BY JODI RAVE
of Buffalo’s Fire
“They had what the world has lost: the ancient, lost reverence and passion for human personality joined with the ancient, lost reverence and passion for the earth and its web of life…It should be our long hope to renew it in us all.” – John Collier, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1933-1945
CHACO CANYON, N.M. — My husband and I recently visited Chaco Canyon, a World Heritage Site in the Four Corners area. Buildings within the canyon are noted for remarkable engineering projects, astronomy and distinctive architecture dating from 850 to 1250 A.D.
Our 5-year-old daughter moved around Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the Chaco Great Houses built by ancestral Pueblo people. She noted her new astounding surroundings. She looked down into ancient kivas. She served us invisible hamburgers through stone window frames supported by timber hauled from distant mountains. “These Indians are different,” she said. “Really different.”
They are different. We, too, are different. Yet, at an elemental level we’re the same. The Great Houses of Chaco reveal an intricate, astronomical homage to the stars, sun and moon, reflecting a time when entire indigenous societies whole heartedly acknowledged their place within the universe.
Today, it seems the average American Indian can tell you more about their mobile phone than the lunar cycle. On the bright side, however, we have those precious tribal community members who live for and embrace traditional knowledge. They keep our ceremonies alive. They remember the way we were. They remind us of who we are.
One such woman is Robin Wall Kimmerer, an American Indian scientist who invites us to respect the smallest of our plant relatives. Her teachings take us into the realm of mosses. While reading her award-winning book “Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses,” one learns how mosses interact, live, grow and thrive. We learn about their intimate relationship with water and of their place in community.
Like the ruins of Chaco Canyon, mosses have survived many millennia holding untold secrets from the ancient world. Kimmerer, of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma, helps unravel those stories with a magnifying glass, a science degree and traditional ecological knowledge.
We learn about mosses lively characters and varied personalities, traits we could easily associate with any motley crew of our relatives.
Kimmerer’s scientific-tribal-personal narrative speaks for itself. She was awarded the John Burroughs Medal Award for Natural History Writing in 2005 living up to the Burroughs legacy of “combining natural science with lyrical prose and philosophical inquiry to produce a work that not only enlightens the intellect of the reader but nourishes the soul as well,” according to the Natural History Book Review.
Dr. Kimmerer, associate professor of environmental and forest biology at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, will give a lecture on reciprocity and traditional ecologiacal knowledge at the University of Montana on Friday, March 1 at 10 a.m.
My visit to Chaco Canyon left me in awe of the magnificent ceremonial structures where thousands of Indians gathered for prayer and ritual. I liked to imagine a time today when indigenous peoples could create, or leave such an indelible mark on society. I know a number of modern American Indians who pray together as communities. This is good.
Amongst the Plains tribes, we have Sun Dances, a sacred ceremony intended to ensure the survival of future generations. Our ceremonies tend to recognize all our relations, such as the four-leggeds, birds, water, rocks, mountains and plants. I believe respect for the spiritual nature of the planet has helped Indigenous people worldwide survive wholesale genocide.
Huston Smith reminds us that the major historical religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity – “form only the tip of the religious iceberg, for they span a scant four thousand years as compared with the three million years or so of the religions that preceded them.”
The religions Smith refers to belong to tribal people.
Tribal people like Kimmerer remind us of the sacredness in all beings, even a being tiny as a moss.
As a graduate student, I’ve heard many Native fellow academics lament it’s difficult to incorporate their tribal beliefs into an institutionalized educational system controlled mostly by non-Natives. Consequently, university mills tend to graduate indigenous students who never get a chance to carry on, nor teach others about an Indigenous way of knowing and being.
All the more reason to put our arms around Dr. Kimmerer, a Potawatomi bryologist, who will be joining a gathering of Native Science Fellows at UM during the next three days. The event is being organized by Hopa Mountain, a Bozeman-based nonprofit organization and the Blackfeet Native Science Field Center at Blackfeet Community College. Kimmerer will respectfully share her perspective of traditional ecological knowledge and its relation to the scientific community.
The Native scientist’s March 1 lecture is open to the public.
Jodi Rave is an award-winning column writer with first-place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists-Pacific Northwest, Montana Newspaper Association and the Native American Journalists Association. Her opinion pieces have also been honored by Columbia University School of Journalism’s “Let’s Do It Better.”