Relationship and Reciprocity

Chief Gary Batton leads Choctaw and Irish dancers in the traditional Choctaw Snake Dance at the June 18 dedication ceremony for the sculpture Kindred Spirits in Bailick Park in Midleton, County Cork, Ireland. Photo by Deidre Elrod/Choctaw Nation. Posted on July 3, 2017 in an article on the website of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.


The Irish get it. They remember and understand relationship and reciprocity. More than 170 years ago, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma responded to word about the Irish potato famine by digging scarce money from their individual pockets to send to the Irish.  This happened in 1847, at the very beginning of what would be a seven-year famine, and just about 15 years after the devastating Trail of Tears (on which one of my own great-great-great grandmothers died). Yet when the Choctaw learned of the sufferings of the Irish people, their own suffering gave them greater compassion rather than less. So “they gathered $170 (the equivaent of $4,400 today [2017 dollars]), and sent it across the Atlantic Ocean to help feed the starving nation of Ireland.” The bond between our nations has been strong ever since, with visits back and forth between Irish heads of state and Choctaw leaders. It’s all chronicled on the Choctaw Nation website. More recent developments are also covered in this news story at Indian Country Today (added May 7, 2020).

And now the Irish are stepping forward to really be there for the people with whom they’ve been in relationship ever since. As one Irish donor, Michael Corkery, wrote, it’s the right thing to do because “The Choctaw and Navajo First Nation people helped the Irish during the Great Famine, despite their own suffering.” As a result, “Already more than $1.3 million has been raised with donations flooding in from Ireland” to help Indian nations hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

YAKOKE, people of Ireland!


Anthem for a Time of Challenge

The Snake River and Grand Tetons range, photographed by Ansel Adams in 1941-1942. From the National Archives, in the public domain.

The Land that’s literally the ground of our existence can support us and give us strength as we grow weary of a crisis that begins to seem endless. Almost a month ago, I pointed out that the title number at the end of “Oklahoma!” speaks with an Indigenous voice, expressing the inherent power of the Land in a way that can uplift our hearts. Today I want to share another piece of music that conveys this same uplifting power in lyrics that speak in an unexpectedly Indigenous voice. A transcription of the lyrics appears beneath the video. The singer is Josh Groban, and the song is titled “Anthem.” Listen carefully, and let the power of the Land lift you in this time of turmoil and conflict, fear and frustration. The Land holds with strong power those who understand where their lives are truly rooted. Ansel Adams (no relation) certainly understood that power, letting it speak through visual image. Music, image, dance, and story are all ways that Knowledge of real relationship can speak to human hearts, bringing a timeless message of hope.


No man, no madness
Though their sad power may prevail
Can possess, conquer, my country’s heart
They rise to fail

She is eternal
Long before nations’ lines were drawn
When no flags flew, when no armies stood
My land was born

And you ask me why I love her
Through wars, death, and despair
She is the constant, we, who don’t care
And you wonder will I leave her
But how?

I cross over borders but I’m still there now

How can I leave her?
Where would I start?
Let man’s petty nations tear themselves apart
My land’s only borders lie around my heart

Songwriters: Mathias Per Andersson / Mikael Berndt Claesson / Geir Pedersen /
Robert Samsonowitz
Anthem lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Lyrics are from LyricFind.

Original song is from the musical Chess.

Consent Decrees and Consequences

I have spent the last day trying to figure out exactly how I want to word this blog entry. I am a wild Mustang advocate – they are important partners in our Horse-Human Relationship Program – and an equine attorney, and those two parts of me are in conflict right now. I have read the 170-page PDF the BLM has issued concerning the proposed gather and removal of all horses from 3 HMAs in southwestern Wyoming. I was hoping to find a novel argument that would make the BLM decide not to pick that alternative among four that they mention in the report.

But the job of an attorney is to share the truth not to make people happy. The truth is that while this gather might be delayed for reasons I’ll discuss in a minute, the BLM will invariably remove these Mustangs and in fact, has the legal power to do so. That power was given to it in a Consent Decree (a court order) issued way back in 2011. The alternative the BLM advocates – the removal of those Mustangs and literally making it so that wild Mustangs no longer live there – is expressly listed in that court order. The BLM is following the law. I wish I didn’t have to say that, but I do. There are still ways to help the Mustangs so read on after you take a minute to let that sink in.

How did we get here?

