Nature’s Balance

In Columns, Features, Pieces to Peter's Puzzling World by Peter Webster

In September, Beth and I are riding an Alaska ferry to Skagway. We’ll spend a little time in Juneau and four days in Ketchikan. We’re booked. We’re going to take a big trip.

When I was a kid, my grandparents took me on a cruise up there. I saw a whale dive, the big anchor-shaped tail dripping water and sliding into the water without a splash or a sound. That memory has been enhanced by films and videos of whales behaving like that, but I don’t care. It’s a magical memory. I also remember the ship tied up right next to downtown Juneau. The ship was on one side of the street, businesses on the other. The mountains were a few blocks away. There was barely enough room for the town.

Edgar Webster, my grandfather, went to Juneau during the gold rush to work for the big Juneau Mine as an engineer. On the side, he bought and sold gold claims and mines. The gold came to him. I saw a photo of him returning to Seattle; he held two sacks of what might have been gold dust. He looked like he could have crushed gold ore with his teeth. He courted an Irish woman who kept a boarding house in Seattle. She wouldn’t marry him, so he courted and married her daughter, Annie O’Rannahan, from County Cork instead. We all called her Mimi.

Edgar’s Mom was a Mdewakantan Sioux woman, Mary. I don’t know her Indian name. The Mdewakantan were a forest people in Minnesota, not the ones we normally think of as Sioux (those were their cousins, Oglalas and Yanktonais, out on the prairies).

Mdewakantan lived in bark houses rather than tipis, and ate more fish and deer than buffalo. They grew corn and harvested wild rice. Seasonally, they journeyed out onto the prairie to hunt buffalo for meat and hides. They weren’t nomadic: technically, they were farmer-gatherers.

Once they signed a treaty and received their reservations they were willing to settle in and try to be farmers. The white occupation of Minnesota led to the usual abuses of Indians. Those resulted in animosities and resentments. The climate wasn’t good for intensive farming; white settlers killed off most of the game.

Indians were guaranteed a certain amount of money every month as part of the payment for the land they’d surrendered. Very little money got to them.

Troops were withdrawn to fight in the Civil War. Things got worse: Indian children were starving. One of the Indian agents, when this was pointed out, said, “Let them eat grass.”

That was as good a detonator as any. It’s all so familiar. The younger Indians lashed out and began killing white people; older and wiser chiefs were ignored. When the agent’s body was found, his mouth was stuffed with grass.

The Mdewakantan fought hard. The outbreak was fast, furious—and futile. Since there were no soldiers, the white people formed their own volunteer groups. Great-Grandfather became a captain. When the outbreak ended, thirty-three Sioux were hung on orders from President Lincoln (two of them, it was discovered afterward, were innocent). My dad said, “Your great-grandfather helped hang his own relatives.”

That was not a high-point in my family’s history. It was, when you look closely, the occasion for a family karmic sandwich. Family karma: something that tweaks out of balance the family dynamics. Hanging your own relations as well as innocent people…it would be hard to not be tweaked. Seems like we Websters have been out of balance for several generations. Not out-of-balance: unbalanced.

For many indigenous people, balance is what it’s all about. Nature— reality—is viewed as the way things are supposed to me, made that way by Creator. Nature doesn’t get out of balance: people do. The ceremonial life of the Navajo, for example, is intended to bring people back into balance with Nature. (That’s kind of un-American, when you think about it. Nature is supposed to do our bidding, not the other way around.

The “Jesus Road” says man is to have dominion over the earth. The “Red Road” says otherwise.)

Almost the entire history of America has involved trying to manipulate Nature to behave—perform—in certain ways. Make the forests go away and then re-grow in nice orderly rows. Irrigate vast amounts of farmland without worrying about how to replace the water. Force people, who live with the rhythms of Nature, to live ways that try to ignore Nature.

The Tohono O’odham people, native to Arizona and Sonora, have one of the highest rates of diabetes in the country: at least half of them are diabetic. As they became influenced by the modern society around them, and began eating mainstream foods, up went the diabetes rates. They were adapted to the indigenous foods. Carbohydrates in those foods are extremely complex.

The O’odham people mostly ate beans and squash and wild seeds, along with plants with high levels of water-binding fiber—plants well adapted to arid regions. This water-binding ability also caused the carbohydrates to break down into sugars at a much slower rate than the carbohydrates in today’s foods.

In 1930, the O’odham people had ten thousand acres of farmland producing traditional foods (they were masters of opportunistic irrigation, much like their ancestors, the Hohokam people); today there is less than one hundred acres in cultivation. Phoenix and Tuscon took the water. Most O’odham people get food from the grocery stores. They go to the stores in pickup trucks instead of walking.

A thousand or more members of the tribe live below the U.S.-Mexico border. Their diabetes rates are comparable to those of non-Indian people (about four percent). They live and farm in more traditional ways: their diets are low in animal protein and have more old-time carbohydrates.

They get lots of exercise. These desert people managed to live for three thousand years by getting along with Nature. Once their northern sisters and brothers began ignoring it things went to hell for them.

I spent years living out of balance with Nature. I refused to recognize my physical disability, as well as a genetic predisposition to alcohol and other substances—drugs, mostly—that stimulated an otherwise flimsy serotonin supply. I couldn’t change the nature of my body, but at least I’ve been able to come into balance with it before I destroyed myself.

Destruction is forever. I’m still waiting for the rest of society to get back into balance with Nature.
Does your culture influence you as strongly as Peter’s? Let us know, email us at and join the Online Forum to discuss these topics and others.