May 13, 2010

Environmentalism vs. Indian Religious Freedom

by Tisa Wenger

Yet again, legislation aimed at protecting the environment ends up doing violence to Native American cultural and religious traditions. As reported in Indybay’s online newsletter earlier this week, tribal leaders in California are protesting a new law banning fishing and harvesting activities—including their traditional practices—in special marine protected areas along the state’s north central coast. Above all this is an issue of environmental justice. Environmentalist goals needs to be pursued in ways that allow indigenous cultures to flourish—especially when the cultures in question have historically maintained sustainable practices.

This story is also important for understanding the dilemmas of Native American religious freedom, as well as the intertwined histories of land and religion in the region—two important topics for the study of religion in the American west, as Quincy Newell reminded us in her post just a few days ago. The Indybay piece reports:

Members of the Kashia Pomo Tribe and other tribes are now banned from their traditional seaweed, abalone and mussel harvesting grounds by the creation of a massive new no-take marine reserve off Stewarts Point in Sonoma County.

The reserve is the largest in a network of 21 marine protected areas (MPAs) that took effect on May 1 along California's north central coast under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative.

To mark the final day before the unprecedented closure, tribal leaders held a historic ceremony to bless an area where the Kashia Tribe of Pomo Indians has gathered seaweed, mussel, abalone, clams and fish for centuries. Stewarts Point, called “Danaka” by the tribe, is sacred to the tribe since it is regarded in their creation story as the place where the tribe first stepped on land, according to Eric Wilder, former chair of the Kashia Pomo.

Like Wilder, other Pomo tribal leaders quoted in the article emphasize the religious quality of their relationship with the site. Their story illustrates the disjuncture between indigenous traditions on the one hand, and the concept of religion as framed in American law and governmental practice on the other. As Tribal Elder Violet Chappell put it, “I don’t think the Fish and Game would be allowed to close down a Catholic Church, would they?” Although some exceptions have been painstakingly created, the system is simply not set up to work for land-based traditions. Come to think of it, maybe mainstream America’s lack of any real connection between land and religion is what got us into this environmental mess in the first place.

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