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First Thunders (Return to Balance)

posted Mar 15, 2011, 10:19 AM by Brett Ramey   [ updated Sep 21, 2011, 8:42 AM ]

The First Thunders arrived at the Wakarusa Wetlands last week.  The rain that followed sent thousands of red-winged blackbirds diving into the cattails to join the frogs and their proud springtime songs. Our elders say,
the Thunders signal the advent of the Native New Year.  In traditional times, the Sacred Bundle Creation Ceremonials were initiated to recall and renew our relationship to the whole of earth, nature and the heavens.

For some Ioways the arrival of the First Thunders mean it’s time to be on the lookout for willows to renew our lodge.  For me personally it’s also a time to recall the blessings and teachings of the previous year and renew a commitment to continue relearning how to carry out balanced interactions with all my relations- a traditional value and necessity for land-based people that is often easier said than done. It is also almost time to harvest nettles, morels, and await the arrival of the monarch butterflies on their seasonal migration through the wetlands. 

The Wakarusa Wetlands (or Haskell-Baker Wetlands) in Lawrence, Kansas have long been a place of prayer, refuge, and resistance.  At a recent event in Lawrence, Haskell professor Dr. Dan Wildcat told a story of how the Kaw people (pre-contact) would stand in the wetlands and shout gratitude every morning, mid-day and evening.  In the late 1800’s through the mid-1900’s the wetlands served as a place of prayer and refuge for children attending Haskell during it’s heyday as one of the primary Federal assimilation boarding schools.  Today the wetlands still serve as an outdoor “classroom” where Haskell (now a 4-year university) students and community members learn traditional uses of plants as food and medicine. The Wetlands are also the Lawrence, Kansas version of an ongoing battle to protect sacred sites around the world.

For the past 25 years the wetlands have been in the path of a proposed South Lawrence Trafficway, a six to eight lane highway that would skirt the south end of Lawrence.  On the surface it is the same age-old debate between "progress” and "stagnation".  But beneath the surface the wetlands case, like many other sacred site conflicts, is not just about opposing views of how a particular piece of land should be developed (or not), it is about differing ideas of how people relate to the land itself.  Which is arguably a reflection of how we relate to all beings- plant, animal, and human alike.


In June of 2004 I was on an annual trip with the Indigenous Youth Experience Council (IYEC) , a group of youth and elders from
several tribes throughout the US and Greenland.  The trips were organized to connect young men with spiritual leaders and traditional teachings through week-long outings on different tribal nations and traditional territories.   This particular trip took us to the Navajo Nation and the nearby border town of Flagstaff, Arizona. 
After spending a few days in Pinon (Navajo Nation) we went to Flagstaff to meet with the US Forest Service about a proposed ski-area expansion on the San Francisco

Peaks- the 12,500 ft. mountain that lives just a few miles north of Flagstaff and creates the western-most boundary of traditional Navajo territory.  In addition to being traditional hunting and foraging grounds for tribes in the region it sits at the top of the watershed and has, like the Wakarusa Wetlands, been a place of prayer, refuge, and resistance for generations.  The proposed expansion would clear cut an additional 76 acres of rare alpine forest and would use 100% reclaimed wastewater (sold to the resort by the City of Flagstaff) to make fake “snow”. (see Slideshow)

We met with the Forest Service with the mutual understanding that the elder’s messages would not be constrained by walls,   podiums, or time limits.  Instead we would meet outside within view of the mountain and each of the elders would speak for as long as they needed to share their message.  They were there to share that although many of us were not from the 13 tribes listed on their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), as inhabitants of this planet we will all be effected by the proposed resort expansion.  The impacts of imbalanced relationships don’t acknowledge watershed maps or political boundaries. 

This meeting was part of a larger dialogue aimed at reshaping how the US Forest Service conducts consultations on Native American Sacred Sites within National Forest Service (NFS) lands.  Through the Office of Tribal Relations (OTR), the current procedure requires only government-to-government consultation (ie; Tribal government to US government)   The aim of this meeting was to continue pushing for a policy that would require the OTR to consult with spiritual leaders and traditional practitioners as well.  This is based in part on the understanding that no government entity, Tribal or otherwise, should be expected (or entitled) to bare the full burden of speaking on behalf of all people, plants, and animals that live in their community. (see OTR Sacred Site Policy Review Update)

We sat and listened to the elders in a drought-enabled pine-bark beetle infested forest for nearly three hours.  Meanwhile, about 100 miles to the southeast smoke billowed into the sky from one of the region's largest forest fires in recent memory- another result of decades of attempts to control and suppress the natural tendencies of the desert landscape.  As a visible metaphor of the message the elders were sharing, the smoke from the fires drifted downwind to the communities who had no choice but to deal with the impacts of decisions they didn’t make.

The elders say that when our relationships are out of balance the earth gives us a nudge- often in the form of earthquakes, droughts, floods, and other "natural disasters".  If we don't listen the earth speaks louder and louder until we pay attention.  These reminders aren’t acts of “punishment” us as some suggest, but are instead opportunities to re-evaluate, regain, then maintain balance in our relationships to each other and the earth itself.

Today, communities across the Pacific are reeling from the impacts of the largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history.  Massive fish kills in Chesapeake Bay, thousands of red-winged blackbirds falling from the sky in Arkansas and over 5,000 earthquakes in Aotearoa since last September are all symptoms of an ecologically and socially imbalanced world. Whether you see these events as tangible impacts of climate change, natural cycles of the earth, fulfillment of prophecy, or a combination of these things the messages from our elders gain more credibility every day. 


The way a society
chooses to interact with the landscape is reflected in their other relationships.  Some cultures seek control over nature, while others consider the earth to be their mother.  The latter acknowledges that we would not be here without the earth to nurture us, just like we would not be here without our own mothers.  With that in mind, consider a paradigm shift where all societies treat the earth and all her relations the same way we want our mothers to be treated.  As proposed by Dr. Wildcat, “Imagine what would happen if all of humanity stopped thinking of the earth’s water, forests, minerals, plants, and animals as resources, and instead began treating them as relatives.”

The concept of living in balance is central to the worldviews of most Indigenous and land-based peoples.  It is a fundamental concept that enabled humans to live sustainably on this planet for thousands of years.  Within that is the understanding that truly living in balance includes ALL relations, not just those of your own species, race, or economic class.  From urban farms in West Philly and Rio de Janeiro to the streets of Libya and Wisconsin people are taking steps to regain this balance within their communities.  These responses not only treat the symptoms of imbalance, but also seek to simultaneously address the underlying causes of environmental and social injustice as well.  

No matter where you live there are local examples of balanced relationships that existed in the past, still persist in the present, or both.  Finding those examples and applying them to our day-to-day relationships is what we need most right now.  For the health of our communities now and into the future we must again practice the time-tested teachings of the elders by seeking balance in all our relationships with “the whole of the earth”.  As the new year approaches, take time to find your own local version of the Wakarusa Wetlands or the San Francisco Peaks and recall and renew how you relate to ALL your relations in balance- including the food you eat, the air you breathe, and the people you love.
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