The Keystone XL is a $13 billion dollar pipeline system that will link a secure and growing supply of Canadian crude oil to improve North American supply (TransCanada 2012). Obama, attempting to strike a middle position on energy issues, has said that his policy is “all of the above,” which means backing oil production, alternative energy, and increased efficiency (Parsons, Banerjee 2012).
The conflict over this pipeline arises with various groups of protestors, including the indigenous Native Americans who are concerned with the survival of their communities and sacred spaces. The Sac, Fox Nation, and Cherokee tribes are a few that have been affected. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network (Bates, Crawford 2012), an archaeological survey found that Keystone XL threatened 88 archeological sites and 34 historic structures. The environmentalists are another group protesting the project. The pipeline would cut through 6 states—putting our public water supplies, croplands, and wildlife habitats at serious risks of crude oil leaks (Maestas 2010). The environmentalists and Native Americans both believe in conserving wildlife—but these beliefs do not stem from the same purpose. Native American traditional culture believes that everything in the world has a spirit. The earth is often referred to as “Mother Earth,” which “denotes a contextually alive relationship with the earth, a gender specific “she” who provides the gifts of life” (Jostad, McAvoy, McDonald 1996). Jostad, McAvoy, and McDonald base their information of “traditional” culture from a survey they conducted on selected tribal elders (52 Native Americans were interviewed from the Menominee Tribe, Salish-Kootenai Tribes, and several other western United States tribes). The authors even admit “a common mistake of Euro-American researchers is to refer to Native Americans as one culture” (Jostad, McAvoy, McDonald 1996). But, they also make clear that their study “does reveal root themes, patterns, descriptions, and definitions of another culture’s way of relating to the land” (Jostad, McAvoy, McDonald 1996).
The massive oil pipeline that requires digging over thousands of miles would be harmful to the indigenous peoples sacred earth. Your perspective changes depending on which cultural lens you are looking through. The oil resource brings economic benefits that are highly important to our government. But to the indigenous culture, this resource has the potential of destroying what they value most—“Mother Earth” and sacred places.
What is the difference between these two cultures cosmologies? How does this create a problem? Each tribe affected from the pipeline shares similar cultural values. They all believe that the land possesses spiritual qualities. The Native American worldview regarding natural resources “tends more toward ethical and spiritual concerns,” whereas the United States view “is basically a scientific-utilitarian one” (Jostad, McAvoy, McDonald 1996). We will take a closer look at the Cherokee and Denesuline peoples, and discuss how their cultures interact with nature and society. But first, it is important to see how the modern state has created this conflict—and why their resource hungry outlook is sustaining it.
The Modern State Worldview
Every society has a different way of viewing the world. Josephson (2004) defines worldview as “how we believe the world around us is structured and how it functions in both physical and symbolic ways.” As more societies began to form state run governments and westernize, their worldview had shifted—focusing now on economic development and resource management. The “symbolic” way of thinking tends to be less important in these societies, or even thrown out all together. With the rise of technology and industrialization comes an increase in overall population. When a population increases in a society, demand for resources also increases. Josephson (2004) mentions a major change that characterized human designs on nature: “the increasingly science-based approach to resource management.”
Obama will increase oil supply by extending the Keystone XL pipeline. This will allow our refineries to obtain the crude oil resource much quicker. It appears that Obama is using the “Western model”, which is “based on high technology and modern scientific research” (Josephson 2004). This “Western model” goes hand-in-hand with development theory. Supporters of this theory believe that the Western model will “transform a traditional economy into a modern, capital-intensive one—with new forms of employment and large export markets—more efficiently than any other approach” (Josephson 2004). Those who use this approach are convinced that it will work, even if it ignores local interests and cultures (Josephson 2004). Our government, along with many others, tends to be very resource hungry and therefore requires us to spend billions of dollars on “efficient” development projects. These projects are only “efficient” at gathering the resource quicker—they are inefficient in many other aspects, especially when viewed from the eyes of different cultures. This is when our society’s worldview tends to clash with those of indigenous cultures—when we build massive industrial structures on their land. But, these traditional cultures are not the only ones concerned with the land.
Conservationists worldwide are major opponents to developments like the Keystone XL pipeline. Many of these organizations realize that modern state regimes, “although claiming to exploit resources more efficiently and equitably for their citizens,” “have environmentally and socially costly development patterns” (Josephson 2004). Reports from the National Wildlife Development assert that the Keystone XL pipeline will destroy swaths of important forest ecosystems, create reservoirs of toxic waste, and produce a significant amount of global warming pollutants into the atmosphere (Maestas 2010). This organization, along with other conservationists, believes that keeping our air, water, health, and prosperity is much more important than obtaining the crude oil resource (Maestas 2010). However, there is a major dilemma that many large conservation NGO’s face.
