The Wall Street Journal is wrong, again


In a recent editorial mostly machine-gunning California's growing re-turn to liberal thinking and pragmatic policies, particularly in human services and environmental concerns, The Wall Street Journal went out of its way, once again, to insult American Indian peoples, excoriating Native traditional "oral memory" knowledge as "ripe for abuse."

What particularly got the Journal's goat ("California's Liberal Flakeout," Aug. 21, 2002) is a bill to assist designation and protection of sacred sites by Native Americans, proposed by Senate President John Burton. The bill would establish formal respect for oral tradition about special places and thus, according to the Journal, "let Native Americans block development." This, the editorial continues, "could halt the building of power plants and roads." Calling the bill a "liberal double play," the Journal identified its central ideas as: "Anti-development and pro-racial identity."

The Wall Street Journal continues to bind itself in incoherent language based on uninformed and very limiting attitudes. Consider the term, "anti-development." It assumes that only two positions are possible in this regard, pro and anti. But deeper analysis necessarily must posit that there is good and bad development, better and worse development, that every situation demands and deserves specific scrutiny. The Journal position assumes that, always, development will be more important than the localized culture of peoples, where the relation to places of sacredness is most pronounced. Important issues and questions of cultural knowledge and spiritual ways (tribal religions, let us say) are reduced by the Journal to a "pro" argument for "racial identity."

The assumption that Native "oral history" is "ripe for abuse," and thus not trustworthy of a hearing in legal determinations is a blatant, negative pre-judgement of a cultural value. The dismissive attitude is particularly cynical coming from such fundamentalist defenders of a free-for-all corporate America ? a premise that has recently spawned so much corruption and executive abuse that millions of Americans have seen their financial futures injured.

Much of legitimate American Indian history is grounded on the validity of oral tradition, which is more than simply "oral history," as the Journal phrases it. Oral history might be anyone's recollection of events lived during identifiable historical times. Oral tradition among tribal peoples, particularly stories of place and space with sacred meanings, usually imbedded in American Indian languages, requires a discipline with serious consequences. It often concerns sets of stories and relevant cosmological meanings of long-term existence. It derives and assigns unique transmissions of identity and spiritual power to places and times. These are quite important to people and traditional families, clans and bands will go to great length to make sure these are passed on to the generations respectfully and accurately. This is a strong cultural value among most all American Indian peoples. As a Lakota elder said recently: "These ways are ancient. As much as you can, carry them on as they have been passed down. Add nothing and take away nothing."

Among the Iroquois, for example, the tradition of speakers of the Code of Handsome Lake is closely monitored by elders. New "speakers" who would memorize the Code, which dates back to a prophetic event from around 1800, must display their memory and depth of knowledge before well-versed elders of the tradition. The scrutiny by elders of new learners of oral traditions can be quite demanding.

We recently in these pages commended the work of Greg Cajete, Vine Deloria, Jr., and other Native scholars who have called for more intense and serious work in the direction of considering oral traditions and knowledge of indigenous peoples as a science in itself. This is not an invented reality or a fictional field. There is a great deal of original and fascinating knowledge and thinking in the Native Americas, much of which is connected to place.

The process of cultural knowledge recovery and specification is underway among many tribes. A current pilot project under development at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, called, "Indigenous Geography," shows refreshing promise in that direction. It uses analysis of language and oral memory about place among indigenous people to describe environs. Presently, Hopi and Maya elders are exchanging localized language and natural experience from their cultural perceptual bases. In Navajo, a program, Native Science Connections, couples youth and elders in a place-based curriculum. The importance of place in the passing on of knowledge of traditional elders is recognized in many programs across Indian country.

As regards the new politics of trend-setting California, the increased understanding and support of protection for American Indian people's sacred places, plus the recent legislation that demands reduced emissions from cars, are refreshingly hopeful signs for all of American society. There are other measures, too, to protect working people, which are long overdue.

The Wall Street Journal's editorial board continues to do itself a disservice by allowing an editorial bent that is disrespectfully dismissive of both Native cultural knowledge and of the overwhelming scientific evidence of serious environmental degradation, particularly as regards to global warming and potentially catastrophic climate change. These two issues deserve the greatest attention ? a focus sadly missing in the current national leadership. Hopefully, California's turn to more pragmatic politics portends a more engaged and educated social dynamic that now begins to materialize, for the sake of all our children.