SF State News {University Communications}

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Instructions for a healthier planet

April 10, 2008 -- SF State Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies Melissa Nelson's book, "Original Instructions, Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future" (Bear & Company Books, 2008), offers holistic approaches to a healthier planet and hope for the future of its biological and cultural diversity. In this collection of essays and speeches, native leaders discuss the connections and contradictions between indigenous traditional beliefs and the contemporary struggle to create a sustainable world.

The book is a collaboration of scholars, spiritual and scientific leaders who meet each year at the Bioneers Conference, a global forum devoted to nature-based solutions and social strategies to restore Earth's ecosystems. A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Anishinaabeg Nation and executive director of The Cultural Conservancy, a nonprofit organization devoted to indigenous rights, culture and environmental protection, Nelson said the book is intended to help find solutions to worldwide social concerns including land rights and use, food security, women's rights and the struggle for indigenous environmental justice. She and her colleagues hope that anyone who is concerned about a viable future for the planet will embrace new ways of thinking about one's relationship with the natural world and other human beings.

Cover of 'Original Instructions,' a painting by Ojibwe artist Rabbett Strickland depicting Nanabozhoo, the Anishinaabeg cultural hero and trickster figure who uses primal fire to ignite the sun.

Cover artwork by Ojibwe artist Rabbett Strickland

The title of the book refers to the "Original Instructions " or "First Teachings," literal and metaphorical lessons given to indigenous and traditional cultures by their creator(s). "These are instructions on how to be a good human being living in reciprocal relation to nature," Nelson said. "These are natural laws that when ignored, have natural consequences."

Contributors to the book include artists, social, political and religious leaders, ecologists, health care professionals and civil servants from around the world. "Each chapter illustrates alternative world views to the philosophy of conquest over nature," Nelson said. "The philosophies showcased reveal time-tested practices for sustainable living and reassert native peoples' perspectives and rights."

The book is dedicated to the late John Mohawk, a scholar, activist and member of the Turtle Clan Seneca people. In several pieces he addresses Iroquois approaches to ecological living.

Celebrated Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcón writes about his embrace of ancient Mesoamerican traditions during the AIDS crisis and its emphasis on the oneness of all life shared by animals, plants and forces of nature.

In "Ethiopian Women: From Passive Resources to Active Citizens" traditional beliefs are challenged. Dr. Bogaletch Gebre, an epidemiologist and Fulbright scholar who was the first girl in her Ethiopian village to be educated past the fourth grade, tackles ancient beliefs about women's roles and female circumcision.

Nelson's essay "Mending the Split-Head Society with Trickster Consciousness," employs a mythological figure to address how traditional ways of knowing can help native people recover from psychological and social problems caused by such governmental assimilation efforts as American Indian boarding schools.

"The trickster, the coyote, as an archetype, as a person, as a cultural hero of our oral traditions and stories, is a teacher and reminder of plurality, diversity, paradox, humor, surprise and humility," Nelson writes. "Trickster forces us to retain an understanding of all sides of a story by revealing them to be coexisting parts of one greater whole."

Proceeds from the sale of "Original Instructions" support the Bioneers Indigenous Fund and reforestation and protection of lands adjacent to the Costa Rican rain forest.

-- Denize Springer


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