“Want a different ethic? Tell a different story.” – Thomas King
The recent U.S.-supported overthrowof Bolivia’s Indigenous president, Evo Morales, is but one example of how endemic anti-Indigenous sentiment is within neoliberal movements. This includes many of us who are influenced by their hegemonic strategies and media, including the Organization of American States, which acceptedthe legitimacy of right-wing Morales replacement Sen. Jeanine Áñez. In 2013, Áñez tweeted: “I dream of a Bolivia free of satanic indigenous rites” and recently disregarded the comments of Christian right-wing minister Luis Fernando Camacho, who stood next to her when she announced her acceptance of the presidency and said, “Pachamama will never return. Today Christ is returning to the Government Palace. Bolivia is for Christ.”
Morales is a final survivor among the left-leaning Latin American leaders who came to power at the beginning of the 21st century, although his accomplishments as the first Indigenous president of Bolivia represent what is arguably the most remarkable socialist successstory of all. However, U.S. corporate-controlled administrations, whether Democrat or Republican, had a hand in the ouster, demise or attempted overthrow of other leaders who supported Indigenous resistance to colonial invasion, such as Hugo Chávez (Venezuela) and his successor Nicolás Maduro, Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), and Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Jacobo Árbenz (Guatemala), Salvador Allende (Chile), Alan García and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Brazil).
Just as the invasion of Indigenous North America and the resultant slaughter of Indigenous peoples may have changed Earth’s climate into a little ice age by 1600, today’s land theft, illegal mining and attacks on Indigenous sovereignty is a significant cause of global warming. According to the 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changereport, “Indigenous and local knowledge can contribute to overcoming the combined challenges of climate change, food security, biodiversity conservation, and combating desertification and land degradation.” But instead of allowing Indigenous peoples to continue preserving the last of Earth’s biodiversity, they are being labeled as “terrorists” the world over for defending their trees, water and ways of living. In 2018, an average of three Indigenous people per week were reported killed, with the highest numbers in the Philippines, Colombia, India and Brazil. Keeping in mind that although Indigenous peoples represent only 5 percent of the Earth’s population, they control the land on which 80 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity exists.
We know that the attacks on movements that defend land are all about greed and profit from its exploitation. I argue that this battle over worldview is ultimately why Morales had to leaveBolivia. The Indigenous peoples have a chance of saving the forests and preventing the mining, logging and oil operations.
The Indigenous worldview that guided our species for 99 percent of human history is the only sustainable one that exists, and it continues to be attacked by neoliberal, corporate-influenced governments supported by the educational and cultural hegemony. How can we begin to recognize the folly of the colonial worldview and the stories that support it? As a way to start re-embracing the Indigenous worldview and inspire appropriate actions on behalf of human survival, we ought to turn to some of the essential Indigenous worldview wisdom from Thomas King’s book, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Published in 2008, it is as relevant today more than ever. King is a Cherokee/Greek former professor of Native literature and author of many acclaimed books. The ideas in this article come from his thinking and those that are quoted directly come from his pen. His story is being passed on with his express permission, focusing only on what parts of it relate directly to our ecological crises.
Our Storytelling Shapes Our World
“Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous,” King begins. Not all of them, but the ones we have been telling ourselves for too long. “Once told they cannot be taken back.”
“The elements in Genesis create a universe governed by a series of hierarchies. In our Native story, the universe is governed by a series of co-operations that celebrate equality and balance.”
It may be past time, but we must start telling ourselves different stories, like those Indigenous peoples used to tell, and many still do. We can start with stories about the beginning. One that could use some critical revisiting is the King James version of the Bible. God creates night and day, all the creatures, and finally humans. “Man first and then woman.” Everything seems wonderful, but there is one rule and it is broken. “That is the end of the garden,” King wrote. “God seals it off and places an angel with a fiery sword at the entrance and tosses Adam and Eve into a howling wilderness to fend for themselves, a wilderness in which sickness and death, hate and hunger are their constant companions.”
In contrast, we might consider listening closely to an Indigenous story, like the one about how all the water creatures — including dolphins, ducks, whales, pelicans and other ocean birds, sharks, sea horses, muskrats, walruses, eels and otters — helped a woman who fell from an ancient world in the sky when Earth was all water. She was curious – “the kind of curious that doesn’t give up,” King notes. She was about to give birth and needed dry land. She was told there was mud at the bottom of the water, but needed something flat to put the mud on for the birthing. A turtle volunteered. All the creatures participated in diving for the mud. Once accomplished, the great collaboration to create the planet we know today was finished and twins were born. They were different from one another — one left-handed and one right-handed — but they also balanced one another out.
“Have we forgotten anything?” the twins asked the animals. “Do you think we need human beings?” Some animals expressed concern about humans being a problem, but the twins said everyone would get along fine, so the right-handed twin created women and the left-handed twin created men. The woman, the twins and all the animals looked around at the world they had created and said, “This is as good as it gets. This is one beautiful world.”
