Promoting Native Environmentalism And The Ecotheology Of Matthew Fox

By Thomas Ivan Dahlheimer

On May 5, 2014, I attended an Isanti County Environmental Coalition meeting in central Minnesota. I would have to get to know the members of the Coalition better before I could say that they are [all] of the dominant culture. My first impression was that they are of the dominant culture. I have an Isanti County counter-culture environmental mission. My Isanti County environmental mission is a part of my broader environmental mission, which also includes the other nine counties of the“Rum (Wahkon) River Watershed.

Wahkon River in Cambridge, Minnesota
Rum and Mississippi

Myenvironmental missionto promote Native environmental awareness in Isanti County and throughout the entireWahkon River Watershedis associated withmy movementto restore the sacred Native/Dakota name (Wahkon) to the “Rum River.” The Wahkon River or Watpa Wahkon (Spirit River) is a sacred site to the Lakota/Dakota and Mille Lacs Band of Ojbwe, a band ofmixed Ojibwe-Dakota heritage.

Several years ago, a Native American environmental activist, David Gonzales, was fortunate to get a counter-culture article of his published in the Star Tribune, Minnesota’s best-selling state-wide daily newspaper. It advocated the formation of a group of Indigenous environmental activists who would canoe from Mille Lacs Lake down the badly named “Rum River” to its confluence with the Mississippi River. And do so, “in an effort to change the dominant culture’s collective attitude toward the rivers in particular and water in general.” The plan was to stop along the way and set up colorful tepees and camps at key environmental locations along the river as “environmental schools” to promote Indigenous/Native environmental awareness.

Indigenous people’s traditional/pagan environmental awareness is radically different than the dominate culture’s environmental “awareness,” an “awareness” that is highly influenced by Christianity. A document mandated by the UN sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity, the Global Biodiversity Assessment, explicitly refers to Christianity as a faith that has set humans apart from nature and stripped nature of its sacred qualities. The document states:

“Conversion to Christianity has therefore meant an abandonment of an affinity with the natural world for many forest dwellers, peasants, fishers all over the world …The northeastern hilly states of India bordering China and Myanmar supported small scale, largely autonomous shifting cultivator societies until the 1950’s. These people followed their own religious traditions that included setting apart between 10% and 30% of the landscape as sacred groves and ponds.”

The world renowned environmentalist Al Gore wrote, in his book Earth in the Balance: The spiritual sense of our place in nature predates Native American cultures; increasingly it can be traced to the origins of human civilization…the prevailing ideology of belief in prehistoric Europe and much of the world was based on the worship of a single earth goddess…The last vestige of organized goddess worship was eliminated by Christianity as late as the fifteenth century in Lithuania.

In spite of the value of Native American environmental awareness and the value of the environmental spirituality of all the indigenous peoples residing throughout the Western Hemisphere, the Christian church has been trying, since the European Christian invasion of the Americas, to completely eliminate it by genocidal colonization processes – it is a Christian mission fueled by racism, religious bigotry and corporate greed – which has been ongoing for 500 plus years.

Thomas Berry, the late Catholic priest and world-renowned ecotheologian; who was a colleague of Matthew Fox and taught college classes on indigenous peoples’ eco-conscious religions…said that Christianity promotes “deep cultural pathology of human greed and addiction.” While referring to himself and all other believers, Berry said that we should “put the Bible on the shelf for twenty years” and “the only effective program available as our primary guide toward a viable human mode of being is the program offered by the Earth itself.”

Berry’s beliefs departed far from the teachings of “traditional Christianity,” a term often used to refer to Christianity in general. While using this definition of Christianity, Berry went so far as to promote a “post-Christian belief system”: “the world is being called to a new post-denominational, even post-Christian, belief system that sees the Earth as a living being – mythologically, as Gaia, Mother Earth – with mankind as her consciousness.”

Berry claimed that the Christian story is no longer the story of the Earth or the integral story of humankind. Evidently, Berry believed that the Catholic Church should now be disestablished and its members supplanted into a new post-Christian church. This is what I believe should and will occur. 

Both Indigenous/Native environmental leaders and non-indigenous environmentalists (like myself) who have abandon the dominant culture to embrace counter-cultural Indigenous environmental awareness are opposed to traditional Christianity (including main-line denominational Christianity in the United States), which I and others believe is environmentally anti-science, opposed to the indigenous peoples’ eco-conscious traditional/pagan religions and is the primary cause of the global environmental crisis, which threatens the extinction of all life on earth.

The spirituality and theology of a somewhat New Age sect of the Episcopal Church does not fit into my definition of “traditional Christianity” or “main-line denominational Christianity.” The modern-day “revisionists” of theemergence church movement, a global “Christian” movement, are not of traditional Christianity, and neither is a particular expression of the creation-centered spirituality movement. It’s called the “New Spirituality.”

