by Tom Goldtooth*
National Director, Indigenous Environmental Network
Spirituality plays a very important role in the work our network
does in environmental protection. It frames who we are. I believe
that as Native people, we are the land and the land is us. Those
of us in the environmental justice movement have started to
educate the larger environmental movement that our work
protecting the environment is spiritual work.
When we talk about the environment, very often we are talking
about sacred elements. We're talking about air, which is a gift
from the Creator. From the day that we're born, we take that
first gasp of air and that's the life giver. Some day that breath
of life is going to leave our body, thus completing its cycle.
Water is a sacred element. From the time the unborn is swimming
around in the womb of its mother, we need water to sustain us.
Throughout our lifetime, that water that flows through the veins
of our Mother Earth remains connected to all life throughout the
The soil, the earth itself, that skin of Mother Earth is also one
of the sacred elements.
And we have the sun that comes up in the morning every day that
gives us warmth, that gives us the understanding. That's the
fire, and fire is very sacred.
Some of the prophecies of our various tribes talk about a time
when technology and development will be so far out of balance
that it may affect the future of our planet. The Six Nations in
the eastern Great Lakes area have prophecies about the time when
the trees will start dying from the top down, and I understand
that's happening. We've got glaciers in the Andes that are
receding. We've got thinning ice in Alaska that is affecting the
subsistence culture of the Alaska Natives. I hear that aquifers
are starting to dry out. Climate change and global warming are
impacting our people.
Our elders talk about the spiritual battle that's been going on
for a long time. Industrialization has always wanted to control
the land, control the people. That's going on today. I believe
that globalization is part of that. Globalization places no value
in people, no value in religious and spiritual principles, no
value in the protection of the commons. Spiritual values tie us
to the importance of protecting the Mother Earth, the plants, all
animate and inanimate things. When we lose that understanding,
industry, development, and globalization can do what they want to
do, because there are no values behind their structures.
Globalization has created a system of corporate ownership above
the importance of plants, living things, and humans.
Back in the Old World -- Europe -- there were Crusades and
Inquisitions, which did away with Earth-based religions. This
practice rewrote history. Industrialization further killed off
the Old World tribes, their identification, their traditional
form of governance and replaced them with kingdoms and peasants.
They've lost their connections to the land and who they are.
That's why I've always believed it's very important to carry on
our traditions and our culture as Native peoples, to make sure
our children know who they are and have that identification with
the sacredness of our Mother Earth. Native peoples, especially
those who are trying to practice ways that have been given to
them since time immemorial, are an endangered species.
Acculturation and assimilation -- which are products of
colonization -- have been very effective. As Native peoples,
we're still trying to hang on to what little we have left, our
language, so we can practice our ceremonies, and our sacred
areas. Western forms of development have gradually destroyed many
of those sacred places.
The elders tell us that we're a tribal society of givers living
in a society of takers. They say, "Go and do what you can to talk
to people, try and educate them about these things." In the
Native way, we respect people's own spirits. They have to come
through their own self-realization to take responsibility for
A meeting of the tribes
Unfortunately, non-Native peoples no longer have traditional
tribal systems, so we can't meet with them tribe to tribe. That
was how we used to meet to deal with these kinds of issues. There
were always ceremonial leaders, woman leaders, mechanisms for
approaching these things. But that's not there anymore. Tribalism
has been killed off.
As a practitioner of our traditional ways, I've been taught to
put prayer first, to put the sacred Pipe first. These teachings
provide me with the discipline to put the Creator first in
everything I do. When I don't put the Creator first, then I start
getting into trouble. I was taught that we're given a mind and a
heart, and when we start to use the mind too much we get out of
balance. We have to maintain a balance. Anytime I put prayer
aside and try to do paperwork or do politics too much, I get
myself in trouble.
In our traditional societies, we had political leaders, but
political leaders maintained a balance with the spiritual
leadership in the village. Various tribes had clan mothers or
matrilineal clan systems that kept the menfolk in check. Our
connection to the sacredness of the female creative principle of
Mother Earth really means a lot, and that's something a lot of
people don't understand. We always say that Mother Earth is
sacred. She's the creative principle that allows life to go on,
and that's why in our traditional values as Native peoples we
have the most respect and reverence for the female. We're taught
to take care of the Mother Earth and to take care of our women,
our mothers, our aunts, our grandmothers, our sisters, our
daughters in the same way we take care of the Earth.
I need to say that there are many different tribes and many
different ways, but there are many similarities when I talk about
the sacredness of Mother Earth and our relationship to the woman.
Any time we start to lose that understanding, that's when we
start getting into trouble as men.
