This is the Holy Land

May 22, 2010

Winona LaDuke

“I’m always a little surprised when I hear people say that they are getting on a plane and heading off to the Holy Land,” Winona LaDuke said. “Because the Holy Land is here. This is it right here in America. We are standing right now on Holy Land.  My people have known that forever, and it’s time everyone came to understand it.”

Winona was the keynote speaker at the 5th annual Chief Standing Bear Breakfast, served up in the Heartland, May 21, Lincoln, Nebraska. As she uttered the last syllable of her pronouncement about holy land, the Earth responded, as it often will in a moment of truth. The ground began to tremble. The subtle shudder continued for 20 seconds or more. It was definite. I felt it. Others felt it, too.

Currently serving as director of Native Harvest and the White Earth Land Recovery Project, Winona spoke simply but eloquently for 25 minutes before an audience of about 400 people. In the course of her remarks she mentioned her late father, Sun Bear, an old friend and colleague of mine. Sun Bear was an actor, an activist in his own right, and convener of the influential Medicine Wheel Gatherings in the 1980s and 1990s. “Very often,” Winona told the audience, I heard my father say, ‘I don’t want to hear your philosophy if it won’t grow corn.’ It took me a long time to understand what he meant, but I get it now. He was on to something important.

“I know also,” she added, “that when you grow your own food it makes you a better human being. It connects you to the land you live upon, and it relieves a certain poverty of spirit.

Chief Standing Bear

At the breakfast event the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska announced plans to advocate for a national holiday to honor their late chief, Standing Bear, and to strive to have him recognized as someone as important to civil rights as Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1879, Standing Bear challenged decades of U.S. policy when, in the course of federal prosecution in Omaha, Nebraska, he demanded to be recognized as a person. That was the first time an Indian was permitted to appear in court in this country and have his rights tried.  The government argued that Indians were not entitled to the protection of a writ of habeas corpus because they were not citizens or even “persons” under American law.

Late in the afternoon as the trial drew to a close, the Judge announced that Standing Bear would be allowed to make a speech in his own behalf. No one in the audience had ever heard an oration by an Indian. Standing Bear rose. Half facing the audience, he held out his right hand, and stood motionless. After a long pause, looking up at the judge, he said: “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain. The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man…”

Standing Bear spoke for several minutes more. When he was complete the courtroom crowd, moved by his logic and his eloquence, erupted with a resounding shout of support. Thereafter, in time, the federal judge handed down a ruling that Indians are in fact human beings — persons within the meaning of the law. This was a historic ruling on the status of Native peoples on the land they have inhabited for many thousands of years — land that, according to their ancestral traditions, they have a definite and special spiritual responsibility to protect.

Scholars have likened the impact of Standing Bear’s case to the impact that the earlier 1857 Dred Scott case had for the rights of African Americans.  The Dred Scott case essentially declared that a human being had no constitutional rights because he was black. It was the most egregious legal decision of its time. violating both logic and human decency. So twisted was the legal logic that it compelled people to consider what slavery really meant. Likewise, the Standing Bear case compelled people to recognize that Natives are also human beings, with a fundamental entitlement to justice. NET has produced a TV documentary exploring the issues – Standing Bear’s Footsteps — that will be broadcast later this year.

At the breakfast in Lincoln, in what resounded as the morning’s unexpected coda to the case of Standing Bear and all human beings, Winona ended her talk with an observation.  There is currently, she said, a great national debate raging on the subject of immigration. The debate is being stirred by SB 1070, a law recently enacted in Arizona (a law that has become a model for legislation that other states, including Nebraska will be voting on the months ahead). “In the circumstances of this law and its impact there is a cruel irony,” she said. “Most of the people who are intended to be excluded from this land by laws like this come from a genetic lineage that has always been here — family lines that trace back in North America for 10,000 years or longer.”

These relatives — mostly people from Mexico and Central America — are in many cases farm workers: people who labor in the fields to grow our grains and vegetables, or who toil like machines in the vast Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and slaughterhouses that yield our chicken, beef, and pork. Whether we acknowledge and respect them or not, these are our Ambassadors to the Holy Land. They touch the Earth on our behalf. They raise up the food that we eat. They, like Standing Bear, are human beings, too.

Crude Awakening, Agrarian Apocalypse

May 14, 2010

The dystopian drama in the Gulf of Mexico, where a river of crude oil now bleeds wholesale, underscores a wider, ruder reality: our planetary eco-systems are beginning to collapse. In no way will our daily bread be insulated from this devastation.

