We recently started a map with pins showing places where watershed discipleship is being practiced. Would you like us to add your congregation or organization? Email us and we would be happy to add you!
by Todd Wynward
Imagine the U.S. government confiscating your beautiful local church building and grounds and turning its worship space into a public park. Imagine dune buggies and picnickers and diesel engines and fast-food wrappers. Imagine the sanctuary Sunday morning trashed, a victim of the party the night before.
Unimaginable? You bet. But that’s essentially what happened to Taos Pueblo in 1906, when earnest President Teddy Roosevelt violated the U.S. Constitution. Without consulting the Taos Pueblo community, he declared their Blue Lake to be part of Carson National Forest.
What’s wrong with placing sacred land in a national forest? If you’re a Christian environmentalist like me, protecting large swaths of God’s beautiful forests from human meddling seems like a great plan. Roosevelt’s governmental act of protection and conservation was well intentioned—he created a federal fix to address threats of corporate mining and exploitation–but it also was paternalistic and generalized. It ripped specific rights from a specific people, and a specific people from their specific sacred place. It’s taken me a long time to learn that place-based indigenous people like the natives of Taos aren’t dependent upon all forests in general, and connected to just any lake—they are inextricably linked to their lake, in their mountains, above their specific adobe homes. Taos native Sonya Bernal told me that, for indigenous people, their link to their home place is akin to an umbilical cord.
In Taos Pueblo history, Blue Lake is the tribe’s place of origin—from the lake’s depths Taos Indians entered this world. Blue Lake is their most sacred place, where they return after death and enter eternal life. It’s their Mecca, their church, their garden of Eden, their heaven. Severino Martinez, a former governor of Taos Pueblo, once tried to explain the lake’s significance to non-Indigenous politicians: “Blue Lake is the most important of all shrines because it is part of our life, it is our Indian church…. We go there and talk to the Great Spirit in our own language and talk to nature and…God Almighty, like anyone else would do.”
So when Roosevelt ripped ownership of Blue Lake from their hands in 1906, Taos Pueblo reeled. As Joe Sando writes, “a major taproot of their culture had been cut.” Sando explains the Pueblo began a massive struggle to win back what was theirs: “They spent many years learning how to battle politicians and bureaucrats on their own terms in order to redress the wrong done them. For sixty-four years, the Taos people would fight against impossible odds to regain their hallowed site.”
Finally, in 1970, after sixty years’ struggle, Taos Pueblo regained Blue Lake. President Richard Nixon commented, “I consider [returning Blue Lake] one of the most significant achievements of my Administration. It is more than just a land settlement: it is a symbolic turning point in the history of those who were the first Americans.”
And To Your Land You Shall Be Married
If the prophet Isaiah lived in Taos in 1970, his words might sound like this:
For Blue Lake’s sake I will not keep silent,
For Taos Pueblo’s sake I will not remain quiet,
until their vindicated covenant shines out like the dawn,
their redemptive bond like a blazing torch.
The United States government will judge your case to be valid,
and all corporations shall acknowledge your rights.
Your eternal place-bond shall be a crown of beauty in the Lord’s hand,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
After Nixon’s decree, no longer shall they call you Divorced from Your Land,
or name your sacred lake Open to the Public and For Sale;
but you shall be called Our Delight Is in Our Lake,
and to Blue Lake country you shall be bonded;
for the Lord delights in you, Taos Pueblo,
and to your land you shall be married.
(Isaiah 62:1-4, contextually adapted)
And to your land you shall be married. What would it mean to be married to your land—to be that rooted to place? As Mountain States’ Mennonite minister for watershed discipleship, I’m fascinated by this question. Jerry Kimmel first raised this question for me in early 2016 in his sermon, “Married to the Land.” It got me thinking: what would need to change in me to be truly married to my place?
