God's Wrath Meets The Cherokee Path
Opinion over 'dominion' leads to an unlucky Kentucky
Unexpected extreme meteorological events on Biblical scales are happening all around the globe. Their intensity and frequency is only going to increase. Who will survive and who will die may come down to who chooses the right path.
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ONE IN A THOUSAND
“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.
Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”
At 2 a.m. their Lord came. And then the flood. A woman, Amber, and a man, Riley, rushed to wake two boys and two girls: Madison, Riley Jr., Nevaeh, and Chance. Ages eight, six, four, and two. The water was filling their trailer home like a bathtub. But this was not just any flood.
Civil engineers plan for floods like this. Flash floods. They mold networks of linear concrete channels directing water to rush into cavernous catchments…sometimes at blistering speeds. Civil engineers take great pride in trying to control nature. The British civil engineer credited with birthing the discipline, Thomas Tredgold, once said, “Engineering is the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man.” The power of these floods could not be directed. The cleverly engineered network of pipes, culverts, and catchments were eviscerated. Useless. Inconvenient to man.
Seeing the water rise around them, gushing from all directions, the family of four headed for higher ground – their roof. But it wasn’t high enough, so onto a dangling limb they climbed. The water followed. Chunks of their home ripped from its frame as they clung to the tree. They watched as their home rose from its footings and swirled in the torrent.
Have you ever submerged a rubber ball to the bottom of a pool, released it, and watch as it rushes to the surface with a pop? That’s the work of buoyancy force. It’s the same force that works against you swimming to the bottom to release it. It takes just two feet of flood water to exert 1500 pounds of buoyancy force. Imagine the force of 20 feet of rushing water? This flood was tossing SUVs like pool toys. Those four kids didn’t stand a chance. Only mom and dad survived.
The U.S. Southeastern state of Kentucky was hit with a series of sudden thunderstorms last week. The death toll has climbed to 37. The town of Jackson, just west of Lexington, saw their entire average August rainfall of four inches pour down in just 12 hours. The National Weather Service estimated a storm like this may occur just once in 1000 years.
They said that in 2015 about a rainstorm in South Carolina. Two regions there saw 10 and 26 inches of rain fall over four days. Twenty people died. Another “once in 1000 year” event happened in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2016. Thirteen people died. Over ten times more houses in that area had major flooding (18 inches or more) than the last storm of this magnitude in 1983.1 That’s 33 years ago, not 1000. Suffice it say, the Southeast United States will have ‘once in 1000 year’ flood events at least once every five years, if not every year. What are the odds experts will stop calling them ‘once in 1000 year’ weather events? One in 1000?
In 2015 Pope Francis sent a letter to all Catholic churches titled, Laudato si' (Praise Be to You). The subtitle read, “on care for our common home”. It was a seething critique on consumerism, globalism, addiction to continual economic growth, and the social and environmental degradation it has caused. He doesn’t mince words when he writes that it is,
“easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.”2
He observes it’s resulted in a form of “reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life.” Especially those who are poor. He says, “the poor and the earth are crying out.” Imagine the sound of cacophonous rushing floodwaters, the clap of angry water-logged thunder clouds, punctuated with screams of terror from a family of four left with two. They clung to an equally terrified tree as their sole possessions rushed away in a gushing deluge. Deranged droplets running scared from the canyons, crevices, and creeks of the battered and bewildered hills of Appalachia.
Kentucky is home to perennially poor people. The first Europeans to settle there most likely lived like resident Cherokees. For millennia Indigenous communities hunted and fished in and around the streams and rivers that carved grassy areas amidst hickory-oak forests. They hallowed out poplar trees to make canoes traversing vast networks of rivers and streams to hunt, travel, and trade. Cherokee women were expert horticulturists. They cultivated seeds using slow-burning fires to clear underbrush and germinate seeds, experimented with seed alterations to improve yields, farmed strawberries, and harvested North American native onions, called ramps. Their mountain plateaus were rich with rows of ‘Three Sisters’; beans, corn, and squash grown in clumps of biological reciprocity.3
Europeans and enslaved Africans then brought sweet potatoes and peaches which Cherokees also adopted. They did all this, as history professor Gregory Smithers learned,
“not to commodify and claim possession over the landscape and rivers, but to constantly renew their commitment to living in balance and harmony with local ecosystems.”4
However, living in harmony with nature ended when European imperialists started competing for land and natural resources in the 17th and 18th centuries. As Europeans immigrant populations grew in the 19th century, so did commodification. By the late 1800s fresh-water mussels of Tennessee and southwest Virginia fed a burgeoning international pearl market. Within a few decades Tennessee was leader in marketing and selling pearls.5
After the Civil War and the formation of the New South, dams were built, roads were constructed, and timber became easier to extract. Corporations from the North bought large swaths of land. By 1930, over 60 percent of Kentucky land was owned by European, Canadian, and Northern United States companies. Families were forced to sell their land. Companies arranged sophisticated legal schemes in Washington D.C. forcing private land foreclosures they quickly then swooped up.
