Note: This is part two of Matt’s blog post on Three Sisters Will Heal the Land. For the first installment go here. 

“…I do not see the need to extend Jesus’ concern for the oppressed to the ‘new poor,’ this is, nature. This still sounds like we take care of human beings first and then reach out to nature. For me, eco-justice is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching from the beginning. In other words, social ecology cannot be separated from natural ecology.” Kwok Pui-lan

My great grandpa was famous around Dunkirk, IN during the depression years for never being in want. He lived on a 300 acre parcel, much of it left to its natural designs. But he produced all the food for the family on the land around the farmhouse. He had pigs and sheep and my mom says the only reason they ever went to the store was to buy flour or cereal every now and then.  I don’t know much about how he designed his system, whether he utilized contour (keyline) irrigation or integrated animals into a silvopasture system (all things co-opted by permaculture) but I do know what happened to the land. It’s much the same system that is outlined in Wendell Berry’s essay Unsettling of America. My grandpa started a construction company, even though he grew up farming with my great grandpa he had the opportunity to make more money through construction. He slowly lost touch with the land, as did my family.

After my grandpa’s death my mom, aunt, and uncle decided to sell the land.Today the land is utilized to produce GMO corn and soybeans.Few things make me angrier.Even though Berry seems keen on dismantling the dualism of mind and body in his essay he makes a flaw that I believe is fatal, one often repeated in ecotheology, and one that continues this cycle of oppression in America. He creates a temporal dualism, he believes the problems of today can be solved by a return to the settler/colonial period. He writes, “I am talking about the idea that as many as possible should share in the ownership of the land and thus be bound to it by economic interest, by the investment of love and work, by family loyalty, by memory and tradition. How much land this should be is a question, and the answer will vary with geography. The Homestead Act said 160 acres. The freedmen of the 1860s hoped for forty.” I find this short-sighted and eventually at risk of perpetuating the same oppressive cycle. If we want to cure the problems caused by the venom of a snake bite we must quickly suck out venom. This seems to be what Berry suggest we do. It is far too late for that, so what next? Lop off the affected appendage. It’s too late for that. The only cure available is a powerful antidote. “The problem is the solution” is a permaculture idiom, I believe it is true here. I’m not suggesting Natives are the problem, I’m suggesting the problem isn’t a problem at all. To sterilize the venom of the serpent the land needs the medicine that only its Native people can provide. This good medicine is the salvation that means creation healed.

Will returning to the years of the Homestead Act correct the problem? No! Where did the land for the Homestead Act come from? It wasn’t just magically created by God, it was taken from Indians. Berry seems to believe, and it’s apparent in his treatment of Indians in the essay, that Native Americans have just disappeared. Wes Jackson, whom I regard highly, makes this same mistake in Becoming Native to This Place. Indians are not vanishing, they are still around[1]. The Kalapuya, Chinook, Paiute, etc. are still live in and near Portland. They are vibrant communities long in the process of cultural regeneration. Since the terrorism of the boarding schools ended many Native communities have begun to heal their wounds. As Berry points out in The Hidden Wound, “If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself.” (4) There is a similar wound even more hidden, perhaps it is the cause of all wounds. Settler-colonialism is venom endemic to America. Sure, it was passed into our blood. England and England received it from the Romans, but it is our venom that has adapted to our own body, the body we think of as the United States, the body that Natives think of as Turtle Island.

I hope that soon all social and ecological justice organizations and movements begin to locate their efforts within the framework of settler-colonialism. Recognizing that we are settlers and we have treated our host badly, genocide-aly, is painful and disturbing medicine to swallow, but it will be good medicine for us and the land. Jesus tells a prophetic story in Lk. 20.9-19 rich landowner extracting taxes from tenant farmers whose land they are living on. First the tenant farmers beat landlord’s servants, the spiral of violence escalates until finally the tenant farmers kill the landlord’s son. This seems to be a striking parallel to how we’ve treated Native Americans on Turtle Island[2]. In the prophetic story of the “clever steward” the steward secures a future by canceling the debt of the tenant farmers. The amount that is cancelled is equivalent to 15 years of wages some scholars estimate. What’s important here is the idea of returning the land to its original inhabitants. This is the idea of Jubilee that Jesus begins his mission in Lk. 4.18-19 by my citing Isaiah 58 and 61:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus’s subversive mission was to return the land to the original inhabitants, his stories must be read from a theology of the land and a postcolonial or anti-Roman lens. I have begun intentionally to write about ecology and theology. I have some thoughts on this as well and I’d be happy to share them if you’d like to read and interact with them. Let me know in the comments!

I’ve tried to show how important it is to not organize in monocultural and atemporal ways. This is the sort of division, dualism, that ecological devastation is predicated on, the sort of division that keeps communities isolated and less powerful, and the division that creates historical amnesia where we don’t remember what caused the damage we are trying to repair. If we don’t treat the issue causing the damage we will continue only treating symptoms and the conditions will continue to erode. As Oscar Romero said, “It is not enough to undertake works of charity to alleviate the suffering of the poor; we must transform the structures that create this suffering.” It’s high time we recognize what affects oppressed communities has a direct affect on creation, what affects the present is a direct effect of the past and will affect the future. Is it time we stop looking at problems myopically and start thinking outside of the boxes empires have constructed for us to think in, the same sort of boxes that allow us to divide and conquer nature. If we want to mend the sacred hoop of creation, if we want to restore shalom to the world we must heal the division in our thinking and being. When we add the third part of the three sisters guild we have a strong community, a polyculture, able to heal the soil, the sick Turtle Island. Squash and corn, meet beans. Let’s do this!


[1] Conquest is an important book by Cherokee activist-scholar Andrea Smith. I highly recommend reading it.

[2] I realize “taxes” aren’t a great parallel here, but Indians were promised food and other resources for the land they were forced to give up. I’m not suggesting its an exact parallel, but there are arresting similarities.


Read more about Matt and other EcoFaith Recovery Interns here.


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Three Sisters Will Heal the Land: part two (By EcoFaith Intern Matt Cumings)
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