were ultimately syncretized with those of other ancient cults. In addition to her prowess as a hunter, the two Homeric Hymns invoking Artemis identify her as a “virgin archer” and “the sacred virgin” (Boer 4, 5). Apparently, it was Artemis’s function to encourage the Greeks to value their “un-erotic,” or virginal, sides, as well as their hunting ability (xi). Possibly because of the archaic associations between Artemis and virginity, her domain came to be defined as chaste as well. Indeed, Hugh Parry asserts that the description of nature in Euripides’ Hippolytus works as a metaphor for Hippolytus’s own virtuous life of dedication to Artemis, making this Greek tragedy the first narrative to equate virginal nature with chastity (281). The environmental relevance of Artemis’s virginity is that everything within her domain—animals, forests, mountains, rivers, and the sea—was sacred to her. As virgin of the woodlands, Artemis inhabited a numinous realm: sacred places where human beings were forbidden access except to worship her, and where her presence could be invoked. In this way, sacred groves with at first undefined borders became dedicated to her, and experience of the divine, metaphorized as rituals, sanctified the settings where these experiences took place.
Artemisian spirituality therefore may be seen as a cultural and religious stance with regard to the environment similar to the one propounded by the indigenous Na’vi in Avatar. Just as there seem to have been specific rules and rituals, or what might be termed “commandments of Artemis,” enjoined upon hunters by tradition and custom, so do the Na’vi demonstrate a reverence for life and a desire to heal the breach provoked by its taking. For example, when Marine-cum-avatar Jake Sully thanks Neytiri, an Omaticaya clan princess of the Na’vi, for saving his life by killing the ferocious creature that has attacked him, she scoffs, “Do not thank me!” for she is not pleased to have taken the beast’s life for a reason other than food procurement. It thus becomes apparent that, as with Artemis’s cults, needless killing and injury are forbidden on Pandora, the mythical planetary setting for Avatar.
Indeed, as with the Greeks, whose ancient ritual associated with hunting, fishing, and gathering embodied an “implicit ethic of respect for other forms of life,” says Hughes, the Na’vi likewise perform a ritual following animal and plant life-taking in which they “bless” the dead and pray: “Your spirit goes with Eywa” (194-95). In this way, the Na’vi affirm their reverence for Eywa, their “Great Mother,” an archetypal figure of whom Artemis was an aspect. Accordingly, “All animals belong to the Great Mother,” says C. G. Jung, “and the killing of any wild animal is a transgression against the mother” (CW 5: 503). As a result, Jung says, “What seems a paradox to the modern mind […] is not one in primal hunting societies that see animals not as game, nor as enemies to be slain, but as powerful beings whose spiritual protectors must be propitiated” (CW 9.1: 427). Such respect for “mother” wisdom directly contrasts with the apparently androcentric, patriarchal nonindigenous society of Sully’s before he is “reborn” as a member of the Na’vi.
In their essay, “Opening Pandora’s Film,” Bron Taylor and Adrian Ivakhiv note this implicit ethic of respect for others that the Na’vi reveal throughout Avatar, calling this sensibility a “holistic ecological spirituality” (386). This ecological ethos may be seen, they maintain, in the Na’vi obligatory respect toward prey, as well as in the close relationship they believe is possible with other species (386). That such an ecoethic is critical for earth and human survival is the message that Avatar director James Cameron seems to be implying, according to Taylor and Ivakhiv, who further conclude that Cameron purposely calls for all humans to “understand their dependence on, and embeddedness in, a biosphere considered sacred” (387). For when the environment is sanctified, people feel more compelled to defend it, just as the Na’vi act to save Pandora (387). Indeed, belief in nature as sacred space is requisite for an ecoethical attitude, as several studies have shown (Jon P. Bloch; Nalini Tarakeshwar et al.).
Their sanctification of nature indicates another parallel between Na’vi beliefs and practices and those of other indigenous cults, including Artemis’s. For the former, their “most sacred place” is the Tree of Souls, where outsiders are forbidden but where clan members believe they may make contact with and hear the voices of their ancestors. The Tree of Souls appears as one of many in an Artemisian-like sacred grove and depicted in the film as bearing luminous, undulating tentacle-like branches.
Like other indigenous mythologies, the Na’vi belief system may be seen also as a repository of “traditional ecological knowledge,” or TEK, which is defined by anthropologist Fikret Berkes as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment” (8). As such, TEK inspires “an ethic of nondominant, respectful human-nature relationship, a sacred ecology” (163). Berkes claims that such a perspective shapes environmental perception, gives meaning to observations of the environment, and provides a fundamental lesson that worldviews do matter (14, 182). In Avatar, TEK may be recognized in the scenes depicting Neytiri teaching Sully the Na’vi language and way of life along with showing him how to hunt and to make a “queue”—the bonding that occurs between hunters and their ikrans, the flying pterodactyl-like beasts they tame and ride by linking their hair braids to tails extending from the creatures’ ears. Neytiri also explains to Sully how to use his queue to bond with the branch-ends of the Tree of Souls, enabling communication with Eywa and thus to Pandora’s “network of energy,” as the film’s anthropologist, Grace Augustine, calls it.
Like Jung, David Abram, Paul Shepard and others, Berkes derives contemporary environmental problems from human “alienation from nature,” but he believes that indigenous, relational epistemologies can teach a way back (3). By learning from indigenous peoples who are not alienated in this way, Berkes argues that it becomes possible to develop “an alternative view of ecosystems [as] pulsating with life and spirit, incorporating people who belong to that land and who have a relationship of peaceful coexistence with other beings” (182). In fact, such a transformation in attitude seems to be precisely what happens to Sully’s avatar during his initiation into the Omaticaya clan. Sully’s “rebirth,” as he calls it, ultimately leads him to visit the Tree of Souls and invoke Eywa’s aid in the Na’vi defense of Home Tree, the gigantic, multi-branching tree where they live, against the Jake’s own Sky People, who closely resemble and sound like Americans, and who are attacking Home Tree in order to gain access to “unobtainium,” the mineral they want that exists nowhere else.
Neytiri, however, advises Sully that Eywa is unlikely to respond to his prayers, for “our Great Mother does not take sides. She protects only the Balance of Life.” Like Artemis, Eywa thus represents not a personal figure but an archetypal concept of relationship: “a network of energy that flows through all living things,” as Augustine explains to the disbelieving invaders, who mock instead the Na’vi belief system in order to justify their own reprehensible actions: “You throw a stick around here and it’ll land on a sacred fern, for Christ’s sake! What the hell have you people been smoking out there? They’re just goddamn trees.” The use of expletives here indicates that for the alien Sky People, the world is profane, not sacred. Augustine persists, however, pointing out that an “electrochemical communication between the roots like synapses” exists on Pandora, giving the trees “more connections than the human brain”—providing, I suggest, a means of cultural rootedness and identity among the Na’vi that the invaders decidedly lack.
Moreover, by virtue of this cultural rootedness and the exhortations of Sully, who has himself become indigenized, so to speak, through his Omaticaya initiation, the Na’vi are ultimately moved to ecoethical action to defend Home Tree. Avatar thus exemplifies cinematically an essential feature of ethopoietic narratives of place: the celebration of natural environments with spiritual value in and of themselves that motivate activism for their protection. Sully’s indigenization therefore reflects his transformed consciousness and ethos that blends the feminine with the heretofore androcentric worldview of the West into an androgynous, Artemisian perspective.
Avatar thus illustrates that by embodying cultural worldviews, indigenous myths may inspire ethical attitudes toward nature by individuals who intuit what is right as opposed to being lectured about what is right. No one forces or even advises Sully to defend Home Tree; he simply does it, as if in response to an inner directive. As psychologist Lionel Corbett posits, “When the myth in which we live is unconscious, we are like a fish in water; the myth creates the atmosphere in which we live and is taken for granted. Our fundamental attitudes are then derived from it” (84). Corbett articulates here the innate sense of “doing the right thing” when one is guided by a living narrative, however unconsciously.
Mythic narratives are critical because they help us to make sense of life, as philosopher Charles Taylor attests in Sources of the Self. Self-identity requires “an orientation to the good” which has to be woven into an understanding of “life as an unfolding story” (47). Accordingly, Taylor says, a “basic condition of making sense of ourselves [is] that we grasp our lives in a narrative” (47). Making sense of life as a story is absolutely obligatory, because in order to have a sense of self, people must have a notion of how they have become and of where they are going (47). Psychotherapists Robert Coles in The Call of Stories and James Hillman in Healing Fiction concur. For in the telling, hearing, and reading of stories one connects with others not only on an interpersonal level, as one identifies with the teller-protagonist, but on an intrapersonal level, i.e. psychically, which Hillman says is “soul-making.” Such a feeling of “uniting” and “convincing” through myth suggests that the coming together for a common cause like environmentalism can only take place when there exists an embedded ethos within a guiding narrative that is recognized and internalized within a community, as the uprising of the Na’vi to defend Home Tree clearly demonstrates.
Avatar thus epitomizes what Callicott has called an “evolutionary-ecological environmental ethic” that is complemented by indigenous ecoethics, which he says can provide “symbols, images, metaphors, analogies, stories, and myths to advance the process of articulating the new postmodern scientific worldview” (192). He admits, however, that “the articulation and dissemination of something so general, multifaceted, and fundamental as a new picture of nature, human nature, and the relationship between the two cannot be effected by a few able writers in each relevant scientific field” (192). This is because, he says, the “process of worldview poiêsis is gradual, cumulative, and ongoing” (192). In other words, like the ancient myths that once communicated moral behavior and values, the discourse of environmental ethics will be most effective when the symbolic, non-rational language of poetry is returned to philosophy, and mythology is restored to its archaic function of providing individuals with narratives that help them make sense of their lives, that enable indigenization to their environments. As Berry says, “It’s all a question of story.”
Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoë Saldana. Twentieth Century Fox, 2009. DVD.
Berkes, Fikret. Sacred Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management. Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis, 1999.
Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1990.
Bloch, Jon P. “Alternative Spirituality and Environmentalism.” Review of Religious Research 40.1 (September 1998): 55-73.
Callicott, J. Baird. Earth’s Insights—A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback. Berkeley: U California P, 1994.
Coles, Robert. The Call of Stories—Teaching and the Moral Imagination. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Corbett, Lionel. 1996. The Religious Function of the Psyche. East Sussex, GB: Brunner-Routledge, 2001.
Euripides. Hippolytus. Trans. E. P. Coleridge. The Internet Classics Archive, n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2010. <http://classics.mit.edu/Euripides/hippolytus.pl.txt>
Harrison, Robert Pogue. Forests—The Shadow of Civilization. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1993.
Hillman, James. Healing Fiction. Putnam, CN: Spring, 1983.
Hughes, J. Donald. “Artemis Goddess of Conservation.” Forest & Conservation History 34.4 (Oct. 1990): 191-97.
Jung, C. G. “The Dual Mother.” The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 5. Bollingen Series 20. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1990. 464-612.
——. “The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales.” The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 9.1. Bollingen Series 20. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1959 (1980). 384-455.
Parry, Hugh. “Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Violence in a Pastoral Landscape.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 95 (1964): 268-82.
Tarakeshwar, Nalini; Aaron B. Swank, Kenneth I. Pargament, and Annette Mahoney. “The Sanctification of Nature and Theological Conservatism: A Study of Opposing Religious Correlates of Environmentalism.” Review of Religious Research 42.4 (Jun. 2001): 387- 404.
Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion—Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley: U California P, 2010.
Taylor, Bron, and Adrian Ivakhiv. “Opening Pandora’s Film.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 4.4 (2010): 384-93.
Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 1989.
Presented at the Mid-Atlantic Region of the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference, New Brunswick, NJ; Mar. 2010
In Memory of Edward C. Fritz (1916-2008)
Discussions about the origins of our environmental predicament inevitably revert to the ongoing polemic created by Lynn White, Jr., in “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” first published in Science in 1967, which blamed the Bible—specifically Genesis—for its exhortation of humans to populate and subjugate nature. On one side of the debate are those who support White’s thesis that “dominionism”—the belief that humans have the God-given right to do with nature as they please—represents an inherently anti-environmental attitude that White claims pervades Christianity. On the other side are Christian apologists who view the directive to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1.28) as a mandate rather for benevolent stewardship that they believe embeds an ethical view of nature. Stewardship, however, has been criticized by radical ecologists as merely a slightly less anthropocentric perspective that still places humans at the top of a hierarchy instead of within an ecocentric paradigm that stresses the interconnectedness of all components of the cosmos.
What commentators on both sides often overlook, however, is the role played by biblical interpretation in the formation of environmental attitudes and how hermeneutic approaches vary widely—from allegorical to literal—among the Christian traditions. Such interpretive multiplicity suggests that the style or even degree of environmental awareness has to do with whether the Bible is understood metaphorically as a mythopoietic work of art or literally as “the Word of God.” Those who apply a literal interpretation to the Bible—or 31% of Americans (78% if those who believe it is the “inspired word of God” are included), according to a 2007 Gallup Poll (1)—tend to see the environment as “desanctified” and to be dominated (hereafter called “dominionism”). On the other hand, those who read it as a metaphor-laden mythology are more likely to see divine immanence in all aspects of place. The findings of many social scientists who have studied the influence of religion on environmental attitudes and behavior seem to support the notion that the most ethical Christian stances toward nature are associated with those who read the Bible as a compilation of allegories that point to greater, invisible truths beyond their literal meanings, whereas the least concern about the environment comes from those—primarily Christian fundamentalists—who insist on strictly historical, literalist readings (Eckberg and Blocker 1996: 343). Why this might be so and how it might be remedied will be the focus of this paper.
