Wilderness So White
DEFINITION OF WILDERNESS (c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value. (Wilderness Act 1964)
In interrogating the history of the movement of people and the impact on land, students ultimately have to confront the white, Eurocentric narratives of wilderness. From the doctrine of manifest destiny to the development of a National Park system, white colonists and explorers have dominated the national perspective on the concept of wilderness. Romantic poets and writers of the 19th century glorify wilderness as an untouched, pristine, environment that has not been touched by human enterprise. American history teaches the immorality of the slavery and the genocide of indigenous folks of the Americas, but at the same time uphold the legacies of white plantation owners and expeditioners. Even the Wilderness Act of 1964 use of phrases and words such as “untrammeled by man”, “primitive”, and “value” assert a colonist and capitalist definition of the wild.
N. Scott Momoday’s prologue to The Way to Rainy Mountain provides a counter narrative to those traditionally taught narratives. Momoday writes on his experience as a relative of the Cherokee Nation, having lived on and away from his family’s traditional home. In his reflections, he shares his memory of his grandmother’s deep relationship with the land, and the devastation of culture and religion do to the imposition of westerners. Momoday writes:
My grandmother had a reverence for the sun, a holy regard that now is all but gone out of mankind. There was a wariness in her, and an ancient awe. She was a Christian in her later years, but she had come a long way about, and she never forgot her birthright. As a child she had been to the Sun Dances; she had taken part in those annual rites, and by them she had learned the restoration of her people in the presence of Tai-me. She was about seven when the last Kiowa Sun Dance was held in 1887 on the Washita River above Rainy Mountain Creek. The buffalo were gone. In order to consummate the ancient sacrifice--to impale the head of a buffalo bull upon the medicine tree--a delegation of old men journeyed into Texas, there to beg and barter for an animal from the Goodnight herd. She was ten when the Kiowas came together for the last time as a living Sun Dance culture. They could find no buffalo; they had to hang an old hide from the sacred tree. Before the dance could begin, a company of soldiers rode out from Fort Sill under orders to disperse the tribe. Forbidden without cause, the essential act of their faith, having seen the wild herds slaughtered and left to rot upon the ground, the Kiowas backed away forever from the medicine tree. That was July 20, 1890, at the great bend of the Washita. My grandmother was there. Without bitterness, and for as long as she lived, she bore a vision of deicide. (Momoday, 2)
The grandmother’s experience serves as a testament to the respect and reverence ingenious peoples hold for nature that is essential for the wellbeing of their community and way of life. Students need exposure to accounts like Momoday’s to be able to disrupt the dominant white narrative of the American wilderness and to acknowledge the right to land that is indigenous to place and not forced upon by outsiders. To do so, teachers must provide narratives that depict the long-standing relationship of POC and the natural world and that share a truth that is often left out of history. Without teaching students to challenge Eurocentric perspectives, the educational system forges a narrative that quite literally extricates the ancestral knowledge and deeply rooted relationships black and indigenous peoples have held with the land for centuries and further remove students from nature.
To challenge the narrative of whom the wilderness is indented for, students need the opportunity to interact with the outdoors at their own accord through which they may cultivate rich and personal relationships with nature. Where I teach, we present this opportunity through the Wilderness Inspired Leadership Development (WILD) Program, a youth program with a mission to make the outdoors accessible and meaningful to youth living in urban and under-resourced communities. Through the program, students have the ability to engage in outdoor experiences such as camping, canoeing, hiking, and backpacking in both local and remote areas in New England. The school based program partners with Appalachian Mountain Club’s Youth Opportunities Program, which “promotes youth leadership, confidence, and environmental awareness through participation in outdoor adventures…Because participation in these types of outdoor activities has traditionally been limited to those with greater financial resources, YOP prioritizes agencies serving youth from urban and under-resourced communities…[making] it possible for diverse groups of young people to get outdoors together” (Appalachian Mountain Club). The program provides opportunities and exposure that was once very limited.
Students engaging in the WILD program have the ability to further their relationship with the wilderness by developing personal experiences and skills that can provide a foundation for the future. In part, through their participation, students not only break barriers for themselves but also for their community by sharing their experiences with friends, family, and others who may not have had exposure to the outdoors. Students are asked to keep note of the observations on nature and new skills they gain while participating in the program. Keeping record of these moments and reflections deeply solidify the experience in their memories and allow students to relay accurately their experiences to the community. The hope is that students help create a school culture that is excited to engage with nature and defy stigma surrounding who the wilderness is for. In this way, students lead through example and become advocates for their peers and representation in the outdoor industry.
When students can recognize their connection to the natural world, they can then begin more closely to observe societal impacts and perspectives on the environment. Youth have the ability to make a remarkable impact on local and global environmental justice issues and to help students better understand the concept of environmental justice. To gain a further foundation for the development of grassroots movements, students learn the principles of the movement as outlined by the delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held on October 24-27, 1991, in Washington DC. The 17 principles of Environmental Justice have served as a defining document for the growing grassroots movement for environmental justice.
