On the Nature of Change

Photo of Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Garfield County, Utah by Maysam Yabandeh. Creative Commons license.
Photo of Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Garfield County, Utah by Maysam Yabandeh. Creative Commons license.

Recently, the Lummi Nation Business Council made the decision to increase COVID-19 precautions within the Lummi Nation to better protect its citizens in the face of substantially increased numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Because Northwest Indian College follows the health guidelines and policies of the Lummi Tribal Health Center, those restrictions include the shutting down of in-person classes for the remainder of the winter term. I am grateful to be part of a community which values the health and lives of its people more than other concerns, including economic and academic ones. At the same time, I am sad for yet another interruption in my education, and the negative impact this pandemic is having on our ability to connect, including community-building and maintaining vital social relationships, and on the kind of learning that is only possible when we are together.

I am frustrated by the negative implications of unexpected changes to my personal priorities and preferences. In my frustration and disappointment, I am reminded that very few things in life ever go the way I expect. The illusion of control is seductive, but it is only that – an illusion. It is a small comfort, however, to be reminded that life is so full of uncertainty. Is it better when we can remember that this is true for everyone? That life isn’t controllable and that we all must deal with the consequences of how reality rarely meets our expectations?

Between the pandemic and the various climate and geologically driven events of the recent past (floods, fires, earthquakes, landslides), I’ve been meditating on the ways the mainstream culture approaches change and uncertainty, and how we as Indigenous people might want to approach the persistence of change.

The Western worldview has confused power with “control over.” According to capitalist principles, those who control the means of capital – and therefore, the means of production and access to information, governance, and natural resources, all of which are connected – are the most powerful. And in today’s society, these people certainly accumulate the greatest amounts of monetary wealth and social influence. In order to maintain these positions of power, controlling the variables surrounding these resources and who has what access to them, is of vital importance. Powerful people will go to extreme lengths to maintain their current positions. We can see evidence of this everywhere – from the gerrymandering of voting districts to the amount of corporate funding and influence over elections, to the high rates of death from preventable illnesses, to the ongoing grotesque lack of social policies meant to protect and support people (including everything from sick leave to worker protections to affordable health, child, and elder care) within the so-called “wealthiest” and “best” country in the world (depending on who you ask). The lack of a functional and just society isn’t merely due to the complexity of these issues (although they are complex) but are related to the fundamental beliefs which sit at the heart of how we perceive and interact with one another and the non-human world with whom we share the planet. The confusion of power with control is accepted by the vast majority of humans now living. And because alternative views are suppressed by the dominant culture, those of us who wish for something better lack the resources and tools to resist or change the dominant worldview and its related systems of power and control. At the end of the day, this means that we expend great amounts of resources, creativity, and problem-solving (not to mention the health, well-being, and very lives of humans and others) on maintaining the status quo (of either dominating others or surviving in the face of being dominated), instead of putting our big brains and skills to the task of addressing the very real problems facing humans and the rest of the planet. We could be working together to create a mutualistic society that honors and cares for all of life. But we don’t, and because we don’t, we believe we can’t. It’s a vicious cycle that, unfortunately, feels nearly impossible to get out of.

Part of what I’ve been considering, however, is how the reality of persistent change is nothing new. The geological and biological forces that have shaped every aspect of life on this planet have been in flux from the very beginning. If we examine every natural cycle that supports life on Earth, we see the persistence of change. The nitrogen cycle moves this much-needed nutrient from the air to the soil to our bodies. The plants and algae convert sunlight to energy we can use, while exhaling oxygen that we need, while we breathe out the carbon dioxide they require. Our bodies decay and feed the microbiomes that replenish the soil that grows the plants that grow our bodies. Water is constantly moving from the sky to the earth, joining together in the smallest of rivulets that can carve ancient rock to raging rivers spilling out to the sea, where it moves against the coastline, a beautiful transition zone between the worlds of water and land. Volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis have literally shaped the ground we move upon. Rivers overflow their banks in regular and irregular patterns, helping to balance the flux of water and rock as they continue their old dance. These things have existed since time immemorial, and it is only the arrogance of humans which leads us to believe that we should, or even COULD, control these systems that are the very things which make our life possible and by their very nature are flexible, adaptable, and not-always predictable.

The truth is, that all human cultures have experienced the reality of these changeable natural systems and have devised various attitudes and approaches toward them. So, at what point did Western culture become deeply obsessed with controlling both natural systems and other living things as a means to power?

I don’t have a quick answer to that question, but I am drawn to understanding what our ancestors knew, and how they approached the realities of persistent change. In Power and Place, Vine Deloria Jr. and Daniel Wildcat discuss the metaphysics of Native Americans and the various ways our ancestors developed systems of knowledge about our Earth and the living systems that function within it. From an Indigenous view, power is not about the ability to control others, but stems from the depth of relationship we are able to foster with these life systems. As our ancestors observed, participated in, and learned from the natural world around us, they developed complex knowledge systems which help us understand how the world behaves and our own place in it. These efforts meant that they were successful in thriving on our lands, knowing how to work with the plants, animals, water, rocks, and stars that are specific to our own homelands. Power is not about controlling nature, but about our capacity to learn from and work within natural systems to provide for ourselves in a way that also allows others to be provided for.

It is difficult to remember this when my colonized mind feels anxious about the future, about the plans I’ve made and how I’ll accomplish them, and is interrupted in its efforts by the uncontrollable nature of things like water and viruses. We watch as our rivers, almost entirely changed by Western structures that attempt to dam, dyke, or redirect them, do what they are meant to do anyway, overspilling those edges into the homes and businesses that should never have been put in a flood plain. We observe as calls are made to dig the river deeper, build the levees higher, make the pumps more powerful – all for what? We delay the inevitable pattern because it would be “too expensive” to change it. We refuse to learn as we watch helplessly while neighbors are knowingly put in harm’s way. What is required for us to align our actions with the observations of how we fit into the greater world and its changeable nature?

I don’t know how we will do that for the entirety of our societies. Perhaps instead I will try to notice my own frustration and desire for control, and turn instead to learning how I fit into a changing landscape. I can’t stop floods/wildfires/earthquakes/viruses, but perhaps I can better navigate my experience of them.

Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.

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