Rewild Portland is a trend-setting organization in the rewilding community. Watch our silly video, learn more about us, and donate.
Check out this interview/conversation I had with Lian over at the Primal Happiness Podcast!
“Forests are social, they are lonely, and they need us,” proclaimed Hazel, thus beginning a week-long workshop on “social forestry” that involved clearing brush, making charcoal, thinning tree stands, coppicing shrubs, reducing fire danger, weaving baskets, making wooden poles, touring various ecotones, and the main reason most of us were there: prescribed burning. There were lectures on topics including gender, forest systems, holding council meetings, biochar, permaculture forests, “retro-feudalism,” timber stand assessment, transition horticulture, and more. The central theme of the week was a simple yet complex question: “How do we bring back burning to the landscape?” For a wet, dreary week in late January, life couldn’t be more fun for a rewilder!
I’d been curious about using fire to manage the landscape ever since reading M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild back in 2006. The book explains how hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists have used fire to manage landscapes and assist with hunting for thousands (and quite possibly hundreds of thousands) of years. While Tending the Wild focuses on California, books like Indians, Fire, and the Land in the Pacific Northwest, Forgotten Fires, and The Biggest Estate on Earth have given rise to the understanding that land management among hunter-gatherers appears to be more common than previously thought and spans the globe as well as various ecosystems. These studies have blurred the distinctions between hunter-gatherers and horticulturists. Fire has long been a friend of the Homo genus, for warmth, cooking, and security. To what extent, and when we first befriended fire, remains unknown. Many theories link to archaeological hearth sites and physiological changes, but nothing is known for certain. Land management is perhaps one of the most difficult uses to prove.
Social forestry aims to return people to the forest with the practice of strategic burning. Civilization encourages fire suppression. Fire suppression in fire-prone habitats is, to put it bluntly, stupid. What kind of social forestry class would exclude a prescribed burn or two (weather permitting)?
Before burning, you must get the proper burn permits. Once you have permission from the state, you’re ready for site prep. To prep a site you need to establish fire lines, which are essentially barriers to keep the fire from spreading. They are generally wide, flat areas without a fuel source: a paved road, a stream, or a very wide trail with something like the top 6 inches of soil scraped away. Think of it like an invisible fence that contains the fire. We prepped two sites split in half by a gravel road. The lower half ended at a creek; the upper half ended in sparse star thistle and then a thicket of buckbrush. We had water on site, shovels, rakes, and other gear to fight the fire if it got out of hand.
Our goal with these burns was to burn out the seed load of the invasive star thistle, and help germinate the native seeds that are adapted to fire, so that the native plants would have less competition in following years. The first fire was a slow, cold back burn. Starting at the road, we lit the top of the meadow on fire and burned downhill. Imagine lighting a match and holding it upright. It slowly burns down the stick. The meadow slowly burned over the course of 45 minutes, with continuous fires being lit by us to keep it going. It was nice and gentle.
By the time we’d eaten lunch, the morning clouds had drifted on and it was time to try the uphill burn. Imagine lighting a match and holding it diagonally, with the flame rising up from the bottom. It burns hotter and faster, quickly consuming the stick in a large flame. The afternoon sun had come out from behind the clouds and began to dry out the fuel load on the upward slope. The sun also heated the air, causing a pressure change that encouraged the winds to kick up the hill. Then my friend Jesse lit the fire. The next 10 minutes would prove to be the most intense moments of my life in over a decade.
I first met Hazel when I took a Permaculture Design Course with Toby Hemenway in 2009. Back then they went by the name Tom Ward. Hazel is one of those rare humans with an extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge and a deep, everlasting passion for sharing the information they know and love. They were born and raised a Quaker on the East Coast, from a line of the oldest Quakers in the country. They have a degree in forestry from a highly renowned forestry school, and they’ve taught permaculture with Bill Mollison. Hazel is a botanist, peasant, forester, teacher, and underlying it all, more than a fair bit of a trickster. They stuck out in my class, not just because of their charismatic and unique presence, but because, of all the permaculture experts in that class, Hazel was the only one who seemed to have the vision of rewilding. I remember them saying something along the lines of “the future is bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers wandering the Willamette Valley between permaculture villages.” I remember thinking, oh, here is someone who actually gets it. Beyond getting it, they are creating it, experimenting with it, in their forest laboratory.
Five minutes later, a wall of flame raced across the meadow toward me and the rest of us who stood on the fire line. Another moment later and I couldn’t see much because the flames and smoke had consumed most of my vision. I knew I didn’t really have to worry; I could run to my left where there was no fuel load and I would be okay. But there was one problem. On account of the wind, the flames were so long that they extended over our fire line and jumped it. All of a sudden, shit got real.
I will never look at fire the same way again. It was a sobering moment. Don’t fuck around with fire. Seriously. Stationary fire is not scary. I had never seen fire move before. A friend who had been a firefighter in her younger days told me once about a fire that ripped up an incline she was on, and how she had to jump off a 30-foot cliff to get out of its way. I never quite understood what she meant until now. Firefighters are no joke. Mad respect.
