The Gathering for EcoCulture:

The Sharing of Native Wisdom

Written by
Susan Hamilton Mitchell
August 2001

The Gathering for EcoCulture germinated from a conversation between Carla Tavares Berman (founder) and Woody Morrison (Haida) almost ten years ago. The idea was simple – bring together native elders and tribal members with public and private school teachers to interact and share environmental and indigenous wisdom that would then be given life in California classrooms. In late summer, at the retreat center of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in Petaluma, the inaugural gathering convened with a traditional welcome under the oak trees from Lanny Pinola (Coast Miwok / Kashaya Pomo). What wasn’t traditional about it was that Lanny was in a wheelchair straight from the hospital after checking himself out against doctor’s orders.

Lanny first shared the story of his great-great-great- grandfather. When the soldiers came to execute the males of the Miwok tribe, his great-great-great grandfather asked to sing a song that the tribal members used to join the grandfathers and grandmothers on the spirit trail. The captain let him sing the song, who had taken their hats off and said, “We have no business here” and let the Indians go. Lanny then sang that very “Savior Song” honoring his ancestors. Hearing it emotionally sung in the native language was deeply touching.

The weekend unfolded with circle talks, discussions, and sharing. As Woody Morrison (Haida) told his Raven stories, he reminded us to always give something back and to remember the sacredness of all things. David Risling (Hoopa- Karuk-Yurok), who helped found the California Indian Education Association and the California Indian Legal Services, was supposed to be at a Brush Dance but came to support the Gathering. He talked about some of the ceremonies and dances that are still performed by his tribal members…the Brush Dance, when someone gets sick; the Deer Skin Dance, ten days of renewing the earth; and the Jump Dance, ten days of thanking the Creator.

Kathy Wallace, David’s daughter, and a Hoopa basket weaver, is preserving the traditions of her tribe. She said that when gathering grasses for basket making you are “forming a relationship with a plant” and are making a “connection to the earth.” She said that she ”talks to the plants, treats the materials with respect and always thanks them.” Unfortunately, as Kathy explained, with pesticide and herbicide use in the forest and wetlands, some basket weavers are at a risk for exposure while practicing their traditional culture.

Deborah Brown (Haida) shared about the Haida way of teaching circles and building relationships by creating a classroom community. Jaime Sterritt (Haida), Melissa Nelson (Chippewa), and David Fore also talked about ways of including Native American wisdom into the educational system.

Perhaps Lanny-s words best sum up the focus of the Gathering- “We are all part of all that is – not above it- it is not ours to manage. The environmental is not something apart from us. We’re trying to create balance with the animal and plant kingdom to live in harmony with it. We respect one another, the animals, and the little crawly things because they have something to do. I am honored to be in their presence.”

As one of the teachers at the Gathering, listening to the wisdom of the elders and the tribal members, I felt so privileged and honored just to be present. And my students, the next generation of stewards of the Earth, are grateful too.

A project of The Tides Center, a non-profit incubator dedicated to the development
of innovative programs working in environmental, social justice and multicultural issues.