Studying cultural differences is a critical part of education. In terms of Language Arts standards, being able to compare and evaluate different points of view is particularly important. In developing this unit, it is important to understand the different life views of Native Americans and European-Americans particularly in regards to environmental stewardship and conservationism as is demonstrated in lesson one in this unit.
In his article, “What Other Americans Can and Cannot Learn from Native American Environmental Ethics,” Dave Aftandilian, a European American, describes Native American environmental ethics as “the whole suite of values, practices, and rules for proper behavior toward nature and other being that Native people have developed based on observation, experience, and reflection.”17 He also reminds us that the current environmental crisis is not a Native American created problem. Aftandilian suggests that both Christianity and capitalism have prioritized people over the land and have created a cultural worldview that has led to the exploitation of the land and its resources. He speaks about how the point of view of many Native American cultures differs in that the people see themselves as a part of nature and, often, see the land as being more important than the people. This belief is part of the Native American lifeway. This is why many Native people don’t identify necessarily as environmentalists; the idea of being one with the land is embedded throughout various aspects of their culture, not just in terms of environmental philosophy. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native writer, also speaks about this in her work Braiding Sweetgrass. When discussing the title, Kimmerer speaks about how braiding hair is an act of love and that when her people are braiding sweetgrass it is connecting with the earth that was there before people were.
In exploring this viewpoint, it is important to understand how the Native American communities have developed this cultural stance. One of the important aspects of this ideology has been through the use of storytelling. Native people have spread their beliefs through orally told Distant Time stories that are infused with an ideology that explains how people should treat the land and its creatures as well as why they should treat all living things peacefully. These stories often bestow the same spirit on humans as is does on animals and other natural elements. Through this process, empathy and concern for the natural world is brought to the surface.18 Kimmerer also speaks about this in her work. She states that creation stories “tell us who we are. We are inevitably shaped by them no matter how distant they may be from our consciousness.”19
To understand these stories, one must understand the connection to culture. Among Native American cultures, the expression of how nature’s importance in their lifeway differs. For example, the Koyukon people of Alaska see themselves relying on the natural world for their existence and, as such, do not see themselves as having power over the elements of the world around them. In order to develop this belief, the Koyukon people abide by Distant Time stories of Raven and how he developed the world they inhabit. Many of these stories discuss how to treat animals. These stories are believed to be the reason that Kuyukon people are successful at hunting and farming. The fear of retribution from a higher power also helps to maintain the social order of these stories. This leads to practices that limit the amount of land used for farming and the areas allowed for hunting.
The Hopi people believe in something slightly different. Their belief in the connection to the land arises from the belief that they are borrowing the land from its original farmer, Maasaw. They see themselves as being “born from [the land].” As such, the natural world is embedded into various sections of their culture including family structures. Hopi families have a connection to an individual element of the natural world. As such, a person in this culture feels a very real connection to that element whether it be the sun, coyotes, etc. This also embeds itself into language so that when someone grows up, they are said to have “matured like corn.” For the Hopi, their cultural farming practices also have an environmental piece for them. For example, by using wood rather than metal to till soil they are not causing soil erosion. While the practice is not based on environmental sustainability, there is a positive environmental impact.20
Besides cultural practices, the Distant Time stories are also based on a level of scientific observation. For example, in several tales the beaver and the muskrat are described as being siblings based on the fact that they have a similar form and similar habits. Also, the Hopi people would pray for the Sun to come back towards the earth to bring on spring after the long winter. While these realizations may not have come from the use of modern scientific study, they are clear examples of how scientific observation has found itself embedded in these stories.
In introducing these stories to students, Native American author and storyteller Joseph Bruchac speaks of the importance to “begin any Native American literature... not in the classroom, but in the woods … to have a sense of the American earth, of the land and the people as one.” 21 In the teaching of reading, the importance of prior background knowledge is typically cited as a source of success for student achievement in comprehending a text. With this considered, it is important to take students out into the natural world in order to activate their sense of the context and environment in which these origin stories were developed and evolved. By placing them in a different environment, the change of scenery also allows a change of thought in regards to preconceived Western notions of not only Native Americans but traditional educational practices.22 Robin Wall Kimmerer also speaks about the connection between Western and Native ways of understanding comparing the origin story of Skywoman to the story of Adam and Eve expanding on the idea of how both Skywoman and Eve connect to nature are wildly different. Skywoman is embracing a new, foreign land while Eve is cast out.23 These two stories illustrate in a very simplistic way the differences in the ways of knowing.