Do Indians have the right to be naïve? In America, we cherish the freedom to believe what we will, and even to promote it. This is the law of the First Amendment. But, does that include the right to believe things that are self-destructive, or that cause social problems for others? Can anyone believe anything—without consequence?
In 2001, I published an article about the annual whale hunting customs of Makah Indians in Washington. The Makah take only 1-4 grey whales (out of a population of more than 22,000), but that incited the environmentalists to madness. Nevertheless, the custom continues. The Indians believe in preserving their tribal identity and customs, which involves whale hunting. The eco-terrorists beliefs were different, and they were intolerant of the Indian beliefs.
The issue of beliefs has seen an interesting twist recently. A small killer whale wandered off the watery path, and was living alone in the harbor of the small town of Gold River, in Vancouver, British Columbia. Instead of “hunting” the whale, the local Indians there protected it—from scientists. They even prevented a rescue effort to return the whale to its own kind, some 300 kilometers south on the coast.
In typical ethnic arrogance, the BBC fails to name the Indian tribe, calling them an “aboriginal group,” and “a local Indian tribe.” (They happen to be Mowachaht-Muchalaht Indians.) The report cites the beliefs of the Indians, however, in a simple, straightforward manner. The Indians saw their chief die just three years ago, and the chief promised to return to the people—as a whale. Three days after he died, the young whale, named Luna, appeared in the harbor of Gold River and has remained there since.
The initial BBC report does not speak of eco-terrorists attacking the Indians, as they did in the case of the Makah.
Just this month, however, March 11, 2006, the BBC reports that the young whale was killed. Young Luna seemed fond of playing around boats. Apparently, it was killed by the propeller of a tugboat. That is the report. The whale was seven years old and weighed 1.8 tons. “Killed instantly” by the propeller of a tugboat, the report says. Sorry, but not the right explanation, at all. Yet the question of foul play is not the issue.
Did the Indians indirectly cause the death of the whale? Did the Indians’ belief in the reincarnation of their chief cost, indirectly, the life of Luna? Were the Indians’ belief more important than the “safety” of the whale, or was that safety a matter of cooperation on the part of scientists and local officials—which cooperation failed to secure the safety?
The Indians believed that the whale was the reincarnation of their chief. Scientists said the whale needed to be with its own kind, and this would be best for the health and life of the whale. Scientists didn’t believe what Indians believed. Therefore, their beliefs dictated a different action.
Do Indians beliefs, then, create problems? What about those beliefs connected with wildlife, with ancestral gravesites, with land-to-trust purchases for casino sites? Are Indians causing problems for other people? If Indians are, is this really in the best interests of Indians?
The tragedy of Luna, a most beloved and popular creature in Gold River, demonstrates, if only symbolically, the validity of the issue. What one believes is important. It has effects on others, both man and beast, and also the environment. Generally speaking, the beliefs of American Indians have been seen as beneficial to the environment, to wildlife, and also to humanity. This is certainly the left-wing take. (Woe to those Indians who behave otherwise—as I pointed out about the Makah elsewhere in these pages.)
This raises several questions. Who has the authority to dictate to Indians what they should believe? If Indian beliefs cross the purposes of the non-Indian world, is the overruling of Indian beliefs arbitrary? Does it happen only when Indian beliefs are impossible to accommodate by the dominant society – a case where leftists tell Indians, “You can believe this, but you can’t believe that”? It all depends on the circumstances.
Circumstances have been against Indians since the Europeans first arrived. That can’t be the criteria for determining what is ‘believable.’
Indians themselves need to determine what is best for them—not for whales, nor for the environment. What is best for Indians? Some old Indians believed in “death before change.” What to believe today is the question. Indians need to find that answer, and make that their “beliefs.” They do not need to tailor those beliefs to fit with those of their putative leftist “friends”; that has not helped the Indians and never will.
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