by John Ivey
Today I must try to speak.
I am struggling to say something intelligible about community, modernity, and the need of all people and cultures to find respectful interdependence with food and all that sustenance means. And the often hard-to-grasp realization that all of life breathes in unity—inhaling, exhaling, expanding and contracting, as this Earth’s heartbeat.
I struggle with my authority to speak for a people who live in such an ancient balanced relationship with an ecosystem that the term “Deep Ecology” appears as an intellectualized conceptualization, a self-evident term arising from an alien culture struggling to remember that food originates some place other than on a shelf in the fridge or the Super Store.
The First Nation Arctic people known as Gwich’in (a name translated as “one who dwells”) believe that their ancient way of life is in imminent threat of destruction—the latest conquest of an oil-addicted culture run by short-sighted corporations and politicians who view the living landscape as little more than a commodity. By leasing oil drilling rights to corporations, the U.S. Department of the Interior has just signed what may be a death warrant for over 200,000 members of the Porcupine caribou herd and their calving grounds—and by extension, a cultural extinction for the Gwich’in who live in familial oneness with the being of this herd.
Northern territories anthropologist Craig Mishler reports that Gwich’in elders have identified at least 150 descriptive names for all of the bones, organs, and tissues of their blood relatives, the caribou. Mishler reveals the extent of this indwelling: “Associated with the caribou’s anatomy are not just descriptive Gwich’in names for all of the body parts… [but also] an encyclopedia of stories, songs, games, toys, ceremonies, traditional tools, skin clothing, personal names and surnames…”
Today I gaze out at April’s new soft white frosting, across a frozen land poised to bloom. Dense, dark spruce and lodgepole pine forests shoulder ever-frozen summits, weaving their way north toward expansive rolling tundra holding winter’s reluctant retreat. These ancient, silent hills speak to a passing of time in ways I can scarcely comprehend.
Thousands of gravid caribou females, the milk of maternal nourishment warm and ready to flow—a herd that flows across the land as if a single organism—are the very lactating of Earth herself. Pregnant with new life and the potential for a conflict they have no way of perceiving, their annual and timeless migration soon begins.
The people who have become a people among the caribou call this “The Sacred Place Where All Life Begins”.
If I dare to speak for these animals, or for the people who have become a people among them—and for the unity of the landscape that spawned all—I must first ask who am I, the itinerant newcomer in this land? Perhaps just another tiny thought in a hungry uprooted European mindset called “Manifest Destiny”? Or a wandering soul that somehow lost its roots on a distant continent?
I am one who chooses to return. To reclaim, as best I can, a dwindling connection to a part of our collective humanity, and my own, that is rapidly disappearing.
In many ways, I am still that misplaced Irish potato farmer running across the North American Frontier to escape famine and poverty in an overcrowded Europe. From a time when human population was far smaller than it is today, my ancestors crossed an ocean as a wave of Humanity, landing on a foreign shore, struggling at the outset simply to survive. As a mass migration, we believed we had found a “New World” and were barely able to notice it was already inhabited by peoples who’s understanding of Place In Nature was very different than our own. The mindset of agricultural dominion coming to meet the indwelling domain of the hunter-gatherer.
We crossed the frontier, bounced off of the Pacific Ocean, and turned North, following the trail of Manifest Destiny. I have been to the end of the New World. There is a road to it now.
The road ends at the Arctic Ocean in a moonscape of ice, frozen earth, neon vapor lighting, steel-frame buildings, crawling monster machines, and oil derricks blowing flame into an endless Arctic night as far as the eye can see.
The magic of the Aurora Borealis and the vast Universe from which it originates are still accessible. But you must travel backward to experience the magic, to know it as part of your own living landscape. Backward to a mind that does not fear its own primitive roots.
The dancing auroral display can be seen any time darkness and the solar winds align. They can be explained in terms of atoms, electrical forces, and magnetic fields. But the magic lies beyond the horizon of scientific explanation, a perception of the Mythic Soul. The origin of the magic, and its regenerative myth might become known if we allow the Mothering of Caribou and the People who taste her milk to speak to us of a different view of time.
The natives I know in the North are very reluctant to share the stories of the timeless and multi-dimensional realm of Dream Hunting and the interweaving of Spiritual Relationships within their web of life. They know full well the difficulty of translation from one language to another. And, even more so, the challenge of bridging the abyss between clashing mindsets.
