This enterprising Tlingit trapper built a raft to transport his new 1928 Chevrolet Sedan by river from Whitehorse to his home community of Teslin, in the Yukon. No roads yet existed in the bush, but George Johnston was going to change that. He requested his maternal nephews to dig out a mile long road in Teslin, and charged a dollar a ride to anyone who dared to take a chance. For George Johnston taught himself how to drive.
Johnston’s many accomplishments are legendary among his people, not least of which was becoming one of the first Aboriginal photographers in Canada. His outstanding images illustrate the authentic lifestyle of early 20th century Tlingit adapting elements from two cultural worlds, while still retaining their traditions and self-sufficient way of life.
In 1987, while researching the life of George Johnston, I met several contemporary and similarly enterprising Tlingit, very informed on world affairs yet making certain that the younger generation learned hunting and trapping survival skills. As one Tlingit traditional teacher told me, we will continue to know how to survive if an economic crisis in the larger world ever happens.
As a fulltime freelance journalist in those days, I tried to get Canadian mainstream magazine editors interested in these profiles of accomplished Aboriginal (First Nation, Metis and Inuit) people whom I met, in the Yukon and across Canada, with minimal success. Worse, despite receiving a Canada Council travel grant to gather firsthand interviews from Aboriginal (Native) photographers and find out why photography held such high value in every community, more rejections followed, this time from major Canadian publishers.
These publishers felt that cultural identity was not important. Instead, they wanted a scholarly interpretation of Aboriginal art, based on the classic Euro-western perspective of `art for art’s sake.’ The intention of these Native photographers, however, was precisely to illustrate their own cultural identity. My pursuit, therefore, was to give voice to Aboriginal people and their lives from their own cultural perspectives. The photo images eloquently demonstrated their capabilities in negotiating two cultural worlds, wherever they still were grounded in spiritual values and practices that recognize the sacredness of all life.
Most Native newspapers in Canada, and a couple of Native American magazines, bought my articles regularly, particularly the interviews. But getting positive profiles of Native achievers published in mainstream media was almost impossible, so systemically stuck were the editors on cultural stereotypes. That mindset is what I call ‘cultural racism.’ It is the more insidious face of racism, because it is invisibly embedded in every system and institution of mainstream Euro-western culture, through the gaze upon itself as superior to non-Western cultures.
That arrogance and disregard for the wisdom of Indigenous, land-based peoples globally is a significant component of the threat to civilization as we know it, if we continue on the path of misguided and undemocratic industrial capitalism focused on ever larger industrial projects that are destroying the planetary life support system.
We cannot rely only on mainstream news coverage that too often reduces important environment issues to a focus on adversarial political rhetoric. Regardless, such news does perform a useful role in exposing the incredible lack of regard by Canada’s federal government for the environmental future, not limited to Canada yet beyond as well.
The Alberta tar sands, for example, are an abomination, as are the industrial projects affiliated with them. Together with the disruption to First Nations’ way of life, threatened species include the woodland caribou. Federal Minister of Environment Peter Kent has refused to recommend emergency protection of critical habitat, ignoring scientific evidence.
Affiliated industrial projects include not just the Keystone pipeline expansion proposed through environmentally-sensitive areas in the United States yet also, more recently, the highly controversial Northern Gateway pipeline and proposed oil tankers along the British Columbia coast for shipments to Asia. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper bluntly stated on CBC-TV’s Mansbridge One on One: “the fundamental basis of our energy policy in this country is essentially market-driven.”
The biosphere of the planet and the bioregions of North America are not defined by human-created political boundaries. But federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver labels protestors as radicals with ideological agendas and “foreigners” who have no business in funding opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline. Most of the protestors though are First Nations and other citizens of British Columbia and across Canada.
The hypocrisy and double standard are incredible regarding what apparently is the largest industrial project in the world at this time, and receiving billions of dollars from “foreign, that is, international, support, including China, a significant beneficiary of Canada’s oil.
Oliver’s distorted references, in fact, target intelligent, environmentally-informed fellow human beings that include those Americans who recognize the peril that we confront in creating – for short term monetary profits that benefit a very few people – further inevitable environmental devastation.
Meanwhile, fellow Canadians, be vigilant! Two threats to our freedom of expression have been indicated, both by Oliver and Harper. One threat is the possible federal attempt to remove the charitable status of environmental organizations who receive “foreign” funding. The second is to shorten the regulatory process, as per the Northern Gateway hearings, with the excuse that doing so will shut out so-called radical groups who send in numerous people to recite “studied lines” repeatedly. That excuse is an insult to the more than 5,000 people who have come forward to exercise their democratic right to participate.
I cite this pipeline example not just as a Canadian yet, moreover, as a planetary citizen who is illustrating one of the foremost challenges of this historic moment – for humanity to awaken consciousness, to become appropriately informed about what sustains life on this planet and what genuinely threatens it. The human family is called, as never before wherever you live, to step forward and speak out to protect the place you call home and/or be active in restoring a healthy and safe environment for our children and the generations to come.
Author and Jungian analyst Linda Schierse Leonard, in her book Creation’s Heartbeat, Following the Reindeer Spirit, suggests that “the planet is enveloped in the Dark Night of the Soul.” She also suggests that in such a time of transition, we have choices in regard to future directions and outcomes. In my fourth and final blog in this series, subtitled “Humanity’s Hope,” I will address her book’s inspiring message.
For those of you who prefer hard science to be convinced about humanity’s peril, I recommend a rigorous study titled “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” in The Open Atmospheric Science Journal, 2008, 2, 217-231. In its closing statements: “…decision-makers do not appreciate the gravity of the situation. We must begin to move now toward the era beyond fossil fuels… The stakes, for all life on the planet, surpass those of any previous crisis. The greatest danger is continued ignorance and denial, which could make tragic consequences unavoidable.”