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Most indigenous traditions teach sustainable lifestyles

Given the commitment of indigenous cultures to sustainable living, two educators recently shared traditional insights on the value of meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

Thompson and Whelshula
Mark Thompson and Martina Whelshula

An environmental activist for 38 years, Mark Thompson of Otter Be Fun Productions said that between 1955 and 1960 he watched from his home outside Los Angeles as 200,000 acres of wilderness became tract homes, malls and interstate highways, destroying the ecosystem of the valley and Santa Monica mountains.

Martina Whelshula, president of the Spokane Tribal College in Wellpinit, grew up going to a Catholic school in Browns Mills, N.J., a rural area with dirt roads and wildlife, like the Colville reservation, where she visited and later moved.

As part of a series of discussions on sustainable development, Mark and Martina spoke recently on “Indigenous Cultures and Sacred Earth Sustainability” for KYRS-Thin Air Radio, presented by the Inland Northwest Earth and People’s Sustainability Forum.

Mark, a former lecturer on Native American studies at California State University in Hayward and other California colleges, has more than 25 years of experience in public education from grade schools through universities. 

He is one of 15 founding elders of the Otter Clan, a multinational tribe of professionals, artists, producers, crafters, therapists and inventors who model intentional community.

Martina, a member of the Arrow Lakes Nation in the Colville Reservation, has been an organizational consultant and researcher, a mental health, alcohol and substance abuse counselor, and an educator from early childhood to graduate education. 

Martina promotes preserving and perpetuating tribal languages and cultures, plus advocacy through education, organizational change and transformational healing.  She believes indigenous languages offer social change strategies to heal the planet.

Mark Thompson
Mark saw wilderness disappear.

Mark, who remembers going to a nearby produce stand, a dairy, a butcher, a grocery store and an egg farm for food as a child, said he “watched the destruction of the wilderness day after day, week after week, year after year with development similar to what is happening in Spokane Valley.”

Working summers as an ocean beach lifeguard, he watched as machines swept debris into a huge pile, which a bulldozer pushed from the beach into the ocean.

“We are converting the planet away from sustainable wellness by using energy that destroys the earth while a few make money off the backs of others,” he said.

To establish core values, Mark  calls for re-establishing relationships with tribes that model sustainability. 

For example, he believes “institutionalizing” children in schools at an early age interferes with their learning to live in balance with nature.  Often those frustrated with the institution’s limits are labeled as having attention deficit disorder or being juvenile delinquents, as if they are waste, he said.

“If we hope to sustain life, we need to teach children to live in sustainable, balanced ways,” he said.  “Indigenous cultures teach people to pool wisdom and live in relationship with other species.”

Indigenous languages convey that wisdom.

“When we lose those languages, we lose critical information about how people survived in America tens of thousands of years, information critical to our grandchildren,” Mark said.

Martina’s mother and grandmother grew up in Catholic boarding schools. They believed if her mother married a non-Indian, her children would have a better chance.  She did, living with her husband in Japan and other Air Force bases until they divorced, and she settled in New Jersey.

When Martina was 14, she moved with her mother and sister—as well as aunts and cousins—to Inchelium to her grandparents’ three-bedroom house with no indoor plumbing.

Martina Whelshula
Martina returned to family traditions and reservation.

As an example of the power of language, Martina said “Inchelium” refers to the “singing waters” her grandmother told of hearing where three creeks hit the river before the dam flooded them. 

“I learned vocabulary and phrases but never understood the language,” Martina said with regret.  “I traveled the world to learn how tribal people live and what they know. I realize indigenous languages are a different way to see reality, portals to the past that allow people to experience the world in alternative ways. 

“Languages set our world views,” she said.  “My language is descriptive and participatory.”

“A full moon in English is an object.  When we objectify life, we can exploit it.  A verb-based language invites us to participate.  We call it ‘makes itself round,’ inviting awareness of moon’s phases.  A frog is ‘croaking feet,’ a rabbit, ‘growing ears,’ and a deer,  ‘looking for food.’

“We refer to ourselves as ‘people of the gray mist as far as we can see.’ ‘Nespelem’ refers to ‘people of the flat prairie place.’  How I orient myself in the world is based on where my home and heart are,” she said.

