Published in Planet Drum, 2016
“Going from big to little regions, going from capitalist to socialist, going from patriarchy to matriarchy—As long as the discourse remains merely secular and merely scientific—I think it’s doomed. I mean, if it doesn’t kindle us up to singing, if it doesn’t quicken us to dance, to gratitude and praise—what kind of knowledge is it?”
Rosebud Lakota Reservation, South Dakota
Letter to Annie Booth, November 16, 1990.
As a reluctant immigrant I ended up finally pursuing citizenship to ensure my american born children and I would not be separated in the event of some abominable new policy. Surrounded by people from all over the world during an anticlimactic ceremony I was moved by our shared desire to find a better life, and let down by the lack of emphasis on civic engagement, let alone the notion of environmental responsibility. As the current president delivered the promise of America in a bland video recording I finally started sketching the story for a film script I’d long envisioned.
A young mother flees Los Angeles to the now independent Pacific Northwest, where all citizens have what they need to survive. “Commoner” is a story of love and borders in a land of what could be. It ponders displacement, identity and prosperity as quality of life. In researching for this story I spoke to Randy Woodley at Eloheh Farm. He is a legal descendent of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, and his wife, Edith Woodley, is a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe. They have a three acre farm in the fertile Willamette Valley, home for thousands of years to the Kalapuyan peoples. Quoting from Eloheh’s mission “The Kalapuyan peoples formerly consisted of hunter-gatherer societies who did not plant annual crops. Eloheh Farm is a hybrid of planting, gathering and animal husbandry systems that seeks not to impose its will upon a new land but rather to seek guidance and ancient wisdom from the host peoples as we discern our place on this land. Eloheh Farm is a micro-oasis of bio-diversity in the midst of the Willamette Valley’s production-driven, mono-cultural blight.”
To ponder immigration in the face of harrowing economic factors, or carrying capacity versus mismanagement of resources, is to trace empty rhetorical circles or to accept migration and understand how to attract people and nurture policy that align with a bioregional approach. A question I ponder daily as I write the story of my script, how can such a culture be created, and what would it look like?
Randy asks “How do you become a good settler in someone else’s land? You can go to any climate and the indigenous people there know how to thrive in that land. For the colonizer to come in and say - your voice is no longer important - is unbelievable, and that’s partly why we’re in trouble, because the worldview that the indigenous people have in understanding the land is the worldview that can sustain the land. The worldview of settler colonialism will deplete the land from its resources.”
Perhaps successful resistance to the relentless growth model will come from a spiritual identity with the earth. Not projecting human wants but seeing the land for what it is. As Randy explains: “To just live with the land as best as possible. And I think that preposition, with, is key. Co-sustaining the land, being in relationship, and realizing you’re a part of it.”
What follows is a conversation with Randy Woodley at his farm in Newberg, Oregon in September of 2015.
Carolina: Can you tell us about the Kalapuyan people and the first settlers in the area?
Randy: The ancient Kalapuyan have inhabited the Willamette Valley for many thousands of years. By all measurements that are just and fair, we must first acknowledge the Kalapuyans as the original co-sustainers of the land on which we now live. The various bands of Kalapuyan peoples lived in harmony with the land and their neighbors. The rich soil and oak savannas of the Willamette Valley (“Spill-water Valley”) provided all that was needed to thrive here. Although the diet of the Kalapuyans was primarily plant-based and only consisted of about 25% meat; elk, deer, rabbit and other meat protein sources were readily available here. The Kalapuyans also regularly traded for salmon at the falls with the upper Chinooks. The first non-Kalapuyan settlers in the Willamette Valley were overwhelmingly mixed-blood Native Americans and White men, mostly French-Canadian, married to North American Native women. Most men were formerly employed by The American Fur Company and the Hudson’s Bay Fur Company, and had to build relationships with the local tribes prior to settling. For over 30 years the various peoples lived together, married into each other’s families, attended ceremonies together and traded with one another in essential harmony. The first few generations of hunter-planters-animal husbandry type settlers in the Willamette Valley lived together with the local tribes and intermarried, crossing cultures with relative ease because they held similar indigenous worldviews. This attests to the fact that agri-settlers and tribal peoples could have remained in harmony on the land. The Kalapuyan were living well and vice versa, there were no wars, even with the two economic systems side by side, so there’s a whole lot of lessons to be learned from that original DNA of Oregon’s settler history. There’s just a myth that White Europeans settled here first. The abundance of food in the region was incredible and that is what this region does, but you have to know how to live with the land.
Carolina: Maybe this abundance has shaped how people have lived in relation to this region.
Randy: Yes. And instead of despair about diminishing resources it needs to be about how we’re using those resources.
Carolina: Can this region continue to accommodate all the people that are still coming?
