The Burning Sky
Birds are dropping from the hot tarnished sky onto the congested streets of Mexico City. Treetop nests empty of baby birds plunging to their deaths as chainsaws and bulldozers terrorize the Amazon Rainforest trailblazing an insatiable path to feed the hunger for oil and fast food beef. When the World Trade Center was hit, thousands of birds fell to the ground, their wings burned off and their bodies still on fire joining the other trapped spirits in debris that extended for blocks.
Indigenous peoples throughout the world recognize birds as our spiritual messengers and as our relatives through clanships and stories. Occupying the world that links the Earth and sky, birds tell us what our lives have become and of our destiny. Just as the miner’s canary indicates the shift from fresh air to poisoned gas, so does the array of signs we have witnessed over the decades from the birds, other living things, as well as from ourselves. 9-11 was a human event with repercussions for the rest of the world. The messengers are dying. As an indicator species, the birds warn us that all of life is threatened by the terror perpetuated on the Natural World by unrestrained human voracity.
The events of 9-11 occurred during a time of World Renewal among the tribal communities of northwestern California, my husband’s people, who belong to a land rich in ancient redwood forests and cool, salmon filled rivers. Each year, with woodpecker red headrolls, the echo of songs, and the vibration of continued focused thought and movement, the world is realigned and made new again. Here they say that your behavior – – thoughts, actions and character – – during this time of ceremony, when the world is being fixed and re-made, determines how life will be for the coming year. Rash decisions and violence should not occur. Relationships are reaffirmed, not broken. Not abiding by these principles may not impact you personally, but may visit those you love. Spiritual justice. Probably because of this timing, my impression of “ground zero” where the World Trade Center was hit and the resulting actions is set within this metaphysical backdrop. So that I imagine the devastation of “ground zero” is something like standing in the middle of a clearcut where 1000-year-old families of trees used to live and support a vibrant ecosystem. Now it is a place consumed by violence. The bodies of the dead are unrecoverable, crushed under the debris.
As a pueblo Indian whose people are of the desert southwest, it is even easier to imagine “ground zero” as an open pit mine similar to the one run by Peabody at Black Mesa in Arizona, with massive gaping holes leaking out the Earth’s energy and from where pristine water is used to slurry coal hundreds of miles away, further draining a fragile area of a precious life resource. Perhaps it is more a reminder of the uranium mines that left sores, and cancer all over Acoma and Laguna pueblos and surrounding communities. Maybe that bleeding hole in the Earth is more like what the coal strip mine slated by the Phoenix-based Salt River Project for our sacred Zuni Salt Lake would look like if allowed to go forward. Salt Lake, where our Salt Mother dwells, is a cherished site rich in stories and a rainbow of memories for Zuni people and for so many other desert tribes reliant on the gifts of that sacred place for physical and cultural viability, but some others hunger for the coal underneath.
Indigenous peoples of the Americas live on intimate terms with the shadow of terrorism.
It has fed on us with a ravenous appetite for our peoples and lands for centuries. It is a shapeshifter, taking the form of the Scorched Earth policy that rips apart Maya communities and that war which has lain to waste over 60 million of the buffalo people on the Great Plains during Westward Expansion, and 3000 more bison since 1995. There was that same hunger for blood in Montana where the Gros Ventre sacred Little Rocky Mountain was scraped red, down to the Earth by Pegasus Goldmine’s cyanide heap leach method, leaving only a pile of rubble where a mountain once stood. And, we know of this violence in the forced sterilization that thousands of Native women have survived. We recognize signs of terrorism in the mutilated bodies at Sand Creek and Indian Island, and on the blood-soaked snow at Wounded Knee. The vampire was there in the boarding schools where Indian children as young as four were raped and tortured, laced inside by barbed wire and fear, their mouths bleeding from being scrubbed with wire brushes when they spoke their tribal languages, and those who fled for home, their dark eyes vacant.
Terrorism is nothing new and it did not begin at the World Trade Center on 9-11. Through the lens of time and in the collective consciousness of peoples on every continent are the memories of the disappeared, the displaced and the dismembered. Terrorism has long been perpetuated in the name of God, Gross National Product, and globalization and such destruction continues unrelenting against the Natural World and each other every day. In the essence of our being Pueblo people can easily remember Onate, Coronado and De Guzman. Salmon from the Columbia River near the Hanford Nuclear Facility are covered in tumors and glow in the dark. The School of the Americas trains killers in Georgia. The Vatican put a telescope on Mt. Graham, a sacred site. An Afro-American man is dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas.
Considering this urgent social and environmental crisis, flags should be hanging half-mast and upside down.
Let this not be a war against memory. Whether it is drilling for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge or in U’wa territory in Colombia, dumping toxic waste in Yucca Mountain, the strip mining of a sacred salt lake, or bombing Hiroshima, Nevada or Kabul, it is clear the birds have been reminding us that the world is out of balance. What was once a lush world is becoming a dry landscape, which only tears soften now. We can refer to the deaths at Camp Mauthausen or Manzanar, lynchings at Mankato, or the desecration of Medicine Lake, all in the same breath because the impetus of their destruction is the same and the results are so similar.
The rain burns. Whole plant, animal and human societies have vanished and others continue to be threatened with extinction at an ever-increasing rate. Terrorism is nothing new. This is not a time to celebrate violence in the name of patriotism but a time to mourn and act with compassion and vision for our collective survival. A third of the world’s birds are threatened with extinction due to habitat depletion, pollution, corporate invasion and other human threats. And birds in Afghanistan are dropping dead from the burning sky.
Tia Oros c. 2001
Tia Oros (Zuni) serves as the program director of the Seventh Generation Fund, an Indigenous peoples’ nonprofit organization.
They can be reached at:Seventh Generation Fund PO Box 4569 Arcata, CA 95518