The domination and oppression these Kentuckians experienced is what all Indigenous people had already endured, and continue to endure, across the continent. The taking of land and resources was dehumanizing and starved them of their dignity. Corporations played into these visceral emotions labeling and portraying people of the South, just as they did Indigenous, African, and lower-class European slaves and servants, as backwards, dirty, uneducated, lazy, and violent. The stereotype stuck and is alive to this day. The Pope is right, poor people of Appalachia are crying out alright. But many are crying in anger directed at another stereotype who hear mother earth crying: ‘environmentalists’.
Kentucky is a deeply red state. Most love Trump and members of the Trump Republican party who gleefully dismantle environmental regulations. As Trump pulled from the Paris Peace Accords many Kentuckians cheered when he trumpeted that he represents the people of “Pittsburgh not Paris”. These people what their land back from corporations but vote for the party who hands land over to those very corporations. They want to farm, fish, and hunt in clean mountains and streams and for their houses to not float away, but many deny climate change and despise environmentalism. To enact revenge on the ’coastal elites’ of ‘the North’ they are inflicting material damage on their own soil and air, their livelihoods, and their mental and physical health. But when identities are threatened, so is reason.
And it turns out, distraught, individualist, conservative cisgender male Christians who value patriarchy and masculinized manual labor (like logging and mining) have an especially hard time accepting this essential fact: addressing the effects of climate change will require communal collective action across global, socio-political, cultural, and gender boundaries. This approach is antithetical to their identity, and they feel threatened by it. So how does one teach such a person the hard realities of climate change contributing to their destruction?
Scholars working at the intersection of learning sciences and social psychology find it starts with diffusing the dissonance.6 They advise avoiding threats to identity or attempts to ‘win them over’ through argumentation or value judgement. Researchers also found an educational path into conservative homes may best be through children. One study showed daughters educated on aspects of climate change were particularly effective in educating their fathers.
A group of educators in conservative Oklahoma manage to subvert laws restricting the teaching of aspects of climate change by talking openly in the class about its social controversy. This problem-based approach to learning has shown embracing controversy in meaningful dialog opens the door to collective problem solving among conservative students.
Professor David Long at Moorehead University in Kentucky takes this approach in his introductory physics class for non-physics majors. He also does research on how political and religious ideology can be used to mediate science education. His class is called “Modern Issues and Problems in the Physical Sciences”. Being in coal country, he focuses on the carbon costs of energy production. Using project-based learning techniques students grapple with the science behind energy production, consumption, and CO2 atmospheric outputs – both the opportunities and the threats.
“a small number of (always) white male Morehead State students present themselves in class adorned with various types of neo-facist para-military and white supremacist shirts, hats, and other coded iconography that have burgeoned among the political right in recent years.”
To diffuse dissonance, he starts the class by identifying as the son of a father who worked in the coal-fired energy industry on the eastern Appalachian slopes of Pennsylvania.
He wraps up the course by having the class write up an ‘official’ news release on a future energy policy based on what they learned. To encourage unbiased writing, he exposes them to the realities of media bias by using the ‘ad fontes media’ bias chart. This indirectly teaches them to be more critical of their own personal information choices on climate change. He says that so far only three people “have chosen energy policies which retain high CO2 emissions, and even in these cases, the students have chosen natural gas as part of a larger suite of energy choices in what they describe as a pragmatic stopgap as we move away from carbon.”
FROM REDNECK TO RED’S NEXT
“People look down on Appalachians, and some people are saying the hillbillies got what they deserved…But it’s not like that. These were good people, God-fearing people that loved their neighbors and looked out for each other. People don’t realize how much has been lost.”
Those are the words of Tonya Gibson, a nurse practitioner in Knott County, Kentucky. She’s been dealing with people mourning the loss of those rescued but not saved from the flood. She spoke to the stereotypes that plague people living in this region as a form of her own crying.
These are the same God-fearing people Pope Francis knows suffer most from the effects of climate change. Effects due to a fossil-fueled exploitive form of capitalism the Pope is critical of. For his next memo, perhaps the Pope should reflect on the role Catholicism and Christianity played in the unfolding of overly extractive capitalism. He should contemplate the exploitation of Indigenous and African people in pursuit of gold for centuries of Pope’s like him and the nation-states they, and other Christian churches, controlled.
The origins of the complete dominion over natural resources in pursuit of prosperity for Kings and their Christian enablers is rooted in interpretations of the Bible. The English Standard Version of Genesis 1:26. reads:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”
Other versions say ‘rule’ instead of ‘dominion’. And rule they did. Many still do and authoritative rule has become a part of their identity. But Christians who follow principles of ecotheology believe this is a misinterpretation or poor translation of the original Hebrew text. They contend for humans to be granted ‘dominion’ does not mean they have permission to gluttonously exploit, defile, or destroy it – just the opposite. Ecotheologians believe their God gave humans the gift of nature and they are obligated to apply the abilities God instilled in their big brain to creatively maintain, care, and sustain the gifts of nature.
The word ‘dominion’ appears elsewhere in the Bible in plural form. ‘Dominions’ are Christian angels tasked with keeping the natural order of the universe as their God designed it, by enforcing universal laws of nature. Curiously, atheist environmentalists are in fact, in Christian terms, Dominion Angels doing what God told them to do. But getting ‘rednecks’ to listen to these ‘whackos’ won’t be easy. But not impossible.
In 2003, two researchers published a paper studying faith-based environmentalism in 20 churches in Appalachia.7 They found these churches successfully promoted “a transformation of personal values, attitudes, and conduct in support of an environmental ethic of care.” Further, they were able to convince traditional Christians that beliefs surrounding ‘dominion as domination’ are “key reasons for continued environmental degradation.” Other efforts like the ‘Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology’ continue to foster faith-based communities “where religious and spiritual traditions join together for the shared wellbeing of ecosystems.”
Whether you’re a secular civil engineer who believes we just need more concrete to control nature or an evangelical God-fearing Christian ruling over your God-given domain, the forces of nature don’t care. That is a cognitive dissonance that needs diffused. The Cherokees have never been confused; they know what needs to happen. Cherokee historical knowledge teaches the importance of gudugi – working together for the good of all. This is done with reverence for all living things while walking the right path – duyvkta.
Many scoff at Indigenous knowledge and science. They write it off as primitive and that to embrace their principles somehow would throw us back centuries. But these people survived by adapting to ebbs and flows of nature. They were quick to adopt new technologies, knowledge, and tales and then harmonized them with nature with reverence and reciprocity. They walked the right path so that others after them could too.
Before the Cherokees were forced off their land in the 1830s, a knowledge keeper named Thomas Nutsawi (Deer in the Water) would share some of their creation stories with missionaries who were there to share theirs. Reciprocity. As 1830 approached it’s reported he warned them of a time “when the world became ‘full of people who were very wicked. They disregarded all good instructions and would not listen to any thing [sic] good that was said to them’.”
Recall the Biblical story of Naoh’s Ark. It was the wicked people, sinners, that led God to flood their land. Nutsawi continued,
“an old man was instructed by ‘a certain dog’ to place ‘all kinds of animals’ into a vessel. The old man obeyed, and shortly after closing the door on his vessel ‘rain commenced, and continued forty days and forty nights, while the water at the same time gushed out of the ground, so that as much water came up, as fell down from the clouds. The wicked people could swim but little before they would sink and drown’.”
Cherokees didn’t just synthesize European fruits and vegetables into their diet, they syncretized missionary Christian tales into their knowledge transfer. Nutsawi was integrating the Biblical stories with Cherokee concepts of ecological cooperation between man, animal, and nature as a lesson to European missionaries and his people. As we all face what even the Pope sees as undeniable and unmanageable meteorological forces stemming from wicked people and their sinful ways, Nutsawi’s words offered what may be a prescient ending to his story. He said,
‘the family saved in the ark were Red…the Red people are the real people…’ Nutsawi made his point by reminding us all that their forebearers, the original inhabitants of the land, survived harsh and intense climatological and geological upheaval, both sudden and enduring, because they rejected selfishness. But Europeans, he observed, were ugasalesgi – greedy. And for that, they drowned.
Fourth National Climate Assessment. Chapter 19: Southeast. U.S. Global Change Research Program. 2018.
Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis). 2015.
Water stories: deep histories of climate change, ecological resilience and the riverine world of the Cherokees. Gregory D. Smithers. Journal of the British Academy. 2021.
Appalachia and Laudato Si’: Developing the Connection between the Poor and the Environment. Jason King. Cambridge University Press. 2019.
What is climate change education in Trump Country? David Long , Joseph Henderson and Kevin Meuwissen. 2021.
Faith-based environmental initiatives in Appalachia: connecting faith, environmental concern and reform. Lyndsay Moseley and David Lewis Feldman. 2003.