To be married to our places goes against every core value of our dis-placed, massively-mobile, uber-disposable consumer culture that tells me everything is for sale and we should simply move when the river gets polluted or the neighborhood becomes tired. But place-based people understand what it means to be married to the land. Look at this 1970 proclamation by young adults of Taos Pueblo in the struggle to reclaim Blue Lake:
We, the young people of the Taos Pueblo Tribe…have heard and read baseless and false criticism thrown at our people by opponents, some whom even question our aboriginal right to this land; some whom even dare say all Indians are inept in the field of conservation. We remind those who say that of the virgin condition of the land occupied by Indians…before foreign influence. Many of our opponents have no other interest in the land except for once a year recreation, and the money to be made from it through activities that are harmful to the land.
Our tribal leaders have been criticized that their tribe and traditional way of life is deteriorating, that their young people are not interested in the traditional way of life. Let these people who voice these opinions look and listen: …We want our generation to have the right and the environment to carry on the Indian way of life. Our way of life is centered around this homeland which was founded by our forefathers and we do not want to lose it for the sake of monetary, recreational and plain land-grabbing interests of our opponents.
The Forest Service is contemplating their multiple use policy for our homeland. This includes harvesting of timber, development for recreational purposes, and manipulation of plant life. This is wrong for a land which must remain as it was created…. Nature took care of itself through these thousands of years and can take care of itself if man respects it and does not manipulate it to suit his needs. Our Taos Indian people have long believed that man should live in harmony with nature. Man should adapt himself to nature rather than forcing nature to adapt to man. Many people across this nation are just now becoming aware of the importance of this way of thinking…. We are not demanding land which is not ours. We are pleading for a land which our people have known as theirs since time immemorial. (Front page, Taos News, July 19, 1970)
Almost 50 years ago, Taos Pueblo’s successful quest to reclaim Blue Lake struck a nerve across the nation. Yes, it was about a specific place, but it was about all place-based people, in all places under threat. “Taos Pueblo’s struggle to regain its holy place is one of America’s epic stories,” Joe Sando observes. “The sixty-four-year effort became a symbol of the plight of the American Indian. Before it ended, it…gained the support of most American Indian tribes as well as of people all over the world who recognized in this confrontation an example for aboriginal people wherever their claims.” As President Nixon stated when signing the bill into law: “It is more than just a land settlement: it is a symbolic turning point in the history of those who were the first Americans.
Standing Rock: Coming Together To Protect Our Waters
Today, we are at another powerful turning point for first Americans, and for all of us. The courageous actions of the Standing Rock Sioux inspired place-based people everywhere. Through the example of Standing Rock, many of us are coming to a powerful realization: protecting our watersheds for future generations is God’s call to action for people of faith today, just as urgent as it was for previous generations to abolish slavery or march for civil rights.
Yes, the actions happening at Standing Rock are about that specific tribe, rooted in that specific place. But what the Standing Rock Sioux are doing is much bigger. Gracey Claymore, a 19-year-old youth representative of the Standing Rock Sioux, recently spoke before a panel of about two dozen United States lawmakers. She explained how her tribe knows that they are acting in defense of not only their home place, but in defense of all humanity: “We are…coming together to protect our waters,” she said. “It’s not just the Dakota Access issue. It’s so much bigger than that. We have been saying over and over that this is not just a Native American issue; this is a human race issue. We are doing this to protect our human race, because without water we cannot survive. Without this Earth, we will not be here any more.”
Bringing it Back Home
In Taos, almost fifty years after the Blue Lake victory, our community’s water is at risk again today. A new compact called the Abeyta Settlement is a confusing snarl of competing water claims. Water rights are on the auction block, and Taos residents—indigenous and settlers alike–are mixed about what to do. What is going to be best for our Taos community?
Taking a cue from Taos’ current controversy, modern Americans who say they care for creation might ask: At what price are we selling our waters? What short-term gain of piped petroleum is worth risking healthy water for our future generations? Like the rest of humanity swept up in consumer culture, many of today’s affluent Americans seem to lack a sense of being married to place.
Looking at my own life, I know I embrace far too easily the latest gadgets and comforts, even when these very comforts destroy our ecosystems. It’s time for me to step up, root down, and wake up as a creature dependent upon my watershed of the Rio Grande. It’s time for all of us to take a long look at Isaiah’s words, and practice being married to the land in which we move and breathe and have our being. Like the Standing Rock Sioux, we need to answer with our bodies: what is being endangered in our home places? What is worth protecting with our very lives? Our children’s children deserve nothing less.
