The Eco-Logic of First Peoples

by Francisco G. Gómez

A few days ago I attended a screening of “The Economics of Happiness” at the behest of a friend. The film, in a nut shell, addresses the “New” trend called Localization, which appears to be very similar to an old First Nations practice. First Peoples always practiced localization, way before activists gave it a trendy name.  Permaculture, coined by Bill Mollison, for natural methods of growing food, amongst other things, is another catch word for an age old practice of First Peoples.

According to Helena Norberg-Hodge, producer of the film and founder of the International Society for Ecology and Culture, one of the key factors in solving the global environmental crises is localization. Communities are coming together to re-build on a more human scale, ecological economies based on a new paradigm, what Helena calls, an economics of Localization, but is it new?

Russel Means, now deceased, but still a voice and champion of indigenous rights, has been talking about Localization from the spiritual perspective of culture for a very long time now. Perhaps non First World Peoples, you know the ones that are considered trouble makers like Russell was, are conveniently overlooked because of their unpopular views about other matters not of an environmental nature? It appears that Russell tried to look at everything under the sun through the lens of balanced culture, an ecology of culture, you might say. He says, “…Everything, everything belongs to everyone. With that philosophy as “primitive” as it may sound is how we live in this land…” see:    

Helena’s work in Ladakh is admirable in deed and after reading her paper “The Pressure to Modernize,” , I can see why Russell was so concerned about the continued detrimental effects of morphed European intervention in his culture and what’s left of Lakotah lands. And, while Helena, from an outsider’s view, mentions briefly Ladakh’s very rich history in the old world of commerce, she says:

“…Leh was for centuries a centre of trans-Asian trade. The Ladakhis themselves traveled both as pilgrims and traders, and were exposed to a variety of foreign influences. In many instances they absorbed the materials and practices of other cultures, and used them to enhance their own. But it was never a question of adopting another culture wholesale. If someone from China came to Leh, the result was not that the young suddenly wanted to put on Chinese hats, eat only Chinese food, and speak the Chinese language.”

I can see where Russell was making a case for the same reasoning that Helena points out, as that outsider, but from his personal experience as the “other,” an individual that was born into outside intervention and lived it till his death. He says:

“It takes a strong effort on the part of each American Indian not to become Europeanized. The strength for this effort can only come from the traditional ways, the traditional values that our elders retain. It must come from the hoop, the four directions, the relations: it cannot come from the pages of a book or a thousand books. No European can ever teach a Lakota to be Lakota, a Hopi to be Hopi. A master’s degree in Indian Studies or in education or in anything else cannot make a person into a human being or provide knowledge into tradtional ways. It can only make you into a mental European, an outsider.”

On his homepage, in the main menu click the -speeches- tab and read “For America to Live, Europe Must Die.” It’s obvious that Ladakis, like the Lakotahs, weren’t ready to be Europeanized, but it happened!

By this time you’re probably saying “dude, what’s your f_ _ _ ing problem?” No problem, my inquisitive Eco-friends, just lengthy concerns about why some people are listened to and why others aren’t. I know, it’s just like that, you may say, get over it…I don’t think so! The main bone of contention would be to ask “who cares who tells the story of First World intervention, environmental and cultural catastrophes as long as it’s told?”

Well, Evo Morales, you know the president of Bolivia, the guy whose face looks like it should have been on one of those American nickels minted at the turn of the nineteenth century, said in the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Talks:

“The budget of the United States was 687 billion dollars for defense, and for climate change, to save life and humanity, it was only 10 billion dollars, this is shameful!”

see clip at:

Bolivia, needless to say, no longer receives any financial climate assistance from the U.S. since Evo opposed the Copenhagen Accords. Meanwhile back on the farms in the countryside of Bolivia, farmer Pedro has seen acre after acre of his avas (beans) die because they were affected by First World environmental pollution and global abuse. What gives, one might ask! Perhaps Evo should be making statements like that in six or seven different languages like Helena, maybe he should even decide to make a film so he can get his point across and be acknowledged for his great insight? I don’t think so! It appears that he’s from the wrong side of the planet and his views on the subject of global climate change are less than desirable for the powers that be. Then you might ask, hey, wait a minute, man, what about that plump little brown lady, you know, the one with the super sized red dot on her forehead who lives on the other side of the world? She’s talking about the same things that Helena’s talking about, isn’t she? Marvelous woman that Vandana Shiva, a true warrior of the environmental movement in India and across the globe. Helena gave her a few minutes in the Economics of Happiness; I asked myself, why not more?It’s amazing how Vandana came to bat for the thousands of farmers in her country, especially the ones that committed suicide after Monsanto screwed them over. Their stories will be told firsthand by surviving spouses and children with limited recourse to sustain themselves. But, kudos to Vandana because she had the cojones (balls) to tell the evil empire of Monsanto to get out of Dodge, oops, India that is.