TheNew Spirituality is the spirituality that the internationally renowned theologian Reverend Matthew Fox is of and promoting. CNN International featured him as a theologian speaking for the environment. I have received his support for the effort to change the name of the “Rum River.” Fox sees the earth as a living being, who is called Gaia or Mother Earth. Fox is an Episcopal priest. He is of both the creation-centered spirituality movement and the emergence church movement.

At one level (where Fox, I and others are at) these movements are a single movement. The revisionists’ expression of the emergence church movement rejects some of the “essential dogmas” of traditional Christianity. I am of this post-modern so-called “Christian”/New Spirituality movement. It is compatible with the Native environmental awareness that I am promoting throughout the Wahkon River Watershed.

The Earth is a living being: “Instead of living on an inanimate planet, a misty ball of rock hurtling through space, we can now think of ourselves as living at home, on our Mother, the Earth. And this is not just romanticized, speculative, fizzy-headed, spiritual wishful thinking. The Gaia hypothesis and other components of modern biology put into contemporary scientific form the ancient spiritual intuition that this Earth which is our home is a living being.” – Dr. Rupert Sheldrake

Two Bible scripture verses, together, advocate imperialism, conquest and ethocide of [heathen] natives. Driving natives from their sacred heathen/pagan homelands to expand the white Christian empire was an important part of the Christian colonization mission to eliminate Native pagan eco-conscious religions.

“The Lord said…I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” – Psalm 2 KJ

“You must drive all the natives of the land before you. If you do not drive the natives of the country before you then those who remain will become disgusting to your eyes and a thorn in your side. They will harass you in the land where you live, and I will deal with you as I meant to deal with them.” – Num. 33:5

For a long time the Lakota/Dakota people practiced their traditional eco-conscious religion throughout the Wahkon River Watershed. Four of the seven sub-tribes/bands of the Lakota/Dakota (the Isanti Dakota) were still living within this watershed when Europeans first arrived in the area. It was not long after they arrived that they accomplished their Christian mission of using a westward [driven] refugee tribe (or band of Ojibwe) to [drive] the Isanti Dakota from their sacred [heathen] homeland.

Now the Isanti Dakota are beginning to return to their sacred Wahkon River Watershed homeland in order to (along with a number of other good reasons) once again practice their traditional religion, including their eco-conscious spirituality. They are returning to their sacred ancestral homeland. Their return to their home will help me to promote Native environmental awareness throughout this watershed.

Many indigenous/native people believe that the infamous Biblical command of the God of Abraham, father to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious complex, to “subdue the earth” (instead of “honor and live in harmony with Mother Earth”) is the foundation of colonialism and domination of nature for centuries. And that “Christian discovery,” the Papal legal doctrine that commands the subjugation of indigenous peoples and their sacred homelands, enforced in the U.S. and other countries, is built on the Abrahamic religious command.

Many indigenous people also believe that this same command “subdue the earth” under girds an economics of “resource” extraction extending around the world, treating Mother Earth, a living being, as a bunch of “things” to be exploited.

Indigenous people believe that water is alive. They say: it hears our words, and responds to our speaking, to our thoughts, and to our words. And that the Creator made nothing dead. We cannot separate ourselves from living things. We are all part of the same world. The Lakota/Dakota would not say the Watpa Wahkon (Spirit River) belongs to them. They believe that they belong to the Watpa Wahkon and that it is alive, it hears their words, responds to their speaking, to their thoughts, and to their words. When they look at the Watpa Wahkon they see God. Everything they see is God, or a part of God. And they believe that there is a very special presents of God/Wahkon at sacred sites.

The plants, animals, birds, trees, rocks, rivers, lakes and everything on this earth are their relatives and they are a part of God or Wahkon Tonka. Gifts are therefore given to all things.

In academic terms, Native American spirituality may be described as panentheism (deity/spirit present in, as well as beyond, everything). Such a worldview assumes the existence of Spirit beyond the visible world, but also dwelling in all that is. The word “animism” (belief in spirits in natural phenomena, such as rivers, trees, rocks, animals, fire) is commonly used to describe Native American religion, but when one neglects to include the broader presence of Spirit beyond physical nature, this explanation is incomplete.

The Lakota/Dakota concept of Wahkon or Wahkon Tonka (most frequently translated as Great Spirit) illustrates panentheism well: Wahkon Tonka is the Spirit over, under, and throughout all of the physical world, its guiding principle, present in individual phenomena yet not confined to it, not strictly singular nor plural, neither truly personal nor impersonal.