A few weeks after the social forestry class, I had lunch with a friend who had taken it the year before. It was too rainy that year so they didn’t get to burn, and he was eager to hear about this year’s burns. I shared the story of all that happened and he laughed, telling me that he had taken a TREX training once, a government-funded and -operated prescribed-burn education program, where the fire jumped the fire line and burned several acres before they could put it out. Even government professionals can have a hard time containing fire; even with all the safety measures in place, fire can surprise you and do something you didn’t think was possible.
Once we extinguished the fire completely, something unexpected happened. Stunned, adrenaline still coursing through my veins, but the threat gone, I started to cry. Then I started sobbing. I sat down on the hill and just let it out. I was laughing and crying. I just let myself emote. I saw the true, hungry, wild face of a force of nature that I had only ever seen before in captivity. Here, in the forests of southern Oregon, the only thing between the fire and a thick bramble of buckbrush (a plant that contains flammable resin) stood a handful of rewilders with a couple of shovels. The whole experience happened in a matter of minutes. The amount of meadow that took us 45 minutes to burn going downhill took 11 minutes going up.
Later some friends of the farm sent us this picture of our uphill burn seen from a distance:
Back in the lodge, everyone quite frazzled, we sat gathered in a circle. The silence was only to be broken when we felt called to speak. Once everyone felt heard, we would conclude. Aside from the fire itself, the council was one of the most transformative experiences of the social forestry class for me. Partly because it was charged, but mostly because it had the power to diffuse the intensity and collectively debrief the experience without a moderator, without a long list of communication tools.
The reality from my perspective was that the danger wasn’t as bad as we thought. We suppressed the fire in only a few minutes, in part due to the lack of fuel load at the top of the meadow. There was, in a sense, a natural fire line that was better than the one we dug ourselves: about 20 feet of sparse fuel allowed us to simply come in and stamp out the fire once it burned through the heavier load. Hazel, the farm’s forester, was in control of the situation the entire time. I remembered something that I had learned in a mentoring workshop about creating rites of passage. You want the experience to have a “perceived danger high, yet actual danger low.” I think our perceived danger was high and the actual danger very low. However, this led to a very important lesson: fire is no joke. Controlled burns are an important part of ecological restoration, and you must be very careful and have multiple backup plans in place.
We spent the rest of the week doing more mellow but important work. We chopped down trees. We made charcoal. We learned about Hazel’s “retro-feudalism.” (This is a hilarious yet very practical concept put forth by Hazel that I can’t do justice to here, so I won’t try.)
Near the end of the week, in the foggy fir woodland with axe in hand, I realized that this was probably one of the only places where you would find a group of hippies gleefully chopping down trees. That’s part of the magic of social forestry. It reminds me of how I gave up veganism once I realized that I could respect animals and still eat them. You can respect a forest and still chop down trees. (This in no way condones industrial logging or the senseless killing of trees.)
Prescribed burns are no longer a mystery to me. Now I’ve actually done it. It’s not just a theory that I espouse but a skill I have begun to learn through doing. I’ve moved beyond the theoretical stage of fire. Yet this intro class made me realize how much there is to learn in this field. I will probably never become a highly skilled burn boss. It’s not my lot in life. Still, as a spokesperson for the return to these lifeways, it helps to have actually done them. This class was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Perhaps it will be for you too (weather permitting).
Check out Siskiyou Permaculture’s website for upcoming classes on social forestry and more:
Heron’s Social Forestry Video (a different but related program):
Urban Scout had a reputation. Good or bad, it depends on who you ask. From 2003 to 2009, he evolved from a fictional movie character, into my full blown alter-ago and muse. In 2006 I began blogging under the moniker to encourage more people to begin rewilding. The end goal was to spark a movement that was large enough to where I could assemble a group of people (back then I used the term “tribe” but I avoid it now) to go live with the land in the style of immediate-return hunter-gatherers. Over the span of several years I wrote many short essays on my blog “The Adventures of Urban Scout”, received a lot of attention for my antics, and garnered a lot of fans. It wasn’t all roses though. I likened Urban Scout’s voice to George Carlin’s; angry rants filled with curse words and strong opinions. This style had a specific audience who “got it” and another audience who had a tendency to be offended by the work.
In 2008 I assembled many of the short essays into this book, Rewild or Die. I couldn’t afford a professional copy-editor, so I had a few friends proof read it for me (including my mom!). In defiance of standard writing rules (the book itself written in an experimental form of English) I left in some typos and grammatical errors. This was partly out of laziness and partly in protest. It felt appropriate to publish the book with some rough edges. While many people appreciated the book, the lack of standardization, consistency, and conformity to American English “rules” of writing made the book less broadly appealing.
Two published reviews exemplify the polarization of subjectivity in regards to how the writing was received. One of the reviews said that the book was:
…emblematic of a text filled with poor grammar and misspelled words. It was difficult for this former teacher to gloss over the poorly edited text…I have serious problems with the messenger’s butchering of the English language…Scout should have stayed in school a little longer, if only to polish his writing skills…as if I have time to deal with juvenile delinquents who do not know how to write.