One of the problems with White’s critique of Christianity as “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen” (1967: 1205) is that in railing against dominionism, he fails to distinguish between Orthodox and Protestant interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. By conflating Catholicism and Protestantism under the overarching “Christianity,” White neglects the fact that “[f]or the first fifteen hundred years of the Christian era there is little in the history of interpretation of Genesis to support [his] major contentions,” says Peter Harrison, who further maintains that “[p]atristic and medieval accounts of human dominion are not primarily concerned with the exploitation of the natural world [but rather represent] a powerful incentive to bring rebellious carnal impulses under the control of reason” (1999: 90-91). Instead of dominion over the external environment, early Christian exegetes posited it as being over internal nature: the self. Patristic interpretation from the first four centuries of the Common Era thus epitomizes “an allegorical approach to texts which became universal practice during the Middle Ages” (Harrison 1999: 91). As a result, Catholics today are among the least literalist or dominionist interpreters of the Bible.
On the other hand, Conservative Protestant Christians—who are identified as Mormons, Southern Baptists, the Church of Nazarene and Pentecostal Holiness congregants, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses—display the most literalist but least environmentally concerned views, according to Michelle Wolkomir et al. (1997: 343) and Jeanne Kay (1989: 228). These findings support the results of Douglas Lee Eckberg and T. Jean Blocker, who determined that “high sectarianism,” or belief in a literal, dominionist interpretation of the Bible in which nature is desanctified, corresponded with the lowest “greenness” (1997: 348).
Moreover, studies indicate that belief in “sanctified nature”—places considered to possess sacred meaning—has been linked to greater pro-environmentalism. By virtue of their sacredness, such places are “treated with more reverence and respect,” according to Nalini Tarakeshwar et al. (2001: 389), who “identified specific religious and/or spiritual beliefs (i.e., beliefs that nature is sacred) that were predictive of pro-environmental beliefs and behaviors” (2001: 402). Concomitantly, they found “that theological conservativism [linked to dominionism] was associated with lower pro-environmental beliefs, decreased willingness to invest personal funds to protect the environment, and lower involvement in green activities” (2001: 402). The latter findings are borne out by the evangelical Discovery Church’s proposal to build a 2,000-seat megachurch, 1500 parking spaces, and athletic fields totaling about 165,000 square feet for church use only on property zoned as open space near Simi Valley, California (2010: 1). Discovery Church members believe that as a religious institution they should be exempt from zoning laws, even though the open space ordinance was approved by the voters and hailed as a step toward environmental preservation of undeveloped places.
Such disparity in Christian attitudes toward nature reflects not only differences in their reading of scriptures but changes wrought by the Reformation and techno-scientific revolution. In contrast to the patristic era, the seventeenth century saw “‘dominion over the earth’ […] as having to do with the exercise of control not in the mind, but in the natural world,” according to Harrison, who says it was a shift that involved
the collapse of the ‘symbolist mentality’ of the Middle Ages and the radical contraction of sacramentalism, which resulted in a denial of the transcendental significance of the things of nature, the appearance on the religious landscape of this-worldly Protestantism with its attendant work ethic, [and] the new hermeneutics of modernity, which looks to the literal sense as the true meaning of the text. It is this last factor in particular which brings about new readings of the biblical imperative “have dominion.” (1999: 96-97, emphasis added)
Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin both provided “much of the impetus for the literal reading of texts,” says Harrison (1999: 97f), “which meant that natural objects were no longer to be treated as symbols” (1999: 97). This preoccupation with text greatly conflicted with Origen’s earlier teaching that “this visible world teaches about that which is invisible” (1957: 218). In antiquity “the fundamental presupposition of allegorical interpretation meant that natural objects could function, like words, as signs [i.e. metaphors]. A word in scripture would refer to an object, and the object in turn would refer to some theological or moral truth” (Harrison 1999: 97). With the advent of the Reformation, however, “Protestant insistence that only words and not things have referential functions was a major contributing factor [in the] disintegration of this symbolist mentality” (Harrison 1999: 97).
The result of this approach to scripture, Harrison argues, was to read the “injunction to exercise dominion over birds and beasts” as a literal call to the domination of nature, with
its sense no longer being distributed across allegorical, anagogical, or tropological readings. […] With the turn away from allegorical interpretation, the things of nature lost their referential functions, and the dominion over nature spoken of in the book of Genesis took on an unprecedented literal significance. (1999: 97-98)
The Protestant literalist impulse was influenced by another factor that was perhaps even more significant than science: the dearth of sacred religious iconography that had formerly sanctified nature. Prior to the emergence of a widely literate population and scientific advances that enabled the mass production of the Bible, the Church relied upon iconography to dispense its message of salvation through Christ. Elaborate stained glass windows, priestly accoutrements, and rituals such as Mass were designed to impart a sense of sanctification of the natural world and the communitas necessary to maintain public support of the Church. However, in the Protestant eschewal of the rich imagery, celebrations, and rituals of the Church, a void was created, which was in turn filled by words—specifically, the Word. Without a pope or history of allegorical approaches to guide them, Protestants were forced to rely upon essentialist, literal readings of the text for meaning.
Calvinism, which, according to Rosemary Radford Ruether, “dismembered the Medieval sacramental sense of nature,” was particularly at fault during this period for promoting “iconoclastic hostility toward visual art” that resulted in the smashing of stained glass windows, statues, and carvings and the stripping from the churches “of all visible imagery. Only the disembodied Word, descending from the preacher to the ear of the listener, together with music, could be bearers of divine presence” (1996: 328). In doing so, Calvinism “maintained and reinforced the demonic universe. The fallen world, especially physical nature and other human groups outside of the control of the Calvinist church, lay in the grip of the Devil” (1996: 328).
In their hysteria to distance themselves from all Church-related imagery, Protestant reformers hastened to dump the saints and sacred rites as well, demoting them to symbols of demonic paganism. The consequence of this dismantling was that Protestantism, as psychologist C. G. Jung says,
…immediately began to experience the disintegrating and schismatic effect of individual revelation. As soon as the dogmatic fence was broken down and the ritual lost its authority, [humanity] had to face [its] inner experience without the protection and guidance of dogma and ritual, which are the very quintessence of Christian as well as of pagan religious experience. (1958: ¶33)
Consequently, Protestantism “intensified the authority of the Bible as a substitute for the lost authority of the Church” (Jung 1958: ¶34). With no single entity to provide the “last word” then or now, Protestantism has devolved into hundreds of denominations, each vying for position as the “truest” interpretation of the Word while demonstrating an utter lack of interest in the manifold meanings underlying the biblical allegories.
The Reformation thus has held important ramifications for the natural as well as spiritual world, especially as pertaining to the American environment. By eliminating Mary’s divine status, Protestantism demonized all that is feminine, including the earth, a perspective that the Puritans brought with them to the New World. Armed with a capitalistic work ethic that attempted to replace the loss of spiritualism with materialism, the Puritans looked upon America as God’s “providence” to them in the form of “virgin land” to be conquered and controlled. In return for their hard work, the faithful believed that God would grant them material wealth. Paradoxically, however, it was this Puritan anti-spiritualism that spawned both the nature-based Transcendentalism of the nineteenth century and Protestant fundamentalism of the twentieth. While the Transcendentalists, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and his protégé, Henry David Thoreau, represented what is perhaps the first environmentally ethical American religious impulse, their lack of dogmatism and collective rituals combined with a strong esoterism ended in the demise of Transcendentalism, a fate that ultimately befalls all mystical traditions.
Yet, despite Christianity’s excoriation by White and his supporters, Westerners must not overlook what contemporary Christian traditions have to offer in the way of informing more pro-environmental attitudes. Such a study might begin by looking at the Puritan spinoff, Unitarianism, which itself spawned Transcendentalism and eventually merged with Universalism. The Unitarians were the most liberal of Protestant sects during the eighteen-hundreds, having rebelled against the extreme repressiveness of their Puritan heritage. In disdaining dogma, the Unitarians have developed a worldview of tolerance toward all religious traditions that appeals to environmentalists, as evidenced by the rationale given me by my late uncle, Ned Fritz, a life-long environmental activist and contributor to passage of the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, who once said that he joined the Unitarian church years ago when he stopped believing in the Christian God of his Methodist upbringing. In contrast to other sects, Unitarian Universalism takes the focus off Christ and puts it on Christian, or Christ-like—where Jesus arguably wanted it all along.
All the same, it cannot be denied that Unitarian Universalism would not be where it is today without its Puritan parentage and Bible-based background. It stands to reason, therefore, that we might continue to plumb allegorical depths of scripture for greater awareness regarding our environmental problems. Similarly, Jeanne Kay notes:
As a root of our Western intellectual tradition, the Bible and its great religions have some practical advantages in formulating personal environmental ethics for Americans and Europeans that alternative environmental belief systems cannot. […] From a purely pragmatic point of view, the advantage of Christian environmental ethics to Christian or even post-Christian individuals is that Christianity provides them with an entire, self-reinforcing life-world that secular or Eastern beliefs in this country have not fully developed. (1989: 230)
Like it or not, Christians have an ingrained monotheistic worldview that cannot be easily shed. Yet, perhaps they can somehow make it work for rather than against them. The Tarakeshwar et al. study shows that not all biblical interpretations are anti-environmental; indeed, “many modern leaders in the church are able to integrate a concern for the environment within an ‘ecotheology’ that emphasizes the sacred quality of the natural world” (2001: 401). Christian ecotheologist James A. Nash encourages an “alternative method for Christian ethical evaluation [that] is rational reflection on the fullness of human experience, in dialogue with the Bible and Christian tradition, on the one hand, and cultural wisdom, especially the relevant sciences and other religious, moral and philosophical traditions, on the other” (2009: 232, emphasis in orig.). In articulating what environmentalist Bernard Daley Zaleha calls a “Christian Deep Ecology,” Nash contributes to “the emerging naturalistic spiritualities that are variously labeled as naturalistic pantheism, religious naturalism [and] Gaian naturalism,” and establishes what may be termed “Christian pantheism” (2009: 283, 286). Christian pantheism is in some ways a response to the anti-environmentalism of fundamentalist sects, according to Zaleha, who says, “We can now realize with confidence that a Christianity that is genuinely faithful to the teachings of Jesus will having nothing to do with a blind faith in an atoning death of an incarnate God through which we attain some blissful state in a hereafter. This tragic accumulation can now be tossed aside” (2006: 2). Zaleha argues that the view of life and nature as profane allows Christian fundamentalists to disregard the environment. By reinterpreting Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as a call “not to turn away, as we are doing, from a dying Mother Earth,” Zaleha reimagines, and consequently resanctifies, nature (2006: 3). Like the Unitarian Universalists, who have revisioned Protestant Christianity by deemphasizing the figure of Jesus and focusing on his teachings, Zaleha’s Christian pantheism re-creates it as a more ecoethical tradition.
Such biblical revisioning demands metaphorical reading with a mythological perspective. Brian J. Walsh et al. concur in saying that metaphors “are world-formative, they engage in world-construction [and] mediate the worldviews by which we live; they function, therefore, both as visions of the world […] and as visions for the world” (1996: 432, emphasis original). In the contemplation of metaphor one enters the realm of imagination where archetypal images reign supreme. As archetypal psychologist James Hillman says, such “imagining which sees through an event to its image [releases] events from their literal understanding into a mythical appreciation” (2004: 39).
Clearly, then, imagination is vital in order to experience the numinosity of the world and humankind’s place in it, and it will ultimately point to a more environmentally ethical worldview that resanctifies nature, leading “to greater care and investment in its protection,” as the Tarakeshwar study suggests (2001: 389). Cognizant of the connection between the reverence for and the desire to protect nature, church leaders have begun integrating “a concern for the environment with an ‘ecotheology’ that emphasizes the sacred quality of the natural world” (2001: 401). In doing so, they are acknowledging that if Christianity is to remain alive and relevant—that is, sustainable—its metaphors must be resurrected, reinterpreted, and reimagined mythopoietically as environmental ethics. For, in the beginning was not the Word; in the beginning was the Image.
Bakalis, A. 2010. “Discovery Church can move forward on megachurch proposal.” Ventura County Star. Posted February 11, 2010 at 12:24 p.m.; updated February 11, 2010 at 3:08 p.m. Acc. 11 Feb. 2010. >http://www.vcstar.com/news/2010/feb/11/discovery-church- can-move-forward-on-megachurch/<.
Eckberg, Douglas Lee and T. Jean Blocker. “Christianity, Environmentalism, and the Theoretical Problem of Fundamentalism.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 35(4) (1996): 343-55.
