Some understand the power of the freedom to roam so deeply it is embedded in their constitutions as people. Most have forgotten or been forbidden from the depths of this freedom. Why have we forgotten? And what gifts do its exercise have for human beings and those we live among?
In the far north – Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden peoples have kept their ancient humanity encoded in law – Freedom to Roam – or Every Human’s Rights – Why have so many forgotten and what can it’s recovery mean for us?
Human’s deep history has evolved with our gift to roam the world as walker’s – as runners. It is fundamental to our power to expand the territory of home. Expanding our known worlds is a hallmark of maturation. Our souls are expanded through engaging with ever-changing landscapes. In wanders of the world we empower the direct experience of our planets rhythms and contours – its ups and downs – the shape of its winds – the fragrance, colour and intimacies of its seasons. The pulsing of grasslands in late spring winds – the rise and fall of mountains – the wetting of streams and rivers in their crossings, the patterns of rain falling and sun filtering through leaves. This experience liberates our minds and souls from routine and opens us to majesties of existence while strengthening us in body and mind.
To be free is to be capable of expressing this power and ability unique to humans – the capacity to run on two feet, the capacity to wander the worlds of our homelands. To roam is to enlarge the earliest circles of known home. Our powers are legendary. Humans can outrun the fastest species of mammal, the antelope. We cannot win the sprint, but our healthful longevity can outlast any other creature on land. It is in this power of upright movement that we have evolved to take ahold of our place in the landscape. In the modern era walking has often been replaced with the bubbled insulated environments of cars, planes, steel ships, railroad cars that can create a second degree of separation from the landscape which we move through. As the visceral connection to place has been weakened, so has our capacity to truly see and identify with the landscape. Landscape has too often moved from alter – mystery – sacred ancestral ground to property, commodity and whole industries of resource extraction are in place with minimal regard for their impacts on the landscape and indigenous living communities.
Long walking is in our history – it is in my own personal history – thousands of miles run, skied and walked across Turtle Island from the Alaskan Coastline across the Juneau Icefield to Lake Atlin – source waters of the Yukon River, from the Redwoods of California to the Salish Sea in Washington – from the Oil field lawns of Oklahoma’s capital city to the United Nations in NYC – from Chief Sealth’s grave site across the Cascades – through the Dakotas on a walk which friends continued all the way through Europe to Moscow. As a youth I did not always know what drove me to wander – initially it was curiosity and wonder – occasionally longing to visit a loved one – later a part of it was a sense of displacement – being the son of recent migrations into my birthplace – having elders so pained by their histories they could not even tell me who our peoples have been. A sense of the violence against the peoples and lands that I did not want to be a part of – and yet had grown up dependent on as the child of a colonized landscape – without a community with sovereignty from colonial violence. It became a way of finding community and even speaking truth to power. Ultimately though it was the majesty of the land – the incredible beauty of the mountains, the forests, the grasslands, the coastlines. A longing to find myself at home in this landscape. Later as a musician I traveled the continent in a rig playing dance music outdoors – freeing wood to sing with marimbas. On these journey’s we developed a gypsy style of roaming – bathing in the wild waters wherever we could find them each day. In colonial governed, private property obsessed, USA, we do not always have the legal freedom to our birthright to roam. A first encounter with this was at the age of 7 or so – I was sailing with my grandfather and uncle in San Francisco Bay. As mid day hunger hit we anchored the boat and rowed the dingy to a small island beach. As we opened up our picnic lunch, sitting on driftwood – bullets began to whistle over our heads. We yelled out as we scrambled back into the dingy and retreated from the island. Never saw a person or heard a voice – just bullets whistling to let us know we were not welcome – despite tidal land being one place still in the commons. Later that year I was held up at gunpoint for the first time – robbed of my lunch on the walk to school.