The other review couldn’t have been more different:
Urban Scout writes really well; not only does he write well, he appears to be constructing text in the manner of an artisan: few words are wasted or superfluous, and the style matches the context effortlessly. Or rather, it seems effortless, though I have little doubt that a great deal of effort has gone into each and every one of the essays…
This dichotomy shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Therein I realized that Urban Scout was a niche. If my goal was to encourage more people to rewild, this voice was limiting to that goal. Beyond just its limits, it also had the potential to alienate; during a book tour my car was totaled by haters. Tires slashed, windshield smashed, and an insult scrawled on the passenger side. That was when I decided that Urban Scout was finished. It was time to hang up the loin cloth and find a new muse. I stopped blogging regularly, discontinued the book, and began focusing all my efforts on Rewild Portland, a non-profit organization that I founded.
Almost immediately I received some angry messages from long time supporters of Urban Scout, asking me what happened, why could they no longer find my book. Initially I ignored them. One in particular was persistent. A man named George Steel (who is now a dear friend) threatened me that if I didn’t make it available again, he would create a bootleg. In a sense, any damage from the book couldn’t be undone. Once something goes online, it lives there forever. Since the essays in the book were formerly blog entries, they couldn’t be erased. Apparently they couldn’t be forgotten either. I conceded and told George that if I were to put it back out there, I would want to have it copy edited and have a better design. So began a journey that has lasted a few years. I met a professional copy editor who took on the work. George created a new typeface. I redesigned the cover. If I can’t get rid of it, the least I could do was polish it up a little bit.
I was still really apprehensive about putting it back out. Then I got a message from an old-timer of the Rainbow Gathering tradition. He had sought me out to thank me for writing the book. He said that the Rainbow Gathering had originally been created to do something like rewilding, and that over time it became just a party scene. The elders lamented, but the middle generation didn’t seem to care. He said that he found my book among youngest generation, duct-taped together with notes in the margins. They were bringing back the original intention of those gatherings, through rewilding, through my book. I’m sure they had other influences, but the image of my book in the hands of some teenagers, duct-taped together with notes scribbled in it made me realize that Urban Scout does have an audience, and that it was worth keeping alive if not for me, for them.
I still love the book and I don’t think it’s bad. I’m embarassed by parts of it, but in the way that I’m embarassed that I wore JNCO jeans in high school. I don’t agree with everything I wrote in it, and it’s not really my voice. I was 25 when I wrote most of it, drinking large amounts of black coffee and typing out long, angry rants at the behest of my peers. I’m nearing 35 now. My rewilding journey has taken me in many unexpected places, and I’m more excited about the work and writing that I am doing today. Still, it feels like a great time to re-release this book, as most of the rewilding literature I see in the mainstream these days feels more like Rewilding Lite™. While I disagree with the tone, and some of the content, the end goal is the same. Urban Scout had a sense of intensity, wholeness, and urgency in regards to rewilding that I don’t see much of elsewhere. Rewild or Die isn’t a book for everyone, but maybe it’s just right for you. There’s only one way to find out. Get yourself a copy here:
Rewilding starts September 12th. All other dates TBA.
I did this interview with some students from Evergreen for their research last November at the portland plant medicine gathering. I enjoyed it and felt like posting it online. The questions were deep and wide-ranging. It was a really fun interview.
Oregon Live’s Home & Garden section did a write up on my English Ivy basketry project. Check it out here.
People often get on my case for not prescribing a “5 things you can do to rewild” type of program. To me, rewilding is a renaissance; an idea (or cohesion of ideas) that takes form through individual & collective creativity. To make it a program is to kill it. Instead of coming up with a program, I’ve devised this course. Rather than creating a one-size-fits-all Rewilding™, we’ll look at our personal passions, our resources, our social networks, and brainstorm together what is possible for each of us and collectively tackle the barriers that hold us captive to civilization. Who’s ready to roll their sleeves up with me?
Scott Mann at the Permaculture Podcast had me back on the show. This time around we discussed the two realms of rewilding: conservation biology and anarcho-primitivism. There is only so much you can talk about in an hour, but we go pretty deep, only to be left wanting to continue the conversation.
Dear White Rewilders,
I’m white too. Clearly. No hiding that fact. I have pale skin, blue eyes, and a lot of facial hair. If you are reading this, you are probably white too, as this letter is addressed to you, and the majority of the rewilding community is, at the time of this writing, white. While I (and maybe you) don’t identify as a white imperialist, or identify with “whiteness” at all, I live in a culture of white imperialism and I receive all the benefits of living as a white male in a white imperialist culture. As a white rewilder, I have often been accused of cultural appropriation by both Native and Non-Native people alike. Some of these accusations have been true and some false. The more I learn about appropriation, the more respectful and learned I have become. Rewilding is so important to me, and to our future, that I want to do whatever I can to create deeper connections between Native people and Non-Native people as we rewild. I’ve traversed this road for a while now and learned some things that can help us all work together more effectively. This is an open letter about cultural appropriation, how to avoid it, educate yourself on it, and learn from other cultures in a sincere and respectful way that will create collaborative partnerships. This isn’t a definitive guide. This is an intro to a never-ending conversation about this topic that we need to be having regularly.