*A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 issue of The Mennonite*
Todd Wynward is an author, educator, small-scale farmer, wilderness trip leader, and Mennonite minister for watershed discipleship affiliated with Mountain States Conference. He and his wife, Peg, founded a wilderness-based public charter school in 2001 and are now creating TiLT, an incubator for intentional living in Taos, N.M. His recent book, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, was published by Herald Press.
by Cherice Bock and Solveig Nilsen-Goodin
Solveig Nilsen-Goodin is the pastor of the Wilderness Way Community in Portland, OR, and she had the seed of this idea when she began thinking about what her community might do to mark the EcoReformation this year, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
The goal of thinking of this year as an EcoReformation is to define what reformation means in this time and place in history, particularly with regard to ecological destruction and climate crisis. Martin Luther is reported to have said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
Solveig heard about an international, child-led initiative called “Plant for the Planet,” and when she sought and received a small grant from Thrivent, she floated the idea to Randy and Edith Woodley of Eloheh Farm and Cherice Bock at North Valley Friends about working together to plant some trees.
After raising over $3000 between our three groups, planning and purchasing the trees and shrubs, publicizing the event on Facebook and through our networks, we gathered on April 22 to plant. Randy and Edith spent the day prior to the event digging holes with their backhoe, which made the work much easier! We started off by introducing ourselves, explaining what we’re doing and why, and sharing in some music together led by Seth Martin and friends.
Part of the goal of the event was to get kids involved in planting trees that would help make our Willamette Valley watershed healthier into their futures. We had quite a few kids there, and they helped out a bit! Mostly they had fun playing with one another and with the Woodleys’ variety of farm animals. However, one youth acted as photographer and videographer, creating a beautiful video of the day:
We planted 140 trees by lunch time! (The remaining 10 were planted the next day.) The rain held off until we broke for lunch, then a shower passed over as we ate in the Woodleys’ greenhouse. Once we were ready to get back to work, the clouds broke, and we enjoyed some April sunshine. Throughout the afternoon, we staked some of the trees and did detail work to make sure each plant was planted properly. Then we spent some time relaxing around a picnic table, sharing stories in the sunshine, and developing connections between the people in our three groups.
A couple weeks later, Solveig and some students shared about this project at the annual gathering of the Oregon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They hoped to inspire other congregations to similar actions: planting trees to contribute to “Plant for the Planet,” and to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit in the EcoReformation. Here is what they shared:
Student 1: Two weeks ago, on Earth Day, our church, the Wilderness Way Community, partnered with North Valley Friends Church and Eloheh Farm…
Student 2: …to plant 150 trees that will grow into a food forest on Eloheh Farm.
Student 3: Eloheh Farm is a teaching farm of an Indigenous family in Newberg.
Student: 1 “Eloheh” is a Cherokee Indian word representing harmony, balance, well-being and abundance.
Student 2: For about 500 years, since about the time Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg…
Student 3: …Indigenous peoples of our country have had their lands, cultures, and children stolen from them.
Student 1: When we raised $3,000 to purchase and plant trees for a food forest for Eloheh Farm…
Student 3: We were helping our planet…
Student 2: …and we were also helping in a small way to heal the wounds of five centuries…
Student 1: …and restore the abundance of the land to the people who remember how to live in harmony with the land.
Student 2: Our Synod is encouraging every congregation in Oregon to start an EcoReformation Project this year.
Student 3: Our tree planting was the first EcoReformation Project of this 500th anniversary year!
Student 1: In fact, we kids from Wilderness Way want to see how many trees we can plant as a whole synod before assembly time next year!
Student 2: Let the children lead. Partner with other congregations. Find ways that planting trees can restore abundance to Indigenous or underprivileged communities. Use your Thrivent Action Team grant funds to get started!
Student 3: And when you do, email us through our website. Tell us your stories and let us know how many trees you planted.
Student 1: We will keep the official count and report our total to a children-led group called Plant for the Planet.