The Biblical and Indigenous creation stories are quite different. “The elements in Genesis create a particular universe governed by a series of hierarchies — God, man, animals, plants—that celebrate law, order and good government, while in our Native story, the universe is governed by a series of co-operations that celebrate equality and balance.” In the Indigenous story, the world is at peace without concern about the ascendancy of good over evil.
“What if the creation story in Genesis had featured a flawed deity who was understanding and sympathetic rather than autocratic and rigid? Someone who, in the process of creation, found herself lost from time to time and in need of advice? What if the animals had decided on their own names?” King writes.
We tell stories about treaties that omit how they were broken, or how land and sovereignty is still being stolen.
Although Vikings landed in North America much earlier, Columbus’s arrival brought the Biblical story, and from it, created the stories Europeans would tell about “Indians,” portrayingthem as “savages” preying on defenseless Euro-Americans.At first, the story resulted in Columbus taking 500 of the “generous, handsome and naked souvenirs” back to Seville to be sold in the slave markets. Later, Indians become more valuable as guides to the “New World” or allies for British or French armies. Then, when such services were no longer needed and Indian land was desired instead, new stories were developed to assure that there was no benefit Indians could make to civilization. “The colonists saw little need to examine either the Indian or Indian culture. Indian religion was absurd and ridiculous” to them, King notes.
“Did you ever wonder how it is we imagine the world in the way we do, how it is we imagine ourselves, if not through our stories? And in the English-speaking world, nothing could be easier, for we are surrounded by stories, and we can trace these stories back to other stories,” King writes.
For example, we could go back to famous literature like James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Deerslayer:
According to Deerslayer, revenge is an Indian gift and forgiveness is a White gift. Indians have devious natures, while Whites believe the best of a person. In the end, all Cooper is doing here is reiterating the basic propagandas that the British would use to justify their subjugation of Indian, or that the Germans would employ in their extermination of the Jews, or that the Jews would utilize to displace Palestinians, or that the U.S. military and U.S. media would craft into jingoistic slogans in order to make the invasions of other countries seem reasonable, patriotic and entertaining to television audiences throughout North America.
Of course, some of us like to tell ourselves different stories about such injustices and lies. These stories say most wrongdoing happened in the past and that we have progressed as a species. “And if we do make such a mistake in our lifetime, say for instance, dumping raw sewage into the ocean, we say this was an aberration.… As if what we did was set in motion by natural forces outside our control….” Like what was done to Indians.
We tell stories about treaties that omit how they were broken, or how land and sovereignty is still being stolen. “Legislation that has two basic goals. One, to relieve us of our land again, and two to legalize us out of existence,” King writes. Social justice advocates, environmentalists and teachers have created new stories about how to help address the current unfairness and distress against Indians, nature and future generations of all. They play upon and remind us that in spite of the problems, North Americans are known for compassionate and ethical responses to injustices.
“That’s a story I’d like to read. Unfortunately, North America has no such ethics. Really, we don’t,” King writes. “Now, I’m not saying that we don’t have any ethics. I’m just suggesting that we don’t have the ones we think we have.”
King asks us to consider, for example, our environmental ethic. Lots of work went into
cleaning seabirds, while crews with high-powered steam units blasted the oil off rocks.… And then there was Enron. And now there is _______ (fill in the blank). To listen to us social/ecological justice educators, you might think we care. But, in fact, we don’t. Not in any ethical way. We do nothing to prevent such disasters from happening again. It is not that we don’t care about ethics or the environment, society or morality. It’s just that we care more about our comfort and the things that make us comfortable — property, prestige, power, appearance, safety. And the things that insulate us from the vicissitudes of life. Money, for instance.
King sarcastically says modern civilization should not be too displeased with its stories. After all, they have been successful in allowing current political and business ethics to flourish. And now that we begin to see how they were the wrong stories, we are doing a good job and telling stories about how we are not failing to keep the world in balance. He says it is easier to tell the story of failure than to live the story of making a difference. “Want a different ethic? Tell a different story,” King argues.
We could tell ourselves stories about community and cooperation like the one about the falling woman, the twins and the many creatures that created a place for life on Earth and a sense of complementary balance. We could tell more coyote storiesso we might laugh at our foolishness until we stop being foolish and dangerous. Not just redeeming stories about community responses to earthquakes that make us proud, like the one about the global technology companies pitching in to help earthquake victims in Nepal. Rather, community and cooperation stories like the ones Indigenous peoples around the world today are tellingto maintain and fight for the last remaining biodiversity on Mother Earth.
Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows), AKA Don Trent Jacobs, is currently a professor in the School of Leadership Studies at Fielding Graduate University. A made-relative of the Oglala Medicine Horse Tiospaye, he served as director of education at Oglala Lakota College on Pine Ridge where he fulfilled his Sun Dance vows. Named one of 27 “visionaries in education” by the Alternative Education Resource Organization, and recipient of a Martin Springer Institute’s Moral Courage Award for his activism, he has authored/edited 20 books and numerous chapters/articles on Indigenous worldview.