Report on Standing Rock

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by Andras Corban-Arthen

This is a report on the trip which my son Donovan and I recently took to Standing Rock, North Dakota, to visit the camps of the people who, as Water Protectors, are trying to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was a very intense and full experience, and I cannot possibly do it justice within the limits of a blog post. The photos which accompany this article were taken by one of the camp’s official photographers, and are published here with permission.

 

In October, we received a copy of a call by Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Lakota nation, asking religious leaders of all traditions to join the people who had gathered at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. He wrote:

“We are asking the religious leaders to come and support them, to stand side-by-side with them, because they are standing in prayer…If you can find it in your heart, to pray with them, and stand beside them…because the Police Department and the National Guard, they would listen to each and every one of you.”

I have a great deal of respect for Chief Looking Horse. I’ve met him several times over the years, and participated with him in a couple of panels and other events at interfaith gatherings. He was one of the main speakers at the Indigenous Plenary of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City last October. Though I don’t know him well, I have always been impressed by his wisdom, his commitment, and his willingness to reach out to all peoples on behalf of the Earth. I had already been thinking for several weeks about going to Standing Rock, and his message fueled that urge even more.

mary-lyons

Grandmother Mary Lyons

Then I received a more personal message from Grandmother Mary Lyons, an Ojibwe elder from Minnesota who was also one of the speakers at last year’s Indigenous Plenary, asking if anyone from the Parliament was planning to go to Standing Rock in response to Chief Looking Horse’s call. She thought it was important for the Parliament to make an official statement regarding the situation. I took that as a very definite sign, and asked the EarthSpirit board of directors if it would be possible to send me there. They agreed that I should go but, out of concern for my health, suggested that someone else should accompany me. I asked my son Donovan, and he immediately changed his schedule so he could come along.

My next step was to approach the Parliament’s Board to tell them of my plans to go to Standing Rock. The Indigenous Task Force, of which I am a member, set out to write a statement, along with our Executive Director and staff, that I could take to North Dakota. Lewis Cardinal, the chair of the task force, also began contacting people at the camps to let them know we were sending a statement.

Grandmother Lyons invited us to stay at her campsite, and also to take part in a water ceremony she was going to lead. Some of my other Indigenous friends helped me to find local contacts, to get a better idea of what to expect. A Sioux man from Standing Rock was particularly helpful, even as he painted a fairly grim scenario. The police, he said, had blocked off the main highway to prevent access to the camps, so the only way to get there from the Bismarck airport was to make a long detour that added about 45 minutes to the trip. He also said that we should be prepared to be stopped randomly and harassed by the authorities, and stressed that we shouldn’t lose our cool no matter how much they might try to provoke us. He asked me if I had any connection to the United Nations. I told him that I was one of the Parliament’s U.N. delegates, and that I had an access photo badge. He suggested that I take it with me and wear it at all times, because the police tended to respect the U.N. Needless to say, this was not particularly encouraging.

After flying to Bismarck, North Dakota, and renting a car, Donovan and I had an early introduction to the level of police presence at Standing Rock. We had stopped at a traffic light in the town of Mandan, where we were supposed to turn onto a road that would take us down to the camps, when we noticed several police vehicles approaching the intersection, coming from the direction toward which we were supposed to go. It quickly became evident that those vehicles were merely the head of a long caravan: cruisers, armored cars, police vans, ambulances, sheriffs’ trucks, and one empty school bus – over forty vehicles went by while we waited.

A bit later, we found out that there had been a nonviolent protest action near the pipeline, and that about two dozen water protectors had been arrested. The vehicles we had witnessed had been taking them to police headquarters, where they would be booked and placed inside large chain-link dog kennels which had been set up as temporary containment cells. Once the protesters had been bailed out, they would return to the camps in the school bus. Apparently, this scenario is enacted on a fairly regular basis.

Because the main road to the camp was blocked, we had to go down using the backroads, a route which required us to make two major turns. At each of those turns, there was an unmarked car parked just off the intersection. But for a couple of instances over the weekend when the cars were empty, each time we made those turns the person inside the car raised a camera to take a photo of our vehicle; the authorities, I was told later, were recording every license plate going to and from the camps. As we got closer to our destination we saw lots of law enforcement personnel, many wearing tactical gear, and more cruisers, police wagons and armored vehicles. The place felt very much like a militarized zone, grim and forbidding.

oceti-sakowin

Oceti Sakowin Camp

In sharp contrast, our arrival at Camp Oceti Sakowin felt like we had come upon an oasis full of life in the midst of a barren desert: dozens of colorful banners on tall poles, voices singing, drums pounding, the smell of wood fires and of food cooking, young men riding bareback on gorgeous Appaloosas, and tents and tipis, cars and RVs as far as the eye could see. It looked like there had to be at least a couple of thousand people at the camp.

After finding Grandmother Mary Lyons and her family, and our friends Robin and Nsasi from Minnesota, we went around and explored a bit, then settled down for some good conversations with Mary and her folks. One of the people who came by to talk was Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Tom and I

with-lyons-camp

Mary Lyons’ camp (Tom Goldtooth & Mary Lyons in center)

remembered each other from the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, and we chatted a little bit about his experiences there. Tom’s son is one of the camp’s organizers, though he was away that weekend, so Mary gave Tom a portable carport she had brought as a donation to the camp, to pass on to his son.