Student 2: The children of Plant for the Planet hold the official United Nations tree counter. They have helped inspire countries to plant over 14 billion trees so far. But we need to plant one trillion trees!
Student 1: With our 150 trees, and their 14 billion…
All students together: …we only have 985 billion, 999 million, 999 thousand, 850 trees left to go!
Student 2: As Martin Luther said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree today.”
Student 3: We don’t want to live in a world that is going to pieces.
Student 1: Please join us children in planting trees and other projects for the EcoReformation.
This watershed discipleship event allowed us to come together across divides, gathering Lutherans, Native Americans, and Quakers, along with other friends, to care for our little corner of creation. We addressed the environmental situation we face, listening to our children and encouraging their leadership into a healthy future by planting trees and bushes that will help cycle carbon dioxide and regulate the local water cycle. Many of these plants will also help the social systems in our area, contributing a variety of healthy nuts, fruits, and berries to the local food system.
We also took steps toward being disciples of our watersheds. The Woodleys researched the best native species needed to reestablish the former habitat of the Pacific Northwest, and they shared some of what they learned with the rest of us. We looked at the soil and its species up close, and learned a little bit about what it takes to care for this place in which we live. We thought about the metaphor of the biodiverse forest, with each species playing its part in order to contribute to the health and wholeness of all. Through this and other metaphors, we heard the voice of God whispering through the young leaves, promising an ancient forest to our children and grandchildren, speaking shalom and reconciliation.
by Vickie Machado
Recently, young adults hailing from the Willamette Watershed in Oregon to the Biscayne Bay Watershed in Florida gathered in Virginia’s James River Watershed to partake in the 10th annual Eco-Stewards Program, a grassroots community that shapes young adult leaders through place-based experiences that connect faith and the environment. Each year, Eco-Stewards organizes a weeklong gathering in a location that reflects the pressing issues of faith and environmental action. This year’s theme, “Water is Life: Journeying to Justice on the James,” arose in response to the prevalence of water issues—such national events as Flint, MI and Standing Rock—and was hosted in Richmond, VA. Participants received copies of Watershed Discipleship, a natural fit as it addresses the complexity of faith, water, and justice. The anthology acted as our guide, and its themes were reiterated throughout the week in our interactions and dialogue. We assembled in Virginia open to learning the stories of the James River and how its inhabitants are responding to the beckoning call to become disciples of their watershed. The idea, “We won’t save the places we don’t love, we can’t love places we don’t know and we don’t know places we haven’t learned” (Baba Dioum), became a common theme and was expressed even by those who had no connections to the growing watershed discipleship movement.
Arriving a day early from the sub-tropical bioregion of South Florida allowed me to gain my bearings. My fellow Eco-Steward, friend, and Richmond host, Kathleen, took me straight to the river. I was amazed at the amount of greenery lining both sides of this urban section of the James. As I dipped my feet in, I decided this week I would let the river guide my journey—taking me through whatever flows it had forged. Kathleen drove me all around her city, allowing me to take in this watershed before we prepared for our Eco-Stewards week ahead.
Over the course of our time together, our group was graced with the presence of local historians, geographers, conservationists, watershed restorationists, tribal council leaders, outdoor enthusiasts, and faith leaders, as well social justice advocates and activists—each of these individuals on a quest to reclaim the James River Watershed as a restored place of social and environmental justice. Early in our time together, Ralph White, who served as Park Manager for the James River Park System for 32 years, shared the early history of the park system and the revitalization that arose from volunteer efforts. His talk was followed by watershed expert and Richmond Hill community member, Kristen Saacke Blunk, as she explained the racial reconciliation actively occurring in the area. Still, others like environmental ethicist and University of Virginia professor, Willis Jenkins, challenged us to explore what it means to have an allegiance to creation.
Our time was also soaked in movement as we chatted with Charis Community member Grace Aheron. She showed us her community efforts to live at the pace of the trees through planned permaculture projects and intentionality. We walked with water as Beth Roach, Tribal Council member of the Nottoway Indians, allowed us to partake in a water walking ceremony. We ended our week canoeing the James, experiencing firsthand the river that defines this region.
