The Great Environmentalists:
Cultural Stereotypes and the Environmental Movement
by Gordon Straw

One of my childhood heroes was "Ironeyes" Cody. You may not remember the name, but you most likely remember the face of this man, if you owned a television around the first Earth Day in 1970. His face is unforgettable to me: the wrinkles around the eyes that denote wisdom, the shocking black hair in braids, a look of sadness and near-disgust, and a single tear, creeping for a lifetime, from his eye. "Ironeyes" Cody was the Native American on horseback in the pro-environment commercial which immortalized him in the early 1970s. He was my hero because he seemed to share my concern for what was happening to the earth due to the ignorance or malevolence of others. Besides, he was the first Native person in a commercial that I can think of that was not portrayed as a grunting savage.

Nowadays, I still have a great deal of respect for "Ironeyes" Cody, but I could not say that he still is a hero of mine. I say that, because I see his role in that famous commercial a little bit differently now. Since that commercial, I have heard the phrase, "the Indian's love of nature" more times than I would care to count. Native American peoples have become stereotyped as the "great environmentalists" of this country. It is true that Native peoples have a different relationship with the earth than do the immigrants to this land; the earth is their mother, not property to be exploited. But that is not what I am hearing from non-Indians. In my capacity as director for Native American ministries of the ELCA I hear from congregations that want to learn more about Native spirituality and "their great love of nature." I hear from church leaders that the church needs the involvement of more Native people because we Native American people can teach the church about "our great love of nature." Environmental groups want Native people involved to "exemplify" the movement's "great love of nature."

Native American peoples find odious assumptions and examples of stereotypical thinking, both implicit and explicit, contained in these statements. Most objectionable is the underlying assumptions about Native American contributions to the environmental movement, when Native American people are not really being asked their opinions about the current crisis. In many ways Native Americans are merely serving as mascots to the environmental movement. There are three illustrations which I feel best demonstrate this point:

  1. the myth of the generic Indian
  2. the myth of "a once noble people"
  3. the absence of Native Americans in leadership in the environmental movement

One of the prevailing myths about Native Americans in this country I call the myth of the generic Indian. This myth portrays all Native Americans as if they belonged to one huge, monolithic tribe. This view assumes that all tribes have the same traditions, customs, language, lifestyle and government. This is far from the truth. In fact, Native Americans represent less than one percent of the US population, but represent half of its language diversity. Fifty percent of the languages spoken in the United States are Native languages. There are hundreds of tribes with differing traditions, governments, and strategies for the future. It is absolutely naive to think that all Native Americans could be represented by one image of what non-Natives think they are.

A second false assumption is that Native American peoples and their cultures are frozen in the past, specifically in the nineteenth century. The "Ironeyes" Cody commercial does this: a Native person riding on horseback, in the woods, in breechcloth and feathers, and keeping his distance from a teeming highway. Most people subconsciously, and many blatantly, assume that Indians no longer exist and that their cultures are dead. It is true that the 1800's John Wayne Indians no longer exist; they never did. The movie Dances With Wolves has a lot to commend it, but even it leaves this assumption inviolate. I would say this is changing with the advent of Indian gaming and casinos, and more non-Indians being exposed to contemporary Native American peoples and culture. Even so, the view persists. Donald Trump, a casino owner himself, went before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian Affairs and testified that his competitors, the Mashantucket Pequot, "don't look like Indians to me." This myth is dangerous because it places Native peoples outside the consciousness of everyday life in this country. A striking example of this came out of the analysis of the 1980 census. It was determined, with the data of the 1980 census, that for every species of plant or animal on the endangered species list, there are five Native languages (thus, cultures) that are in danger of extinction. It seems to be easier to whip up support for the spotted owl or the snail darter, than living cultures of living people. It is one thing for a German American to lose her or his language and culture in this country; it only takes a trip to Germany to remedy it. But if the languages of Native Americans are lost in this country, they are lost forever. This is one of the real consequences of such a stereotypical view.

Finally, with respect to the sensitivities of well-meaning people, particularly in the environmental movement, if indeed Native Americans have a lot to teach this dominant society about care of the earth, and if they could be so helpful to the environmental movement, why are there no Native Americans in leadership in the environmental movement? My apologies to those few who probably are doing just that, but the question remains valid. Why are there so few people of color in the environmental movement? This is more than an issue of representation or tokenism; it is a challenge to bring people of differing world views and viewpoints to work together on a crisis that affects us all.

A few years ago, I was visiting on the Hoopa Indian Reservation in northern California. I was sitting in the kitchen of one of the members of the tribe, who was attending several meetings with some of the environmental groups in the area planning strategies around a local environmental issue. She was asked by her tribe to bring their view to the group, which was slightly at variance to the other's. She expressed a great deal of frustration, because the leaders of the environmental groups refused to listen to her. It appeared they wanted her to remain part of the group, because it was good for publicity, not because of her values as a Native person. They had their grand scheme all set up and they were not going to let her or her tribe's position on the issue get in the way of their strategy to achieve environmental justice.

If the environmental movement is serious about its stated commitments to being concerned for all peoples, the movement will need to be more open to divergent opinions, more willing to settle these differences in honest dialogue. One place to start is for the environmental organizations to become more familiar with the current issues and struggles of tribes and tribal people, not only the ones that fall into their agenda. Environmental groups must recognize and affirm tribal sovereignty, the inherent right for tribes to govern themselves and their people. One of the corollaries of this is that environmental groups cannot continue to choose individual Native Americans and portray their opinions as normative for all Native Americans. Native Americans too, must get past their own stereotypes of environmental groups, conjured up through past experience. Tribes will most likely not "buy into" everything on the environmental movements agenda; neither will the reverse be true. What is essential, however, is to find out what can be done together and respect each other as equals even when there is disagreement.

I do acknowledge that Native Americans are not the only peoples to suffer under stereotypes in this country or within the environmental movement. I cannot adequately treat the other examples of stereotypes due to space limitations. Suffice it to say that any stereotype will hurt the larger agenda, because it will prevent people from treating each other with respect. Not all Hispanics, for instance, are migrant workers; not all Asians are high-tech moguls or gurus, meditating under a tree; not all African Americans are inner-city dwellers and more interested in dealing drugs than in saving our environment; not all White environmentalists are vegetarians or animal rights activists.

The real irony of cultural stereotypes in the environmental movement is that the environmental crisis and racism come from the same root: injustice and the abuse of power. In 1992, I spent a great deal of my time talking to groups about the 1992 Columbus Quincentenary. The significance of this quincentenary is not in the person Columbus; it is in the systems of oppression and exploitation that were set in place and which have been operating for the past 500 years in the Americas. It is no surprise to any Native person that a country that chased them onto reservations is the same country that is dealing with environmental degradation and injustice, with racism and sexism, and an increasing gulf between rich and poor.


"Only by means of reverence for life can we establish a humane and spiritual relationship with both people and all living creatures within our reach...."

-- Albert Schweitzer

Acknowledging this history can also be our hope for the future. If we continue to ignore or sweep this history of oppression and exploitation under the rug, we will be doomed to repeat it. We can choose to acknowledge this history and learn from it. e can choose to be part of the new vision for the next 500 years. We can choose to be part of a history that emphasizes mutual understanding and respect, encourages diversity and healing, and which cares for the earth as much as the individual citizens of the earth. Let us join together and choose life for the whole earth.

Gordon Straw, M.Div., is a pastor of the ELCA and serves as the Coordinating Director for Ethnic Ministries and Director for Native American Ministries on the Commission for Multicultural Ministries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He currently lives in Chicago.

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