Honorable Harvest

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Professor at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She received a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Botany, and did a PhD in plant ecology. There is no question she is a serious scientist, with all the rigor of the Western scientific approach. At the same time, she’s a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and she relates to the natural world as a Native person does, believing that plants and the rest of the natural world are our relatives, that they are sacred. Part of the book is about Kimmerer’s struggle to reconcile these two worlds.

In Decolonizing Wealth, I write about my version of this struggle, having spent the majority of my professional life, nearly 15 years at this point, working in the very White, very elite world of philanthropy. Yet at my core, the bedrock foundation of my identity, is my Native identity, as an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. For me, it’s been a long journey to decolonize myself and connect more deeply with my Indigenous heritage. 

Kimmerer’s grandfather had the misfortune to be educated at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, one of the hundreds of White boarding schools that forcibly separated Native children from their families and cultures, cut off our hair, forbid us to speak our languages, and forced us to act White. So much of our Native cultures had already been lost; the boarding school era wiped out even more. As I write in my book: “Resilience has become a trendy word in conversations about business, insurance, and climate: let me tell you, my people really have a corner on resilience.”

Kimmerer describes learning her nearly-dead native language, Potawatomi. I feel a touch of envy as I read about it. My people, were originally Sioux-, Algonquin-, and Iroquoi-speaking people, but today have no language to call our own, although we have a distinctive dialect on top of the Southern North Carolina accent.

Her focus in the book is on environmental restoration, yet it inspired me as I thought about a proposal for healing in the sector of philanthropy and finance.

Kimmerer writes: “We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads up high and receive the respectful acknowledgement of the rest of earth’s beings.”

Can we adapt the respectful kind of relationship with natural resources that she describes to the world of financial resources? She described the principles of the Honorable Harvest as follows:

“Collectively, the indigenous canon of principles and practices that govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honorable Harvest. They are rules of sorts that govern our taking, shape our relationships with the natural world, and rein in our tendency to consume—that the world might be as rich for the seventh generation as it is for our own…. The guidelines for the Honorable Harvest are not written down, or even consistently spoken of as a whole—they are reinforced in small acts of daily life. But if you were to list them, they might look something like this: 

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.

Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life. Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.

Never take the first. Never take the last. Take only what you need.

Take only that which is given.

Never take more than half. Leave some for others. Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.

Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken. Share.

Give thanks for what you have been given.

Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.

Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”

Those who violate these principles are poisoned with the Windigo spirit—a reference to the Anishinaabe myth of the Windigo, a legendary monster that was once a human being who has become a cannibal monster. Its bite transforms its victims into cannibals too. It is doomed to wander for the rest of time, never to enter the spirit world. The more it eats, the more ravenous it becomes. Kimmerer writes: “Windigo is the name for that within us which cares more for its own survival than for anything else…The old teachings recognized that Windigo nature is in each of us, so the monster was created in stories, that we might learn why we should recoil from the greedy part of ourselves…See the dark, recognize its power, but do not feed it.”

Clearly, I’m reminded of European colonizer-settlers, who spent centuries sailing around the world taking stuff that didn’t belong to them, asserting it was their God-given right to do so. And of the relentless drive for unlimited profit that is based on exploitation.

But Kimmerer reminds us: “Restoration is a powerful antidote to despair. Restoration offers concrete means by which humans can once again enter into positive, creative relationship with the more-than-human world, meeting responsibilities that are simultaneously material and spiritual.”

Yes. In my own way, in the pages of Decolonizing Wealth, I offer a vision for what that kind of deep restoration could look like in both the individuals and the institutions that control philanthropic and financial resources.

Edgar Villanueva