A black snake is trying to weave its way across Turtle Island, from the heart of the United States to Canada’s western and eastern shores. It began slithering into our popular consciousness with the highly publicized Keystone XL confrontations, in which the Lakota people connected a prophecy of a black snake that bestows pain, sorrow, and destruction to the development of this pipeline. The concern informed a seven-year alliance of Indigenous people, settlers, and environmentalists that managed to temporarily stop it. From this seeming death came the U.S. government’s approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and another confrontation with this serpent ensued.
North of the border in Canada, Indigenous people have likewise called forth its mythic image. In New Brunswick, the Maliseet activist Beverly Perley talks about the Energy East pipeline in the terms of a prophecy told by her aunt: “A snake is going to come from the West to the East, across our land and poison our waters and land.” Adding that “the only way to kill it, is to cut off the head.” What we face today is a snake with many heads, a Hydra, which is very difficult to decapitate.
Indigenous traditions have long recognized the responsibility of people to affirm their humanity by siding with those values that honor our relations with the water, land, climate, and spiritual source of life. The Maliseet understanding of Perley leads her to say “that the greatest allies in fighting the black snake will come from . . . ancestors through spiritual ceremony,” which, she adds, does not mean denying the need for active protest. Similarly, the Keystone conflict fostered an Indigenous-Cowboy-Environmentalist alliance that was grounded in ceremony and a sense of responsibility to the land’s spirit. On the one hand, such a spiritual approach brings some discomfort to progressive environmentalists who are often dedicated to the power of secular logic and science in their responses. At the same time, the central role of Indigenous cultures in these confrontations gives a feeling of coming full circle as we collectively confront isolating assumptions that are historically woven with our growing shadows.
The Black Hydra is bringing to the modern world a challenge to re-learn a spirited wisdom that is Indigenous to our planet. If we affirm this call, it will open up a very different sense of our heightening climate-energy crisis and what a sustainable response entails. Yet such an act seems quite difficult for many who are invested in the modern world. In the words of the Seneca teacher John Mohawk, this is because Indigenous traditions continue to illuminate “a set of moralities that the west has generally found to be both confusing and inappropriate.” What confuses us is the way these stories seem to weave an external challenge with the internal state of people. The pipeline serpent not only tries to cross all external borders with its polluting impacts, but also casts a shadow at the core of our humanity. By following its mythic trail, we can get a deeper sense of the changes now being asked of us by a climatically uncertain world.
The voice has grown loud since that long-ago time when some humans began hearing a faint whisper say, we can have it all. The whole of creation is here for us to know and take hold of. Today the messages permeate our awareness through the screens that mediate many of our social relations, implicitly leaving us with the impression that human concerns and machinations are the center of it all. Then there is what we hear and see in the news of the day as President Trump issues executive orders to limit birth control, build walls to keep immigrants out, deport others, and move full ahead with the Keystone and Dakota pipelines. As stated in the January 24, 2017, Presidential Memorandum regarding construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline: “I believe that construction and operation of lawfully permitted pipeline infrastructure serve the national interest.” North of the border in my home of Canada, the Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau applauds Trump’s move “because it means economic growth and good jobs.” The steps leading away from life in a sacred world are today being globalized from the heart of Turtle Island.
Turtle Island, NASA
On December 4, 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that the DAPL was being halted for an environmental impact assessment, but only after a series of escalating conflicts with Indigenous and environmental protestors. Around the same time of DAPL’s momentary delay, Canada’s government rejected the Northern Gateway pipeline across northern British Columbia while approving two other pipelines. A year earlier, TransCanada’s Keystone XL was declared dead when President Obama stated that this pipeline “will not serve the national interests of the United States.” For President Trump, all these delays and obstructions to the Alberta tar sands flow of oil reflected the way in which the “regulatory process in this country has become a tangled-up mess.” It took a month for his presidential order to violently evict the DAPL protestors from their camps to take effect. Meanwhile, in Canada, Trudeau’s government touts the need to fulfill the responsibilities of the Paris Climate Accord while confronting those who protest the building of the Trans Mountain Pipeline in British Columbia. For Indigenous communities and those with environmental concerns, this “tangled-up mess” is actually the proposed serpentine pipelines themselves that aim to carry tar-like oil across the sacred creation.
Each time a head is seemingly cut off, others grow elsewhere. This is no normal black snake slithering across land and water. In the words of Anishinaabe scholar-activist Winona LaDuke: “The hydra of pipeline proposals across North America should give us cause to pause—and say . . . what are we doing?” The immediate worry is about spills on land and into the Missouri River, which the Dakota pipeline is to traverse under the riverbed. There is a gritty and acidic nature to the diluted bitumen that increases the rate of corrosion, thus also increasing the likelihood of pipeline spills. Recognizing this situation, on September 23, 2016, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples called upon the United States to halt its construction “in recognition of dire and direct threats to the drinking water, burial grounds and sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux people.” We in North America are quickly approaching what LaDuke describes as a crossroads, where modern infrastructure crumbles in the face of “oil spills, climate change, and a lost opportunity to become energy efficient and self-sufficient with renewables and post petroleum choices.” The multi-headed pipeline is writhing to stay alive in the face of all the signs that indicate we are moving toward a downturn.
