Tara Williams reviews NATIVE AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTALISM by Joy Porter

August 15, 2015 0 Comments Book Review 4141 Views
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Native American Environmentalism Land, Spirit, and the Idea of Wilderness by Joy Porter

Native American Environmentalism: Land, Spirit, and the Idea of Wilderness. Joy Porter University of Nebraska Press, 2014. Paperback, 224 pp. $24.95 (A retitled paperback version of previously published Land and Spirit in Native America, Praeger, 2012).

Reviewed by Tara Williams

Joy Porter, a British history professor, embarks on a self-described intellectual journey to “tap the recent thirst for analysis of space… and for analysis of the religious and spiritual” (xvii) through an interdisciplinary analysis of all three in the context of the historical United States and its indigenous peoples.  Porter expresses her intention to “give the reader a coherent and up-to-date look at those who have had most to say about the relationship between Indian peoples, land, and spirit across time,” noting that “It is a book as much about Euro-America as it is about Native America” (xvii). These are laudable and ambitious goals for a single volume, especially a slim one, at 145 pages of text supported by 26 additional pages of notes.

Porter succeeds in offering up an intellectually dazzling inter-disciplinary synthesis of historic, economic, religio-spiritual and political attitudes, theories, and scholarship from a wide range of predominantly White male European and Euro-American sources, and how it all converges to impact the way the dominant culture has viewed the land, and by extension, indigenous inhabitants. The author is less successful in clearly articulating or offering deep insight into the book’s titular raison d’etre: to illuminate what Native American environmentalism means, specifically in association with concepts of land, spirit, and wilderness.

A significant problem here is that “those who have had the most to say” about Indian people have tended, historically, and particularly in academia, not to be Indian people themselves. Porter, to her credit, does reference some prominent American Indian writers, including those of the 19th century and before, but by not including significant excerpts from their work, does not shed much light on their perspectives. Writers such as Zitkala Sa and Charles Eastman had the unique perspective of growing up within their Native cultures, then being educated in the Euro-American sense, and were able to compare quite authentically and accessibly their understanding of the differing cultures’ points of view on land and spirit. Not including such perspectives makes it difficult for the reader to follow the evolution of Native American attitudes toward the topic at hand.

Another issue is the difference (compared to European and Euro-American academics) in the way many traditional Indian people regard their spirituality, which is to say not as a matter to be intellectualized or taken out of context. This dichotomy was exemplified by Hopi efforts to block the 1991 publication of Ekkehart Malotki’s book The Hopi Salt Journey by University of Nebraska Press. Hopis at the time felt the book crossed a line by revealing spiritual knowledge that should be limited to those initiated and prepared to receive it. The ignorance of some academics in recognizing and respecting cultural boundaries has earned a widespread distrust among many American Indian people, often for good reason.

Rather than skirting the issue altogether, Porter could have avoided such missteps by broadening her purview beyond literary writers and academia to include the voices of at least a few of the many American Indian people working today as environmentalists and activists, some of whom are quite open about how their restorative work is part of their perceived spiritual responsibility as stewards and protectors of the land and its inhabitants. By focusing more or less exclusively on literary writers and academics, Porter misses a point that she herself raises when she quotes British anthropologist Ingvold on inherent semantic and linguistic differences between what is possible to express in English versus the language of some indigenous peoples, and how these differences shape and are reflected in thinking and point of view. Porter cites Ingvold’s example from the indigenous Kuyukon language of Alaska, in which “Animals happen, they… are not nouns but verbs” (52). Considering environmentalism in Indian country as a verb rather than a noun (academic construct) might be conceptually useful in exploring this topic. If mismatches relating to conceptual and linguistic differences might account, at least in part, for “the lack of analysis in print of Indian literary relationships with the land” (65), it would seem all the more important to expand the academic inquiry beyond what currently exists in print.

When Porter states her literary intention to address the lack of in-depth scholarly examination of “the differing ways  those sometimes called the first Americans – Native American Indians, and successive waves of colonists – have understood and related spiritually to American land” (xv), she may well set herself an impossible task. Indigenous people and colonists cannot be conflated into a single academic construct of “first Americans” any more than all indigenous peoples of the New World or the world at large can be conflated together in any academically meaningful way. The author succeeds admirably in illuminating the evolution of European and Euro-American beliefs and attitudes toward land and spirit that shaped and determined their behavior toward and policies affecting indigenous people. In this respect, the book is potentially important reading for those seeking to explore the genesis and impact of dominant culture thinking in this regard. But the book that provides real meaning behind the title Native American Environmentalism: Land, Spirit, and the Idea of Wilderness, in this reader’s opinion, has yet to be written.

About the Author

Bio from publisher’s website.

Joy Porter is a professor of indigenous history at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom. She is the author of Native American Freemasonry: Associationalism and Performance in America(Nebraska, 2011) and the coauthor of Competing Voices from Native America and The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature.

About the Reviewer

Tara Williams, Ed.D. wrote her doctoral dissertation on schooling experiences of Central California Indian people. She has published several nonfiction books and worked as an associate editor, feature writer, book reviewer, and columnist. Currently she is working toward an MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction while teaching freshman composition at California State University, Fresno.

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