Peru and the Sioux: Thoughts on the Environment from the Head of a Traveling School

Peru and the Sioux: Thoughts on the Environment from the Head of a Traveling School
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This blog is dedicated to the thousands of activists who stand up and lend their voice and energy to preserving our natural resources. I especially want to spotlight the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, who are protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline crossing the Missouri River. Plans for the 1,170 mile pipeline's designated path call for it to run straight through sacred and historical areas of the Standing Rock's land, placing their water supply in jeopardy.

"Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink."
-The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Part 1

The human race is adrift, much like the ship that is described in Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Through hubris and greed we have wounded Mother Earth, much like the ancient mariner's killing of the albatross. As in the poem, the destruction of nature comes with dire consequences. In the mariner's case, his entire crew died and corpses haunt his memory. Hell is no longer an abstract concept, his ship becomes his purgatory.

Recently, I had the honor of participating in a traditional Pachamama Ceremony on the shores of Laguna Huaypo, just outside Urubamba, Peru. Three Incan shamans led our students and staff through a sacred ritual offering for the health, work and welfare of Mother Earth. The ceremony also served as our welcome to the Andean community, and the three shamans kindly called for ancient spirits to guide us in our Peruvian endeavors.


Pachamama ceremony. Photo Credit: Jen Buchanan, Media Specialist at THINK Global School

Being at the lake was especially meaningful for me because as a child I grew up on Lake Michigan and now have a home near Lake Superior in Bayfield County, Wisconsin. For some people, mountains speak directly to them, for others it is the plains or the desert. For me, it is water that has always provided a connection to place and family.

As the head of school for THINK Global School, the first day of each term starts in a different country. My family travels with the school; we have been to New Zealand, Costa Rica, Greece, Sweden, Italy, Bosnia, and now Peru. We have the honor of witnessing immense beauty firsthand as well as the destruction of our planet. Whether we are in the fjords of Sweden, the cloud forests of Costa Rica, an island off the coast of Athens, or the mountains of Peru, water is what binds all living things together.

William Forster Lloyd in 1883 wrote "The Tragedy of the Commons." In it he describes a pasture that all herdmen can use. Due to disease, warfare, and other factors, the carrying capacity of the pasture is only reached after many years of community growth.

Fast forward to 2016. All across the world the "commons" are reaching their carrying capacity and as a result whole ecosystems are collapsing. Since no one really owns the commons, it is easy for a polluter to go unchecked. Often the public is only outraged after the damage has been done. Due to the nature of water, damage done at point A is only seen at point B, C, or D, making it extremely challenging to hold anyone accountable for the damage. Gross damage done by large corporations is easier to point a finger at, but remediation of corporate violations is harder to settle and takes years in the courts for a decisive decision while entire communities are continuously and irreparably harmed. Often companies factor the cost of environmental fines into their products knowing full well they will be damaging the environment. Or through political influence they often times shape the rules that regulate their own industry.

Have you ever sat on the shores of a glacier watching a 30-foot wall of ice slide into the ocean? I sat at the edge of the Sherman Glacier outside Cordova, Alaska with a group of students when I was the director at another school. The city of Cordova won't ring a bell to most people, but once I add the name Valdez-Cordova to it, people of my generation may recall the tragedy of 1989 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince Williams Sound, spilling 38 million gallons of oil into one of the most pristine wildernesses on the planet. 18 years later, when I spoke with Dr. Ricki Ott, a marine toxicologist, she said not only did the spill wreak havoc on the natural community, but the human community was and is still reeling from the effects. According to her, Exxon told the community it would make them whole. She vehemently disagrees.


Photo Credit: National Geographic Magazine

Let's revisit those TGS host countries I listed earlier. Plucked from the headlines, here are articles from each country citing a water quality issue or disaster that has occurred in the last five years:

For me, number seven hits home for a number of reasons. During the Pachamama Ceremony, we looked across the water and saw majestic mountains, their peaks covered in snow. Eagles soared above us while Peruvian farmers plowed their fields with oxen. The lake water is deceptive, so beautiful but unfit to drink. I can't drink the tap water in town, and raw sewage drains into the rivers and lakes of this amazing country.

