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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 6 (1999)

 

Sustaining the Forest, the People, and the Spirit, by Thomas Davis. State University of New York Press (2000). 244 pp.

 

Reviewed by Annie L. Booth, Environmental Studies Program, University of Northern British Columbia.

 

One of the best known examples of 'alternative' 'sustainable' forestry is the Menominee Tribe's forest operation. The Menominee Tribe has resided in what is now the state of Wisconsin certainly since European explorers first encountered them in 1634 and, as archeology suggests, considerably longer. Confined to a reservation by a treaty signed in 1848, the Menominee turned to their land to support the people through developing the oldest tribal commercial forestry operation in North America. However, and this is where the Menominee warrant respect and attention, after one hundred and fifty years of active forestry, the Menominee reservation is covered by beautiful, healthy, and diverse (but not 'pristine') forest. The forest is so healthy it stands out from surrounding National Forest on satellite photos. The book under review examines Menominee forestry for the lessons it offers on sustainable resource development. Along the way the author presents the history of the Menominee and of their commercial forestry operation.

The book would have benefited greatly from additional editorial attention, since the writing often comes between the reader and the discussion. However, if the reader persists, it is an interesting story the author tells.

One challenge Davis faces is trying to make an impossible argument: that the Menominee are an example from which western society can learn:

The Menominee model, as a microcosm, provides a wonderful prism with which to look at the macrocosm and the challenges it faces. The model provides hints about answers to some challenges ... They have provided a valuable lesson to the world (p. 224).

However, as the book makes very clear, the Menominee model of sustainable development is a derivative of ancient history and modern reality, the state of the natural environment and community politics; it would be difficult to apply the model to another community or bioregion. And indeed the author does acknowledge this fact:

The model...does not provide all the answers. It is not the mantra that will save the earth (p. 224).

His discussion throughout the book reflects that tension, his sense that there is both much to learn from the Menominee experience and that this experience is unique. Anyone who is interested in indigenous cultures and their implications for non-indigenous environmental consciousness (witness the enduring popularity of a speech attributed to Chief Seattle) will recognize this tension. Davis performs a useful service in articulating it clearly and demonstrating how the tension works out in an applied rather than philosophical manner.

Davis is clearly aware and sympathetic to the concept of the "native as environmentalist" that has been in the environmental consciousness since the late 1960s. I believe part of the book's subtle aim is to refute the current effort on the part of many writers to dismantle that concept. In other words, he is offering evidence of the Menominees' environmentalist leanings through the articulation of Menominee sustainability. However, he is too respectful of his subject to be dishonest by ignoring the evidence that indicates the Menominee are not, and can't be, the "ecological Indian."

Davis, while clearly sympathetic, is nonetheless honest about the challenges the Menominee face, including tribal politics. He cites one leader's analogy of 'Lobster Bucket Politics,'

Indians are a bunch of lobsters stuck in a bucket. If one climbs to the top and starts to grab ahold of the bucket's rim, the other lobsters reach out and, quick, drag the lobster back to the bucketâs bottom. Indians progress only when they all get together and make a miracle happen and lift up the entire bucket (p. 92).

The challenge of community politics is significant, and, speaking from my own experience, a challenge for many tribes. In some ways, as Davis notes, it distinguishes Menominee sustainable development from non-native sustainable development: Lobster Bucket Politics limits the amount of change, including change for the worse, that can go on. There is a built-in brake in the process of reaching consensus, and it has benefited the Menominee.

In his examination of the Menominee and their sustainable forestry, Davis explores the history, politics, economics, spirituality and culture of the Menominee, all of which contribute to Menominee sustainable development. His discussion is significantly different from the ordinary ethnography or anthropological study and perhaps more interesting. The Menominee have had an interesting history. The circumstances by which they got into the forest business and their determination to the gain eventual full control of the business present a worthwhile lesson in how and why small communities should gain control over their own destiny. They were the first victims in a misguided 1950s attempt by the federal government to the get out of the Indian business, by 'terminating' the tribeâs special trust relationship. In response, the tribe mobilized, successfully challenged the legality of this termination, and had their trust status reinstated. The experiences have developed a tough group of people who, nonetheless, must continue to strive. The tribe also face many of the social and economic problems that plague other tribes, including persistent poverty, alcohol problems, and trying to the meet the needs of a rapidly growing population.

Davis is also clear that the Menominee are no longer the people they were, curiously eyeing explorer Jean Nicolet in 1634. Acculturation has occurred and tradition has changed. Yet they are no less Menominee. They values they bring to the forest management represent a blend of modern ecological knowledge and a traditional understanding of where they came from. Davis describes the unique nature of the forest management plan developed by foresters:

...it is also a document that allows the Menominee to the confirm that they are Menominee even after their association with the Long Knives [European descended cultures]. To the writers of the plan, each animal has a spirit that has to the be treated with proper respect. Both animate and inanimate objects possess spirits that need protection if the Menominee and earth are to remain healthy and whole. The cultural remains of the old ones found in the forest must be preserved and protected (p. 54).

While protection of cultural sites can be found in most forest plans, the need to the protect the spirits of animate and inanimate is somewhat less common; it is part of what distinguishes Menominee sustainable forestry.

It is made more powerful...by a forest that has sustained them as a people for more than five thousand years (p. 54).

It is also clear that the Menominee are wise enough to understand that no one approach can last them 5,000 years. Instead - and this is a crucial lesson they offer - their experiences point to the need to the remain flexible, to be willing to change, slowly, to the meet new demands, and to the understand that one successful model will not be enough:

The essence of what the Menominee model says is that individual places and cultures should, out of their own experiences, fashioning creative technological, cultural, spiritual, and human solutions to the challenges posed by the need for long-term preservation (p. 208).

Is there any better lesson?