After seeing the film it seems ironic that this highly acknowledged, honored and very intelligent woman born in New York, but raised in Sweden, would have to tell the Ladakhi people not to feel bad about themselves! Much to its detriment, little Tibet was opened up to the outside world way before 1978. Almost 900 years, from the mid 10th century, Ladakh was an independent kingdom, the dynasties that ruled during that period descended from the kings of old Tibet. During the early 17th century under the famous king Singge Namgyal the kingdom attained its greatest geographical expansion and glory. During that time period Ladakh was recognized as the best trade route between the Punjab and Central Asia. For hundreds of years caravans traversed the area carrying textiles, spices, raw silk, carpets, dyestuffs, narcotics, and other goods to the Central Asian towns of Yarkand and Khotan. Leh was the midway stop on this long trek, and as such it developed into a very diverse center of culture and business; its places of commerce were busy with merchants from distant countries, even though Helena makes no mention of this.

Of course the latter is telling, and speaks to the issues of Culture Shock and the impact of Europeanization of First Peoples in a negative way. Opening up the world to altered perceptions can be very deceiving when one is not aware of the true First World, in this case, American reality. Well, a few trillion dollars of American tax payer’s money to bail out the very people and corporations that screwed those very hard working American taxpayers, brought the chickens home to roost! The Middle Class said, “Hold up, something’s not kosher here!” They were soon downsized at their jobs, lost their homes and many even found themselves homeless. So much for the American dream. Sounds like a twist to “Bye bye Miss American Pie,” only the well intentioned hardworking citizens of this country, in many cases, found themselves taking the last train for the coast, but even Sandy messed that up for them too. Sounds a bit like Ladakh, but just in a different way, you might say!

The idea of culture shock brings to mind a personal experience I had when I was but a child in the 4th grade. My parents felt that I would acquire a better education by attending parochial school, boy were they wrong! I can still remember my friend Carlitos, a peruvian kid who had arrived to live in America at the start of the school year. Back in those days there were no E.S.L. or bilingual classes like there are today. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t any need for them being that Carlitos and I were the only two latinos in the class, and he, like Evo Morales, looked like he should be on a nickel too. To boot, he was the smelly kid in class, that didn’t help his already jeopardized situation in an all Anglo classroom. But, the thing that really hindered him the most was the fact that he didn’t speak any English at all. Of course Carlitos and I became very good friends being that I spoke Spanish and English. I couldn’t understand completely back then what he was feeling, I couldn’t, I didn’t look like an Indian, but I did have a Spanish name and that was bad enough.

Anyway, I recall that our teacher was this inhuman nun called, I think, Sister Mary Frankenbitch. I believe she was from the same order as the nun in the Blues Brothers, you know, the one that walked on air like J.C.. It turns out that one Spring day Carlitos and I were talking in the back of the classroom, that’s where we were made to sit, and all of a sudden Sister Frankenbitch comes floating down the aisle and grabs Carlitos by the earlobe and stands him up. She made him stretch his arms out and turn his palms upwards. Like magic she made a ruler appear and whacked Carlitos on the hands so hard until he began to cry. To this day I don’t know why she didn’t do the same to me, perhaps because I was Anglo looking and I spoke English, I can’t really say. Needless to say, that’s the day I began to question religion and decided that I would find a way out of that school. It was my first true experience witnessing the plight of the “Other;” culture shock in it’s purest form. It’s also amazing how Carlitos learned to speak English within the next four to five weeks. I believe that perhaps Eco-logic is something intrinsic in First Peoples, but it might simply have been survival strategies on the part of Carlitos. As it turns out, by the end of the school year I managed to get myself expelled from that school and relished the idea of going to public school; of course this turned out not to be much better in the years of the 1960s.

The Harvard anthropologist David Maybury Lewis in his Millennium documentary series, “Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World ” episode  #1 “The Shock of the Other,” stimulates  reflection and inspires a new look at what the modern world can learn from tribal societies as we enter the new millennium. It explores the values and different world perspectives that hold many  tribal societies together. It presents tribal peoples in the dignity of their own homes and captures their customs and ceremonies.

David seems to be extremely preoccupied with the impact his research and intervention as an anthropologist might have on the culture of the “Other.” He too believes that Europeanization has had severe repercussions on First Peoples. He brings this to light when he visits Spain and shows the effects of a mechanized society that has impacted the environment in such a horrific way. But then, this is nothing new to us here in America, is it?

Note: A screening followed by a discussion of “Millenium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World – The Shock of the Other” will take place at Ruthie’s Bagel Dish on January 7th, 2013 at 7pm. Sponsored by the Raíces Cultural Center. For more information about this event visit:

What does this all mean, you may ask? Well, when we use the “New” catch words like Localization, Permaculture, Transition or any of the other trendy environmental vocabulary that  are frequently on the lips of activists and the simple lay person who sees a need for change, let’s ask the question, “Where did those words really come from?” The Eco-logic of First Peoples would give a little twist to Willy’s writing by reciting, “A rose by any other name is still a rose, but doesn’t smell as sweet!” And, you may ask, isn’t it faulty judgement to question the best intentions of people who do good in the world? I don’t think so, but you can be the judge of that!