 

I wanted to find one of the people that the Parliament had arranged for me to meet, so I could hand him the statement that the Indigenous Task Force had drafted. Mary suggested that we go to the central fire, where a lot of different activities were held, and see if he was there. Though we had no luck finding him, Mary talked to some people and came back to say that they would like me to read the statement at the fire, if I didn’t mind sitting there for a little bit and wait for my turn to come.

As I was waiting, the two-dozen or so people who had been arrested earlier that morning returned to the camp after having posted bail. They were brought to stand in a line by the fire, and then seemingly everyone in the camp came by to shake their hands or hug them, one by one, and thank them for their willingness to stand up for their convictions. The whole thing took maybe half an hour, but in that brief and deeply moving time, the purpose of the camps became very apparent to me: they are there to provide spiritual, emotional and physical support to the people who put themselves at grave risk every few days, engaging in acts of peaceful civil disobedience by standing in the way of the pipeline and getting arrested in the process. The camps provide the environment in which the actions are carefully planned; they provide encouragement and moral support to the protectors; they offer them backup during the actions, to insure their safety as much as possible; they follow the protectors to the police headquarters once they’ve been arrested, and arrange for them to make bail, and bring them back; and then the camps receive them upon their return with love, with gratitude, with food, with healing. It’s a perfect example of what real community is about.

Of those who’d been arrested that day, roughly half looked to be Indigenous. Most of the rest were white, including a couple of elderly people. Then there were four young African-Americans, all wearing hooded sweatshirts with BLACK LIVES MATTER boldly written in the front. Given the political and social climate in the U.S. today; given the widespread racism that has been crawling out of the ruins of our national denial, triggered by the election of the first black President in history; given the senseless acts of violence perpetrated against unarmed black people by civilians and by police officers unworthy of the title; given all that, the thought of those four young people taking the kind of risk they took, deliberately and openly approaching law enforcement personnel to commit acts of civil disobedience which they knew would land them in jail, took incredible courage. In so doing, they modeled for everyone what solidarity really means, the importance of all of us standing together for each other.

declaration

Reading the Parliament’s statement at central fire

A few minutes after the ceremony ended, someone came over and asked me to go up to the microphone to read the Parliament’s statement in support of Standing Rock, which I gladly did. I had also brought similar declarations from EarthSpirit and from the European Congress of Ethnic Religions, so after reading the one from the Parliament, someone else came and collected all three, saying that he would pass them on to the camp coordinators. Several people came over in the next little while to tell me they were grateful for the statements of support, and to ask that I pass their thanks to the respective organizations.

While I was sitting by the fire, I had a very interesting conversation with an Indigenous woman who was seated next to me. She was curious to know more about the Parliament, because she remembered hearing something about it a while ago. I gave her a brief description of it, and talked in particular about the Indigenous Assembly we had organized in Melbourne in 2009, and the large and very prominent Indigenous program we had at Salt Lake City last year. She asked me if there had been any friction between Indians and non-Indians at Salt Lake City, and explained that she has usually felt friction between both camps, even when they are together to work for a common purpose, so she wondered if there were any events, such as the Parliament, where that friction wasn’t present. I told her I was very familiar with what she was describing, and that there have occasionally been varying levels of friction and tension between Indians and non-Indians at the Parliament, though I had felt it much less at Salt Lake City, and hoped that meant that we were making progress in reaching greater understanding and respect. I said to her, in turn, that in the short time I had been at Camp Oceti Sakowin, it appeared to me that it was pretty free of that kind of tension, and asked her if that was her experience as well, and – if it was – why she thought that might be the case.

She replied that, for the most part, people were getting along together really well, which she ascribed to the fact that, when the camps started, the great majority of participants were Indigenous, so that even if they came from different areas and nations, they shared a very similar culture. By the time that a number of white people started arriving, the “Indian way” had been solidly established, and the newcomers had to adapt to it. She said that, while Indians are very used to functioning within white culture, the opposite is not at all true, so the newcomers were told, “you’re welcome here, we can use your help, but if you’re going to be here, you need to do things our way.”

In her opinion, that worked out fairly well for most of the summer, but she said there had been some friction lately, as more non-Indians arrived. “Some of them come because they think it’s a cool place to be, because they want to play at being Indians. But that’s all wrong, it’s not about making them feel special, it’s about working hard for the reason that we’re here, to stop the pipeline.” Other white people come “to save us,” she added: they bring an attitude that they know better, that they have fancy college degrees, all kinds of advanced skills, and that they’re going to step in and fix everything. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘I’m gonna make it all better for the poor savages, if they only get out of the way.’ Well, that’s just colonialist bullshit, we don’t need that. We have cultures that are as old as the Europeans, we know what we’re doing. People with that kind of attitude don’t last very long here.” According to her, several people have been asked to leave recently because of that.

Most white people, she said, tend to see what’s happening at Standing Rock just in terms of the pipeline, as an isolated incident. Indians, on the other hand, see it as the latest battle in a struggle they’ve been waging for hundreds of years, a struggle to preserve their lands, their cultures, their lives. She thought this was one of the most important things non-Indians needed to understand.

blockade

The blockade

The next day, Donovan and I joined Mary Lyons and a group of her family and friends to walk down to the blockaded road to participate in the water ceremony. The police had placed two large, rusted trucks across Rte. 1806 to prevent access to the camp, and there were several cruisers and security vehicles parked just on the other side of the blockade. We had been asked to only go so far down the road; getting any closer to the trucks would trigger the police into action, and the camp organizers didn’t want anyone provoking them outside of the planned protests.