How do we kill a multi-headed Black Hydra? This mythic question draws me back to memories of sitting around a kitchen table with friends playing Dungeons and Dragons. As a teenager, this game introduced me to the lore of the hydra, whose five heads gave it many advantages in any fight. It was difficult to blind, charm, deafen, frighten, or knock unconscious. More than that, it was always wakeful both in its defense and in its search for opportunistic attack. When it came to the fallout of actual combat, all those around the table knew that if all the heads were not slain in a single turn, the hydra would grow two more for any that were lost. Its formidable power was drawn from ancient myths of a chthonic water animal that lived in the swamps where it guarded its treasure and the entrance to the Underworld—a dark, ghostly world that its failed conquerors also came to inhabit.
There is much symbolism carried by such a mythic presence, and it can teach us something about our present challenge. When a hydra appeared in Europe’s ancient past, the myths cycled toward stories of civilizations whose fate hung in the balance. Its immensity and regenerative capacity signified that an epoch of significant change was coming. A reactive world was bringing society against its limits and capacity to respond. In fact, the hydra often appeared because its underground treasure had been taken by people without a sense of responsibility and duty. Our time is not that different as we come upon a crossroad of our own making. What are we doing? The question posed by LaDuke arises from the dissonance of investing billions of dollars on oil infrastructure that not only has the potential to devastate land and water, but that will ultimately result in the spilling of greenhouse gases into Earth’s atmosphere. It is in times like these that a hydra makes its presence known.
Just over a year ago in Paris some celebrated an international agreement to cut carbon emissions to keep global temperature change below 2° Celsius. It is an agreement that President Obama signed, though the United States has since withdrawn from it. In Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau’s pragmatic response to the pipelines occurred as his government took a strong leadership role in the Paris negotiations and then domestically initiated a national carbon tax. This is a difficult balance when the pipelines will carry bitumen that some describe as junk energy, because every unit of energy needed for its extraction and processing returns only four to six units, which contrasts with the fifteen of conventional oil. From extraction to pipeline delivery, everything about the tar sands seems to foster a darker future for the air, climate, water, land, and all life, including humans. And yet from the shadows comes the message that these issues are merely the trade-off for economic growth, jobs, and the modern lifestyle we so covet.
Some Indigenous elders saw signs of this challenge to the modern desire for ever-growing energy and resources long before this Black Hydra. John Mohawk tells a story of taking the Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya for a tour of Haudenosaunee country. Driving along the American side of Lake Ontario, they approached the Niagara Falls power dam and the “endless maze” of electric lines that radiated from it. Banyacya asked to have the car pulled over, and Mohawk describes what ensued: “For a long time, in silent awe, he stood beside the road,” and then spoke: “In the Hopi teachings, we are told that toward the end of the world, Spider Woman will come back and she will weave her web across the landscape. . . . I believe I have just seen her web.” What he saw was deeper than the lines of wire, or pipelines that we all see with our eyes. He also witnessed a spiritual “symbol of the end of this world as we know it.” For Mohawk, he was connecting the web of lines to the progressive idealism and technological optimism of the West and how this blinds us to the West’s role in manifesting problems of increasing scale, like climate change.
These Indigenous traditions tell stories of a cycling world that brings about an “end” in order to make way for something new. This is what the hydra represented in pre-Christian Europe. This is what Spider Woman brings in Hopi teachings: notice of our present move toward the planet’s fourth world. The fateful web of spirited women weavers is also familiar to ancient Western Europe, where the women formed mythical groups of three known as the Norns. Not only did their fine spirit threads weave the patterned tapestry of individual lives, but also connected with larger cultural, terrestrial, temporal, and spiritual webs. Offering a contemporary perspective, Jungian scholar James Hillman describes the dream imagery of these Spider Women as something that applies when people’s dreams are caught in states of illusion and power fantasies. She then spins threads “that can catch and hold any winged fantasy,” as her luminous tapestry takes on nightmarish shadows that pull us back into creation.
While the approach of Spider Woman indicates significant change is upon us, her stories also offer guidance to those who slow down and closely listen to what is needed to kill the Black Hydra. A well-known Western tale is of the Greek hero Hercules who also had difficulties with the task of killing a hydra—apparently for the same reasons I learned of around the gaming tables of youth. Every time Hercules smashed a head with his club two more heads appeared, until he learned the secret of torching and cauterizing after each decapitation. But what Hercules puts to rest one-by-one is not simply the external heads of a monster, for its blood also symbolizes the internalized human vices of pathological anger, greed, lust, vanity, resentment, and grasping control. One way to think about these mythic vices in relation to our present challenge is as an energy addiction that is illuminating our interconnection to the web of creation—a web that is being colored in increasingly darker hues because of our resistance to dealing with our ever-growing addiction by slowing down, consuming less, and recognizing our place in creation.
