Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Earth Day Week: Some Nuggets Of Wisdom & Provocative Quotes From Native Americans

Earth from Space with Stars

Photo courtesy of DonkeyHotey Flickr Page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/6143809369

The old button from the Environmental Club days which I just happened to find on Earth Day! It is a little beat up (particularly the ends of the ribbon), but no worse for the wear, I think. And it is one of the few items that I have left from those days, so it carries a lot of great memories for me! Nothing Changes Until You Do!

Here is a picture of a very similar logo, with the same message, that was on the t-shirt that I purchased from the BCC Environmental Club and, if memory serves me correctly, may even have helped to make. There were a few projects like that which club members, myself included, were regularly involved with. It has been so long, however, that I no longer recall specifically if I actually helped to make these or not, although I do believe so, since I remember seeing the process of the t-shirts being dyed. In any case, I loved this t-shirt, and have kept it ever since, even if I do not regularly wear it. Since it was part of my experience with the BCC Environmental Club days, as well as more generally having an environmental theme, it seemed appropriate to share it here. 

"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man's greed."

~Mahatma Gandhi

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future."
~John F. Kennedy  

"The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites one family. Man did not weave the web of life. He is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself."

- Native American Philosophy (sometimes attributed to Chief Seattle)

When I began college at Bergen Community College in the spring of 1993, everything felt new. While high school had been a time of conformity, where I never seemed to fit in and, thus, was kind of cast out and always on the outside, college was a place with new and far more interesting young people (although they were almost all older than me, and thus seemed worldly to me in a way that felt inaccessible to someone so simple as me). One girl in particular, who I had a massive crush on (but was too much of a coward to tell her that much) embodied all of that. Everything just seemed so promising. There was an energy and freedom that I was not accustomed to, and it was all exciting!

One of the first things that I did was join the Environmental Club, where I met many like-minded people. For the first time, really, it felt like there actually was a youth movement of sorts. People here were willing to try new things, to dress very differently than what had been deemed acceptable at the high school.

It felt like a time of new possibilities. The nation had a new president in Bill Clinton, and he was the first Democrat in the White House in a dozen years! There was an exciting new music scene that was not just emerging, but taking over. Nirvana was on top, although Pearl Jam was clearly on the rise, as were other Seattle bands. There were other great musicians, with a different image and sound, such as the 4 Non-Blonds, the Spin Doctors and Blind Melon. There were great albums emerging in the early nineties from a whole bunch of different bands. Yes, it was a great time to be a young man, full of energy, and I had a lot of hope that a better world was indeed possible.

Of course, I was young and naive. The world was not going to get better because a few young people at one particular college were relative environmental activists, or because a new, activist music scene was emerging in the public light, or because a Democrat had finally been elected president. The world did not shift on it's axis. Many of the young people that I saw elsewhere remained largely unmoved by the surprising activism that I witnessed at Bergen. They may have liked the Seattle scene, but only for the music, and likely because it was popular at the time. The anti-corporate, anti-commercial approach was lost on them.

In short, I wanted to convince myself that all of the exciting things that seemed to be happening at Bergen represented a new norm for youth, a sign of the changing world. It did not take long for reality to set in. Within a few years, the Seattle scene itself was copied, and alternative music became a parody of itself, with numerous copy cat bands just in it for the money. And President Bill Clinton did not look anywhere near as idealistic as he had seemed as a candidate, or as he has seemed since leaving office. In fact, some people referred to him as "Republican light".

The world went on as normal. Most of those exciting young people were gone within a year. Suddenly, I was no longer the youngest guy in the Environmental Club, and no longer a newcomer, either. I was elected Secretary for the fall semester, then Vice-President for the following spring, on my way to becoming President for the 1994-95 academic year. I had wanted to be among the leaders when I first joined, but it proved anti-climatic. There was so much that it seemed I needed to learn to catch up, if you will, with those others, who had seemed impressive and knowledgeable in ways that I could never be. Once it was just me, it was anti-climatic. As I mentioned in a blog entry a few days ago, I was just scared to fail, and basically retired from the Environmental Club after the big Earth Day celebrations.

There are some things, however, the stuck with me. That girl that I mentioned a little earlier? Well, she got involved with the Walden Pond Project. She was quite taken by Don Henley, and he was involved in an effort to save Walden Woods, where Henry David Thoreau spent two years, and wrote the brilliant book, "Walden", which he is most famous for. Many consider him the father of the environmental movement, and I began to gain a strong appreciation of him at that time, mostly through her. Since then, i myself have had some opportunities to visit Walden Woods, and have taken my son there once, even. I intend to do so again, once he is old enough to perhaps appreciate the significance of the place, and the history involved.

