Earth care is a ‘spiritual crisis’
By Rick Jones | Presbyterians Today
Representatives from four Columbia River Indian tribes in Oregon — Nez Perce, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation — invited more than two dozen Presbyterians this past fall to participate in a fire and water ceremony.
Be’sha Blondin of the Yellowknife tribe led the ceremony, directing participants to pour a cup of water and pieces of tobacco into the river. The ceremony allowed visitors to gain insight into the importance of the river to thousands of Native Americans who have called the region home for centuries. Blondin explained that the ceremony helped to “heal the river” and the tobacco connected the earthly and spiritual realms.
The Columbia River snakes through Oregon and Washington with majestic mountains and tall trees on both sides. The gorge is famous for its native history as well as the migration of salmon that have fed people and wildlife alike. But decades of industrial growth have had a negative impact on gorge life, according to those who live in the region.
East and upstream from Portland is the Bonneville Dam. Corporate leaders say the complex has generated more than $188 million in electricity at an operating cost of $30 million. Company officials also say they are working on protecting the fish that live in the waters, spending millions on habitat restoration. A report released in 2017 by the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, outlining salmon habitat restoration projects from 2007 to 2015, indicated an improvement in the numbers of fish returning to the Columbia River Basin. Even so, an official with the Bonneville Power Administration said, “We still have a ways to go to achieve our goals.”
Environmentalists, though, are skeptical. They say the numbers of fish are falling and the river is changing as well.
“The Columbia River Basin is estimated to have supported up to 15 million salmon at one time,” said Dr. Stan Gregory, with the Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “A recent analysis puts that number at 9 million now and this decline has happened in the past 20 years.”
As the number of dams has increased along the river, Gregory says they’ve created challenges for salmon to swim upstream, estimating that nearly half don’t make it to spawning grounds. Thus, the population drops and the impact is felt by Native Americans who depend on the salmon to feed their villages and to make a living.
A concerned people
As Blondin prepared to begin the fire and water ceremony, she shared her concerns about the environment.
“If we don’t come together as one people and plan to heal Mother Earth, she will not last more than 10 to 25 more years,” she said. “We are leaving nothing for our children or grandchildren.”
Elke and Alysia Littleleaf are members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs and operate a fly-fishing business along the river. Elke says the drop in the number of salmon has significantly hurt his business.
“We know that the cause is human and it is unnecessary,” he said. “If we don’t take care of the rivers and oceans, they won’t take care of us.”
Ralph Jones is a native fisherman who has been on the platforms of Cascade Locks for more than 50 years.
“I’ve been fishing along this river since 1964 and I can say it has changed significantly,” he said. “For me, the fish are smaller. There was a time when we would bring in salmon at 30 pounds each. Now they are down to 22 pounds.”
The construction of dams isn’t the only thing threatening the gorge. Proposed development of new oil refineries and the transportation of coal and oil by rail have residents and environmentalists concerned.
Conservationist Dan Sears has said the region faces “enormous risk” with the oil-by-rail operation.
“An oil spill would threaten the salmon habitat and halt river commerce,” he said.
In June 2016, a Union Pacific train carrying crude oil did derail. Luckily, the oil did not make it to the river, but the derailment did send a plume of black smoke into the air, forcing road closures and the evacuation of schools and homes in the area.
Old doctrine still haunts
Many Native Americans and environmentalists blame the gorge’s current health on the 500-year-old Doctrine of Discovery, which allowed colonial powers to lay claim to lands belonging to foreign sovereign nations if inhabitants were not considered Christian.
“The doctrine is still being used to tell native people they don’t have the right to own property, govern or manage their resources the way it needs to be done,” said the Rev. Alan Buck, pastor of the Portland Native American Fellowship.
Ilarion “Larry” Merculieff, an Aleut from Pribilof Islands, says people who are subject to the doctrine are still hurting today. Alcoholism, suicide, addictions and heart disease, he says, are all subtle outcomes of the Doctrine of Discovery.
“If the doctrine is repudiated at every level, beginning with church, if we apologize and act to ensure the doctrine is expunged and rejected, it will help open people’s hearts, especially native people who are still facing the struggles of this action,” Merculieff said.
The 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) called the church to confess its complicity and repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. The action also called for a review of the doctrine’s history and a report written on the doctrine.
“In recent years, partly in response to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and faith communities, including the World Council of Churches (WCC), we have begun to examine the Doctrine of Discovery critically,” said Andrew Kang Bartlett, the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s associate for national hunger concerns. “This study has led the WCC and denominations in the United States to repudiate the doctrine.”
Doreen Simmonds, a student at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, says she has finally let go of feelings she had toward the PC(USA) denomination.
“I had so much resentment against the church for what it did to my people. I had felt white people were here to take money and the land, but that changed when the General Assembly met here in 2016,” she said. “I grew up believing I was nothing, but I will throw away doubts about myself and gain confidence. In my sobriety, I have stories to tell and today I will talk to my children and grandchildren, telling them there is hope, that we have pride in ourselves. Today, I have gained that pride.”
Safeguarding the future
As their resources get smaller, so do the tribes themselves. Elders say young people are not as tied to tradition and seek to find better lives outside of the gorge. Jefferson Greene works in language preservation and grew up hearing stories from his grandparents. His early dreams of becoming a wealthy businessman changed while attending college and he felt drawn to return and carry on traditions.
“For thousands of years, the people of the Columbia plateau have harvested together, shared stories and humor,” he said. “I wanted to do what my grandparents did for me. We are living in a world completely consumed by another culture for the sake of convenience. There are only a few of us that can do what we do, sharing traditions with new generations.”
During the 2017 Presbyterians for Earth Care Conference in Oregon, the Rev. Dr. Paul Galbreath, professor of theology and worship at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, told attendees that the problems go far beyond the Columbia River Gorge.
“We are not simply facing an ecological crisis, we are facing a spiritual crisis,” Galbreath said. “Water does not belong to the church. We use it, but it is not ours. Water belongs to God’s good Earth.”
Rick Jones is a communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
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