Grandmother Mary had asked us to bring water from places that were important or sacred to us. We brought water from the Munlochy Clootie Well – an ancient healing spring in Scotland – and from Glenwood, from a point where the waters of four streams converge. The ceremony itself was very simple: Mary spoke for a bit about why we were there and

pouring-waters

Water ceremony

about how Water is Life, then asked those of us who brought water to say something about where it came from, and then to pour it onto the ground to bring blessings and healing to the land.

Before heading back to Bismarck and the airport, Donovan and I stopped by to see Devorah Rosenberg, an old friend from Western Mass. who was working in the main kitchen. It was heartwarming to see someone else from home at the camp. Soon after we returned, my niece Ember Arthen-Cheyne, who is a former Army medic, drove out to Standing Rock to offer her services at the medic tent, and was planning to remain there until the end of December.

I am very grateful for the support of our community in enabling us to make the trip out to North Dakota, and I encourage everyone to lend any help you can to the people who remain in the camps and are now preparing for the harsh winter months ahead.

 Addendum: Just today, it was announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had turned down the permit for the pipeline company to continue excavations on what are legally held to be federally-owned lands (the Sioux claim otherwise). Though this is being widely trumpeted throughout social media as a decisive victory for the Water Protectors, it is likely too early to tell what it actually means. There’s no question that this decision is a very important development, and that there is much cause for celebration in the moment. How long the moment will last, however, nobody really knows. It’s important to not lose sight of the fact that, in barely a month-and-a-half, there will likely be a dramatic change in Washington, and today’s decision could be reversed. Friends at Standing Rock inform me that the camps are continuing to prepare for the winter, and that they could still use our support.

Jonas Trinkūnas, founder of Romuva, receives award from Lithuanian President

by Andras Corban-Arthen

jonas award 01-72(l. to r.) Inija Trinkūnienė, President Dalia Grybauskaitė, Jonas Trinkūnas

EarthSpirit recently sponsored a series of performances in Massachusetts and Vermont by Kulgrinda – the ritual performance group of Romuva, which is the name given in modern times to the revived ethnic pagan religion of Lithuania. Jonas Trinkūnas, the krivis (supreme priest) and founder of Romuva – who took part in those performances – is an old friend, someone I’ve known and respected very highly for some twenty years.

Kulgrinda concert, Concord MA

Kulgrinda concert, Concord MA

Jonas attended Rites of Spring back in the nineties, and I have visited him, his family, and his community in Lithuania. In 2008, when the Parliament of the World’s Religions put me in charge of finding representatives of the indigenous spiritual traditions of Europe to attend the upcoming Parliament in Melbourne, Jonas’ name was the first on my list.

 

A few days ago, on 6 July, Jonas had the distinction of receiving the prestigious Order of the Grand Duke Gediminas, one of Lithuania’s top civilian honors. The award was personally bestowed by Dalia Grybauskaitė, the president of Lithuania, who praised Jonas for his involvement with the underground resistance against the Soviet regime which ruled Lithuania for over forty years, as well as for his work in preserving traditional Lithuanian religion and literature.

Lithuania was the last country in Europe to officially become Christian – a change which took place mainly for political reasons, and which was not completed until the beginning of the 15th century. The pagan religion co-existed with Christianity for a very long time beyond that, and continued to survive even after Catholicism became dominant and gradually attempted to assimilate and eradicate the remaining pagan practices. But paganism still lived on in the countryside: a large sector of the peasantry, though nominally Catholic, kept alive their traditional pagan spiritually which was deeply ingrained in their everyday lives. A very strong folkloric movement which began in the 18th century helped to keep alive, in the urban centers, an awareness of Lithuania’s pagan roots.

Jonas Trinkūnas & Andras Corban-Arthen at 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions, Melbourne, AU

Jonas Trinkūnas & Andras Corban-Arthen at 2009
Parliament of the World’s Religions, Melbourne, AU

Jonas Trinkūnas immersed himself from an early age in the myths and folklore of his native land, and by the time he’d finished his university studies in the early 1960s, he had published a number of articles as well as a dissertation on pre-Christian Lithuanian religion. He became a researcher and professor of literature and ancient cultures at the University of Vilnius, and during that time he founded a very popular folkloric organization which presented a variety of traditional folk music and dance events; he also began making extended visits to the countryside, to learn directly from rural villagers what still survived of the original pagan traditions.

Jonas’ activities brought him afoul of the Soviet authorities, who feared that his religious and folkloric pursuits were fomenting nationalistic sentiments which could lead to acts of sedition. He was interrogated by the KGB, and subsequently dismissed from his teaching position at the university, and forbidden from holding any kind of teaching job; for many years, he was forced to do various kinds of menial work in order to support his growing family. His folkloric organization was officially suppressed, and he could only engage in his religious practices clandestinely.

Finally, with the loosening of Soviet government controls brought about by glasnost and perestroika in the late eighties, Jonas was able to resume his public activities and to bring Romuva out in the open. Since 1990, when Lithuania achieved its independence from the Soviet Union (the first of the former Soviet republics to do so), Romuva has grown steadily and has achieved a strong presence in Lithuanian culture, though it has not yet managed to gain official government status as a traditional religion.

