Native Americans of the Southwest and the Environment

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A rock shrine stands amidst remnants of a 900-year-old Hopi village on First Mesa in Walpi, Arizona.

Corrales, NM–In the 180-mile
stretch of land visible from my backyard is the center of the universe–in fact,
several such centers. Earth navels, they are called as well, by some of the Native Americans of the Southwest: places where
“the people” emerged into this one. Far to the west, near the
confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, is another one, called sipapu by the Hopi. It’s the point from
which these “oldest of the people” emerged long ago and began the
long treks that resulted finally in their settlement of some remote mesas above
the Painted Desert in northeastern Arizona about a thousand years ago.

I too
live on the edge of a mesa, overlooking the Rio Grande, the sprawling city of
Albuquerque, and the Sandia Mountains–named for a Pueblo tribe whose
reservation prevents Albuquerque from spreading farther north. Beyond this open
space is yet more, stretching northward almost to Santa Fe, all of it the lands
of various Pueblo tribes, each of which has its own earth navel.

From my
roof I can look west and see Mount Taylor, which looms above Grants, a small
New Mexico city built on the dreams of unmeterably cheap electricity, thanks to
the existence there of vast seams of uranium ore. Mount Taylor is one of the
four sacred mountains of the Navajo, and you can’t see Mount Taylor without
also thinking about San Francisco Peaks, a mountain whose three peaks rise
above Flagstaff, Arizona, 400 miles west of here. It’s another mountain sacred
to the Navajo and is also the winter home of the Hopi rain spirits, the
kachinas. When you see clouds building up over San Francisco Peaks, the Hopi
say, it is the kachinas rehearsing the business of bringing rain to Hopi
cornfields. There is a ski lift snaking up San Francisco Peaks, and the Hopi
worry that skiers might unwittingly stumble into these rehearsals, getting in
the way.

Like the
crags and grottoes of ancient Greece, the Southwest is populated with shrines
and with demigods, deities, and spirits working out to this day their heroic
and mundane affairs among the daily lives of the people who can still see them.
It is safe to say that nowhere in the United States is the Native American
cultural presence more prevalent and deep-seated than here in the Southwest,
that in no other place is the very concept of mother earth as deeply, and
routinely, felt. This is not to romanticize Native Americans as natural
ecologists who raise their fists in rage at every insult (real or imagined) to
their mother. Much of Navajoland, an area the size of West Virginia, is
significantly overgrazed by sheep, still a vital component of the Navajo way.
There are Hopi priests who say that mother earth contains such resources as
coal that should be used (in fact, Hopi fires were fueled with coal before it
was used in England). The strip-mining of Black Mesa gets mixed reviews by the
Hopi, and many dewy-eyed environmentalists and others who want to think that Native
Americans are somehow better than the rest of us find this extremely
disappointing. “Sellouts,” “not real Native Americans,”
“people who have lost their traditional values,” it is said
uncomprehendingly. Here in this tri-cultural area (the Hispanic presence also
predates that of the Anglos), there is a tendency on the part of some to point
out, whenever possible, and invidiously, that Native American people, too, are
trying to get in on the big cash bonanza of the dominant society. “Look at
all the bingo parlors, exempt from gambling laws because they’re on ‘sovereign’
Native American lands,” they say. “Look at the Mission Native
American reservation in southern California, a tiny plot amid several big Anglo
ranchers. The Native Americans want to turn the whole place into a landfill and
make a fortune off the solid waste of San Diego.”

everywhere. People raising their voices along with their hackles. Native
Americans, while unalterably religious in their feelings for nature and the
land, are also pragmatic. Small groups of people eking out a living from the
land have generally, through human history, been smart enough not to foul their
nests. Large aggregations of people in particular, and any group whose survival
is threatened, will often forget to think about the long term. Even Native
Americans. Nevertheless, a sense of the earth as a live being prevails in Native
American country.

I look
north of here to the Jemez Mountains, and I am reminded that there are spirits
there too, though I cannot see them, spirits that bespeak an older way of
seeing the connection of man and earth; legends and myths we might call them,
lessons in a kind of etiquette. Rarely have I ever heard a Native American
voice raised in any conversation. Native American voices are as quiet as the
breeze playing among the rocks, telling old stories about the whys of things.

We have
our own stories too, our own legends and myths–though these tend to be based
upon what we know to be the facts. What high school biology student has not
heard the one about the moths and the factories, a British tale? It seems that
there were all these light-colored moths that liked to sit resting on the
trunks of trees during part of their day. The tree trunks were about the same
shade as the moths, so birds had a hard time finding the insects. Then
factories were built and smoke billowed forth, and it blackened the tree trunks
with soot and, lo, the moths themselves turned dark so as to maintain their
canny camouflage. Of course, this is an evolutionary tale. It is quite true
(except for the imputation of purpose among moths). It works like this: Among
the moth population were some dark ones, oddballs, whose strain was more
subject to predation in the old prefactory days and therefore was less numerous
overall. Then comes the darkening of the tree trunks, and the light-colored
moths become more subject to predation. Their numbers decline rapidly (though
not entirely), and the dark ones multiply and gain numerical superiority. One
can expect that Clean Air acts will reverse the process.

I stand
in my backyard and look out into the night. The lights of Albuquerque gleam and
twinkle like a great necklace in a black velvet dish. The necklace grows
weekly. North, the darkness spreads and deepens, Native American lands. I
decide that if I were in charge of the moth population in the English midlands,
I would monitor smaller, oddball strains with some regularity to make sure
there were enough around in case something else went haywire. I remind myself
with a mental slap on the wrist that one invites danger when comparing human
affairs and values to biological evolution. Bur I am glad that, here in the
Southwest at least, there is a small fraction of the population that still
holds the notion that the earth is, in utter reality, a mother–a truly living
being (which is why the earth is sacred), a being who needs to be dealt with by
means of a fine sense of reciprocity, by means of rules of etiquette that are
not that hard to understand.

are it’s too late for many of us to repopulate the world we see with spirits,
with an all-explaining animism like that which prevails here in the Southwest
on Native American lands. But we certainly can see the tree trunks changing
around us, and we probably will need to consult that old book of manners one of
these days.