On the AIM led Longest Walk for Survival in 1980, despite the President of the United States writing a letter to all state governors insisting that they allow us to walk freely through their states, we met armed resistance by the police of Pittsburg Pennsylvania when we walked into the city. Perhaps the sight of a couple of hundred folks walking for human rights and rights of Mother Earth elicited fear of rebellion rising, or perhaps they thought we would slow commerce – the god of the city. This was two years into it being legal to practice Native American Religion. The Long Walk of 1978, flown over by hawk and eagle shore to shore – brought the clarity to DC to get the prohibition ended. We, in 1980, were in part praying for an end to the forced sterilization of Indian Women that was the practice at the time. We took this message across the continent to Washington DC and to the United Nations. The next year the practice of forced sterilizations was banned. On that day in Pittsburg the guns stopped us and four of us were chosen to be runners. I had the honor of being one of those runners. We had four prayer staffs – prepared by elders – that were carried by foot across the continent – and we each ran with one of these staffs in hand. As Leonard Crow Dog and Milo Yellowhair were dialoguing with the police Crow Dog put Peyote medicine into each of our hands and told us to take the medicine. While the walkers were forced into buses and went to a campground – we ran – escorted by police cars through the city. At the end of our run there was confusion about how we were to get to our camp for the night. One of the Police officers offered to give us a ride to camp. Once we were in the car she looked back at us with a wry grin and asked if we would like to have some fun. OK. She turned on her lights and siren and drove like she was on a high-speed chase through the city to our camp in the woods on the edge of town. In the woods she looked back again with another wry smile – “How was that?” Our armed oppressor was being as friendly as she could be.
For treaty Indian peoples there was a long period where travel permits were required to travel outside a reservation – and cities like Seattle had long bans on Indians spending the night within their limits. These repressions of movement are experienced much more dramatically in the early throes of the colonial process. So how is it that this kind of thinking began? Seems it goes back to feudalism. Seriously. Ancient traces provide evidence of the freedom to roam as a common norm in our past. While in much of Europe feudalism developed by enclosing the landscape around private use of elites with the commons largely eliminated – feudalism never took full root in the northern landscapes. (Among the earliest migrations of my European ancestors into North America were the Scottish – just after the Highland Clearings.) The practice of roaming remained a part of identity and so over time this assumed right, arising out of our evolutionary practice has become formalized in law. Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have kept the purest form of these rights. “Jokamiehenoikeus” in Finnish or “Allemansratten” in Swedish can be translated as “Every Human’s Rights”. In these countries one is free to ski, to walk, to run, to paddle through all open lands be they commons or “private”. One is free to camp, to harvest wild flowers, berries and mushrooms. There are even weeks when it is traditional for youth to camp out in cities. There are restrictions during bird nesting season, one must not invade the privacy of dwellings or light fires on private land or damage crops. The right to exist on the earth and harvest the gifts, which are offered freely, enshrines a basic dignity and the open paths of connecting to the landscapes of home. The extent to which one finds oneself in danger of having the dogs sent after one, being shot at, having police interrogate one for wandering reveals the living legacy of feudalism which has been established in the American landscape. Thankfully, it has been my experience that most people are friendly and open and curious and for every threatening attack there have been a hundred smiles , invitations to take rest or a sharing of story . But, unless on government land, or one formally requests and is granted passage, one is bound to the roads in America. Our ancient ways persist despite the narrowed paths of the commons and the feudal ideas of property enshrined by many in the modern “civilized” world.
For humans in the modern time we are able to largely meet our biological needs – exchanging resources down the narrowed roads, which connect us at the price of money and taxes. Treaty Indians are the only peoples (in the USA) who have retained their existential right, in the letter of law, to visit and gather and hunt in their traditional homelands – without the use of money – though this has been narrowed and many of the “wild” foods have been poisoned or driven to extinction. We have a lot to learn about true freedom – the freedom to meet our biological needs without coercion into ecological destructions as the price which must be paid. For our fellow creatures – the winged, the four legged, the swimming nations it is sometimes an even greater existential challenge. Just as so many have forgotten “Every Humans Rights” we too have forgotten the rights of our fellows. Here in Cascadia thousands of miles of rivers formerly home to Salmon continue to be blocked by human made dams – migratory corridors for bears, antelope and other animals are blocked by roads without migratory under or overpasses. Indigenous ecosystems are fractured and isolated into refugia without connecting corridors. And so too the paths of butterflies and birds are weakened year by year. As climate changes it will be essential that we reopen corridors and pathways for the seasonal migrations of all the living and the northward shifts of genetics which has been happening over the last 50 years – and which will only continue to accelerate in the near term. In surrendering to the violations of feudal privatizations we have lost access to the fullness of what it means to be human beings. We have lost a primary pathway of coming to know the other – and finding friendship among the unknown. As we have lost clear sight of our ancient humanity we in turn have allowed these same existential needs and rights of the living landscape to diminish. These losses are driving exponentially increasing rates of extinction on our dear planet. As we accept the failure of the experiment of capitalism and the nation state and its laws which prioritize property and commerce over life and community– we must recover memory of “Every Human’s Rights” the Freedom to Roam – and defend that right for all our relatives – be they winged, gilled or four legged! May we free ourselves and all those we share life with!