If you listen closely you can hear the despair in Mother Earth's cries. She cries from the rivers of the Ganges, the Citarum, the Matanza-Riachuelo, the Cuyahoga, the Buriganga, the Sarno, the Mississippi, and thousands more. She cries from the carelessness of one of her most advanced creations: humans. There is still time to change the course. We have yet to become stuck like the ancient mariner, but we are slowly creeping to the point of no return.

Part 2

It's a curious thing. Often learning opportunities hit you when you least expect it. Last week our local Peruvian contacts told us that a general strike was being planned for September 12 and 13th. The strike centered around the cost of electricity and the monopoly of one company profiting from the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. So, as head of school, I talked to our team and we decided to take the conservative approach and keep our students at their residence for those two days. Our staff were scattered across the city of Urubamba, so lessons would be conducted online with students.

On the first day of the strike, I was sitting at the table with my own three children eating breakfast. Finn, my middle child, has become very interested in the Vietnam War, so while eating I was hit with a number of questions regarding that topic. At first I tried to explain the cause of the war within the narrow confines of 1960-1975. All three children sat while I begin my explanation, but one thing led to another and I had to back up in history to help them understand the precursors to that war, which in turn landed us smack dab into a serious discussion on the history of colonialism and how it relates to past and present day conflicts. More specifically, how colonialism has ties to the strike occurring at that moment in the small town of Urubamba, Peru, as well as the conflict over Native American rights in the Dakotas.


Protestors in Minneapolis stand in solidarity with the Standing Foot Sioux. Image Credit: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue

Naturally, my curious children asked why did colonialism exist? I began by saying that as a species, humans have a hard time sharing when there is a perception of not having enough resources. In order to maximize their share, people often fight, lie or steal to get what they want. In the past, countries did this to other countries through colonization.

Exploitation and domination is the essence of colonialism. Objectification of indigenous people so they can be pushed aside, murdered, and forgotten. The quest for limited resources often ending in the hands of a rich elite few. The poor of one group pitted against the poor of another group to maintain the status of an aristocratic class. It was an easy lesson to teach my children, past and present day are littered with examples of the practice. In the past, military might was the means to the end. New age colonialism is done through corporations, the IMF and global banks; governmental incursion occurs through the exercising of legal means.

Freedom is a universal concept and resilience astounds me at times. Being able to craft your destiny, your life, your family transcends country and culture. It can be beaten down, repressed and driven to the point of extinction. Yet time after time, we see it re- emerge, overcoming incredible odds to survive.

The Spanish introduced the horse to the Americas, beginning with Columbus's journey in 1492. Over the course of American history, the horse made its way to the Dakotas and gave rise to the great horse culture of the Lakota people of the plains. The relationship between the people, the horse and the buffalo became inseparable. Then, it became American policy to destroy the buffalo, which would in turn drive the Lakota and other native peoples to the point of extinction through overt massacre.

Today, oppressed people are subjected to a more subtle form of killing: environmental racism. Corporations build oil pipelines in sensitive areas, often times picking a path through indigenous people's land. Toxic waste becomes dumped and mine tailings ruin water supplies, destroying a tribe's ability to exist on a land that can no longer support them. Despite concerted efforts by colonial powers to suppress and exterminate native peoples, in the end it may come to pass that the native people save humanity from itself.


Image Credit: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue

Facebook was launched in 2004 and in 2007 the first iPhone came on the market. I remember succumbing to a smartphone in 2011. Why are these dates important? What does this have to do with our discussion of native people? In 2010, the Arab Spring lit up the Internet. Average citizens with a smart phone began using that technology in ways never seen before. Governments in Tunisia and Egypt were powerfully affected by this technology.

Had the Dakota Access Pipeline been built prior to 2010, no one would have known that the company was carving a path through the Standing Rock's ancient burial grounds. It would have been just another unrecorded tragedy, and the voice of the tribe would have died by the time the oil flowed. Ansel Adams sums it up best, "It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment."

This brings us back to our discussion of the Vietnam War. It was the first war where the media played a role they had never played before. News outlets told the news honestly, and opposition to the war and the United States' eventual withdrawal were direct results of how the news informed the population. From that point on, I suggest that a free press became inconvenient and thus more controlled. Major news outlets with their corporate agendas and 24-hour news cycles more closely resemble scripted talk shows than the in-depth reporting coming out of the Vietnam era.