Throughout our journey, we followed themes arising from Watershed Discipleship. These themes challenged our way of understanding our relationship with biotic communities. In addition to place, our interactions and reading reinforced the need for solidarity, practice, and awareness of the complexity of justice issues that arise in watersheds. The notion of loving, learning, and caring for a place rose to the forefront in early discussions of the book, in addition to conversations with watershed restorationist Bobby Whitescarver, who is actively working to protect the river from excess nutrient pollution. The concept stayed with us, weaving its way through our group dialogue, and into our down time graced with music and reflection.
On a more personal level, as both a leader of the trip and contributor to the book, it was insightful to engage with others who are testing the waters of watershed discipleship. I felt the energy of others, reinforcing my own commitment to the work, study, and livelihood connected to my home. While the week’s investigations offered more insight into the practical nature of watershed discipleship, the experience also opened up a world of questions regarding the larger human-nature relationship. For me, it’s exciting to hear these conversations and, more so, to connect them with the justice actions of the James River Watershed. It’s times like these that renew my own faith, providing me energy to continue the quest for environmental justice and stewardship.
The Eco-Stewards Program is a grassroots community that shapes young adult leaders through place-based experiences that connect faith and the environment. Vickie Machado has been involved with the Eco-Stewards Program for six years, and recently helped lead this year’s gathering in Richmond, VA. She is also a contributor to Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice.
Presbyterians for Earth Care invite all those interested to join them for a watershed discipleship-focused conference, “Blessing the Waters of Life: Justice & Healing for Our Watersheds,” this September along the Columbia River in Oregon. The conference will be held at Menucha Retreat & Conference Center.
A pre-conference gathering from September 24-26 will include a session by Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff on “Native Ways of Being & Knowing.” Merculieff is a passionate advocate for indigenous rights/wisdom, and a member of the last generation of Aleuts raised in a traditional way.
Rev. Dr. Barbara Rossing will serve as the keynote speaker for the conference, which will run September 26-29. Rossing is Professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her research focuses on the book of Revelation, ecology, and liberation.
The conference will will focus on water issues at the nexus of climate change and indigenous people, with particular focus on environmental justice, the impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery, the scriptural call to care for creation, and hands on outdoor experiences. Conference-goers can choose from nature experiences such as exploring the Columbia River Gorge, caring for the land at Menucha Retreat Center, birding hikes, and opportunities to search the stars with a telescope.
See the conference program for further details and fee options. Register by June 30 for the best rate. There is a young adult discounted rate, and scholarships are available.
To learn more, we spoke with the conference coordinator, Jenny Holmes, who adds:
If you are not able to attend the whole conference, September 26-29, consider joining the September 24-26 pre-conference event as a commuter. On Sunday, Sept. 24, from 7:00-9:00 pm, there is a special presentation at Menucha with the author, educator, and environmentalist Larry Merculieff on “Native Ways of Being and Knowing.” The cost is $20. The two-day sessions focused on Columbia River tribes and environmental justice is $55 for commuters. Organized in partnership with members of Columbia River tribes and local community and environmental organizations, “Spirit of the Salmon – Water, Culture, and Justice in the Columbia Watershed” is a two-day exploration of the environmental justice issues affecting the tribes of the Columbia River Watershed. Participants will learn about tribal culture and spirituality, see first-hand how climate change and pollution are affecting the Columbia River and tribal life-ways and treaties, and experience hopeful models for healthy communities and watersheds.
We begin on Monday, September 25, at Menucha, where we will learn from tribal members about tribal sovereignty, treaties, and how historic neglect and wrongs are being addressed. We then travel to Bonneville Dam to learn about hydropower, water quality, and the ethical issues of the Columbia River Treaty. After a brief stop at the site of Oregon’s first oil train spill, we visit Celilo Park near the now silenced Celilo Falls and engage in dialogue with Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Elizabeth Woody, a member of the Warm Springs Tribe, and other members of the Columbia River Tribes.