It may have been an unprecedented event for a pagan leader to be awarded a high honor by the president of his country – it’s certainly something that should make all pagans around the world very proud. Let us hope that the bestowal of the Order of the Grand Duke Gediminas upon Jonas Trinkūnas signals a growing willingness by the Lithuanian government to grant Romuva the official status it has long deserved.

jonas award 02-72dpiJonas Trinkūnas and Inija Trinkūnienė with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė
and members of the Romuva community at the award ceremony in Vilnius.

a safe home for antelope

by Steve Trombulak

Continuing from previous post the future of my people’s musical traditions, developing a captive breeding program for antelope in Kopeyia might be a way to help retain Ewe musical traditions. “Hey, how hard can it be?”

Since then, the three of us have worked to bring this program to life. After Emmanuel returned to Ghana, he identified some land adjacent to the Center on which the facility could be built and engaged the participation of a friend, a man named Christian, with construction experience to act as general contractor for the facility. Christian lives in the city of Ho, which lies about two hours north of Kopeyia and is in the region where hunters can still find antelope, so he also began the task of developing contacts within the community of hunters there, which we would rely on in the months to come.

Joss and I, for our parts, began to raise the funds necessary to begin the construction as well as to do the necessary research on the antelope themselves, particularly on their breeding behavior and husbandry needs. Joss produced a video about the project, which we used to raise the first round of funding through Kickstarter, a web-based service that allows people with ideas for creative projects to reach out to others who are interested in supporting worthy causes. Many of you reading this now are among the almost 100 people who contributed to the project, called “To Make the Drums Sing.” We raised almost $4,000, which went entirely to support the initial phases of construction. (You can still see the video on the Kickstarter site, although it is now closed to contributions.)

I spent my time trying to learn everything I could about antelope and captive breeding. I found myself at a bit of a disadvantage in this because my professional experience has been largely focused on wildlife in North America, and I don’t have any previous field experience with the species involved. I was confident that domestication and captive breeding of antelope would be possible; not only had others done this successfully with some species, but antelope are in the same group of mammals (the family Bovidae) that include goats, sheep, and cattle, which are perhaps the most successful forms of domestic livestock in the world.

But even though it was possible, it was also possible to do it wrong. I knew that we wouldn’t have the money for long-term experimentation; we needed to start the project with as much information as we possibly could.

Language proved to be a major barrier. Emmanuel and Christian could only express their knowledge of what species we wanted to raise in Ewe. My ability to review the published literature and seek advice from zoo professionals required that I know the species names in English or their Latin genus-species binomials. It took several months of emails and phone calls throughout North America and Africa to find a wildlife biologist with enough fluency in both English and Ewe to help us make the translations. (It later turned out that, even then, the translations were not entirely accurate, but at least I had somewhere to begin.)

In early December, Joss and I finally left for Kopeyia to start the construction of the facility and the collection of the antelope. Bearing the fruits of our fundraising and research efforts, we arrived near the start of the dry season, a short window of time during which construction would not be hampered by rains and the antelope would be (relatively) easy to catch. There was no time to waste.

During the month that we were there and the following month after we had to return to the U.S., the project moved forward out of its purely conceptual phase. Several threads to the project were launched almost simultaneously, each of which was an integral part of the whole.

  • A mason was hired to construct several hundred concrete blocks, approximately 16 x 8 x 4 inches. The blocks were constructed on-site, in Emmanuel’s family compound for extra security, which required the delivery of truck loads of sand, bags of cement, and the corralling of several workman whose services were in great demand throughout the rapidly developing region.
  • The trenches for the facility’s foundation, 100 by 100 feet square, were cleared and excavated to a depth of about 16 inches. Through brick hard clay. By hand. With old and less-than-optimal picks, shovels, and axes. Primarily by the drumming teachers at the Center. Needless to say, this took us several days.
  • The cement blocks were transported from the compound out to the construction site (again, by hand, but this time by the member’s of the local school’s soccer team) and laid to build a foundation three blocks high. Nine-foot lengths of galvanized pipe were then embedded in the foundation to serve as the upright supports for chain link fence that, together with razor wire for security and palm fronds for privacy, created the facility’s walls.
  • A 40-foot deep, 8-inch wide well was dug and outfitted with a pump to provide a constant source of freshwater to the antelope. To ensure the security of the pump, which had to be imported at some expense from Togo, the well was dug inside Emmanuel’s compound. The well was dug (you guessed it) by hand. It took two men six days to auger down through the clay, using connected 10-foot lengths of pipe to drill down to the water table. A trench then had to be dug to pipe the water from the well out to a concrete water hole constructed in the antelope facility.
  • A hunters’ cooperative was formed based in the city of Ho. As you might imagine, hunting is traditionally (a) a solitary activity, taking place within traditional hunting grounds that are exclusive and hereditary for each hunter, and (b) oriented toward the killing of the animals. We were asking the hunters to do something entirely new; we wanted them to capture the antelope alive and in healthy condition. Because this would require the use of a very large net (which we created from a used fishing net, 180 x 12 feet), no single hunter would be able to handle the operation on his own. To be successful, they would need to work together, cooperatively deciding when and where to work, how to manage the net, and how to share the profits.