We the people of color, gathered together at this multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, to begin to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities, do hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples, do affirm and adopt these Principles of Environmental Justice. (Delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit)
In US History class, students learn of the formation and jurisdiction of constitutional rights, but they are aware that the representatives who have historically and presently governed and aided in creation of these rights do not understand student perspectives or experiences. It is therefore important that these students are able to read principles and rights created by grassroots movements and community representatives who have similar perspectives, cultures, and desires and to acknowledge the actions those are taking to fight for Environmental Justice.
To model engaging in the creation and formation of principles and rights, students are provided the opportunity to create an amendment to propose in addition to develop a school wide bill of rights. To parallel this activity in English class students create a proposal on environmental justice issues that our school community faces. To gather understanding of environmental issues on a local level, we look to environmental organizations in our city such as impact on pollinators, protecting natural lands, and working towards climate justice.
A few leading environmental justice grassroots organizations include The New Haven Huneebee Project, Save the Sound, and New Haven Climate Movement. Each organization, though collectively fighting for environmental justice, works towards change in a specialized method. For instance, The Huneebee Project specifically works with honeybees to promote the growth of pollinator population within the city of New Haven. Honeybees are the species most commonly used as commercial pollinators, pollinating over 100 crops grown in North America and contributing $15 billion to the US economy yearly. Honeybees also pollinate wild and native plants, thus contributing to all the environmental and societal benefits attributed to pollinators. Therefore, New Haven Huneebee Project “envisions a world in which our youth, the community, and our environment are in a mutual and collaborative relationship. Through a social enterprise that promotes transferable job-skill-building for youth, community engagement, and shared appreciation for our natural environment” (Huneebee Project). By engaging young people in the process of promoting the growth of pollinators, the project sustains its mission, passing on skills and knowledge necessary to combating the environmental impacts.
Then there are movements created and lead by youth, and thus share common generational perspectives and a collective sense of urgency. For instance, the New Haven Climate Movement, which is mostly comprised of high school and college representatives, is an inter-generational grassroots organization of New Haven area residents. Together, the organization pushes for strong action on climate change in New Haven by mobilizing community residents and local organizations to learn about and act on the climate emergency. They fight for government policies and investments that will restore a safe climate and create a just future for all. The organizations goes beyond recognizing the natural environment to emphasizing the impact of the climate crises on health and living. The organization recognizes that the impacts of climate change disproportionately affect New Haven’s most vulnerable residents, which is why they believe that New Haven must take immediate action to address this emergency and must prioritize equity and justice in solutions (New Haven Climate Movement).
Other organizations also aid in leading environmental action with a more regional and comprehensive outreach approach. Save the Sound fights climate change, saves endangered lands, protects the Sound and its rivers, and works with nature to restore ecosystems of Connecticut and Long Island Sound. They use legal and scientific expertise and bring people together to achieve results that benefit the environment for current and future generations. The organization welcomes citizens from urban to rural communities to unite in transforming struggling habitats, polluted waters, endangered wildlife, and a threatened planet into resilient, healthy, vibrant, and inspiring places that sustain communities (Save the Sound). These types of organizations demonstrate to students a need to unite communities with the purpose of working towards the same goal: environmental justice.
In fact, people are organizing all over the world to put an end to the dire effects of the climate crisis. Project 350 is an international movement of ordinary people working to end the age of fossil fuels and build a world of community-led renewable energy for all (Project 350). The organizations provides a platform for individuals to get active in the climate movement and meet like-minded people no matter where one be in the globe. By using their organization locator map, one could also gain knowledge into the types of climate movements and programs located in near and far regions of the world and learn more about the specific ways people are working to reduce climate impact in their environment. Initiatives like those of Huneebee Project, Save the Sound, and New Haven Climate Movement are close to home reminders of the importance of environmental justice in our city and remind young people that they have the power to engage in working towards change. Project 350 provides a framework for understanding the global need to work together for a healthier planet and human race. By researching and hearing from these organizations, we can learn how to become a part of organization that are agents of change problem solvers as well as model our work to executing environmental justice initiatives in our school community.
- Environmental Speaker Series: As mentioned above, New Haven is home to many environmental grassroots organizations that are currently working to make an impact on the local community. Students are able to connect and learn from leaders in these organizations through a speaker series. Leaders present on initiatives and projects, community issues, possible solutions, and opportunities for students to get involved. Students are asked to develop questions, as well as take notes on the style of the presentation, as they will be asked to present to the class and school community at the end of the year.
- Environmental Proposal: After learning from activists and grassroots organizations, students work in small groups to develop a proposal for a school wide environmental initiative. Groups are responsible for determining a school based environmental need or issue, researching solutions for how to solve the issue and a plan for how to execute the solution. Students develop a short platform and presentation to deliver to the class and then the school community. The school community votes on the proposals and the most popular proposal will become the school’s environmental initiative for the year.