Saturday, August 23, 2008

The definition of "wilderness"

Dispatch #1 from an East Bay Traffic Jam
by Heather E Meader-McCausland
(reprinted from '07)

The other day, in Emeryville CA, I found myself at one of those outdoor malls. There were lots of stores of the usual sort, Gap, Banana Republic, Barnes and Noble, Ikea, to name a few- not to mention a huge movie theater (I think it has around 14 screens), and then there were several big hotels conveniently placed across the street.

What caught my attention however, while I sat in rush hour traffic, were the two street signs: Ohlone Way (the street leading to the mall) and Shellmound (where the hotels were sitting). When I commented about the signs, my sister explained that actually, that area was/is an Ohlone shellmound, which became a toxic industrial sight, and then still later sprouted hotels and stores and movies theaters. But not until the Ohlone Indians were, for the most part, eradicated during the horrors of the European conquest of California.

I have discovered recently that, if you are not in a fit of road rage, you can ponder many things while inching along the street in a car. In my case I pondered the terms and prevailing definitions of ‘environmentalist’ and ‘wilderness’. I thought about forgotten people, disappearing ways of life and about bays and marsh lands, birds and the California grizzlies. I also thought about parks and what it has meant to fight to preserve the land and wildlife of the arctic.

I have always believed that the fight to keep the arctic wild is as much about the people that live there and their survival as anything. Many people seem to forget that 'wilderness', as we know it, has always included people. Unfortunately now, with all the emphasis on wilderness protection, the people in the surrounding villages have often been forgotten – not seen by the dominant culture as important as caribou and wolves.

In this day and age I believe that parks are very important. I want the “wilderness” – the mountains, the caribou, grizzly’s, wolves and the like to have a bit of breathing room without the negative impacts of humans – we are currently impacting enough.

But when I talk about preserving the wilderness I am not just talking about parks and wildlife I am also talking about the people of this region, whose survival is just as important to me as the land and wildlife.

I do not spend much time in the surrounding villages. My arctic home is about 60 miles without roads from the nearest ones. In the Brooks Range, however, that means we’re neighbors. I’m not going to pretend to know the detailed ins and outs of the nearest villages. However, I will say that for the most part things haven’t been easy, young people are leaving, elders are passing away and cultural and economic viability is difficult at best. The simple fact is these villages are a part of this wild landscape and therefore their survival should be an important factor in the “environmental fight to save the arctic wilderness”. Along with the mountains, wolves, caribou and grizzlies the people of the arctic deserve just as much of a chance, and just as much support to survive and thrive in their homes, in their villages and in the ‘wilderness’. As the Outside begins to turn their attention towards the arctic – towards oil drilling, polar bears and global warming – I hope that it will break out of history’s well warn footsteps and begin to see all the different parts of the ecosystem that has been threatened and damaged by the dominant culture’s arrogance.

• To learn more about the Ohlone people whom have streets named after them but are still not recognized as a official federal tribe, see
• To learn about the forced relocation of the Inuit people in Canada check out “The Long Exile” by Melanie McGrath . This book is incredibly powerful and well written.
• To learn about many issues in regards to Alaska in general, and specifically the native people of Alaska, check out the University of Fairbanks Project Jukebox where you can listen to the oral histories. It is an amazing project.


Anonymous susanne lakin said...

Heather, I just read an advanced copy of Robert Reid's book, Artic Circle, which has a lot abgout your family. What a gorgeous book. I couldn't put it donw and read it on the plane home from the Book Expo in NY. We raised our kids in Trinidad and all went to HSU, so thought it would be nice to connect with you. That books brings such an aching beauty to your home, life up ther, and your family.

2:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home