In a nutshell, the report sets out four alternatives concerning the wild Mustangs in the checkboard area of southwestern Wyoming. The Rock Springs Grazing Association (“RSGA”), which owns most of the private land in that area, has historically allowed a small number of Mustangs to graze on the private land. Their land and the BLM land is literally interspersed like a checkerboard every square mile, which is 640 acres. The RSGA revoked that permission in 2010, and sued the BLM in 2011 to remove the Mustangs. In 2013, a Consent Decree was agreed to by the RSGA and the BLM. It was opposed by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and other wild Mustang advocacy groups who had intervened in the case but the Court granted it over their opposition. That Consent Decree literally lists the exact alternative that the BLM is advocating for at this time.

What can you do, short term?

You can write a comment to the BLM and tell them you want alternative A, which leaves things the way they are right now, with the Mustangs on the range. If you do, you should know a few important things:

  1. Do not send in a form letter. Your comment must be substantive. The BLM states on page 12, “During the public scoping period, 15,013 individuals, agencies, and groups submitted comments on wild horse management. The bulk of these commenters submitted identical form letters. The BLM identified 734 substantive comments.” In the table on that page showing the categories of comments, the BLM notes that “*Identical comments in form letters were counted as a single comment.” That means all those letters that were form letters with identical comments about grazing were boiled down to, according to the table, only 68 comments.
  1. Do not mention grazing. I know that Mustang advocates believe there are too many cattle and sheep grazing the range and that the Mustangs are being removed so more can be put there. However, making that comment to this report will not matter. On page 13, Table 1-2 shows “Issues not carried forward for detailed analysis.” The very first issue is “BLM has illegally elevated the interests of livestock grazing over the interests of wild horses, in violation of FLPMA’s multiple-use mandate and the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act.” The BLM dismisses that argument because “[T]he assertion is not an issue for land use planning analysis but is instead a legal conclusion.” The BLM further states that “[T]o the extent the comment refers to the Consent Decree, that settlement is consistent with applicable law,” and “[M]oreover, the planning criteria for this planning effort (Section 1.4) provide for compliancewith both FLPMA and the WFRHBA as well as other applicable law.” By citing these laws, the BLM is stating that it believes grazing is a legal issue already settled by law and so it won’t consider it any further.

What should you say if you do comment?  

Well, the BLM acknowledges on page 10 that “[T]he Consent Decree requires that BLM consider these actions, but does not require that the BLM implement any specific action. The BLM has met the requirements of the Consent Decree by considering each of these actions as elements of various alternatives in this EIS, though no single alternative considers all of them together.” The BLM is under no obligation to actually do any kind of removal right now. It has considered the options and that is all that is required by the Consent Decree. It is, therefore, acting in accordance with the law, and the BLM could choose to do nothing.

The BLM could choose to leave the Mustangs on the range (Alternative A) because we are in an extraordinary time that it did not foresee or address in January 2020 when it wrote this report. This country is now in the throes of the COVID19 pandemic. This is not the time to be spending money gathering wild Mustangs when there is no emergency reason to do so. For example, the Mustangs in that area are not in danger of starving or dying of thirst. Having gathers increases the likelihood of exposure of people to COVID19 who might not otherwise have that exposure. We are seeing non-essential businesses being closed and people being cautioned to remain socially distanced, sometimes even being ordered to stay at home, so that we can flatten the curve of this dangerous virus. Gathering these Mustangs is not essential. The BLM created the report and considered the alternatives as required under the Consent Decree. Therefore, it should defer any gather until at least 2021, when more will be known about the virus and hopefully, the curve will have flattened or a vaccine may even be available.

The Court continues to maintain jurisdiction over this matter, as stated in the Consent Decree, so an emergency motion might be able to make this argument about extenuating circumstances, depending on the Court’s schedule during the pandemic. But the BLM can take this action without the necessity of anyone filing a lawsuit to stop the roundup. This is a rare time when the BLM, RSGA, and wild Mustang advocates can actually come together and agree on something that serves the entire country. We should all agree about what is most important now, and the BLM should hold off on these roundups in light of this unique point in history. We can all revisit the issue next year, at a time that is hopefully not as fraught with uncertainty and danger.

Because I know I will be asked, yes, you may discuss this COVID19 argument in your comment to the BLM. But do not send a form letter or quote me directly. If this is what you truly believe, then speak from your heart. If we don’t do that now, when will we?

Where do we go from here?