[For those randomly reading this: Rewilding is a subcultural movement of people returning to, or attempting to re-create, pre-industrial, pre-agrarian cultures and lifeways of hunter-gatherers and/or horticultural societies. Rewilding takes inspiration from the most modern interpretations of prehistory provided by anthropology, archaeology, and ethnobiology. It is an anti-civilization critique that encourages the un-doing of empire and the culture of occupation. We believe that civilization (not to be conflated with civil societies) is inherently destructive, has caused the sixth mass extinction, and is currently in a state of long-term collapse. We are a niche within a niche within a niche. Here in the Americas, the dominant, popular culture continues to rob and mine Native Americans for everything they can, while continuing to treat them like they no longer exist, or only exist as historical stereotypes. It makes sense then, that if we want to rewild, to create sustainable cultures, to reclaim the inherent indigenousity that exists within everyone, that we need to create understanding between rewilders and the Native cultures that have lived here in this way for time immemorial. Most importantly we need to tread lightly and learn how to be respectful, and mutually beneficial as we rewild.]
I should make it clear right out that I am not speaking for Native people. I’m speaking along side them, and sharing what I have heard and learned from close friends and strangers alike. Native people speak for themselves, if you listen. However, they do get tired of having these conversations over and over again, so I thought I would address them from what I understand. Also, I’ve been told that white people tend to listen to other white people so it’s important for us to talk to each other about these issues as well.
I have made my fair share of insensitive, racist mistakes. I was raised in a white, liberal household in Portland, OR. Growing up on television shows like South Park, it seemed the standard fair to make racist, homophobic, and anti-semetic jokes–so long as they were done in an ironic or sarcastic way. Around the turn of the millennium I moved into my first apartment. I threw a house-warming party and told my friends to come dressed as “Cowboys and Indians.” Yes, I threw a Cowboys and Indians party. I’m not quite sure what the hell was going through my head. I think maybe there was supposed to be a subtext of irony (like we were making fun of people who would throw those kinds of parties by throwing one ourselves)… or something. It’s worse than that though. I set up a poker table in the living room and thought it would be funny to have a sign over the table that read “No Injuns.”
Humor is important for bringing sensitive issues to light… but… Not only is it offensive to stereotype Native American cultures into a costume, it is insanely offensive to mock the racist, genocidal history of our culture, and especially as a white American male, still reaping the benefits of white male privilege in an on-going occupation. They are allowed to make jokes about it, I am not. Of course I’m not. Imagine if I had a “slave and slave-masters” themed party, encouraging people to wear blackface, then hung a sign up that said “no n——s.” Thinking back on this makes me feel like a complete idiot. I bring this up because there was no ill intent, I was simply ignorant. I’ve learned my lesson since then. My embarrassment at that (and other things) fuels me to educate people who may be just as ignorant as I once was (and still am in a lot of ways-> implicit bias is ingrained in us all). We all make mistakes. The idea behind this discussion is to be able to expand our empathy, recognize our shortcomings and ignorance, and build deeper, stronger relationships.
Originally, the term cultural appropriation was synonymous with cultural exchange. A culture taking on a cultural element from another culture. Now, cultural appropriation is synonymous with cultural theft. This is because the majority of cultural appropriation has been done through coercion and violence, rather than a mutually beneficial exchange. The “dominant” culture has used this dominance to steal and water-down and transform cultural elements from every culture it engages with. Because of the broader context of appropriation happening all the time, many people look at rewilding and see cultural appropriation wether it is actual appropriation or not. (Side Note: there is certainly white privilege/fragility in rewilding, but I’ll tackle that issue in another essay. While it relates, it’s a separate issue in and of itself).
If you do not have Native ancestry and live in the United States and engage in rewilding activities, you, like me, are an orphan or refugee (or “settler” or “newcomer” from the decolonization perspective). We have lost our cultural roots, or rather, they were destroyed by Empire so long ago that our more recent ancestors assimilated and then destroyed other’s cultures around the globe. We have lost the grounding force of our indigenousity; cultural relationship to place. While we may have deep personal relationships with our place, we do not have a cultural one rooted in 10,000+ years. We are here as a result of empire. There is no ancestral homeland to return to for us. We must grow roots wherever we have landed, and we must do this with respect to the Native cultures here so that we don’t just end up as neo-colonialists. I’ve come up with a list of methods for steering clear of the disrespect caused by cultural appropriation, as well as systemic stereotyping and racism, while rewilding as a non-Native American in the Americas. I’ve been told by some that I am overly cautious, and I’ve been told by others that I’m not cautious enough. Some of these things may apply to non-white people, but as I am writing this from my own experience, I am only addressing what I know. First and foremost…
1. Do not copy Native Americans.
Copying Native American’s is almost always offensive. One of the biggest reasons not to copy Native Americans is because you are probably not copying them, you are probably parodying the stereotypes that Hollywood and the mainstream media have perpetuated for a few hundred years. This has been called “Playing Indian.” This is something I experienced first hand in the Boy Scouts of America’s “Order of the Arrow” ceremonies where boys wore plastic mock headdresses and read in a stuttered voice from a script, mimicking the hollywood-created portrayal of Native Americans.
Here’s the thing: there isn’t one Native American culture, there are thousands. Each of these cultures has unique languages, art styles, beliefs, customs, etc. It is important to recognize the diversity of Native cultures, and not stereotype them as a singular cultural unit. For example, saying something like, “The Native Americans believe…” is nonsense. “Some of the Chinookan people I know believe…” would be a more accurate and representative statement. I’m guilty of this one more often than I would like to be. I generalize sometimes because there are cultural practices (we will look at some later) that span the globe. I definitely need to work on this one though. I’m relating my personal experiences with this to show you that it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to be honest with yourself, and it’s okay to share this information.