Despite the demise of an truly independent press, we are moving into a new era of reporting and relating to the world that bypasses traditional methods. Protest movements no longer need to rely on major news outlets to get their voices heard. In his book 1984, George Orwell highlighted the idea of Big Brother watching everything the public does, but he never addressed how technology could be used by the masses to hold government and businesses accountable. The oppressors are being watched and their deeds recorded. Funding for movements, campaigns, and projects can be crowd sourced with vast sums of money being raised over night. In this way I am hopeful. Technology can be used to leverage local, national and world opinion instantaneously with the potential to minimize damage before it occurs. If only the masses don't get distracted by loaves of bread and the circus.

Part 3

In Minneapolis, on the corner of Lyndale and Franklin, stands the historic Rudoplh's BBQ that I used as my pre-Google Maps landmark. Twenty five years ago I drove my grandfather's Olds Firenze on the way to pick up my partner. I had just graduated from the University of Minnesota's Graduate School and got my first job with Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS). When people think of VOBS, they think of wilderness, but my job was located in the heart of the city working with at-risk youth.


Now I consider myself a big man, over 6 feet and weighing in at 230lbs (at that time), but my partner made me reconsider the word "big." Lynn LaPointe personifies the concept of big. Nothing Lynn does is small, not his stature nor his ideas. On a spring day in 1991, I pulled up to his apartment on Franklin, parked my car, and rang his bell.

There are people in your life that come and go. You meet them for a short period of time and then they drift out of your life leaving little or no impact. Remember, Lynn personifies the concept of "big." We worked together for that summer of 1991 in some of Minneapolis's most challenging neighborhoods, with youth that are historically discounted and cast aside. At the end of that summer, VOBS closed down our program and Lynn and I parted as partners, but Lynn made a "big" impact on me. For the next 20 years, Lynn and I would design and create spaces for marginalized youth, often floating in and out of contact but never out of touch.

Service learning was the "big" idea that Lynn I and discussed and applied to our work with youth. Its impact made an indelible impression on my practice as an educator. Born from the Wisconsin "idea" at the turn of the century, service learning "rested on the conviction that students and university-trained experts could apply themselves to the problems of modern society and make democracy work more effectively." Drawing from John Dewey's concepts in experiential education, service learning has been put into practice by Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound, at the United World Colleges' many campuses, and by the worldwide association of schools, Round Square. Its practice later found a home at the University of Minnesota and the creation of the National Youth Leadership Council in 1982.

Service learning was one of the bonds that tied Lynn and I together. I think it is common that people look to government to solve all of their problems, but we knew that government could only do so much. Lynn and I began together as a small team committed to making the world a better place for the youth we served. We took the concept of service learning and began to apply it to every organization we started or worked for. We developed allies, trained youth workers, teachers, and students, giving them the tools to change their small part of the world.


TGS students are engaging in service learning while in Peru. Image Credit: Jen Buchanan, Media Specialist at THINK Global School

Last week, I reached out to Lynn. Lynn is working with the state of Michigan, and as mentioned before, I am currently working in Peru for THINK Global School. Mother Earth is in trouble, her life blood is being poisoned across the globe. I needed to reconnect with someone from my past that "got it." We spent a few hours on the phone discussing current events surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline's path through the Standing Rock Reservation. The movement on the plains of the Dakotas inspired us, something great and special was happening as a gathering of people on the ground and in the cloud converged to say, "enough is enough."

People often think, "there's nothing I can do. I'm just one person." So much of the time we read or hear about events that leave us in a pit of despair, and there is nothing worse than reading an article or hearing a newscast that leads you down a path of hopelessness. Often people throw up their hands and walk away denying their community their talents. Lynn, myself, and countless others have ingrained into our spirits the words of Kurt Hahn: "it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion."

It matters not who sits in the White House come November, it never does. All that matters is a unified voice from the people. It is how all great movements and changes begin and how they are successful. Now is the time for people of passion to join together, tenacious in their pursuit of a better world. Find your own motivation in the Standing Rock Sioux's stand and lend your energy to a project, a cause to make our world cleaner, more just, more drinkable, more breathable, less poor and more compassionate. This task is not for the faint of heart, but every heart can rise to the task. Only then will we be able to leave the world a better place for our children.

-Jamie Steckart, Head of School at THINK Global School

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