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Living in the Shadow of a Black Snake

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Indigenous traditions have long recognized the responsibility of people to affirm their humanity by siding with those values that honour our relations with the water, land, climate, and spiritual source of life. Representative of such a view is the Maliseet understanding of pipeline activist Beverly Perley who says “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.[1]  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.[2]  At the same time, the central role of Indigenous cultures in these ongoing confrontations has a feeling of coming full circle as we collectively confront isolating assumptions that are historically woven with our growing shadows.

The black snake 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 progressive vision of 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.[3]”  What confuses us is the way these stories seem to initially 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.

A pipleline snaking through a forest

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 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 centre 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 arrest Indigenous people and activists so as to push through the Keystone and Dakota pipelines. The latter document states: “I believe that construction and operation of lawfully permitted pipeline infrastructure serve the national interest.” North of the border in my home of Canada, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau applauds his move “because it means economic growth and good jobs.” The steps away from life in a sacred world are today being globalized from the heart of Turtle Island.

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 this pipeline “will not serve the national interests of the United States.” For President Trump all these delays and obstructions to the flow of oil from the Alberta tar sands reflected the way in which the “regulatory process in this country has become a tangled-up mess.” It took a month for his order to violently evict the DAPL protestors from their camps. For Indigenous communities and those concerned with the state of lands, waters, and climate, the “tangled-up mess” is the proposed serpentine pipelines 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?”[4]  The immediate worry is about spills on land and into the Missouri River where the Dakota pipeline is to traverse under. There is a gritty and acidic nature to the diluted bitumen that increases the rate of corrosion, thus increasing the likelihood of pipeline spills.[5]  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.”[6]   We 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 hydras that had five heads which 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 defence and in its search for opportunistic attack. When it came to the fallout of actual combat, all around the table knew that if all the heads were not slain in a single turn it would grow two more for any that were loss. Its formidable power was drawn from ancient myths of a chthonic water animal that lived in the swamps where it guarded the entrance to the Underworld and its treasure, a dark ghostly world that its failed conquerors also came to inhabit.

Artistic rendering of the hydra

There is much symbolism carried by such a mythic presence that 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.[7]  Its immensity and regenerative capacity signified an epoch was coming into a time of significant change. A responsive 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 on oil infrastructure that not only has the potential to devastate land and water, but will spill greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It is in times like this that a hydra makes its presence known.

Almost two years ago in Paris some celebrated an international agreement to cut carbon emissions so as to keep global climate changes below 2°C over the next century. It is an agreement that President Obama signed, though the uncertainty around the United States’ continued commitment grows with each passing day of the new presidency. In Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau’s pragmatic response to the pipelines occurred as they took leadership in the Paris negotiations and then 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, which contrasts the fifteen of conventional oil.[8]  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.[9]  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, we 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 it blinds us to its role in manifesting problems of increasing scale like climate change.

These Indigenous traditions tell stories of a cycling world that brings about an “end” to make way for something new. This is what the hydra represented in pre-Christian Europe, and what Spider Woman brings in Hopi teachings of our present move toward the planet’s fourth world following three previous epochs. The fateful web of spirited women weavers is also familiar to ancient Western Europe where they usually came in a group of three known to some as the Norns.[10]  Not only did their fine spirit threads weave the patterned tapestry of individual lives, but also their connection with larger cultural, land, temporal, and spiritual webs. Offering a contemporary perspective, Jungian scholar James Hillman describes the dream imagery of these Spider women as approaching when people 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.[11]

While the approach of Spider Woman indicates significant change is upon us, her stories also offer guidance to those who slow down and listen about what is needed to kill a Black Hydra. A well-known Western tale is of the Greek hero Hercules who had difficulties with the task of killing a hydra for the same reasons I learned around the gaming tables of youth. Every time he smashed a head with his club two more appeared, at least 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.[12]  One way to think about these mythic vices in relation to our present challenge is as an energy addiction that is illuminating our bind to the web of creation, though it is being colored in darkening hues because of our resistance.

Pipelines, bitumen extraction, fracking, and offshore development are analogous on a societal scale to those dark corners where the vices of an addict leads them as they try to maintain ways that are hitting bottom.[13]  Just as individual addicts become more isolated, antisocial, 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, climate denial, and using anger and belittling to undermine any questioning voice. All of these vices are more broadly rooted in male and colonial ways of behaving that are trying to hold on at all costs, and thus this President brings the scope of our cultural challenge into clearer view.

The most difficult feat in Hercules’ fight was dealing with the hydra’s central immortal head. While the others could be cauterized, all he could do with its power centre was 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 in the development of a global industry for gathering, compressing, transporting, and storing the gases.[14]  Then there are more pragmatic and progressive dynamics like Canada’s dual support of a carbon tax and pipelines.

