Thinking Upstream, with Melissa Nelson

For the past decade, Melissa Nelson has worked toward a philosophy of restoration that marries the practices of indigenous cultures to more common systems of ecological repair. As executive director of the Cultural Conservancy, she is currently partnering with the Winnemem Wintu to gain the tribe’s federal recognition, fight the proposed expansion of Shasta Dam, and eventually restore the tribe’s ancestral watershed, the McCloud River. She is also actively involved in Storyscape, a project that compiles oral traditions. Nelson, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, teaches in the American Indian Studies Department at San Francisco State University.

Where has the scientific model of restoration ecology gone wrong?

I think that many Western ecological scientists still have a notion that there was an Edenic wilderness before humans screwed it up. It’s virtually impossible to find a reference ecosystem that has not been touched by human hands. The Americas were much more populated than most history books or anthropologists will admit, because if we admit how many people were actually here, we’d have to admit that a genocide and a holocaust really did happen.

Indigenous restoration seems to embrace a more dynamic nature compared to a Western version of a static, quantifiable wilderness.

Our whole [Western scientific] system is based on predicting the output of natural systems. But from an indigenous perspective, nature is ultimately unpredictable, chaotic, and changeable. You always leave room for the unexpected.

We need to harmoniously interface with these natural systems: How can we nudge these systems so we can optimize their use and yet not take away from wildlife and vegetation their own natural systems and cycles? We need to maintain the health of the systems while we’re nudging them.

Can you give examples of this “nudging,” this reciprocity ethic, actively happening in Northern California?

On every river in Northern California, the native peoples, after they consume the salmon, carefully collect all the bones and replace them into the creeks and rivers. That is clearly replacing nutrients that were taken out of the river.

I could easily imagine Western scientists wanting hard proof that ceremonial activities—dancing, praying, singing songs—have a measurable effect on ecosystems.

[Native peoples] have thousands of years of data; they don’t need to prove it. Today there’s a dam on the river, so even if we’re praying for the salmon, they’re hitting a big barrier. That’s where the ecologists and environmentalists come in. Let’s work together: we need to pray for the salmon and we need to remove the dam.

I think there’s a lot of hope for environmental ethics to really learn from indigenous principles of reciprocity. Restoration ecology says, “Okay, humans do have to interact with nature.” That’s a step in the right direction—rather than just locking up areas as a park or preserve.

The understanding that small-scale disturbance is actually beneficial to biodiversity—fire, digging—that’s a move in the right direction. Adaptive management means you make small changes, wait and observe and then base your management on that. And some of these ideas like biophilia, biogeochemical cycles, “everything’s connected”—that’s basic. The whole Gaia hypothesis is a completely native concept that science now takes seriously.

It has to be humble, small-scale, but you need active participation. And I think restoration ecology is one of the best areas for that. “Wow, I can have an active and positive impact on my local ecosystem,” rather than, “Oh, if I touch nature I’m going to harm it.”

You’ve written about finding “upstream cultural solutions” to eco-cultural problems. What are these solutions and how do we get there?

David Bohm, a physicist and philosopher who died about fifteen years ago, uses a great metaphor: We’ve got a river and it’s being polluted upstream, so the whole system is polluted. But most people live downstream, and downstream we’re really working hard trying to remove all this pollution. But what would it look like to go upstream and find where we’re putting the pollution in the very first place? This is a metaphor for human thought and psychology, because sure, it’s our cars, it’s our wasteful practices, but where does all that come from? It comes from the mind.

So political activism is really important—we’ve got to keep removing the pollution downstream, fighting for rights, fighting for justice—but what is the source of it? It’s upstream in human minds, where we don’t see the connections, where we act with fear and insecurity and overcompensate with arrogance and greed. These are the upstream psychological roots of our global crisis.

It’s not the political structure. It’s not the social structure. It’s not our industries and natural resource management practices. That’s all downstream.

I think we need to have a lot of community engagement, dialogue where we question our condition, where we question our assumptions, where we’re able to suspend our beliefs enough to really listen to someone else’s perspective, question our pride. And those are things that we don’t really talk about much in our society—there’s a lot of ego in the environmental movement.

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