I think that, in reality, we, Mustang advocates, need to realize that we need to put our energy, minds, hearts, and money together to find a viable solution for these Mustangs. Even if they stay on the range for now, the Consent Decree clearly shows that one day they will be removed. I know, I hear you. “But, Jo, they might not be gathered.” Yes, that’s true. The Consent Decree does not expressly require it. However, there comes a time when, as painful as it is, we have to look at what is going on and find a better solution. We owe it to the Mustangs. If we know they are going to be gathered, what can we do now to find them places to live, whether that is at established and new sanctuaries, adoptive homes, or other avenues that we come up with when we put our energy there.

Based on what I have learned by reading this document and what I understand as an attorney, I think that a good course of action is to submit a comment as outlined above and then start thinking of ways to help those Mustangs who will need a place to live. Maybe that’s one blessing from this pandemic. We have the time and the ability, thanks to the Internet, to find ways to help that we might not have had before. It won’t be easy. But we’re never promised that it will be. I know that it is an incredible blessing to simply be able to help the Mustangs any way I can and to be in their presence. They are truly special.

I wish I had better news, I really do. But for the Mustangs, for those relatives of my beloved Annie (the white mare pictured above), who is from Salt Wells, I vow to work on solutions so these magnificent horses can live in a way that allows them to remain true to themselves, even if they can’t remain on the range.

This blog post is for educational purposes only.  It does not create an attorney-client relationship.  Seek an attorney’s advice for your specific situation. 

The Real Time Context of COVID-19

COVID-19 exists in the context of Real Time.
Animals and plants grow and develop in Real Time.

We have heard many leaders say they “are deciding” when their people will come out of quarantine or self-isolation, when businesses will reopen, or when children will return to school. Social media is filled with people lamenting their restlessness, insisting they cannot possibly bear another day cooped up with family or isolated from friends, describing the ways they are anxiously pacing up and down the cage bars they see as having unbearably closed on their lives right now. These people are caught in the painful grinding of gears that takes place when Real Time and human time come into conflict. There is only one way to escape this sort of pain, and that is to stop fighting Real Time and float on its currents. Because Real Time is, well, REAL. There is no arguing with it. There is no negotiating with it. It is what it is.

When you were a child, did you ever try to pry open the petals of a flower to see its beauty when it seemed it was taking too long to bloom? If so, you know the surprise and disappointment of discovering that flowers cannot be rushed. Both dogs and cats carry their babies for about 2 months before they give birth. If you were breeding a dog or a cat, what do you think your vet would say if you brought it in after just one month and said, “I just can’t wait any longer for these babies to get born! Induce labor right now so they are born today!” And if somehow you managed to induce labor yourself, what do you think would happen to those half-developed kittens or puppies when they were born? Flowers and babies develop according to Real Time and do not respond to human impatience. The same is true for disease, which is another natural thing. Epidemics move through communities according to their own patterns of ebb and flow, in Real Time. When health professionals caution against making an arbitrary decision to end quarantine and reopen businesses, they are talking about recognizing the Real Time nature of the way COVID-19 is moving through the population. When people ask, “When will this be over?” the true answer — regardless of what anyone does or doesn’t do — is, “It will be over when it ends.” Natural things flow in Real Time, which is something over which humans have no control. When we try to control it by setting deadlines for births and quarantines and other natural processes, we get very unpleasant outcomes.

Thinking about flowers and babies, you might imagine that Real Time is such an obvious concept that everyone can simply step into it and live it out. But attempting to control time is an integral part of Western culture’s efforts to control things in general. I have already addressed Real Time in an earlier blog post about COVID-19 but I am coming back to it now because it’s so hard for people of today’s culture to truly engage with Real Time. They approach it intellectually, but the relentless time pressures of the world around them are so strong that they’re unable to translate what they know with their minds into a practice of real living. Further, the intensity of conflict between Real Time, which is the natural experience of every biological entity, and the human time we are all pressured to march by, is so intense that it leads to dissociation and anxiety.

But the conflict between Real Time and human time has physiological impacts, too. Artificial light has dramatically altered the daily Real Time rhythms that pattern our lives, in ways we’re beginning to realize contribute to health problems such as cancer, obesity, insulin resistance, and cognitive dysfunction. The tremendous increase in heart attacks, strokes, and car accidents that happen the first Monday of Daylight Savings Time every year is a direct result of the conflict between the Real Time our bodies naturally live on and the human time — or perhaps I should call it the inhuman timing — our society insists we adhere to. The sudden displacement of human time by just a single hour disrupts the already-precarious balance of our diurnal cycles so much that it reveals the magnitude of the underlying asynchrony.

