‘Earth Day is every day’ for Chicago’s American Indians

Evian Cloud works on a drawing for Earth Day.
Evian Cloud, 8, focuses on adding glitter to a flower while working on her Earth Day project at Native Scholars. Shortly after jazzing up her flower, Evian flashes a grin as she declares her picture is complete. (Christine Smith/Medill News Service)

By Christine Smith

Another Earth Day has come and gone, but for 65-year-old Dorene Wiese and other American Indians living in the Chicago area, the celebration and remembrance of Mother Earth continues.

Wiese and approximately 30,000 other American Indians living in Chicago promote the protection of nature’s beauty through activities like Native Scholars. The after school tutoring program setup by Wiese’s American Indian Association of Illinois serves 10-13 tribe-affiliated students. Tribes represented include the Ojibwe, Navajo, Lakota, Oneida and Menominee.

“We’re, like, one of the 17 states that have no reservations,” says Wiese, a member of Minnesota’s White Earth Band of Ojibwe. “And we’re the tenth largest population of American Indians in the whole United States. We’re larger than most Indian reservations…and have representatives from over 150 different tribes here, so it is important we come together to prevent more destruction to our land.”

Through Native Scholars, Wiese and a handful of volunteers educate the next generation of American Indians about the history and culture of the Chicago community and why they should protect Mother Earth. The days leading up to Earth Day are just another opportunity to teach them about nature.

And while one may suspect a lack of enthusiasm from their students, Native Scholars’ students are just as eager to participate in activities as their tutors are to teach them.

“I like coming to the after school program because I get to learn more about nature and my culture in a way that I don’t get to at school,” says Jade Roy, 18, a high school senior at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center. “We believe in praying to Mother Earth and appreciating her, so it’s good that we can come here to learn more about her.”

Roy is just one of about a dozen students currently involved with the program. Students ranging in age from 5 years old to 18 years old meet weekly in the basement of St. James Presbyterian Church, about two blocks north of West Ridge’s culturally diverse Devon Avenue. It has existed and met at this location for the past seven years.

For her Earth Day after school assignment, Roy draws Mother Earth surrounded by recycling symbols.

“I’m clearly not very good at drawing,” Roy shyly says, “since I forgot to draw Latin America. But it’s ok. You get the point.”

Like Roy of Ontario, Canada’s Algonquin Band of Ojibwe, other students draw pictures for Earth Day and share why they think it’s vital to learn about nature.

“Animals are important because they’re like humans,” says 10-year-old Oneida tribe member Anaka Kayotawape as she colors a seascape complete with fish and turtles.

“We wouldn’t kill a human,” she emphasizes, seemingly unsure as to why someone may think of animals as anything but mankind’s equal.

Anaka’s friend and Lakota tribe member, Evian Cloud, 8, is midway through drawing a tree.

“You need to keep Mother Earth clean,” Evian says. “If you don’t keep Mother Earth clean, then you’ll die.”

Pictures complete, the students discuss their drawings, take photos with their tutors, and then head home for the evening. They will do another nature-inspired lesson at next week’s after school program.

But caring about nature goes beyond Earth Day, says Wiese. It is engrained in American Indian culture through the use of totems with nature-inspired names, the belief in the Mother Earth spirituality, and the participation in powwows. Protecting and responsibly using nature, consequently, predates the settlement of non-native Americans in the Chicago area, when indigenous Americans lived entirely off of the land.

“We didn’t have Walgreens,” Wiese says. “You did not go to McDonalds for food. For our people, you went in your backyard [for medicine]. Your food you had to go out and kill.”

A combination of game, crops and wild plants sustained early native communities, including Chicago’s Potawatomi, Miami and Illinois tribes.

Over time, non-indigenous Americans became increasingly interested in nature. In 1970, Earth Day was started by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson in order to annually commit to keeping clean water, air, land, and other environment-related issues on the national political agenda. Roughly 20 million Americans demonstrated throughout the country on that first Earth Day. This led to Congress’ decision to authorize the creation of the EPA, the first U.S. agency dedicated to environmental issues, in December of that year.

As a result, programs like Wiese’s Native Scholars and the American Indian Center of Chicago’s Medicinal Garden and Indigenous Science Days were created to encourage American Indian youth to take an active part in understanding and celebrating Mother Earth 365 days a year.

