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Wilderness and Storytelling

Joe Sheridan and Penelope Ironstone-Catterall

To Waspaskwan, Always

And to the memory of Linda Akan

If one were to give a metaphorical description of some of the features of First Nations thought, one might say that they go to school in dreams, write in iconographic imagery, travel in Trickster’s vehicle, and always walk around.

The Two-Row Wampum was a treaty set out by the Iroquoian Confederacy that conceptualized the relationship between themselves and settlers. In it the two groups were interconnected in much the same way as are two sides of a river. It conceptualized the relationship between indigenous peoples and settlers in terms of mutual obligation and transformation. As the river is perpetually in transition, so too is the relationship between settler and indigenous cultures. It is in trying to think about the implications of this mutual obligation and transformation that this book finds its roots. The tasks and responsibilities the Two-Row Wampum presents to us today are no less and perhaps even more pressing today as environmental degradation reaches levels heretofore unimaginable and the need to re-imagine ourselves in relation to the material conditions of our lives becomes less a luxury and more a cultural and ecological necessity.

Imagining the implications of the Two-Row Wampum for us today means thinking about the responsibilities exacted by living in North America. This entails the development of two sides of another conceptual river in which an environmental ethos and an ecologically grounded way of thinking about and knowing the material conditions of our existence may be brought together in a way that may also be mutually transformative. It suggests the need for an alternative epistemology that can do justice to both the natural and supernatural realities of the continent known to First Peoples as Turtle Island. As the contributing authors of this book would suggest, the place where the two sides of this conceptual river may be brought together is in the work — both pedagogically and ethically — is in story.

Story’s medium brings together the visible and invisible domains of the continent in an oral performance of relation. It is in story as oral performance that the many dimensions of the land and time itself may be articulated. However, for this to happen, it is necessary for the storyteller to be in a relationship with both land and time that allows for the many dimensions of the story to speak and be spoken. When this is the case, story itself may be understood to be indigenous to the place from which it emerges. While this understanding of the place of narrative in the production of human knowledge is in many ways antithetical to dominant epistemologies, it promotes a way of thinking that might well allow us to transform conventional Western thinking so as to allow for the development of an environmental ethos that is more attentive to the violence we as societies and cultures perpetrate. In it, story speaks the land as much as the land is spoken through story.

Since the inception of the project of collecting in one book the voices of scholars who take seriously the obligations set out by the Two-Row Wampum, the land, air, and water have been further damaged and abused by a population alienated from both the land and an environmental ethos that would allow for its protection. While for many it may seem a piece of common sense to protect and nurture the environment that sustains us, the sad reality is that any of us inhabiting North America continue to devalue and degrade it. The articles in the book provide us with a traditional ways of of thinking and talking about the environment in order to transform this tendency. For the authors, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, this means finding a ground for re-imagining our relationships, both social and cultural, to lived environments. The task of recreating these critical relationships must begin by transforming alienation into an environmental ethos. It asks how it is possible to imagine ways of living on the land that will do less harm by integrating land in our identities.

The authors draw on select indigenous cultures in order to undertake this work of re-envisioning our relationship to the land. However, those who are not indigenous people make no claim to an indigenous identity. Rather, they look to indigenous cultures for the tools with which to think differently and more ethically about and with our lived environments. The appeal to First Nations thought in this book is an appeal to a conceptual framework in which land is thought of not as something one walks over but also as a spiritual and intellectual companion one walks with and through. This book attempts to mark out some of the steps that have been taken in this appeal and to invite First Peoples’ cultural authorities to comment on them. Our hope is to initiate a long overdue dialogue on the state of the North American environmental movement, its undeniable First People’s origins and a culturally authoritative judgment of the adaptation of settler cultures to this task.

One central thread that ties all the articles in this book together is the appeal to the language of myth, the oldest of all environmental literatures, for the means to transform settler culture. In this, the indigenous knowledges that have been produced in relationship with lived environments provide the means for developing both an environmental ethos and an autochthonous or indigenous epistemological framework on which ground it. It recognizes in these knowledges the tools with which to both think and act toward the land in ways that will do less harm. Those of us who emigrated to Turtle Island were deprived of half of our indigenous identities by being relocated but must now ask how many generations will it take before we, too, can become native to this place?

The legacies of modernity and post-modernity, with all these entail in terms of modernization, industrialization, and the rationalization of culture, are overwhelmingly those of alienation, degradation, exploitation, and violence toward both people and environments. Our hope is that in looking to story as a way of speaking and being spoken, we will be able to provide an alternative to the alienation, degradation, exploitation, and violence that have come to characterize the times in which we live. It is also our aim to work through the traumas that are both revealed and concealed by our dominant perceptions and our assumptions of knowledge. These traumas are cultural, social, and environmental and have been produced by histories rife with racism, sexism, imperialism, colonization, and so on. That these ideas have translated all too easily into environmental degradation should come as no surprise since they reflect and help support a myriad of violences, including the violence we do to ourselves, the land and each other through colonizing ideas. We must find the means to undo the forces that have colonized and disciplined us and alienated us from the environments in which we live. The authors in this book all intervene in these legacies of violence in order to recreate our relationships to each other and to the environment.