Conservation NGO’s are frequently unable to step in and fight against major development programs that are destroying ecosystems. This is because the NGO’s have financial ties to the government. The irony is that this same government is also supporting the “oil companies, miners, loggers, and pharmaceutical companies” with obtaining resources (Chapin 2004). In a sense, the conservation NGO’s are indirectly allied with the corporations that are destroying what they’re trying to protect. Even more shocking, these NGO’s tend to completely ignore the indigenous peoples of the ecosystem they are trying to save. Chapin (2004) says “the large conservation NGO’s have come to claim that what they do is conservation, not “’poverty alleviation,’ which they seem to equate with any sort of work with indigenous or traditional peoples.” Again, we come into contact with another clashing of worldviews. The indigenous tribes and conservationists both oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, but the Cherokee culture applies much more meaning to the land—based on their cosmology and worldview.
When asked about the Indian way of life before White intervention, a tribal member responded by saying “the Indian wasn’t a ‘super environmentalist,’ he just looked at it simply and said, ‘Hey, that rock is there, that rock has a soul, spirit, and that’s it’” (Jostad, McAvoy, McDonald 1996). Although every Native American tribe has their own unique culture, there are some general similarities that they all share—especially regarding land. A tribal land manager of the Menominee tribe was quoted saying, “those values across the country with respect to the land base, the air, the culture…are no any different across the country with native people than they are here” (Jostad, McAvoy, McDonald 1996). Their anthropological history, which includes the traditions and cultures of the people, is embedded in the forest that is very sacred to many tribes. Most Native American traditions believe that everything is also interconnected—that “all elements of creation hold equal title to the earth” (Jostad, McAvoy, McDonald 1996). There is a contrast between the conservationists’ scientific preservation and the indigenous peoples spiritual attachment. Traditional Native American worldview sees our planet as “Mother Earth,” and requires that she is thanked, respected, loved, and cared for (Jostad, McAvoy, McDonald 1996). Maintaining the balance of the system is the main priority for conserving and protecting Mother Earth. We acquire an in-depth perspective on how these cultures communicate with the land if we examine a specific tribe. The Cherokee peoples protestation has stemmed from their cosmology, religion, and worldview.
The Cherokee religion involves spiritual rituals and ceremonies that attempt at providing safety from the mystery and danger of the mythic world. The Cherokee mythic world consists of seven levels “above the horizon” and a lower world beneath the surface of the earth (Irwin 1992). The springs of rivers are said to be sacred entrances to this lower world. The Cherokee believe plants to be saviors of humans—the “plant world ally” which allows us to exist (Irwin 1992). Among plants, Corn is a mythically defined plant being that “demands reverence and special ceremonial attention to prosper” (Irwin 1992). In their culture, shamans are the leaders of ritual and ceremony. In order for Cherokee to maintain harmony and balance, they must use the shamans’ sacred power “to solicit aid and direct that power through the formation of symbolic relationships” (Irwin 1992). Specific cardinal direction, color, and animals all have symbolic meaning towards something else. The shamans use prayer, formula, and smoke offerings to address various “celestial prototypes of the animal world” (Irwin 1992).
The Cherokee cosmology is clearly complex. It contains many different mythical aspects that are difficult for an outsider to understand. The point here is that they rely heavily on their sacred places, as well as the shamans that maintain those places. Corn is obviously very important—it takes on the role of a mythical being. The streams and rivers are important for their access into the underworld once dead. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the Keystone XL oil pipeline will “traverse rivers and carve across prairies,” and “threaten farmers, ranchers and wildlife when it leaks or breaks” (Maestas 2010). The Cherokee rivers and cornfields will be directly affected by such leaks. Keystone XL is not just destroying the indigenous peoples gravesites. It is also tearing up their spiritual Mother Earth, disrupting their river underworld entrances, and possibly destroying their sacred Corn. Media that covered the protest of the Keystone XL stated that the indigenous natives opposed the project because their graves and historical sites would be unearthed. By learning how Cherokee cosmology works, and attesting to how intricate it is, we can see that their protesting comes from much more than simply protecting grave sites. The Cherokee object to the pipeline, not only to save their burial sites, but also to conserve the living, spiritual qualities of the land.
In addition to the Cherokee tribe being affected, further tar sands development would completely destroy and alter the Denesuline people’s culture, ontology, and traditional way of life. The indigenous peoples of the Athabascan region have lived subsistence lifestyles for thousands of years—they provide their families and communities with the resources found in their territory. Their way of life requires living off the land through seasonal hunting and harvesting—“maintaining a relationship to the land played an integral part in their culture and spirituality” (Horvath and MacKinnon, 2002). Their cultural heritage and lands will not be preserved for future generations if industrial projects are allowed to continue development and expand on their land. “This includes traditions such as hunting, fishing and trapping—traditions that depend on ensuring the land and its wildlife remain healthy and vibrant” (Deranger and Vasey, 2012). It appears that a psychological fear is also building in the community—one that would inhibit the continuation of traditions like hunting. Eriel Deranger, a band member of the ACFN, says that because ecological destruction has become so severe in the region, people “are genuinely afraid our food and water sources are contaminated, resulting in a fear of eating traditional foods and eroding the continuation of our cultural lifestyles” (Deranger and Vasey, 2012). Ecological damages to the Denesuline people’s region have a deeper impact to their way of living than one would normally imagine—it interferes directly with their ontology.
