- Chief Dan George, Sacred Ecology, and Sustainable Environmental Design
I was born a thousand years ago, born in the culture of bows and arrows . . . born in an age when people loved the things of nature and spoke to it as though it has a soul. Chief Dan George
In 1971, when I was a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate student in philosophy, I heard Chief Dan George speak on Native spirituality in Edmonton, Alberta. He was already a respected actor in the U.S. Having played a significant role the previous year in the hit movie Little Big Man—based on the novel by Thomas Berger and directed by Arthur Penn—he was nominated for Golden Globe and Academy Awards and won New York Film Critics’ Circle and National Society of Film Critics’ Awards. Dan George had had no training as an actor, but he was a true chief: from 1951 to 1963, he was the elected leader of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, a Coast Salish band in North Vancouver. He was a man of great dignity and wisdom. The authenticity of his spirit and his character is what moved people who saw him in film, on TV, or on the stage.
Before he was famous in Hollywood, Canadians already knew Chief Dan George well. Almost by chance, he was cast by the CBC in a 1960s television series called Caribou Country, and he stunned audiences with his portrayal of David Joe in George Ryga’s play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. In 1967 he became a national figure when he delivered “Lament for Confederation”— accompanied by the drumming and chanting of his family—to a crowd of over thirty thousand at the Empire Stadium during Vancouver’s celebration of Canada’s Centennial. In this famous speech he said, “Today, when you celebrate your hundred years, oh Canada, I am sad for all the Indian people throughout the land.” He asked, “Shall I thank you for the reserves that are left to me of my beautiful forests? For the canned fish of my rivers? For the loss of my pride and authority, even among my own people?”
Chief Dan George later gained more success as an actor, but he was cherished foremost as a spokesman for First Nations people, speaking out against injustices done to them and against the environmental degradation of their land. [End Page 167]
When I heard him speak in 1971, I had been studying Asian wisdom traditions in the writings of Alan Watts and Krishnamurti. His talk addressed the large questions of humanity’s relationship to nature and reminded me of what I was studying. Krishnamurti, for example, taught that nature was a vital part of our being: if we hurt nature, we hurt ourselves. Chief Dan George spoke of our being part of Mother Earth, of the interdependence of everything, and of the need to be caring and respectful always. This was before the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss coined the term “deep ecology” and before Greenpeace brought environmental activism to the high seas of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and then to the rest of the world.
Chief Dan George was the first Native person I had ever met. He wore a tweed jacket, blue jeans, and pointy black shoes. His long silver hair framed a weathered face. He was then in his seventies, and had been a longshoreman and laborer into his forties. His appearance was at once fragile and powerful. A passionate storyteller, he described where he had grown up in North Vancouver: on land surrounded by mountains and the misty rain forests near the water’s edge. The Chief joked about being an “old Indian,” explained how living in that environment defined who he was—a member of the Tsleil-Waututh, or People of the Inlet—and described intimate relationships with the land, sea, and animals. He said that human beings did not own nature and that we should take from Mother Earth only what we need, sharing it; that we should connect to the land where we live, instead of trying to escape to a remote, pristine wilderness; and that we need to return to the land with...