Real Time also has seasonal elements. One of the best-known of these, in many Indigenous communities, is the way winter slows things down and tells humans, animals, and plants to slow down, too, and go inside — whether that’s inside a home or under the ground. So winter is traditionally a time for staying in, for telling stories, for being still. It’s not a time for going out and about, for rushing to accomplish things. When there are lots of terrible accidents and deaths on icy and snowy winter roads, it’s because people have been pressured by human time demands — from their jobs, from schools, from gymnastics practice and karate lessons — to buck the natural Real Time flow of winter. You can only buck Real Time so far. You can put snow tires on your car and put studs on your snow tires. But you’re skating, as they say, on thin ice.

Here is a Real Time understanding of COVID-19: The situation asks us to be still and stay in. If we do, the disease cannot spread. The people who have the disease will recover without transmitting it to other people. (The longer we delay the being still part of things, the longer this will take.) After the last transmission happens and this last person recovers, a little more time passes. Then the disease dies out because it has no one else to visit. Without someone new to visit, the viruses have nowhere to go, and they can’t live any longer in a person who has recovered and whose body has learned how to kill the virus. So the viruses in the last person to recover from the disease die out without leaving a new generation behind. When that happens, this event will be over. Then it will be safe for everyone to come out again.

You could picture COVID-19 like a wave of cannon balls flying through the air 5 feet off the ground. If everyone ducks down and is still so they just fly overhead without hitting anyone, after a while the wave will have passed. Then everyone can stand up safely again. But in this example, we imagine that if someone stands up and gets hit by a cannon ball, the people shooting are encouraged to fire a whole new round. So as long as people keep standing up and being hit, cannon balls will keep getting shot through the air. But if everyone stays down, there are no targets to shoot at. So after a while, the people with the cannons quit shooting and go home.  If we could have all stopped moving and been completely still at our homes when COVID-19 first came to America, we could have done this fairly quickly. But people won’t stop moving. They won’t be still. They say they CAN’T be still . . . but of course, they can be still if they are hooked up to a ventilator. People seem to have forgotten the difference between “can’t” and “don’t want to.” It’s an important difference.

At any rate, the longer that some of us keep moving, and the more people who keep on moving, the longer it’s going to take for the wave to pass over us and be gone. If people keep insisting on living in human time — on saying “I have to do this now” and “I have to do that now,” it’s possible this hard time will never really end. Health professionals are warning us about that, too, but we don’t want to listen. We want to have our cake and eat it too: we want to do what we want to do now, but also have this wave pass over us and be done. That is, we want to have healthy puppies and kittens we can sell, and we also want to have them after just one month instead of waiting the two months it takes.

Reality doesn’t work like that. And it’s finally time for Western culture to come to grips with Reality.

COVID-19 is not taking “no” for an answer.

COVID-19 in the Context of Sacred Commemorations

These are the desert lands that challenged people in the traditional story of liberation and community bonding that is honored in Jewish traditions this week, the spiritual significance of which was celebrated by the great spiritual leader of the people in Christian traditions on the last night of life before his own moment of challenge and transition. Image is from the public domain.

This week, of all weeks — and this week of this particular year, of all years — is one that should stir into waking life a visceral understanding of Indigenous values, deep within the hearts of people of the dominant culture. For this week commemorates events during which individuals set aside their own personal fears and desires, and did so for the benefit of the greater good of their entire community, understanding that any individual is only as safe and whole as the larger whole of which they are an embodied part — the Whole that is the very source of life.

The original events were occasions when participants learned through spiritual ways of knowing. The stories that tell about what happened then are mythic ways of knowing that bring this Knowledge into our times so we can experience and learn from this wisdom in our own lives. The different ways of knowing are not restricted to any one culture in terms of existence, as they exist in all cultures. But spiritual and mythic ways of knowing are more widely recognized as valid in Indigenous culture than in Western culture — even though, as you can see in the stories to which I am about to refer — mythic and spiritual ways of knowing have had great power in Western culture for millennia. Valuing these ways of knowing in no way minimizes or devalues intellectual or experiential ways of knowing. (In fact, rituals such as those described below engage experiential ways of knowing.)