Don’t refer to Native Americans in the past tense. They are still here. I’m guilty of this one too. Already I’ve had to rewrite a lot of this essay for doing that. Part of the reason is that often times I’m reading or writing about the practices of pre-contact Native cultures and many contemporary Native cultures have been transformed through colonization and genocide, and have lost much of those practices that I am learning about. I think more often though, it’s just subconscious ignorance on my part.
Another reason not to copy Native American cultures is because often times people appropriating do not understand the history, origin, or importance of the cultural element they are appropriating. The classic example of this in Pop Culture today is when hipsters wear the “Native American Headdress.” Pop culture thinks it is okay to steal a cultural element because it’s just “art.” The headdress usually pictured or worn by pop stars is specific to Lakota Culture (remember there isn’t one Native American culture), though many cultures around the world had and have variations of feather adornment. When a pop star (or anyone) wears a Lakota style war bonnet without earning it, it is considered insanely disrespectful. It would be akin to wearing a war metal like a Purple Heart just ’cause it looks cool. You earn a Purple Heart for acts of duty during a war. Similarly, the Warbonnet has a rich meaning that I can’t do justice explaining, but you can read about it here. How would people react if everyone started wearing Pope bonnets to concerts?
Another reason not to copy Native Americans is because you may be idealizing them. Native cultures are human cultures. That is to say, they are not perfect. They are just people. They are not superhumans simply because they are Native to North America. It makes people feel awkward and uncomfortable when you arbitrarily put them on a pedestal.
I say that the copying Native Americans is “almost” always offensive, because there are certain times when it is considered “okay.” When I was a teenager I participated in sweat lodges at Wilderness Awareness School that were led by a Lakota elder named Gilbert Walking Bull. He taught us songs in Lakota and we would sing them in the lodge. He told us that the lodge was for all people. In this particular instance, a Native elder felt compelled to teach non-Native people his traditions. It was okay with him. It was not okay with all Lakota people. This is a gray area. One way you can navigate this gray area is to not advertise or tell people about it. Keep it to yourself. If you were to leave and start your own lodge, and call it a Lakota lodge, this may be viewed similarly to telling people you have Native American ancestry when you do not. Some non-native people have explicit “permission” from their Native teachers (I’ve heard of some teachers demanding their students) to go on and teach certain traditions to the world. According to many Native elders that I learned from in my teens, In the 60’s and 70’s many Native elders began teaching white people skills and traditions because their own Native youth had no interest in learning them, after being stigmatized for centuries through colonialism. They were willing to share their culture with anyone who was interested in authentically learning it. This still continues in places today, although seemingly less so. Some tribes hire non-native people who have learned these skills from elders, to re-teach them their lifeways that they no longer have a memory of. Again, this is a gray area. Just because one person in a culture gives you permission to do something, or a tribal government hires you to teach something, doesn’t mean that everyone who identifies as a member of that tribe will think that it is okay. This is the complex terrain that we all traverse. Always mention the tribe and name of the person who taught you, and who gave you permission or asked you to teach. Give credit where credit is due. Keep in mind that you will never get a pass from all Natives. That may not be a concern of yours, or your Native friends.
I came across this myself when I began to learn Chinuk Wawa at the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde office. A few of the teachers gave me permission to teach the language outside of the tribal office as long as it was for free. So I did. However, someone caught wind of this who didn’t feel the same way and began to spread rumors about me being a cultural thief. So I just quit teaching it outside of the tribal office all together. If I wasn’t a public figure with a reputation to uphold, I may have just gotten a little bit more quiet about it and kept teaching, per the request of my own teachers. But really… Why? It’s not my ancestral language. Is it any of my business? No. I’m not some White Savior (See below). Now I simply assist when I can, and where I am needed (if I am needed at all) and continue my own studies at the tribal office. I don’t really speak much wawa outside of the office. Why would I?
A non-native acquaintance started an ancestral skills meetup group in Portland. He had been going to Chinuk Wawa classes for a while, and decided to call the group “chxi-siwash.” What he thought he was saying was “New Native.” This is bad for a few reasons. One is that the word he used, “siwash” is the derogatory version of “sawash,” the word he meant to use. One is akin to the “n” word in English, and the other just means “Native American” or “Indian.” Even if it wasn’t just blatantly offensive on grounds of using words from a language you are not fluent in, and isn’t your ancestral language to begin with, he used the most derogatory term in the entire language. Whoops! This is a great example of why to keep things to yourself, and not create web banners for public groups in a language you are not super fluent in. But also, calling yourself a “New Native” is not great for a couple more reasons. First of all, you are not a Native. Second of all, you never will be. Not in that context anyway.
Authenticity plays a huge role in how you will be viewed when you emulate Native cultural elements. If you are actually interested in learning how and why certain things are done, and show respect, it’s often not really a huge deal. Wearing a Lakota Warbonnet clearly shows no respect for the tradition. If you were respectful of the tradition, you would learn the history, importance, and significance of that item… and you would still never get to wear one. So just stop doing that.
