Nestled atop a promontory overlooking the Colorado River, an old Tonkawa sits cross-legged as he watches the setting sun paint the water in fool’s gold. Harchuknni comes here often. Shell earrings set off his chiseled face, two tipped feathers punctuate his parted white hair, the braids cascade down his chest. He wears a long loincloth, buckskin leggings with fish bones down the sides and beaded moccasins. How many sunsets does he have left? As he ponders the mystery of life, he embraces the impermanence of all living things. Texas has long been his home, the land providing his every need, feeding not only his body but, now especially, his soul.
Let me formally introduce you to Harchuknni, today’s guest speaker. He is not a visitor from somewhere else; he’s lived here a long time. Unlike many of our great-granddaddies, he’s a true native Texan. Unlike Lindheimer, Drummond or Englemann, he’s an original Texas naturalist. He’s about to deliver, from the heart, a Chautauqua—a lecture or philosophical discourse—about the nature of nature. Let’s have a listen:
“My story begins long before arrival of the white man. My ancestors, along with many other native peoples, lived on this land for as long as man has existed. It remains that way today. Our bond with the land is complete and total—we take care of it; it gives us life.
The Tonkawa people gather food from the plains, forests and rivers—and we are skilled hunters. Like many other tribes, buffalo make our lives rich and bountiful. From the buffalo, we learn how to stand our ground, to roam wild and free and to have a strong spirit. A spirit that knows to give much more than it takes. A single hunt can sustain our village for many suns. It can give us meat, spoons and drinking cups (horns), the ability to tan hides (brains), thread and bowstrings (tendons), glue to attach feathers to our arrows (hooves) and digging tools (shoulder blades). Other parts of this sacred animal give us girths and rope (tail hair) belts and ornaments (wool), saddles, shirts, moccasins and thick robes to protect us from the cold (hides).
As a young boy I learned that life’s bounty is nature—our spirit world on earth. And it requires reverence, respect and humility. This is why we pray to the Great Father before a hunt, to prepare ourselves so we can be deserving and humble during the hunt; so we can be reverent and grateful after the hunt.”
In the background a hawk’s shadow skates like a paper bird across the slopes below. Gesturing with his arms sweeping wide, Harchuknni continues the story:
“The lowland (black land prairies) around the high country (Edwards Plateau) has many buffalo; many beautiful springs flow here too. The Great Father has put the Colorado and Guadalupe rivers through Tonkawa lands, with fish, crawfish, clams and mussels. My elders taught me about the plants that grow on Tonkawa land. Natural plants that the white man considers to be nuisances (e.g. Greenbrier, Bull Nettles, Mesquite) help feed my people when other food is scarce. We are thankful for the Pecans, Blackberries, Dewberries, Yucca, Prickly Pear and other plants and roots from the land which extend our diet. My people do not need to farm to survive.
But the land not only provides us with food, it also gives us powerful medicine. Plants like American Beauty Berry, Yaupon Holly, Boneset and Palmetto help us to calm stomach aches, purge our stomachs, treat fever and ease urinary problems. Trees like Elderberry and Hercules Club contain diuretic and anesthetic properties. Most village medical needs are solved with the help of the plants that grow around us.” (Side note: Despite condescension of these primitive cures by “civilized society,” they served their purpose at that time in history . . . many of these plants are components of important modern drugs).
“The Tonkawa people live together with wild animals and practice a close kinship with them. We believe they have souls, many have special powers and some have religious importance. We pay them respect in our daily chores, our hunts and our ceremonies. Within our villages, we perform the buffalo, deer and turkey dance. To our people, the wolf dance is sacred. We go to great effort to keep it secret from outsiders. This dance celebrates the creation of the Tonkawa people. We believe we were brought into the world by the wolf; all Tonkawa are descended from the wolf. To us the grey wolf is the master of other animals and the owner of the earth. We pray to him for hunting success and we ask his permission before entering new hunting grounds. It is forbidden to kill a wolf for any reason.
In some Tonkawa tribe beliefs, the coyote is honored in a similar way. Coyote in our language is ‘ Ha:csokonay,’ sometimes a shrewd trickster who must be respected for his guile, but more often, as an animal spirit, he helps people and possesses impressive magical powers. So it is that the land is alive as we are. Every seed is awakened and so is all animal life. It is through this miracle of Mother Earth that we have our being too; that is why we yield to our animal brothers the same rights as ourselves—to inhabit this land. We take care of this wealth by wasting nothing and using fire in an intelligent way to increase the generosity of the land. Because our forests, rivers and land are alive, they cannot be bought and sold by man; they are not articles for trading.”
Then came a long pause. Harchuknni was at that stage of life dedicated to cultivating the spirit—you can see in his eyes the joy and sorrow of a lifetime. A soft contentment, a near happiness settles within him as he speaks with a voice as deep and gentle as a forest ravine.
“There’s one last piece of wisdom I have for you. As humans on this earth, we must remember we have not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”
With this, Harchuknni stands, raises his palm in a sign of peace, turns and stiffly shuffles away. Behind him as the sun goes down, the air sparkles and quivers golden.
Such an encounter as this could, of course, never occur . . . 170 years of time and a world of modern science separates us. Harchuknni was a primitive savage, he lived with others in fractious clans, held totemic beliefs and practiced animistic, pagan ceremonies. His society was uncultured and likely could never have evolved into what we have today. Still, in his words are kernels of uncomfortable truth.
Much of what used to thrive on this land is now threatened. The white man’s culture seemed hell-bent on destroying not only the people native to this land, but the whole natural order. We cleared the forests, scraped the land bare, fenced it off, ploughed it under and killed animals for sport. Beneath what used to be tall grass prairies, we now park our cars. For too long a time, we took what we wanted without concern for whether we would ever need those things again. We seem to suffer from an even larger disconnect from nature today. Our people are spoiled and city soft, wasteful and selfish. What is it in our nature that causes us to destroy everything around us? What drives our sense of entitlement? Is it agriculture, profit motive, divine right? Whatever it is, it makes no sense—like killing unicorns.
There are those who would argue there’s no disconnect at all—that Harchuknni’s view is ignorant, showing a lack of understanding about what life is: change. Our forefathers knew that change was required for their lives to improve. Through their efforts, nature has lost its direct relation to our lives. Who among us would want to go back to living in hide-covered hovels, surviving on wild game, plants and berries? As humans, we have endured ice ages, plagues, earthquakes, food shortages—you name it. If the human species is anything, it’s adaptable. We are relative newcomers on the earth. Look what we have achieved. Not only will we prevail, we will soar to new heights as we learn and explore new frontiers . . .
All things eventually end—including this planet, someday. Is it possible our old relationship to nature is irrelevant and unnecessary? So what is it? Are we simply afraid of change and paranoid about using earth’s resources to continue the natural evolution of man, or are we blindly speeding the demise of our planet and all that lives on it? I’m pretty sure I know what Harchuknni would say. What do you think?