Wisdom emerges only when all the ways of knowing, learning about, and responding to the natural world and to life itself are integrated. And the systems of values by which communities and individuals live are informed by, and manifest, the wisdom of that community.

During Passover, people of the Jewish tradition ritually eat certain foods that are limited in taste and quality because they commemorate a time the People as a whole were in a time of hardship and facing an unprecedented change in their lives. Not only that, they were hunkered down in their homes during a time of plague, filled with fear as the keening of grief echoed through the night landscape. But we do not read of the most devout members of this group setting themselves apart from their community at that time, insisting they had a right and even a duty to go outside and gather better foods for their holy offerings. We do not read of them violating the instructions they had been given to shelter in place in order to gather for a reading of their holy texts. Instead, we see these people acknowledging and honoring their deep relationship to one another, their social and spiritual and biological contract of kinship and oneness, by setting aside their own individual fears to do what was necessary for the good of All. We know, if we read that story, that the tension between their individual fears and desires and the genuine, desperate need to protect well-being of the whole community was a throbbing source of anguish for many years after this one night. The story paints the struggles clearly, and it’s clear that even so many years ago the community leaders found it necessary to invoke authority, law, and punishment to maintain the unbroken unity that permitted everyone to survive the ordeal. In those laws and punishments, we see the response still visible today, to the value system of “individual rights are the most important thing” that has come to dominate contemporary culture when it rebels against the value system that prioritizes the good of the whole. This is not the time or place where either value system was born, however. Both live within human hearts. It is our responsibility and our joy to work through that struggle within ourselves during each and every challenging moment — the most creatively productive moments — of our lives.

During Easter week, people of the Christian tradition ritually commemorate, first, their great leader’s own commemoration of the Passover tradition just mentioned. In one of the sacred stories told of these events, in the book of John, the story is even told in such a way as to ritually align this great spiritual leader with the lambs killed during the original Passover event to provide not only food to people about to face the most grueling moment of their lives, but the blood with which to paint their doorposts in order to spare them from death by plague. Notice that this blood, which is compared to the blood of the spiritual leader, becomes the blood of the People themselves — a sign of their literal common blood as living beings related to one another and bound by this mark of blood. The death of the leader as the story plays out marks them as being of One Blood — a community — as his blood symbolically marks the doorposts of their individual lives. And again, in this story, we see the same struggle between individual fears and desires on the one hand, and the greater good for the whole on the other. When the leader is arrested, he does not resist though one of his followers responds at first with violence. After the arrest, another follower denies that he knows the leader, out of fear for his own life — not once, but repeatedly. Again there comes a time when the people in the community hunker down to wait things out. Even the leader, who has been killed, hunkers down to wait for death to pass by. And then, in the proper fullness of time — determined by Real Time, not by human decision — the community is reborn and life begins to pulse again . . . in the entire Whole. It can only happen because the people were finally able to set aside their own individual fears and desires, their own timetables of what should happen when, and allow themselves to be carried on the river of Real Time and What Is. This is the river of All My Relations. And it carries everything, not just human beings. As this particular spiritual leader pointed out, it carries even the sparrows, and the very lilies of the field.

The struggle between individual needs, fears, and desires and the greater good for the Whole of which we are all a part exists within every heart. In Indigenous cultures, the value system that is privileged, that is taught to young people and generally upheld in specific situations when important decisions must be made, is one in which the greater good for the Whole has precedence. There are fairly recent historical stories of times when individual young warriors raced out ahead of the rest of a war party because their anger at recent and violent injustice, or their desire for personal war trophies, spurred them into wanting to score an immediate individual victory over an enemy. The war chiefs stopped and abased them for daring to risk the larger victory and survival of the People as a whole for the sake of satisfying personal desire. There is a fairly recent historical story of a leader who was stripped of his authority and honors because he put his own desires for love ahead of the good of the whole People, engaging in a relationship that he knew would create violent animosity between different families and so endanger the whole group. At this time, stories of individual sacrifice for the good of the whole are playing out across Indian Country. They are not my stories to tell, so I do not share them here. But I am filled with pride and admiration for the People as I learn of such stories.

Now, as in the times of these stories I have just told, is a time of great trial for everyone. It is these times of great trial, times of desperate hardship and risk, that the value system of Serving the Greater Whole is most essential to uphold. This is what the sacred stories of the traditions I have shared tell us, even now. It is what the people of two great religious traditions of the world celebrate this very week.