Eric Descheenie on Indigenous Ways of Knowing at PIELC

A Q&A with the former Arizona state representative

When Eric Descheenie, a former state representative in the Arizona legislature , was invited to speak at the 37th annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) in Eugene, he was reminded of his son’s connection to the land.

“I thought to myself, ‘How neat is that, to go back to the aboriginal lands of my son’s people and to be able to speak on something that I’m very passionate about?’”

Descheenie, who is Navajo, spoke Thursday, Feb. 28, at the 37th annual PIELC. His keynote addressed indigenous lenses of viewing the world, indigenous connections to Bears Ears and the “unprecedented possibilities” indigenous intellectual lenses can reveal when applied to how the government manages public lands.

Eugene Weekly talked with him in advance of the conference.

What was your childhood like?

For me, I was always the kid that was trying to rationalize my reality. When people would try to explain things that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to empirically make sense of, the causality of things, the subjective stuff. And it wasn’t enough for me to simply say, “Well, just somehow, this happens.” I was always was looking to get my thirst for answers quenched. Then it was so difficult to get that the folks who couldn’t really articulate very clearly what was transpiring with respect to the idea of belief…

And I got into this religious studies course [in college]. It was twofold. One, it was acknowledging Western intellectual lenses for what they are. We’ve been breaking it down in terms of how we essentially use our five senses to capture the data of reality. Then, how do we categorize those things?

Then from those categories, what they do for us with respect to our humanity, with respect to contemporary society, and so on and so forth. And also, what do those do in terms of how we treat one another, how we relate to other humans? And, of course, that goes into like sociology, writers, psychology, a lot of the social-cultural disciplines, really a certain kind of Western methodology…

I was still trying to find answers. Thinking back to this religious studies course, it helped me get a grip on my own lenses that I was using unbenounced to me, because growing up in Western society, that’s all you know. Come to find out that the way we have Western mindsets interpreted reality really precluded anybody from beginning to understand the depth and the complexities of indigenous concepts…

But on a personal level, it began to help me make sense of myself and this really fast-paced, diverse world. It gave me comfort to begin to identify really who I was, when you have so many ways of thinking, so many cultural towers up there, very powerful cultural influences that can really take you down a path… It helped me root myself in something real, something that was pre-United States of America… One of my passions is leadership and I spend a lot of time in governance.

Saying that one of your passions is leadership is a little humble since you were in the Arizona House of Representatives.

Oh yeah. [laughs] When I went into the state Legislature, my task was twofold. I really can’t speak for my other colleagues, but it seemed to me that they came in with a particular agenda with respect to bills. Studying the language, and then springing forward from there. For me, it was that, as well as studying the culture of the place. Because to me, in all of the experiences that I’ve had leading up to entering the state legislative body, I always am astounded about the culture of a building — every organization has its own culture, good, better and different.

And if you have a good culture, you can be quite effective at what you do. If you have a bad one, it often leads to its own demise. In this case, I was really curious to see how things were on the inside. I studied it carefully: the way people talk, the way people touched each other,  mannerisms, swagger, choice of words, all of that stuff. It was really an interesting one to kind of begin to see how the underpinnings of the state legislative body really predetermines the way legislation is considered.

And the reason why that’s important — at least from my perspective — is because when you look at the government of the tribes and you carefully analyze how those particular government systems operate relative to perhaps how they ought to operate… You know I look at governance in a very different way, particularly as it relates to this new intellectual kens, right?  I look at myself in relation to how should we be governing ourselves consistent with the way we’ve always governed ourselves, even pre-contact, right? And so, because you can juxtapose those two possibilities. One, of course, is ongoing. It reveals a lot in terms of effectiveness, in terms of short-term gains and long-term losses or vice versa.

So, going into the state legislature, it was interesting to see this colonized government continue to colonize. And every time you introduce a new idea that’s rooted in your own cultural, historical origins and you try to advance that within an alternative governance system, which is, of course, as the current state of the existing legislature, there’s a clash. There’s an inherent conflict. That stuff is really interesting to me to see how that unfolds or where there can be some commonalities and how you settle the differences.

This concept of intellectual lenses sounds like i’ts related to your keynote topic of how we can manage public lands with an Indigenous lens.

Very much so. If we were to walk into a federal office and ask staff, what is the purpose? Why do you do what you do? I’m really curious to get together the answers because one, I think they’d vary, because I don’t think people truly entirely know.

But a fundamental question is this: “What is the purpose of your agency?” If folks actually drill down deep enough to see the impetus for a particular agency as well as the ongoing strategic direction that it’s taking and why, it’d be good for folks to know what is actually going on because I think a lot of folks just kind of go to collect the paycheck, right? Gotta make ends meet, gotta take care of the family.

We go through these motions without ever really asking ourselves why we do what we do. And then if the answer to that is not sufficient or appropriate, then maybe we should make some adjustments, right. But when you begin to ask yourself, “What does the Bureau of Land Management do, and why?” or “Why do Forest Services administrate land management plans the way they do?”, it’s important to get those hard concrete answers and compare those to what other ways of thinking offer. And in this case, indigenous peoples relate to land in an entirely different way. One, not from the capitalistic standpoint. One from where sustainability is important, not for the purposes of sustainability, but familiar. An interpersonal negotiation of symbiotic relationships, one in which you and I can reciprocate gifts, powers such that I take something from you, you take something from me and neither of us walk away from that particular interpersonal experience half or partial. We both walk away whole. That’s not capitalism necessarily right now.

In fact, in capitalism, one of the parties kind of leaves empty and the other one leaves more than hold. Those types of models need to be brought out to the forefront, and we need to carefully look at what is it we’re trying to do, because one of those models is not sustainable. Hence the issues that we have today.

PIELC runs Thursday, Feb. 28, through Sunday, March 3, at the UO School of Law, 1515 Agate Street. More at The conference is free and open to the public.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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