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'Natural democracy' -- putting life of planet ahead of profits -- is advocated by Professor Eric Cheyfitz

While the West views nature as an entity that should be controlled and dominated and that is in opposition to culture, traditional Native American philosophies view nature as kin, inseparable from humans, to be treated with respect, dignity and unity.

So explained Eric Cheyfitz, the Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell, in the 10th annual William H. and Jane Torrence Harder Lecture, hosted by Cornell Plantations, Sept. 6 in Warren Hall.

In a critique of how capitalism separates people from nature, Cheyfitz said, "We are not alive to make a profit but to sustain a decent life for every person on this planet, which means, of course, sustaining a decent life for the planet itself."

He began by defining Western society's relationship to nature. "We have acted historically … and with increasing intensity since the second half of the 18th century, as though nature is outside of the human, an object to be mastered." Within this model, "nature opposes culture."

Cheyfitz, who is the editor of the 2006 book "The Columbia Guide to American Indian Literatures of the United States Since 1945," believes that this destructive dynamic is destroying the planet, and that a new paradigm in which humans and nature are inseparable should be taught through the "indigenous ways of knowing the world."

Cheyfitz referred, for example, to University of New Mexico educator Gregory Cajete's theory of "natural democracy," in which "all of nature, not only humans, has rights." Natural democracy is "kin-based" without distinctions between nature and culture, and humans and animals, said Cheyfitz. In most native languages, he said, animals are referred to only by their specific names, as there are no generic words for animals, suggesting a partnership and respect between humans and animals.

Cheyfitz also analyzed a passage from the Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko's acclaimed 1977 novel "Ceremony" that describes how Tayo, a traditional Laguna Indian, and his Westernized cousin, Rocky, react after killing a deer. As Rocky guts the deer, Tayo covers its head with his own jacket "out of respect." Rocky views the Laguna ceremonies that accompany the gutting -- the sprinkling of maize meal on the deer's nose to feed its spirit -- as superstition: "He was embarrassed at what they did."

Borrowing from Cajete, Cheyfitz pointed out that Rocky's adoption of Western values makes him "intent on distancing the deer from the community by reducing it to dead matter. … private property," a commodity.

According to Karl Marx, Cheyfitz said, capitalism focuses on "constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production," such that only "new" things are valued; as a result, traditions, ceremonies and rituals tend to become less and less important. This, in turn, "alienates nature from man." But later in his career, Marx pointed out that native ideas could perhaps repair capitalism's rift between nature and Western culture. For example, the Zapatistas of Mexico published a political manifesto in 1993 that suggested a more collective approach to production that would follow a kin-based model that seeks similar goals to Cajete's natural democracy and would serve all Mexicans.

Cheyfitz concluded by quoting from a poem by Acoma Pueblo writer Simon Otiz, which calls for a return to "balancing the Earth":

By working in this manner
for the sake of the land and the people
to be in vital relation
with each other,
we will have life,
and it will continue.

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