“There is a deep sense of ecology in our language.  It frames how we experience life as instinctive and instructive for ethical living and core values,” said Martina, who identifies as one of the “salmon people,” even though there are no longer salmon in the river, and as one of the “root-and-berry people.”

“Our story of creation sets a context for a deep relationship with creation, telling of animals preparing for people, who were created from mud,” she said.

Animals and plants prepared for humans’ coming by being ready to lay down their lives to feed, sustain, nurture and protect them, because they loved humans so much.  Aware of that, she said, “people would sing and dance over an animal’s body in gratitude that the animal gave the ultimate sacrifice for them.

“Similarly, as we teach children to dig roots, we teach them to treat the roots with respect, taking only what they need, and leaving the rest to grow again,” Martina said.  “We use or take care of all parts of animals or plants.

“Language sustains our sacred commitment to care for all creation for seven generations,” Martina said.

Colonization interrupted that connection, and since then, indigenous people have watched the exploitation of the earth. 

Martina shares her traditional wisdom, hoping it can be a catalyst for society to change.

Mark, who grew up in the Episcopal Church, also spent time as a child with his father and half-Santee grandfather in South Dakota, learning Lakota teachings and stories. From his mother’s family were stories of many generations of Methodist ministers.

In college and graduate school at the University of California in Los Angeles, he studied history of religions.  As part of his studies, he did field work from 1973 to 1978, spending half the year in South Dakota on Lakota reservations.  Then he switched to ethno-history and Native American Studies.

Settling in Spokane since retirement, he is on the Faith and Environment Network Board.

On language, Mark commented that English capitalization of the first person pronoun implies “I act on and control the world.” He said that denies the reality that “we cannot survive without relationship with the plethora of species that sacrifice for us.”

Trained in Lakota use of passive voice, he experiences the world acting on and with him.

“Our attempts to manipulate the planet’s wealth harm it,” he said.  “Everything on the planet is interrelated.  We need to honor that.  If we do not change our ways, we will destroy all species. 

“We must pay attention to what is happening around us.  We don’t need scientific studies to say there is global warming.  Wherever we go, we need to listen to the local indigenous stories so we know and live what is ethically and sustainably appropriate.”

Martina’s spiritual search began at 11 when she rejected the shame and fear she experienced in school. After she moved to Inchelium, she began learning the traditional path from elders and later learned about different philosophies—separating the positive from the negative in each.

Now her spirituality is her way of being—perceiving the world and living everyday life with respect for all life.

Martina learned early not to kill even species such as bugs or ants:  “I was told to talk to them.  Once when ants entered our house, I said, ‘We live here.  This is our home.  Respect our home and we will respect yours.’  They left.”

She said people miss an intimate relationship with life in the culture of schedules and meetings. 

“Our culture is about slowing down, being mindful and remembering our relationship with significant others,” Martina said.  “We do not gather or prepare food when we are angry or that energy will go into the food.”

Asked about the impact of technology, Mark told of a video taken through a TV screen of children watching it with vacant, hypnotic stares, devoid of their human spirit. 

However, he knows video can also be a tool to reconnect mainstream U.S. culture with the First Nations indigenous people to promote care of the earth.

Martina expressed her suspicion that new technology would change her culture.  She told of a child in her family sitting in front of TV, unhappy. 

“It is addictive. It’s escapism from life,” she said, contrasting it with her spending time outside as a child connecting with the spiritual, what’s important in life. 

Similarly, she added, a computer does not provide real communication.  It replaces real human relationships.

Asked what people can do, Mark said he sold his car two years ago and now walks and rides a bus.  He connects with local farmers and seeks to reduce his footprint on the planet.

He suggests that people “reconnect with their tribes,” recognizing that most have their own indigenous, tribal roots outside the United States.

He also said:  “Walk, turn off lights, start sustainable behaviors, care for other species and vote.”

Martina commented that spirituality is about self-knowledge:  “The more we understand ourselves, the more we understand life.  Self-awareness is not about self-centeredness, but about challenging our motives and our assumptions.  It is about deep reflection that leads to healing the universe, realizing our needs do not come first.”

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