Part of authenticity or sincerity, is just showing up, and not teaching yourself skills in a vacuum. For example, don’t teach yourself a native language from a book (as if you really could anyway). Show up. Again, when I was learning Chinuk Wawa, people would ask me to translate a sentence for them for things like political slogans at protests. I was instructed by the teacher to say, “Come to class at the tribal office and ask the class. Learn the language so you can write the slogan from a place of sincerity.” How many people get tattoos in other languages that don’t really mean what they think? There are entire websites dedicated to this. It’s the same kind of thing. Wanting a piece of an exotic culture because exotic things are cool. That’s not very sincere. Sincerity is key. Especially if you plan to practice things and are given permission to, outside of the tribal context.
Another important factor is your relationship to a particular culture, and to particular people. If a stranger sees me emulating a particular custom (such as speaking in Chinuk Wawa) out of a tribal context, that has been taught to me freely by Native people, in my experience they will view me as a cultural appropriating asshole. This is because they don’t know me, and white people doing indian things is suspect for the reasons I have listed already. This makes it a very difficult subject to be presented and discussed online, as the majority of interactions are impersonal and with strangers who don’t know the context in which a tradition was passed on (and often don’t ask). This is another reason to keep it to yourself and do not broadcast lessons you have been taught. Acquaintances that see me emulate a particular Native custom, are more likely to question me as to my motivations. To friends, they don’t even ask because they already know my intentions. Again, this is why I mostly only do actual Native American traditions with Native people, and only as a participant or supporting role. Unless they ask me to do more (keeping in mind that other Native people may not want me to).
These things are also big “no-nos”: Do not give yourself a Native American name. Do not ask to be adopted into a tribe. Never claim to have Native American ancestry if you don’t. Do not sell items with appropriated words or images. Do not use the term “Neoaboriginal.” It’s just a sneaking way of saying “New Native.” You’re not a native. New or old. Even if you are given permission to learn and or share a cultural element, think deeply about why? Why is it so important to emulate Native Americans? Especially when you could just…
2. Research your own ancestry.
You don’t have to copy Native Americans to rewild. It’s sad to me, that some of us of European decent are so far removed from our own indigenous ancestry that we steal from Native Americans. Our own heritage is awesome (before the iron age at least)! This is one reason why I think white people romanticize Native Americans and want to be like (how they have been taught to perceive) them: they have no idea that they themselves have indigenous ancestry.
Personally, I’ve always felt uncomfortable learning Native American customs, or participating in their cultural activities. It feels grossly voyeuristic to me. I once participated in a Chinookan Winter Gathering during which songs were being sung around a fire in a cedar longhouse. It was deeply moving and I cried. Partly because it was amazing to see people continuing their traditions after everything civilization has done to silence them and partly because I felt a deep sense of sorrow and longing to connect to my own longhouse culture in Scandinavia, but also feeling like that was not really my place either. I don’t fit in here, I don’t fit in there, I don’t know where I fit in. This is why we are orphans. We need to sit and feel that loss instead of trying to fill the hole of grief with other peoples customs.
It makes sense that we don’t know much about indigenous Europeans. Most of the books written about human history are about the earliest colonizers. Colonizers more or less invented literacy, so of course there is going to be a lot in there about how awesome they are and how “barbaric” the “savages” were who lived in surrounding areas. Through some of these texts, modern anthropology, and archaeology, we have gleaned quite a bit of information about how indigenous “white” people lived. In reality, “whiteness” or pale skin is actual very new to the world (only 7,000 years). The concept of “whiteness” even newer. Unfortunately, it now seems as though it is a marker of our domestication. DNA tested from the skeletal remains of the original hunter-gatherers of Europe had darker skin and blue eyes. The current theory is that our skin changed to white when we changed to an agricultural diet because of the lack of nutrients. Paler skin allows for the absorption of more vitamin D from the sun.
We’ve all heard the term colonization, but what we don’t realize is that colonization began with the rise in agriculture. Agriculture originated in the middle east and moved up and through Europe. I say “moved” but we don’t really know how it happened. Most theories say that hunter-gatherers “adopted” agriculture but I have a hard time believing that, since no other cultures in the world have left the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for farming. It’s an old myth that with modern concepts is a hard sell. I’m guessing there was genocide and drugs (wheat/grain addiction)… but that’s a whole other conversation, and I’m not a professional archaeologist. Based on the resistance to agriculture by hunter-gatherers in all parts of the world, I can make an educated guess though, that if someone were to do more research, they would unearth (pun intended) clues that point to a less pretty picture.
Colonization became what we know of today as Empire when it was refined into a Science by the Romans. Rome is known for many things, but in reality they really only invented one earth-shattering thing: the very first professional army. Before the Roman Legion, armies were make-shift groups of people. There were no professional soldiers. This army was paid for with taxes. Taxes that were enforced with the armies. The first mafia-like scam! Labeling all other people as “Barbarians” and creating a fear-mongering mythos of propaganda around them the Romans colonized Europe and stole the wealth of the cultures there, literally destroying villages and building Roman occupations right on top of them. Historians have given these people many names (the Celts, the Germans, the Gauls, etc) their own names for themselves long ago stamped out by Rome. The Romans did such a good job of erasing the cultures of Europe, that we still know very little about them.