Men have big egos. Men can easily lead religions and societies
into warfare. That's why we always have to take direction from
our women, from our matrilineal clan systems, because they
understand the importance of that relationship. That was always
The men's role is also very important. The man is the protector
of our villages and our women. I think that the men's and women's
roles are out of balance in the same way that life is out of
balance right now. I believe that men have to somehow find out
what our role is in the modern world. The woman still carries
forth the children, still understands that creative principle,
still has that connection to the Earth and the powers of the
moon. Their role is more easily defined. But I find a lot of
brothers, no matter what race, are out of balance, searching to
find out who they are as a man. We must not forget that Father
Sky and Mother Earth need one another as part of the creative
That goes back to the work that we do with the environment. When
I talk to white environmentalists about the importance of the
spiritual aspects of their work, they have no understanding of
that --especially the men. The women seem to have a better
understanding. Very often, the closest the non-Natives can
understand about the sacredness of the Earth is the concept of
stewardship -- which is good but still has ownership attached to
it. But we can work with stewardship as a beginning.
A lot of the prophecies of the various tribes have said the time
will come when the younger brother and the younger sister who
have come from across the ocean will start to look towards the
Native peoples for direction. But in my younger years, I was very
resistant to the new agers coming into our lands and into our
My youth led me into Native activism -- what we called Red Power.
I was one of those foot soldiers demanding the recognition of our
treaty rights with my fists in the air, demanding justice. I
talked to my grandmother once, and she said, "You've got a lot of
anger in you. What's wrong?" So I started talking about what was
going on, about people being killed. She said, "You need to go
into ceremony. You've got a lot of anger."
As the years went on, I started to see more non-Native people,
basically white people, coming to our ceremonies looking for
answers, and I struggled with that. It seemed to me they were
continuing the same old practice of taking things away from us
without giving back. Now it was our ceremony and knowledge.
An uncle on the Dakota Reservation in Prairie Island, Minnesota,
asked me to help him in the sweat lodge in the mid-1980s. He had
a dream that the four colors of man would be coming to his
ceremonies. Sure enough, soon people started coming down from the
Twin Cities on Friday nights, carloads of them, and there I was
helping him with all these people. I wouldn't have done it if he
hadn't asked. But he needed help; he was getting tired. I really
had to work this out for myself, because I couldn't take my anger
into the sweat lodge. I started to learn about compassion.
I feel people in this country as well as in Europe are searching.
I've been to a German sweat lodge, which was given to them by a
full-blood Cherokee man in the '70s. In 2000 in Germany I was
sitting in the sweat lodge with these German people. They said
they had lost their ways from the Crusades a long time ago, and
this Native sweat lodge was all they had to help them make their
way back to who they were. I saw they had respect and humility
about these spiritual ways. They demonstrated compassion for each
other, love, and faith in the Higher Power -- they have
everything that we need to live and survive. Who's to say that
what they're doing is wrong? I started to see that this spiritual
understanding is to be shared with all people, regardless of
Back in the 1980s, I met some people with the Rainbow tribe. The
Rainbow tribe is mostly white folks, but there are some black
people, Latinos, and Asians. I had my own stereotypes about the
Rainbow tribe -- basically hippie-type folks who smoked
marijuana, partied, and tried to have a connection with the
Earth. I thought there was something out of balance, and I
usually stayed away from the Rainbow gatherings. But I met some
elders who came to the ceremonies that my uncle was running at
the Prairie Island Dakota reservation. I sat down and talked with
them. I learned they didn't want to be disrespectful to Native
peoples or our ways. I talked about the importance of keeping
things in context and not mixing things up. They understood. They
said there was no structure in the Rainbow tribe to address this.
They do the best they can -- basically they allow different
people to do what they want to do.
I started to pray about that. An understanding came to me that
God is very compassionate and loving to everyone. When people
come together searching for answers for themselves, like the
Rainbow tribe, if they are sincere and have patience, a way will
come to them that is for them. It may not be Native as we define
it, but it is something that comes in a sacred manner and it will
be for them. That is the power of this Creation working through
all people of all races and all tribes.
It is my prayer that when all humans go through this
transformation, it will help them to re-identify their
relationship to the sacredness of the land, Mother Earth. When
this comes, we will have peace and a clean and safe future for
our future generations.
* Tom B. K. Goldtooth (Dine' and Mdewakanton Dakota) is the
national director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, P.O.
Box 485, Bemidji, MN 56619; Phone: (218) 751-4967; Web:
Reprinted with permission from YES! A JOURNAL OF POSITIVE FUTURES
(Winter 2002), P.O. Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.
Subscriptions: (800) 937-4451 Web: http://www.yesmagazine.org.