Turtle's War Party: An Indian Allegory on Environmental Justice

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  • Dean B. Suagee

Once, a long time ago, Turtle organized a war party against the Human Beings. As he was paddling his canoe down the river, he chanced upon Bear, who asked him where he was going. Turtle said that he was going to make war on the Human Beings, the ones that call themselves the Haudenosaunee (who are more commonly known now as the Iroquois). In explaining his course of action to Bear, Turtle said, “Too long they have made war on animals.
Now is the time for us to strike back.” When Bear offered to join in, Turtle turned him down, purportedly because Bear would be too slow but more likely because Bear was just too big for Turtle’s small canoe. Turtle also passed up an offer by Wolf to join his war party. His stated reason was that Wolf was too fast and that he would run away and leave Turtle behind, but the real reason was that Turtle had gotten a good close look at Wolf’s long sharp teeth.

Turtle did succeed in picking up a couple of allies, though. He accepted the offer of both Rattlesnake and Skunk to join his war party. The attack, however, did not go as Turtle had hoped it would. Although he and his allies escaped with their lives, they did suffer a humiliating defeat.

Maybe Turtle’s war party was doomed from the start. Maybe he should have known better than to even try to challenge the Human Beings. On the other hand, maybe things would have turned out differently if he had used better judgment in choosing his allies and planning his strategy.


Several different interpretations might be offered for this allegory. One explanation is that Turtle represents an Indian community that can no longer control its outrage at some kind of environmental damage, such as the environmentally destructive activities that the dominant society carries out under the misnomer “economic development.” Perhaps the outrage of the particular Indian community represented by Turtle is focused on some particular outrage, such as the perceived need to find a place to dispose of the mountains of waste produced by an economic system that converts the natural world first into resources, then consumer products, then waste. As we all think we know, after the politically more powerful communities have mounted their “not in my backyard” defenses, declining to deal with the more fundamental issue of why we are creating so much waste in the first place, the waste merchants head off to Indian country and other communities of color to peddle their wares.

So, if Turtle represents an Indian community, then who are the other characters? Perhaps Rattlesnake and Skunk are local grassroots environmental organizations, groups that know the particular issue and the particular Indians well enough to put aside whatever differences they may have and join together to take on the common enemy. Perhaps Bear and Wolf represent the big national (and international) environmental groups. Maybe the Indians turned down their offer to help this time because the Indians sensed that the big groups were more interested in their own agendas than in really helping the Indians in their struggle. Distrust between Indians and environmentalists is nothing new, of course. It can be challenging to work through the distrust to find the common ground that many of us think we know is there.

Why do Indians view the big environmental groups with some suspicion? One big reason is that many environmentalists, like most people in the dominant American society, just do not know much about basic principles of federal Indian law, such as the doctrine of retained inherent tribal sovereignty. Or if they do know about the doctrine of tribal sovereignty, they don’t fully accept it. Or, even if they do accept the doctrine, they may not understand its nuances and limitations. Even if they do accept the basic idea that Indian tribes should be self-governing as a matter of right, if a particular tribal government (which is recognized by the federal government) is pursuing a course of action that environmentalists regard as environmentally incorrect, they may go so far in their opposition as to challenge the very legitimacy of the tribal governing body.

As someone who has done some law school teaching in the field of federal Indian law, I know from experience that very intelligent people can have some trouble developing a working knowledge of the relevant legal principles. Their efforts are confounded by the Supreme Court’s tendency in recent years to issue unprincipled decisions and to fashion new rules, such as the rule that Indian tribes can be implicitly divested of certain aspects of their original sovereignty as a necessary implication from their dependent status, a rule that I have suggested is inconsistent with international human rights law. So I can understand how the big environmental groups, both in their leadership and their grassroots membership, have some difficulties with the complexities of federal Indian law. I also acknowledge that in recent years some of the big groups have done a better job in dealing with some of the issues that matter to Indian communities.

In some cases the big groups have shown some appreciation of the fact that the legal doctrine of tribal sovereignty is more than just another rule of federal law. Rather, this doctrine also can be seen as part of the fabric of international human rights law. Around the world, indigenous peoples are seeking recognition and protection of their human rights to exercise self-government within their traditional homelands. People in the dominant American society who help to uphold the doctrine of inherent tribal sovereignty can rightfully think of themselves as human rights workers. Thinking about this can be tricky, however. When Americans think about human rights they generally think of the rights of individuals and limits on the powers of governments, while the efforts in the United Nations to develop a universal declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples illustrate that indigenous peoples tend to be more concerned with their collective rights to remain distinct societies.