Perhaps it is our labor—mine and ours—to find a way beyond this impasse. If we do not, there may no longer be caribou or Gwich’in Culture. In zoos and museums, perhaps, separated by bars and glass walls, but otherwise inaccessible to our grandchildren’s touch. My heart weeps at such possibility, my mind rages at times, and between these sweeping currents, I search for authentic footing on uncertain ground.
As compassionate and responsible citizens of a shrinking world, we can no longer afford to ignore the callings of mutuality and wholeness. The recognition of Wholeness itself becomes essential bedrock for survival of All Life. Speaking on behalf of Wholeness is a summons that is given to us all.
A wild river helped me find my voice in these matters…
Late in the summer of 2015, after a season on a fire crew with First Nations people from the roadless village of Fort Yukon, I found myself once again lost in the inner-city darkness of the boom/bust mindset that pushed the American Frontier across a continent. In downtown Anchorage, I threw a season’s wages at madness, insanity, and drunken confusion. Like so many misplaced Europeans before me, I had forgotten how to cherish the rich gifts of this Earth and access the higher law of my own soul. Eventually, confronting the desperation I mistakenly called “wildness,” I fled to the wildness of remote country. Alone, I put a canoe in a river, letting the water’s movement carry me on a journey I was not sure I would survive. Knowing that the nearest road now lay 700 miles downstream, I had no choice but to surrender to the wild rhythms of the Arctic life, a passageway we now call the Porcupine River.
A journey seeking a rescuing stillness and wholeness led me to the fish camp of a man called Billy John. A man of the Vuntut Gwitchin people, he “hallooed” me from the riverbank and insisted with waving arms that I paddle to his take out. These camps are all of a most rustic nature, with hand built cabins and drying racks for fish and game meat. I had been called into several of them over a couple of days as I approached Old Crow on the Porcupine River. Everybody had hot coffee on and insisted that I be fed.
I beached the canoe and we climbed the bank together. Billy John turned out to be an 84-year-old man. He had fresh caribou hanging and salmon drying in the sun. I can’t remember his wife’s name but she was sitting in a wheelchair wrapped from head to toe in the afternoon sun on the bluff above the river. I reached out as if to shake her hand at introduction. This old woman took my hand in both of hers, and I found myself captivated— and captured. The capture moved from hands, through toothless smile, to eyes that seemed to hold the shimmering magic of a full-on auroral display. She never spoke a word.
Billy John spoke of having just returned from his older brother’s funeral. “All the Elders are dying.” I heard those words, yet I’m sure I don’t have the depth to grasp the real meaning behind his gaze as he spoke. I did hear myself say, “Perhaps now, you are the Elder.” He shifted his eyes from a distant horizon I could not see, found my own, and responded. “Yes. Now I must be the Elder.”
As I relaxed into my sleeping bag later that night, I thought of the international border, that straight surveyed line that we of European descent find so significant, which lay two days paddle downstream. I thought of all the separations created by human mind and rigid belief. I realized that all of it has little meaning for those whose ancestors have made this riverland home since “the beginning of time.” The village of Fort Yukon is in Alaska, USA. The village of Old Crow is in Yukon Territory, Canada. But the marriage of river, river people, caribou migration, and the unspoiled wholeness of Wild Earth know of no straight-line separation.
I found those villages by accident from the gunnels of a small canoe as I wandered, carried by a river that flows like a vein of living blood through the heart of this land that still sings the sanity of Wildness.
Yes. The River!! The River!!
The river speaks. It flows through my blood. Let me be the River’s Voice. Let it sing of the mating calls and birth cries of a massive herd of four-leggeds that wander untamed across all borders. Let it sing with my own longing to understand a connectedness to Wild Earth. Let it sing of a people who fed me meat, words, and a wisdom I may never fully understand… speaking, “We don’t just eat the caribou. We are the caribou.”
Let the River speak!
Stand with the Gwich’in People of the Arctic
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John Ivey currently resides in Alaska, following a lifetime of exploring the frontier of the American landscape and the wild terrain of his own soul. He has experienced both the solitary confinement of the American prison system and the liberating solitude of extended solo wilderness journeys. For eleven years he apprenticed with the guidance of a Buddhist hermit who taught him how to sit still in the vastness of silent winter mountains. He is currently engaged with CEN’s “Elder Activists for Social Justice” team, and in various writing projects for his own reflection and to give voice to the conditions of native peoples and landscape ignored by corporate culture’s devotion to profit.