The facility is now finished, complete with shelters and landscaping. And on February 16th, the first antelope, a baby bushbuck, was introduced into it. Emmanuel named her Dzidefo, which in Ewe means “confidence.” Since then, a few other antelope have joined her, all feeding on cast-off plant material from farm fields, such as cassava leaves and coconut husks, which are known to be favored foods.

The spark that was originally ignited is now a small flame.

Much remains to be done, of course. More antelope need to be added to the program. It has proven harder to capture a critical number of the Maxwell’s duiker, the species that we think will be the easiest to raise and breed. Time still remains in the dry season to meet our target for the year, so efforts at capture continue. We also need to secure on-going funding to hire permanent staff for care and security. In addition, the regional paramount chief, Torgbui Fitsi, has asked us to consider ways to develop an educational program that will link the facility with the public schools in the region.

All of this will require financial support, of course, so to increase our ability to raise funds through both public and private sources, we are now in the process of incorporating “The Ghana Antelope Project” as a non-profit organization with the ultimate goal of securing 501(c)3 tax-exempt status with the IRS.

Once that happens, we’ll see just how far this fire can spread.

Hey, how hard can it be?

the future of my people’s musical traditions

by Steve Trombulak

This is a story about a spark of an idea, and an effort to fan it into a fire of positive change.

Last year, one of Josselyne’s teachers from Ghana, Emmanuel Agbeli, was visiting us in Vermont as part of a larger tour she had arranged for him throughout the eastern U.S. Emmanuel is from the Ewe (pronounced Eh-wey or Eh-vey) tribe that inhabits the Volta Region in southeastern Ghana and across the border into neighboring Togo. He is the director of the Dagbe Cultural and Arts Center in the village of Kopeyia, a center founded by his father, Godwin Agbeli. The center has been host to numerous students and scholars from colleges and universities in both the U.S. and Europe, who come to study the music, dance, song, and creative arts of the Ewe people. It was here that Joss began her in-depth study of Ewe music almost 20 years ago.

One evening over dinner, Joss recounted for me and reminded for Emmanuel a story: While in Ghana, she had asked Emmanuel about arranging for the purchase and shipping of antelope skins so that she could repair some of her ensemble’s drums, and he said that he wasn’t sure what he could provide, as the price and even availability of antelope skins had worsened dramatically in the last few years.

He had then gone on to say something that was deeply disturbing: “I do not know what the future of my people’s musical traditions will be.”

To understand his concern, one needs to understand something about the nature of those traditions.

First, as all of the readers of this blog are probably aware, much of African music has a strong emphasis on percussive rhythm. In the Volta Region of Ghana, music is dominated by drums, bells, and shakers, commonly played in ensembles that express both polyrhythmic (= instruments playing different rhythms at the same time) and polymetric (= instruments playing in different meters, such as 4/4 and 12/8, at the same time) characteristics.

Second, drums are headed by skins of various animals, including antelope, goat, and cow. However, the type of skin used is specific for a type of drum due to its timbre. If a drum is headed with a different type of skin, its sound changes, and it cannot fit in to the ensemble in its traditional way.

Third, the Ewe language is tonal. Similar to Mandarin Chinese, the inflected emphasis of how a word is spoken conveys meaning. Take, for example, the word “emmu.” The same letters in the same order can be used to mean either mosquito or water; it all depends on the inflection used when the word is pronounced.

All of these points come together in an overarching truth: The rhythmic musical traditions of the Ewe people involve drums that quite literally speak the Ewe language, each drum in the ensemble speaking a different sentence, and together telling a story that is part of the Ewe’s cultural heritage. Antelope skins are used because they are strong and, more importantly, they produce a variety of melodic tones. If the drums are not headed with antelope, then the drums cannot speak their parts, and if the drums cannot speak their parts, then the story cannot be told.

And the antelope are disappearing.

Through overhunting for food and habitat loss to accommodate increased agricultural production, antelope throughout West Africa, including Ghana, are in decline. Of the 20 species of antelope known to be part of Ghana’s native fauna, one (the red-fronted gazelle) has been eliminated from the region already, and all of the rest but for two are in decline.

It is no wonder that the price and availability of antelope hides has worsened in recent years. And it is no wonder that Emmanuel said, “I do not know what the future of my people’s musical traditions will be.”

It was then that Joss asked her next question, one that would launch the three of us on a journey that would move us between continents, among multiple cultures, and across disciplines as diverse as ethnomusicology, wildlife biology, and non-profit business management. “Well, if antelope populations are declining in the wild, would it be possible to raise them in captivity?”

Cue the quizzical stares in the direction of our house’s resident wildlife biologist. “Well,” I said, “I have no idea, but I can do some research and see what’s known about that kind of project.”

In fact, it turns out that captive breeding of antelope is a well-established practice. Numerous zoos around the world have successfully bred many different species of antelope, including those that would be of interest to the Ewe people, and a handful of wildlife rehabilitation centers in Africa had done the same. In fact, several years ago, the duikers (pronounced di-ker), a group of small antelope species native to Africa, were identified as a promising form of “micro-livestock,” species whose domestication might improve agricultural productivity and food availability.

In theory, then, developing a captive breeding program for antelope in Kopeyia might be a way to help retain Ewe musical traditions. We could capture a handful of antelope in the wild and use them to start a breeding colony in a facility where they could be fed and cared for. Their offspring could provide hides for the cultural center and meat for the local villagers in an on-going basis, all without putting undo pressure on the populations in the wild. All we would have to do is build the facility, find a way to get hunters to capture the initial animals for the colony and deliver them to us alive, hire staff to provide care and feeding for the animals, develop a protocol to ensure their health and promote their reproduction, and raise the funds to do it all on an on-going basis.