The word colonization comes from the word Colony. The word Colony comes from the Roman city Cologne, which was a city Julias Ceasar built after wiping out a tribe of Germanic peoples. It was a military headquarters for the Romans, allowing them to tax more tribal people deeper in Germania. Cologne came from the Roman word “Colere” which meant to “till the soil.”
Unfortunately, another person already did a lot of research into the Barbarians, but twisted it into an excuse for a genocidal rampage; Hitler. Hitler ruined germanic heritage forever. Just kidding. But seriously; tread lightly there. When you do this research, you realize that our indigenousity wasn’t taken away so long ago. It feels closer, more attainable. You’ll be amazed by…
3. Our ancestral commonalities.
In my study of prehistoric cultures from around the world (mostly Europe as my ancestors are from there, and North America because I live here), I’ve found that what we commonly think of as stereotypes of Native Americans in the United States, are actually just stereotypes of indigenous people everywhere. These commonalities can be a great place for starting cultural collaboration. The following list is of 10 of the most common activities that are practiced by many different indigenous cultures around the world (including indigenous Europeans), but are often mistaken as being solely Native American in origin.
• Tanned Leather & “Buckskin” Clothes & Shoes
Humans have been wearing the skins of animals, and particularly those of the deer family, for thousands of years all around the world. Now, if they were styled in the specific way of a specific culture, that is appropriation. The Loin cloth and leggings pairing has been in use worldwide. Pants were originally invented by “the barbarians” of the Eurasian steppe.
• Bows and Arrows
The earliest bow every discovered was in a cave in Denmark.
• Long, braided hair (particularly on men)
The Greeks sculpted statues with braids. The Bible discusses it’s hatred of braids (another form of colonization against “barbarians”).
• Feather Adornment
Feathers have been part of human fashion and adornment for a long time. There is now evidence that points toward Neanderthals using feathers for decoration.
• Face and/or Body Paint.
Most commonly referred to as “War Paint”, painting ones face with colors is something humans have done for a long time. The Picts were a Celtic people who are recorded as having painted their faces when going into battle with Rome. This idea was used in the film Braveheart, though the Picts were wiped out centuries before the era of that film.
The Irish Bodhran is very similar looking to many of the Native American drums I have seen. It’s an ancient way of making music.
• Shelters: Conical Shelters, Longhouses
Portable, cone-shaped shelters made of long, tree trunks laid or lashed together and then covered with a shingle of bark, animal skins, or plant fiber are used around the world. The Tipi is one form. The Sami use the Lavvu. From the Vikings to the Haida to Vietnam, the Longhouse is another kind of shelter than spans the globe and many different cultures.
• Wild Foods
Many foods have relatives that span the globe such as acorns, salmon, deer, cattails, nettles, and many more. These plants and animals have had (and continue to have) cultural significance in many cultures spanning the northern hemisphere.
• Sweat Baths
Humans have been heating up stones, bringing them into a small space, and pouring water over them to create steam for a long time. Herodotus reported about them to the Greeks on his adventures with the Scythians, the nomadic Eurasians living outside of Greece.
• Animism/Totem or “Spirit” Animals
Animistic beliefs and totem animals have long been a part of traditional cultures around the world. From Scythian tattoos to NW Coast totem poles.
This is a much abridged version of a longer piece I am writing on this topic of material culture similarities (as well as some spiritual beliefs) among different traditional indigenous peoples from around the world. Please forgive the briefness in this section, as its more important to recognize all humans have, and have had, things in common in all of our cultural ancestry. Each of these commonalities have similarities and yet distinctly unique cultural stories and ideas that go with them. We are all similar, yet distinct. These similarities are where I believe we can find common ground in our ancestry.
However, imagine if I wore my buckskins, braided my hair, wore feathers, painted my face, put a bow and quiver of arrows over my shoulder, lived in a conical shelter, and spoke about sweat baths and totem animals. Aside from my beard and the color of my skin and eyes, I would be the spitting image of Hollywood’s Native American stereotype. Perhaps these stereotypes arose because they were superficial commonalities among Native cultures throughout early contact. They may be superficial, but they are still commonalities. Anyone looking on in the Americas may laugh and tell me that I am “playing Indian.” This is very problematic, but completely understandable.
The way through this is to recognize our privilege. Though we have tons in common if we go back far enough, we we’re not the original wild-tenders of this land, and our more recent ancestors plundered this land and attempted to wipe out the cultures here. All the information about edible plants and sustainable land management systems of these regions were done by Native Americans, and this looks like where the most cultural appropriation would come from: Natives teach us everything about living sustainably in this place. Once you recognize this, you’ll also…
Like it or not, acknowledge it or not, privileged white rewilders in North America have a debt to pay off. Our ancestors attempted to destroy these cultures, and now we continue to reap the benefits of that conquest. I believe that was terrible and I would like to undo that damage to the extent that I can. If that’s not enough, than think about this: Everything we know about restorative land management of native ecosystems that is blowing up right now in the field of ethnobiology is coming from them. A larger portion of the “primitive skills” movement that is part of rewilding, was born out of archaeologists learning from Native people in the 70’s. Rewilding is about giving back. What can we do to give back to our teachers? To their cultures? To the land? They are one in the same. In your quest to give back, don’t forget to ask what they want and or need. Make sure to…
5. Beware the White Savior.
There is a term called the White Savior. You’ve seen them in Pop Culture: Dances with Wolves, Avatar, Emerald Forest, etc. The white savior is the idea that “native people are in trouble and need a white man to save them.” Native people don’t need to you save them. Go ask them what they need. Don’t think you know what they need. Ask. Keeping in mind that, sometimes, their struggles are just none of your f*cking business. Keeping in mind that sometimes, what they ask for may not be what you think they need. That’s not really the point, is it?