Gallup. Ed. Gallup.com. “One-third of Americans Believe the Bible is Literally True.” May 2007. 20 Nov. 2008. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/27682/OneThird-Americans-Believe- Bible-Literally-True.aspx>
Harrison, Peter. “Subduing the Earth: Genesis 1, Early Modern Science, and the Exploitation of Nature.” Journal of Religion 79(1) (Jan., 1999): 86-109.
Hillman, James. Archetypal Psychology. Putnam, CT: Spring, 2004.
Jung, C. G. “Psychology and Religion.” The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 11. Bollingen Series 20. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1958. 1-168.
Kay, Jeanne. “Human Dominion over Nature in the Hebrew Bible.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 79(2) (Jun., 1989): 214-32.
Nash, James A. “The Bible vs. Biodiversity: The Case against Moral Argument from Scripture.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture 3(2) (2009): 213-37.
Origen. The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies. Trans. R. P. Lawson. London: Longman’s, Green, 1957.
Ruether, Rosemary Radford. “Ecofeminism: Symbolic and Social Connections of the Oppression of Women and the Domination of Nature.” This Sacred Earth. Ed. Roger S. Gottlieb. New York: Routledge, 1996. 322-33.
Tarakeshwar, N., A. B. Swank, K. I. Pargament, and Annette Mahoney. “The Sanctification of Nature and Theological Conservatism: A Study of Opposing Religious Correlates of Environmentalism.” Review of Religious Research 2(4) (2001): 387-404.
Walsh, Brian J., Marianne B. Karsh, and Nik Ansell. “Trees, Forestry, and the Responsiveness of Creation.” This Sacred Earth. Ed. Roger S. Gottlieb. New York: Routledge, 1996. 423- 35.
White, Lynn, Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203-07.
Powerpoint presentation of “Strands: Weaving Mythopoietic Narratives of Place as Environmental Ethics”
With co-author Greg Greenberg in Wicazō Ṡa Review 28.2; Nov. 2013: 30-59
Although Native American sacred sites are federally and locally protected, hitches in the laws and rampant urban growth and development have allowed these places to be increasingly threatened with appropriation, exploitation, and destruction by nonnative agents, both governmental and private, who do not in general appreciate their significance to traditional cultures. Because belief in sacred places has been linked to greater environmental awareness and concern, we suggest that conveyance of the inherent sanctity of the land to those who do not share it might encourage a new way of looking at the environment—one that respects it and cares for it because of its innate, multi-cultural meanings. The question becomes: what form should this conveyance of belief take? We argue that analyzing the mythic traditions of three California Indian groups—the Chumash, the Kumeyaay, and the Mojave—will confirm that they, like the stories of many indigenous groups, cohere with traditional ecocultural knowledge and articulate belief in a sanctified environment that inspires its ethical care. Seen this way, Native American narratives have potential as ecoethical discourse that ostensibly might be used during land-use discussions. The mandated consultations of California Senate Bill 18 (2004) and Section 106 (2004) of the National Historic Preservation Act would thus appear to be the latest steps forward in the direction of greater nonindigenous recognition of and respect for ecoethical American Indian worldviews. In so doing, consultations may be construed as facilitating a process of indigenization in nonnative planners and developers that might help them experience a reattachment to place and a desire to care for the environment that seems mandatory in order to avert our intensifying ecocrisis.
Since its origins during the past quarter century, environmental ethics—the study of human interaction with and attitudes toward their surroundings—has morphed into a multidisciplinary field, as awareness of a global ecocrisis grows. Awareness, however, has not always translated into ecoethical attitudes and behavior. Many believe that a new discourse is needed: one that is informed not only by multidisciplinary approaches, but that unifies us collectively and points us toward a more responsible treatment of nature. An ecological and psychological—or ecopsychological—approach to the mythic traditions of three California Indian groups, the Chumash, the Kumeyaay, and the Mojave, will confirm that they, like those of many North American indigenous groups, cohere with traditional ecocultural knowledge and articulate belief in a sanctified environment that inspires its ethical care.
Such belief in sacred places has been linked to greater ecoethical attitudes by social science researchers who collaborated on a study identifying “specific religious and/or spiritual beliefs (i.e., beliefs that nature is sacred) that were predictive of pro-environmental beliefs and behaviors.” Although this study used a subject group of Presbyterian Church members and not indigenes, the implications of its results seem clear: “[S]anctifying nature could lead to greater care and investment in its protection.” Thus, it makes sense that Native American mythic narratives like those of the Chumash, Kumeyaay, and Mojave might provide an expression of the sacredness of places with the goal of protecting them. Because of these attributes, indigenous narratives hold promise for conveying the ecocultural value of places to the generally nonindigenous planning and land development fields.
Moreover, mythic narratives offer a template for community action on the part of tribal members when they perceive their sacred sites to be threatened. This activism was observed when the Kumeyaay of California’s San Diego County succeeded in protecting their most sacred site, Kuuchamaa Mountain (Tecate Peak), from the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) proposal of a power line over it during the 1980s. However, they managed to communicate their belief about the mountain only after tribal members led a group of BLM officials up it, pointing out along the way each specific sacred site and the story behind it.
The intercultural communication problems encountered during negotiations in the Kuuchamaa and other cases have highlighted the need for a mode of discourse that might better facilitate conveyance of the indigenous sense of connection to the land and its sacredness. Current sacred sites legislation strives to address this quandary by mandating consultations between tribal leaders and government agencies before decisions to develop sites having cultural and/or religious value are made. As the task of such consultations is to convey native cultural attachment to specific places and their artifacts, the Kuuchamaa case suggests that Native American mythic narratives may provide a means for expressing ecoethical ideology as well as psychospiritual meaning.
Growing nonindigenous appreciation for tribal traditions combined with increased political influence of Native American groups have led to the adoption and amendment of such laws as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and California’s Sacred Sites Bill (SB 18). Because the latter three mandate consultations between planning and development entities and tribes, we suggest that indigenous myths may be useful for expressing place sanctification during these interactions.
Case studies: the Kumeyaay, Chumash, and Mojave Tribes
The case of cultural site Kuuchamaa shows how a local native group, the Kumeyaay, also known as the Diegueño-Kamia, cooperated with a federal government entity (the BLM) in order to preserve a sacred mountain. Until this event, much of the Kumeyaay spiritual beliefs about Kuuchamaa Mountain had remained secret because of the tribe’s religious views that banned their disclosure. The Kumeyaay believed that speaking about the mountain and the beliefs related to it was forbidden “except on proper occasions.” Inappropriate discussion of either the Kumeyaay religion or Kuuchamaa was thought to result in death.
However, in order to protect Kuuchamaa, Kumeyaay leaders realized the dire need to express the significance of the site, and they decided against tradition to speak up about its religious meaning. The sacred nature of the peak was first brought to the attention of the BLM in 1979 when elders of the tribe publicly identified the site as sacred and requested that a proposed power line be installed below rather than over the mountain. Following this event, BLM officials sought verification of Kuuchamaa’s sacredness “in order to nominate it as a national historic site.” The National Register of Historic Places now lists the mountain from a boundary height of 3000 feet to its peak of 3885 feet—the region considered sacrosanct by the Kumeyaay—as traditional cultural property. Unfortunately, however, being listed in the Register does not guarantee protection; it only specifies that tribes should be consulted before any decision to develop is made.
In order to determine its cultural value, two trips were made to the mountain, during which beliefs about the site were discussed by the Kumeyaay elders, who related to BLM officials how their “Creator God Spirit, Maayhaay, put the mountain there as the most sacred place [and designated it] as the central location for acquiring power for good, healing, and peace.” The mountain was considered more sacred than any other and was declared by Maayhaay to be the home of the tribe’s greatest spirit/prophet, Kuuchamaa, a shaman (kuseyaay) of great power who led and taught the others to be peaceful, cooperative, and helpful. At his death, Kuuchamaa was cremated and his ashes buried on top of the mountain. Through time it became known as a place for healing the sick and for cremating other powerful shamans of the tribe. The personification of the mountain as Kuuchamaa demonstrates Kumeyaay sense of autochthony—a religious experience of belonging to a place.
The legend of Kuuchamaa highlights how a culture’s spiritual attachment to place may be expressed in its mythology. The Kumeyaay are not alone in this regard; many Native American traditions, including another California group, the Chumash, feature similar cosmogonic motifs of sacred place identification in their stories. The Chumash correlate for Kuuchamaa is ˀIwhɨnmuˀu, a mountain on the border between Ventura and Kern counties in the coastal-south-central part of the state, which is mythologized in a story of the same title.
As is Kuuchamaa by the Kumeyaay, ˀIwhɨnmuˀu is revered by the Chumash as a sacred place, although not because of its anthropomorphism but for its herbimorphism. Called Mount Piños by nonindigenous Californians for its bountiful piñon pines that provided the cherished nuts that were ground by native women into meal and flour, ˀIwhɨnmuˀu had the added dimension of being the tallest mountain in the Chumash region. Also like Kuuchamaa, the myth of ˀIwhɨnmuˀu proscribed certain activities; for example, collecting the prized piñon nuts on its ridge was taboo, and those who defied the ˀIwhɨnmuˀu taboos were subject to punishment and death.
As with the Kumeyaay, the Chumash demonstrated their inspiriting of the cosmos by personifying animal, plant, and inorganic worlds. In Chumash mythology, nothing separated humans from their environment or differentiated human from beast, which through their transformation rendered each theoretically comparable to the other. Chumash historian Thomas C. Blackburn notes that the “ecological and philosophical implications of such an ideological structure are of considerable interest” in that they support the notion of an embedded environmental ethic in Chumash oral tradition. This ethos is communicated through narratives that instill the pantheistic concept that “the world is God.”
ˀIwhɨnmuˀu’s cultural significance had to do with its being the mountain that is nearest the center of the traditional Chumash lands that encompassed some or all of what are now Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Kern counties. Because of this it was considered to be the center of the world, or liyikšup—one of three realms in the Chumash cosmos, adding to its sacredness. Similarly for the Mojave of the desert that now bears their name, Avikwame was a sacred mountain and the center of their world. Like Kuuchamaa, Avikwame figures prominently in the Mojave creation myth. Known also as Spirit Mountain, Avikwame rises a mile above the Colorado River near what is now Lake Mead, Nevada, at the southernmost point of the state.
Avikwame is believed to have been settled by Mastamho, the Mojave deity who carried the people on his arms to their new home after arriving by boat at the northern head of the Gulf of California. Although the Mojave more closely resemble other southwestern tribes like the Hopi and Navajo in some ways, one Californian trait they share is the eminence of a hero creator in Mastamho, who functions like Maayhaay for the Kumeyaay. Like Kuuchamaa, Avikwame has been designated a traditional cultural property in its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Through their representations as sacred mountains, ˀIwhɨnmuˀu, Avikwame, and Kuuchamaa illustrate what ethnologist Paul Zolbrod calls cosmo-organisms—entities involved in the creation myths of their cultures. New Mexico, Arizona, and other states in addition to California have sacred mountains that mark places where Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, Yurok, Karok, Tolowa, and other peoples settled upon completing their ancient migrations. Mountains and other cosmo-organisms also mark places where spiritual relationships with the various forms of life who participate in ceremonials were first established. For indigenous cultures, these cosmo-organisms clearly demonstrate the inspiriting of nature.
Although the Chumash “ˀIwhɨnmuˀu Mountain” is not a creation story per se, such as was noted above with the Kumeyaay Kuuchamaa and Mojave Avikwame, it nonetheless functions like them as a mythological narrative of place. By this is meant a story that imparts to its listeners something that may be described as sense of place. In other words, in the telling and hearing of the story, its setting is sanctified beyond even the rest of the natural environment. This perspective—that all nature is sacred, but there are specific sites even more sacred—has been difficult to grasp by nonnatives identifying with organized religions, who are not inclined to view the environment as sacrosanct, according to studies.
From the above discussion, it may be seen that ˀIwhɨnmuˀu, Avikwame, and Kuuchamaa are examples of a type of cultural landscape that anthropologists Richard W. Stoffle et al. call “ecoscapes”—ecological landscapes that express the “special relationship between American Indian cultural landscapes and the natural ecosystems they encompass.” Ecoscapes comprise recognizable terrain like mountains, canyons, or hot springs, and have been named by both Indian and non-Indian people. For example, Kuuchamaa the mountain is said to resemble the Kumeyaay creation being of the same name lying down. Indians ultimately define an ecoscape by incorporating specific geography into their culture and crafting stories about it. In this way, ecoscapes constitute traditional cultural property.
Like the Kumeyaay, the Chumash have succeeded in stopping the development of a sacred site. In 2009, the developer that had applied to build a Marriott hotel complex in Goleta, California, withdrew its request after being threatened with a lawsuit by a group claiming the site had “high cultural and archeological value.” In their lawsuit against the City of Goleta following the City Council’s initial approval of the Marriott, the plaintiffs invoked the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which they said the city violated when it neglected to require an environmental review (ER) of the site. The purpose of the ER would have been to study the expressed concerns of Chumash descendants who asserted that the site was a “‘sensitive Native American cultural resource.’” Although the developer ultimately backed out—a victory for the Chumash plaintiffs and sacred site preservation—this experience highlighted the inadequacies of environmental laws that may mandate certain actions but do not provide for the oversight that would ensure they are followed.
The problem of oversight has been demonstrated by the recent unearthing of human remains believed to be those of ancient indigenes near the Genesis solar energy project 200 miles east of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert. Although the project had been approved, the Colorado River Indian Tribes—a federally recognized group of four tribes that includes the Mojave—whose reservation abuts the project area and who consider it to be on their ancestral lands, complained that they were not consulted beforehand, despite the requirement of such consultations not only in SB 18 and Section 106 of the NHPA, but in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Indians say the discoveries of a human tooth and some burned bone fragments constitute evidence of an Indian cremation site previously undetected in Southern California Edison’s archaeological survey before beginning excavation. When the Indians attempted to rebury the cremains a few hundred feet away, they came upon more ancestral bones, prompting them to demand that the Obama administration step in to slow down the project. The tribes claim that in their rush to build the Genesis solar project, archaeological surveys missed these and another cremation site. Citing the legally powerful NAGPRA, the Indians say Genesis and its transmission line corridor are “proof of damage to sacred lands [and they] are readying court challenges that could alter solar and wind energy projects across the desert.”
Government Resource Planning and Environmental Development
The cases above illustrate that although the establishment of the environmental planning field was intended to serve the common public good, Native American communities have been largely ignored by a mostly Eurocentric group that has “not much involved itself in the concerns of indigenous peoples.” Because of this obliviousness to their culture, indigenous peoples believe that “state-directed land and resource planning has largely failed them.” In fact, the western reliance upon a scientific, “‘rational-comprehensive’” approach to environmental development has “tended to disempower and marginalize indigenous communities and interests, dismiss their cultural, religious, and other concerns as irrational, and ensure the imposition of external values, interests, and plans in indigenous domains.” As a result, Native American groups are overrepresented in the categories of people who lack basic human rights, live in poverty, and work for others under exploitative or unjust conditions.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes case in particular highlights what has been centuries of nonindigenous resistance to American Indian concerns. As David Singleton, a program analyst with the California Native American Heritage Commission, says, “‘We’re at a flash point over a general unwillingness to listen to and respect the tribal perspective and advice.’” This reluctance to consult is reflected by the decades-long collision of interests along the California coast, where urbanization destroyed most Native American village sites, according to archaeologist Jon Erlandson, director of the University of Oregon Museum of Cultural and Natural History who has expertise in the development of California Indian country. “‘The relatively undeveloped deserts are next in line,’” Erlandson says, and they are being threatened by “‘fast-track processes that do not involve a lot of thorough research before building something [and] are setting the stage for future conflicts and potential disasters.’” As a result, developers are learning the hard way that it behooves them not only in terms of intercultural good will but financially “‘to slow down, consult with tribes, and place projects in areas where they do the least amount of damage possible,’” given the strength of the federal and state laws protecting cultural artifacts.
The resolution of this case may come down to one question, according to Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun, who asks, “Does the cultural importance of long-buried Native American remains outweigh the need to rapidly build solar and wind energy projects to meet the enormous threat of global climate change?” Put more bluntly, “should a project like Genesis be scuttled by what an executive for its owner called “‘a diffuse scatter of artifacts’?” Yet, what one person dismisses as a “diffuse scatter,” others consider sacred. Even when asked to compare sites like these to western cemeteries, nonnatives still seem unable to understand the significance of charred bones seemingly strewn haphazardly throughout large expanses of desert.
From the above response by Genesis’s nonnative management, it seems clear that, as Paul Newman famously observed in Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” BLM Deputy State Director Thomas Pogacnik acknowledges that Native Americans are justified for their anger toward his agency’s fast-track process, “given that it relied almost entirely on information provided by developers to determine where to place the first ‘high-priority’ wind and solar projects on public land.” To ameliorate this situation, Pogacnik has promised to include more input from tribes in the future, saying, “‘We learned a lot from that first go-round of projects that there is a better way of doing things.’” Presumably he means that it is more efficient—economically and socially—for all interested parties to consult before undertaking development projects.
Intercultural communication seems to be thwarted by three main barriers preventing regional coordination between tribes and local governments: differences in planning approaches, differences in cultures, and jurisdictional obstacles. Differences in planning approaches and culture are deeply rooted. For one thing, the United States was established through the elimination and displacement of Native Americans by European immigrants, many of whom believed theirs was a superior culture, rationalizing their domination over the native population. These biases allowed the U. S. government to justify the physical removal of native peoples from their homelands through relocation and/or formal and informal policies of extermination, followed by programs of social and political assimilation, most notably involving the separation of Native American children from their families and their ensuing placement in boarding schools. The consequence of this forced segregation is that Euro-American and Native American communities have been psychically and physically isolated from one another in the last two centuries.
Compounding this problem, the U. S. removal policy, which amputated people from their original homelands and their sacred sites, means that many of these traditional cultural places are no longer on native-held land. In fact, according to Native American legislation scholar Amber L. McDonald, the “majority of sacred sites that are outside Native American possession are held by the federal government.” Yet, as the above Genesis project clearly demonstrated, predominantly Euro-American governmental agents continue to make development decisions that impact Native American communities, frequently to their detriment and, arguably, to the detriment of the environment.
From the above it may be seen that western and indigenous people often differ in the ways they view landscapes. For one thing, although western cultures view time as linear and following in a progression, indigenous cultures usually view time as cyclical, and at some places the past is still alive. Additionally, westerners are inclined to perceive a landscape as an observable set of objects that can be utilized, but indigenous cultures tend to perceive themselves as in a constant relationship with the land. This difference in perspective is particularly noticeable in land rights issues. For nonnatives, private ownership often trumps whatever traditional cultural resources there might be on a parcel of land. Such conflict has played out many times despite the existence of the AIRFA.
A major factor in this polemic seems to be that although the AIRFA as originally passed guaranteed religious freedom—the right to continue worshipping and celebrating at sacred places, whether on or off a reservation—it had “no teeth.” What this meant was Native Americans were rarely consulted or even notified before development of a sacred site, and they were consequently forced to file lawsuits to stop the ensuing desecration and damage, as seen in the cases above. In some cases, the Supreme Court has stepped in to decide, as happened in 2000 when a non-Indian landowner sued for the right to cut timber on a Hoopa Valley Tribe White Deerskin Dance Ground in northern California. Although the Court decided in favor of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, the landowner had already begun tree cutting on the site.
A similar case occurred involving Mount Shasta, an extinct volcano in northern California that is spiritually significant to several Indian tribes who considered it eligible for the National Register. The nonindigenous keeper of the Register initially agreed that the mountain deserved protection. However, when local property owners, who wanted a proposed ski lift project to go through, applied pressure, the keeper agreed to tour the site and ultimately changed his mind, allowing the project to go through. It seems the keeper toured the mountain, but did so without consulting with the tribes. As a result, his decision reflected his idea of sacredness—not the tribes’. These two cases thus highlighted the need for a better mode of communicating the sanctity of place to agents with conflicting perspectives about the land. To that end, Section 106 of the NHPA (2004) and SB 18 (2004) were amended and/or enacted.
Place Attachment and Dis-placement
Native American reverence for sacred sites indicates the strong place-sense experienced in traditional cultures. Indeed, attachment to place is the prevailing referent when defining indigenous peoples. Accordingly, place is fundamental to indigenous culture, identity, and social organization. Moreover, it is only within this context that indigenous rights to land and their control of natural resources can be comprehended. Linda Otero, a leader of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, which is working with the Colorado tribes on the Genesis project, observes that even though the remains discovered were outside the reservation boundary, they are part of “‘a living spiritual world’” whose ancestral peace and relationship with the land has been disrupted. Moreover, once disruption occurs, there is “‘no mitigation for such a loss.’” Otero’s comments clearly display the attachment to place experienced by many Indians.
On the other hand, nonindigenous Americans are by definition detached from place—they are dis-placed—thanks to the mass emigration of their forebears from Europe in the 1600s. For these nonnatives, this means that they feel responsibility only to themselves and not to society, according to religions historian Mircea Eliade. For them, “the universe does not properly constitute a cosmos—that is, a living and articulated unity; it is simply the sum of the material reserves and physical energies of the planet.” Ecopsycholgically, lacking an archaic connection to not just land but this land—this place where one finds oneself living—nonnatives “otherize” their surroundings, which become mere objects for exploitation. This literal dislocation from the land of their ancestors has created for many nonindigenous Americans a psycho-spiritual sense of alienation that is explained by Eliade in the following way:
That human beings are born of the earth is a universally disseminated belief. In a number of languages [humans are] called earthborn. It is believed that children “come” from the depths of the earth. … It is the religious experience of autochthony; the feeling is that of belonging to a place, and it is a cosmically structured feeling that goes far beyond family or ancestral solidarity.
Such feelings of place attachment may be broken as a result of transcontinental migration, as when the first Europeans to arrive in the New World abandoned the “religious experience of autochthony” that they felt in the Old World and found instead a hostile environment quite unlike their birth lands. This uprooting must have been disorienting, leading migrants to make sense of their new locale the only way they could: by comparing it to the one described in the one life-governing mythology they had, the Bible. Consequently, Euro-American settling was often regarded as something like Jesus’ wandering in the desert. Nature was now a “howling wilderness” to be tamed and dominated. Colonization became a spiritual quest—a test of faith and endurance whose goal was redemption.
Euro-Americans are further compromised by their rationalistic, anthropocentric worldview that began as human consciousness emerged from its unconscious origins, which has contributed to their sense of separation from the earth. Because of this, the western ethos “has encouraged human alienation from the natural environment,” according to J. Baird Callicott. Moreover, because the Judeo-Christian tradition emerged from the Semitic spiritual perspective of a separate and distinct God, as well as from a patriarchal social structure, sacredness for westerners has overtones of authority, power, distance, and maleness. This psychic separation makes it difficult for Euro-American planners to understand or respect the land-use needs of Native Americans, who have such different worldviews and a much more deeply rooted history in America. This inability to grasp the cultural and religious beliefs that tie native peoples to places presents ongoing challenges for nonindigenous environmental planners and developers.
Changing Perspectives on Place
The NAGPRA was enacted in 1990 by Congress to provide for the protection of Native American graves, particularly those on public, nonreservation lands. The NAGPRA specified that cultural items, including human remains, funerary objects, and sacred artifacts, found to belong to Indians and native Hawaiians must be returned to them. In order to determine the rightful owners of these cultural items, a review committee was to be set up that mandated Native American participation. In addition, the intentional removal or excavation of Native American cultural items from Federal or tribal lands for purposes of discovery or study was permitted only “after consultation with or, in the case of tribal lands, consent of the appropriate (if any) Indian tribe.” However, although the NAGPRA gives federal district courts “jurisdiction over any action brought by any person alleging a violation of this Act” and the authority to enforce its provisions, it does not explicitly address legal ramifications for failing to engage in the mandated consultations. As a result of this inadequacy, the Colorado River Indians’ only recourse was to slow or stop the Genesis project with a lawsuit; they could not bring action for not being consulted before the project was begun. Moreover, if discovery of cultural artifacts had been made on privately owned property, the tribes would have had no recourse whatsoever.
SB 18 (2004) and Section 106 (2004) of the NHPA attempt to broaden awareness of and generate appreciation for Native American sacred places and culture through mandated consultations between tribes and planners. SB 18 requires these consultations “for the purpose of preserving specified places, features, and objects that are located within the city or county’s jurisdiction” to take place prior to the adoption or amendment of a city or county’s general or specific plan. SB 18 defines such discourse as “the meaningful and timely process of seeking, discussing, and considering carefully the views of others, in a manner that is cognizant of all parties’ cultural values and, where feasible, seeking agreement.” In addition, SB 18 specifically mandates the consideration of sacred sites within the planning process. In other words, before a decision can be made about a proposed development, planners must hear what, if any, concerns the local Native American group might have regarding the site’s religious or cultural significance. Native American participation in planning is therefore essential if tribes wish to have any say in what development takes place and where.
The need for SB 18 has arisen due to the past failure to include Native Americans in the planning issues that exist both on and off Indian reservations, as was discussed in the cases above. In addition to cultural preservation, these issues include public health, transportation, and public safety. For years, these concerns have been generally ignored by policy-makers, planners, and developers at the federal, state, and local level. Although the establishment of the planning field was intended to serve the common public good, Indian communities have continued to be neglected by government planners. Yet, incorporating the interests of Indians into the planning system is paramount for greater social equity and stability. Doing so is a challenge, however, when cultural differences and competing interests come into play.
Under the guidelines of Section 106 of the NHPA, planning agencies are required to consult with local tribes about how to identify sacred sites, assess impacts to them, and determine what to do about such impacts. The agency is supposed to make a “reasonable and good faith effort” to locate such places, which must be studied for “protection from destruction or impairment.” Following its 2004 amendment, places have been preserved using Section 106 consultations that have led to agreements between agencies and tribes. Anthropologist Thomas F. King claims that Section 106 consultations, although not highly visible, have brought about cooperation, coordination, and preservation of some places and landscapes.
