Dr. Curt Meine Lecture at ESF: “Land Ethics: Aldo Leopold and Indigenous Perspectives”

By Jess Cherofsky

On March 27, Dr. Curt Meine of the Center for Humans and Nature and the University of Wisconsin gave a lecture at ESF entitled, “Land Ethics: Aldo Leopold and Indigenous Perspectives.” ESF’s Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a friend of Meine’s and his former teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin, introduced him as someone dedicated to bridging the global and local, as a mycorrhizal network, “connecting communicator across many scales.”

The bulk of the talk was dedicated to Meine’s exploration of Aldo Leopold’s philosophy and action in relation to Native American philosophies and land relationships, a question he said has been asked for at least 25 years. As an influential figure in western environmental thought and famous for his “land ethic,” Leopold’s views have been compared with those of this land’s original peoples by various thinkers and academics. Meine described the evidence as to Leopold’s perspectives on Indigenous Peoples as “crumbs along the trail” as opposed to a holistic response, suggesting that perhaps Leopold did not articulate a unified perspective or self-definition of the relationship between his perspectives and Indigenous ones but rather has had his work analyzed and interpreted retrospectively.

Meine presented a sampling of the voices involved in the debate over Leopold’s work in relation to Indigenous values, including Dr. Baird Callicott’s claim that “in form, the Ojibwe and Aldo Leopold land ethic are identical” and Dr. Dan Shilling’s attribution of Leopold’s philosophy to exposure to multiple cultures and his assertion that there was “little new” in Leopold’s thinking aside from ecology.

Most compelling were the examples of Dr. Kyle Whyte’s thoughts from his 2015 paper, “How Similar Are Indigenous North American and Leopoldian Environmental Ethics?” Whyte wrote,

Leopoldian ideas may be similar in the abstract to some Indigenous ethics, but Leopold’s own work does not provide a model of environmental stewardship that many Indigenous persons would identify with or find useful…The third issue is the tendency by some people to prioritize Leopold as the interpreter and translator of Indigenous ethics, which can grant unsubstantiated and even offensive privilege to Leopold in relation to Indigenous ethics. If left unaddressed, each issue threatens to silence important dimensions of many North American Indigenous ethics that matter deeply to the Indigenous persons who adhere to them. (p. 3)

Meine identified several foundational ethics of “western” versus Indigenous environmental ethics, including the ideas of accumulation of knowledge versus respect and control versus relationship. He himself has worked on a committee trying to develop a “new beginning” for the site of the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant on traditional Ho-Chunk Nation territory, used throughout World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars until its decommissioning in 1990. Showing maps of the history of the Ho-Chunk Nation and their forced removal by the United States, Meine described how the Badger Reuse Plan resulted in a land transfer back to the Ho-Chunk Nation comprising the largest piece of contiguous land the nation legally holds. The Nation has been able to return to its practice of prescribed burning, evidence of biocultural restoration, or environmental restoration that is interwoven with restoration of relationship with the original peoples of the land.

Meine’s talk made clear that there are multiple perspectives grappling with the overlap and differences among Leopold’s and Indigenous philosophies. Whyte sums up a perspective that embraces the complexities and the historical power imbalances among western and Indigenous land ethics:

Though Callicott has good intentions, environmentalists who take his points too seriously will have a hard time avoiding procedural injustices against Indigenous North Americans….Members of Indigenous peoples simply will not be as captivated as non-Indigenous people might be with the land ethic as the Rosetta stone for an inclusive environmentalism. A far better approach to thinking about similar ethical orientations between versions of Leopoldian and Indigenous ethics must involve a sobering and critical acknowledgment of and openness to differences between the ethics […] Future work in this area should look rather closely—and critically—about what it would really mean to come together as people of all heritages when we face differences across our models of environmental stewardship, assumptions about the historical trajectories of ethics, and ideas about what interpretative frameworks to privilege.” (p. 15)

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