The First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March involved a group of about thirty native and non-native people walking, eating, and camping together for 8 days. We walked 94 miles from Des Moines to Fort Dodge Iowa, along the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline during the first week of September, 2018. I am reflecting on what was for me a transformative experience.
The title of the March was what grabbed my attention. As I’ve written often elsewhere, from my teenage years on I have been horrified by what our fossil fuel based economy was doing to Mother Earth. As a scientist I knew about greenhouse gas emissions and their consequences. I knew climate denial was a sham.
As a Quaker this was also a spiritual matter for me. This has caused a great deal of tension with my Quaker community because I felt many other Quakers were not doing enough to live with environmental integrity. I gave up having a personal automobile some forty years ago, and felt we all should work to drastically reduce our fossil fuel consumption. I don’t think I convinced a single person to give up their car. I knew this would be difficult for the many people living in rural areas, but there were things that could have been done.
Looking for cultures that did live with environmental integrity, I wanted to learn more about Indigenous peoples. It became clear that I couldn’t rely on books because of questions about how truthful or accurate many authors were. I learned that native people rely on oral, not written history. And it was clear there were differences between tribes.
I was glad to have a few opportunities to spend a little time with Native Americans in Indianapolis as we worked together to support water protectors and to defund the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Moving back to Iowa upon my retirement last year, I looked for other opportunities to learn more about Indigenous people. At the annual meetings of Iowa Quakers the summer of 2016, Peter Clay, Donnielle Wanatee and Christine Nobiss spoke about building bridges between Quakers and Native Americans. Since then I have taken advantage of every opportunity to spend more time with Native Americans, such as the Meskwaki Powwow and work with Iowans against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Either Donnielle or Christine or both were usually present at these various gatherings. I also got to know Ed Fallon of Bold Iowa who was leading environmental organizing efforts.
My Quaker meeting, Bear Creek Friends, in the countryside north of Earlham, Iowa, has been involved with the annual Prairie Awakening/Prairie Awoke ceremony at the Kuehn Conservation Area, just a few miles from the meetinghouse, for over 10 years. I was very impressed when I was finally able to attend that ceremony in 2017.
But none of those opportunities allowed me to really get to know the native people and their beliefs. So I was really excited about the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March because it seemed like a way to finally develop some understanding and relationships with Native Americans.
I was convinced that corporate capitalist society has it all wrong regarding our environmental, economic and social practices, and the solution for our very survival had to be to return to ways that respect and begin to heal Mother Earth. We would have to adopt the indigenous ways to respect and begin to heal the Earth. So I searched for those who could teach me these things. Who would be willing to help show how we can work together to change our agricultural practices, economy and society in ways that might change the path to continuing, deepening environmental chaos we are currently on.
At the most fundamental level, on the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March we had the opportunity, and the length of time, to not only learn about Indigenous ways, but even better, become friends with the native and non-native people on the March. Prior to the March I hadn’t thought about the great amount of time we would be together without distractions. Walking side by side for hours a day, for eight days, we had the time to share many, many stories with each other. We were basically our own captive audience. The following expresses why I think sharing stories is so important. I believe we change the world one story at a time.
ALL THAT WE ARE IS STORY
From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship — we change the world one story at a time. Richard Wagamese (October 14, 1955-March 10, 2017) Ojibwe from Wabeseemoong Independent Nations, Canada
This practice of spending a lot of time together has become fundamental to what I have learned about activism over the past 5 or 6 years. I recently wrote about the path to a 94 mile spirit quest. I had found protests and meetings and presentations weren’t satisfying to me, and didn’t seem to lead to progress toward correcting injustices.
I was blessed to become connected to, and a part of the Kheprw Institute (KI), in Indianapolis. What I discovered was that as I listened deeply, I began to learn a little about what it is like to be a person of color in Indianapolis. It was by hearing stories that I learned. Stories go both directions. When I recently shared some stories about this March with one of my friends from KI, Diop Adisa, he said, “8 days wow. The commitment is transcending.”
One night last year I was fortunate to hear Arkan Lushwala speak about “Indigenous Ways of Restoring the World” during a call sponsored by the Pachamama Alliance. “Arkan Lushwala is a rare indigenous bridge of the global north and south, carrying spiritual traditions from the Andes in his native Peru as well as being adopted and initiated by the Lakota people of North America.”
“Everywhere people ask, “what can we do?”
The question, what can we do, is the second question.
The first question is “what can we be?”
Because what you can do is a consequence of who you are.
Once you know what you can be, you know what you can do”
This is why we need what I call Spiritual Warriors. Because we ask ourselves the first question, “what can we be?” By knowing who we are, what we can be, Arkan says, “our actions are precise, our actions are in harmony with the movement, the sacred movement, of that force that wants to renew life here on Earth and make it better for the following generations.”
The beautiful thing we experienced during the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March was learning more about what we can be. As I think of it, to begin to think of ourselves as Spiritual Warriors. https://jeffkisling.com/2018/05/08/spiritual-warrior/
“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.” Environmentalist Gus Speth
Spiritual Warriors work to learn how to do that. As Christine Nobiss, who walked on the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March writes on the Seeding Sovereignty website:
“During this time of climate crisis, it is imperative that we transform the colonized mind of settler descendant society by pushing Indigenous ideologies onto the world stage. We need to convey the profound and sustainable perspectives of Indigenous communities, cultures, and relationships to the earth by giving Indigenous people the opportunity to investigate, speak, write, photograph, and so much more. In particular, we need to encourage Indigenous women on to the world stage and empower them to convey the sacred feminine that has been violently oppressed.” Christine Nobiss, Seeding Sovereignty
“For most First Nations, wealth was seen as an ability to give gifts and provide for the people. It was a completely different perspective that offended settlers to the point that, in Canada, the government banned potlatch ceremonies (giveaways) and the people were forced to carry out their ceremonies underground. This is an important part of North American Indigenous culture to know because it explains how an Indigenous-led regenerative economy can help us curb the onslaught of climate change and end social injustice caused by colonial-capitalism. This ideology can help us better understand how to interact with the land and fight corporate conglomerates that are destroying the earth on which they carry out their unhealthy and inhumane commercial farming practices.” Christine Nobiss, Seeding Sovereignty
I also wanted to show Indigenous people that there are non-natives who care for Mother Earth, and could both learn from Native Americans, and join in their efforts to change agricultural and social thinking and practices. Quaker worship is fairly unique in non-native culture in not having structured rituals and services. Rather, Quakers gather in silence in order to try to hear and obey what the Spirit is saying to them. And throughout the week try to be attentive to the Spirit at all times, though we often aren’t successful in doing so. This means we reflect on the current state of our lives, and try to be open to new ideas.
I am convinced a spiritual approach is the only way to begin to tackle the rapidly evolving environmental chaos. That it makes sense that the spiritual approach of Quakers can be in tune with the spiritual approach of Indigenous peoples. So beside wanting to hear the stories shared by Native Americans, I also looked for ways to share about Quakers as we walked together.
We gave prayers every time our path crossed the Dakota Access Pipeline. Most often Donnielle offered the prayers on behalf of all of us. One time I was honored to be asked to give the prayers at another pipeline crossing. I briefly explained about Quaker worship, then we stood in a circle, holding hands, and held a short Quaker meeting for worship. Afterward I was touched that several people thanked me and gave me hugs.
I am hopeful those of us who marched together, and shared our stories with each other, can find ways to continue to work together.
Although made in November, 2016, this video interview of me is about settler colonialism and work against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Indianapolis, along with photos I took of events there.
This Rodger Routh video about the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March captures how we felt about what we were doing on the March.