Although the above stipulations to consult seem to be steps in the right direction insofar as requiring identification and consideration of sacred sites, the onus remains upon the native groups to convey what sanctification means to them, which is not a simple task. To this end, McDonald suggests an education process that enables nonnatives to recognize that while in traditional Indian religions, “all land is sacred,” there are special places that are considered to be even more sacred than others. As noted in the Mojave, Chumash, and Kumeyaay cases above, these sites often include the birthplaces and homes of gods, places where spiritual communion and cleansing may occur, or where the world is believed to have begun. Indeed, she says, “Many Native American religions require that their adherents make pilgrimages to these sites, or that prayers, vision quests, and ceremonies or rituals be held there in a quiet, pristine, undisturbed atmosphere to maintain harmony and balance in the universe.” In other words, these sites are foundational in establishing self and cultural identity.
Moreover, in contrast to the synagogues, churches, temples, and mosques of organized religions, native traditions do not generally use such manmade structures. Unlike Catholicism, whose practitioners may worship at any Catholic church, the particular location of a Native American ceremony is vital to its success. Where places are considered sacred by westerners—for example, Civil War battlefields—they are believed so because some human event occurred there. For most Native Americans, sacred sites have spiritual powers in and of themselves and are not interchangeable. It would be viewed as sacrilegious to substitute another place for an already designated sacred site. Nor may sacred sites be moved or changed, for tampering with the physical structure of a sacred place weakens its spiritual power, renders rituals and prayers ineffective, and risks destroying “an entire ‘site-specific religion.’”
Clearly, sacred places constitute significance for most, if not all, Native Americans, for whom “birds, animals, and plants compose the ‘other peoples’ of creation and, depending on the ceremony, various of these peoples participate in human activities,” says Sioux scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. Compared to monotheists, who see only the action of a single deity as significant, traditional Indian people see the “whole of creation [as] an active participant in ceremonial life.” As a result, nonnatives are not likely to have experienced religion this way, particularly because most churches and synagogues have distinct rituals “designed to denaturalize the buildings” before services can be held there. Nonnative Americans simply have not been on their adopted continent long enough to establish the strong connection to the land and nature that Indians have.
Deloria, Jr. suggests above that the monotheist worldview restricting sacredness to buildings and rituals while “denaturalizing” nature has facilitated environmental alienation. Because western culture tends to privilege human creations over the natural world, many westerners have difficulty understanding the significance of places that lack visible manifestations of such. For example, when westerners see a burial site or a monument, they “may view it as something interesting for purposes of archaeology, or history, architecture, engineering, but its special power eludes” them. They simply do not feel the sacredness. Consequently, it can be difficult for some to understand why such places should be protected.
From a Native American standpoint, the western contribution to the ecocrisis is seen in the “tenaciously held belief that only humans matter in the scheme of things,” says Deloria, Jr. For those followers of Judeo-Christian traditions, human creation as God’s last act after all other creatures privileges humans and allows them through their “claim to naming” to gain “ascendancy over all other beings.” Here Deloria, Jr. reinforces the charge of anthropocentrism made against Christian traditions notably pointed out by Lynn White, Jr. Such self-centeredness exemplifies the disconnection from nature exhibited by many westerners. Deloria, Jr. further observes that western literature and myth contain no stories about ancestors living in a state of wildness. As a result, humans are “created to live an institutional life” which emphasizes control over nonhumans. In this way, the human-environment relationship becomes one of dominator-dominated. Thus commences western history with its creation myth of human alienation, leaving westerners with no narrative that adequately explains how they might relate ethically with the environment.
Intercultural Communication Dysfunction, Responses, and Remedies
The discussions above point to a pervasive intercultural communication dysfunction between native and nonindigenous Americans—issues that California State Bill 18 was designed to address by mandating consultations. As noted, some of the dysfunction may be attributed to a lack of awareness by many Euro-Americans of a religious sense of place attachment. However, the problem of intercultural communication dysfunction is also due in part to the difficulties many Indians have expressing their beliefs to largely nonnative planning groups. One study found that “geographic isolation, lack of resources, and lack of familiarity with planning and the decision-making process,” not to mention the government’s history of reneging on promises, have made many tribes reticent about initiating dialogues with planning groups.
Additionally, information about sacred sites can be strictly confidential, which poses other dilemmas. Secrecy has always existed among many indigenous traditions in part as a polemic against the threat of intrusive religious and political systems. For two millennia the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece were enacted by followers who were sworn not to reveal any of the sacred rituals to outsiders on pain of death, an attitude shared by many native cultures, including the Kumeyaay. Thus, when their elders were asked to go up Kuuchamaa Mountain and describe its significance to BLM officials, many of them debated whether they should do so because, as discussed above, the discussion of religious beliefs was forbidden. The BLM clearly did not understand the spiritual significance of the mountain or that asking the elders to go there meant breaking a taboo. For, the Kumeyaay also believe one must be initiated as a shaman (kuseyaay)—a religious leader—before stepping foot on the mountain, and no shamans existed in the tribe at the time. Despite the agonizing conundrum faced by the Kumeyaay elders, in the end they decided that protecting the mountain trumped concerns about breaking taboos. They concluded that it was better to “go and tell their beliefs in spite of the injunction to maintain them in secrecy.” This episode demonstrated how ingrained confidentiality can be in native traditions and how it can add to communication dysfunction.
The passage of SB 18 may be a positive step forward in resolving the confidentiality issue, as consultations are mandated early in the planning process, allowing the initial information revealed by tribes to be at their discretion. King points out the possibility for consultations to observe these confidentiality issues when potential conflicts are addressed early on “in a congenial, problem-solving way.” For, if agreement is reached, there is no pressure to release the precise locations of sacred places. Conversely, if no agreement can be reached from consultation, then the tribe may still control how much information must be revealed in order to preserve the site. Essentially, under a consultative law, the tribe must weigh its options and come to what it believes is the appropriate decision regarding a particular sacred site.
Besides the confidentiality issue, Native American expression of reverence for their environment in a consultative setting is impeded by language barriers. McDonald argues that one of the main obstacles to legislative protection “is the lack of an adequate definition of the term ‘sacred.’” Part of this problem stems from its multiplicity of meanings. For example, ethnologist Keith H. Basso notes that the Western Apache have three distinct words to delineate sacredness. In addition, “at least three Apache terms could be translated (all of them imprecisely) as meaning ‘spiritual’ or ‘holy,’” and there is no Apache word for the nonnative understanding of nature. In response to this difficulty, McDonald proposes the following definition: “A sacred site is one which is sacred to those practicing traditional native religions or is otherwise of significance according to native tradition.” She includes any land that by U. S. law is confirmed to be sacred or significant according to the Native American tradition. The problem with this definition lies in proving something intangible like sacredness. Nonnative planners are often suspicious of such claims, contributing to intercultural communication dysfunction.
Another response to the above communication problems inherent in discussions between indigenous and nonindigenous resource managers is community-based natural resource management (CBNRM), a planning movement that emerged in the late 1980s. According to Michael Hibbard et al., CBNRM emphasizes planning with a “bottom-up” method and seeks to change the customary “‘environment versus economy’ approach to environmental management by infusing decentralized decision making, stakeholder collaboration, and citizen participation into the process.” CBNRM thus attempts to revision planning as place-based, views problems from a number of standpoints, and tries to balance the needs of the community, environment, and economy. By working with indigenous groups, agencies can access their knowledge and blend it with the western scientific knowledge already applied in land-use planning.
In essence, CBNRM employs collaboration to blend “‘expert’” and “‘folk’” knowledge in local-level decision making, and in doing so, “it recognizes that many indigenous groups have practiced the basic principles of sustained yield, interrelationships, and balance for thousands of years,” say Hibbard et al. In this way, the folk wisdom of many indigenous groups has proven to be invaluable in the resolution of resource management issues. Folk wisdom, or “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK), is defined by environmental anthropologist Fikret Berkes as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment.” As such, TEK inspires “an ethic of nondominant, respectful human-nature relationship, a sacred ecology” that shapes environmental perception, gives meaning to environmental observations, and provides a central lesson that “worldviews do matter.”
As do many others, Berkes derives contemporary environmental problems from western alienation from nature, but he believes that indigenous, relational epistemologies can teach a way back. By learning from indigenous peoples who are not alienated in this way, it is possible to develop “an alternative view of ecosystems [as] pulsating with life and spirit, incorporating people who belong to that land and who have a relationship of peaceful coexistence with other beings.” In other words, TEK, like the belief in sanctified nature, is an element of a group’s mythology as expressed in their narratives.
Narrative Epistemology, Ethics, and Environment
Anishinaabe academic Lawrence W. Gross is among many who believe that for his and other indigenous peoples, “myths teach morality, especially environmental ethics.” Indeed, environmental philosopher Jim Cheney considers it “axiomatic … that a culture that has not been environmentally ruinous in its long membership in the Earth community must … have a sophisticated and effective ethic concerning its presence and practice,” whose endurance he attributes to the “epistemology of stories.” In oral traditions, cultural knowledge is absorbed and revisioned with each telling of a story, as the narrator presents his or her unique adaptation of it. Indeed, perhaps the “primary means by which humans construct worlds is with myths or sacred stories.” Such world creation occurs as successive narrators essentially offer their versions of how the myths “live” through them, thus becoming their “distinct trails through the world.”
Gross and Cheney’s assessments concur with that of many Native Americans, including Deloria, Jr., who view trail and quest myths as containing epistemological truths about how to live correctly—that is, how to live The Indian Way. Myths have long enabled Indians to “find the proper road along which, for the duration of a person’s life, individuals were supposed to walk.” Ecocultural knowledge thus informed mythic narratives about lives lived in “reciprocal communication” with a metahuman world. Myths accordingly served an epistemological function that established a moral universe and worldview not only for the Sioux but for many Indian cultures. This “moral epistemology” becomes ingrained to the point that individuals behave ethically not because they are coerced into do so but because they know it to be right. Their worldviews cohere with environmental ethics to the point that, as First Nations leader Carol Geddes remarks, her Tlingit people “would never have a subject called environmental ethics; it is simply part of the story.”
For the above reasons, the road/trail motif seems to occur universally in many indigenous narratives. For the Southern Paiutes, who, like the Mojave, inhabit the Mojave Desert region, Stoffle et al. identify two types of “songscapes”—cultural landscapes that are related in songs—“one connected with specific trails and the other connected with the trail to the afterlife.” Because the Southern Paiutes built and maintained an intricate system of trails through the rugged desert terrain, mnemonic songs helped the trail runners remember directions. The “trail songs” were so important that only a select few individuals and their families were entrusted with maintaining them and passing them through the generations as cultural heritage. The Mojave are also known for their place-specific songs devised to lead them through the desert.
Another example of ecocultural knowledge may be seen in the Chumash story, “Momoy and the Tupnekč,” in which Old Woman Momoy, an archetypal shamaness figure, adopts a foundling, raises him as a tupnekč (grandchild), initiates him into the toloache (the entheogen Datura) cult, teaches him to hunt, and criticizes him when he continues killing animals even though they are not needed for food. At one point she says to herself, “‘He has no sense—he just goes around killing!’” When the tupnekč with the aid of Coyote kills a bear, Momoy is clearly disgusted and says, “‘Have you no sense at all? You are just killing for the sake of killing. The bear was doing no harm,’” indicating an ecoethical attitude toward hunting.
Ecocultural knowledge may be observed as well in the Kumeyaay myths once told by their shamans (kuseyaay), including the ancestral Kuuchamaa discussed above. Anthropologist Florence C. Shipek notes that the kuseyaay were responsible for transmitting the stories and legends of their ancestors and for maintaining knowledge of the most effective herbs. The myths told by the kuseyaay thus confirmed their mastery at handling some facet of the environment, whether in their knowledge of various food plants, animals, fish, and shellfish, or in controlling the weather. The Kumeyaay thereby demonstrated themselves to be “natural naturalists,” as pioneer ethnographer Washington Matthews identified the tribes he studied.
In their accounting for the “traits and behavioral characteristics of virtually every species,” Zolbrod says that Native American narratives embody ecological knowledge. It is this “systemic observation” that converges with mythopoietic expression, helping to preserve vital cultural knowledge, “often by projecting primordial cosmic origins from elements observed in the everyday world to produce poetically complex” cosmogonic stories, says Zolbrod. For example, Navajo mythological narratives illustrate that for the people,
… if the world they are charged with creating is to be a harmonious one, [it] means observing carefully the features around them as they shape the earth and fill it, and coexisting with its creatures, natural as well as supernatural. … And it means engaging in an ongoing struggle to maintain that delicate harmony—the Navajos call it hozho—if they want the earth to endure and wish themselves to endure upon it.
Zolbrod refers to a oneness with nature experienced by the Navajo as expressed in their stories. By attempting to balance the nature/human dichotomy, hozho reflects the omnipresent paradoxical oppositions of life. In this way, Navajo narratives “account for the duality within an individual that mirrors the dualities without—earth/sky, male/female, life/death.” All myths, of course, strive to bring an awareness of these oppositional dualities, whose resolution can be approached only mythopoietically—that is to say, in the imagination. Like the Chumash, Kumeyaay, Southern Paiute, and Mojave ecoscapes and songscapes described above, Navajo narratives thus may be seen to contain invaluable ecocultural knowledge.