Animism: Reverend Matthew Fox wrote, “We have [only] one moment in human history where these spirits were excommunicated, and that is… the modern era.” Only in the last few hundred years (about 300 years or so), Fox points out, have people in the Western world insisted on distancing and divorcing themselves from their relationship to the world of the spirits. He calls it a “rupture and perversion in human consciousness,” and he says: “I think this helps to explain the price we have paid in terms of ecological disaster, war, and greed.”

In a book titled Ancient Wisdom for Modern Ignorance, its author, Swami B. V. Tripurari, wrote: “Our present environmental crisis is in essence a spiritual crisis. We need only to look back to medieval Europe and the psychic revolution that vaulted Christianity to victory over paganism to find the spirit of the environmental crisis.”

“Inhibitions to the exploitation of nature vanished as the Church took the ‘spirits’ out of the trees, mountains, and seas. Christianity’s ghost-busting theology made it possible for man to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects. It made nature man’s monopoly. This materialist paradigm has dominated the modern world for the last few centuries.

“The current deplorable environmental crisis demands a spiritual response. A fundamental reorientation of human consciousness.”

Now-days the name Wahkon is often spelled Wakan. A paragraph in an article of mine that is posted on The Wakan Circle reads: Movements to restore Native names to geographic sacred sites are growing and gaining ground. Their mission is to influence the dominate culture to show due respect for sacred Native sites and their original names, which are often sacred names…and by doing so, ultimately reconcile the holocaustic behavior and treatment of indigenous peoples by the European settlers.

When this happens Native environmental awareness will dominate the world and the environmental crisis will then come to an end.

One of the reasons for promoting the effort to change the name of the “Rum River” is because “rum, like whiskey, brought misery and ruin to many of the Indians.” – Warren Upham. This quote is from a book published by the Minnesota Historical Society. Jim Anderson, the Chairman of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, wrote, “rum was used to steal our land and language.” In other word’s, the name “Rum” is radically incompatible with the sacred Lakota/Dakota name for the river and this is one good reason why the river’s name should be changed.

Likewise, mainline denominational Christianity is radically incompatible with the Lakota/Dakota people’s traditional/pagan religion. It’s incompatible, [environmentally] and in other ways. Christian churches located near the Lakota/Dakota people’s Watpa Wahkon (Spirit River), a sacred site, are, to the Lakota/Dakota people who believe in and practice their traditional religion, ABOMINATIONS that desecrate this sacred site of theirs. And they also believe that these churches desecrate their sacred traditional/ancestral name for the river.

The Christians of these mainline denominational churches can not show due respect for the sacred Lakota/Dakota name for the river because of some of their religious beliefs. The Lakota/Dakota people were in this area first. So if the two different groups of people of this area can not get along together (and they can not) because of radical different religious beliefs who is going to have to leave the area?

What I am saying in this article, is… if Christians of the mainline denominational churches located within the sacred Lakota/Dakota, Wahkon River Watershed Ancestral Homeland want to continue believing in God and Jesus Christ, and want to also continue being disciples of Jesus Christ, they will have to (in order to be righteous and show due respect for the Lakota/Dakota people) embrace a form of “Christianity” that is compatible with the Lakota/Dakota people’s traditional religion, a form of “Christianity” that does not desecrate their sacred site (the Watpa Wahkon) and their sacred name for the river. Nor can it be incompatible with Native environmental awareness or spirituality.

This article explains how mainline denominational Christians can radically transform their religion so that it is compatible with the Lakota/Dakota traditional religion…and, in doing so, gain the right to live in this land that is sacred to them.

Colonizing European nations were obeying the international laws of Western Christendom, which were based on the “Doctrine of Christian Discovery,” a series of fifteenth century Papal doctrines, when they invaded the Americas’ indigenous peoples’ sacred homelands, committed genocide and ethnocide against them, desecrated their sacred sites, stole their lands, enslaved some of them, subjugated all of them, denied them their fundamental human rights to be fully independent sovereign nations and have root ownership of their sacred homeland territories, where they could practice their traditional/pagan religions.

And when the United States of America was established it continued on with the same ungodly agenda in this part of the Western Hemisphere. And it has not yet repented. However, the U.S. Episcopal Church, Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Church, United Church of Christ Church and some Quaker Churches have repented. They have renounced or repudiated the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.

With the exception of the Episcopal, Methodist and United Church of Christ churches the mainline denominational Christian churches have not yet repented, which would necessarily include a radical transformation of their spirituality and theology. These mainline denominational Christians can not righteously live in this land while in the morally degenerate condition they are still in. And the Episcopal, Methodist and United Church of Christ churches still have a lot more to apologize for and a lot more transformation to go through before they will be compatible with this land’s indigenous peoples.


Note: The World Council of Churches has also denounced the Doctrine of Discovery.

Mystical Paradigm Shift And The New Post-Christian Church

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