Pipelines, bitumen extraction, fracking, and offshore development are analogous on a societal scale to those dark corners where the vices of addiction lead as we try to sustain behaviors that are making us hit bottom. Just as individual addicts become more isolated, anti-social, irrational, and angry, our energetic addiction is extending the modern separation from creation. The extreme position of President Trump simply highlights some of those isolating vices: an urge for control through building walls and removing the unfamiliar, enabling frontier profit and climate change denial while using anger and belittling to undermine any questioning voices. All these vices are more broadly rooted in the male and colonial behaviors that we hang on to at all costs, and thus Trump’s position brings the scope of our cultural challenge into clearer view.
The most difficult feat in Hercules’s fight was dealing with the hydra’s central, immortal head. While the peripheral head could be cauterized, all he could do with the hydra’s power center was to cut it off, place it deep in the ground, and cover it with a huge stone. What is this immortal head in our present moment? Deeper than the dark fossil fuels of the pipelines is what they fuel: the speedy, limitless, and virtual ways of living that the serpent continually promises. These powerful messages persist even when devising climatic responses. Exemplary is the carbon capture and storage technology for greenhouse gases that is often touted as a solution to climate change. This low-hanging fruit not only requires less cultural change, but is a mirage because it carries a significant energy penalty that requires burning more fossil fuels to develop a global industry for gathering, compressing, transporting, and storing the gases. Then there are the more pragmatic and progressive dynamics like Canada’s dual support of a carbon tax and pipelines.
These Indigenous and Greek myths remind us that burying an immoral head is quite a difficult task because the dark shadows of life cannot be fully controlled or slain. Rather, we need ways to sustain our awareness of external realities that respond to the quality of our actions and awareness. This awareness is exactly what someone caught in an addiction is also called to confront. Healing often requires recognizing locked-in behaviors, which are a kind of illness beyond the addict’s control and thus require a degree of surrender to the help of others and a higher power. We are in a similar societal position today as the Black Hydra asks us to re-learn the art of surrendering what no longer works through an awareness of the web of relations we belong to, which is much larger than us as individuals, cultures, nations, and even as a species. The spiritual dimensions of such an admission will require a herculean effort for those of us closely fated to modern ways. This is because our immortal vice that binds the range of modern approaches is a belief in the centrality and infallibility of human control over creation, despite all the shadowy signs that pull us in a very different direction.
The multi-headed pipeline requires a diversity of responses, though that which vanquishes its immortal head must come from a deeper spiritual source than the protest of being against something. This is what Indigenous responses to the pipelines highlight. It is also described by Andrew Harvey as a “sacred activism” that can allow any of our diverse spiritual practices to inspire broad cultural change, while actively grounding our spirituality in the natural world. We each need to engage this work with the gifts we can offer, from supporting protests from afar to actively confronting local manifestations. But intertwined with public protest is the call to embody changes in our ways of living. This does not need to be seen as individualized austerity or asceticism, but as communal actions that coordinate the withdrawal of people from fossil-fuel intensive markets—perhaps starting with those emissions that tend to be more luxury than need-based.
While the Black Hydra casts a growing shadow, Spider Woman continues to weave a great energetic web where spirit and materiality interpenetrate. For those who try to transcend the experience of being in creation, these mythic presences can be feared because they draw us back in. When our vices lead us to resist the pull of these mythic presences, then the shadows grow around us, as they have been doing for some time now. And to be clear, Spider Woman and the Black Hydra are not simply collective dream images of our fears. Rather, Hillman counsels “they are not ours,” for they are real energetic presences that the myths help us see as responsive to our actions. This is a shocking prospect to many progressives who are beginning to sense something like an approaching wall that is more profound and challenging than President Trump’s vision. Our time asks us to re-position all our progressive responses, from active resistance to carbon taxes to lifestyle change, within a mythic awareness.
We are in a fateful moment where the political desire to deport and remove unwanted peoples from Turtle Island is occurring just as the web of creation is itself bringing forth a Black Hydra to see what today’s humans are made of. The serpent before us “has jaws and paws” that can tear at our lives, and thus Hillman reminds us that the best action is to give “that primordial respect” long displayed by Indigenous peoples. It is asking us whether we belong here or not. Can we disentangle our destructive tendencies to open ourselves to a different way of living? We are being called to, in the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer, “naturalize” modern institutions and worldviews, “throw off the mindset of the immigrant,” and live “as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit.” Such active surrender is a healing response to that original vice that led many of us to walk out of creation for the lure of human control and profit. Wherever we live is where we now must renew our relations within life’s beautiful tapestry.