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Oil disaster: Look beyond the human dimensions

Native peoples have always acted and spoken on behalf of living things that have no voice. Birds, plants, the waters – they are at the mercy of capitalist “ingenuity,” a stark reality evident today on the Gulf Coast.

As thousands of gallons of crude oil spill each day from the exploded BP oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon, tribes along the coast are beginning to feel the impact of an oil spill that began April 20.

Louisiana tribes, such as the United Houma Nation and the Pointe Aux Chenes Indian Tribe, are sounding alarm bells about the health hazards and economic threats posed by the ever-growing oil slick washing onto Louisiana’s fragile marshes and wetlands.

They fear the spill and clean-up could harm those tribal members with respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, fears supported by environmental experts. Those tribes are also concerned about the impact on plants used in traditional medicines and for basket weaving.

Native peoples have always acted and spoken on behalf of living things that have no voice.

But in the near term, they worry about the devastating impact the oil spill will have on their livelihoods, considering many of the tribes’ members are fishermen, netmakers and suppliers.

“It doesn’t look good,” said Chairman Charles Verdin of the Pointe Aux Chenes Indian Tribe. “Most of our people are fishermen and they’ve shut down most the areas we fish. This will affect families’ food supplies. That’s scary.”

Many of the tribes being affected by the oil spill face another challenge: Just four of the 14 tribes in Louisiana are federally recognized. The remaining 10 are state recognized and, as a result, aren’t likely to see the same level of federal intervention that a federally recognized tribe might. Still, the federal government has promised to work with them, as well as all people affected by the spill.

We can only hope the federal government will keep that promise to help all tribes affected by this disaster.

But tribes also are concerned about the oil spill’s impact on wildlife and plants along the Gulf Coast, a concern too often neglected as the oil spill’s effects have been examined and discussed.

Indeed, tribes have long cared for the well-being of animals, plants and the earth’s natural resources. And as national attention focuses on the human impact of the oil spill and the oil company’s failed efforts to stop the oil from gushing out of the well, it’s important also to consider our shared responsibility for the care of those living things that aren’t able to speak for themselves.

While it’s difficult not to want to assign blame when we see photos of oil-soaked birds and dolphins and when we hear about the cozy relationship between federal regulators and oil companies, it’s also important to look beyond the human dimensions of the tragedy.

The concern that Native peoples have for living things is voiced in the Iroquois Thanksgiving Address, recited to this day at tribal gatherings.

“We give thanks to all the waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms – waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of water. Now our minds are one.

“We turn our minds to all the fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the fish and send our greetings and thanks. Now our minds are one.”

Those words are important to remember and honor as we seek to mitigate the impacts of this country’s worst oil catastrophe in its history. We must remember the sacrifices the water, the fish, the plants and the animals have made so that we can continue to live on this planet, and we must remember how dependent we are on all of those living things and natural resources.

For it is when we forget those truths that we not only imperil those living things but ourselves.