You have to tell the story of how it happened, how you didn’t ask permission and it was okay. Because we have become a people who almost have to ask permission to do anything. And that is folly, because the people you are asking permission from have no right to grant you permission.Winona LaDuke
How do you feel? This past Saturday at services, the rabbi asked congregants to call out reasons why it was good to have Shabbat, an island in time that grants respite from the world of doing. “As a refuge from the madness,” I found myself saying, “as a reminder that something else exists.”
This country is enduring a long bout of existential whiplash. When my attention turns rightward, a wave of nausea mounts as I consider the crass vitriol that emanates from that man-sized carbuncle of ego, Donald Trump. People seem to be asking his permission to expose their most fearful and belligerent beliefs; and he radiates a serene confidence in his right to grant it.
I see all sorts of analyses trying to explain Trump’s popularity, but they don’t settle my stomach. Reading about the rise of authoritarianism—of a longing for top-down order, of the will to submit to a leader who promises safety from whatever threatens privilege—I appreciate a neat theory. But there’s a big gap between plausible theory and actual proof or even predictability. The desire to make sense overwhelms me, and so far, I’ve failed to bat away the looming questions careening through my mind.
Gazing leftward, I am inspired by the Sanders campaign and delighted by the progress it is making. But a very expensive horse race keeps getting in the way: tons of inside baseball chatter about electability, as if predictions were more than guesses in an election that has stumped even polling wizard Nate Silver. I keep meeting people who seem to be asking permission to support a candidate whose values and aims they endorse; without permission, they may hold their noses and vote for the candidate chosen by those who’ve arrogated the label “realist”—and the right to pronounce what’s “practical”—to themselves.
Half my mind acknowledges how very interesting it is to take part in an election in which such strongly different models of power and process contend. Meanwhile, the other half is screaming, “Get me out of here! Something is very wrong in this broken democracy!”
I experienced the antidote to that feeling of being trapped in absurdity a few weeks ago at a wonderful talk by Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) enrolled Member of the Mississippi Band Of Anishinaabeg who lives and works on the White Earth Indian Reservation and directs Honor The Earth. She was introduced by, and for the final half-hour engaged in dialogue with, Mililani Trask, a Native Hawaiian attorney and founding mother of the Indigenous Women’s Network. The two women have worked together for many years. To see friends and comrades on the dais treating each other with love and respect lifted every spectator’s heart. But what stirred me most was the experience of two women living and speaking in alignment with their deepest truths: grounded, warm, open-hearted, wise, angry, sad, joyous, and inspired. Real.
(One of the great things about living in the Santa Fe area is that the Lannan Foundation, dedicated to cultural freedom, sponsors a lecture series at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. The tickets are an astounding $3-6 dollar and they always sell out. You can find excellent audio or video recordings of the full evening at the Lannan site.)
LaDuke and Trask made me realize that the extreme absurdity of our electoral circus is enabled by the absence of the sacred. What do we revere and hold sacrosanct, what therefore ought to be immune from desecration, violation, and exploitation? Let me offer one story from each woman to suggest some answers.
“On our reservation we had lost our sturgeon,” LaDuke told us. “I went up into Canada to see my friends at the Rainy River Reserve. I went there for ceremonies. I heard of this man there. His name is Joe Hunter and he has a sturgeon hatchery, the largest in Canada, and is renowned. They call him the Sturgeon General of Canada. …I say, ‘Joe, I want some sturgeon to take home.’ So I go back the next week with four children, two Coleman coolers, one bubbly thing that hooks to my car lighter in an Aerostar van. They give me five sturgeon to take home. And I say, ‘Well, Joe, what do I say when I hit customs at the border?’ And he says ‘Just say they’re your pets.’
“That is how we brought our sturgeon home and we put them in our lake. Two weeks later, I go to see my tribal government fisheries biologist. He says “Do you have any idea how many laws you just violated? International transport of endangered species.” And I said, “Randy, there is the white man’s law and there is the creator’s law and those sturgeon knew no border. They come from our ecosystem. They come from our territory. And they’ve come home. We have sturgeon clan people here who have no relatives in our territory.
“And so that is how they came home and now my tribe has the largest sturgeon restoration program in the region.
“How I knew that we had done the right thing is that nine years ago, my first biological grandchild arrived. And do you want to know what clan that child was? Sturgeon. And when he was a little dude I took him down there and I said, “Look what Grandma got you.”
This is the story that led LaDuke to make the statement about asking permission that appears at the beginning of this blog. She told it at greater length in the journal Tikkun in 2011.
Trask told us about the struggle to save the sacred volcanic mountain, Mauna Kea, one of the most important cultural and spiritual centers in Hawaii, from being used as the site of an observatory dominated by the $1 billion Thirty Meter Telescope. (Here’s a lengthy article that explores several aspects of the issue. For many years, Native Hawaiians and their allies have been protesting the plan: demonstrating, committing civil disobedience, petitioning the courts. Recently, in a precedent-setting case for the growing alliance between indigenous people and environmentalists, a judge overruled the arrest of Craig Neff, a Native Hawaiian protestor, validating the use of the necessity defense.
“Sometimes it’s referred to as the lesser of two evils defense,” Trask explained. “You never hear about it other than in law school and when the case comes up where the police have shot someone and killed them. You say, “Yes, I killed them, but I had to do it. If I did not shoot this person, he would have killed another, and so I had to break the law, I had to do this in order to prevent a greater evil from occurring.”
On Mauna Kea, she continued, “many, many were arrested, but only two went to trial. And the first was Craig Neff. When the judge asked him why he had blocked the road and obstructed the government operations, he said that he had done that in order to prevent a greater evil, the desecration of our sacred place, that he had no choice. The judge believed him. The case was dismissed.”
“Many years ago, we told the Supreme Court that this is a sacred place, we object to the development. We had a right to a contested case hearing, but the state delayed the hearing for years while they allowed 13 telescopes to be built on our sacred Mauna Kea. If you go there now, you will see that there are 22 structures. How is it possible when they only had a plan for 13? Well, they Hawaiianized it, they put up a big telescope, and then years later, they wanted to put six little baby ones around it. And when we said, ‘Hey, that was not in the Environmental Impact Study,’ they said, “but we Hawaiianized it. The big telescope is actually a canoe and the little ones are amas, they’re outriggers to suport the big canoe.’ Well, the Supreme Court threw that out and that is where we are today. Now we hear last week that TMT may move to another country, so, quickly we are sending emails to the indigenous people in Chile, heads up because that’s where the big telescopes will go.”
For me, the antidote to absurdity is to hear—and to tell—the stories that remind us of what matters most, to look at how far we have drifted without the anchor that a shared sense of the sacred provides, and to once again ask the questions that have become my watchword.
Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?
Winona LaDuke said, “the point is now to accelerate the move toward an enlightened pathway.” It’s hard to think of a better yardstick.
Kaulana Na Pua, an inter-island collaboration from Project KULEANA.