Their myths clearly present the Navajo, Mojave, Chumash, and Kumeyaay—like many American Indians—as “students of their environment, who developed a land ethic based on long-time experience and the recognition of the reciprocity between inanimate and animate, natural and supernatural, inhabitants of the world,” according to Hibbard, et al. In this way their myths embody TEK, allowing them to practice “adaptive land management as environmental conditions changed over time.” For this reason, Indian cultures that have been strongly influenced by North American ecosystems and have clearly influenced North American ecosystems “provide powerful models for understanding the human dimension of ecosystem management.” Clearly, the time has come for planners and developers to cultivate Indian participation in land-use consultations.
The Neo-Romantic Debate
Resistance to Native American mythology may be seen in the pervasive attitude, particularly among contemporary nonindigenous theorists, that the current western interest in indigenous cultures as custodians of a special land wisdom is simply, as Callicott bemoans, “neo-romantic nonsense with an environmental spin.” The problem for radical ecologist Mick Smith is that this attention to indigenous environmental ethics “consistently romanticizes their lives and their relationships to their natural environs,” an outlook that he traces back to European colonialism and its so-called “discovery” of indigenous peoples leading seemingly idyllic lives untouched by western civilization. He thus links European imperialism with the idealization of conquered natives and considers such romanticism naïve and even pathological.
Smith further points to the eradication of numerous species since the encroachment of humans in the Americas as an example of unethical indigenous attitudes toward nature. Others also have questioned practices such as running herds over cliffs or into box canyons during hunts and semi-controlled burns once practiced in Yosemite Valley as signs of non-friendly ecological behavior, but in so doing, they overlook the fact that nonnative Americans have perpetrated far worse on the continent than any Indians, and in a shorter amount of time: the mass extinctions cited by Smith occurred over thousands, as opposed to a few hundred, years. These critics also fail to consider that the seemingly nonecoethical practices took place following Euro-American encroachment and could therefore have been responses to enormous cultural upheaval.
Callicott rebuts Smith and other critics of the “current environmental mystique surrounding American Indians” by saying that the argument over the existence of an environmental ethic within the cognitive cultures indigenous to North America has advanced “without benefit of reference to specific Native American intellectual traditions” In other words, critics have conflated the apparent anti-environmental activities of a few tribes with all, while failing to acknowledge the possibility for ecoethical behavior in unstudied subjects. Callicott maintains that when the beliefs contained in particular cultural materials are examined, an American Indian environmental ethic is, indeed, confirmed.
Callicott further suggests that such generalizing by critics about indigenous traditions is an endemic flaw of occidental thinking that “entrap[s] the intrepid comparativist” by creating “conventional intellectual categories like religion, philosophy, history, and science and all their subdivisions—theology, metaphysics, epistemology, physics, cosmology, [and] ethics,” when for many nonwestern cultures, these “categories” are all contained within their mythologies. By viewing traditional cultures only through a western, postmodern lens, anti-romantic theorists fail to see their own ethnocentric biases. By the same token, neglecting to acknowledge the legitimate need for a nonrationalist, mythological component to ecoethics in order to balance the hyperrationality of purely scientific methodology has enabled planning agencies to contribute, however unwittingly, to intercultural communication dysfunction.
In fact, when studied within the contexts of their actual locations, the evidence shows that indigenous inhabitants of the New World actively managed their natural resources. Accordingly, not only did many indigenes of North and South America not destroy the ecosystems they inhabited, they arguably improved them, as shown by studies that measured biological productivity and diversity. In this way Callicott justifies the study of Native American environmental ethics and refutes the contention that privileging indigenous traditions for their pro-environmentalism amounts merely to impossible utopian yearning.
Just as the observations above argue for indigenous narratives to communicate the sacredness of sites and ecocultural knowledge to nonindigenous planning groups, they suggest also that the development of a nonnative American environmental ethic might be informed somehow by a Native American worldview. The possibility of such an ethos is supported by Deloria, Jr., who notes the “great kinship” between western depth psychology and the American Indian traditions that has been developing. In the former he sees the recognition of a “dissociation in western culture due to its separation from nature” as contrasting with the “Indian psyche that has never experienced such a separation and for whom nature is a living experience and spiritual presence.” This affinity between Native American traditions and depth psychology lends credence to the concept that indigenous narratives embody an ecoethic of human/nature connection.
To the claim above that privileging Native American narratives amounts to “Arcadian romanticism,” ecocritic Gary Snyder responds by interpreting the neo-romantic impulse as “a quest for a sense of place.” He believes it is what compels the current fascination among writers and many young people for Native American lore that teaches about “where we all are. It can’t be learned from anybody else. We have a Western white history of 150 years, but the Native American history may be at least thirty-five thousand years.” Snyder iterates the ecological knowledge contained in indigenous narratives that is lacking in most nonnative stories. He consequently advocates for stories that express “harmony with the local place” and a lifestyle that is sustainable and can be passed on to future generations “because that is how we must learn to live.” Looking to indigenous traditions is therefore not merely romanticism but pragmatism.
All this is not to say that nonnatives should start imitating the myths and rituals of indigenous traditions in order to become more environmentally aware. Such replication was tried in the 1960s, to little avail and much ridicule, as Callicott and Michael P. Nelson point out. They further maintain that “the idea that a culture can simply cut itself off from its own cognitive stem and graft onto another seems most implausible.” Worldviews cannot be put on or taken off like clothing; they come from eons of psychic input. The profound and necessary shift in western cultural attitudes toward nature cannot be achieved simply by assuming the values indigenous to the Americas. For, attitudes and values are acquired from narratives that embed an ecoethical worldview, not by imitation. Ritual imitation might reinforce an already ingrained ethic, but it will not create one. On the other hand, transforming one’s perspective ecopsychologically is possible.
Most Native Americans, moreover, do not want nonnatives adopting their religions. A main concern is that if a site “is declared sacred it will be invaded by hundreds of New Agers looking for a spiritual experience,” Deloria, Jr. says. From his perspective, these imitative actions desecrate sites as much as vandalism or development of the place. Rather, attitudinal change must come not only from within an internalized “shift” toward a pantheistic worldview, but from an expansion of awareness of what tribally-centered oral traditions can contribute, as the Mojave, Kumeyaay, and Chumash demonstrate with their cosmogonic myths of Avikwame, Kuuchamaa, and ˀIwhɨnmuˀu, respectively.
Sioux member and scholar Philip J. Deloria suggests, and we concur, that developing such an awareness is not so much about a desire to become Indian as it is “a longing for the utopian experience of being in-between, of living a paradoxical moment.” What this means ecopsychologically is that in its attempt to balance the oppositions of life, the romantic impulse promotes a transformation of attitude. In the same way, adoption/adaption of a native ethos is not about playing Indian or deifying “savages”—it is rather about revisioning the native ethos into an ecoethical worldview that works for nonnatives as well by allowing them an indigenous perspective. The mandated consultations of the Sacred Sites Bill and Section 106 of the NHPA would thus appear to be the latest steps forward in the direction of nonindigenous recognition of the ecoethical Indian Way. In so doing, consultations may be construed as facilitating a process of indigenization that might help nonnatives experience a reattachment to place and a desire to care for the environment that seems mandatory in order to avert our intensifying ecocrisis.
With co-author Sadia Chérif in Veldman, Szasz, and Haluza-DeLay (eds.) How the World’s Religions Are Responding to Climate Change; Sept. 2013: 126-138
Climate change is one of the greatest environmental, social, and economic threats facing the planet today. It is already negatively impacting the livelihoods and living conditions of people in all developing countries. The farming regions of sub-Saharan Africa, where agriculture provides the main economy on which rural populations depend, are especially at risk as climate change causes unprecedented variability in rainfall and increases in temperatures (Handmer and Dovers 1999; Kurukulasuriya and Mendelsohn 2008; Christoplos et al. 2009). Agricultural yields are likely to decrease by as much as 50 per cent by 2020 in some West African countries that are already afflicted with pervasive poverty (Hoffmann 2011). If climate change is not addressed more effectively, its impacts will impede progress toward viable development in sub-Saharan Africa and will make it impossible to attain the United Nations Millennium Development Goals of ensuring environmental sustainability and ending poverty and hunger (2010). In sum, climate change poses a grave risk to survival, development, and international security (Nzuma et al. 2010).
Climate change is experienced in different ways by farmers, who depend not only upon sufficient rain for their crops but upon predictable weather patterns in order to plan for planting and harvesting periods. However, recent unprecedented variability in the weather featuring irregular rainfall and rising mean temperatures has made farming even more challenging. Ultimately, it is expected that these changes will create extreme humanitarian crises (FAO 2009). Although organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007) have proposed strategies for addressing climate change, there are serious issues with these approaches. For one thing, they are expensive, especially given the fact that they are supposed to be implemented by farmers, who are quite poor. Secondly, they are written in ways that local, uneducated farmers have trouble understanding. Because of their inaccessibility to the indigenes of Zagoué in western Côte d’Ivoire, such approaches to dealing with climate change have proved ineffective so far. In order to work, strategies compatible with local ways of thinking and communicating about farming must be devised. Accordingly, we analyze local religious attitudes toward climate change using a phenomenological qualitative approach in order to determine how they might serve to inform a successful narrative addressing the rain scarcity there.
This study uses qualitative phenomenological research to analyze local environmental narratives by the mountainous farmers of western Côte d’Ivoire. This research design emphasizes individuals and their subjective experiences (Denzin and Lincoln 2000; Anadón 2006; Schütz 1932). The purpose is to arrive at an understanding of human social realities as they pertain to the environment and how these environmental perspectives are perceived by the social actors themselves (Poisson 1991). Data were collected by means of individual, focus group, and informal interviews using a semi-directive interview guide. However, to take into account the various agricultural seasons throughout the villages visited as well as temporal constraints, the strategy of data collection by focus groups was privileged. Social scientist Maribel Del Rio-Roberts (2009) suggests that focus groups are helpful when the topic of research concerns perceptions, opinions, and beliefs. For that reason, this investigative technique was chosen. Questions concerned mainly a comparison of the annual rainfall of 2010 with that of the last two previous decades. Other questions gave more latitude to the interviewees for expounding their views about the changes in temperatures and their negative effects on agriculture.
The four main villages that compose the newly created municipality of Zagoué—Zagoué, Déoulé, Singouin, and Gouêtimba—were chosen for focus group sessions, one at each site. All four sessions and ten individual interviews were conducted in the local Goh language. Somewhat closely related to Toura or Wen, Goh is a variant of the Yacouba or Dan language, which is mainly spoken in the Department of Man in Western Côte d’Ivoire, where Zagoué is located (see fig. 1). It is a little known language, for the most part escaping the notice of historians of the region (e.g. Loucou 1984). The choice to collect data in the Goh language turned out to be a practical way of comprehending Clifford Geertz’s (1983) idea of “local knowledge,” which is constructed through communal events, symbols, and especially shared language.
To complete this study, residence was taken up in Déoulé for five weeks. It is from this “headquarters” that the three other villages of Zagoué were visited to conduct focus groups and informal interviews. The usual strategy for this consisted of first an unofficial visit with the leader of the village, around whom were often gathered certain notables wanting to join the focus group. After an explanation of the object of the visit, a formal appointment generally was fixed for one of the rest days (Friday or Sunday) in the agricultural calendar to better enable participation.
Zagoué is located on a plateau in the 18 Mountains Region of Côte d’Ivoire, where the mostly rocky mountains reach a height of more than 100 meters, encircling the municipality. As such, Zagoué is subjected to a tropical climate with a long rainy season from March to October and a short dry season from November to February. Situated nine kilometers from the town of Man, Zagoué municipality’s population is composed primarily of rural farmers, notwithstanding the presence of modern infrastructure such as an elementary school, hospital, and electricity. It thus has a seasonal economy and residents who depend mainly on activities connected to agriculture.
Figure 1: 18 Mountains Region of Côte d’Ivoire where Zagoué is located
Rice is the primary crop in this area and represents an essential source of income for the farmers, in addition to coffee and cocoa. Rice has been grown in the municipality since becoming the post-colonial choice of the Ivoirian government, which launched in 1965 “a crusade for rice” in order to promote food sustainability for the region (Chauveau and Dozon 1981: 651).
Rice growing on mountain slopes begins with clearing the land, which takes place as soon as possible after the harvest period from November to December, followed by deforestation within thirty days. The removal of trees from the area to be cultivated is accomplished by burning, which is done once or twice, depending upon local factors such as amount of wood, advancing rainy season, and abundance of the first rains, three to five of which are needed to ensure the extinction of ashes. Rice cultivation has thus contributed to deforestation and, hence, climate change (Ehui and Hertel 1989).
Rural populations of Zagoué and their religious affiliations
Native farmers in the western mountainous region of Côte d’Ivoire have created traditional narratives to explain the climatic changes they are experiencing. Because these deviations are felt differently depending upon the micro region, explanations for it diverge from those given by climatologists. For example, Ivoirian farmers measure precipitation locally, whereas climatologists give measurements which tend to be regional or even national averages.
Zagoué is unique in that the ancient religious traditions involving fetishes, sacred groves, and rituals have retained their purest forms, having been least influenced by foreign elements. For the Dan people of Zagoué, religious and ethnic identity relies on the ritual use of music and masks that reflect their animist tradition, known as ge. Ge represents a religion which allots a soul to animals, plants, phenomena, and natural objects, and for which all nature is animated by spirits called genu, the plural of ge. Genu are part of a pantheon of spirit intermediaries between God (Zlan) and humans. The spirits who manifest as genu originate in the wilderness—in certain mountains, trees, or streams (Reed 2001). In this way ge compares both etymologically and theoretically with ancient Greek paganism, with genu resembling the genius loci, or local spirits, who were thought to inhabit nature.