Over little more than a decade, cultural and literary theorists have made considerable gains in the articulation of an autochthonous ethos to guide a sustainable epistemology of the environment. Joe Sheridan’s (1992) Wilderness and Storytelling: The Same Thing provided an explication of Cree Elder Raven Mackinaw’s assertion that after watching settlers for over five hundred years, the Cree were prepared to offer an insight into the settler’s fundamental mistake. The correction he offered was that to understand how to get meaning on Turtle Island one. must first understand that wilderness and storytelling are the same thing.

Sean Kane’s (1994) Wisdom of the Mythtellers compared indigenous oral mythologies from around the world and in so doing mapped out a common autochthonous ethos produced in and derived from the multiple dimensions of mythology. For Kane, mythtelling is “an affectionate counterpoint to the earth’s voices, with no ambition to direct them or force them to give up their meanings,” while myth is the “ideas and emotions of the Earth.” Kane rightfully acknowledges that the environment that encircles us is the home of the planet’s essential stories. He parallels the domestication of the earth through agriculture and the domestication of language in writing. In so doing he points to the irony of written texts as the medium for environmental thought and culture. His contribution to environmental thought is in naming myth and mythtelling as the primal articulation of ecology.

No record of twentieth century environmental thought would be complete without mention of David Abram’s (1997) Spell of the Sensuous, a text that made a compelling argument for the return of an autochthonous ethos to cultural production that revived the ancestral vitality and heritage of the engagement of the body and the senses with the environment. Abram’s articulation of the depth of the relationship between humans and the more-than-human world offers to organic being an intellectual and spiritual accomplishment that is contiguous with the great indigenous cultural traditions of the world. From that perspective Abram offered an extensive rationale as to why the revival of oral tradition is an ecological imperative.

Robert Bringhurst’s (1999; 2000; 2001) trilogy, Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers (A Story as Sharp as a Knife; Nine Visits to the Mythworld; Being in Being), is a retranslation of classical Haida mythology that provides compelling evidence of an indigenous oral tradition of Homeric dimensions. It challenged the conceits and assumptions of generations of literary theorists in both Canada and beyond in that it shows in clear terms that literature does not begin and end with literacy but has a powerful presence throughout indigenous oral traditions. In this book he extends the idea of ecological linguistics and grants literature not just as a human accomplishment but one shared throughout the natural world. In his development of the term ecological linguistics, Bringhurst evokes the oral traditions and cultures that are human and more-than-human by providing a nuanced argument for their similarities.

Jim Cheney’s (1995) essay “Postmodern Environmental Ethics: Ethics as Bioregional Narrative,” which may be found in Max Oelschlager’s edited collection Postmodern Environmental Ethics (SUNY, 1995), compelled environmental thought to comprehend the importance of oral tradition as the appropriate medium of discourse in American Indian philosophy. Cheney’s case has attracted considerable attention to the ethics of environmental thought especially as they concern postmodernism to the neglect of the heritage of American Indian philosophy concerning the environment.

Taken together, the essays in this book attempt to build on these groundbreaking works. They demonstrate the work that must be done in order to develop an environmental ethos that can transform dominant ways of thinking about and imagining our relationships to the land. Their shared premise is that the oldest ecological cultures spoke in mythological and animistic tongues to animate speech just as existence was animated by the life forces of the natural world. Natural speech in natural environments creates an autopoetic or self-organizing state in which humans played an essential, if humble, role. Recreating oral mythologies composed to honor the life-force continues what literacy does not, even if both assume the role of literature. The difference is that oral story is the shape of the natural world, for orality, like art, is bound to and by the shape and feel of the realities oral story seeks to describe. Recovery of the origins of speech in its ecological embeddedness, what Robert Bringhurst calls ecological linguistics, grounds language and nature in a common biological and intellectual interplay. Like salmon returning to their birth stream, this book seeks to reintegrate human and ecological discourse on its most natural terms and its ancient authenticity. The book and its contributors are aware that while literary we are backing out of the medium of print to return to a primal medium better disposed to recovery of our continuity with those ancestral oral traditions that bequeathed this effort with the heritage of Arthurian myth, Haudenosaunee, Cree and Choctaw protocol and indeed the ability to speak as creation on Creation’s own terms.

We have framed this book with the scaffolding provided by a Cree Elder, Raven Mackinaw. Elder Mackinaw mapped out a number of protocols that would allow those caught in dominant Western ways of thinking about the land to understand the symmetry between wilderness and storytelling. Understanding this symmetry is vital for the development of an environmental ethos and metaphysical guide to learning to become native to Turtle Island. Elder Mackinaw instructed that this environmental ethos would emerge from the elements and that developing a willingness to think from within this ethos would have the potential to radically transform the Western mind.

Works by Joe Sheridan

Joe Sheridan and Dan Longboat co-published “The Haudenosaunee imagination and the ecology of the sacred” in Space and Culture in 2006. A list of his other publications can be found on his ResearchGate profile.