With the rise of the internet and frequency of the tweet, the place of storytelling has been pushed aside. Yet the need for storytelling has never been greater. Stories grounded in science and earth law principles are needed now more than ever. Rena Priest offers these words as a contribution to keeping storytelling alive, urging us to pay greater attention to indigenous knowledge and narratives of nature if only we would listen. We don’t much like the term heroes – it’s bandied about with great abandon and applied to people that are anything but heroic in the way they carry on. Priest tells a good story that has substance within it.
In this piece: The Kind of Heroes We Need to Actually Save the Planet, Rena Priest, (Yes Magazine, Nov 5, 2020) writes:
Storytellers are the makers of culture and the shapers of consciousness. The word “author” is from the Latin word auctus, which translates literally to “one who causes to grow.” As storytellers, we plant beliefs that blossom into the structure of the world. In these times, we need a new structure—a narrative built on climate justice.
As Winona LaDuke said, “Someone needs to explain to me why wanting clean drinking water makes you an activist, and why proposing to destroy water with chemical warfare doesn’t make a corporation a terrorist.” You may have seen this quote before. It’s made the rounds on the internet, but it bears repeating. Every advertiser knows the power of repetition. If you have the money or leverage, you can repeat your message a hundred times an hour. You can repeat it until everyone gets it and buys what you’re selling.
As a culture, we need to learn to celebrate climate defenders as heroes. We need stories that reflect the Brown, foreign, and female among us in a positive light so that their strength is passed on to those who might be inspired to become real heroes. This is how climate defenders, as the heroes they are, will truly save the world.
The “Indian” Story
Fifty years ago, the taming of the Wild West was among the most widely told stories on the planet. On any given weekend, a boy could turn on the TV and see his blue-eyed hero gun down Indians in the street. Classic movie networks rerun these stories in movie marathons so you can watch White men protecting their townsfolk from “savages” all day long. Repetition is how the cowboy and Indian story was sold to the generation of baby boomers who now govern.
Yes, it’s fiction, but it’s also the only representation of Indigenous identity that some people have encountered. Duncan McCue, creator of the journalist’s guide to “Reporting in Indigenous Communities,” was once told by a tribal elder that the only way an Indian would make news “is if he or she were one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk, or dead.”
To correct this, and to better steward this planet on which we depend, we must tell stories that celebrate Indigenous world views and values. And then we must repeat them, not just during Indigenous history month, but all day, every day, all week, every week, all year round, every year for decades, until the oversold fallacy that nature must be subdued and “settled” is dispelled and replaced by the truth that nature must be restored and protected.
Elevating Indigenous voices addresses the climate crisis because Indigenous issues are environmental issues, which are human rights issues. When tribes win fights against pipelines and coal trains, your rights to a healthy sustainable world are protected too. When the rights of nature are restored, your rights are restored too.
Scientists usually categorize Indigenous cultures as “hunter-gatherer” societies, but the truth is that before ecological disruption wrought by newcomers, we were more like permaculturists. The Earth cultivates a beautiful variety of sustenance. Before nature was “conquered,” it provided a prosperous way of being, which required a civilized amount of effort together with a deep understanding of the behaviours of native flora and fauna. To be reliant on delicately balanced ecosystems requires an understanding that the consequences of disrupting the balance are hunger, or struggle, or death.
And later … the story of salmon … ‘Adventurous and brave, they swim from the shallows of their natal rivers out into the perils of the open ocean where their bodies soak up the rich nutrients of the sea. Persistent, resilient, and strong, they swim upstream against swift currents for hundreds of miles to return home to spawn and complete the cycle of life. When they die, the marine-derived nutrients are transferred from their bodies to all the animals, insects, soil, and plants of their original forest home. In this way, their hero’s journey powerfully transforms barren inland landscapes into lush ecosystems. They are a keystone species, meaning without them, the whole system could collapse.
And later … ‘Collectively, we can embody a new type of hero that challenges mainstream iconography. We can begin by embracing mythologies aimed at exalting environmental sustainability and social equality in order to have heroes who truly do save the planet.
Let’s not confine hero with humans alone. Nature has been heroic in the face of human interference. Let’s start repeating the narrative that ‘nature must be protected and restored’ over and over and over. That the keystone species take precedence and must be considered heroes for their role in the web of life. Tell that story over and over and over – until these new narratives become the norm rather than the exception.
RENA PRIEST is a writer and enrolled member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation. She is a National Geographic Explorer and holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.