WORDS BY RUTH H. HOPKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY EVAN BENALLY ATWOOD
Western scientists are still catching up to the knowledge possessed and passed down by Indigenous peoples. With our world hanging on by a thread, Ruth H. Hopkins explains how its fate is inseparably intertwined with that of its original stewards—and the wisdom they hold.
A condensed version of this story appears in Atmos Volume 04: Cascade. Click here to order your copy.
Indigenous peoples of the world have a special relationship with Ina Maka, Mother Earth. Our connection to her and the Universe has not been severed by colonialism and Christian dominionism, both of which insist on participation in a hierarchy in which humankind subjugates nature and sucks out her lifeblood without care and concern for the harmonic balance we must maintain or the needs of other two-legged, four-legged, and winged beings that call the planet home.
My people, the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation), understand the importance and reality of connectedness. Our most hallowed prayer is: “mitakuye oyasin.” Translated, it signifies that we are all related, or connected. When we appeal to Wakantanka (the Great Mystery) with these words, we aren’t just referring to the nuclear family unit. We are calling upon the power of the kinship bonds of all creation.
It has taken thousands of years for Western science to catch up to the true, full meaning of this humble phrase. Europeans like Sir Isaac Newton “discovered” principles pertaining to the natural world thousands of years after my ancestors did. For example, his Third Law of Motion states that “for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction,” summarizing the relatedness of cause and effect.
Some 200 years later, Julius Robert Mayer’s Law of the Conservation of Energy determined that “the amount of energy remains constant and energy is neither created nor destroyed,” acknowledging that while energy may change form within a system, it remains fixed and shared.
Eventually, Western scientists deduced that we are indeed all made of stardust, created through the Big Bang and exploding intergalactic supernovas—like the Crab Nebula supernova Lakota wicasa wakan (medicine men) demarcated in Khe Sapa, the Black Hills, in the eleventh century. They named it Pe’Sla, the Heart of Everything. Even Albert Einstein’s “deceptively simple” theory of relativity gives a nod to the idea of universal connectedness.
But connectedness isn’t only about our relationship to each other. It involves recognizing that our own physical, mental, emotional, sexual, and spiritual parts are one as well, and they should not be separated.
Sacred sites are Indigenous places of worship, our outdoor cathedrals. In the modern era, they have been consistently targeted for destruction by racist demagogues, extractive industries, and those who are otherwise estranged from their spiritual selves and see only dollar signs. For the Oceti Sakowin, our spiritual connection to Mother Earth and the Takuskanskan (Life Force or That Which Moves) is in the Black Hills, which stretch across South Dakota, Wyoming, and into Montana. Our birthplace, Wind Cave, where we emerged aboveground for the first time, is there. Our spiritual leaders perform four ceremonies in the Black Hills every year. The first happens at Black Elk’s Peak when we welcome back the thunders. The last occurs at Mato Paha (Bear Butte) or Mato Tipi (Devil’s Tower).
Another Lakota sacred site, Tunkasila Sakpe (the Six Grandfathers) was vandalized by a member of the KKK. Into our holy mountain, he carved the images of slaveholders and the man who gave the order to hang 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato, Minnesota, in the largest mass execution in US history. The purpose of this sculpture was to memorialize the conquest of Indigenous lands and taunt the Lakota people from whom the Black Hills were stolen. It is now called Mount Rushmore.
Awareness regarding the relatedness of all things—from subatomic particles and blackholes to inyan (grandfather stone), the wakinyan (thunder beings), giant redwoods, or you and me—is also key to providing one with a healthy, life-affirming perspective on ancestry and legacy, and our purpose as torchbearers within our lineages.
The prevailing capitalist ideology of the ruling class lacks heart and vision. Economists will tell you that the unlimited exponential growth essential for such a system to succeed can only ever be temporary. To consider the long-term damage caused to the planet’s ability to sustain life and the likelihood that nothing will be left standing for one’s children or grandchildren is forbidden. Sustainable economies utilized by Indigenous groups are the antithesis of such predatory, vampiric imperialist dogmas. Our ancestral instructions require us to prioritize the good of the whole over the individual. Values like generosity and cooperation are encouraged, while greed, avarice, dishonesty, and even ego are rejected.
The Oceti Sakowin, as well as other Native nations, share a philosophy. We are taught that in all that we do, we should seek to honor our ancestors and contemplate the consequences of our actions, including how they will affect the unborn. Being a wasicu (fat taker) who hoards the best for themselves while others suffer and die because of that selfishness is not only undesirable but damning. While wasicu is often used to describe white men, anyone, irrespective of color, can become one.
We are directed to look to the future and secure the prosperity of those living seven generations from now. This is how we were able to thrive as Indigenous peoples absent Western civilization for many millennia.
The traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples, who have lived in their ancestral homelands since before recorded history, makes them experts in how Earth’s ecosystems work. Even though Indigenous lands now represent less than 22 percent of the world’s land area, our territories currently comprise 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity.
As the sons and daughters of Earth, Indigenous peoples have become her primary protectors, and we often share her fate. All over the globe, Indigenous peoples are the holdouts, laying their bodies in the path of bulldozers and in front of loaded guns, willing to die to save land, water, and life.
In the Amazon, Indigenous tribes live in voluntary isolation, protecting the most biodiverse place on the planet by virtue of their inhabitance.
We live on the frontlines of climate and ecological crises. A new report from Global Witness, a human rights and environmental watchdog organization, found that 212 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2019 worldwide.
The most killings per capita occurred in Honduras, Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and the Philippines. Nearly half of those murdered were from Indigenous communities and 10 percent of those killed were women.
In order for the wicked and deceived to destroy our Mother, they will have to wipe us out. What they fail to realize is that we are the last line of defense, and the extermination of Earth’s Indigenous would lead to the fall of the human race.
At one time, the whole of humanity was Indigenous. Those of us who remain want to give the gift of connectedness back to the lost, to reawaken your innermost sanctum, which longs to return to the beginning and reconnect to the Source.
Instinct is intellect. Wild is not uncivilized. Wild is free. Flay the false away and embrace your true nature. Plant your bare feet on the ground and become a bridge to the sky. We must heal our relationships to each other, ourselves, Mother Earth, and the Universe in order to evolve and for our species to survive. The Indigenous people of Earth have been speaking for ages, generation after generation, ready to lead. It is time to listen.
Cascade explores the notion that every action, including inaction, is a choice—and each choice we make has a series of consequences, cascading across time. The choices we make now in regards to the planet will determine the trajectory of the human race for generations to come. Water can conform to its container, or it can gather in force as whelming as a wave. What will you choose?