6. Be aware of your privilege.
This doesn’t mean you have to feel guilty, or that you haven’t experienced oppression through intersectionality. It just means you should have the filter in your head that the things you are doing to rewild were (and still are), until very recently, outlawed and stigmatized for Native cultures through generations of oppression and genocide. People were beaten to death for speaking their language. Just keep that in your head when navigating this world. We (white folks) live within the culture of occupation…
7. Native culture and land is still under siege.
Native people live on the front lines of occupation. While we can work cushy jobs awarded to us through privilege and save up to buy land (stolen from them by the empire) for our permaculture/rewilding projects, many Native people are struggling for even simple resources (like clean water) that we take for granted. The genocide is on-going. Keep that in mind.
8. Not all Natives want to return to their pre-contact way of life.
Many of them do not want to rewild. Many of them may not even know that’s a possibility, because it probably isn’t for them. Many are fighting just to exist. Their choices are not really my business either. My business is in learning how to live sustainably here, and how to give back to the people and land. That may mean assisting them to simply have access to resources like clean water, heating in their homes, health care, etc.
9. How to be an ally?
This is the trickiest part for me, because… there is no one right way to be an ally. I’m still muddling my way through this one, and probably always will be. This is the edge of my ignorance, my arrogance, and my implicit bias, and so I feel a bit like walking on egg shells. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or be disrespectful by saying something ignorant (again), especially on the internet. But really, it’s okay if I or you say something ignorant, because we are. The only way through this is to allow yourself to be ignorant. If we listen, we can move through that. I think the most important thing is to begin to educate yourself. I’ve included a few resources below. It is important to start building relationships with native people. Make friends with diverse opinions. This makes it less about “allyship,” which feels to me like knowing how to help strangers (which is good, but impersonal), and makes it more about knowing the needs of a friend and community (making it personal).
Everyone is “entitled” to reclaim the lifeways of their ancestral people, but not with entitlement mentality.
Native people have to put up with this shit every day. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could help them out? Wherever empire may have kicked us to, we can still find our way back. We are all human after all. We are all from the earth. Doing this with “entitlement mentality” is counter intuitive to reclaiming indigenous ancestry and lifeways. As a white person, you are not entitled to pillage indigenous cultures and use their culture to your own liking, willy-nilly. “Well, my ancestors wore buckskin too. I do what I want.” This kind of behavior just makes you a jerk.
Every person on the planet is a potential friend. By being nice and learning to respect others, you are opening the door just a little more to make more friends. I screw up all the time. It’s okay to screw up. Just apologize and change your behavior. I’m constantly checking myself. This can feel tiresome at times, but in the end it’s the appropriate thing to do. If I can make more friends, create more partnerships, build collaborations, simply by learning to see people in a different way, and changing my behavior to welcome them or have them welcome me, I want to do that. If we are going to grow as a culture of rewilding, it will require all of us to be more open and respectful toward people we know and love, but also the strangers who may become the people we know and love.
I was tabling at an Earth Day event for my organization Rewild Portland. We had our English Ivy baskets out on the table for the display. An elderly Native woman came up to the table with a look of disgust on her face. She sneered at us, and said in a condescending voice, “You should come to the reservation and see how real indians weave baskets.” Then she walked away. I wanted to run over and explain to her that these were European style baskets, woven with invasive species that were pulled to restore habitat for native plants of the Northwest. Then I thought about the context in which we live; that my more recent ancestors attempted to destroy the Native cultures of North America, and I am a benefactor of their continued occupation. Though it is not my “fault” it is a legacy that falls on me. There is a lot to atone for, but not everyone is looking for atonement. Some people will hate me no matter what, and really, they have every reason to. Who can blame them? Later that same day, another elderly Native woman came to the table and excitedly picked up our baskets, “Wow! I love what you guys are doing!” I was a little nervous and responded quickly with, “These are European style baskets made with invasive species so that we can restore–.” She cut me off, “No, I get it, I get it. I think it’s so fantastic. Have you done any work with Native people in this area? I’d love to pass on your information to some of the local organizations that work with Native youth. Is that okay? I’m an elder so they have to listen to me, haha!”
There are no steadfast rules. I’ll say again, this isn’t a definitive guide. It’s a the jumping off point to make this a regular conversation in rewilding. How can we show respect for one another?
I owe most of my understanding of cultural appropriation to four groups of people. The first is my friends Shusli and Eugene who ran a Native American radio show on KBOO for many years. The second is to Eric Bernando and the Chinuk Wawa language community at the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde’s Portland office. Reading Adrienne K’s Native Appropriations blog was very helpful for me in hearing a voice that is specific to this topic. Martin Pretchtel is someone who has influenced me in many ways, this topic in particular. I am so thankful to these influences and continue to listen and be thankful for them, and many others, as I navigate this territory.
Resources & Readings: