In Conservation Cause, Not Just Shedding a Tear
One of the most memorable commercials in advertising history is a 1971 public service announcement by the Keep America Beautiful campaign in which a Native American — actor Iron Eyes Cody, actually of Italian descent — makes his way through an increasingly polluted landscape.
As he reaches the edge of a highway, a passerby throws out a bag of trash that lands at his feet. A closeup of his face reveals a single tear as the announcer booms: “People start pollution. People can stop it.”
The campaign was ranked among the top 100 of the 20th Century by Ad Age magazine. But it left the impression that Native Americans have only stood by helplessly as pollution and global warming destroy the planet.
In the August issue of National Geographic Magazine, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jack Dykinga and writer Charles Bowden detailed how Native American groups are in fact working to restore natural watersheds and fight environmental degradation all the way from New Mexico’s Santa Clara Canyon to the California coast north of San Francisco.
Some projects have revolved around a tribe’s acquisition of a piece of land that once was ancestral to them, simply to make it into a preserve or wilderness.
“When I was doing this I came to understand that, for them, there is a visceral connection to the land,” Dykinga said, speaking of the Native American groups. “I don’t know if you can wrap your head around that if you’re a white person. If this was (their) great-great-grandparents’ homeland, when they reacquire that land, it brings tears to people’s eyes. It has a mystical, mythical, all kinds of a bearing on that tribe.”
Dykinga, who as a Chicago Sun-Times photographer won a Pulitzer in 1971 for documenting conditions at schools for the mentally retarded in Illinois, many years ago married his vocation to the conservation cause.
Now, an expanded collection of the photographs he took for the National Geographic article is on
Dykinga said space constraints forced the story to focus on seven tribal projects (three described in the narrative). However, the original article was to document nine such efforts. The exhibition lays out the case for the nine projects, plus one more he has documented since he finished the story.
In one project, California tribes belonging to the Inter Tribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council have set aside 3,900 acres of coastal land about 200 miles north of San Francisco to allow for salmon habitat to recover.
“It’s the rewilding of a redwood logging area,” Dykinga said. “They went in and built salmon ladders. They are taking out roads.”
Another project by the Seminole tribe involves the removal of exotic plant species and the rehydration of 2,100 acres of swampland in the Big Cypress reservation along Southern Florida’s Alligator Alley. There was a federal plan to undertake the project, but after years of awaiting funding, the Seminoles decided to pay for it themselves.
“It’s another example of water being at the center of a conservation project,” Dykinga said.
Bowden, Dykinga’s colleague on the National Geographic article, writes that the conservation trend is an emerging one among Indian tribes.
“Something remarkable is emerging in Indian country,” he writes. “Those whose lands were once taken from them, those once dominated, often brutally, by the U.S. government, are setting an example for how to steward the environment.”
But Dykinga believes that, although not every Indian tribe has reclaimed its land for earth-friendly uses, Native Americans have undertaken conservation efforts for generations — sometimes in partnership with Anglos, sometimes not.
“These are smart, funny, witty people, and they know what’s going on,” Dykinga said. “They form alliances with groups and are very savvy. It’s not just about land stewardship but also about land reacquisition for them.”
Along with colleagues from around the world, Dykinga has recently taken his environmental activism to a higher level.
In April 2007, he and four other world-class photographers took part in the first Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition (RAVE) for the International League of Conservation Photographers, to document the El Triunfo Cloud forest in Chiapas, Mexico. The point of this expedition, as well as others that have followed it, was to draw media attention to fragile areas threatened by environmental degredation.
Since then, Dykinga has taken part in other RAVEs to Balandra Beach in Mexico’s Baja California, to the Yucatan Peninsula, to the U.S.-Mexico Border, and to Patagonia, in Chile.
The product of these expeditions has been exhibited at G2 Gallery, among other places. Director
Jolene Hanson said the gallery sets aside time each January to show the work that comes out of the RAVE expeditions. Because the aim of the gallery is to support environmental causes through exhibiting the work of environmental photographers, the RAVEs are uniquely suited to the gallery’s mission, she said.
“These guys are already shooting and looking at the environment,” Hanson said. “They’re seeing the degredation first-hand, so their conservation passion is so strong.”
Hanson said G2 began in 2008 with the idea of showcasing this kind of work. And because few venues specialize in environmental photography, it has been “shockingly easy” to convince top-flight photographers like Dykinga to show at G2.
As for the Native Lands project, Hanson said Dykinga approached her with it about a year ago, while he was still putting it together for the magazine.
“It’s a fantastic project that National Geographic really worked with Jack to put together,” she said.