Zagoué animists continue to believe that these protective spirits dwell in sacred forests and rivers as well as other revered places. They also conform to prohibitions such as not harming certain native species related to these sites. It is thought that propitiation to the protective spirits is necessary to counter problems like unproductive harvests, endemic diseases, and epidemics afflicting the local villages. Named lahi—“the water which allows life”—in Goh, these protective spirits are an expression of human dependence on the rain that facilitates agriculture, ensuring food security. By protecting their sacred places, animist peasants contribute to environmental conservation despite pressures from agriculture and population growth that would otherwise encroach upon or outright destroy them (Nyamweru and Sheridan 2008; Cormier-Salem and Bassett 2007).
On the other hand, relying on traditional knowledge for climate change adaptation has proven problematic for the Zagoué traditionalists because alterations in temperatures and rainfall fall outside their previous experience. The narratives and rituals that once seemed to serve them well are no longer practical and may, in fact, be contributing to agricultural failure. In this situation, religious beliefs not only begin to lose efficacy, they lead to misattribution of the problem’s cause. Compounding this difficulty is that other developments in addition to climate change are disrupting the lives of the people in this region.
Discussion: Impediments to Climate Change Adaptation in Côte d’Ivoire
Climate change arrives at a time during which other historical processes have been working counter to Ivoirian ecological sustainability. For one, the burgeoning general population is adding considerable environmental stress as the need for food increases the need to farm more land. For the last thirty years, the province of Zagoué and other areas in western Côte d’Ivoire have been subjected to strong migrations from the North and South of the continent, where less accommodating climates make farming more difficult. Many have left their places of origin in hopes of improving their livelihoods, a migratory movement that seems to be a direct consequence of West Africa’s reputation, unlike much of Africa, for having a forest zone favorable to agriculture.
As environmental pressures increase, property ownership is becoming more contentious, particularly regarding sacred sites. Anthropologists Celia Nyamweru and Michael Sheridan cite case studies indicating that today, “sacred ecological features are highly dynamic, deeply contested, and in rapid flux in African societies” due to competing interests (2008: 285). Even where sacred groves, taboos, and totems seem to be working to preserve habitats and species, as in Ghana, the young people are often disinterested in following the old traditions. Such “ecological, social, and symbolic dynamism has important implications for biodiversity conservation,” Nyamweru and Sheridan maintain (2008: 285). For, cultural traditions depend upon passage through generations to remain vital and relevant. Once a group loses its cultural traditions, it loses its “sacred ecology” (Berkes 1999). Moreover, because these sites provide “community self-identification as well as a legitimate expression of political power,” there is much debate about their treatment, which at least has slowed the process of their relentless destruction (Nyamweru and Sheridan 2008: 285). The dialogue, however, has yet to integrate a coherent, practical response to climate change.
In addition to lack of interest by young people, the ge tradition has faced increasing challenges from outside religious groups like Islam that began infiltrating Côte d’Ivoire following the conquest of the nation’s western area by Samory Touré during the pre-colonial period. As a result of this, foreign immigration doubled, especially from the heavily Islamic countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Niger. This incursion of Muslims resulted in conversions to the extent that Islam is now the most dominant religion in Côte d’Ivoire (38.6 % of the population), followed by Christianity (32.8 %), indigenous (11.9 %), and none (16.7 %) (CIA 2011).
Traditional spirituality has been tested even more since the appearance of Christianity in rural villages during the 1990s when evangelists opened Pentecostal churches throughout Africa. In Côte d’Ivoire, the process of evangelization and conversion actually began earlier, during the years 1980-90. This is when demand for spirituality increased as a response to the stress caused by governmental programs that intended economic reform through the privatization of business but, in fact, further impoverished the people (Kouadio Ahou 2008). Because religions function in part to provide solace in the face of unendurable hardship and suffering, churches proliferated. There now exist three religious belief systems in Zagoué: traditional animism, Islam, and Christianity. If attitudes toward nature are considered, however, there are only two religions, given that the animist religious precepts are respected by the Muslim community, with whom the animists are often aligned in opposition to Christianity.
Villagers attribute this relative cohesion between practicing animists and Muslims to the successful integration of the latter. Unlike the Christians, Muslims generally do not resist or denigrate animist religious beliefs, but rather allow some degree of syncretism. In addition to their tolerance of animism, Muslims tend to be more accepted throughout West Africa because of Islam’s simplicity and its coincidence with certain African sociocultural features, including group solidarity, polygamy, and circumcision (Charnay 1980: 140). Additionally appealing is its ingrained respect for elders, hierarchies, morals, and rules. For these reasons, it is regarded now as an “African” religion, but this strong alliance between animism and Islam has contributed to the relatively poor acceptance of Christianity in the region.
Discord among religious groups
Disharmony between traditional and Christian communities has increased as rainfall has declined. These pressures have amplified traditionalist-Christian quarrels, which are on the rise in West Africa following the above described influx of immigrants from the North and South (Juhé-Beaulaton 2008; Cormier-Salem and Bassett 2007). According to one Zagoué villager, “since the arrival of the church in the village, women and children are no longer afraid of the masks. The rules and totems of the village are violated, and even the sacred forest says nothing to them.” This villager refers to the Christian denigration of animist belief in the sanctity of certain natural places and of customs like the mask ceremonies. Once intended to scare followers into submission to the spirits, the masks have lost their power after being mocked repeatedly by Christians.2
In their investigation into the causes of the drought, native farmers point accusing fingers at the Christian community for not respecting the prohibitions and ancestral values honored by their tradition. It is believed that Christians profane the sacred forests by clearcutting them to install their plantations. One villager insisted the drought was due to the demolition of trees by Christians. He did not think that this was the only cause, however:
We had sacred places here at the village, and when we made kola nut offerings it rained the same day. But today, certain villagers (main nou a main nou)3 seem to think that these sacred places are not important because, according to them, nothing sacred lives there. So they cut down trees there and build their farms. At the time when I speak, these sacred places are exposed to the sun. Angry, the spirits (Yi nan) which lived in these sacred places have left them (An toho am’ma lo ho). Also invisible, like God and therefore gods as well, these spirits are angry with us, and consequently, the rain does not fall any more.
The above comments demonstrate how traditionalists find it easier to blame Christian desecration of their sacred places for the drought than to take responsibility for finding an effective response to it. Following this line of thought, another villager also holds Christians liable for the decline in rainfall at Zagoué:
For me, the lack of rain is related to disrespect for the taboos of the village. For example, in our family, it is forbidden to eat certain foods, or totems (Gba pon hon), but modernized Christians consume them. Ultimately, the lack of rain is related to the disrespect by Christians for the village totems and taboos.
The speaker above points out that not only places are considered sacred; certain species are as well. Both commenters express beliefs about the sanctity of nature that iterate those held by many indigenous cultures, including the ancient Greek pagans, Aboriginal Australians, and American Indians. They also observe that for the local Christians, nature is not sacred. Indeed, the desanctification of nature by fundamentalist Christians like the Ivoirian Pentecostalists has been noted in several studies, and some have linked this attitude to anti-environmentalism (e.g. Gottlieb 2006; Bloch 1998; Eckberg and Blocker 1996; Wolkomir et al. 1997).
The practice of questioning longstanding sacred traditions and transgressing them has become so common in Zagoué that certain rituals are being progressively abandoned by the Dan community. As with the above referenced mask ceremonies, the ritual of requesting rain, practiced mainly by women when the dry season is prolonged, has been challenged by Christians. This ritual consists of a festive procession around the village by women holding kitchen utensils that they beat together while chanting: “You, who caught the rain, if you eat what comes from the kitchen utensils, die.” This chant is directed to the “raincatchers”—individuals living among them who are believed to be trapping the rain and keeping it from the farmers and their crops—with the intention of frightening them into allowing the rain to fall.
Recently, however, the women who devote themselves to the above ancestral practice feel mocked by Christians, who retort that only the Single God is able to bring rain to the village. According to one:
Christianity recognized that it is God who makes fall the rain. It is God who allows the rain to come down from the sky towards the ground. The name lahi given to the rain corroborates my words since this concept means the “water which saves humanity and all that exists on ground.” In other words, the creator of the rain is God only; rain does not depend on sacred rivers or forests, but is quite simply from God. Indeed, at the time when God created Adam and Eve at the beginning of humanity, there did not exist at that time any sacred places. Consequently, the drought is related to the fact that men no longer obey the rules of God or the Bible.
The speaker above is among those Pentecostalists of the region who argue that precipitation decline is a sign announcing the end of world. The reduction in rainfall; the drop in the agricultural outputs; the weak cloud cover, even during rainy season; the lack of water for crops at the end of the cycle; the destruction of harvests; and the displacement of the sowing periods are, inter alia, the principal signs which announce the Apocalypse. Today, the scarcity of rain is viewed by the Pentecostalists as the realization of God’s prophecy, as revealed in the biblical Book of Revelations (Apoc. 15-16).
One local Christian convert told how he came to reject the traditional animist beliefs by first occupying then building a plantation in a sacred forest:
The place where I made my farm was regarded as a sacred forest. Indeed, it was known in the village that the spirits attacked any person who ventured there to clear this piece made of ‘bad’ grass known under the name of Dépendant. Indeed, in this zone existed insects that attacked all men who entered. Of course, these insects attacked men everywhere, even in the non-sacred places such as plantations and farms. But I faced these insects and installed my cocoa plantation there. My success shows that sacred places and spirits do not exist.
The above comments describe the rationale used to disprove traditional beliefs: if the insects bite outside as well as inside sacred forests, then such places cannot be sacred. Other informants reported, and it was confirmed by local Christians, that some of them from the village caught and ate fish from the sacred rivers, which is traditionally taboo. In addition, many Christians by their own accounts deny the mystic power of the rainmaker of Ganlié, a hamlet near Zagoué recognized by villagers to contain a “rainmaker” and “sunmaker” family. The rainmaker is solicited by animist peasants to make the rain return, but local Christians delight in pointing out that the traditional sacrifices and propitiations “demonstrate that they are not at all masters of the rain.” In fact, they agree with the man who told participants of his focus group that the only condition to ensure high precipitation would be conversion of all villagers to Christianity: “It is necessary that all the assembly joined together here accept this God as Creator of humanity. It is only under this condition that the rain will start falling abundantly again as it used to do several decades ago.”
From the above it may be seen that the combination of population increase and religious belief systems lacking an ecological ethic has led to increased exploitation of natural resources, including what were once sacred forests, rivers, and species. Within this context, the local manifestations of climate change constitute an added stressor to an agricultural system and a traditional relationship to the land that have already been subjected to disruptive forces. In other words, climate change is creating conditions different from those under which, in times past, agricultural activity succeeded. This means the groves are no longer protected by the genu, the rainmaker no longer creates rain, and the mask processions no longer enforce traditional beliefs. Rather than recognizing the internal problems of their narratives, however, the traditionalists choose to assign blame to those who do not share their beliefs—the Pentacostalists. By the same token, the Pentacostalists fault nonbelievers for crop failures that signify the coming Apocalypse. From a western scientific point of view, just as both religions have their own explanations for the ways they experience climate change, both misperceive the cause of the changes they see as the “wrong” beliefs and the blasphemous behavior of the other.
Within this context, a communal, ecological, mythic-religious narrative that embeds a reproduction ethic seems imperative. Nor should such an ecoethical narrative be outside the realm of possibility for the Dan, as it seems to be for the Pentecostalists. Indigenous religions have shown themselves to be quite flexible and adaptable (Olupona 2011: 792). Because they are mainly oral, native traditions easily lend themselves to ongoing revisioning. In this way, they may be thought of as “alive” and constantly changing. African religions in particular represent “an ongoing creative dynamic” and have proved resilient and readily adaptable to other places and cultures (Grillo 2011: 806). Indeed, a coalition of African Independent Churches (AIC) and traditional African religions has been working to repair the drought-stricken landscape of southern Zimbabwe (Daneel 2005). AIC “are all-African churches founded by Africans for Africans” that have emerged in sub-Saharan countries and represent a majority of African Christians in Zimbabwe and South Africa (Daneel 2006: 537, emphasis original). By galvanizing the local peasants to defend their ancestral lands, the coalition has acted to reverse ecological failure. As a response to the despoliation of their sacred places, they have planted over 8 million trees, raised ecological awareness, and applied religious sanctions against harmful wildlife and water practices (Daneel 2005).