As Joss and I are so fond of saying when presented with an interesting idea, “Hey, how hard can it be?”

[Next: Bringing this project to life.]

Report on Current Travels in Europe

by Andras Corban Arthen

During last December’s Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Jonas Trinkunas ­­— the head of the Romuva pagan religion of Lithuania, whom I had invited to attend the Parliament as one of the Indigenous speakers — reciprocated by inviting me to speak at a Congress of European Ethnic Religions which he had founded a dozen years previously, and which was to be held in August in Bologna, Italy. Jonas also very kindly invited me to participate in a Romuva camp which would take place in the Lithuanian countryside about two weeks before the Congress.

I consulted with the EarthSpirit Board, and everyone thought it would be important for me to attend these events; after checking the books, we found that there were enough funds in the interfaith budget to finance the trip.

Then, this past spring, Kusumita Pedersen — a friend and colleague on the Parliament’s Board of Trustees — told me of some people she had met while participating in the annual United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. Kusumita said they ran an NGO based in Torino (Turin) which consults with the U.N. on Indigenous concerns, and that as part of one of their presentations which she attended, they talked a great deal about the Indigenous European traditions (“they sounded just like you,” she told me). This raised some interesting possibilities, given that I was already planning to attend the Congress in Bologna. Later on, while talking with my old friend Phyllis Curott, who has taught in Italy several times, she suggested that I should meet some of her friends and students there, and kindly put me in touch with them.

So, little by little, my trip has taken shape: Boston to Dublin, to do research for a couple of days at Trinity College. Then on to Vilnius and several days at the Romuva camp out in the country, followed by a return to Vilnius to testify on Romuva’s behalf with the Deputy Mayor for cultural affairs in their effort to secure government support for office/meeting space in the city. Then off to Copenhagen for a one-day stop to do some research at the Nationalmuseet. From there a brief stop in Milan, followed by a train ride to Torino to meet with the heads of the Ecospirituality Foundation. Then a train to Rome and a meeting with local pagans, and, finally, the conference in Bologna before returning home.

I am in Europe now (in Bologna, to be precise), though it’s very difficult to write more extensively on EarthSpirit Voices from here, given that I’m not staying in any one place very long and that it’s sometimes difficult to find good and accessible Internet connections. I will be publishing a full report of my activities here as soon as I am able, though it may have to wait until I’m back in the States.

The Revival of the European Pagan Religions

by Andras Corban Arthen

As it has been previously noted in these pages, within the global interreligious movement that has evolved since the first Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago, pagans have typically been placed in the category of New Religious Movements, which roughly applies to religions that have emerged since the middle of the 19th century. This would seem to be, surely, the most appropriate category for the neopagan and reconstructionist groups that make up the greater part of modern paganism, since their existence does not appear to go further back than the early 1950s.

For thirty-some years, however, I have been trying to make the case throughout the interfaith movement that some forms of paganism — namely, the very few remaining survivals of ethnic European spiritual traditions — more properly belong in the category of Indigenous Religions. My arguments, and others’ similar arguments, have mostly fallen on deaf ears — both pagan and non-pagan alike — for various reasons which make it a lot more convenient for many people to believe that no such survivals exist at all.

For Christians, for example, an acknowledgment that the original pagan traditions were not completely wiped out opens the door to the unpleasant possibility that they may, finally, have to deal with the genocidal horrors which Christianity inflicted on Indigenous peoples throughout the world. Outside of Europe, the blame for such heinous acts — when they are even acknowledged — has conveniently been attributed to chiefly secular motives, such as excessive nationalistic ambitions and economic greed, which obscure their actual, fundamental aim and rationale. When the Christian colonization of Europe is factored in, however, it becomes a lot harder to camouflage the theologically-justified goal of creating a vast religious empire, which continued to be the foundation for most subsequent Christian European colonization elsewhere. But if no trace of the original European pagan traditions were to survive, the motivation to open that painful door becomes less compelling, and the comforting obliviousness of the status quo can remain untouched.

For many North American Indians, the prospect of the continued existence of Indigenous European traditions is often met with decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, the survival of some of those traditions after more than fifteen-hundred years of Christian colonization could be taken as a hopeful sign for their own survival, not to mention the new allies they are likely to gain among the keepers of such practices. On the other hand, American Indians have had so much taken from them by “white people” that a lot of them can understandably react with suspicion and even resentment in the face of such a prospect, especially if it can in any way take some of the focus away from their own struggles to preserve what is left of their cultures.

And, ironically, many neopagans themselves are extremely resistant to the notion that ethnic forms of European paganism have survived into the present. For them, this raises fears of delegitimization, of marginalization, of power trips: given the contentious history of the modern pagan movement, this reaction is not very surprising.

Be that as it may, after all the years of trying to convince people in the interfaith movement, last December in Melbourne, for the first time ever, the Parliament of the World’s Religions finally included the surviving European ethnic spiritual traditions in the same category as other Indigenous religions from around the world, a very significant step which could pave the way to many interesting possibilities.