Another thing that stuck was a deeper appreciation for Native Americans. My parents, to their credit, had always tried to teach us of a different history than the one in school books or on television. To that end, they had taken us to some pow wows, and other things pertaining to Native American culture. That certainly would not score me popularity points in my high school filled with kids from either a redneck or yuppie upbringing, but it made me feel like I could relate to the young activists at Bergen. There was one quote in particular that was on some bumper sticker or other in the Environmental Club office at some point which resonated with me. It was from Chief Seattle, and although I tried to put it up on top of this post, it did not specifically suggest that he was the one behind this saying. But it was essentially this: “Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to earth.”

It was an impressive and thought-provoking quote. Certainly, it sounded good, and I believed in it, although in retrospect, I probably did not understand it all that well.

Years later, however, I think I understand it a bit better. Of course, that also comes after I took my own, independent interest in native culture, which was sparked again when another girl (this time, it was a girlfriend) introduced me to a writer who I now count as among my very favorites - Daniel Quinn. After reading him, I took a renewed interest in Native American culture and writing, and read one book that blew my mind away - Touch the Earth.

I began to read more and more Native American stuff, and by now, I had a more adult (some might say more mature) grasp of reality. Since those early days in 1993, there had been some personal growth, and of course, the world had changed. There was the 9/11 attacks, and there had been the Iraq war, and the obsession with oil. Bush even admitted that the country was addicted to oil. There were huge natural disasters, from the tsunami in Asia in 2004, to Katrina in 2005, to Japan in 2011, to Sandy (which I personally was in New Jersey for) in 2012. We still see extremes, with a record drought in California, and seemingly annual record flooding by the Mississippi. Even President Bush admitted that global warming appeared to be real, something that too many other Republicans have conveniently forgotten. Also, let us not forget the not so natural disasters, including some huge oil spills, particularly the one in the Gulf of Mexico, which just reached the five year anniversary. Also, the Fukushima disaster, where officials admitted that they could not contain the radiation, and even though it receded into the background and is no longer in the news, there is still nonetheless radioactive waste leaking unchecked into the Pacific. Also, there was a near economic collapse globally in 2008, and the same practices are back in place, almost assuring that there will be another economic disaster.

To sum up, the world seems to be getting worse, not better. That old idealism and hope for a better world has yielded to a grimmer worldview, one where it seems that our situation is hopeless and always getting worse.

Whether that is true or not, many of the dire prognostications and warnings by Native Americans of the excesses of our global culture seem to have largely come true. We should have known. We should have taken them seriously, instead of regarding them as savages and treating them like children.

Now, however, we can learn. There is a more balanced way of looking at our history, our culture. One in which we can actually admit to making mistakes (gasp!) and, even more shockingly, where we learn enough from them not to repeat them (double GASP!!).

I grew up, grew older. I am not the same dumb kid I was back then. If I could go back in time, I would do some things differently. But one thing that I am glad that I did do was hold on to some of that old idealism. Enough, at least, to get more acclimated with Thoreau and Native Americans, who warned us so long ago of what we were facing if we did not change our ways. I have spoken to and heard from many people who truly are idealistic activists, and now, I know that they are out there, and growing in numbers. Not all of my idealism and hope for the future is gone, even though much of it was buried under an avalanche of reality checks.

Ultimately, there is a better way of doing things, and we cannot afford to lose sight of that. So long as we are here, there is hope. I just enjoyed a beautiful weekend, soaking in the sun of a lovely spring, breathing the fresh air. Enjoying that time with my girlfriend and my son.

For his sake, and for the sake of all children, and our children's children, we had best not lose hope that a better way, a brighter future, is still possible.

In order to remind us of that, we should remember the lessons from the past, and accept that mistakes were made. Let us at least begin to undo some of the damage of the past, and learn more about Native Americans in particular. Let us grant them the respect that they were denied in their own day, and let us read their words and understand their lessons and warnings about our all-consuming culture.They understood something back then that we still do not understand presently, as the news headlines suggest each and every day.

What better time than now, on the eve of Earth Day?

Here is one place to start, by clicking on the links below:

10 Pieces Of Wisdom and Quotes From Native American Elders January 8, 2015 by Alanna Ketler.

10 Quotes From a Sioux Indian Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society


  1. Beautifully said . . . and true.

  2. Thank you. Check out some of the quotes on these links. Also, I strongly recommend taking a look at an old book on Native American thoughts, called "Touch the Earth." Beautiful and inspiring, and offers a very different glimpse on the natives than any official education tends to give.