In 1877, in the debates preceding our war with the United States, a Nez Perce leader said, "The Earth is part of my body. I belong to the land out of which I came. The Earth is my mother."
Those words reflect a sacred allegiance between our people and the land. The man who spoke them was not simply expressing an opinion, but describing a way of life.
Long ago, Indian people respectfully took what the land had to present. Nature offered physical and spiritual sustenance and our activities reflected an understanding of the natural cycles turning upon the land and water. Nature provided what was sacred and necessary for us to freely express our religious convictions. We could not sever ourselves from the land.
Just as all things in the ecosystem are intimately connected and cannot survive isolated from one another, we too were a vulnerable and resilient part of the ecosystem. When the salmon returned to the healing waters of their birth, we followed. When the roots and berries returned to the mountains, so did we. Nature sustained us and assured our survival. We put our faith into the hands of the Earth, our mother. Nature, in other words, managed us.
Today, nature remains our provider, but we have now become managers. It is our turn to care for and heal the land. To be worthy of this task, we must concede to nature's wisdom. Nature has always had a voice and rhythm of her own. Some people cover their ears and refuse to hear her, while others are overcome by the rattle of politics that drowns the voice.
Fortunately, there are those who hear what the land has to say. And, there are those who believe what we hear.
The West was once thought to be empty, unused wilderness with plenty of room for expansion. It was also considered a full world, abundant with nature's bounties. During the past 150 years, people lost sight of living within natural limits, assuming that nature was endlessly forgiving.
Today's world is full as the human population grows and we approach the limits of its tolerance for our noxious consequences. Biologically, it is becoming an empty world, as we watch resources wither into extinction.
Safeguarding wilderness is important because the best science and technology available are not always failsafe. We are students of some hard-learned lessons. There is still so much to be learned about the care of the land. With the loss of each piece of the landscape, we are deprived of its lessons and spirit.
The political landscape regarding the care and management of land in this country is difficult to navigate and, more often than not, pits neighbor against neighbor. To effectively resolve the conflicts we face, we must acknowledge areas where we agree. We must also respect our differences. As we battle to resolve tough issues, we must strive to find peaceful solutions that meet the needs of all involved. After all, when the debate winds down, regardless of the outcome, we will still be neighbors. And, we pray, for the sake of our children, that the product of the debates will unite not sever the bonds of our communities.
Slowly, we are trying to reconcile the differences that fragment us. We are many heritages with but only one Mother Earth -- the Earth upon which we prove ourselves to our Creator. We must put our faith in the values that underpin our diversity, not always in legal entanglements or political mischief. Faith should be placed in the character of leaders who can work together to sort out the discords to find harmony.
Soon this nation will commemorate the bicentennial of its pioneering spirit, Lewis and Clark's Corp of Discovery. Pioneers cannot leave mistakes behind. We cannot allow the civilization of the land and water to outstrip our will to restore and protect the land that bears the burden of our errors. Haunting, difficult land-management questions remain as we seek to protect the people who live here and all nature's creatures whose struggles to survive reflect our own.
Healing the land goes hand in hand with caring for one another. And, no doubt we will continue to walk a tightrope as we try to balance the need to care for our environment and our communities.
We will continue to search for new science, new technology and new leadership to help us care for and heal the resources we all depend on. But, science, technology and leadership come and go, changing like the seasons. The everlasting promise, however, lies in our spirit to overcome the challenges that arise time and again -- the spirit that will allow us to find a peaceful place next to one another.
Jaime A. Pinkham of the Nez Perce Tribe is a member of the Governing Council of The Wilderness Society. Pinkham will deliver the keynote address tomorrow for the Northwest Wilderness Conference 2000, at the Mountaineers Building in Seattle. Details on the three-day session sponsored by The Wilderness Society can be found on the Web at www.speakeasy.org or by calling 624-6430.