A Diatribe Against “Dying Tribes”: Before We Pass Away

“We Are Still Here”: a common expression of indigenous vitality and persistence.

I will no longer share, or accept without comment, media that shows beautiful diverse peoples living in their own way with the words “Dying” or “Dead” in the headline. This idea of “dying peoples”, “dying cultures”, “dying languages” expresses factual truth while spiritually (ugh) misleading the audience. Humbly, these indigenous peoples represent humanity at its core, where we come from and where the even modern techno-mad human cultures will inevitably return – if we still have a chance to.

I took the image above from a photo-essay volume called Before They Pass Away. I think, to speak much more honestly, we’d need to call it “Before We Pass Away”.

This whole pity parade for indigenous peoples fighting to live in their original way strikes me as absurd, when the “pitied’ peoples themselves continue to live grandly and in accord with the world, and what threatens them also threatens everyone living on this planet. You can argue with climate scientists if you don’t agree.

If we must dole out pity, perhaps we might more wisely pity ourselves.

This situation reminds me of people saying, “awww, poor thing…” at road-kill. Nowadays I want to snap back, “Hey, that animal died a hero’s death, living wild accord with its nature! It has galaxies swirling in its belly and when it speaks myths are born! And you’re the one filling up on a second helping of pasta while watching sitcoms!”

This whole “pity for the wild” exasperates me. We sit here destroying ourselves, while living inside the culture that invented “quiet desperation” and wage slavery. Wild creatures die crushed in the gears of our culture, yes, but at least they go out with dignity in accord with their natural magic.

We don’t make the obligation to live beautifully, to feed a world that feeds us, a cultural imperative on daily basis like traditional folks. So who shall we rightfully pity? Yes, modern humans continue to devour the world thus damning themselves and their home, but some humans still remember the source of what makes us human. Indigenous peoples have traditionally felt pity for the civilized, once they could see our situation.

Pity connotes a power differential – the pitier has the power, the pitiable does not. And the mothering earth fills traditional peoples and wild animals with the power of belonging, a power of place, a power of origination, a power of accord with the wild.

Does this mean I don’t grieve road-killed cultures and wild beings? Of course I grieve them.

But I do not pity them, or have “sympathy” for them. Sympathy for what exactly? They lived their life, and they’ve passed on. They have left both pain and pleasure behind – at least physically.

Author Martín Prechtel articulates this best as the essential unity of Grief and Praise (you can hear his talk on the subject here).

Grief: Praise for what we’ve lost. Celebrating the magnificence of what we once had, and the echo it left behind.

Praise: Grief for what we’ve got – feeling the mortality of it, that we could lose it at any time.

I believe most self-identified nature activists are caught in a trap, that they can’t escape their own domestication because they won’t let go of the last few tools of colonization – one being “pity of the wild”. When we comment on the road-kill of our cars and culture, when we say “how dare we”, “how careless”, “what a waste”…this is not about the deer – those are all comments about us. Our lack of courtesy, our blindness and cruelty, does not make the deer pitiable (who is after all a god whose purpose is to feed the world and be scattered like stars stoking the fires behind an infinite array of mouths) – it makes us pitiable. The fact that you no longer will stand struck at the pageantry of sunrise and sunset (or whatever natural power you choose to disrespect by your rush) does not make the pageantry less awesome – it just makes you smaller, grayer, and more forgettable.

So remember, rewild, and celebrate the grandness of the smallest of destroyed beings; for your sake, for their sake, for our sake.

Written by Willem