The Times profiled a few of the protesters. Thayliah Henry-Suppah, Paiute, of Oregon, wearing a traditional wing dress with ribbons and otter furs, said she kept this Indian proverb in mind: “Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children.” In her own words: “We’ve lived without money. We can live without oil, but no human being can live without water.”
Most of the Indians profiled by the Times spoke of water: “We say ‘mni wiconi’: Water is life,” said David Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, the site and center of the protest over a pipeline designed to ship oil out of North Dakota, under the Missouri River. “We can’t put it at risk, not for just us, but everybody downstream.”
It’s easy in this lush Wallowa Valley to take water for granted, although murmurs from California exiles and smoke from miles-away forest fires are troubling. This gathering of Indian peoples should be just as troubling.
It has to do with an attitude that natural resources are basically inexhaustible, and that, even as we run out of one, another resource or another technology will rise to take its place. Indians are telling us that water is the fundamental resource, and that the beaver and salmon that were taken almost to extinction by the fur trade and Columbia River canneries in the 1800s were indicators of a fundamentally flawed economy.
Beaver had been exhausted in Europe when that business marched across the middle of North America from the 1600s into the nineteenth century. In a dispute over the “jointly occupied” Oregon Territory, the British set out to trap out all of the beaver in the Columbia watersheds, thinking that this would dissuade American trappers and immigrants from occupying it. Eventually, silk or some other commodity replaced beaver felt for hats, the crisis was averted, and Americans found other reasons to settle the Northwest.
In the first Alaskan oil rush, American whalers, who had depleted sperm whales in the Pacific Ocean, killed over 13,000 bowhead whales north of the Bearing Strait in just two decades in the mid 1800s. Needless to say, Inupiat culture, which had revolved around whaling for millennia, was severely damaged. Survivors are now rearranging lives around the twenty-first century oil business, adapting while trying to hold onto vestiges of sea culture threatened by oil spills and warming and rising oceans. It’s the water.
Our economy seems based on the consumption of whatever resource is readily available in the moment, trusting that science and capitalist good sense will discover and exploit the next resource. Good we found petroleum to replace whale oil, shale oil to replace crude, wind to replace steam and water generated electricity. And, eventually, we’ll mine the moon, asteroids, and distant planets.
The Indians bring us back, back to land and water. The Umatilla Natural Resource program has developed a presentation on “First Foods.” They argue that ancient longhouse ceremonies served foods in order of importance, and if we do the same we will be healthier and will live in a healtier environment. Clean water, of course, is first, and then salmon—think good spawning grounds, deer, roots, berries, etc.
Our Wallowa waters are the envy of many. And while local cattle ranchers argue that “there is no such thing as a bad rain,” and grass growers and ranchers measure the snowpack and gauge hay cutting and pasture moves against the year’s weather, most of us not making our living in agriculture and timber are blissfully unaware of local water dynamics. We like the look of snowcapped mountains and the rush of rivers. We fish, or ski, snowmobile, hunt, run rivers, or sit on the beach at Wallowa Lake and enjoy the sun—and water.
A few people work to rectify twentieth century technology by putting meander back in rivers, cooling water and increasing spawning grounds. Some think about our dam—and how sockeye salmon who once flooded the Lake might be brought to it again. Immigrants from California and Central Oregon shake the dust off and water lawns and pastures. And Washington irrigators follow the dam condemnation and potential reconstruction thirstily—they’ll buy that extra water from us.
Indians from diverse cultures across the country camping in North Dakota remind us that water is not just a commodity to be bought and sold, but the fundamental principle of all life.
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