As I mentioned in an earlier article, when given the task of organizing the European components for the Parliament’s Indigenous Task Force programs, I invited krivis Jonas Trinkunas, the head of the traditional Romuva pagan religion of Lithuania, to be one of the featured speakers. Lithuania was one of the last European countries to be Christianized, and its history and cultural makeup have combined in a way that has allowed paganism to survive there to a degree that may be unsurpassed anywhere else in Europe. In Melbourne, Jonas and I offered a presentation together, entitled “The Revival of the European Pagan Religions,” which was meant to address some of the various key elements in the survival of Indigenous European spirituality.


Jonas, along with his son-in-law Artūras Sinkeviĉius, opened the program by singing a Lithuanian daina, one of several thousand traditional folksongs from their homeland that are imbued with mystical and religious meanings. Jonas discussed the role of the dainas in ethnic Lithuanian paganism, as the most important vehicle for spiritual transmission across the generations. He then went on to talk about the history of Romuva, and about the various factors that enabled Lithuanian paganism to survive into the modern era — preserved clandestinely or disguised as “folklore” — despite intense opposition and suppression by both the Catholic Church and the Soviet Union.

I spoke then about the traditional practices from the Gàidhealtachd (the Gaelic-speaking culture of Scotland) which I received from my teachers back in the late 1960s; of my eventual realization that such practices represented the rare survival of a very old, non-Christian form of spirituality; and of my subsequent search, both in Europe and throughout the European diaspora, for similar surviving traditions.

Then Jonas and I took turns describing some of the commonalities that are found among most of the European traditions, as well as some of the important differences, particularly between Eastern and Western Europe (rural focus, preservation of old tongues, animistic vs. polytheistic approaches, etc.) Our presentation was very well received, and was cited in a very good article on the Parliament which appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Parabola magazine.

There’s obviously a whole lot more that could be said about all this, though EarthSpirit Voices is probably not the best format through which to convey it. I have now presented a two-hour talk/slide show/film entitled “The ‘Indians’ of Old Europe” several times in the last couple of years, and it looks like I will be turning it into a book. I am also planning a series of trips to various parts of Europe to meet with keepers of surviving Indigenous traditions, though when and where that happens will depend on what kind of funding we are able to raise for the purpose.

I hope that the door which we managed to crack open at the Melbourne Parliament will gradually widen and that the surviving Indigenous pagan religions of Europe will finally be able to shed their mantle of invisibility, not only as a way to insure their continued existence, but also because of the particular wisdom, values and perspectives which they are able to impart.

[ Ed.note: Andras will be offering his talk on The “Indians” of Old Europe on Sunday, September 12 as part of The EarthSpirit Community’s “Sacred Lands” Open Houses at Glenwood Farm in Western Mass. For more information, go to http://www.earthspirit.com/openhouse/index.html ]

Indigenous Peoples’ Statement to the World

An Indigenous Peoples’ Statement to the World Delivered at The Parliament of the World’s Religions Convened at Melbourne, Australia on the Traditional Lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation December 9, 2009

The Doctrine of Christian Discovery  and Indigenous Peoples (l. to r.) Christopher Peters, Jake Swamp,  Oren Lyons, Steven Newcomb

        The Doctrine of Christian Discovery
                and Indigenous Peoples
   (l. to r.) Christopher Peters, Jake Swamp,
        Oren Lyons, Steven Newcomb

In keeping with the theme of this year’s Parliament, “Make a World of Difference: Hearing each other, Healing the Earth,” we, the Indigenous Peoples participating in this Parliament, hereby issue this statement:

We are Indigenous Peoples and Nations who honor our ancestors and care for our future generations by preserving our lands and cultures. For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have maintained a fundamental and sacred relationship with Mother Earth. As peoples of the land, we declare our inherent rights to our present and continuing survival within our sacred homelands and territories throughout the world;

We commend the Australian government’s recent support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted on September 13, 2007. We call on all governments to support and implement the provisions of the UN Declaration, particularly the right of self-determination;

Since time immemorial we have lived in keeping with our sacred laws, principles, and spiritual values, given by the Creator. Our ways of life are based on thousands of years of accumulated ecological knowledge, a great respect for our Mother Earth, a reverence and respect for all our Natural World relations and the survival of our languages, cultures, and traditions;

The Indigenous instructions of sharing and the responsibility of leadership to future generations are wise and enduring. As the traditional nations of our lands, we affirm the right to educate our children in our Earth-based education systems in order to maintain our Indigenous knowledge systems and cultures. These have also contributed to our spiritual, physical and mental health;

Indigenous peoples’ concept of health and survival is holistic, collective and individual. It encompasses the spiritual, the intellectual, the physical and the emotional. Expressions of culture relevant to health and survival of Indigenous Peoples include relationships, families, and kinship, social institutions, traditional laws, music, dances, songs and songlines, reindeer and caribou, ceremonies and dreamtime, our ritual performances and practices, games, sports, language, mythologies, names, lands, sea, water, every life forms, and all documented forms and aspects of culture, including burial and sacred sites, human genetic materials, ancestral remains so often stolen, and our artifacts;

