Rose Elizabeth Bird, the late, great 25th chief justice of the California Supreme Court — and the only female ever to hold that office — famously said, “We have probed the earth, excavated it, burned it, ripped things from it, buried things in it. … That does not fit my definition of a good tenant. If we were here on a month-to-month basis, we would have been evicted long ago.”
“Daddy, why are people Republicans?” I was about 10 years old and already rabidly loyal to Democrats, despite not really grasping the whole partisan divide — just like now!
“Some people are afraid of sharing what they’ve got. They are afraid there won’t be enough for them,” he said. “Is that true?” I asked. “In the short term, maybe. But in the long term, if the world is ruined from greed, it won’t be good for anyone.” I thought about his answer, and I’m still thinking about it. Some questions can’t be answered until it’s too late.
“Daddy, why aren’t we Republicans?”
“We were very poor, and we know what it’s like to not have enough. But always remember to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. If we had the same parents, the same family, the same background, the same events, we might have been Republicans. But I want you to always think about being an Indian. How must they feel?” My dad’s generation called Native Americans “Indians,” as they hadn’t yet learned about the lives of Indigenous peoples and Columbus’ crimes. We were in the Dakotas and very aware of Native Americans.
Thanks to my dad, I learned to think about how Native Americans must feel, especially on Thanksgiving. Now we are not only deconstructing Columbian history but Pilgrims’, too. Americans are great at many positive things yet are also geniuses at accepting historical BS and whitewashing, the term used advisedly.
Rose Bird’s quote about tenancy reverberates in my brain: probed, excavated, burned. These are not words of benign neglect: They are active and forceful. Try to imagine the heartache that Indigenous people worldwide feel from the mass destruction of colonization. To raise the empathy quotient for us Americans, I have a strong recommendation for this year’s Thanksgiving holiday.
At your table or during the holiday weekend, read excerpts from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s eloquent book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” You probably won’t have time to read the whole thing, but reading an essay at a time is both delicious and confronting.
Dr. Kimmerer holds a unique position as an enrolled member of an Indigenous clan in New York state and a professor with scientific credentials in academia. Cynics often say, “Native knowledge is no longer relevant,” which is not valid. Kimmerer provides ample evidence of how the wisdom of her forebears has reversed ecological disasters.
You may be familiar with the Three Sisters of beans, squash and corn. Indigenous peoples attempted to teach the Pilgrims about the Sisters, as they knew European single-crop myopia was not sustainable. Nutritionally, corn, beans and squash together provide a healthy and sustainable human diet. Sadly, the Europeans wouldn’t accept any agricultural guidance from “savages,” ancient wisdom be damned,
Kimmerer writes of the Three Sisters: “Of all the wise teachers who have come into my life, none are more eloquent than these, who wordlessly in leaf and vine embody the knowledge of relationship. Alone, a bean is just a vine, squash an oversize leaf. Only when standing together with corn does a whole emerge which transcends the individual. The gifts of each are more fully expressed when they are nurtured together than alone. In ripe ears and swelling fruit, they counsel us that all gifts are multiplied in relationship. This is how the world keeps going.”
We again are witnessing the catastrophic results of greed; sustainability be damned. Our irrational, exploitable fear of “socialism” is a symptom of our degraded educational system combined with a decadeslong assault on empathy. I can be as guilty of blind consumerism as the next American, and then I’ll lose sleep over what to do with everything I have.
Chief Justice Bird spoke of eviction but not about another pillar of tenant/landlord law: uninhabitability. A tenant can be legally forgiven from paying rent if they can show that (a) their rented dwelling is uninhabitable, (b) the tenants have made the landlord aware of the substandard conditions, and (c) the landlord has refused to bring the dwelling up to standards of “livability.” In the instance of our planet, who are the tenants and who are the landlords? We are often both. I would argue that enormous, selfish corporations — especially the Fossil Fuel Masters and their Republican toadies — are the “landlords.” It’s so twisted, as they and their families live on the same planet. Don’t they want to make the joint livable? It’s mind-boggling.
Meanwhile, at your Thanksgiving, please give thanks to the Tongva whose lands we occupy. It’s the least we can do. Thank you, Tongva.
Ellen Snortland has thankfully been writing a gender column for decades. Contact her at authorbitebybite.com.