Like many other indigenous tribes in the Americas, the Dene peoples have customary practices that follow a special relationship and care for Mother Earth. But, the Dene have an even closer tie with animals. The Denesuline believe “that animals should be regarded as persons with whom one must maintain active positive communication” (Smith, 1997). Certain Chipewyan believe that animals are superior to humans—in one sense, this is “evidenced by their freedom from any need of technology and by the fact that they always excel at being what they are” (Smith, 1997). Because these people rely heavily on hunting, they have observed many animals overtime and realized that they are more at home in the bush—the source that makes life possible. Animals are considered the most important source of knowledge to the Chipewyan—they are sources of empirical knowledge, models for proper moral conduct, and sources of inkonze (Smith, 1997). Inkonze is a source of medicine power that animals give to the people—it helps them maintain a successful connectedness with reality (Smith, 1997).
This background on the Denesuline people’s ontology helps us understand why they may be so afraid to gather resources from contaminated lands. When viewed from their perspective, it appears that ecological damage is making them lose inkonze, which is in turn making them believe they are less connected with reality.
In this paper, the two sides’ worldviews were thoroughly explained, with background information given on how both societies function. The conflict over the Keystone XL oil pipeline is inevitable. The modern state views economic stability as highly important—thus it uses technology and development to exploit resources. The United States is using a scientific-utilitarian approach to obtain the resource more “efficiently” (Jostad, McAvoy, McDonald 1996). This approach ignores wildlife destruction and native land desecration.
The Cherokee and Denesuline peoples, like many other native tribes, have more attachment to the land—they regard the conservation of Mother Earth as part of their duty being human. The Cherokee cosmology values many plants and topographic features as sacred places. The Dene view animals as the most important source of knowledge and are the key to making all life possible. These traditional belief systems are sustaining the conflict between native tribes and the United States. The United States’s lack of knowledge or care for these traditional native worldviews will continue to affect how our government deals with conflicts in the future. A study done on land management systems explains that “expanding a Euro-American land ethic to include Native American land ethic beliefs can result in…. a synthesis of old and new”—“a balanced and self-sustaining land ethic that works because it reflects the natural system” (Jostad, McAvoy, McDonald 1996). We can only hope that such a land ethic system will ever be established—especially one that includes resource management ethics.
Amunwa, B., Bassey, N., Deranger, E., Gemmill, F., Laboucan-Massimo, M., Plain, R., Vasey, D. (2012). Risking Ruin: Shell’s dangerous developments in the Tar Sands, Arctic and Nigeria. http://platformlondon.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Shell-Risking-Ruin.pdf, accessed September 11, 2012.
Bates, F., Crawford, R. (2012). Native American’s Protest Keystone XL From A Cage Activists compelled to stay in enclosure located miles from President’s pro-oil event [Electronic version]. Indigenous Environmental Network. http://www.ienearth.org/news/native-americans-protest-keystone-xl-from-a-cage.html
Chapin, M. (2004). A Challenge to Conservationists [Electronic version]. World Watch magazine, 17-31.
Horvath, S., MacKinnon, L., Dickerson, M., Ross, M. (2002). The Impact of the Traditional Land Use and Occupancy Study on the Dene Tha’ First Nation. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies XXII, (2):361—398.
Irwin, L. (1992). Cherokee Healing: Myth, Dreams, and Medicine [Electronic version]. American Indian Quarterly, 16:2, 237-257. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1185431
Josephson, P. R., (2004). Resources Under Regimes: Technology, Environment, and The State. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Jostad, P. M., McAvoy, L. H., McDonald, D. (1996). Native American land ethics: Implications for natural resource management [Electronic version]. Socety & Natural Resources: An International Journal, 9:6, 565-581. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08941929609380996
Maestas, A. (2010). Staying Hooked on a Dirty Fuel: Why Canadian Tar Sands Pipelines Are a Bad Bet for the United States [Electronic version]. National Wildlife Federation. http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/Media-Center/Reports/Archive/2010/Tar-Sands-Staying-Hooked-on-a-Dirty-Fuel.aspx
Parsons, C., Banerjee, N. (2012). Obama’s Keystone XL announcement under attack from both sides [Electronic version]. Los Angeles Times. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/22/nation/la-na-obama-energy-20120323
Smith, D. (1997). An Athapaskan way of knowing: Chipewyan ontology. American Ethnologist 25(3):412—432.
TransCanada. (2012). Project Information [Electronic version]. TransCanada PipeLines Limited. http://transcanada.com/keystone.html