The second day starts with an interfaith panel and dialogue on the “Doctrine of Discovery” focused on what repudiating this 15th-century justification for the subjugation of non-Christian people has meant for current day relationships with Native Americans. We then journey to Cascades Locks where we will view tribal fishing platforms, view spawning salmon, and hear how tribal leaders have prevented the extinction of salmon runs. A rally and prayer vigil will demonstrate solidarity with the Columbia River Tribes, and their issues will cap the day. To register as a commuter, register online with Presbyterians for Earth Care at http://presbyearthcare.org/events/. For lodging and meals, register at http://www.menucha.org/programs/pec.
Ben Katt of the RePlacing Church Podcast recently interviewed Ched Myers on the topic of watershed discipleship. They discussed the definition of a watershed, the importance of care for one’s watershed as an act of Christian faithfulness, Myers’ own work in the Ventura River Watershed north of Los Angeles, CA, and other topics related to the social-ecological history of the United States. He invites us to “reimagine the landscape in terms of the real.” If you’re looking for a resource that accessibly explains watershed discipleship to interested friends and church members, suggest they give this a listen.
You may be interested in some of the other sessions on the RePlacing Church Podcast while you’re there.
The Eco-Stewards Program will focus its June gathering on watershed discipleship. This gathering for young adults (ages 20-30) in Richmond, VA will explore the James River Watershed through meeting farmers, conservationists, faith leaders, and scholars, reading from Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice, visiting a power plant, space to be in nature, and telling stories connecting faith and the environment.
With the theme, “Water is Life: Journeying Toward Justice Along the James River,” the June 5-10, 2017 gathering will center around what we have learned from the non-violent, fierce love displayed at Standing Rock to show that water is sacred. Our lives depend on it, and our morality and faith demand we must steward it well if we are to love our neighbors. In the light of climate change and racial injustice, communities along the James River in and around Richmond, VA are actively living out this love both up and downstream in the spirit of revolutionary eco-justice. The program leaders invite you to join the journey, and to find inspiration, faith, and creative visions as stewards of water and neighbor.
Application Deadline: May 1, 2017
Cost: $375 (need-based scholarships available)
More info: https://ecostewardsprogram.wordpress.com/2017-program/
In 2017 Cherice Bock is undertaking a project which will include assisting us to revamp this website. She has recently had a review of Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice published by Sojourners (in the April 2017 issue). Her full review of Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice is available here: https://chericebock.com/2017/03/09/book-review-published-watershed-discipleship/
Amongst many other things, Cherice Bock, lives in Oregon where she teaches at George Fox University and its seminary, and serves as the community garden coordinator. Cherice edits the environmental studies journal Whole Terrain, and is a regional editor for Christ & Cascadia, an online journal exploring theology and culture in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia.
Available now is the new anthology publication: Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice, EDITED BY Ched Myers, Cascade Books (Fall 2016).
The much anticipated “Watershed Anthology” is now available. With over a dozen contributes, this anthology introduces and explores “watershed discipleship” as a critical, contextual, and constructive approach to ecological theology and practice.
CONTRIBUTORS: Introduction and Afterword by Ched Myers; Poetry by Rose Berger, Foreword by Denis Nadeau. Chapters by: Sasha Adkins, Jay Beck, Tevyn East, Erinn Fahey, Katarina Friesen, Matt Humphrey, Vickie Machado, Jonathan McRay, Sarah Nolan, Reyna Ortega, Dave Pritchett, Erynn Smith, Sarah Thompson, Lydia Wylie-Kellermann.
Interesting recent posts from the Coming Into the Watershed Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/watersheddiscipleship/):
Mike Little posted about Potawatomi and Indigenous peoples are taking the lead in addressing climate change: http://www.potawatomi.org/news/top-stories/1855-potawatomi-and-indigenous-peoples-take-the-lead-in-addressing-climate-change
Bill Wylie-Kellermann let us know about Ryan Camero who is working with Restore the Delta, a grassroots group committed to restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta:
Here is a great example of neighborhood based organizing around ecojustice and watershed work posted by Dave Pritchett – “Eastwick in the Middle: Organizing for Environmental Justice” by Media Mobilizing Project TV: