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‘Honorable Harvest’ Lecture Draws SRO Crowd

Professor weaves stories into Dale Travis Lecture
9/26/2014

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With more 50 students sitting on the floor and people lining the perimeter of the room, Dr. Robin Kimmerer drew a standing-room-only crowd to the Gateway Center Sept. 24 to hear her insights into the blending of indigenous knowledge, sustainability and conservation.

Kimmerer, a Distinguished Teaching Professor and director of the ESF Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, said her talk, "The Honorable Harvest: Indigenous Knowledge and Conservation," would differ from many science-focused presentations at ESF.

"While I do love data, it's stories we're going to hear tonight," she said.

In delivering the fourth Dale L. Travis Lecture, Kimmerer said many of the issues that the world faces involve questions of values; objective, value-free science might not always answer them. "While science is an extremely powerful tool to help us address the issues of sustainability, biodiversity and conservation, it is not the only tool," she said.

Kimmerer is an enrolled member of the Citizen Band Potawatomi - the People of the Fire - and she weaved her people's stories and knowledge into her presentation as she addressed issues such as climate change and species extinction, using the passenger pigeon as a focal point. The world's last known passenger pigeon, "Martha," died 100 years ago this month at the Cincinnati Zoo. "The centennial commemoration of that passing has weighed very heavily on my shoulders, as I'm sure it has for many of you," said Kimmerer.

She described the disappearance of the passenger pigeon, which was viewed as a pest by settlers who trapped and killed masses of the birds. Simultaneously, the Potawatomi decreased in number and were relocated from their home in the southern Great Lakes region to the prairies of Kansas. "We were canoe people until they made us walk," said Kimmerer. "We should ask them about climate change. They lived it. The entire way of being was threatened. This is climate change."

She said the current state of the Earth was foretold in the Native American "Prophecy of the Seven Fires" about the phases of life on Earth, known to the indigenous people as Turtle Island. The prophecy tells of a migration of people who become separated from the land, each other and their language. The air and water becomes contaminated. At the Seventh Fire, people come together at a fork in the path.

"One of those paths, at least in my imagination, is soft and grassy with dew on it," she said. The other is burnt. Moving onto the grassy path means people must back up and gather what has been left behind; then everyone can walk together on the greener path.

"By picking up these teachings, if they remember to remember, the path for sustainability is there for us," she said.

Just as genetic diversity contributes to biological evolution, Kimmerer said, intellectual diversity will contribute to cultural evolution. Blending traditional ecological knowledge with scientific ecological knowledge, she said, will create "symbiosis between knowledge systems." Humans can learn a lesson from the way the crops known to indigenous people as the Three Sisters - corn, beans and squash - support each other in a garden.

Returning to the subject of passenger pigeons, Kimmerer said, "If we are to devote our energy to de-extinction, let it be to the de-extinction of a worldview." She asked the audience to consider the teachings of the Honorable Harvest, a set of unwritten rules regarding the use of Earth's gifts: Never take the first one, ask permission, listen for the answer, take only what you need, minimize harm, use everything that you take, be grateful, share what you've taken and reciprocate the gift.

"In order for flourishing to occur, there must be balance," said Kimmerer. "Our economies and our institutions have unmeshed us all in quite a dishonorable harvest."

An extension of the Honorable Harvest is "take only what is given" by organisms and Earth. This is a philosophical and ecological request, she said, that contrasts with modern energy-production practices that include mountaintop removal and hydrofracking. "Could 'take only that which is given' be a key part of a sustainability policy?" she asked, suggesting solar and wind power could fit that description of things that are given.

Today's problems, she said, result not from "broken land" but a broken relationship with the land, and she suggested the solution could lie with the Honorable Harvest: "How might this ethic of the Honorable Harvest be realized on the land and in our communities?"

- By Alison Gibson ES '14