Native Peoples and the Ancestor Excuse

March 9, 2015

 Native people veganism
Photo: Makah Indians on the beach after a whale hunt, 1910; Photo by Asahel Curtis/Seattle Public Library

Note: This article has been modified since its original newsletter form to include some clarifications on my opinions about the undercurrent of white supremacy inherent in this issue—thank you, readers!

The Makah Native American tribe, an indigenous people of the Northwest Plateau of Washington, may soon be granted permission to resume their 2,000 year old whaling tradition—a practice that had been halted by court rulings over environmental concerns.

Here's where liberalism comes to a screeching, identity-confusing halt. Oooh, lord! Which side is a good liberal to take in the intersection of animal-protective environmentalism and native peoples' rights, in a conflict where there is an undercurrent of historically racist policies? Which are you—an imperialist or a whale murderer?

When I've talked about veganism with, say, meat-eating Hawaiian, Filipino, Native American, Japanese people (really anyone who identifies with an ethnic/cultural/social/national group—people from the U.S. South, Italians, Latinos, etc.) a common response is, "My ancestors ate [insert animal here]. Our people need that food to be healthy, we can't give it up, it's part of our blood and tradition."

This is exactly what T.J. Greene, chairman of the Makah tribal council, is stating about the potential whaling reinstatment: "The tribe hopes it leads to being able to practice our traditions, our culture...[whaling] is something that is strongly connected to our spiritual existence. We’re not going anywhere, and this is important for us and generations to come."

(No regard for the fact that every whale killed in its tracks was on a trajectory of its own, in a tradition of its own, in a nation of its own.)

As a student of American history and its historically racist and white supremacist policies, and as the relative of Holocaust victims and survivors, I tend to side with minority, oppressed, and colonialized parties in all political matters. Not because of white guilt, as many lazy thinkers would accuse (I'm an equal-opportunity critic), but as a result of historical and contextual examination and because thier side is more often seeking justice, not power and control. 

By that same measure, I call bunk on the native peoples' excuse to hunt. The last (illegal) whaling kill the Makah made was carried out using a high-powered rifle (how's that for tradition?). The whale bled out for hours before it died. 

No political alliance that I make goes unchecked. Today, hunting whales can not be considered ethical or moral by any measure. Allowing it does not bring justice to any party, does not change the political or economic standing of the tribe. It may signify a right to self-determination, but when that comes at the cost of another species, especially one in peril, it feels like a power play parallel to the status quo models of domination and oppression. I think we can all do better with our politics and with seeking true justice for all. 

A ban on traditional whaling is not a zero-sum game, where the environmentalist's win requires the native's loss. This particular conflict affords all parties an opportunity to honor native ancestors by rethinking and re-creating their values in the context of a new world.

Ancient Hawaiians lived and ate by the concept of ahupua'a, a system of land division which ensured sustainability and the efficient use of natural resources.  The entire concept was interwoven with their spiritual beliefs about the interconnectedness of nature's elements and living beings, of daily and seasonal life. It is an idea coming back into popularity as organizations look for sustainable solutions on the islands.

Native Americans, in a million ways, self-monitored their use of natural resources in the context of respect for and interconnection with the Earth. 

The list goes on with every native culture.

None of our ancestors would sanction a modern practice that destroys our health, or the last remaining animals of a species, the environment, or our connection to the Earth. 

The Makah don't have to lose their connection to the whale. If the ban on whaling is upheld, and it should be, I hope the Makah will redefine the ceremonies and practices that involve the whale so important to their culture (if you ask me, I think a ritual blessing ceremony would do beautifully).

But it is up to all of us to protect the wisdom of our ancestors, beyond their ancient practices, and forge new traditions that honor the old world.  

Contact the Washington region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration here to ask them to uphold the Marine Mammal Protection Act (phone number is 206-526-6150). Or leave them a Facebook comment.

Please leave your comments below so everyone can take part in the discussion!


Mrs. Obama, We Need to Talk

April 17, 2014

PETA Kids Send an Easter Egg Message to Obama

I'm super proud of my born-and-raised-vegan stepdaughter (the one in blue) and her friends for participating in this PETA video message to our FLOTUS. 

For me, even bigger than the specific message sent is the fact that these kids are comfortable and proud to speak up for animals. When you really think about it from a child's perspective, it must take an enormous amount of strength for a little kid—vulnerable as they are to the whims and dominating nature of the adult world—to say what they feel is right in front of peers and grownups who might disagree. 

I mean, think of how many kids hide behind their parent's leg when you ask them their name. 

Involving kids in activism and the processes of being change and targeting leaders and lawmakers for social change normalizes a powerful message: when we discover injustice, there is work we can and should do to right the matter our age. 

Please share this video with a child and discuss the virtues of being brave even when others might disagree.

This kind of education lasts a lifetime.

Sarah Palin Said WHAT About Meat?

January 9, 2014

Sarah Palin's #1 new year's resolution is "to eat more meat."

After she pledged to increase her chances of heart disease and become a burden on our health care system, she asks us all, "as individuals, to live with industriousness, self-discipline, and selflessness so our nation can be restored to her exceptionalism."

Well, who cares about America? Our amber waves of grain, our purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain? Who cares about our individual effects on our exceptional public realm?

Arguably the most patriotic group of all: vegans—who organize our lives around the very-American virtues Palin lists—not only with our own nation in mind, but the whole world.

What's important to pick on here is not Palin's resolve to eat more meat (I truly doubt it's on her to-do list), but to notice how she—and any entity that sells animal products—uses meat as a tool to attract and solicit backing, without conjuring any image of animals or cruelty.

Palin's resolution, for example, is a cheap means to establish that there are "sides" in politics—and remind us which one she's on. She's uses meat as a device to elicit "hell-yeahs" from supportive fans (I would hardly call them constituents) and then demean progressivism and environmentalism into meaninglessness. She didn't promise to "eat more animals," which would have made anyone wrinkle a brow, but to "eat more meat." There is no cruelty nor animals in the equation, they disappear into the thin air left behind by a swift offer of down-home comraderie. The transparency of the device alone is an offense to good bad politicians who at least think better of the public, enough to hide their manipulations more suavely. 

Well, divide-and-conquer is the oldest political trick in American history. Now meat (not animals) is a vehicle used by politicians, restaurants, grocery chains, sports teams, etc. to pinpoint audiences and gain relatability points. As long as people stay busy identifying themselves with prefixed offerings, the menu itself is never in question. Going vegan certainly allowed me to see the game more deeply and clearly than ever before— we can all raise our little ones to see it, too.

While meat-eating and veganism are inherently political, they belong to no political party. Health, wellbeing, and the destruction of life and land are bipartisan issues for their widespread affects on the public realm. Eating meat does not make one more gritty or more American. Rather, environmentalism, self-help, and the abolition of systematic breeding and slaughter—all tenets of veganism—are far more aligned with the revolutionary ideals our country was founded for.

Now I want to hear from you. Where do you witness meat being used as a tool to sway an audience? Leave your answer in the comments below.