In the midst of all the cultural resistance to change, these dark myths remind us that burying an immoral head is quite difficult because life’s shadows cannot be fully controlled, managed, or slain. Rather, we need ways to sustain our awareness of external realities that are responsive to the quality of our internal state of being and resulting actions.[15]  This is what someone caught in an addiction is also called to confront. Healing often requires recognizing the locked-in behaviours are a kind of illness that is beyond their control, and thus requires 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 being part of something much larger. The spiritual dimensions of such an admission will require a herculean effort for those of us closely fated to progressive ways. This is because our binding immortal vice is the belief in the centrality and infallibility of human rationality to manage creation, despite all the shadowy signs that are pulling in very different directions.

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 similarly 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 world.[16]  This approach clearly contrasts the tendency of conservative politics to draw upon a religious base that also mires many forms of scientific knowledge in the dark ignorance of denial like Fake News accusations. 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 as we move toward slowing down the modern energetic drive in a host of ways.

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 and speed past the experience of being in creation, these mythic presences can be feared and vehemently denied because they draw us back in. When our vices lead us to resist the pull, then the shadows grow as they have been for a time now. And to be clear, Spider Woman and the Black Hydra are not simply collective dream images of our fears. As Hillman counsels, “they are not ours” for they are real energetic presences that the myths help us see as responsive to our actions.[17]  We are sensing something real that is being clothed in a host of guises that can move more fluidly with the more-than-rational changes of our time. This is a shocking prospect to many progressives who are beginning to sense something like an approaching wall that is more profound than President Trump’s vision. In the face of the seeming political defeat of the DAPL and Keystone resistance, our time asks us to re-position all our progressive responses, from active resistance to carbon taxes to lifestyle change, within a mythic awareness so as to re-discover how to live in the shadows of uncertainty.

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. Questions are being posed: Do we belong here or not? Can we disentangle our destructive tendencies so as to open out to a different way of living? We are being called, in the words of Robin Wall-Kimmerer, to “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”.[18]  Such active surrender is a healing response to that original vice which has led many to walk out of the creation for the lure of human control and profit. Wherever we live is where we now must reweave our relations within life’s beautiful tapestry.

[1] Peter-Paul, “The Energy East Pipeline and the Black Snake Prophecy”.

[2] K. Moe, “How a ‘Black Snake’ in the Heartland Brought Spirit to American Environmentalism”, Yes Magazine, May 6, 2014, http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/black-snake-in-the-heartland-spirituality-american-enviromentalism.

[3] J. Mohawk, Thinking in Indian: A John Mohawk Reader, J. Barreiro, ed. (Golden, Co: Fulcrum, 2010).

[4] W. LaDuke, “The Black Snake Hears a Song: Declaring War on the Keystone Pipeline”, Indian Country Media Network, November 21, 2014, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/opinions/the-black-snake-hears-a-song-declaring-war-on-the-keystone-pipeline/.

[5] D. Biello, “Does Tar Sand Oil Increase the Risk of Pipeline Spills?”, Scientific American (2013), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tar-sand-oil-and-pipeline-spill-risk/.

[6] Cited in Indigenous Environmental Network, “United Nation Experts Validate Standing Rock Sioux Opposition to Dakota Access Pipeline”, September 23, 2016, http://www.ienearth.org/united-nation-experts-validate-standing-rock-sioux-opposition-to-dakota-access-pipeline/.

[7] B. Bates, The Real Middle Earth: Magic and Mystery in the Dark Ages (Oxford, UK: Pan Books, 2002), pp. 87, 96-97.

[8] For more on this see T. Leduc, A Canadian Climate of Mind: Passages from Fur to Energy and Beyond (Montreal, Quebec, and Kingston, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016).

[9] Mohawk, Thinking in Indian, pp.90, 103. For a more detailed look at this story in relation to current climate-energy issues, see T. Leduc, A Canadian Climate of Mind: Passages from Fur to Energy and Beyond (Montreal, Quebec, and Kingston, Ontario, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016).

[10] Bates, The Real Middle Earth.

[11] J. Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld (New York, NY, HarperPerennial, 1979), p.145.

[12] S. A. Diamond, “Why Myths Still Matter: Hercules and his Twelve Healing Labors”, Psychology Today (2009), https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/200910/why-myths-still-matter-hercules-and-his-twelve-healing-labors. J. Chevalier and A. Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1994).

[13] For a more detailed look at these addiction issues, see Leduc, A Canadian Climate of Mind, and T. B. Leduc, “In a Climatic Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Global Healing as Sacred Choice”, Minding Nature (2016), https://www.humansandnature.org/in-a-climatic-realm-of-hungry-ghosts-global-healing-as-sacred-choice.

[14] See Leduc, A Canadian Climate of Mind.

[15] Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld; Diamond, “Why Myths Still Matter”.

[16] A. Harvey, Radical Passion: Sacred Love and Wisdom in Action (Berkely, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2012).

[17] Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, 150.

[18] R. Wall-Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013), pp. 214-5.


Image Credit

“Pipeline” by Brian Cantoni. (CC BY 2.0)
“Hydra” by AutumnsLull. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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  • Timothy B. Leduc

    Timothy Leduc is faculty in Land-Based and Indigenous Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario. He has worked in the area of anti-violence and in Aboriginal communities on issues related to Canadian colonialism, including youth solvent abuse, high suicide rates, and family violence.

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