The above ecumenical effort to activate for what religions historian Roger Gottlieb calls “religious environmentalism” demonstrates how widely disparate religions can cooperate for a common cause (2006: 118). Religious environmentalism is “rooted in tradition and a creative transformation called forth to meet the demands of the environmental crisis” (2006: 119). This metamorphosis is demonstrated by the traditional Zimbabweans above, whose practices, like those of the Ivoirian Dan, worked well for them until the pressures of “population, profit-oriented deforestation, overuse of water for commercial farms, soil erosion, and a decade-long drought created something profoundly new” (2006: 119). In other words, traditional belief conserved sacred forests only until the above stressors became so intense that the peasants felt forced to act or lose everything. Out of the tension arose a transformation of Zimbabwe’s “age-old religio-ecological values into a modern programme of environmental reform” (Daneel 2001: 104). Mwari—once a rain god—became a “god of ecology”; and although formerly appeased by the “observance of taboos against taking certain game or felling sacred trees,” the “spirit ancestors” now demanded that everyone “heal the land, reforest the earth, and protect the water” (Gottlieb 2006: 119). For one member of the African Association of Earthkeeping Churches, Mwari has been revisioned as God and will be cared for by the congregants “‘because in Jesus Christ you [Mwari] are one with us’” (cited in Daneel 2001: 185). This syncretism of Christian and Zimbabwean traditions signals the prospect for a similar rapprochement in Zagoué.
In most West African countries like Côte d’Ivoire, agriculture remains the key economic and social factor and is of pivotal importance for assuring food security. However, climate change and overpopulation are irreversibly damaging the natural resource base on which agriculture depends. At the same time, local peasants of the municipality of Zagoué relate competing religious narratives on the drought, which many interpret as resulting from disrespectful religious practices. While Christians allot the lack of rain to the anger of a vengeful God, local animists believe that it represents retaliation by protective spirits for the desanctification of their sacred species, forests, and rivers by Christians.
In fact, none of the religious responses to climate change in Zagoué has been ultimately effective: the drought continues, endangering food supply and the future of its people. Rather than bickering and pointing fingers at each other, it would seem more productive for religious and secular groups to become better educated regarding the causes of climate change and how best to respond to it. However, a major obstacle to this process, besides cost, is the lack of a shared language among Ivoirians, who speak numerous native dialects in addition to Goh. Perhaps more significantly, they also lack a common religious perspective. Without a collective ethos, change seems unlikely. For one thing, fundamentalist Christian sects like the Pentacostalists seem so resolutely attached to literalist, anti-environmental interpretations of the Bible that they have become resistant to accepting alternate, greener readings. As a result, Pentecostalists cling to the belief that the global ecocrisis is pre-ordained by God as punishment against nonbelievers, which supports their unwillingness to address the realities of climate change.
Ecotheologist Bernard D. Zaleha proposes “Christian pantheism” as a response to the anti-environmentalism of fundamentalist sects. Christianity is revisioned accordingly to be “genuinely faithful to the teachings of Jesus,” meaning it “will have nothing to do with a blind faith in an atoning death of an incarnate God through which we attain some blissful state in a hereafter” (2006: 2). In this way, Christian pantheism eschews biblical literalism for a metaphorical reading that sees through to the underlying messages behind the visible text. Zaleha argues that the view of life and nature as profane allows Christian fundamentalists to disregard the environment. By reinterpreting Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as a call “not to turn away, as we are doing, from a dying Mother Earth,” Zaleha reimagines a resanctified nature (3). Like the Unitarian Universalists, who have revisioned Protestant Christianity by deemphasizing the figure of Jesus and focusing on his teachings, Zaleha’s Christian pantheism re-creates it as a more ecoethical tradition. The problem is that Pentecostalists have been slow if not utterly resistant to embracing the concept of Christian pantheism.
Indeed, Pentecostalists are among the most anti-environmental of all religious groups, according to several studies. Social scientists Nalini Tarakeshwar et al. (2001) found that Protestant fundamentalists were among the least ecoethical, backing up similar results from Douglas Lee Eckberg and T. Jean Blocker (1996) and Michelle Wolkomir et al. (1997). According to Wolkomir et al. (1997: 343) and Jeanne Kay (1989: 228), conservative Protestant Christians—who are identified as Mormons, Southern Baptists, the Church of Nazarene and Pentecostal Holiness congregants, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses—display the most literalist but least environmentally concerned views. These findings support the results of Eckberg and Blocker, who determined that “high sectarianism,” or belief in a literal, dominionist interpretation of the Bible in which nature is desanctified, corresponded with the lowest “greenness” (1996: 348). This seeming incapacity of Pentacostalists to find a common ground for communication with the animist Dan or any community makes it unlikely that they might create a mutually agreeable means of addressing their environmental problems. On the other hand, the African Earthkeeping Churches discussed above illustrate that Christian sects are, in fact, capable of revisioning themselves with ecoethical perspectives.
The above supports the findings of Tarakeshwar et al., who “identified specific religious and/or spiritual beliefs (i.e., beliefs that nature is sacred) that were predictive of pro-environmental beliefs and behaviors” in the U. S. (2001: 401-02). Such beliefs would seem to be critical for the development of effective responses to climate change. Their results specifically suggest that belief in sacred places seems to promote place attachment, which is the main referent for defining indigenous peoples. Dan narratives about their sacred places therefore help them to establish identity—both collectively and individually. Indeed, indigenous place narratives have resulted in a body of “folk” knowledge which demonstrates that “many indigenous groups have practiced the basic principles of sustained yield, interrelationships, and balance for thousands of years” (Hibbard et al. 2008: 143). In addition to protecting habitats and species, the prohibitions associated with Dan sacred places thus have served to preserve, at least until recently, their cultural identity, showing what it means to be indigenous.
Traditional African sacred place narratives may be seen, therefore, as repositories of Geertz’s “local knowledge” (1983), or “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK), defined by environmental anthropologist Fikret Berkes as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment” (1999: 8). As such, TEK inspires “an ethic of nondominant, respectful human-nature relationship, a sacred ecology; [shapes] environmental perception; [gives] meaning to observations of the environment; [and provides] a fundamental lesson . . . that worldviews do matter” (1999: 163, 14, 182). Berkes consequently believes that indigenous, relational epistemologies can and should inform environmental ethics. By learning from native peoples, it is possible to develop “an alternative view of ecosystems [as] pulsating with life and spirit, incorporating people who belong to that land and who have a relationship of peaceful coexistence with other beings” (1999: 182). In other words, TEK, like the belief in sanctified nature, is an element of a group’s ethos as expressed in its traditional narratives. It would seem prudent, therefore, to include indigenous perspectives in any dialogue about attitudes toward climate change.
However, climate change is not the only threat facing the West African environment. Skyrocketing population numbers have added considerable stress to Ivoirian natural resources. Agricultural economists Simeon K. Ehui and Thomas W. Hertel claim that the main impetus behind the clearing not only of the traditional sacred groves but all West African tropical forests is pressure from agriculture, which is “fueled by rapid population growth” (1989: 703). As a result, many nations are challenged by “how to feed an increasing population without irreparably damaging the natural resource base on which agricultural production depends” (703). As of 1989, Côte d’Ivoire, at five per cent per year, had attained the fastest agricultural growth rate in sub-Saharan Africa, and its original 16 million hectares of tropical rain forest had been reduced by 3.4 million hectares (703). Although the rate of deforestation has slowed, thanks to conservation efforts by the government, remaining rainforest is now estimated to be at only 10 million hectares (Mongabay 2006). Besides the irreparable loss of trees, deforestation also deleteriously affects crop yields by making the land nonarable (Ehui and Hertel 1989: 703). A sensible remedy would thus seem to be curbing the population growth that is applying extreme pressure to the environment.
Of course, curbing population growth is easier said than done, for to speak of fertility is necessarily to address the pervasive poverty in Africa. In their investigation into the relationship between the implementation of rural development programs and fertility rates in Côte d’Ivoire, social scientists Aka Kouamé et al. (2002) found that attitudes and behavior favor smaller families in rural communities with established development programs over places with none (272). In other words, “fertility and desired family size are lower, and contraceptive practice is higher” in communities with these programs than in those without (272). They theorize that this correlation occurs because the development programs have a positive effect on income levels: “When incomes rise above the subsistence level, they bring about the social and economic changes that are necessary for fertility decline through changes in life styles and consumption patterns” (274). With higher incomes, parents are able to consider opportunities for their children that increase the costs of raising them, which in turn is motivation for fewer children. This positive correlation does not always extend, however, to “variables relative to agricultural techniques and fertility measures” (290). That is because some agricultural techniques require larger families for maximum productivity. Thus, although policies that work to increase incomes seem to help decrease rural Ivoirian fertility, this result is in part offset by agricultural techniques that are associated with higher fertility. From this it may be concluded that policy alone is insufficient to alter effectively Ivoirian reproduction attitudes.
It seems clear from the above that a revisioning of the current, dysfunctional discourse into communally accepted, ecoethical narratives is imperative if West Africans are to successfully address their looming ecological and humanitarian catastrophe. Along this line of thought, environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott suggests that indigenous environmental ethics “can be revived and, just as important, validated by their affinity with the most exciting new ideas in contemporary science” (1995: 12). This possibility leads Callicott to imagine an environmental ethic ecologically based and “expressed in the cognitive lingua franca of contemporary science” (12). Consonant with this he imagines the revitalization of a “multiplicity of traditional cultural environmental ethics, resonant with such an international, scientifically grounded environmental ethic and helping to articulate it” (12). This means having an ecoethical worldview expressing the current reality that humans occupy one planet, are one species, and are facing a common, worldwide environmental crisis. Concomitantly, it means revisioning traditional worldviews to express the diversity of the human species inhabiting various bioregions apprehended through a variety of cultures. As in Hinduism, where there is multiplicity in oneness and vice-versa, Callicott believes that “this one and these many are not at odds[:] Each of the many worldviews and associated environmental ethics can be a facet of an emerging global environmental consciousness, expressed in the vernacular of a particular and local cultural tradition” (12). Callicott thus posits a “postmodern scientific worldview and its associated environmental ethic [as a] tie that may bind the many cultural worlds into one systemic whole” (12). He is saying that in order to successfully address the ecocrisis, of which climate change is but one element, we need a shift in the collective consciousness toward a more environmentally ethical attitude.
In addition to the above call for a “global environmental consciousness,” Callicott says that finding an ecoethic “consonant with African experience and ideas is a dire necessity” (1995: 158). This is because Africa’s population explosion has led to civil war and the ruin of arable land, both of which have created pervasive famine. Callicott cautions, however, that foisting western concepts of population control via “sex education and birth-control technology is naïve” (159). Fertility is conditioned by sociocultural forces like religion, all of which must be faced before contraceptive technology is accepted. In other words, a reproduction ethic, like religion, is an element of a community’s worldview, and cannot be dictated by policy. It must be embedded in a communal mythic narrative. Callicott’s argument is supported by recent research indicating that although Côte d’Ivoire’s birth rate has gone down during the past decade following the introduction of western methods of birth control, it is still unsustainable. In fact, some of the decrease in Ivoirian fertility (and mortality) rates has been attributed not to better family planning but to disease, especially AIDS. It seems clear, therefore, that current approaches to birth control are insufficient to curb population growth in Cote d’Ivoire, which at 2.078 per cent in 2011 remains among the highest in the world (CIA). Moreover, when immigration is figured in, the growth rate nearly doubles to 3.8 % (Bureau of African Affairs 2010).
Contributing to the problem of overpopulation is that except for modern Buddhism and Australian Aboriginal traditions, no extant religions cohere with a reproduction ethic (Coward 1995: 14). This is apparently because until relatively recently, high fertility rates have always been compensated by high mortality rates; an embedded reproduction ethic simply was not needed (Caldwell and Caldwell 2003). Although Africa’s mortality rate is higher than the rest of the world’s, it is still too low to offset its rapidly increasing fertility rate. These social complexities suggest that adapting to climate change in Africa will not be successfully achieved with political discourse alone.
On the other hand, religious traditions can and do form attitudes towards the environment and fertility practices, says religion historian Harold Coward (1997: 261). Any analysis of reproduction and ecology practices, however, raises the question of “who is the ethical agent—the decision-maker” (265). For western cultures it is the “‘I-Self,’” but “traditional cultures tend to give ethical agents a collective identity—a ‘We-Self’—which extends outward in varying degrees of inclusiveness from family, caste, and tribe to an embrace of animals, plants, and inorganic matter—earth, air, and water” (265-66). Such interconnectedness suggests that traditional cultures may have a greater propensity for acting with ethical agency than might western cultures. It is this predilection that bodes well for revisioning indigenous narratives as ecoethical perspectives on reproduction.
Accordingly, religion historian Catherine Keller says that what is needed is a global “spirituality of chosenness” that discourages giving birth to more than what communities or individual families can both nourish and cherish (1995: 116). In other words, a new religious narrative is required that recognizes the human component of environmental sustainability—one that encourages ethical treatment of the environment and each other and is felt to be right, as opposed to preaching what is right. In the end, this will be the only way to adapt effectively to climate change and to ensure sustainability of resources and species not only in Côte d’Ivoire but throughout the world.
1. Figure 1 by Greg Greenberg, used with permission.
2. Historian E.S.D. Fomin concurs in saying that although the “effect of Christianity on land use in [Western Cameroon] has not been wholly negative[,] the disrespect for those cultural practices that they deemed inimical to Christian practice affected the sacred forests in the region negatively. Many ardent Christian converts today have very little sympathy for royal sacred forests” (2008: 404).
3. A Goh phrase that means “undesirable persons,” alluding to Christians.
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