“We’re really looking to bring classrooms to the outdoors,” says David Bender, Community Science Organizer and Facilitator at the American Indian Center and member of the Lakota and Ojibwe tribes. “We need to make the Earth a habitable place and…we want to keep it that way for the next seven generations, so we need to teach the lessons we’ve learned.”

Wiese shares similar sentiments.

“Our goal really is to every day, to live a sacred life and to live in appreciation for the creator and for the great gifts he has given us,” Wiese says, “so we try to celebrate that thankfulness everyday and to teach our children to celebrate that thankfulness too.”

After all, Wiese notes, it is vital to pass along the appreciation of nature through verbal communication and educational activities, as was done to her.

“Most of this knowledge is in the hearts and minds of our elders,” Wiese says, “so traditional knowledge transmission is through elders. That’s how our learning took place.”

That’s why Wiese emphasizes the need for tutoring in the American Indian community. Through in-person exchanges several days a week, she and five tutors can educate their students after school about nature and its value in American Indian culture.

But why the focus on Earth Day, then, if nature is a regular component of instruction? Wiese elaborates on why she feels it’s important to keep Earth Day on the calendar.

“They say we lose plants everyday,” Wiese says. “Plants and animals are becoming extinct in the U.S., and that’s so tragic because this land was such a rich area, so we need to remind everyone why it is important to protect nature.”

It is especially important, Wiese adds, because of the holiday’s ability to renew interest in conservation efforts for non-indigenous residents. And it is for this reason that local nonprofit organizations, like Friends of the Parks, make a conscientious effort to celebrate Earth Day each and every year by hosting its annual Earth Day Parks & Preserves Clean-up.

Former policy director and counselor of Friends of the Parks Eleanor Roemer says, “It’s important that this day was set aside in the 70s, because it ensures that we as a society remember the importance of preserving our parks and act in an environmentally-conscious way.”

Other area residents, like Navajo Chicagoan Janelle Stanley of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, also recognize a need to focus on Earth Day on top of their daily appreciation for nature.

“For American Indians, the sense of Earth Day is every day,” Stanley says, “so it’s important for us as a community to celebrate Earth Day like every other day because Mother Earth is so important to us.”

Not all American Indians in Chicago, however, feel that officially celebrating Mother Earth on one day a year is enough.

“Earth Day gives a space for everyone to think about how we treat the Earth,” Bender says, “but for me, in some ways it’s kind of an odd thing because it’s a reminder of our settler colonizer. It’s just really weird.”

After all, Bender says, American Indians were the first to inhabit the land in Chicago and throughout the country, so it should be up to American Indians when and how to celebrate Mother Earth.

“Native people have kind of become the poster child of Earth Day,” Bender continues, “and that’s fine, but we need to look for more than just the poster child. We need to look for real solutions, and the solution, really, is to change the system. And if the system is simply throwing you a bone, then nothing’s going to ever really get changed.”

That is why Bender and others, including Wiese, cite a need for advocacy, conservation and political action outside of their education efforts.

“This is all of our Earth,” Bender says. “It is what unites us, so we need to come together as a nation to protect it.”

Wiese adds, “In especially the last two years, our people have joined with other movements like fighting the passage of the Keystone Pipeline, the depositing of nuclear waste in coastal lakes and waterways, the ongoing movements to protect the land from tar sands…but we don’t have a group locally that really does that. That has to change.”

But Wiese says that until more actions are taken to protect nature, it is especially important to educate others inside and outside of the community about it and to celebrate it on Earth Day.

“I think sometimes in our daily lives we forget that we’re all on Mother Earth, and my generation got distracted,” Wiese says. “This is the only Mother Earth we have, so we need to protect her for the generations of the future.”

“Do you want clean water for your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren?” Wiese adds emphatically. “Well of course, I do. And Earth Day reminds people that those things are important.”

Earth Day, which occurs annually on April 22, has since its creation grown to include multiple days of nature-related festivities. This year’s Chicago-based celebrations included citywide parks cleanup events, Columbia College Chicago’s One Earth Film Festival screening of “Just Eat It,” and the Lincoln Park Zoo’s “Party for the Planet,” just to name a few.

Photo at top: Evian Cloud, 8, focuses on adding glitter to a flower while working on her Earth Day project at Native Scholars. Shortly after jazzing up her flower, Evian flashes a grin as she declares her picture is complete. (Christine Smith/Medill)