Unfortunately, certain doctrines have been threatening to the survival of our cultures, our languages, and our peoples, and devastating to our ways of life. These are found in particular colonizing documents such as the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493, which called for the subjugation of non-Christian nations and peoples and “the propagation of the Christian empire.” This is the root of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery that is still interwoven into laws and policies today that must be changed. The principles of subjugation contained in this and other such documents, and in the religious texts and documents of other religions, have been and continue to be destructive to our ways of life (religions), cultures, and the survival of our Indigenous nations and peoples. This oppressive tradition is what led to the boarding schools, the residential schools, and the Stolen Generations, resulting in the trauma of Indigenous peoples being cut off from their languages and cultures, resulting in language death and loss of family integrity from the actions of churches and governments. We call on those churches and governments to put as much time, effort, energy and money into assisting with the revitalization of our languages and cultures as they put into attempting to destroy them;

The doctrines of colonization and dominion have laid the groundwork for contemporary problems of racism and dispossession. These problems include the industrial processes of resource exploitation and extraction by governments and corporations that have consistently meant the use of imposed laws to force the removal of Indigenous peoples from our traditional territories, and to desecrate and destroy our sacred sites and places. The result is a great depletion of biodiversity and the loss of our traditional ways of life, as well as the depletion and contamination of the waters of Mother Earth from mining and colonization. Such policies and practices do not take into account that water is the first law of life and a gift from the Creator for all beings. Clean, healthy, safe, and free water is necessary for the continuity and well being of all living things. The commercialization and poisoning of water is a crime against life;

The negative ethics of contemporary society, discovery, conquest, dominion, exploitation, extraction, and industrialization, have brought us to today’s crisis of global warming. Climate change is now our most urgent issue and affecting the lives of Indigenous peoples at an alarming rate. Many of our people’s lives are in crisis due to the rapid global warming. The ice melt in the north and rapid sea rise continue to accelerate, and the time for action is brief. The Earth’s resources are finite and the present global consumption levels are unsustainable and continue to affect our peoples and all peoples. Therefore, we join the other members of the Parliament in calling for prompt, immediate, and effective action at Copenhagen to combat climate change;

In July 2009, the Episcopal Church in the United States adopted a resolution at its 76th General Convention, repudiating and disavowing the dehumanizing Doctrine of Christian Discovery. By doing so, the Church took particular note of the charter issued by King Henry VII of England to John Cabot and his sons, which authorized the colonizing of North America. It was by this ‘boss over’ tradition of Christian discovery that the British crown eventually laid claim to the traditional territories of the Aboriginal nations of the continent now called Australia, under terra nullius and terra nullus. This step by the Episcopal Church was an act of conscience and moral leadership by one of the world’s major religions. Religious bodies of Quakers and Unitarians have taken similar supportive actions.

In conclusion, we appeal to all people of conscience to join with us in support of the following issues:

1) Climate change and its far-reaching impacts on our Peoples and homelands — for this we need immediate action.

2) The protection of Indigenous peoples’ significant and sacred sites within their traditional homelands and territories and working to eradicate discrimination and intolerance against Earth-based Indigenous spiritual and ceremonial traditions.

3) Protection of Sacred Places used for prayer and ceremonies. At these special places we minister to the Earth and heal her sacred soul.

4) The critical need to strengthen and continue our unique cultures and languages, particularly by bringing together elder cultural and wisdom keepers and Indigenous youth.

5) The return of the bones of our ancestors and our sacred items.

6) The immediate support and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

7) To call upon Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican to publicly acknowledge and repudiate the papal decrees that legitimized the original activities that have evolved into the dehumanizing Doctrine of Christian Discovery and dominion in laws and policies.

Partial list of Indigenous Assembly participants: Wande Abimbola, Yoruba (Nigeria) Omie Baldwin, Diné (United States) Nana Osei Boakye Yiadom, Adamorobe (Ghana) Merekaraka Caesar, Wahine Maori (New Zealand) Andras Corban-Arthen, Anamanta (Scotland/United States) Ryoko Foose, Ainu (Japan) Tonya Gonnella Frichner, Onondaga (United States) Uncle Max Harrison, Yuin (Australia) Linda Hogan, Chickasaw (United States) Robert Houndohome Hounon, Vodun Hwendo (Benin) Clarence Jackson, Tlingit (United States) Jennie R. Joe, Diné (United States) Mandaza Kandemwa, Shona (Zimbabwe) Norma Kassi, Vuntut Gwich’in (Canada) Leo Killsback, Cheyenne (United States) Tsugio Kuzuno, Ainu (Japan) Margaret Lokawua, Karimjong (Uganda) Oren Lyons, Onondaga (United States) Raúl Mamani, Kolla (Argentina) Ray Minniecon, Kabi Kabi (Australia) Lucy Mulenkei, Maasai (Kenya) Joy Murphy Wandin, Wurundjeri (Australia) Minnie Naylor, Inupiaq Eskimo (United States) Steven T. Newcomb, Shawnee Lenape (United States) Francois Paulette, Dene (Canada) Christopher Peters, Pohlik-lah/Karuk (United States) Anna Pinto, Meitei (India) Constantino Pinto, Timorese (Timor Leste) Uncle Bob Randall, Yankunytjatjara (Australia) Darlene St. Clair, Bdewakantunwan Dakota (United States) Artūras Sinkevičius, Romuva (Lithuania) Joseph Henry Suina, Cochiti Pueblo (United States) Jake Swamp, Akwesasne Mohawk (United States) Yoland Trevino, Maya (Guatemala/United States) Jonas Trinkunas, Romuva (Lithuania) Rosita Worl, Tlingit (United States)

Delivering the Indigenous Statement at the closing plenary.

Delivering the Indigenous Statement at the closing plenary.