If the industrial debacle of the Deepwater Horizon accident  in the Gulf — about a million gallons a day of rank, tar-black petroleum — were not sufficiently toxic confirmation, the UN made it bureaucratically official on May 10. That’s the day they published the third Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3), a comprehensive report warning — as so many other science-based reports have — that our planet’s vital signs are failing,

As GBO-3 puts it, “the five principal pressures directly driving biodiversity loss (habitat change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change) are either constant or increasing in intensity.”

In this half-dead world we must dwell,  and continue to find food. This is the very point that journalist Bill McKibben explores in his new book, Eaarth – Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

“Eaarth” is the name McKibben gives to the planet formerly known as Earth. According to Mc­Kibben, Earth with one “a” no longer exists. We have exploited and abused it beyond the point of health. A new, poorer planet, Eaarth, is what we have left. On Eaarth we are well down the road to tipping points that will, among many other travesties, catastrophically collapse the capacity of nature to provide food.

While the BP oil disaster is a signal event, the Gulf of Mexico already had massive dead zones — zones created over the last several decades by the runoff of petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides applied to industrial-scale farm fields all across the American Heartland, noxious substances that streamed into the Platte, the Missouri, the Mississippi and other rivers, and then into the Gulf where they spawned death.

These oily realities are leading inevitably to an agrarian apocalypse. By that I mean the literal thrust of the Greek word, apocalypse, which is a “lifting of the veil,” a “revelation.” Apocalypse is disclosure of something hidden in plain sight through misconception and falsehood. To wit, we are now in the violent twilight of the oil era, a reality which will have a direct and devastating impact on industrial agriculture and consequently on our food supply.

In a literal sense, when we eat food produced by the industrial system, we eat petroleum. We already know that the burning of fossil fuels harms the atmosphere. We need to also realize that every calorie of food we consume is backed by at least a calorie of oil as it is directly manifest in fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel for tractors, combines and trucks.

Oil-based agriculture will be abandoned when the economics are further skewed: when it costs farmers more money to buy petrochemical based inputs and fuel, then organic, sustainable systems will finally make sense to them. That day draws nigh.

Wall Street’s money men see it plainly. Early in May, in one event among many, 400 bankers and some of the world’s largest farmers gathered in New York City to discuss the latest hot prospect in institutional investment: farmland.

According to a report in The Progressive Farmer, financiers are exceedingly keen to channel billions of dollars into buying up cropland. The land grab is well underway. Underlying their  frenzy is their certain knowledge that global food demand will double by 2050, while scarcer, costlier oil will escalate the cost of food.

Profiteers believe agriculture is headed for a super cycle, a prolonged trend rise in real land and commodity prices that will continue for a decade or more. A soon-to-be-released study by the World Bank reports that institutional investors already have announced plans to acquire up to 125 million acres in global farmland. “This is just the beginning,” said the bank’s John Lamb. “It’s like the California gold rush.”

Meanwhile, in general, we are also in a super cycle in commodities — basic resources and agricultural  products such as salt, sugar, coffee, soybeans, rice, wheat, and so forth. Speculators will also drive those prices higher.

In Eaarth, McKibben includes a disturbing chapter on the inevitable decline of our oil-based, industrial agricultural system.  He reckons that it will result in a series of desperate food-driven wars — human beings battling to the death for basic sustenance. But he offers a note of hope, the thought that people can willfully scale back and  build the kind of societies and economies that will hunker down, concentrate on essentials, and create the types of communities (in the neighborhood, but also on the Internet) that will allow us to weather our unprecedented eco-failure.

The Millennial Agrarians profiled in The Call of the Land are leading the way to this kind of change. They represent dozens upon dozens of models that can — and need to be — emulated widely and swiftly, because they can make the difference. One vibrant node in the emerging network of  21st Century Agrarianism is the venerable and trustworthy Rodale press, in particular their online magazine New Farm. Earlier this month the magazine observed that Multiple-farm CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) bring a needed efficiency to the farmer-consumer connection.

Are CSAs economically sustainable over the long haul, or will they last only as long as the idealism of the core people involved? New Farm observes that there is greater stability and staying power in a community of community farms.  As the environment, the oil supply, and the economy wobble wildly, multifarm enterprises are definitely worth considering.

New Farm cites a passage from Local Harvest:  A Multifarm CSA Handbook, a publication released in early May by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program of the USDA.  The Handbook, a bargain at $3.95,  says that three general types of multifarm CSA arrangements have emerged:

1) Supplemental farms: A single CSA farm with supplemental share options or products from other local farms.

2) Multifarm CSA:  Growers are networked to supply a CSA-like ordering, distribution and seasonal food support system.

3) Cooperative CSA: Growers form a legal cooperative to work out growing, quality control and marketing structures, usually with staff to handle the many non-farming duties associated with a CSA.

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