Randy: With an indigenous worldview yes, we will begin to look at everything differently, we’ll begin to look at wealth differently. People have to basically drop the American myth of independency, white supremacy, pick yourself up by your own bootstraps, the get-all-you-can mentality. If we can tell different stories, and create things like, for example, tax breaks for CSA’s and non-profit farms, we add to this worldview so people flock here because they want to live in a place that has a different way of looking at life. To create new economic models based on cottage industries and barter system rather than trying to draw corporations with tax breaks. It has to be something at a smaller level that’s humanizing. Or else we’ll be the next Southern California… You just have to look out the window to see it, this monocultural nightmare.
(*Randy’s farm is surrounded by hazelnut farms)
Carolina: How can the indigenous worldview not be appropriated?
Randy: I think it’s OK to appropriate the indigenous worldview just don’t misappropriate those ceremonies and songs. For example, when I went to the cultural historian of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, I told him I was a little confused because as a settler our ceremonies are not connected to this land. He told us to conduct our own ceremonies, to learn about theirs, and keep educating our community. I think that’s the same message for white settlers or non-native settlers, come up with your own ways of doing things, without misappropriating ours. Everybody is indigenous from somewhere and everyone has stories and ceremonies and they’re told to drop it all when they become American, well they need to rediscover those things and use them. The other thing is that it is harder for white people to say “I need something that I can’t get myself” because there’s a whole lot of pride involved. I was taught that when you go ask an elder for something you take a gift and you have to humble yourself and say “will you help me?”, and the person might say no. But white Americans were taught that we’re not quite as human as them, there’s been 500 years of this. The original United States Naturalization Law (March 26, 1790) said you had to be white to be a citizen, and from that point forward it’s been systemic privilege in that way. It’s a chasm that many don’t want to cross, and I don’t think they’re evil, that’s just what they’ve been taught. So they have to be around indigenous people and learn to observe until they can build up enough humility to say “Will you help me with my thinking?” — because we all need help. There’s a lot of gifting that other non-natives, white folks, black folks, and other people have. We don’t have all the gifts. We all need each other to make this work. Native people are generally not going to stand up in a big crowd and say this is what you need to do, but there’s plenty of white folks out there who will, so get them converted and let them use the giftings they have and that their culture allows for.
Carolina: How will the conversation shift?
Randy: I make no bones that I try to to convert people to an indigenous worldview because I think that’s the only way to save our place on earth. The earth’s pretty resilient, but we just may lose our opportunity to be in relationship with the earth.
Carolina: In environmental movements there’s speculation that a spiritual aspect is missing.
Randy: If you spend enough time in creation and you watch what happens you can’t help but change. But I think you also have to have stories that go with what you see, you have to have ceremonies that go with what you see, you can’t just pick things. At harvest time all of our peoples had songs and ceremonies to celebrate and give thanks; out here we had a harvest of chamomile and a chamomile picking party and dance. I suppose you can do that in any culture; we sang our own songs, not the songs of this land, but I went to the people of this land first and asked if that would be OK with them.
Carolina: Is the indigenous worldview inherently present amongst Native Americans?
Randy: We are the canary in the coal mine, we haven’t lived weird like this for very long. The way we are acting now is killing us really quick. We have all the worst statistics for food and stress related illnesses, it’s obvious there’s something wrong. And you can’t talk about this without talking about economies. Native people have a value of purposeful and meaningful work, we don’t do good just punching the clock, we need to be producing something that makes sense to our families and communities. We don’t find dignity in the kind of work schedule that this kind of capitalistic economy gives us, so that creates stress. A lot of tribes are completely colonized, but the traditional people know, they’ve always known, and it doesn’t change. What we need really in our tribal organizations is people who can think in both worlds. Anthropologists call this “indigenous cosmopolitanism” - they’re people who think in both worldviews, keep the native values, and figure out how to negotiate the modern world. That’s really difficult for most of us.
Carolina: How can we do this?
Randy: Some people who read this are going to ask “who are these dreamers?!” But as soon as the economy starts having problems what are we gonna do? This is what we’re going to do. If we have big crashes we’re actually going to do all this in a serious way. You have to have the foresight before it happens. The problem is we all have faith in this economic system, but every good economist who does not have a political agenda will tell you it’s a house of cards, and it’s not gonna stand forever. So the only thing that can help is cottage industries and barter systems and you can even have a monetary system built in, but you utilize in a different way, and most of it stays local.
Carolina: So how to live here?
Randy: Basically you have to know the history, the social history, you try to know the people and ask permission, ask them how to best live with this land. I think I told you about going to talk with the chair person of the Kalapuyan and she told me to plant huckleberries. So the point is of being in relationship, realizing you’re a part of it all. You’re not here to pick and chose from it, you’re here to exist with the land.
(Carolina Pfister, 2016)