By Alison Jones, Executive Director of No Water No Life
In the 1970’s my mother gave me Touch the Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence by T. C. McLuhan (1971). I was intrigued by the sepia photographs of Native Americans by Edward S. Curtis.
After reading Timothy Egan’s book on Curtis (The Short Nights of a Shadow Catcher, 2012), I pulled my mother’s book off the shelf. While its paper cover is somewhat raggedy, the photos and text inside again mesmerized me. These two books, when taken together, underline the significance of perpetual circles within Native American cultures, before and after their forced reservation existence.
Why write about this for No Water No Life? I want to share the correlation of cyclical sustainability between water and indigenous cultures. Many of thoughts in Touch the Earth I’ve heard in NWNL interviews with indigenous cultures in African and North American river basins. Mandala-like spherical designs abound in the decor and life of the Chinook, Nez Perce, Colville, Choctaw, Okanagan, K’tunuxa and Californian tribes.
Both the Hydrologic Cycle and Indian circular designs represent more than a graphic pattern and reflect NWNL’s search for clean fresh water for all, forever. The Hydrologic Cycle illustrates replenishment. Native Americans consider how impacts will roll outward from their circle – for at least for 7 generations – before making decisions. Many of today’s water problems, induced by pollution, infrastructure and climate change, might not exist if “new” Americans were better at weighing eventual risks to our life cycles.
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce: “We were contented to let things remain as the Great Spirit made them. [The white men who moved the Nez Perce to Lapwai] were not. They would change the rivers if they did not suit them.”
Going deeper, what grounded the Native American focus on circles? While reading Native American commentaries in Touch the Earth, I noted many mentions of circular rhythms and constructions. Cycles are found in their prayers where the four seasons and four cardinal points on a compass are centered by their Great Spirit.
Black Elk, prayed at Harney Peak in The Black Hills in 1931 to the Great Spirit: “From the west, you have given me the cup of living water… You have given me a sacred wind… of the cleansing power and the healing…. At the center of this sacred hoop you have said that I should make the tree to bloom and be filled with singing birds.”
For ten years No Water No Life has focused on the health of water’s hydrologic cycle as it passes from clouds, mountains and rivers, down to the sea and back up into clouds again. It seems Native Americans focus on that too as they design their circular tipis, drums, beaded jewelry and dances?
Chief Luther Standing Bear said, “The man — who sat on the ground in his tipi meditating on life and its meaning, accepting the kinship of all creatures and acknowledging unity with the universe of things — was infusing into his being the true essence of civilization.”
Here are some more passages from Touch the Earth that I have enjoyed:
Chief Flying Hawk, Ogalala Sioux, born about full moon of March 1852: “The tipi is much better to live in: always clean, warm in winter, cool in summer; easy to move…. Nobody can be in good health if he does not have fresh air, sunshine and good water all the time.”
Hehaka Sapa, the holy man of the Sioux: “They have put us in these square boxes. Our power is gone and we are dying for the power is not in us any more. When we were living by the power of the circle, in the way we should, boys were men at 12 or 13. But now it takes them very much longer to mature.”
Tatanga Mani, a Stoney Indian: “I turn to the Great Spirit’s book, which is the whole of his creation. You can read a big part of that book if you study nature. …The Great Spirit has provided you and me with an opportunity for study in nature’s university, the forests, the rivers, the mountains and the animals, which include us.”